Staple Thesis

What Is the Staple Thesis?

The staple thesis is a theory of economic growth that emphasizes the role of traditional commodities, or staple products, and their impact on shaping a resource-rich economy. It argues that national economies are linked to the production and export of staple goods.

Key Takeaways

  • The staple thesis is a theory of economic growth that emphasizes the role of traditional commodities, or staple products, and their impact on shaping a resource-rich economy.
  • The staple thesis argues that the degree to which economies rely on the export of staples for their development positively affects their economic, social, and political development.
  • The staple thesis is generally credited to Canadian economists Harold Innis, Mellville Watkins, and W. A. Mackintosh. The thesis claims to model Canada's economic history.

Understanding Staple Thesis

The staple thesis was developed by many economists and academics but is often credited to Canadian economist Harold Innis. The theory looks at how societies evolve in relation to economic production. The thesis was presented as an explanation for how the pattern of settlement and economic development of Canada was influenced by the exploitation and export of natural resources. Although its original purpose was to model Canada's historical economic evolution, the staple thesis can be applied to any country with an export-heavy economy.

Innis, and later Melville Watkins and W. A. Mackintosh, argued that different regions in Canada developed differently based on their primary exports. For example, they related Atlantic Canada to the fishing industry, particularly the harvest of cod. Central and northern parts of the country depended heavily upon the fur trade, while Western Canada’s primary export was wheat. The theory builds on these linkages to explain the different “personalities” of each region, for example, regarding their attitudes toward government authority.

The basic framework of the staple thesis is potentially applicable to any economy whose development is dependent on the export of raw materials. The theory argues that the degree to which economies rely upon the export of staples for their development affects their economic, social, and political development.

Staples are generally a commodity that a country produces in large quantities for domestic use or exporting.

Staple Thesis Example: Brazil

Another contemporary application of the staple thesis could involve the influence of the petroleum industry on economic growth in a country that exports crude oil, such as Brazil. An increase in demand for oil exports yields profits for large oil producers.

In Brazil, the government holds over half the voting shares of Petrobras, the nation’s largest oil producer. Therefore, the income from oil influences the development of infrastructure, technological innovation, and human capital both inside and outside the petroleum industry as it helps to drive the nation’s economy.

Critique: The Staple Thesis Trap

The authors of the staple thesis held somewhat opposing views regarding the impact of dependence on staple commodities on economic development. In Mackintosh’s view, mature economies could successfully continue to rely upon staple production.

Innis took a more pessimistic view, believing that as countries develop, their economies typically need to transition from an over-dependence on the production of staples for export. Innis posited a core-periphery structure in which metropolitan areas with manufacturing capabilities exercise a certain amount of control over peripheral areas that provide raw materials.

The core-periphery structure suggests that the relative success of economies dependent on staples is contingent upon the development of economic activity linked to staple products themselves. Therefore, economies capable of developing related industries become more prosperous, according to the theory.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Staples Approach?

The staples thesis argues that traditional commodities that people buy regardless of economic circumstances have a specific impact on an economy.

Who Created the Staples Thesis?

The staples thesis is often credited to Harold Innis, Melville Watkins, and W. A. Mackintosh. However, like many theses and ideas, it evolved from years of study and academic discourse involving many people.

What are Staples in an Economy?

Staples are commodities produced for sale or export. Staples are generally considered to be goods necessary for modern life, such as foods, beverages, and household products.

Article Sources
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  1. Cambridge University Press. "A Staple Theory of Economic Growth."