Relational Economies, Social Embeddedness and Valuing Labour in Agrarian Change: An Example from the Developing World




A relatively neglected area of research on agrarian and economic change is the role of indigenous concepts of labour value in the transition from subsistence to market production. In West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, the presence of a migrant population on an oil palm land settlement scheme (LSS) in close proximity to village-based oil palm growers, provided an opportunity to examine changing notions of labour value through the lens of smallholder productivity. Voluntary settlers on the LSS are experiencing population pressure and are highly dependent on oil palm for their livelihoods. In contrast, customary landowners in village settings produce oil palm in a situation of relative land abundance. By examining differences in how these two groups practise and value commodity production, the paper makes four key points. First, concepts of labour value are not static and involve struggles over how labour value is defined. Second, the transition to market-based notions of labour value can undermine labour's social value with a consequent weakening of social relationships within and between families. Third, Theories of Value developed in western contexts and used to frame development policies and projects in the developing world are often inappropriate and even harmful to the welfare of communities that have different registers of value. Fourth, in response to Point 3, and following Rigg (2007), there is a need for ‘theorising upwards’ using empirical data from the developing world to inform theory rather than applying to the developing world models of sociality and economy developed in western contexts.