FEASTING REGIMES: ALERT ENTREPRENEURS AND PRO-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR
Feasting phenomena have been the object of anthropological study for over a hundred years (Hayden and Villeneuve 2011). Feasts, celebrations that feature conspicuous consumption of food and goods, occur worldwide and often leave archaeologically visible remains (Hayden 2014b; Dietler and Hayden 2010). Hayden (2014b, 10) recognizes several kinds of feasts: alliance and cooperation, economic (for gain), and diacritical (for status display).
Competitive feasting is of primary interest here; it describes the ethnographically and archaeologically observed phenomenon of feasts held within an extended community that intensify through time. The classic ethnographic example of feasting of this type is recorded along the Pacific Coast of North America (J. Arnold 2001). Hayden (2014b) highlights the importance of the hosts in propagating competitive feasts; he uses the term “aggrandizers” to describe individuals who have the social awareness and sophistication to organize large consumption events. Aggrandizers utilize their social network to amass goods that they allocate to their guests. In turn, aggrandizers are respected for their generosity and the grandness of the feasts they are able to host. Hayden’s notion of aggrandizers equates well to Kirzners’s (2013) notion of entrepreneurs.
Kirzner describes the entrepreneur as alert to opportunities to improve their own situation, while serving the needs of others. Entrepreneurs recognize new opportunities to serve others (customers) with goods or services such that entrepreneurs profit. In this perspective, entrepreneurs play a crucial role in pro-social distribution of goods. As long as exchanges are voluntary, both the entrepreneur and the customer are satisfied with the transaction. The competitive nature of feasts of interest here encourages hosts/entrepreneurs to obtain luxury goods and foods (van der Veen 2003) that are increasingly gratuitous, in terms of volume, quality, or exotic origin (Hayden 2014b). Thereby, competitive feasting actually distributes goods in a way that motivates greater trade within (or outside) a region.
The opportunities that entrepreneurs notice are shaped by contextual constraints, such as technology, institutions, and cultural expectations. Entrepreneurs in different settings, therefore, recognize and pursue different opportunities. As already mentioned, there are often complex sharing rules that apply to small bands of foragers (Kelly 1995); low population densities mean that contractual group obligations ensure group survival during times of stress. The cultural taboos around the kind of self-aggrandizement seen in feasting societies, therefore, limit the entrepreneurial recognition for some societies. From the archaeological record, those kinds of cultural institutions are impossible to recognize, as they leave no trace in the material record. Conversely, the recognition of feasting types of economic activity in the archaeological record must reflect crucial changes in that society’s social structure and cultural institutions.
Hayden’s aggrandizers are Kirzner’s entrepreneurs, who are alert to opportunities to appease others’ desires at a gain for themselves by hosting ever more elaborate feasts. By emphasizing the role of the entrepreneur (the host, or aggrandizer) as the driving mechanism for the advancement of market processes, the evidence presented here closely aligns with prior work that emphasizes the interpersonal relationships that foster cooperation in human groups (Boettke 2004; Boettke and Coyne 2005; Grano vetter 1973; Kimbrough, Smith, and Wilson 2010; Kirzner 2013; Leeson 2006; Storr 2008, 2010, 2013).
Hayden acknowledges the contradictory nature of competitive feasting— the pattern of amassing goods just to give the majority away seems counterintuitive. Feast hosts reap actualized benefits from their hosting activities; archaeological evidence indicates differences in the quality of diet between members of feasting societies, whereas hosts enjoy a higher quality diet (e.g., Coupland 2006; Martindale 2006; Samuels 2006). Ethnographic evidence from Papua New Guinea indicates that hosts enjoy a slightly higher quality of goods in general (Sahlins 1963). While harder to quantify, hosts also enjoy reproductive advantages, likely both in number of children and in choices of mates (Hayden 2014b, 17). In other terms, feasting activities are expressions of conspicuous consumption, which communicates the affluence of the host and affords the host with social prestige, which translates into material advancement. The relationship between feasting and wealth accumulation warrants further study; the literature is divided as to whether the relationship between the two is linear (feasting leads to wealth), coevolutionary (they bolster each other), or unrelated (wealth accumulation purely result of productivity).
In conclusion, host aggrandizers/entrepreneurs advance their own prerogatives while providing goods and services to their communities. Beyond the community, competitive feasting allows for peaceful interaction between groups. These feasting traditions helped motivate innovations in trade connections, trade goods, and specialized technologies, as will be highlighted following a few archaeological examples of feasting.