Economic Anthropology

Economic subdisciplines: 

Economic anthropology arose as a subdiscipline after the second world war, to a large extent out of the work of Karl Polanyi, whose work aimed to understand non-Western and most past societies. Polanyi (1944) argued that the dominant neoclassical economic theory was not very helpful for these purposes, because these economies were not centred around market exchange. 

Building on the ideas of two founding fathers of anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss, Polanyi further developed the idea of reciprocity and how crucial it is for economic life. Furthermore, Polanyi argued that the concept of ‘free’ markets is mistaken because all economic relations, including market ones, are embedded in social institutions. To understand an economy, one thus also has to look at the cultural values, and the social and political relationships in which it is embedded. 

This position became known as substantivism, as it focused on the substance of economic activity without presupposing that it would take any specific form. In the first decades of economic anthropology, there was a competing branch, called formalism. These anthropologists argued that neoclassical theory universally applies to all human beings and societies in world history, putting the form of the market at centre stage. 

Since the 1970s, the debates inside the subdiscipline changed as new topics and ideas rose to prominence. In particular, Marxist, feminist, and cultural (sometimes called anthropological) approaches have become prevalent in the subdiscipline. And rather than focusing solely on the non-Western world, anthropologists started to also study western economies at their cores, such as in their financial centres. In doing so, they connect discussions about financialization and financial crises to the long history of money and debt in human societies. 

The role of culture in economic life is often given a lot of importance. As such, economic anthropologists have a particular interest in how the material and cultural dimensions of human life interact with each other. Rather than regarding the value of things as objective facts or subjectively determined by inborn tastes of isolated individuals, many economic anthropologists focus on how value is culturally constructed through local cultural practices and norms, as well as marketing and advertising by profit seeking companies. These cultural understandings of value are often interlinked with power relations in society, and for this reason economic anthropologists analyse how gender, class, racial and ethnic relations influence consumption, work and trade patterns.

Further reading:

  • Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique by Chris Hann and Keith Hart, from 2011. This useful introduction into economic anthropology helps students understand how the field emerged and evolved, and what its different strands and key insights on different world regions are. 
  • A handbook of economic anthropology by James G. Carrier, from 2012. This impressive collection of essays covers the many strands of economic anthropology, from literature on different regions and economic mechanisms to different topics, such as agriculture, industry, consumption, culture, and the financial crisis of 2008.