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Book Review: Thrift and Its Paradoxes

Book review of Catherine Alexander and Daniel Sosna's edited volume Thrift and Its Paradoxes: From Domestic to Political Economy (2022)

Published onFeb 14, 2024
Book Review: Thrift and Its Paradoxes

Thrift and Its Paradoxes: From Domestic to Political Economy, edited by Catherine Alexander and Daniel Sosna (2022). New York: Berghahn Books.

Despite its centrality to economic anthropology and particularly the household the study of thrift is rarely formally defined; however, the idea of thrift permeates economic anthropological theory, from Weber to Sahlins and Malinowski. This compilation of eight essays assessing thrift in modern cultures is a full examination that opens up a new arena of research. This volume presents a comprehensive definition and study of thrift; in the editors’ words it “offers an anatomy of thrift and its paradoxes; its genealogies and reach” (Alexander and Sosna 2022:5) and through multiple ethnographic examples illustrates the importance of thrift in understanding economic relations at the household and supra-household level, including work cultures. In the introductory chapter, Catherine Alexander and Daniel Sosna provide a thorough overview of the history of studies of thrift. Five themes are present in the volume: defining thrift; considering the prerequisites for thrift; identifying the limits of thrift; understanding the role of future-oriented temporalities in thrift, and finally, identifying thrift in different contexts. The moral implications of thrift are explored in detail and a much-needed history of the concept in anthropological literature is offered, including on waste and discard studies, the limits of thrift, and its scale.

Gundeman’s chapter, “Making Savings,” identifies an interesting and key paradox in thrift—the difference between being thrifty and being a hoarder. That is, one is thrifty to achieve a goal, but sometimes the means can be taken to such extremes that the end goal no longer matters. Further, there is a contrast between households that economize, thereby sustaining the household, and the market, where savings must be exchanged to increase profit, and the paradox between these is one he explores. For the individual operating in both spheres, this can result in contradictions that are difficult to navigate, where for example people are supported when buying birthday cakes for children while simultaneously castigated for a lack of financial literacy. His chapter provides a detailed examination of the idea of thrift in Western economic literature. In doing so, he charts the rise of capitalism and its effects on the role of thrift in the market. In their examination of state welfare systems in South Africa, James, Neves, and Torkelson provide a good illustration of this thrift paradox and show how the emergence of digital monetary tracking synchs with existing systems rather than replaces them. When such systems replace cash systems, a lender can become privy to all an individual’s cash flows rather than isolated streams and take advantage of these, resulting in decreased individual agency. In Argentina’s Gran Chaco region, Diz examines indigeneous Guarani households and shows how the intersections of kinship and patronage force people to move between thrift and anti-thrift practices. Individual households worked to accumulate resources to build houses, while communities served to redistribute resources; welfare payments blurred the lines between these practices, creating anxiety, particularly for women. Rakowski shows how household, village, and larger state interests intersect when pastoralists in Mongolia adapt ideas of thrift to a new capitalist order; this chapter had interesting parallels to the emergence of hierarchy in past societies. Spalová focuses on thrift in the moral landscape of Benedictine monasteries in the modern Czech Republic. She differentiates between frugality and thrift, where the former is associated with the individual and the latter with community resources.

Thrift is clearly a part of the moral code, a code that also appears to accommodate the thrift paradox by actively discouraging thrift in certain areas, such as worship. Rudnyckyj in a fascinating chapter, shows how thrift is used in an emerging moral code in an Indonesian steel plant that actively ties Islam to thrift in order to allow the plant to successfully compete in the marketplace after state subsidies are removed. In this, there are parallels to the emergence of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic, which the author nicely details. Sosna’s chapter on the reuse of materials at a Czech landfill by its workers is singular in that it explicitly examines waste and its role in the social order. Here, the paradox between thrift and waste is illustrated, but also the way in which reuse serves to strengthen social ties, as when a worker re-gifts valuable finds to friends and family. Value is very much a context- and individual-dependent commodity. Waste is also present, though, particularly the intentional waste of fuel by workers, which Sosna views as a form of resistance to management. Finally, Wilk provides an excellent discussion of the aspect of time in thrift, drawing on his fifty-plus years of ethnographic studies in Belize. In addition to a thorough discussion on how anthropologists approach time and specifically laziness, and its ties to colonialism and racism, he notes the role of marking time as a crucial factor in the emergence of the middle class. In a brief afterword, Hann places the chapters in a larger framework, showing their importance to the field and elucidating key points.

Some recurring themes in the volume go beyond those set out by the editors in the Introduction. For example, gender is a recurring theme; in particular, the role of women in managing households is present in the South African case by James et al., where women must negotiate a welfare system that under-compensates them for caring for extended family; in doing so, they are forced to use an elaborate debt system, the stokvel, via which formal economic mechanisms rather than agricultural systems determine the cycle of shortfalls. In Mongolia, women work both behind the scenes but also at the community level, in one example, ensuring that funds are garnered to build a new kindergarten and in another, running a business. Hann uses a recurring theme of his thrifty aunt to illustrate a series of points For example, he notes that moralistic beliefs that encourage thrift are certainly encouraged by elites that profit from them, but also affect non-elites like his aunt, who was raised as a Chapel Protestant and practiced thrift as a reflection of her faith.

The emergence of hierarchy is another theme. In Argentina, Diz shows how patronage works as a form of anti-thrift, resulting in the acquisition and redistribution of resources that benefit patrons. In Indonesia, Rudnyckyj’s work suggests that the role of religion is a key part of successful hierarchies, and the morality of thrift is essential to this emergence. Sosna specifically calls out the joy in thrifting, as seen in the workers at the Czech landfill, but for others thrifting is a necessity, and this speaks to the paradox of thrift.

Overall, this volume is a starting point for even richer studies. Wilk’s essay on saving time in Belize raises issues of how time is tied to thriftiness in other cultures, for example. Applying the idea of thrift to archaeological studies would also be fascinating. Is thrift visible in the archaeological record, and if so, how could it be measured and what role does it play in the adoption of agriculture and the emergence of hierarchies? Is thrift a measurable commodity in language studies—is one thrifty in the use of words in certain contexts, and what role do social contexts play? This book would be ideal for advanced undergraduate or graduate seminars in economic anthropology. It is a valuable addition to the field, and I look forward to the research it inspires and what future studies of thrift teach us about cultures. As Strasser (1999) defines thrift, a thrifty culture is one that thrives, and studying thriftiness then seems like a central aspect of understanding what makes cultures thrive.


Strasser, Susan. 1999. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.

Author Biography

Maureen Meyers is a Principal Investigator and Senior Archaeologist with New South Associates, Inc. in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Previously an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mississippi, she specializes in the study of chiefdoms in precontact Southeastern North America, with particular focus on exchange, ceramics, fiber production and households. She is the past President of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference and has also studied the rate of sexual harassment in the field. She is currently working on a volume on the reuse of materials in the production of fiber for trade at a site in Virginia and a co-edited volume on the history of exclusivity in American archaeology.

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