Understanding Icelandic Pre-Industrial Fishing Economy: Multidisciplinary Approach


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All stations had booths and boat space as seen here in the forefront. This station has been abandoned in the early 20th century.

All Icelandic fishing stations had booths and boat space as seen here in the forefront. This station has been abandoned in the early 20th century. Photo by Val Dufeu

Written evidence for the development of early medieval Icelandic commercial fishing is scarce, and our understanding of the way exploitation of aquatic resources developed and worked within a given economic sytem, mainly based on husbandry, is limited.

If we are to understand Iceland fishing economy during this period, we need not only use archaeological and paleo-environmental data, but also to theorise on how a fish-based economy might have taken place.

By applying concepts from economic anthropology, the combination of economics and anthropology, we can grasp Iceland’s settlers’ perceptions of their natural environment and how they exploited it.

Economic Anthropology

Economic anthropology is based on three key concepts: culturalism, formalism, and substantivism.

  • Culturalism, a model created by Stephen Gudman, argues that essential ways of making a livelihood are culturally created, and that the main theories within culturalism are profit, money, and exchange.
  • Formalism, as used by Raymond Firth, is based on the assumption that individuals’ preference may diverge from cultural goals and that individuals’ decisions are guided by their preferences in an environment constrained by culture.
  • Substantivism’s approach was developed by Karl Polanyi who claimed that the term ‘economics’ has two sides: it either refers to the logic of rational action and decision making or it refers to the study of how humans make a living from their natural and social environment.

Hence, economic anthropology provides a sound basis in the understanding of the socio-economic mechanisms of past societies.

George Dalton’s work remains, to date, a fundamental study in economic anthropology. In 1969, he methodically dissected the Theoretical issues in Economic Anthropology, which allows readers to come to terms with primitive economic archetypes, the interaction between subsistence economy and centralised polity, chiefdom and primitive states, as in the case of early medieval Iceland.

Colin Renfrew’s Approaches to Social Archaeology is also a key text for anyone embarking on exploration of past societies. While it focuses on social archaeology, the five approaches it develops are applicable to historical and environmental reconstructions and are: spatial, economic, authority, systems thinking and discontinuity and long-term change.

Such theoretical approach can be used in research attempting to unveil past economies, especially those linked to fishing. The merging of these five approaches aids in the differentiation between subsistence and non-subsistence in pre-industrial fisheries. A subsistence fishery is established when fish were caught for consumption by the fisher, his household or the fisher’s chieftain without the involvement of a market as opposed to a commercial fishery, which workers’ catches are sold either directly to the consumer or through intermediaries.

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