Georg Materna: “Two tribes of capitalists”: Neoconomists and politiconomists in a Senegalese marketplace

This post is part of a feature on “How Capitalists Think,” moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (University of Bergen) and Tijo Salverda (University of Cologne).

Research on capitalism commonly distinguishes between neoclassical economics and political economy. If neoclassical economics have dominated scientific debates since the 1930s at the latest, the nineteenth century view was that of political economy, with Karl Marx providing a powerful critique thereof. Both theories influence scientific reasoning until today. Yet, could both also elucidate the quotidian behavior of “normal” people in ethnographies of everyday life in the twenty-first century?

The following argues that key features of street trade in souvenirs in Senegal present us with such a case. In fact, I argue that both theories match well the worldviews of the groups engaged in those trades. For this reason, I dub the local traders politiconomists and the tourists, their customers, neoconomists.

The interaction between politiconomists and neoconomists is often quite troublesome. For instance, tourists repeatedly complain about rude and aggressive street traders offering souvenirs for extortionate prices and frequently using stories of personal predicaments when engaging in price bargaining.

It would go beyond the scope of this article to elaborate these conflicts lines in detail. However, I will outline some of the most important differences between politiconomist traders and neoconomist tourists drawing on firsthand ethnographical data gathered for PhD research from 2010 to 2015 (cf. Materna 2017).

The underlying theoretical ambition of this article is to reinvigorate the anthropology of market exchange, which, I think, has been neglected since the end of the substantivist-formalist debate. A distinction between relational market exchange and object-centered market exchange emerges throughout the text as a possible new direction of research.

Market exchange between politiconomists and neoconomists
The interaction between street vendors and tourists is mainly about buying and selling—in other words, market exchange. An interaction between a souvenir street trader and an Anglophone tourist that I observed in February 2014 exemplifies this. The interaction was friendly and without great tensions. An excerpt from my field notes highlights important aspects of the trade.

I observed how Abo, a street trader and informant of mine, guided an Anglophone tourist to his shop in the middle of the market. Abo asked his guest to look at the exposed souvenirs and to choose the ones he liked best. The Englishman picked out four sand paintings and asked for the price. Abo demanded 45 euros. The tourist was astonished. Surely, he said, these were handmade paintings but he did not really need them. He needed clothes and food, but he could do without the paintings, the tourist argued. As he made the impression of losing interest, Abo underlined that his proposition was an “African price”; another vendor who had observed the scene assisted by shouting “African market! African market!”

Abo continued proposing prices, reluctantly scaling down. Eventually, the tourist said, “I feel uncomfortable if I walk away without buying.” He wanted to get out of the situation, stood up, and proposed to return the two bracelets that Abo had offered him, when both met at the street for the first time. Abo refused and continued decreasing the price for the paintings instead. At the end, the two agreed on 20 euros for the sand paintings. Having agreed to buy, the tourist asked, “Are your happy now?” “I am happy now,” replied Abo, “but if you gave 5 euros more, I would be very, very happy.”

Typical souvenir shop, Senegal (photograph by the author).

Typical souvenir shop, Senegal (photograph by the author).

Three points are important. First, Abo found his client on the street and succeeded in involving him in an interaction. The Englishman, whom I met a few hours later, told me that he had been approached by a lot of vendors, but Abo was the first who offered him gifts.

Second, the price of the souvenirs had to be bargained. When Abo declared his first price of 45 euros, the tourist was astonished. Eventually, the tourist paid only 44 percent of Abo’s initial proposition.

Third, at the end the tourist bought the souvenirs—and kept the gifts. However, as his interjection in the story highlights, he maintained that he bought the sand paintings not out of economic need. Instead, I argue, the interaction had turned the act of buying, at least in part, into a favor to Abo

During fieldwork, I observed these three aspects repeatedly. Street traders’ opening gambit was to sympathize with the tourists. Often this was the only way to draw the tourists’ attention to one’s shop and goods. Next, traders applied different strategies to entice tourists into purchases or money donations. Most of these strategies involved a relational component alongside the act of selling a product, which implied that the purchase was not only for the commodities but also to support and help a trader.

This coupling of the purchase with a support component, often involving an ad hoc personal relationship, establishes the distinction between politiconomists and neoconomists. A very handy tool to support that distinction can be found in Chris Gregory’s work:

[The gift] … is to be contrasted with the objective relations between things that the exchange of commodities creates. The theory of gifts and the theory of commodities are compatible and together they stand opposed to the theory of goods with its focus on the subjective relationship between consumer and objects of desire. (1982: 8–9; emphasis added)

Following Gregory, commodity exchange reveals an objective relation. “Objective” in this context refers to a political economy that posits commodities as tokens for the labor of people and the input of capital. Accordingly, the way in which commodities are exchanged affects the social structure of a society.

This is very different from the subjective relation between a good and its consumer. The term “subjective relation” alludes to the central axiom of neoclassical economics—that economy consists in weighing unlimited needs against limited resources. Thus, prototypical neoclassical consumers would ask whether a given good at a given price would satisfy their needs.

Whereas political economy is concerned with capital and labor inputs, neoclassical economics is concerned with (rational) consumer choices. In consequence, while the exchange of commodities expresses social relations along the lines of capital and labor input, the neoclassical focus on the rationality of exchanges highlights the wishes and needs of individual consumers. This theoretical abstraction comes very close to how street traders and tourists respectively describe selling and buying.

Consequently, in theoretical terms, the process of bargaining the price of a souvenir includes the question of whether a souvenir is a commodity or a good. If purchased as a commodity, the price of a souvenir would establish a social relation between vendor and buyer. Yet, if purchased as a good, the price of a souvenir would mainly express the relation between the individual buyer and the good itself.

The tribe of politiconomists
If commodities reveal an objective relation between groups, according to Gregory, and souvenir street traders attempt to introduce this group relation into the process of bargaining, as I argue, then how do they do this? And if they do so, what are the reasons for it?

I would like to strengthen my argument with the help of two emic terms, widely used among the Wolof traders in Senegal, that emerged as key findings during fieldwork to understand the practices and strategies of vending on the streets: naxante and woyaan.

Naxante cannot be directly translated into English. It is a composed verb with two parts: nax—which means to feint, to dupe, or to make jokes—and the suffix –ante, which expresses the mutuality of a practice. Thus, naxante describes the mutual feinting, duping, and making of jokes between two or more persons engaged in an exchange.

If naxante does not work in exchanges with tourists, many—but not all—traders resort to woyaan. Woyaan means to praise someone in order to receive a gift. If the street traders do woyaan, they make compliments, underlining that a particular tourist is a very good person and not a racist like other tourists who refuse to support the traders. However, while doing woyaan, the street traders also tell tourists about their problems. They speak about unpaid bills, the sickness of family members, the hardships of life in Senegal. With woyaan, they appeal to the pity of tourists, they directly ask for help. In this way, woyaan becomes a second step in negotiating a price or asking for a favor.

Market interaction between “two tribes of capitalists” in Senegal (photograph by the author).

Market interaction between “two tribes of capitalists” in Senegal (photograph by the author).

Even though the strategies of naxante and woyaan are controversial among the vendors themselves, their coupling is common. I would like to provide two explanations for this.

(1) The trade with souvenirs in Senegal had been dominated by ñeeño groups for many years. In Wolof society, ñeeño is an umbrella term for different endogamous groups of artisans and musicians (Diop 1981). When mass tourism began in the 1960s, silversmiths, woodcarvers, weavers, shoemakers, and griots discovered tourists as a new clientele.

However, it was not only production that predestined the ñeeño groups to dominate the souvenir business. Historically, Wolof society had a strict division of labor between the ñeeño groups on the one hand and the more numerous géer, who engaged in agriculture, husbandry, and fishing, on the other. Only the géer could hold political offices, so they were socially superior to the ñeeño and served as their patrons.

However, while the géer dominated Wolof society politically, the ñeeño could consistently ask them for gifts. The géer were socially obliged to be generous lest they lose their social reputation.

Hence, the ñeeño were used to behaving in asymmetrical relations when tourism started. They disposed of a cultural repertoire with which they urged socially superiors to give gifts and support them. In recent times, I argue, the ñeeño apply these strategies to tourists and expect the tourists to be generous as well.

(2) These relational strategies can be summarized by what James Ferguson (2015: 89-117) calls distributed livelihoods. The economic situation in Senegal leaves many people without a regular income. People of all ages, genders, and backgrounds very commonly ask for the support of family members, friends, or wealthy people. The distribution of wealth and resources of all kinds is a quotidian matter of discussion amongst Senegalese in general.

The tourists become part of these local debates about resources. When the street traders do naxante and woyaan, they address the tourists with claims of distribution. In consequence, the relational strategies of the street vendors attempt to draw the tourists into the structures of distribution of the local moral economy.

The tribe of neoconomists
Buying in the Global North is called shopping, and shopping has created a huge service industry where service workers perform emotional labor (Hochschild 1983). Emotional labor means that the vendor is expected to be friendly and courteous. In any case, they should not annoy their customer with personal problems.

Shopping as such is a social activity, but not one in which consumers seek sociality with vendors. Instead, they buy goods that can make them feel part of distinct subgroups of society. Shopping in the Global North goes along with the individualized identity construction of modern wage workers (cf. Miller 1998).

The work of souvenir street traders does not fit into this frame. Their way of vending disturbs consumers from the Global North, who are trained in neoclassical, object-focused market exchange. Two short quotations from interviews with tourists exemplify this.

First, an American volunteer designated the relational strategies of street traders as guilt tactics:

Many of the vendors are used, like, to guilt tactics. So, they would say things … If you didn’t buy something they would say: “I need to support my family, I have no money.” And, here, you are staying in this beautiful house, like, “Please, just buy something that I have.”

Tourists often encounter these kinds of requests. One tourist, who obviously liked the interaction of bargaining, told me that he understands buying as a gesture of solidarity. Using his term, solidarity, I asked other tourists whether they understand this idea. One Belgian tourist explained:

Yes. It means that one pays an elevated price as a social service. But listen! If I buy something, it is a pure and simple commercial act. This is where it ends. Some vendors, if you speak with them, tell you: “Oh, my wife is pregnant please help me buying medicine.” I do not react to that.

Tourists like these deliberately refuse to pay a relational component and to practice relational market exchange. Instead, they believe in proper prices that ought to be the same for everyone (cf. Alexander 1992). They focus on the object for exchange and not the different asymmetric economic and political relations with the vendors.

Concluding thoughts
The way of shopping that individualized neoconomists are used to does not work in the interactions with street trading politiconomist in Senegal. The Senegalese politiconomists live in a society where claim making, demand sharing, economic dependency on others, and debates about the distribution of resources of all kinds predominate quotidian life for most of the population (Latouche 1998).

The most popular anthropological account of buying and vending in the Global North has been produced by Daniel Miller in his numerous books on shopping. Miller, however, depicts consumers who buy goods and not commodities. Thus, he treats his research subjects unilaterally as neoconomists. The traders and the producers of the goods bought by Miller’s consumers hardly ever appear in his ethnographical descriptions.

This is different in the case of souvenir street vending in Senegal, where traders and buyers have to negotiate in face-to-face interactions about the price for a souvenir and whether this should include a relational component. Attempts to establish relational market exchanges predominate in this context. Yet, relational market exchange as such is not limited to the narrow case presented in this article.

I argue that relational market exchange has also become important in the Global North in recent decades. Examples include fair trade commodities or organic supermarkets where people explicitly go shopping for the advantage of producers from the Global South—who are, admittedly, often only visually represented for reasons of marketing.

Yet, I believe that the concept of relational market exchange can help us understand these phenomena. Relational market exchange draws our attention to asymmetries, to social structure, to the exchange of material and immaterial values during buying and vending, which had, even in anthropology, hitherto mainly been considered through the lens of neoconomists. Thereby, it can help to apply anthropological theories to the everyday-life phenomena of people who live near and afar.

Georg Materna studied social anthropology, communication and media sciences, the science of religion, and French in Leipzig, Halle/Saale, Vienna, Bayreuth, and Clermont-Ferrand. In 2017, he obtained a PhD in social anthropology at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) with a study of the street trade of souvenirs in Senegal. Currently, he works as a researcher at the JFF—Institute for Media Research and Media Education. One of his forthcoming articles is entitled “The Touristic Laobé of Senegal: The Commodification of Culture in African Arts, Inc.”


Alexander, Paul. 1992. “What’s in a price? Trading practices in peasant (and other) markets.” In Contesting markets: Analyses of ideology, discourse and practice, ed. Roy Dilley, 81–96. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Diop, Abdoulaye-Bara. 1981. La société wolof: Tradition et changement—Les systèmes d’inégalité et de dominance [Wolof society: Tradition and change – systems of inequality and dominance]. Paris: Karthala.

Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a man a fish. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gregory, Chris. 1982. Gifts and commodities. London: Academic Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latouche, Serge. 1998: L’autre Afrique: Entre don et marché [The other Africa: Between gift and market]. Paris: Editions Albin Michel.

Materna, Georg. 2017. “Straßenhandel mit Souvenirs im Senegal: Akteure, Arbeit und Organisation” [Street trade of souvenirs in Senegal: Actors, work and organization]. PhD diss., Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies.

Miller, Daniel. 1998: A theory of shopping. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cite as: Materna, Georg. 2018. “‘Two tribes of capitalists’: Neoconomists and politiconomists in a Senegalese marketplace.” FocaalBlog, 26 March.