Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 59–70 | Cite as

Cultural multi-level selection and biological market theory explain the coupled dynamics of labor exchange cooperation and social support

  • Shane J. Macfarlan
  • Mark Remiker
Special Feature: Original Article Applying Cultural Evolution to Sustainability Challenges
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Applying Cultural Evolution to Sustainability Challenges


Smallholders rely on labor exchange and social support networks; however, little is known about the cooperative dynamics of these interlinked systems. Whereas cultural multi-level selection (CLMS) predicts group membership and changes in the dominant level of selection modulates cooperation, biological market theory (BMT) posits market size fluctuations affect cooperation. We assess these predictions by examining two dimensions of labor exchange, competitive helping and labor reciprocity, and their downstream impacts on social support in a Dominican community between 2007 and 2010. First, we analyze within-community labor organization. Next, we analyze how international regulatory change and the 2008–2009 World Trade Collapse affected local labor organization and its impacts on competitive helping and labor reciprocity. Finally, we show how labor dynamics affected social support. Analyses reveal that (1) village labor initially involved two levels (labor contracting and labor exchange) and the presence of a structured group who maintained higher rates of reciprocal labor relative to non-group members; (2) changes in the international commodities market reduced labor contracting, the size of the labor exchange market, and the dominant level of selection, resulting in less competitive helping, lower rates of reciprocity for group members, and more cliquish social support; and (3) as the global market for bay oil ameliorated, labor organization shifted back to a pre-recession structure, resulting in a larger labor market with more competitive helping and higher rates of reciprocity amongst group members. We highlight the utility of an integrated CMLS and BMT framework for analyzing cooperative dynamics and socio-economic systems sustainability.


Reciprocity Labor exchange Social support Smallholders Cultural multi-level selection theory Biological market theory 



The authors thank Jeremy Brooks, Adrian Bell, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments that substantially improved the manuscript, the people of Bwa Mawego, Dominica for permitting this research, Juranie Durand for his expertise in bay oil distillation, and Robert Quinlan and Mark Flinn for introducing us to the site. SJM also thanks the Wasatch Experience, University of Utah, for discussions on socio-ecological systems sustainability.

Supplementary material

11625_2017_481_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (193 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (XLSX 193 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Oregon Rural Practice-based Research NetworkOregon Health and Science UniversityPortlandUSA

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