Bio-Human Ecology
Livelihood & Anthropology
Livelihood and anthropology


By ‘livelihood’ we mean the processes whereby people obtain the necessities of life. Exactly what the necessities of life are varies from society to society, but one thing is certain: they are more than just food, clothing and shelter. As one author has written, livelihood not only involves making a living, it also making it meaningful (Bebbington 2000). What he means is that there is a moral or cultural dimension to livelihood as well as a material dimension: livelihood involves not simply the satisfaction of material needs it also involves the satisfaction of emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs.
A useful definition of ‘livelihood’ is provided by Norman Long:
[The term] livelihood best expresses the idea of individuals and groups striving to make a living, attempting to meet their various consumption and economic necessities, coping with uncertainties, responding to new opportunities, and choosing between different value positions”(Long, N. 2000:196).
As Long describes it, livelihood is an active process of ‘striving’, ‘attempting’, ‘coping’, and ‘choosing’.
Emphasising the fact that livelihood is more than just a matter of finding food, shelter and clothing, Sandra Wallman(cited by Long 2000) writes that:
Livelihood is never just a matter of finding or making shelter, transacting money, getting food to put on the family table or to exchange on the market place. It is equally a matter of ownership and circulation of information, the management of skills and relationships, and the affirmation of personal … identity.
She goes on to say that:
Identity-constructing processes are inherent in the pursuit of livelihoods – livelihood strategies entail the building of relationships with others ….
What we learn from Wallman is that gaining a livelihood involves entering into social relationships with other people – with relatives, friends, strangers, buyers, sellers, employers, government agents, and that these social relationships are built around identities - identities based on kinship, ethnicity, religion, nationality and social class.Much of the work of livelihood thereforeinvolves building and maintaining social identities and social relationships based on those identities.This can be described as the socio-cultural dimension of livelihood. This brings us to the importance of anthropology for the study of livelihood.

Anthropology is the comparative study of human societies. Anthropologists are generally interested in understanding other peoples’ ways of life and this involves them crossing some socio-cultural frontier into a world quite different from their own. But if we genuinely want to understand another peoples’ way of life, then we have to leave behind our ‘ethnocentrism’(i.e. our tendency to judge other societies according to our own cultural prejudices, biases, and values). We have to adopt a non-judgemental attitude to other people’s ideas, beliefs, customs, and behaviours. This is necessary for objective inquiry. When we take this approach we find that customs and behaviours that at first seemed irrational or immoral are discovered to have a rationality and morality of their own.
Furthermore, when we enter into the world of another people, the first thing we discover is that they speak another language. Therefore, getting to know another way of life involves learning a different language and struggling to understand its nuances of meaning. This applies even to different groups within our own society, as even if they speak the same language as us, they may speak it differently with nuances of meaning which might at first seem quite foreign to us.
To discover the ways of life of other peoples’, anthropologists have adopted a research method called “participant observation”. This involvesliving with the people we want to understand, and learning through observation while participating in the peoples’ daily activities. The aim is to understand things in context, and to see everything as related to everything else. Together, this is what is called “holistic micro-level research”.
Finally, while the focus of anthropology may be on the local, this focus needs to be set in a broad perspective that takes into account the complex interaction between the local and the global (Sillitoe 2007:151).
Keith Barber
Bebbington, A. 2000, Reencountering Development: Livelihood Transitions and place Transformations in the Andes, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(3): 495-520
Long, N. 2000, Exploring Local/Global Transformations: A view from anthropology, in AlberttoArce and Norman Long (eds) Anthropology and Modernities, London: Routledge
Sillitoe, P.2007.Anthropologists only need apply: challenges of applied anthropology, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13: 147-165
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