Fall Reading Group: David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, beginning Sept. 19, led by Sabrina Hardenbergh

Fall Reading Group 2023

AIPCT is pleased to annouce its Fall 2023 Reading Group: David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, led by Sabrina Hardenbergh. The study is on Tuesday evenings at 7, in-person at AIPCT, 411 N. 9th Street, Murphysboro, IL, 62966, beginning September 19, 2023. (Full schedule is below.)

This is free and open to the public. No rsvp is required. Light refreshments will be provided, and everyone is welcome to bring their own snacks and drinks. It will be possible to join on-line, but this is primarily an in-person event. For a zoom link or further information, e-mail personalist61@gmail.com.

Book Discussion Leader:

Sabrina H. B. Hardenbergh, PhD ‘93 Anthropology, UMass Amherst

Sabrina Hardenbergh taught cultural, biological and medical anthropology courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Georgia, Davidson College, Appalachian State University, and the University of North Carolina Asheville. Her research includes human health, food security and socioeconomic status of rural cultivators in the context of conservation-development in Madagascar, the Navajo and energy development, and other work in rural US healthcare, health law and environmental health. She has traveled in East Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Europe and the US. While operating largely from a political ecology perspective, her analysis has considered interpretive approaches, and her teachings have attempted to disclose the many paradigms or models by which various narratives filter what is important or interpreted in our world and the human condition. She is a Fellow of AIPCT.

Sabrina and David Graeber both did dissertation projects at an overlapping time period, at different sites, with different people along the eastern coast of Madagascar. Graeber’s dissertation study, The Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar, was later published in an ethnographic book, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. They became involved in activism that spoke out on various elements of neoliberalism, where one must note Graeber’s prominent organizing role in the 2011 Occupy movement and his popular book Debt. Graeber was on the faculty at Yale, the University of London, and the London School of Economics before his early passing in 2020. He had many economic and political anthropology publications. Sabrina will help guide us through Graeber’s early book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, and clarify historical and extant anthropological theory at the time of the book’s publication, as well as background on the assorted comparative anthropological examples and writers discussed in the book.

The Book

David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

PDF: Graeber_David_Toward_an_Anthropological_Theory_of_Value.pdf (monoskop.org)

From Graeber’s Researchgate page: “This volume is the first comprehensive synthesis of economic, political, and cultural theories of value. David Graeber reexamines a century of anthropological thought about value and exchange, in large measure to find a way out of ongoing quandaries in current social theory, which have become critical at the present moment of ideological collapse in the face of Neoliberalism. Rooted in an engaged, dynamic realism, Graeber argues that projects of cultural comparison are in a sense necessarily revolutionary projects: He attempts to synthesize the best insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss, arguing that these figures represent two extreme, but ultimately complementary, possibilities in the shape such a project might take. Graeber breathes new life into the classic anthropological texts on exchange, value, and economy. He rethinks the cases of Iroquois wampum, Pacific kula exchanges, and the Kwakiutl potlatch within the flow of world historical processes, and recasts value as a model of human meaning-making, which far exceeds rationalist/reductive economist paradigms.”

The Author

David Graeber (1961-2020) was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), Bullshit Jobs (2018), and The Dawn of Everything (2021), and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. (Wikipedia)



  • Week 1: (September 19) Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault, Still.
    David Graeber, “Acknowledgments”, and “A Few Words by Way of Introduction”
    (the first pages of Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value)

Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault, Still. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002 (4th edition) PDF: Waiting For Foucault, Still (hawaii.edu) OR 1993 edition, Waiting for Foucault; OR most recent 2018 edition, What the Foucault? Note allusion to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist theater.

“Being After-Dinner Entertainment by Marshall Sahlins for the Fourth Decennial Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, Oxford, 29 July 1993. Now in an expanded, fourth edition.”

Note: Marshall Sahlins was David Graeber’s UChicago faculty advisor at the time of his dissertation work in Madagascar, and a co-author of their 2017 book, On Kings. Sahlins was a cultural and political anthropologist who studied the concept of culture, understanding cultural meanings in their specific historical and social contexts, and how these change over time in peoples of the Pacific. The publication of their two writings, above, was concurrent with prominent Foucauldian analysis and evolutionary biology/genetics that formed a great takeover, splintering and chasm in “four-field” American anthropology departments, although European anthropology long before relegated biological and cultural anthropology to separate university divisions. Note these two latter paradigms’ relationship with and deflection from analyzing certain aspects of burgeoning neoliberalism in all manner of modes of operation worldwide versus what Graeber or Sahlins (and others) examined. During discussion, the historical trajectory of anthropological paradigms will be noted. Graeber’s book seeks a humanistic social science, in critique of neoliberalism and postmodernist perspectives.

  • Week 2: (September 26) David Graeber, Chapter 1, “Three Ways of Talking about Value”
    Consider social, economic and meaningful difference aspects of interpretation, from individual vs. societal levels of desire or cohesion. Functionalist, structuralist approaches.
  • Week 3: (October 3) David Graeber, Chapter 2, “Current Directions in Exchange Theory”
    Marx, Mauss. Individual/Rational Man, Social cohesion. Market and non-market economies.
  • Week 4: (October 10) David Graeber, Chapter 3, “Value as the Importance of Actions”
    Evaluation of actions, performance, not things. Issue of freedom. Postmodern.
  • Week 5: (October 17) David Graeber, Chapter 4, “Action and Reflection, or Notes toward a Theory of Wealth and Power”
    Money, exchange, wealth. Heirlooms. Money vs. coin. Power to act on others, power to define oneself. Visible, invisible. Imerina/Merina, slavery, ody, sampy, Hasina/manasina/masina, Zanahary, Sorona, faditra.
  • Week 6: (October 24) David Graeber, Chapter 5, “Wampum and Social Creativity among the Iroquois”
    Iroquois, Dutch, French, English and Algonkian. Note matrilineal example, different from those mentioned for the Pacific earlier. Renaming. Peace. Dream-guessing and mediation. Dream economy.
  • Week 7: (October 31) David Graeber, Chapter 6, “Marcel Mauss Revisited”
    Maori and Kwakiutl comparison re gifts. Exchange re marriage, reciprocity. Power. Soul. Taboo. Heirlooms. Identity. Influence of outside people. Communist vs. Socialist critique and use of non-market peoples’ examples in thinking of extant capitalist situations, attempts at universalist ideas of actual human character and condition, or utopian restructuring.
  • Week 8: (November 7) David Graeber, Chapter 7, “The False Coin of our own dreams, or the Problem of the Fetish, IIIB”
    Social power. Social contract. Social systems structures of creative action, and value, as measure of the importance of action. King, coin symbolism revisited, hery, hasina. Magic, religion, science. Anthropology as a moral project. Critique of capitalism. Issue of female perspectives. Meaning. Desire, pleasure/pain. Issue of nihilism. Social creativity, potential.

This schedule may change depending on circumstances that can’t currently be foreseen.

Related Materials and Information

Further reading on the late David Graeber (February 12, 1961 – September 2, 2020) can be found on his posthumous memorial websites:

Bibliographic texts recurrently mentioned in Graeber’s book:

Marcel Mauss, The Gift (PDF): The Gift: The form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (libcom.org)
Karl Marx, Capital (PDFs): Economic Manuscripts: Capital: Volume One (marxists.org), Economic Manuscripts: Capital: Volume Two (marxists.org), Capital Volume III (marxists.org),
Marxists Internet Archive Library, Complete Index of Writers
(also Claude Levi-Strauss (PDF): Structural Anthropology (monoskop.org)

Further outlines of the broader trajectory of anthropological theory can be found here:
Anthropological Theories – Anthropology (ua.edu)
Anthropological theory : an introductory history : McGee, R. Jon, 1955- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Post-processual archaeology – Wikipedia (think of how we interpret any artifact of human action)
Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives (Harris and Cipolla, Routledge 2017) | Oliver Harris and Craig N Cipolla – Academia.edu

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