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Managing Meagre Means and Reciprocal Reputations: Women’s Everyday Survival Tactics in a Malawian Village

Individual and Social Adaptations to Human Vulnerability

ISBN: 978-1-78769-176-6, eISBN: 978-1-78769-175-9

Publication date: 14 December 2018


In rural Malawi, money constantly circulates. As soon as villagers, poor as they are, get some money in hands, it is swiftly spent. Tracking how money – and other valued items like food and soap – are pushed and pulled around through an extremely poor community offers profound insights into women’s everyday survival tactics. Central to these women’s survival is the ability to mobilise support in times of need. Material wealth is found to be both a prerequisite and a threat to this ability. It can best be spent quickly, in particular ways, so as to transform it into potential sources of future support in times of need. Maximizing access to potential future support while minimizing blockage – by always appearing able to reciprocate and not giving others socially acceptable justifications to withhold support – are concerns that to a great extent shape the village women’s everyday decision-making. Understanding the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that both result from and trigger these survival tactics is important for social scientists and policy-makers as these have far-reaching consequences, including women’s HIV risk-taking, which are difficult to explain from other vantage points.




I wish to thank the women of Mudzi who have so kindly accepted me and my research assistant in their midst, shared their stories with us, and allowed me to share these with you; Gertrude Finyiza for her marvellous research assistance; and Maia Green, Erik Bahre, Sjaak van der Geest, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts. A special word of gratitude to one of these anonymous reviewers for her or his in-depth and knowledgeable comments, which pushed me to reshape the embedding of our data.

Part of the data and analyses from this paper were derived from a paper of my PhD dissertation. These have been complemented with data produced during a later field study in the same village community. My PhD research was funded by the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam in collaboration with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The additional 2014–2015 field study on which this paper partially builds was funded by grant R01-HD077873 from the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Verheijen, J. (2018), "Managing Meagre Means and Reciprocal Reputations: Women’s Everyday Survival Tactics in a Malawian Village", Individual and Social Adaptations to Human Vulnerability (Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 38), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 127-152.



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