The expression subsistence affluence is a catchphrase for certain perceptions of reality in Papua New Guinea, and after 50 years it still actively conditions opinions of the country (even though its population has trebled in the meantime). The paper examines antecedents of the concept in the economic and anthropological literatures, in which Polanyi’s dichotomy between substantivist and formalist analyses bulks large. EK Fisk, the originator of ‘affluence’, is placed in a lineage of economists including Lewis, Myint and Bauer (all owing much to Adam Smith), although his adherence to neoclassical assumptions and method is emphasized. The paper describes WR Stent’s attempt to build on Fisk, achieving an ‘adaptive use’ of neoclassical method to take account of ‘hybrid’ (ie, non-maximizing) behaviours, and set in a context of competing theories ranging from Boeke’s ‘dual economy’ to those of the Chicago School. Among anthropologists, the paper considers the ‘original affluence’ of Marshall Sahlins and (among the critics) Chris Gregory on Gifts and Commodities. The account of New Guinea Stone Age Trade by Ian Hughes is seen as offering a counterpoint to Gregory, while Richard Salisbury’s formalist and eclectic take on the subject is also considered. A proposition, that the existence of subsistence affluence in 1960s PNG was due to its being somehow a ‘special case’, is examined through the politely sceptical eye trained on the country by the Faber Mission in 1972. For an independent perspective, the paper turns to Keith Hart (a member of the Faber team) for his account of the transition from subsistence in West Africa (a region to which Fisk was prepared to extend his concept of affluence). The paper concludes by considering what, if any, utility may still reside in the several conceptions of ‘affluence’ proposed as having existed in PNG.
John Conroy is a Visiting Fellow in the Crawford School of Economics and Government and was a lecturer in Economics at UPNG (1970-76) and Director of the PNG Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research (1977-81).