This well-written book documents one of the most challenging and widely discussed theories in modern anthropology. Foster’s theory about “the image of limited good” explains peasant behavior as a function of the assumption that all good things in life exist in limited and unexpandable quantities. Consequently, the individual who obtains more than an equal share of the pie is seen as depriving others of their fair share.
There is a realistic basis for this image in peasant societies where subsistence depends on a scarce supply of land. The community source of livelihood would be threatened by individuals who accumulated wealth for the purpose of obtaining more land. Economic equality is maintained in Latin American peasant societies by a prestige system which rewards the individual for spending accumulated wealth to finance corporate religious fiestas.
Foster contends that the concept of limited good applies not only to economic matters but also to love, friendship, manliness, and power. Every person in Tzintzuntzan sees himself in a continual struggle with his fellows for the few good things in life. Suspicion, fear, and envy are manifested in defensive and uncooperative behavior. Only within the nuclear family does Foster see some degree of mutual aid and trust.
It is important to recognize that the behavioral patterns of Tzintzuntzan are not representative of Indian peasant societies in Mexico. Foster specifies that Tzintzuntzan is not an Indian community, but one which represents an erosion of Indian speech and culture. The village has been mestizo for at least four generations. Urban values have been introduced by braceros who returned from the United States with new found wealth which they spent on city clothing, new houses, radios, and other visible symbols of affluence. Bracero influence was a major force in the establishment of a new prestige system based on the display of wealth which is replacing the old religious prestige system. Since the braceros earned their money outside the community, they were not suspected of trying to deprive others in the village.
The Tzintzuntzan image of limited good shared equally by all members of society seems to be giving way to a new image of economic advancement achieved by getting ahead of others. Foster observes that the peasant ideal of equality is a hollow pretense today since wealth differences are recognized, and there is open competition in acquiring symbols of affluence. In Mexico the transition to a competitive society is frequently marked by increased envy, suspicion, and fear, because it is assumed that the individual who displays his wealth is trying to show up his neighbors and make them lose face. The affluent individual fears that his envious neighbors will try to retaliate with witchcraft.
Foster’s skillful use of the model of cognitive orientation constitutes a major contribution to anthropological theory. He has shown that human behavior is a consequence of the assumptions which people make about themselves, their fellows, and their universe.