I was having a discussion about whether the "market" or "markets" always and inherently emerge as long as human societies exist.

Given the definition of market as the interplay of supply and demand and given that in our reality there is always a demand to sustain one's own life and at the same time there are limited resources, it is tempting to suggest that markets are an inherent feature of human societies.

Thus, the question: Have there been cultures or societes for which there is an agreement that they did not produce a market?

In this context I was reading about the terms reciprocity and redistribution. Are these mechanisms distinguished from the formal definition of a market? I.e., could one say that a group of people that exercised reciprocity observed a society without a market?

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    $\begingroup$ It would depend what do you mean by reciprocity. A barter exchange, that is exchange of one commodity or service for another without use of money is still a market exchange. Moreover, generally speaking voluntary trade/market exchange is by dictionary definition reciprocal because generally speaking people mutually benefit by doing it. Also note that as you correctly mentioned in your question market is simply a place where supply and demand or sellers and buyers meet. There are markets even in societies such as North Korea - there are just no free markets there. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Sep 1, 2020 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ One would need to find an anthropologist to get a definitive answer, but my understanding of the literature is that almost all societies have a notion of reciprocity. Either gift-giving, or via exchanging favours. “Barter” only shows up in exchanges between groups where there is no means of establishing trusted relationships. David Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years” has probably the most accessible summary of anthropological thinking. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2020 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @1muflon1: My idea of reciprocity follows the meaning stated here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocity_(cultural_anthropology) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2020 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ @user1192748 if you use specific jargon from non-economic field you should make it part of your question otherwise on an economics forum you will get incorrect answers because most economists will either assume economics jargon or common English. Putting it as a part of your question will make sure you get better answers that target what you are exactly looking for $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Sep 4, 2020 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ @1muflon1 With the actual source of this definition coming from economic anthropology, I expected this to be a sub-genre of economics: tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1007/BF02958736?journalCode=rfse20 $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2020 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


Wherever a society exists, there is repeated exchange. And wherever there is repeated exchange, there are also markets.

(Of course, markets can vary in the degree of their development/functioning. One market may be better developed/functioning than another in that it has more frequent transactions, better enforced property rights and contracts, greater honesty/trust, lower transaction costs, greater competition, better flows of information, etc.)

Exchange should be understood broadly: It can be one tangible object for another or even a piece of information for another. It can also be gift exchange. (A common layperson error is to think that only exchanges involving money count as exchanges.)

Gift exchange includes instances where a hunter shares his big find with everyone in the group, with the tacit understanding that he has access to the group's other resources. It could also be where one group assists a second group, with the tacit understanding that the second group will provide assistance should the need arise.

Rough exchange ratios can be implicitly established and sustained through tradition: If lazy John is always skiving, then members of the community will notice and eventually sanction him (through e.g. ostracism). So, if John is consistently taking from the rest of the community $X$ amount of meat every month, then he must also contribute $Y$ in fruit or other goods and services monthly to the rest of the community, in order to avoid sanction. Over time, rough exchange ratios (and these may be a wide band) may form and be embedded in tradition. And if conditions change so that meat becomes more abundant/scarce relative to fruit, then the exchange ratios may change accordingly.

(There is also the evolutionary argument that these exchange ratios will tend to be "correct" in the sense that they correspond to actual scarcity: Groups that maintain the correct exchange ratios thrive, while those that don't die out. Groups that develop strong social norms to punish free-riders and reward appropriate levels of reciprocity thrive, while those that don't die out.)

If two isolated individuals each living on his own deserted island visits each other and engages in an isolated exchange once or twice in their lifetimes, then one could possibly argue that no market exists. But then one should also argue that these two individuals do not form a society (under any reasonable definition of the term "society").

  • $\begingroup$ I think the part under the line unnecessarily undermines your otherwise very good answer. If people meet and trade with each other then they by definition of what market is do that on market. Perhaps a better example of situation with no market would be situation when one islander gives another one off unconditional transfer without ever expecting to meet again. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Sep 2, 2020 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ @1muflon1: I've changed "probably" to "possibly". I think that part is important because some economists would consider repeated interactions and exchange as a defining characteristic of markets, but not isolated one-off interactions and exchange. $\endgroup$
    – user18
    Sep 2, 2020 at 1:55

The definition that you are using to describe markets is one beloved by neoliberal economists, otherwise known as market fundamentalism. It's very reductive, hence the term.

Nomadic societies like the Plains Indians didn't have markets in the way that we now understand them. There would have been exchange and barter, but to understand them as markets is to misunderstand markets and barter.

Markets tend to develop in sedentary societies. Living in a fixed place allows for a great deal more accumulation of goods, a prerequisite of a market economy. This basic level of accumulation was called primitive accumulation by Marx in his study of the history of economic systems.

  • $\begingroup$ In fact the underlying question concerns the very definition of a market. Given that I my knowledge in this field is very limited I by no means would consider my definition as final. I am striving towards a definition. In fact you argumentation was similar to my line of thoughts. More specifically, britannica has a similar argumentation as yours: britannica.com/topic/market/… $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2020 at 11:03

If you mean that if there was ever a society in which there was an agreement NOT to produce a market, I'd say no, there was never such a society.

Even in socialism there were commercial relationships between humans.

NOW it depends on what you understand as a society. I'm not sure but I understand the Amish have no market at all.


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