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Anthropologists take a human-centered approach to studying economic issues, examining how social and cultural features relate to economic production, markets, and consumption. Humans use four main modes of subsistence to meet their needs: gathering-hunting, pastoralism, plant cultivation, and industrialism. Gathering-hunting societies such as the Hadza are highly mobile and egalitarian. Pastoral societies such as the Bedouin are also mobile but allow for the accumulation of wealth in the form of herd animals. Plant cultivators are settled peoples who practice either extensive horticulture or intensive agriculture. Cities and craft specialization are developed from the surplus generated by intensive agriculture.

In the first three modes of subsistence, forms of reciprocity structure the circulation of goods in society. In intensive agriculture and industrialism, the market economy based on money forms the dominant mode of exchange.

Industrialism was first developed in Europe and motivated the colonization of many other parts of the world. Industrial societies are associated with wage labor, work discipline, social classes, commodity consumption, and high degrees of inequality. Some industrialized societies have become postindustrial by shifting production to poorer parts of the world with cheaper labor costs. In postindustrial societies, more people work in the service industries than in manufacturing. The intensive extraction, pollution, and waste associated with industrial and postindustrial societies are increasingly harmful to the environment.

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