Moral Economy in Its Place: The Contribution of James C. Scott

Abstract: Despite appearances, James Scott doesn’t have much to tell us about the concept of moral economy. When he invoked the idea in his famous book The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott used it as a label of convenience, and he found it easy to drop in later work. Scott wanted a theory of peasant behavior that tracked actual peasant beliefs about fairness, reciprocity, and legitimacy. Only a genuine attempt to interpret peasant beliefs about their situation could hope to explain peasants’ acceptance or (in extremis) rejection of the power of elites. Judgments of fairness concerning subsistence goods provided a kind of focal case, a threshold at which judgments of legitimacy could be expected to vary sharply. Scott derived this idea from sociological theories of exchange and reciprocity, not from Thompson, whose famous idea he grafted on to his already-completed book.

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