Eric Wolf viewed culture as a web of relations, constantly changing over time. Power on the endpoints of the relationships is unequal, so that European merchants, for example, altered political arrangements in West Africa by trading guns for slaves, but relationships are mutually causal, and change extends in both directions. Nor is this a matter of change being imposed by the West on previously ahistorical cultures; there are no ahistorical cultures, and the human world has always been a relational network, although there have been moments of dramatic change, such as the expansion of European capitalism after 1400. The method of anthropology, then, has to take this into account: Although ethnographic or archaeological research may be local in time and space, and sensitive to the richness and density of this immediate case, it should be mindful of wider connections and their dynamic, temporal character. Likewise even the “local” is constructed and reconstructed out of changing relationships over time.
Wolf’s approach represented a significant break with the main line of development of American cultural anthropology. Evolutionary theories of the 19th and 20th centuries, which influenced Wolf, largely addressed change over time as abstract recategorization from one stage to the next, rather than a mutual dynamic of differentiated but interconnected systems. Direct and indirect historical approaches had a place in anthropology, such as tracing of diffusion of culture traits across space (and putatively through time), but such work was consciously antiquarian and mostly ignored issues such as mercantile capitalism, migratory labor, European colonialism, missionization, and so forth. Instead, what was generally thought of as progress in social and cultural anthropology involved striving for the essence of an isolated culture, whether through culture and personality, functionalism, deep interpretation of meaning, ecological self-regulating systems, and so forth.
The contrast with these approaches helps us understand Wolf’s method. A mistaken impression is that he exclusively addressed the impact of European capitalism and colonialism on passive local populations. He did emphasize such issues to critique their neglect in anthropology. But his method, above all, sought connections and relationships, with a strong role for local processes in the broader world system. He began with a broadly Marxist approach to humans, emphasizing productive and reproductive activity within nature. Hence, there was always a component of ecological anthropology in his work, involving local environments though not envisioned as bounded or devoid of social relations of exchange and power (notably, Wolf helped begin the field of political ecology). Labor in nature was organized through social relations, which in turn required symbolic definition; thus, work and exchange of its products might be constructed around relations between symbolically defined juniors and seniors, women and men, or lords and peasants. Again, there was considerable space for immediate personal relations and social structure, as well as much room for exploring key symbolic constellations. Finally, he conceived of such relationships as always involving unequal power, and he stressed attention to power in a discipline that often neglected its presence.
To understand core relationships, Wolf outlined three general modes of production, drawing on the Marxist tradition, but not in orthodox or scriptural fashion. The kin-ordered mode encompasses mobilization of labor and the distribution of its products based on ideas about kinds of and relations between people. The tributary mode involves political domination and surplus transfer from subordinates to superordinates based ultimately on force; it encompasses cases from fragmented feudalism to centralized pre-capitalist states. The capitalist mode of production emerges with the alienation of commodities from direct producers, including the creation of wage labor, the person as saleable commodity her- or himself. Although these modes take the form of a typology, Wolf was not interested in narrow questions of labeling or rigid definitions. Rather, he saw them as pointing to key vectors of reproduction and change in networks of relationships. He constantly strived to turn static systems into dynamic and contingent processes, so that social organization is actually “organizing” that is never complete, and symbolism is not just a meaning system in itself, but constant communication (indeed, repetition) of meanings and codes through social relations.
Certain relations have unusual potentials for expansion and for overriding or orchestrating other relations, and Wolf was particularly interested in them. This is distinctive, for generally anthropologists have focused on marginal and subordinated cultural settings. Early in his career, he explored the formation of the nation as a complex, hierarchical process of key symbols and actors organizing diverse regional sets of relations. Much of his work was dedicated to exploring the enormously dynamic force of capitalism, which he considered as having both unifying and differentiating tendencies. His final work, in turn, explored ideologies produced by elites during periods of increasing crisis in their rule, finding in these situations clues to the relationship between explicit ideologies and their broader cultural ground. Because Wolf paid attention to those processes that strove toward dominance, he is often understood as ignoring resistance and agency, but it is of course necessary to keep in mind dynamics in both directions, and his own ethnographic and case-study work was superior in this regard.
The intellectual scene of anthropology has changed considerably, in part because of Wolf’s own challenge to it. There is now wide recognition that cultures do not form reified, integrated, and isolated wholes, that culture does not just “exist” but is produced within social relations, often involving power, and it is now fashionable for ethnographers to study processes that span multiple sites. However, it is worth considering the continued relevance of the Wolfian method in this supposedly postmodern period. There is often a sense that modernity or post-modernity alone has resulted in fluidity and contingency. But as Wolf’s arguments make clear, this is a constant result of the relationality of human life, although we must concede that contemporary technologies have increased the speed of connecting processes. There is, on the other hand, a tendency to endlessly question essences and reifications, which at a certain point becomes altogether vaporous as well as archly intellectual. This neglects Wolf’s point about the groundedness of prosaic material and symbolic activity in the world, for lived experience is often redundant and essentializing in an incomplete way.
This is not to say that Wolf’s work is above critique. His focus on capitalism is justified, given its powerful causal drive, but there is a good case for addressing multiple systems of domination, such as gender and sexuality. His concept that all human relations involve power, while penetrating, puts an excessive emphasis on power alone and summons up a limited portrait of humanity (as do parallel arguments by French philosopher Michel Foucault); we need more space for phenomena such as integral work, creativity, release, and love. Wolf himself was a humanist and politically engaged anthropologist, but we need critical attention to the political-ethical implications of these theories of omnipresent power.
- Heyman, J. M. (2005). Eric R. Wolf’s political ethical humanism, and beyond. Critique of Anthropology, 25, 13-25.
- Schneider, J. (1995). Introduction: The analytic strategies of Eric R. Wolf. In J. Schneider & R. Rapp (Eds.), Articulating hidden histories: Exploring the influence of Eric R. Wolf (pp. 3-30). Berkeley:
- University of California Press. Wolf, E. R. (1974). Anthropology. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1964)
- Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wolf, E. R. (1999). Envisioning power: Ideologies of dominance and crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wolf, E. R. (2001). Pathways of power: Building an anthropology of the modern world. Berkeley: University of California Press.