Book Summary: “Economic Systems of Foraging, Agricultural, and Industrial Societies” by Frederic Pryor

Title: Economic Systems of Foraging, Agricultural, and Industrial Societies
Author: Frederic Pryor
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Pryor applies economic theory and quantitative methods to compare a broad range of pre-Industrial and Industrial societies. He then categorizes those societies based upon a few key economic characteristics.

My Comments

This is an interesting attempt to apply modern economics to pre-Industrial societies. Personally, I prefer the typology proposed by Lenski in “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory” and “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology”. Lenski uses is an updated version of the concept of society type that is often used in anthropology.

In contrast to Lenski, Pryor focuses more on differences within each society type, than differences between society types.

Key Take-aways

  • Economies at every stage of development feature a small number of distinct economic systems.
  • These economic systems are not determined by the social structure, political organization, or physical environment of the societies but rather appear as independent entities, worthy of study in their own right.
  • These economic systems are so important that they allow us to categorize entire societies. See below for list of those types of societies.

Important Quotes from Book

I have long been discontented with the field of comparative economic systems and this book is the result of my efforts to show what I think this discipline should be about.

In the twentieth century, comparative economists focused too narrowly on industrialized economies and paid little attention to preindustrial societies.. Although case studies of an enormous number of market and nonmarket economies are available, the literature is so rich and varied that it is difficult to gain perspective. What is necessary, of course, is to look at a large number of societies with different types of economic systems with the same analytic tools. In dealing with preindustrial economic systems, this also requires a considerable familiarity not just with economics but with history and anthropology as well.

For several decades, I have been writing in my mind a book that would analyze foraging (hunting, gathering, fishing), agricultural (herding, planting), and industrial/service economic systems with a unified analytic approach that would take advantage of the rich factual information on these economies now at hand – the kind of book that nineteenth-century social scientists tried to write without adequate factual materials and case studies.

An economic system comprises the totality of institutions and organizations that specify property relations within a given society and that channel and influence the distribution of goods and services. This dry definition covers an amazing diversity of economies at all levels of development: the altruistic foragers of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa; the highly competitive fishing societies on the Canadian Pacific coast; the egalitarian Lepcha farmers of Sikkim; the intricately structured caste agriculturalists in Uttar Pradesh, India; the industrialized market economies of West Europe; and the former centrally planned economies of East Europe.

In brief, this is not a book of airy, high-level generalizations about economic systems, nor is it an attempt to construct a generalized “theory of economic systems,” nor is it a methodological treatise telling others to do what I am too lazy to carry out myself. Rather, I present what I have learned by studying a large number of preindustrial and industrial economies and by looking for groups of complementary economic institutions which, in turn, define different types of economic systems. The results of such an exercise provide a factual basis for theorizing and a systematic formulation of testable hypotheses, thus permitting us to move away from the ideological approaches that have dominated most comparisons of economic systems.

One major conclusion of this study is that for any focus of production, we can isolate a small number of coherent types of economic systems.

I also show that traditional classifications, such as feudalism or capitalism, are not very helpful and that we need to reexamine the various types of economic systems from a different perspective. Such an intellectual framework must be flexible enough to embrace the full spectrum of economic and social phenomena but firm enough to retain its unifying elements even as it changes in response to new information.

Isolating different types of economic systems is a relatively straightforward statistical exercise. Once accomplished, I can also demonstrate that they are relatively independent of social, political, and environmental influences but highly dependent on the level of economic development.

 “Foraging societies reveal six quite distinct economic systems… Such economic systems are, in most cases, unrelated to those ecological, social and political variables that have received the bulk of attention by anthropologists” (p29)

“Many of the institutional indicators are strongly related to the level of economic development” (p39)

  1. Classical Foragers (very lowest level of economic development and institutional development).
  2. Transition Foragers (high levels of food sharing and land possession)
  3. Human-Wealth-Oriented Societies (significantly more slavery and high levels of inequality)
  4. Intangible-Wealth-Oriented Societies (low degree of sharing; importance of transfers of wealth at marriage; high levels of inequality).
  5. Politically Oriented Societies (high levels of economic development; importance of taxes and tributes in form of foodstuffs to political leaders; these were then redistributed; low levels of slavery)
  6. Physical-Wealth-Oriented Societies (high levels of fishing; northern latitudes; high levels of economic development; significant amount of inheritance of capital-intensive means of production such as boats or elaborate hunting weapons; significantly more private possession of land)

Invention of Agriculture

“the invention of agriculture was not difficult. The discovery of the seed mechanism for plant growth, in contrast, was a critical technological breakthrough, and it undoubtedly occurred far earlier than 10,000 years ago.” (p64)

“it does not appear as though temperature, rainfall, soil conditions, or land slope played a crucial role in the origin or most aspects of the spread of agriculture” (p71)

When reliance on agriculture reaches 20%, sedentism become the norm.

When reliance on agriculture reaches 50%, population density begins to increase dramatically. (p83)

“Domestication of plants and nomadic agriculture probably developed in all but the most hostile environments. Furthermore, most foraging societies undoubtedly employed some agriculture, or proto-agriculture… Of greatest importance, no single cause underlay the spread of agriculture in different times, places and environments. The agricultural revolution represented no sharp break in technology but emerged as part of an incremental historical process” (p89-91)

Agricultural societies:

“Agricultural societies featured four quite distinct economic systems:

  1. Herding Plus System (lowest level of economic development; herding is 65+ percent of subsistence; poorer; high altitude; small community size; higher inequality)
  2. Egalitarian Farming System (less economic development, social/wealth inequalities, tenancy, external trade and wage labor).
  3. Individualistic Farming System (greater political centralization and warfare; higher rents, slavery and bride prices)
  4. Semi-Marketized Farming System (highest level of economic development; less slavery; more trade, wage labor; higher rents)


“For countries, industrializing before World War I, a high rate of rural literacy in 1820 appears to have been an important factor for explaining when the threshold of industrialization was reached” (p137)

Literacy and land inequality are inversely related. (p138)

“Marketization of the agricultural sector – the penetration of markets into the rural economy – was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for industrialization because, …the urban sector could have received its food through foreign trade, rather than from its countryside. (p139)

“Industrialization occurred earlier in those countries where market activities were greater” (p141) Sweden and Norway are partial exceptions by industrializing too late.

“A nation was more predisposed for early industrialization if its rural sector was characterized by the following conditions:

  • The rural population had a significant share of literate people and labor productivity in agriculture was relatively high.
  • The rural sector was penetrated by markets for goods, labor, land, and capital, at least for those nations where the government did not play a highly active role in the industrialization process.
  • The land was cultivated either by the owner or by a person holding secure tenures, who could make key economic decisions without a great deal of community interference. This means that agriculture was not dominated by large estates or by large farms with unfree labor” (p154)

“the societies with a semi-marketized economic systems were most likely to have had those characteristics favorable for early industrialization…. Nevertheless, the delayed industrialization of the Netherlands… also indicates that the agricultural economic system alone is not sufficient to explain the transition to manufacturing…. these results also suggest that if the economic system of an agricultural society does not first change into a semi-marketized system, its chances are considerably reduced. (p155)

Industrial nations

“the four economic system in the industrialized OECD nations of Europe today roughly correspond in their geographic distribution to the four forms of social organization the prevailed in the same regions in Europe a millennium ago: north of the Alps, three quite district forms of feudalism (i.e. Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and Western European); in the south, patrimonialism.” (p180-1)

The most important empirical results can be quickly summarized: Economies at every stage of development feature a small number of distinct economic systems, defined in terms of particular groups of institutions that cluster together. From the statistical analysis presented in previous chapters, many of these economic systems do not seem to be generally determined by the social structure, political organization, or physical environment of the societies but rather appear as independent entities, worthy of study in their own right.

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