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Perspectives on socio-economic causes of and responses to food deprivation

R. Brooke Thomas, Sabrina H. B. H. Paine, and Barrett P. Brenton


Social and economic conditions are increasingly recognized as the cause and consequence of chronic energy deficiency and of acute food shortages that may lead to famine. As food becomes scarce, the social fabric is stretched, and by the time food deprivation is apparent, critical strands of social cohesion have already unravelled. As McCorkle [1] notes, people begin to starve socio-economically, politically, and ideologically long before they might starve physically. This is a process by which contradictions woven into social action, often obscured by day-to-day life during more affluent times, become apparent as the food supply diminishes. In conditions of severe food shortages, people bound together by cultural ideals must find social, asocial, and even antisocial solutions to secure limited food resources. As food deprivation persists, behavioural responses narrow to those options that fulfil immediate biological needs for the individual. This shift from a social to an individual needs orientation is a pervasive pattern underlying the disparate behaviours of diverse human groups.

In discussing the fulfilment of individual needs, Jonsson [2] has summarized three levels of causation influencing nutritional status (see table 1). The immediate causes are food intake and health. Available income, land, education, water, fuel, and health services underlie food intake and health status. These, in turn, are influenced by a set of basic causes attributed to resources, economics, politics, and ideology. The inextricable connections between social conditions, economic development, and the nutritional status of human groups have been elaborated upon by nutritionists [3-10].

TABLE 1. Levels of determinants of nutritional status

Immediate causes Food intake and health
Underlying causes Income, land, education, water, fuel, health services
Basic causes Resources, economics, politics, ideology

Source: Adapted from ref. 2.

Whereas anthropologists and geographers also have generated a substantial body of literature on the social consequences of and responses to food deprivation [11-15], little systematic knowledge is available on social behaviour associated with food shortage [13]. It is therefore our intention to build on the existing summaries of this literature, and to present a series of analytical perspectives that will serve to organize and orient further inquiry.

At the broadest level we compare the theoretical paradigms of adaptation and political economy. Both address aspects of resource- and hence food acquisition behaviour, but orient the interpretation of this behaviour in opposite yet complementary ways. The adaptive or coping paradigm is discussed first to demonstrate the interactive effects of social, economic, political, and ideological strategies (response domains) as food deprivation intensifies. This adaptive perspective is countered by a discussion of the determinants of food deprivation, emphasizing political economic relationships that diminish the effectiveness of these strategies. We then consider two sets of responses based on pervasive types of action (response modes) and the social units involved (response levels). Finally these perspectives are combined in a review of serial reactions (response sequences) to progressive food deprivation. This is a process whereby a series of short-term solutions can ultimately compromise the ability to recover, leaving individuals more vulnerable to subsequent challenges. (See figure 1.)

FIG. 1. Three perspectives for evaluating adaptive responses


Theoretical paradigms

Before observing a sample population, appropriate conceptual approaches must be chosen for identifying and framing research questions concerning socioeconomic activity and food deprivation. More than one paradigm may be useful since each orients the researcher to ask different questions, observe different variables, and thus draw different conclusions.

The adaptation, human-ecological, or coping paradigm focuses on how people attempt to meet their goals in the face of adverse conditions. Attention is directed towards the characteristics of the environment (both natural and social) and the determination of appropriate responses to these conditions. Interpretation emphasizes environment-human interactions in a local systemic sense, and frequently focuses on normative behaviour.

Considerable debate has occurred concerning the definition of adaptive goals [16]. For the purpose of this discussion, however, adaptive choices are based on assessments of the relative benefits of a course of action. How this behaviour is manifested depends on the severity and duration of the potentially disruptive conditions. During harsh times coping means biological and perhaps social maintenance and during extreme times, simple endurance or persistence.

The human adaptation perspective draws a distinction between adaptiveness and adaptability. "Adaptiveness" refers to how individuals are doing here and now, whereas "adaptability" refers to their flexibility in adjusting to altered and to some extent unpredictable conditions in the future. The adaptation perspective evaluates how well people respond to adverse conditions as well as their potential for recovery once their principal responses have been disrupted. In contrast to focusing on processes of adjustment or self organization, the political-economy paradigm takes a quite different approach. Historical precedence and external political-economic relationships are assumed to impact heavily not only on the structure of local social relations but on how people use their resources and environment. Emphasis is placed on social differentiation, as opposed to social cohesion, and on both differential access to resources and different capabilities of people to adjust to food supply constraints.

When critical resources such as land and labour become controlled by a small dominant group, dependency relationships are formed. In essence these relationships usually mean that segments of a community face constrained options, and thus become even more vulnerable during times of need. These asymmetrical relationships are not confined to class or socio-economic group but can include ethnicity and gender as well. Similarly, this perspective is not restricted to agrarian peasant settings, since abundant opportunity to exert control over underprivileged groups exists through market and governmental relationships as well [17].

These two paradigms are useful in interpreting the consequences and responses to food deprivation, since they depict oppositional social forces. People caught in systems of exploitation attempt to adapt within the constraints placed on them. They frequently try to find circumventing solutions, and occasionally succeed in changing their social system. Adaptation-oriented research, therefore, tries to determine what people are "doing right." That is, out of the tangle of behaviour associated with various stages of food deprivation it attempts to identify which responses are beneficial. However, to focus on the adaptive process alone and to expect the impoverished to solve the problems of food shortage in spite of institutionalized political-economic constraints is illusionary. Because the adaptation perspective fails to inquire into the conditions causing, perpetuating, and exacerbating many of these problems, it misses a critical aspect of the dynamic.

Similarly, an awareness of political-economic processes that further constrain underprivileged groups is tantamount to understanding why these people are at risk. A common pattern of "modernization" is that resource diversity gives way to a few cash crops, social support is eroded by wage labour commitments, and surplus becomes unavailable for redistribution because it is removed beyond the community or region. Under these conditions many people become more vulnerable to food shortages. This seems to have taken place on a world scale with the penetration of foreign investment into local and regional economies. Too frequently development efforts that attempt to improve some aspect of a local system, in a way that supports national priorities, have ignored the impact of both adaptive and local political-economic processes. Since both of these paradigms appear highly relevant to the interpretation of the consequences of and responses to food shortage, a series of perspectives that facilitate their use will be outlined further.

TABLE 2. Reponse domain changes with progresive food deprivation


Deprivation phases

Exploration Retrenchment Exhaustion
Economic Intensification
Expansion of resource use and area Adoption of new strategies while retaining old Stockpiling
Strategies with short-term returns Decreasing strenuous work
Restrictive and secretive stockpiling Foraging and gleaning
Day-to-day survival
Limited experimentation Individual hoarding
Social Increase in general sharing
Expanded social network locally and regionally
Social debts called in
Restricted sharing group
Marginal segments (poorer and elderly) drop out of sharing
Increased theft and violence
Sharing unequal, even
within household
Expulsion/sale/ abandonment of
children and elderly
Social dyads and youth gangs
Political Problem defined
People look to leadership for solutions Political unrest: riot, rebellion, revolution
Power resources used to increase social solidarity and gain access to resources
Change leadership
Unorganized political unrest
Leadership roles diminished or abolished
Ideological Initiate survival myths defining appropriate behaviour and promote social cohesion Leaders with exclusive contact with supernatural increase
their power
Emphasis on unpredictability of the cosmos

Compiled from refs. 12 and 13.

Adaptive response domains

By working largely within the adaptation paradigm, Laughlin and Brady [12] and Dirks [13] have provided the most comprehensive reviews to date of social responses to food deprivation. The richness of the Laughlin and Brady review lies in generalizations regarding response domains following traditional social science categories (economic, social organization, politics and ideology). This is complemented by Dirks's exhaustive literature review of both social and biological aspects of worsening food shortages. These responses are organized according to stages of severity (alarm, resistance, exhaustion) following Selye's [18, 19] general adaptation syndrome.

Here we have borrowed extensively from both reviews, attempting to combine their conceptual strengths. We have altered the labels for Dirks's three stages, feeling that ours better depict the social reality, but essentially follow his rationale. Table 2 merges Laughlin and Brady's [12] response domains with Dirks's [13] stages of deprivation in an effort to show how these interconnected domains change in the course of worsening conditions. In the next section Laughlin and Brady's arguments concerning the effects are summarized.


Economic and social responses to food deprivation

Once food depletion has exceeded recurrent and predictable levels, social responses to food deprivation begin [20]. An initial phase of exploration for solutions increases the variability of responses over prestress levels as hyperactivity and intensified social interaction pervade virtually every institutional sphere [13]. In the economic domain (table 2) attempts are initially made to intensify ongoing productive activities while exploring resource alternatives. Productive alternatives will be adopted to operate in conjunction with those normally conducted [21] Thus household members may migrate in order to supplement insufficient household agrarian production. Rarely, however, will former economic pursuits be dropped entirely for new solutions unless the former are judged to be futile, or unless the replacement conflicts with previous pursuits and is clearly more successful. In the social domain, reciprocity and exchange follow a similar pattern. During exploration, general sharing and assistance increase above pre-stress levels [12, 22]. Attempts are made to reactivate and expand the social network both locally and regionally.

While the exploration stage increases activity and positive reciprocity, the retrenchment stage reverses this trend. "Social ties begin to erode; the effective unit of resistance narrows; conservative measures are introduced that are antithetical to widespread generosity and broad-based group action" [13, p. 28]. Economic strategies (table 2) begin to emphasize possibilities with short-term returns [12] and less strenuous work. Stockpiling, which was initiated in the previous phase, becomes secretive. Hence access to stocks is restricted as people claim they are out of supplies. Sharing becomes increasingly restricted to close relatives or household members. and social debts are called in. Such severing of former ties and pressing for repayment in times of hardship can cause obvious resentment. Marginal segments of the community such as the poor, chronically ill, and elderly are eliminated from the sharing network. Theft. violence, and other antisocial behaviours increase, and possessions are guarded more stringently.

The final stage of exhaustion is marked by the erosion of even the family as a co-operative unit, although opportunistic social groups such as youth foraging and bandit gangs may arise [23-25]. Some semblance of sharing frequently persists even under the most extreme circumstances, though hoarding is prevalent even within households [25, 261]. Problem perception and solution generation become increasingly simplified [12, 27, 28]. Individuals reduce excess motion and adapt energy-conserving postures [29, 30].

Political and ideological responses to food deprivation

Whereas the socio-economic domains demonstrate a progressively shrinking sphere of sociality accompanied by rising asocial behaviour, political and ideological responses counteract this trend by emphasizing group cohesion. The political domain encompasses power relations that influence resource distribution as well as the defence of members as a corporate unit. At the onset of deprivation, people and their leaders start defining the problem and confronting solutions. Leaders are looked to for initiating responses of food redistribution, which reduces suffering, and to both protect and expand basic resource acquisition [12].

Ideology helps to define the nature of the deprivation and its solutions, and to prescribe proper action between the participants. Thus, in a time of growing tensions, ideology can counteract divisive effects by emphasizing that the stress conditions are brought on by opportunism or social defects [31, 32].

Such conditions provide ample occasion for leaders to increase their influence, and for political structures to become more centralized and hierarchical. Leaders who are highly directive appear more effective during stress periods [27]. As basic resources begin to run out, leaders increasingly utilize power resources not affected by deprivation for coercive action or seizure of additional resources. These power resources can include the police, military, foreign assistance, or exclusive manipulation of ritual.

Whereas basic norms and traditions tend to be reinforced during initial phases, leadership is tested. The inability to match people's expectations results in challenged and changing leadership [33-35]. Riots, rebellion, and revolution occur primarily in the exploratory stage, when people are seeking new solutions and have the strength to resist. These demonstrations become less organized in the retrenchment phase. When the exhaustion stage is reached, leadership serves little function, since basic resources are so limited that no differential access to them on an orderly basis is possible [12]. The futility of humans' trying to control or placate the harsh and unpredictable cosmos negates much ritual activity, and a sense of fatalism prevails.

In this review of responses to food deprivation, cohesive social relations and mutual support stand out as critical adaptations. As Laughlin and Brady state, "The reciprocal sharing of food and other resources fundamental to survival has long been recognized as a primary strategy of adaptation in human populations [36-39]" [12, p. 29]. This review suggests that factors that prevent the erosion of social cooperation, as well as those that hasten its decline, should become the focus of inquiry for social scientists interested in food deprivation.


Political-economic determinants of food deprivation

In this section, we analyse from a political-economic perspective a variety of determinants that together push adaptive behaviours in different and frequently contradictory ways (see figure 2). Because the combination of these determinants differs within and between groups even in the same region, one should avoid over-generalization about how people respond in a specific sense. Groups come into distress at different starting points, in varied ways, and with different cultures and expectations. Likewise, official attempts to recognize and assist the situation depend on what a government wants the distress to signify. How the government will act depends on its available resources, its obligations both to distress victims and to affected groups outside the local area, relationships it has or wants to establish with foreign donors, and its own survival priorities [14].

FIG. 2. Determinants of food deprivation


Environmental and external explanations

In addressing causes of famine, climatic theories long put forth have been seriously questioned following two basic arguments [40-44]. First, sudden climatic change, such as drought, may occur over a large region but only the poorer areas are affected. Second, famines occur in the absence of radical climatic change. In both cases, famine is a man-made catastrophe in social organization and exchange that is sometimes perturbed by climatic change [14].

Referring to recent food crises in Africa, Campbell [15] views drought, locust invasions, and warfare as catalysts to systemic crises brought about by integration into the world economic system. "One indication of this disruption is that many long-standing mechanisms for coping with food deficits have become less effective and, while different options have become available as a result of economic and political changes, the overall effect has been to make village systems more vulnerable to famine" [15, p.1]. Similarly, Morren [45] points out how economic dependency and specialization of communities, fostered by development, reduces their capacity to respond effectively and narrows the limits of environmental variability with which they can cope.

Cash cropping for foreign markets, especially when it involves mono-cropping, leaves agricultural systems under extremely specialized and dependent control. Hence the population is left highly vulnerable to destabilizing forces over which they have little control. With little economic diversification, externally initiated shifts in demand, currency devaluation, or price paid for export items can have a dramatic effect on access to food resources [20]. Dependency relationships extend to purchased food, frequently sacrificing a more traditional diet for imported, less expensive but nutritionally inferior foods [46, 47].

Thus lower-income households accustomed to exchanging both products and labour for purchased food experience sharply reduced levels of purchasing power [14]. As Sen [43, 48] contends, food deprivation generally occurs not because supplies disappear but because market prices make basic needs inaccessible.


Cultural and socio-economic explanations

Culture is the fabric that creates meaning, normalizes and orients behaviour, and imparts to a group of people a common sense of identity, goals, and satisfaction levels. As a way of thinking about and acting in the world, culture is not designed as a functional best fit to extant conditions. Adherence to tradition, lag time in perceiving and acting appropriately on new problems, and inherent contradictions all work against culture being a finely honed piece of adaptive machinery.

Nevertheless, an effective culture provides an adequate array of behaviours to its members to enable them to endure the social and environmental challenges of their lives. Historical exposure to a set of stressful conditions would be expected to produce a range of complementary responses [49]. In unpredictable environments these frequently take the form of a reliance on diverse resources, complex storage systems, elaborate social-support networks, and institutionalized redistribution. What is surprising is the extent to which these complementary responses have been eroded in recent times in areas as diverse as the Sahel [50] and the Andes [51].

It would be a mistake to emphasize the adaptive qualities of culture without mentioning its deleterious side. As a retainer of normative behaviour and tradition, it can prevent exploration of new alternatives. More relevant is the culture of poverty [52], in which participants become resigned to the oppressive conditions under which they must struggle. As shown by Chavez and Martínez [53] in rural Mexico, such attitudes lead to a condition of seeing food deprivation and poor health as a normal state of affairs.

Culture-of-poverty arguments have been criticized in that they blame the victims for a set of conditions imposed upon them, frequently by members of their own community. This begs for a study of social class embedded within that of culture which examines the obligations that group members of unequal status have towards one another.

In more self-reliant societies, social relations between unequals serve as a collective insurance system [54]. Likewise, non-capitalist communities emphasize systemic subsistence security, in what Scott [55] and Thompson [56] have termed a "moral economy." This is a set of moral obligations concerning the provisioning of members through surplus redistribution, which is embedded within the social organization.

Commoditization of environmental resources, of the land, and of people themselves through their labour leads to individualization within a social structure. Here, households compete with one another for the sale of commodities. Strategies of surplus extraction and of resistance to it may accentuate social inequities, create disparate identities between classes. and sever obligations beyond formal economic transactions.

Not surprisingly, when food deprivation hits the economically marginal, who even in normal times show higher rates of undernutrition and morbidity, mortality and financial ruin occur first among them [57, 58]. Those considered most economically replaceable are affected most adversely [13].

Food crises not only differentially affect the poor, but can further the process of creating social inequities. This is illustrated by Watts, referring to the effects of food shortage among Hausa poor and rich farmers in northern Nigeria: "Crudely put, while the poor resorted to the sale of livestock, pledged farms, incurred debts, sold their labor power, and borrowed grain at usurious rates, their wealthy counterparts bought stock at deflated prices in conditions of oversupply, sold or lent grain to needy families, purchased wage labor at depressed rates.... and purchased the scarcest resource of all on their own terms, namely land" [59, p. 440]. The widespread prevalence of this process in India is summarized by Torry [14].

As already implied, inequities also lie within socioeconomic class. The household, in being represented as the basic unit of reproduction, production, and consumption, has long received focus as a primary analytical unit. This orientation, however, obscures inequitable access to food within the household, based on gender, age, and perceived contribution, as well as between households of varied composition (e.g., households headed by a single female).

In conclusion, while both historic exposure to food shortages and cultural tradition apparently yield effective solutions to counter food deprivation, third-world peoples largely have not fared well under capitalist political-economic penetration. Indeed, the establishment of a dependency relationship entails systematically breaking down behaviours that permit self reliance. Given the breadth of well documented literature examining the political economy of food [59, 60-63] the reality of these consequences is difficult to dismiss.

Acknowledging the reality, however, is but a first step in seeking solutions. Dependency theory disappointingly tends to be given a globally uniform appearance [14, 64, 65]; its macro-level orientation is difficult to relate to more variable micro-level local processes couched in different local histories [66]. Why various dependency relationships cause gross inequities while others do not is unexplained, given the diverse factors that can mould food deprivation. Therefore, a clearer, more refined understanding is needed of the diverse ways people lose control over their lives, environment, and food, as well as the various options open to block this process. In the latter sense, we return to an adaptive framework and discuss perspectives in interpreting responses to food deprivation.


Response modes

Although a discussion of basic types of action or response modes may appear to be an exercise in abstraction, the exercise serves to systematically review a group's options for solving problems of food shortage (figure 3). In the following sections, response modes are presented roughly in the order in which they might occur under conditions of progressive food deprivation [67].

FIG. 3. General modes of response to environmental problem (Source: Ref. 67, p. 33)



This mode is characterized by eliminating or substantially modifying an adverse condition associated with food acquisition. Some conditions, such as climatic variables, have proved difficult to modify on a regular basis. Irrigation or other forms of water-provisioning in arid zones, the transformation of the tropical forest into paddy fields, the introduction of more productive crops into an area, and removal of endemic disease all serve as examples of environmental modification. In these situations, a problematic condition persistently interferes with the productive capacity of many social units in a similar way. The consequence is that, either through the efforts of individuals who initiate change in a similar manner or through organized, concerted effort at the regional or national level, the condition is modified.

Rebellion and revolution, likewise, attempt to modify the social environment, and their prevalence in areas of widespread poverty is not coincidental.



Unlike measures taken to modify the environment by eliminating a problem, buffering measures block or ameliorate aspects of a condition before it reaches a critical part of the human system. By doing so, macro environmental conditions are brought within tolerable ranges at specific times and places by creating micro conditions. Thus the application of fertilizer increases soil nutrients in a defined area of cultivation; crop selection channels specific nutrients to human consumption; and cooking fuel facilitates nutrient extraction from many "inedible'' raw foods.

Since many conditions have both beneficial and deleterious aspects, buffering is frequently preferable to modification because it is more flexible as to when and where it can be applied. In essence, buffering entails predicting a set of conditions and taking appropriate action, frequently putting technological solutions in place before the conditions occur. Constructing fences and vermin-proof granaries to keep animals from human food, or establishing food banks for the unemployed are examples of this kind of foresighted behaviour.

The most relevant example of buffering is storage that anticipates periods of insufficient production for consumption. Alternatives forms of storage-varying in such respects as type (endogenous versus extrasomatic), form (high versus low convertibility), and social level (household, community, regional government)-have different adaptive advantages and limitations. For instance, storing food energy in fat has the advantage that an endogenous reserve will be available when needed. Such storage does not spoil and does not have to be protected. On the other hand, it is limited in amount, is not convertible (in an exchange sense), and excessive amounts interfere with normal activity. Clearly finding solutions that permit more effective retention of household and community stores is of critical concern.



Sharing or more formal distribution entails spreading out the consequences of a problem or opportunity so that a single area or social unit does not receive a disproportionate impact. Since households can rarely accommodate the range of problems they face without periodic material and social assistance, social-support networks are formed. Likewise communities are linked to larger units which presumably can redistribute stores in the form of public assistance.

For this mode to function, the adaptive unit or area affected must be connected with those less impacted. Cultivation of social and political ties is critical here. Distribution works best if problems are not synchronous in time and space. Thus, as some households or communities are affected, others remain relatively untouched and are in a position to assist. Indeed, effective distribution systems are those designed with such characteristics in mind. As the adverse conditions broaden and the impact becomes more homogeneous between social units in the network, distribution becomes increasingly ineffective and restricted.

The conditions under which distribution takes place, regarding obligations of exchange (e.g., repayment), vary considerably. These range from donations, through informal reciprocity where repayment in time or kind is left unspecified, to more formal type- and time-specific loans. Obviously informal reciprocity provides a greater degree of flexibility for repayment and requires greater trust or concern between the participants. As distribution systems lose their basis in social support and become principally a form of economic transaction without moral obligation, abuses increase, as we noted in a previous section.



Resistance responses, activated towards a set of conditions already in progress, attempt to maintain the disrupted variable within tolerable limits. Searching for wild foods in times of food shortage as opposed to relying on storage contrasts resistance with buffering. Resistance responses tend to be appropriate for short-term, unpredictable problems where the costs of planning for an unlikely event are unaffordable. Therefore, resistance responses differ from preventive buffering, which is put into place before or in close synchrony with the onset of the problem.

Because resistance tends to be a more makeshift solution, it is costlier to maintain during the stress period, and exhaustion becomes a greater possibility. The operation or maintenance costs of buffering solutions, in contrast, are designed to be minimal during stress so as not to compete with other agendas, and are initiated during non-stress periods, when resources are more plentiful.



Avoidance responses generally involve mobility and are particularly effective when problems are widespread and quite intense. High intensity suggests that other modes would be ineffective or their costs prohibitive compared to walking away from the problem. Avoidance strategies are a way of life for nomads, and to constrain them is to make this subsistence pattern more vulnerable. Agriculturalists, who depend on in situ technological or buffering solutions, are severely compromised by this mode because it conflicts with their productive activities. As households or groups migrate into areas where the conditions and people are unknown, the adverse consequences increase. Moreover, if and when these people return, recovery adjustment entails not only material replacement and repair but also the re-establishment of social relations that may have changed in the interim.



If adverse conditions are allowed to exceed limits for short periods of time (negative caloric balance) or if tolerance limits themselves are increased (increased metabolic efficiency), the response is one of conformity. As with progressive food deprivation, response options diminish until there is little choice but to endure without responding, hoping the condition will pass. Similarly, a group's fatalistic acceptance of a set of social conditions which it sees no way out of (except maybe in the afterworld) is a type of conforming ideology that perpetuates exploitative relationships.



In summarizing this discussion of modes of response, we find several trends apparent throughout much of the third world. Modification in local settings has increasingly moved away from community and regional control to state-run projects. This is not to say that extensive environmental modification is not being produced by more local units, but its adaptability is in question. Deforestation or desertification have become international concerns as a result of directional action by many households faced with similar conditions. As more productive areas are denied to the poor, expansion into unclaimed, marginal lands becomes their only option for self-sufficiency.

Buffering, when it involves technological solutions such as purchased seed, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, puts the cost beyond the reach of the poor. Wage labour is a means of securing cash to purchase such items, but it cuts into the availability of cooperative labour needed to produce the crops. Thus, for this and other reasons, distributional modes, both in terms of regional social support and of moral redistribution, have become de-emphasized. One is left with avoidance, resistance, and conformity as the predominant functional modes of the poor. This, indeed, is an impoverished adaptive package.


Response levels

Response modes available are integrated into different levels of human social organization. We will focus on co-operative responses as means of overcoming limitations individuals face, following Thomas et al. [67].

The advantages of co-operation are clear. Limitations arise from the fact that co-operating members are also potential competitors. Thus there are conditions such as the availability of only small, dispersed, and unpredictable pockets of resources where cooperation is less productive than individual activity.

Another limitation is the co-ordination of participants to meet response requirements. For individuals who reside in close proximity and share similar values regarding the importance of certain co-operative activities, this is minor. The reliability of this response, however, decreases as one goes from household to group to intergroup co-operation. There are definite costs involved, not only in initiating co-operative behaviour but also in maintaining it as long as may be convenient.

The costs of deactivating a co-operative network must be considered as well. There are some transient conditions that would make the long-term maintenance of co-operative units quite expensive; other conditions that occur regularly would warrant such costs. Members of households and kin groups tend to form more permanent co-operative relationships than non-relatives. They are also apt to be less formal in keeping track of the benefits and costs of participants. As is typical of many behavioural responses, when adaptive units take actions that are to their own benefit, they may diminish the ability of other units to do this as well.

In evaluating the effectiveness of a given response level, the following criteria can be employed [67]: time to engage the response level, duration of time it can be sustained, capacity to buffer, reliability, reversibility, and costs to the adaptive unit. Of these, reversibility, or the fixity of the response once engaged, is of primary importance, since it influences flexibility (adaptability) in responding to subsequent change.

Maclachlan [68] provides an account of various response levels-individual, household, community, and governmental-initiated to ameliorate the effects of famine in a South Indian village. Lomnitz [22] describes shanty-town migrant families in Mexico City who co-operate during moderate resource shortage but behave more individually during severe bouts.

An extensive study by Watts [59] synthesizes political and economic factors, social organization, and climatic factors that evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth-century Sahelian famines in the Hausa territory of northern Nigeria. Declining distribution or food entitlement, even more than food production, has long been a contributor to the growing conditions of food deprivation. This distribution has been affected historically by Islamic, French colonial, and British colonial rule and recent governments. Watts describes historic household, community, and national responses to fluctuations in climate or food and resource availability (table 3).

TABLE 3. Subsistence security levels used in nineteenth century Hausaland

Level Response
Agronomic or domestic Agronomic risk-aversion
Intercropping (crop mixtures)
Crop rotation (moisture preservation)
Crop experimentation (short maturing millets etc.)
Exploitation of local environment (famine foods)
Secondary resources (dry-season crafts)
Domestic self-help and support
Community Interfamily insurance (risk sharing)
Extended kin groups (gandu)
Reciprocity (gift exchange, mutual support)
Elite redistribution to the poor
Storage, ritual sanctions
Antifamine institutions (Sarkin Noma )
Patron-clientage (barantaka)
Communal work groups (gayya)
Regional or state Regional and ecological interdependence between desert edge and savannas
Local and regional trade in foodstuffs from surfeit to deficit regions (yan kwarami)
Role of the state:
—central granaries based on grain tithe (zakkat)
—state relief and tax modification

Modified from ref. 59, pp. 110-11.

By the 1970s, when Watts quantified the prevalence of household socio-economic responses, many of the strategies reported in Hausaland in the nineteenth century had been eroded or lost. With a de-emphasis on (1) crop diversity and other risk-reducing mechanisms, (2) storage at various points in the system, (3) social support, and (4) surplus redistribution, Hausa villages became decidedly more vulnerable. A transformation, indeed, seems to have taken place regarding their control over self-sufficiency.

Campbell [15], in reviewing similar responses to food shortage throughout much of Africa, calls attention to the importance of village-level responses in intervening between potential and actual famine. When local strategies are overwhelmed, the consequences of famine become apparent. Changes in African economic and political structure have particularly eroded village-level responses towards two ends of the response-level spectrum. As households face more constrained self-sufficiency, individual-level responses are initiated in the form of out-migration. For those left, extra-village solutions are sought, with increasing dependence on governments and non-government organizations for famine relief.

As Campbell notes, "This trend should be viewed with some caution as it represents increased dependence upon resources outside of control of the local community and is, therefore, dependent upon the ability of extra-village systems of distribution to function effectively" [15, p. 9]. Thus, changes in both levels and modes of response show a trend toward diminished effectiveness of the adaptive criteria mentioned in the beginning of this section.


Response sequences

Here, we turn to food-deprivation phases and inquire into the series of responses employed as conditions become progressively worse. In evaluating such responses, reversibility seems to be a critical focus in the intersection between adaptiveness and adaptability. As noted, adaptiveness is a here-and-now measure of getting by. If responses are initiated which fulfil immediate goals but preclude a return to other strategies, adaptability or future flexibility is diminished.

FIG. 4. Temporal sequence and organization of responses to food shortage (Source: Ref. 59, p. 436)

Watts [59] provides an extensive review of response sequences to food shortage among Nigerian Hausa peasant households in this regard. When food shortages begin, Hausa peasants turn largely to famine foods (e.g., cassava), then to borrowing grain from kin. Then peasants sell their labour as temporary migrant labour (sometimes to mines, where they are dependent on imported purchased food) or migrate to dry-season farming sites. They sell small livestock (here, women's livestock), borrow grain or money from merchants or money-lenders (creating patron client relationships and increased class polarization), sell domestic assets (e.g., furniture, farm tools), pledge farmland, sell farmland, and finally move permanently. Domestic fission occurs when the household assets (e.g., land) no longer significantly control the sons' livelihood or bride price and they opt for wage labour. This leaves poor families without enough individuals to farm efficiently.

This model (figure 4) represents various general social adaptations such as diversifying the resource base, avoidance (migration), and changing resource and labour distribution patterns. As the resource shortage persists over time, the commitment of domestic resources and the irreversibility of those commitments increases.

In aggregating data to create what Watts terms an "irreversibility model," individual strategies are more variable on any given day than indicated in figure 4. The poor may collect and sell fodder, firewood, or manure for additional income. Individual variation within the household diversifies possible resource acquisition. The food-consumption pattern within the household favours adult males, so that they can do hard labour during the cultivation periods.

In addressing socio-economic inequities, Watts shows how the sale of one peasant's land assets for cash signifies that a better-off person will have bought that land. Famine situations, therefore, first accentuate differences in peasant households' financial and nutritional status. Thus problem may occur seasonally, as planting and pre-harvest seasons are frequently a time of food and financial shortage, infection and sickness, increased births and deaths, and anxiety for peasant households. Thus crops or household assets are pledged before harvest at low prices to obtain cash for food, medicine, or tax payments. This polarization of social differences is documented in other studies of social response to resource shortage [13, 69].

Strategies against usurious patron-client relationships or excessive government taxation may also occur. These include ignoring or "forgetting" local ordinances or censuses, and migration from taxes or hiding the animal and grain assets that determine taxes. Migration may show dissent from patron-client relationships that have gone to extremes for the client. Smuggling, theft, and practicing dissident religions are more implicit forms of resistance designed to keep more food and other resources with the individual or within the household instead of larger groups.

Figure 4, depicting sequential responses to food shortage, is a good foil to examine the food status of other peasant agricultural communities. Indeed, McCorkle's [1] and Faulkingham and Thorbahn's [70] studies indicate that similar reactions to famine occur among other African peasants. Campbell [15] has suggested the model is so prevalent for African peasants that it should be used in early-warning famine systems to signal food shortage and need for appropriate early intervention. Intervention should occur before depletion of major family assets by sale of tools and land or by out-migration, to prevent large-scale social structural change.

In India, Jodha [71] also finds similar household responses to famine. First, domestic mutual support increases. Household members intensify "fall-back" activities and collect famine foods. Current financial commitments that would allocate resources outside the household circle are minimized. Then home-produced goods are sold in order to purchase grain. The household begins to rely on village charity and patron support. Small livestock and other assets are sold or mortgaged. Later short-term and long-term migration occurs. Eventually, famine relief or patron assistance may allow the household to return. Recovery, replanting, and reconstitution of food and other reserves follows. Too frequently, however, relief programmes are not in place until productive assets are liquidated, leading to pauperization.

The continuum model of reversible-to-irreversible responses to famine thus seems a generality for peasant agricultural households and may be a useful tool, with modification, for determining stress from food shortage. The difficulty will be to distinguish "normal" seasonal responses from abnormal ones that Dirks [13] warns may start out looking very similar to the exploration (alarm) stage. Peasant households depend on a diversified, flexible economy; therefore, care must be taken to notice when normal variation of social organization becomes abnormal. A continuum model of reversible strategies might be devised for urban rural wage labourers, as they or their relatives have often already migrated from peasant agricultural situations. Such a model might measure the amount of co-operative activity in household adaptive units. Considerations in monitoring such conditions are reviewed by Manetsch [72, 73]. Berry and Ford [74], Hay [75]. Torry [14], and Campbell [15].

Table 4 presents initial household indicators of famine for a typical farming community of Volta-Noire [1]. While better monitoring systems can do much to forewarn of widespread food deprivation, these are essentially symptomatological devices providing information to higher-level organizations. Who the information is sent to, how it is processed and put into policy, and how and at what rate that policy is applied back at the village level largely determine the success of these systems [76, 77]. Emphasis on curing the symptoms or measuring success by lowered mortality rates, however, obscures the dynamics of the transformation to sustained pauperization [78], which seems to be the primary factor in guaranteeing the repetition of the same events. Thus we need a detailed longitudinal (pre-intra-post) understanding of response sequences, comparing communities in sever al contexts in order to assess the socio-economic damage inflicted by food deprivation.

TABLE 4. Famine warning signals in staple food-grain disposals



Our intention has been to provide a series of perspectives from which the socio-economic consequences of and responses to food deprivation could be interpreted and analysed. Clearly more systematic knowledge of changes in socio-economic behaviour associated with food limitations is necessary. As Greene [79] has proposed, better information is needed on how malnutrition shapes social organization, how it might aggravate existing social inequities, and how if solved it would affect social structure and life aspirations. While our review is intended to be more provocative than definitive, the following generalizations are provided to guide subsequent inquiries:

  1. Although the adaptation and political-economy paradigms frequently lead to contradictory interpretations of behaviour, each provides important insights into the reality of responses to food deprivation. An adaptive perspective errs in the direction of over-emphasizing the potential of rational, self organizing strategies at the local level in bringing about beneficial action in response to constraints. Likewise, a political-economic perspective can exaggerate the control that externally driven dependency relationships have over local strategies of the poor. When used together, these two paradigms provide powerful foils for examining the causes and solutions to food deprivation.
  2. Adaptive responses to food limitations are entwined throughout diverse elements of socio-cultural behaviour. They are therefore affected by and constituted from social structure and organization, economics, political organization, and ideology (response domains). This suggests that attempts to forge solutions using narrow household-economic models, without considering the larger socio-cultural matrix that surrounds them, are likely to be unsuccessful. Similarly, if solutions entail strengthening community-level responses, a knowledge of the complementarily of response domains is essential.
  3. Adaptive responses to progressive food deprivation change in accordance with duration and severity. Following Dirks [13], three heuristic phases are proposed: "Exploration" entails attempts to expand the repertoire of social and economic opportunities. This is followed by a "retrenchment" phase, in which the range of strategies narrows, focusing on more immediate returns for more restricted social units. A final phase is that of "exhaustion," in which options are few and conformity to the condition is emphasized. Here the orientation is self-preservation and the hope of surviving the ordeal.
  4. Given the pervasiveness and perpetuation of under-nutrition, especially in the third world, and its direct linkages with poverty, political-economic relationships go far in explaining the determinants of gross inequities. Despite the inherent interpretive biases in this approach, it is useful in exploring the specific dynamics of dependency, loss of self-reliance, and erosion of adaptive responses at the regional, local, and household levels. We urge that future research consider more longitudinal empirical work on the multiple pathways by which abusive dependency relationships are formed and how they may be avoided, de-emphasized, or reversed.
  5. Two analytical adaptive perspectives (response modes and levels) address the functional capabilities and limitations of different food-acquisition responses under varying and changing conditions. A review of patterns of change in response modes among the third-world poor suggests that buffering or anticipatory responses involving technological solutions (especially storage) have become seriously eroded at the village-household level. Similarly, the effectiveness of buffering and distribution (social support and sharing) has generally diminished at the community level. In their place, avoidance (out-migration), resistance (on-the-spot action), and conformity (accepting conditions) have increasingly become the "strategies" of the poor. These latter modes of response signify deteriorating flexibility, effectiveness, and control over food-acquisition behaviour.
  6. Trends in response levels also reflect increased vulnerability. The village-level capacity to ward off food deprivation diminishes, in part, through a decline in redistribution obligations. This very process increases inequities within the community and exacerbates competition between poorer households trying to sell their labour and their material assets. Response-level emphasis is therefore shifted in two directions. First it shifts downward to the household level and, when this proves untenable, to the individual. In the opposite direction, increasing dependence falls on the more impersonal and distant governmental responses of the region, state, or international relief organizations.
  7. A final perspective is the analysis of response sequences to progressive food deprivation. Particularly noteworthy is the increasing level of resource commitment in attempting to solve the problem, and the ensuing loss of future flexibility. This irreversible transformation, which entails the inability to return to pre-stress options and creates even greater vulnerability to future conditions, constitutes the ultimate socioeconomic tragedy of food deprivation.

Although these seven points are proposed to orient subsequent inquiries rather than to stand as definitive statements, several conclusions might be drawn. Existing governmental agencies do not have the resource to address the magnitude of this problem. Therefore, they may continue to respond to the most dire conditions in a remedial manner, while they use fewer remaining funds to seek preventive measures. Our review suggests that the most critical point where intervention needs to take place is before irreversible degradation of options has occurred. In recommending this, we can only assume that the "solutions" created by governmental institutions will not violate their higher priorities and interests.



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