Eric Robert Wolf spent his professional career defining and expanding issues such as peasant society, state formation, development of capitalism, and colonial expansion. He worked extensively to unite political anthropology, economic anthropology, and historical sociology. He worked with the Marxist concept of modes of production as a conceptual tool in studying the historical and materialist consideration of a people in the cultural and ecological adaptations to a changing environment. Modes of production were looked at in a cultural ecological setting, and as a specific adaptation to a particular social and physical environment. Interconnecting relations with other cultures in different environmental settings was a modification of this adaptation. Particularly important to Eric Wolf was the interconnection between Europe and the rest of the world after the late 1400s. In anthropology, current ethnic history is the histories of peoples already impacted by European society, even if indirectly.
Through comparative studies, Wolf examined peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean that combined Marx’s concept of modes of production with Julian Steward’s cultural ecological adaptations. This developed a working model of world markets and imperialism with a history of colonialism and United States economic domination of the region.
Wolf helped define peasant societies by comparing them to both business farms and tribal production. A peasant farm is defined as a subsistence-based rural household economy. The surplus of a peasant farm supports a nonproducing elite. In his Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, Wolf outlined the central role played by middle-size peasant families in these struggles.
Eric Robert Wolf, in Europe and the People Without History, classified historical cultures into three basic modes of production: kin-ordered, tributary, and capitalist. Kin-ordered relates band and tribal societies or stateless societies. In tributary modes of production, the direct producers possess the means of production. The elite expropriates the surplus product by political or other types of noneconomic means. All precapitalist states were tributary. Asiatic is an example of a strong (centralized) tributary state, whereas feudal is a weaker one (decentralized); these two replace one another over time. Europe, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, was not capitalist, but a mercantile tributary (centralized) state. Capitalism emerged in England in the late 18th century. The capitalists enlisted labor under capitalism through the buying of labor power by the capitalists, leaving the workers with nothing left to sell but this labor power. Liberal political revolution, the industrial revolution, and free trade came together in England in part because of its unique history and its geography so that it became the homeland of capitalism and divided the world into sections to meet the interests of the British capitalist.
In Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis, Eric Wolf investigated the history of ideas, power, and culture and how they interact. Wolf argues that power is important in shaping cultural evolution. Ideology incorporates power but ideas reflect cultural input. Belief about power and actual power converge through culture. Societies face tensions posed by ecological, social, political, economic, or emotional crises, and they utilize conceptual answers that use commonly unique, historically rooted, cultural understandings. In case studies of the Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Pacific Coast, the Aztecs of pre-Hispanic Mexico, and National Socialist Germany, Wolf analyzes how the ruling ideology, together with power, sanction the significant relationships that govern social labor.
- Wolf, E. R. (1966). Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Wolf, E. R. (1969). Peasant wars of the twentieth century. New York: Harper and Row.
- Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the people without history. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Wolf, E. R. (1999). Envisioning power: Ideologies of dominance and crisis. Los Angeles: University of California Press.