Marketing As an Agent of Change in Subsistence Cultures: Some Dysfunctional Consumption Consequences

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University
ABSTRACT - This paper argues that several dysfunctional consequences may arise for consumers in subsistence cultures when modern marketing practices and products are introduced into their social system. empirical examples of these dysfunctions are provided and a plea is made for higher ethical standards among multinational marketers in Third World countries.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1986) ,"Marketing As an Agent of Change in Subsistence Cultures: Some Dysfunctional Consumption Consequences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 99-104.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 99-104


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


This paper argues that several dysfunctional consequences may arise for consumers in subsistence cultures when modern marketing practices and products are introduced into their social system. empirical examples of these dysfunctions are provided and a plea is made for higher ethical standards among multinational marketers in Third World countries.


Despite assumptions within the marketing literature that subsistence cultures are better off it transformed into developed societies with modern consumption values (cf, Meyer 1965; Dunn 1976; Michell 1979); there is evidence that this may not be so. The evidence falls into two categoriesCfirst, there are several instances in which the consumption values and behaviors of subsistence societies have served as adaptive responses to their environments. Second, there are several examples of destructive and dysfunctional consequences arising in subsistence cultures when modern consumption values and behaviors have been introduced. The first set of evidence is examined below.

Adaptive Response in Subsistence Societies

Current investigations of one of the world's most undeveloped countriesCNew GuineaChave revealed a highly adaptive and effective set of exchange relationships between productive resources and consumption demands. Brown (1978, p.265) states, "...we are beginning to see the processes whereby the indigenous population has developed intensive techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry. With this has come increased food and livestock production, [and3 larger settlements...None of these could have occurred without the creative use of local resources and development of the land's potential. The expansion of productive capacity has kept pace with population increases; the two variables are interdependent." Thus, instead of being inefficient and static, as they are often depicted, the New Guinean consumption system has shown adequate potential for change and the potential for constructive adaptation consistent with environmental requirements.

Similarly, Dyson-Hudson and Dyson-Hudson (1980, p.34) report that native livestock practices in West Africa, labeled as earlier Western observers, are in fact, highly adaptive to the local environment. For instance, earlier change agents, guided by modern agricultural norms, had condemned the tribal practice of maintaining very large herds as economically inefficient and had encouraged the market sale of "excess" animals. However, these earlier change agents had failed to take into account the longer lead time required to rebuild herd size in the African climate in the event of a natural disaster (e.g., drought, fire). Mathematical simulations by the Dyson-Hudson's (1980) indicated that the traditional tribal animal husbandry patterns were, in fact, environmentally optimal, and that the adoption of modern practices would have led to an unacceptably high risk of herd devastation. The Dyson-Hudsons reviewed several other studies of pastoral practices in subsistence settingsCthe Peruvian Andes, Arab Tunisia, PeloponnesiaCand concluded that in almost all instances a very high level of energy efficiency, appropriate degree of labor specialization, and production-consumption equilibrium were present.

With regard to another subsistence consumer populationC Arctic Innuit (Eskimos)CMoran (1981) cites several examples of adaptive consumption practices. First, Innuit apparel permits rapid adjustment to temperature changes and precipitation. Second, Innuit snow shelters (igloos) and seal oil lamps work synergistically to provide a tightly-insulated, well-heated internal environment, requiring minimal energy expenditure. Third, Innuit family members generally sleep nestled together, which conserves body heat and enhances affiliative bonding.

The Innuit, like many subsistence peoples, have a noneconomic exchange system based on social reciprocity, which creates durable inter-familial social bonds. Food, apparel and shelter are consumed on a communal basis, with resource reciprocity serving to form an integrated social network. Hospitality and sharing are the currency of exchange; hence, more formalized financial institutions are largely superfluous.

Findings such as these, Roben (1982, p. 368) notes, "have undermined the deep-seated ethnocentric assumptions that 'non-Western' people's behavior is more tradition-bound than our own and that their production systems are poorly adjusted to their natural and economic environment... In-depth studies have shown that many small-scale farming systems are sensitively adjusted to local ecological, economic, and political conditions... If developmental programs are to succeed, they must take account of the strengths of existing institutions and recognize that they persist because they meet real needs... New technologies and organizational forms will be accepted only if they meet those needs more effectively without introducing additional costs and risks. n

Dysfunctional Consequences of Marketing Development

The latter part of Hoben's statement is relevant to the incremental costs and risks incurred when modern marketing technologies, consumption values, and products are introduced to subsistence cultures. In specific instances, dysfunctional consequences have resulted from the introduction of such innovations. These fall into several categories: (l) the creation of economic dependency, (2) the stimulation of unnecessary/harmful demand, (3) population displacement and unemployment, and (4) the intensification of social stratification and economic disparities.

Creation of Economic Dependency

Of the several types of dysfunctional consequences resulting from the modernization of subsistence cultures, one of the most common is the creation of economic dependency (Wallerstein 1975; 1976; 1980). Zaltman and Duncan (1977, p. 327) describe such dependency effects as a function of change agent motivation: "Is the change agent really concerned about the welfare of the target system, or does change activity satisfy (the agent's) own needs for power and control? If the latter motives are operating, this might cause the change agent to be more manipulative in dealing with the target system... (The change agent) may not allow the target system to develop its own capabilities for dealing with the problem situation. As a result, the target system becomes overly dependent on the change agent."

Several Latin American scholars argue that the introduction of modern production and consumption practices has created a condition of dependency upon the more developed countries, particularly the United States (Nash 1981). Dos Santos (1973, p. 76) states, "dependence is a conditioning situation in which the economies of one group of countries (the undeveloped) are conditioned by the expansion of others (the developed)... Some countries expand through self-emulation while others, being in a dependent condition, can only expand as a reflection of the dominant countries".

One of the primary vehicles for the creation of economic dependency in a subsistence culture is to induce its adoption of technological innovations produced by modern countries (Nash 1981). Once traditional production techniques have been replaced by modern machinery and systems imported from developed countries, the undeveloped country becomes dependent upon the supplier-country to acquire replacement parts and trained personnel to keep the new technology operative. The more thoroughly modernized its production sector becomes, the more dependent the client country is on the multinational corporations supplying the technology. Thus, the supplier-country soon comes to exert great influence over the economic welfare of the client-country (Nash 1981), and this dependence relationship may become irreversible as traditional production technologies are forgotten or disintegrate. In some instances, the marketing literature has not only recognized, but advocated the creation of such dependency effects within developing countries (e.g., Freedman 1969, Michell 1979. Weber 1974).

The creation of economic dependency can also be accomplished by altering traditional production and consumption practices, without the necessity of introducing novel technology. In the African Sahel region, Swift (1977, p.473) described the traditional practices of tribal herdsmen versus the commercial orientation advocated by external change agents: "Traditional production is characterized by mixed (goat and camel) herds to spread risk..., by the use of non-market forms of livestock exchange (i.e., social reciprocity and redistribution), and by the sale of only excess male livestock. In contrast, commercial production is characterized by the production of cattle and sheep, and the market sale of more animals, rather than their use for non-market transactions or as security in the pastoralist's own herd."

The shift from traditional to commercial production practices has had profound effects on Sahelian pastoral societies. Swift (1977, p.473) reports, "Sahelian markets have become unstable, and-the pastoralists have no control over fluctuations in the prices of what they sell and what they buy. As a result, they have become increasingly vulnerable to both long-term changes in terms of trade for their products and also to short-term fluctuations... Their situation is made worse if they have modified their herd composition toward cattle and sheep, since these species are less resistant to drought than camels and goats... This is especially dangerous in drought years when the market is flooded with animals, pushing their prices down to derisory levels. n He also notes that since the commercialization of livestock production in the Sahel, traditional redistributive practices, which provided resources to community members in dire need, have disintegrated. As a result, many people have died of starvation.

Moran (1981) has detected the creation of similar dependency effects among the Innuit. In order to purchase and repair the rifles and snowmobiles that have replaced their traditional hunting equipment, Eskimos must take low-paying, menial jobs or rely on welfare subsidies; whereas prior to modernization they were economically self-sufficient. Similarly, Laplanders who converted to snowmobiles from reindeer-sledding for herd management, now must sell up to one-third of their animals annually to maintain their equipment. The result has been a serious depletion of herd size and a decline in economic worth (Moran 1981).

A final example is provided by Adams (1968) in his discussion of trading posts established on Indian reservations in the United States. Like many of the people residing in subsistence cultures, reservation Indians find it necessary to depend upon commercial agents (e.g., trading post operators) to conduct transactions via credit or currency. These agents are in a powerful position vis a vis their clients and sometimes abuse this power to gain financial resources for themselves. One common practice is to extend credit to an Indian totaling his/her entire annual earning potential, "thereby insuring that whatever cash =>me into the community is encumbered in advance... (Adams 1968, p.142)." "Trading post operators frequently refuse to cash checks for their Indian customers, unless a certain percentage (usually 50%) is used to purchase merchandise at the store. [Further, the trader uses his position and influence... in other ways. He discourages or impedes mobility on the part of his clientele. He would not loan them money to buy cars, or furnish credit references to car dealers in town. Although obliged by his operating license to sell gasoline, he is ofter 'temporarily out' (Adams 1968, D.144).

Stimulation of Unnecessary and/or Harmful Demand

Production processes operant in modern societies typically require continual market expansion to maintain profitability (Ayal and Ziff 1979). Expansion and growth, which have come to signify progress in advanced economic systems, are premised upon increasing levels of both production and consumption (Nash 1981; Wallerstein 1976). To achieve this objective, marketers in advanced societies may turn to undeveloped societies as sources of novel demand, when their home markets become saturated (Nash 1981). Much recent literature has been devoted to techniques, technologies, and strategies for initiating and enhancing the demand for products manufactured in advanced countries by consumers in undeveloped countries (c.f., Ayal and Ziff 1979; Michelle 1979). Rarely, however, do these treatises consider the direct and indirect negative consequences which the stimulation of such demand may have on the consuming population. Instead, products are generally depicted as contributing positively to the life style of the consumer (e.g., Freedman 1969), or only evaluated by profitability criteria relevant to the firm (Ayal and Ziff 1979).

Products from modern societies which are introduced and promoted within subsistence cultures may have two primary types of dysfunctional demand consequences. First, they may stimulate demand which is "unnecessary"- that is, which diverts consumers' resources from more critical to less critical products. Also belonging to this category are novel products which replace traditional products, but are more costly and/or less effective. A second category contains products introduced that are a priori known to be harmful and/or destructive to consumers.

UNNECESSARY DEMAND The stimulation of unnecessary demand was recognized early in the literature. Robinson (1961, p.19), stated, "The stimulation of non-existing demands for new consumer goods or demand based on brand name, style obsolescence, or new packaging may well cause an unjustified waste of scarce materials and skills, or an unnecessary commitment of them." He then cites as an example a technologically-sophisticated pesticide spreader introduced in Africa by a U.S. firm. The spreader was intended to replace a coarser, less-efficient pesticide spreader then in use. However, the new spreader not only cost substantially more than the older model, but its technical complexity caused it to incur more repair and maintenance expenses. Hence, even though the advanced model was superior in technological efficiency, it was economically inferior for use in that social system (Robinson 1961).

Moran (1981, pp.11,15) cities several examples of dysfunctional demand that have occurred among the Innuit as a result of modernization: "Concentration in villages has led to abandonment of traditional housing and adoption of less healthy shelter. Instead of sod and snow igloos, the Innuit now live in plywood shacks or government-built prefabricated homes heated by coal stoves. Air is not properly humidified and the population is more susceptible to respiratory infections and deafness... Vitamin C is in greater scarcity as a result of changes in cooking patterns. Anemia is now a frequent nutritional problem. Obesity is found with greater frequency. Hypercholesterolemia is increasing, particularly in the aged. Increased opportunity to obtain sweets and less frequent use of the teeth as tools have led to a rapid increase in periodontal diseases."

Another example, and perhaps the most disturbing within this category, is the marketing of infant formula in subsistence cultures. Although this undesirable practice has already been cited within the marketing literature (Fox and Kotler 1980), it bears reiteration within the present discussion. Infant formula is a cows' milk derivation chemically structured to approximate maternal breast milk. The particular brands of infant formula most closely resembling human milk in nutritional value are also the most expensive (Post and Baer 1981). Companies producing brands such as Lactogen, Similac and Enfamil have actively marketed these formulas in undeveloped countries via advertising, health personnel employed by the company, and free samples. The result has been that many new mothers switched from breast-feeding their infants to feeding them commercial formula.

Once this switch is made, the mother ceases to lactate, and she and the baby are effectively bound to use of the infant formula. Several dysfunctional consequences have resulted from this shift in consumption. First, formula must be mixed with local water which is often contaminated- resulting in illness and even death for the baby. Second, because of the expense of the formula, many mothers over-dilute it resulting in malnutrition and mental retardation for the infant. Third, the affected mothers suffer emotional trauma as they find themselves unable to properly feed their babies. Finally, government health officials are placed in ethically compromised positions by payments from formula marketers to permit continuation of the practice. Despite the fact that this marketing practice has been widely condemned, it currently continues (Post and Baer 1981, Higgins 1984).

Stimulation of Harmful Demand

The marketing of infant formula in subsistence cultures lies on the borderline between stimulation of unnecessary demand and stimulation of harmful demand. Although the infant formula product is safe when used correctly, it is difficult to safeguard its proper use in such societies. Two examples will now be cited, however, of marketers who have a priori knowledge of their products' harmful effects on consumers, yet continue to encourage their purchase and use.

The first example is the attempt to increase tobacco consumption in subsistence cultures. Although tobacco products have been declared health hazards in the United States and are currently subject to demarketing via governmental public policy efforts (e.g., the cigarette package warning label), such normative restrictions have not been applied to tobacco products distributed in many subsistence societies (Huebner 1982). In fact, tobacco products are included as nutritional subsidies in the Food For Peace program sponsored by the Department of Agriculture

Huebner (1982, p.52) reports that "since 1955, more than $700 million worth of tobacco products have been sent to South Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Egypt and other Third World Countries." As a result of this effort and company-sponsored promotional programs, tobacco product usage has risen 33 percent in Africa, 24 percent in Latin America, and 23 percent in Asia during the period 1969 to 1980 (Huebner 1982). Given the causal linkage between cigarette smoking and several major illnesses (cancer, emphysema, heart disease) and the relatively expensive cost of tobacco products, it is difficult to justify the introduction of such products into subsistence societies as improvements to the quality of life.

A final example is the case of Lomotil (Medawar and Freese 1981). Lomotil, produced by Searle, Inc., is an antidiarrheal drug currently being marketed in several subsistence societies as a diarrhea treatment for young children. (In many of these countries, diarrhea is the primary cause of death in children under 3). Despite the fact that Lomotil is dangerous when administered to young children and is therefore prohibited by the FDA for administration to children under age two in the U.S., it is currently promoted for medicating infants aged three months to six months in Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines (Medawar and Freese 1981).

Population Displacement and Unemployment

A third dysfunction caused by the introduction of modern consumption practices and products into subsistence cultures can be population displacement and unemployment. This commonly results when labor is shifted from agriculture to technological modes of production, or when farming practices are modernized via the use of mechanically sophisticated equipment, e.g., tractors, harvesters, hullers (Barlett 1980; Slater 1968). Such alterations are advocated because the modernized production systems are more capital efficient than their predecessors. However, as Currie (1968) has noted, the resulting displacement and under-utilization of labor within the modernized production system may more than offset the increased rate of return to capital investment.

Dawson (1980) cites as an example of this phenomenon the introduction of mechanical rice hullers into Indonesia by several companies during the 1970's. Although the mechanized hullers were substantially more efficient than the traditional hand-hulling method, they acted to eliminate the jobs of several thousand laborers. Subsequent rioting by these unemployed workers caused the Indonesian government to severely restrict the future importation of technological innovations.

In those countries where the importation of agricultural technology is unrestricted, farmers who were once economically self-sufficient may be placed in an easily exploitable situation vis a vis those who are supplying the novel technology. Nash (1981, p. 403) proposes that "technological innovations reinforce the costs of production and... the centralization of control over the means of production." As a result, the power and independence of the indigenous laborer is diminished.

By causing the displacement and unemployment of certain segments of the population (e.g., farmers, harvesters), although simultaneously creating jobs for other segments (e.g., factory workers), the introduction of modern methods of production may result in a net reduction of the total jobs available. Native laborers and their traditional modes of production may be replaced by outside laborers and modern methods of production. Displaced from their now obsolete jobs and unqualified for positions within the modern production setting, such laborers may become permanently un- or under-employed.

Two examples of this are the Alaskan Innuit and the aboriginal population of Australia. Discussing the Innuit, Moran (1981, p.16) states, "Despite the boom conditions in Alaska, most jobs have gone to skilled outsiders. The result has been an annual unemployment rate of 70% for Eskimo workers." The majority of Innuit now are dependent upon multiple forms of government assistance, including food stamps, subsidized housing, welfare payments, and unemployment benefits (Moran 1981).

Even more marked has been the effect of modern production technology and purposeful economic exclusion upon the Aboriginal population of Australia. Yengoyan (1979, p.409, 410) states, "...the European impact on Aboriginals culture can only be described as devastating... The best example of this is the modernized cattle industry of Northern Australia where Aboriginals are not only underpaid to a marked degree, but also suffer chronic unemployment, underemployment, and deliberate social and personal abuse." Hence, rather than improving the economic welfare of the native populace, some modernization programs may actually reduce these consumers' earning potential and employment opportunities.

The Intensification of Social Stratification

A final dysfunctional consequence of modernization can be the intensification of social class differences between poor and affluent consumers. The exacerbation of social stratification has occurred on two levels - international and intranational. Nash (1981, p. 407) states, "The widening gap between core and peripheral regions, and between rich and poor classes, is becoming increasingly apparent... A decade of development focusing on import substitution, industrialization, and Green Revolution agriculture not only failed to improve the position of Third World populations, but has contributed to trade imbalances, increasing debt, and impoverishment as revealed in indices of infant mortality and life expectancy."

In many instances, the majority of consumers in subsistence countries have been left in more economically immiserated conditions subsequent to modernization, than prior to its arrival (Nash 1981). One primary reason for this appears to be a corporate strategy of rapid repatriation of profits by multinational marketers from their foreign subsidiaries (Nash 1981) -a strategy advocated by some authors in the marketing literature (Holton 1970; Weber 1974).

The exacerbation of social class differences as a result of modernization may also occur on an intranational basis. In this instance, a small segment of consumers become the primary beneficiaries of modernization programs, while the majority of the population receives no benefits or has its standard of living reduced (Nash 1981). Michell (1979, p. 92) notes that with the introduction of modern marketing systems "...a dual society usually emerges in developing countries; an elitist segment demands the products of the industrialized economy, while the vast majority continue their present subsistence economy." Schwartz (1978, p. 249) states this position more forcefully, "Several studies demonstrate that externally introduced resources - technical, economic, political, social service - are distributed along lines of existing inequality and thus reinforce it..."

Some writings in the marketing literature seem to encourage the exploitation of this widening gap within subsistence societies (cf. Freedman 1969). Strategies are advocated which will enhance the consumption opportunities of those in the modern, elite segment of consumers, while ignoring or even further reducing those in the subsistence sector (cf. Dichter 1965). As Surkel (1972, p. 519) concludes "...Access to the means and benefits of development is selective; rather than spreading them, the process tends to insure a self-reinforcing accumulation of privilege for special groups, as well as the continued existence of a marginal class."


The material presented provides disquieting evidence that some marketing practices may result in dysfunctional consequences for consumers in subsistence cultures. This possibility raises several ethical issues; perhaps the foremost of these is whether or not marketers should concern themselves with the dysfunctional consequences of their actions. In other words, is one's responsibility limited only to devising successful marketing programs or does moral culpability extend as well to the negative consequences which occur when those marketing programs are implemented?

The current literature appears divided on this issue. Sheth and Frazier (1982) for example, provide detailed prescriptions for achieving change agent objectives, even in the face of attitudinAl and behavioral resistance on the part of the target system. In contrast to this strategic stance are articles by Fox and Kotler (1980) and Laczniak, Lusch and Murphy (1979) which argue for the consideration of ethical responsibilities prior to the implementation of any social change marketing program. Laczniak et al (1979, p. 34) state, "Marketing practitioners have a responsibility to carefully consider the ramifications of their social marketing campaign" and that "by venturing into the wholesale development of social marketing, marketing professionals may acquire considerable social power without prudently assessing the resulting responsibility that they necessarily must bear." Similarly, Fox and Kotler (1980) advocate the use of counter-marketing experts by governments in undeveloped countries to overcome campaigns by multinational marketers which promote harmful products. However, they do not address the pragmatic issue of how such counter-marketing efforts are to be mounted, given the large budgets of the MNC's and the potential for corruption of local regulatory officials.

In the original article on marketing and planned social change (Kotler and Zaltman 1971), the authors explicitly called for a consumer sovereignty orientation in the implementation of such programs "...Host of the effort [should] be spent on discovering the wants of a target audience and then creating the goods and services to satisfy them... In social terms, it is held that this marketing philosophy restores consumer sovereignty in the determination of the society's product mix and the use of national resources (p. 5)." The consumer sovereignty viewpoint - that the existing values of consumers should be attended to by marketers and not altered to create demand for the marketers' current inventory of products - has been extended to the realm of multinational marketing by several authors (cf., Sheth 1972; Wind, Douglas, and Perlmutter 1977). These authors, however, have also detected a certain reluctance on the part of multinational marketers to act in accordance with the consumer sovereignty principle. Wind et al (1973, p. 21), for example, argue for the explicit recognition of consumers' interests in the formulation of international marketing policies, but note that "the relative lack of information available regarding international customer characteristics... may imply a low degree of marketing [i.e., consumer] orientation [on the part of multinational marketers]... Emphasis on the production and distribution savings associated with a standardized marketing strategy may result in a tendency to ignore differences among world customers."

What may result from such an orientation on the part of multinational marketers is the purposeful alteration of the production and consumption systems in subsistence cultures to create markets for the MNC's current inventories of unsold products. The dysfunctional consumption consequences which come about as a result of such market modernization efforts do not appear to be given adequate consideration. As Warwick and Kelman cautioned over a decade ago (1973, p. 395), "There is more than a real possibility that change agents will view the problem from the perspective of their own group and set goals that will... accrue to the benefit of their group at the expense of the target population... There are sound reasons for believing that [developmental] programs will end up serving the purposes of the advantaged group at the expense of the disadvantaged.

In the several instances cited previously and in others not reviewed in detail here (cf., Davis 1969; Hoskins 1971), it appears that some marketing modernization programs may act more as instruments of social control than as stimulants to societal development. The primary benefits of their implementation may accrue to multinational corporations and not to the consumers they are said to be serving. Given this, it perhaps time for marketers to reexamine their goals and priorities in developmental programs. Marketing stragies and implementation have varied effects upon the consumption environment. Where these effects have been beneficial and positive, we have been eager to take the credit. Where these effects have been dysfunctional and negative, can we be any less willing to accept the blame?


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