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Anthropologists study economic practices as integrated features of specific societies, comparatively, and as a set of historical, often diffusionary, patterns of thought, power, and organization for production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. Their foundational concerns have shifted from the description and interpretation of reciprocity and redistribution and the technological and social capacities for sustaining livelihood in small-scale and nonmarket societies to the analysis of the wide variety of articulations with and transitions of nonindustrial societies to participation in worldwide economic formations. Increasingly, economic anthropologists are studying phenomena of direct concern to other economists and social scientists, such as the internal activities of transnational corporations, global financial markets, and the sustainability of contemporary economic systems.
- A Heterodox Alternative to Neoclassical Economics
- Maximization, Market Equilibrium, Stable Preferences
- The Anthropological Position
- Foundations and Orientations of the Subdiscipline
- Gifts, Commodities, and the Nature of Exchange
- Reciprocity, Redistribution, and the Market
- Modes of Production, Articulation, and History
- Consumption, Agency, and Meaning in Modern Economy
- Transitions to Modern Economy
- Contemporary Futures
Economic anthropology is concerned with how human societies sustain themselves materially and socially through schemes of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.
In keeping with the orientation of the discipline of anthropology as a whole, economic anthropologists have sought to understand economic practices (1) in relation to the specific societal context in which they occur, (2) comparatively, in relation to similar activities as they have been observed in other times and places, and (3) as a set of historical, often diffusionary, patterns of thought and organization. The first is intended to contribute to the understanding of given societies, in which economic processes are understood to be an integrated subset, while the second leads to the broadening and refinement of common economic concepts for the benefit of theoretical frameworks. The third has been predominated by the study of capitalism, colonialism, and development, as these have been the prevailing forces for economic change since the subdiscipline’s start.
A Heterodox Alternative to Neoclassical Economics
From its inception, economic anthropology has implicitly or explicitly drawn many of its basic questions in relation to the more influential field of economics. While economics is a varied, dynamic discipline, one can nevertheless begin to trace the intellectual history of economic anthropology by citing the central premises of neoclassical economics and then showing how anthropologists have sought to differentiate their approach in opposition to or in supportive modification of these premises.
Maximization, Market Equilibrium, Stable Preferences
Gary Becker, professor of economics and business at the University of Chicago and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize, says: “The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it” (Becker, 1976: 5).
Anthropologists observe that these three assumptions comprise an implicit theory of social morphology and human nature with claims to ahistorical universality.
First, maximization means that people predictably “choose the alternative that gives the most satisfaction, value, or benefit in a context of limited means (‘scarce resources’)” (Plattner, 1989: 7). The notion that people everywhere maximize or ‘economize’ in this way suggests both the universally perceived experience of resource scarcity relative to needs and wants and a view of human beings as predominantly rational, choice-making creatures.
The emphasis on market equilibrium points, first, to the tendency in current economic thought for the economy and the market to serve as interchangeable concepts. The notion of equilibrium suggests that the market is self-correcting toward balance and efficiency (through laws of supply and demand, for instance) and providential in its propensity – when not meddled with – to contribute to the wealth of nations. Markets, in turn, can behave in this way only if all goods and services (including land, labor, and capital) are available to be traded and are convertible, especially through the medium of money.
Transactions in the market, finally, are based upon stable preferences, which are defined as being ‘revealed’ in the market through the choices consumers make. Market choices and transactions are held to add up to familiar concrete and abstract economic institutions, such as the used car or labor markets, rather than the reverse. They are also analyzed by some economists as determinative of behavior in many institutions not ordinarily thought of in economic terms, such as the family, ethics, communal solidarity, or art.
Within markets, thus broadly defined, individuals are seen to pursue their preferences in rational, maximizing, competitive, and ultimately self-interested ways, independent of or even in opposition to communal norms and expectations. The unit of analysis is the individual decision-maker rather than the group, which may itself be seen as an epiphenomenon of economic transactions. Geographical or sociocultural environment, historical precedent, and various other intermediary institutions are factored out.
The Anthropological Position
There is an inherent discord between the kind of research inspired by these assumptions and that which is carried out by anthropologists. In result of the naturalistic, descriptive methodology of the discipline, anthropologists tend to find universal laws unhelpful.
Anthropologists have described a variable spectrum of economic systems. In doing so, they have found it necessary to modify the conventional economic lexicon (property, value, money, investment, etc.). Often, even a modified version of the economist’s vocabulary is found wanting in its ability to capture local practices, and native terms must be used instead. Kula, moka, taonga, hxaro, dana, giri, guanxi, etc., refer to non- Western economic concepts, practices, and systems that have no equivalent in the West and are therefore unexplainable using the lexicon of conventional economics. Comparative analysis involving these culture-specific terms has yielded general insights that unfold by way of compelling analogies rather than obeisance to a purportedly universal set of laws.
Extrapolating collective phenomena from aggregates of individual behaviors is perhaps the greatest difference separating the two disciplines. Anthropologists do not conceive of human thought or action as dissociable from culture, and they take it as their charter to decipher local social logics of action. Even the sizable contingent of economic anthropologists who are model oriented, and/or who specifically study individual decision-making, resource allocation in competitive conditions, risk behavior, and similar mainstream microeconomic subjects – even those who find that their research supports formalistic assumptions of rationality and utility maximization – nevertheless, as Michael Chibnik says, take into account “the historical changes, cultural norms, and socioeconomic institutions that constrain the choices possible for different groups of people at particular places and times” (2011: 1).
In consequence, it makes sense to view economic anthropology’s rich empirical and theoretical explorations simultaneously in terms of their contribution to disciplinary anthropological concerns and as part of a debate with economics and other policy and social science disciplines that have adopted neoclassical economic methods and assumptions.
Foundations and Orientations of the Subdiscipline
Gifts, Commodities, and the Nature of Exchange
The person generally credited with awakening scholarly interest in primitive economies was Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942). Malinowski described the kula system in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia: “a form of exchange, of extensive, inter-tribal character . carried on by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form a closed circuit” (1922: 81). Two kinds of articles are exchanged in the kula: red shell necklaces, which move in a clockwise direction around the network of islands, and white armshells or bracelets, which circulate in the opposite direction. “Every movement of the Kula articles, every detail of the transactions is fixed and regulated by a set of traditional rules and conventions, and some acts of the Kula are accompanied by an elaborate magical ritual and public ceremonies” (1922: 81).
Malinowski believed he had discovered a counterexample to conventional economic views of his day: That an elaborate system of long-distance trade could not be organized without markets, money, or states; that the purpose of material exchange, perhaps especially in premodern societies, would be oriented only to utilitarian purposes; and that grasping, rational self-interest above all else would dominate systems of exchange everywhere.
The kula has been restudied and reevaluated, in keeping with current analyses of exchange. It also continues to be used as a staple in undergraduate education, at which level the key lesson may be that in the Trobriands and in many places where anthropologists have studied, the purpose, process, and effects of material exchange is, alongside or independent of whatever utilitarian purpose it may carry, inherently social. As Strathern and Stewart say of the kula, “The giving of an item, or a series of items, was explicitly designed to obligate a partner to make an appropriate return later. Thus, gifts bound people together, and in doing so helped to create the fabric of society on an interpersonal basis” (2012: 230).
This ‘gift’ aspect of the kula fascinated a contemporary to Malinowski, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), who cited the kula, among other examples, to make several arguments that dominated exchange theory in anthropology for several decades. Mauss’ 1925 essay, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, contained or implied the following claims:
- The impersonal and individualized form of commodity exchange dominant in modern societies is not primordial or universal.
- Systems of credit and contractual obligations are ancient and, in variant forms, widely found.
- Prestations, as Mauss referred to gift exchange in early societies, were characterized above all by their composite or ‘totalizing’ nature, in two respects. First, the phenomena are not discrete: each “contains all the threads of which the social fabric is composed . religious, legal, moral, and economic” (Mauss, 1967: 2). Second, in such societies one often finds entire groups and not just individuals participating in exchange events. Thus, the logic of gift exchange was not to be sought in the economic sphere per se, but in the realms of kinship, politics, and collective ritual.
As an important addendum, while Mauss used the term gift (le don) to characterize exchange systems dominant in early societies, this does not mean that exchange was always friendly or given with generous intentions, as our understanding of the word gift might imply. Gift exchange could often be agonistic and competitive. Mauss generalized from the example of the potlatch, practiced among American Northwest Coast Indians. Potlatch was a ritualized exchange where competing chiefs made public displays of exaggerated generosity, the aim of which was “to crush a rival chief with excessive obligations that cannot be repaid” (Yan, 2012: 280).
Finally, Mauss’ essay initiated a long continuing inquiry into the nature of person–object relations. The opening question of The Gift is, “What force is there in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return?” (1967: 1). Mauss drew on the Maori concept of hau, a mystical force purportedly located in exchanged valuables that draw them back to their places of origin, not literally, but through the medium of a countergift. How people relate to objects, and through objects to each other, is key to Mauss’ thought because it is not just the style of exchange that may differ typologically between market and nonmarket societies, but also whether or not the objects themselves are transferrable (‘alienable’) or not (‘inalienable’), and what makes them so.
Despite, and in some ways because of, its terseness, The Gift has inspired more debate than any other text in the history of economic anthropology. In the 1960s and 1970s, when anthropologists joined in political economic critiques of globalizing capitalism, some found it useful to draw upon Mauss’ work to oppose gift to commodity-oriented societies, and reciprocity to market exchange. In the 1980s and 1990s, edited volumes such as The Social Life of Things (Appadurai, 1986), Money and the Morality of Exchange (Parry and Bloch, 1989), and Barter, Exchange, and Value (Humphrey and Hugh-Jones, 1992), as well as many articles and monographs (e.g., Carrier, 1991; Gregory, 1982; Weiner, 1992), meticulously disentangled the issues surrounding the gift/commodity dichotomy. A survey of research being published today attests to the ongoing fruitfulness of the gift/commodity complex as a way of evaluating systems of exchange as well as individual rationales in both non-Western and Western contexts.
Reciprocity, Redistribution, and the Market
It is possible to read into Mauss’s work the notion that in early society exchange functioned as a kind of social glue that held societies together. This functionalist notion has fallen from favor, but not anthropologists’ tendency to view human beings as above all social rather than economic utility maximizing animals. In which case, the view of economic rationality as the prime determinant of individual behavior, and the market or market-like exchange as the foundation of social organization, might seem unnatural, even absurd.
How the ‘economic man’ view came to predominate, and the consequences of it, was the focal point of the work of a Hungarian economic historian, Karl Polanyi (1886–1964), whose ideas have had a lasting impact on economic anthropology.
Like Mauss, Polanyi looked to historical and ethnographic data to base a contrast between principles of a natural economy and those of market fundamentalism (epitomized in the belief in the ‘self-regulating market’). Polanyi thought of the self-regulating market as a utopian idea that had raged out of control to become one of the great dehumanizing forces in history. Hann and Hart write: “Following Aristotle, Polanyi believed that society was a natural form designed to provide material sustenance for its members . The new apostles of political economy held that market economy could be self-regulating as long as everything was bought and sold without restriction. This led to what Polanyi called ‘the fictitious commodities.’ Nature, Society, and Humanity entered the market as land, money, and labor; and the traditions that ensured material provisioning for everyone were swept aside” (2009: 4).
To describe the historical transformation to market-directed society and the ideologization of the self-regulated market in the nineteenth century, Polanyi spoke of economic behavior as having become ‘disembedded’ from the social matrix, partly through the commodification of land and labor. (In this, Polanyi was following Marx’s lead on what were the key instigators in the historical transition into capitalism.) Land and labor are closely linked to community and identity; their transformation in the market capitalist era into objects that could be bought and sold, or alienated, like any other commodity, represented a fundamental qualitative shift in human history. Through all prior history, Polanyi argued, “man’s economy . [was] submerged in his social relationships” (1944: 46). Under market capitalism, by contrast, “instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system” (1944: 57).
The terms embedded and disembedded were to assume far reaching importance, as they were taken up as antipoles not just in economic anthropology, but in economic sociology, political economy, and institutional economics. All these take it as axiomatic that economy is ‘embedded’ in society and culture, meaning that one cannot make sense of economic phenomena, even seemingly pure or abstract entities as a currency market, without reference to the social, cultural, institutional, political, geographical, and historical context in which one finds them.
Polanyi claimed that the tools, assumptions, and focus of contemporary economics were maladapted for studying preindustrial (and socialist-governed) societies, and perhaps vice versa. He differentiated two aspects of economic study in keeping with these separate tasks: The formal approach, suitable for studying decision-making and other means–ends phenomena such as one finds in the market, and the substantive approach, which emphasized the role of social norms and the orientation toward basic provisioning in a society (1957). These terms, which are cognates of disembedded/embedded, became terminological banners in a fiery debate between two camps – formalists and substantivists – that carried on through the 1960s.
The substantivists studied the ways in which economy was embedded in social relations and institutions. Their adversaries, the formalists, agreed with economists about the universal tendency toward utility maximization and therefore the determinative role of rationality in economic behavior. The role of the anthropologist, for the formalists, was to peel away the mask of culture and circumstance to show how ostensibly irrational decisions about what to maximize, who to trade with, how to set a price, how to decide what to plant, etc., are in the end rational – so long as one knows what to look for.
The formalist–substantivist debate died more from exhaustion, mismatched objectives, terminological imprecision, and finally the perception of irrelevance rather than through resolution. The opposition between two schools has been replaced by a sometime division of labor, sometime blending of the two outlooks. There is general acceptance that both elements – mutuality and market, in a contemporary iteration – are present in all societies (Gudeman, 2008).
Polanyi’s analysis of premarket societies led to refinement of the concepts of reciprocity and redistribution. As Mauss had done when he posited that gift exchange characterized early economy, Polanyi sought to typologize economic institutions in preindustrial societies so as to contrast them with how market-dominated societies were organized. He settled on reciprocity and redistribution as being the fundamental, representative building blocks of primitive and archaic social organization, respectively. Reciprocity described mutual or symmetrical exchanges, such as between kinsmen, while redistribution took place hierarchically, such as when a chief collects wealth and then reallocates it in accordance with social divisions.
In Stone Age Economics (1972), Marshall Sahlins extended the analysis of reciprocity and redistribution. Aiming to show how exchange relations underwrite social relations, which is exactly Polanyi’s point, Sahlins defined three kinds of reciprocity: (1) Generalized, corresponding to a western notion of a pure gift, in which “the social side of the relation overwhelms the material and in a way conceals it … the expectation of reciprocity is left indefinite” (1972: 206). (2) Balanced, in which an equivalent return is made right away, as in trade, and “the material side of the exchange is as important as the social” (1972: 206). (3) Negative reciprocity, which is the attempt to get something for nothing, like theft.
Sahlins proposed the diagram to show how kinship distance is associated with reciprocity, and he cites ethnographic instances to support his typology. The diagram is not intended to be static. One can trade with hostile neighbors, for instance, with the intention of creating a peace pact with them, thereby altering the social relation to a ‘friendlier’ sort (from negative to balanced reciprocity).
After Stone Age Economics, Sahlins distanced himself from nomothetic propositions of this sort, preferring to show how economies were rather structured by local symbolic or cosmological schemes (1976, 1988). Nevertheless, his theory of reciprocity inspired many economic anthropologists of the time and the model improved our understanding of exchange dynamics even in industrialized society. The concepts of reciprocity and redistribution continue to be refined and modified through contemporary ethnography (see, e.g., Davis, 1992; Hunt, 2002; Woodburn, 1998). With the recrudescence of market fundamentalism and the rise of neoliberalism since the 1980s (Harvey, 2005), Polanyi’s ideas seem to be getting quite relevant again (Hann and Hart, 2009, 2011).
Modes of Production, Articulation, and History
Prior to Malinowski, anthropologists tended to equate economy with technology. They regarded the stage of technological development in how a given society procured the material means of its subsistence, or its mode of production, to be the defining feature of its economy. The mode of production would either be determinative of other kinds of social relations (division of labor, political organization, family structure, law, etc.) or at least it would correspond with those relations in a way that could be classified and compared.
Modes of production (MoP) flowed from simple to complex forms, implying historical or evolutionary stages. There were four principal divisions: hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists and pastoralists, peasants, and industrial societies. It was recognized even from the outset that this ordering was comprised of ideal types only, since empirically reported overlaps were often marked enough to place the classification at risk of murkiness. Particularly, the question of what is peasantry was debated at great length.
Nevertheless, there were certain features ascribed to societies thus classified such that the division appeared to remain useful for purposes of data collection and analysis at least through the 1960s. After that, the traditional typology became muted or transformed. With the perceptibly increasing speed with which capitalism and other exploitative forces were penetrating remote sectors of the globe, the traditional predilection for studying isolated unit societies – and the fiction that there indeed ever were such places – gave way to the pursuit of illuminating one-world interconnectivity, historically and contemporaneously.
Thus opened a new frontier of research in the 1970s, likewise centering on MoP but reorienting that term with a decidedly Marxist slant. Marx had long been recognized (if not always acknowledged) as a foundational influence in anthropology (Bloch, 1983). In American anthropology in particular, various streams of materialism resonated with Marxist premises (Sahlins, 1976). When on that side of the Atlantic world systems analysis and dependency theory – branches of political economy outlining the historical processes whereby poor countries became victims of rich ones – opened up, they became a ready magnet for economic anthropological investigation.
The new school, led by figures such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, likewise operated under the Marxist umbrella while partially sidelining Marx’s teleological historical materialism. Wolf took the lead when he elaborated a new scheme of MoP, which, after Marx, he defined as “a specific, historically occurring set of social relations through which labor is deployed to wrest energy from nature by means of tools, skills, organization, and knowledge” (1982: 76).
For Wolf, MoPs were not neutrally occurring patterns that one could describe as if making sense of an organism or an engine (metaphors that had inspired structural functional analysis in anthropology) but they were suffused with power. There were exploiters (‘surplus takers’) and exploited (producers, laborers) in every economic system. A first purpose of MoP theory was to expose the systems of exploitation characterizing different types of society. Sometimes this exploitation took the form of gender inequalities or those attributable to age. Other times it was a ruling elite or a class of landholders. Not altogether divorcing himself from the older classifications outlined above, Wolf specified three MoPs – kinship, tributary, and capitalist – each of which, again, encompassed its own form of political organization, morality, and rituals that, this time, were seen in terms of their serving to justify existing power relations.
The second objective behind the MoP idea was to describe the process whereby the capitalist MoP either existed asymmetrically alongside other kinds of MoPs or brought about their conformity to the capitalist mode. The term used for this was ‘articulation.’ The intellectual center of gravity for this work was in France. Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray, Pierre- Philippe Rey, Georges Dupre, Maurice Godelier, and a handful of others, known as structural Marxists because they drew inspiration from Marx and Levi-Strauss, invented their own variant of MoPs to explain economic power relations. They asked, how might Marx’s theories apply to contemporary noncapitalist societies? Their method was ethnographic rather than historical, a viewpoint which allowed them to better get at the synchronic fact that the capitalist MoP did not simply drive other types out but could coexist and ‘articulate’ with them. The work of this group was both empirically and theoretically inventive, and, despite the more than occasional abstruseness of the writing, achieved something of the status of an intellectual fad among anthropologists in the UK and America in the 1970s, before quickly fading (see Nugent, 2007).
The anthropological literature concerning production, labor, work, and related concepts, in relation to world capitalism or in more limited terms, began to flourish during the 1970s. Considerable attention was applied to what the relevant units of production might be – household, lineage, occupational group, factory, etc. – which led to detailed analysis of the economic and social organization within those units. The articulation phase of studies bequeathed economic anthropologists a greater latitude of thought concerning the possible coexistence or hybridity of different MoP – firms and families (or capitalist and kinship), for instance – and how individuals and groups may strategize to shift among these to protect both their livelihoods and their values.
Ethnographic studies of division of labor according to gender (e.g., Nash and Fernandez-Kelly, 1983) were among the most fruitful outcomes of the focus on production. Gender studies of labor have yielded many insights, from the imbricated constitution of domestic and economic spheres, to power relations in the control of the products of household labor, to the gender-mediated enabling mechanisms of post-Fordist flexible accumulation. While the stereotypic view is that production was a fascination in the 1970s that gave way to consumption, the ongoing efflorescence of ethnographies illuminating the micro characteristics and macro consequences of gendered labor, from villages to advanced industrial settings, emphatically belies this view.
Consumption, Agency, and Meaning in Modern Economy
The rise of interest in consumers and consumption took place in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and marketing studies at about the same time. In anthropology, there were three books in particular that may be cited as the birth moments: Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood’s The World of Goods: Towards and Anthropology of Consumption (1978), Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), and Daniel Miller’s Material Culture and Mass Consumption (1987).
In hindsight, the growth of the anthropology of consumption seems self-evidently tied to the triumph of neoliberalism and its ideological linking of consumption to economic prosperity starting in the 1980s. It can also be related to the disappearance of ethnographers’ traditional field sites – the remote locales where manufactured consumer goods had had little sway. If the effects of wage work, cash crops, and other capitalist structures in African or Latin American villages had been visible for decades, it was not until the 1980s that anthropologists found in these same places the diffusion of consumer goods familiar to them from home. A new line of questions opened up: Can mass-produced consumer goods be vehicles for distinctive cultural expression, as locally produced objects are? What are the economic and social consequences of their importation to these locations? Is there a natural demand for such goods, or do native peoples adopt them as a consequence of some form of persuasion?
Up to that point, anthropologists had taken consumption either as a factor of production (i.e., as an input to the reproduction of producers, with a consequent emphasis on food) or distribution (i.e., that goods were apportioned on the basis of kinship, clan, etc., and this, rather than how individuals conceived of the goods, stamped their meaning). The state of affairs in industrialized society, moreover, was not of interest to most ethnographers, who infrequently conducted fieldwork in such settings.
The World of Goods extended symbolic anthropology to economic concerns within anthropology. Anthropologists had long interpreted local cosmologies through objects, known as material culture studies, but mass consumer goods as such had lain beyond the scope of these studies. Douglas and Isherwood argued that consumer goods could be understood as a semiotic code that reflected and stabilized social positions and cultural categories (see also Sahlins, 1976) and as such could be studied the same way everywhere.
Pierre Bourdieu (1984) operated from a comparable assumption, but added empirical and theoretical sophistication through a framework that showed how individual acts of classification through consumption, or the exercise of taste, is a form of social action that produces and reproduces objective social categories, most importantly class.
In reflection of these ideas and those deriving from his native discipline of archaeology, Daniel Miller (1987) devised a new synthesis that became the dominant approach to anthropological consumption studies. Miller aimed to dispel what he regarded as a false prejudice promoted in the work of the Frankfurt School and French neoMarxists such as Jean Baudrillard. These theorists argued that just as capitalist production had in an earlier phase of capitalism been built upon alienating workers from their labor and from the tools of production, in the present era consumption had become the principal vehicle for alienating individuals from themselves and from culture. Miller emphasized “the potentially active role of consumers in resocializing commodities” (1995: 144). He contended that Marxist ‘discourses about consumption’ had to be distinguished from actual practices, which could only be studied ethnographically.
The proliferation of consumption studies, driven in part by the demographic expansion of the discipline during the 1980s and 1990s (just when the most consumerist generation in history was coming of age), has attracted formidable critiques. Many dispute the extent to which consumers are able to ‘creatively recontextualize’ mass commodities and make of them wholly distinctive individual and cultural identities, as Miller and his followers argue. They claim that consumption studied in this way overemphasizes individual agency in a world where the rise in consumption as a paradigm for prosperity has contributed to greater inequality and the attrition of time and monetary resources available to households for noncommercialized use (Carrier and Heyman, 1997). Cultural agency through the recontextualization of material objects may be exercised even by slaves; consumer agency requires purchasing power.
Others have demonstrated that the attempt to understand consumption independently of the powerful imperatives of capitalist production, historically and contemporarily, can only be partial (Mintz, 1985). Ethnographic focus on corporate marketing reveals the influence of consolidating industrial consortiums (such as in food, medicines, finance, energy, tourism, and media) that mobilize state-sized budgets and strategic planning apparatuses to secure hospitable cultural and infrastructural circumstances for the trade of their products globally. Their procedures are best seen not so much as efforts to commoditize (or brand) objects and convince people to buy them, as to move people themselves, with the help of distribution channel management and consumer education campaigns, into prefabricated commodity zones. As marketing has broadened since the 1960s, social sector assets have been vastly commercialized, communal and environmental protections diverted, and consumer consciousness, if hardly captured, has nevertheless been considerably swayed toward the internalization of commercially-mediated archetypes for materializing identity (‘lifestyle’) and achieving happiness (Applbaum, 2003, 2009).
Transitions to Modern Economy
Economic anthropology came of age just as the capitalist mode of production and world market was lapping its tongue into the last remote corners of the earth, where anthropologists had only recently arrived. The discipline has devoted much attention to how these transitions are experienced and accommodated by non-Western peoples.
In 2000, the French social theorist, sociologist, and anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, reflecting upon his fieldwork in Algeria in the 1960s (but surely with the present market fundamentalist turn in mind), wrote: “The principle of the overturning of the vision of the world in late colonial Algeria was nothing other than the acquisition of the spirit of calculation. To subject all the behaviours of existence to calculating reason, as demanded by the economy, is to break with the logic of philia, of which Aristotle spoke, that is, the logic of good faith, trust and equity which is supposed to govern relations between kin and which is founded on the repression, or rather the denegation, of calculation” (2000: 25).
If at the back of much economic anthropological theory lays a debate with economics, including over whether calculative rationality is a cultural–historical artifact or a universal caste of mind, the afflatus of the discipline’s empirical work has often been to make sense of the effects on individuals, families, and communities of the broadening and deepening of capitalism. A dismal light often illuminates these studies because the observed reality from anthropologists’ standpoint is that the impact of capitalist expansion is frequently deleterious to the lifeways and life chances of the economically humble.
Early studies of the transition to market society, so conceived, tended to be categorical and vectorial. Bohannan and Dalton (1962) described three types of local African economies: marketless, peripheral markets, and market-dominated. The economic characteristics of each were enumerated in terms of the principal source for subsistence livelihood, price formation for goods, money and money uses, external trade, and technology. The three types stood in a historical relationship with one another, with the implication of unidirectionality.
In an influential paper called ‘The impact of money on an African subsistence economy,’ Bohannan (1959) described the Tiv in Nigeria as having ‘a multicentric economy’ with mutually exclusive spheres of exchange. These separate spheres, which consisted of subsistence goods, prestige items, and rights in human beings, were “marked by different institutionalization and different moral values” (1959: 124) and were transacted with ‘special purpose monies.’ When the Tiv came to be forced to pay taxes in coinage, Bohannan said, they had to go about acquiring it through involvement in market transactions outside of their tribe. They started growing cash crops and thus became ensnared in the supply and demand system of distant trade. With this came the decline of special purpose money and its replacement with unitary currency, or ‘general purpose money,’ like dollars, which act as a unitary standard of value and can in theory exchange anything for anything. The breakdown of the multivariate economy, Bohannan lamented, spelt a decline in the traditional morality embedded in Tiv economy.
Today, Bohannan’s depiction carries the air of a just-so story: factually dubious and theoretically simplistic. “It is not clear that money always flattens social relations, rather than creating new ones just as complex,” Bill Maurer comments (2006: 21). And of course, market societies are themselves replete with ‘special purpose’ currencies such as store coupons, subway tokens, gambling chips, and even online virtual worlds money, not to mention myriad forms of nonmonetized exchange. (Spheres of exchange are still taught to undergraduates because they broaden the minds of those unaccustomed to the thought that there were once societies where most things were not exchangeable for just anything else at a monetary price.)
Speaking just of money, early schemas like Bohannan’s yielded to rigorous and sophisticated analyses of money’s history, uses, and significance (Graeber, 2011; Guyer, 2004; Hart, 2001; Maurer, 2005; Parry and Bloch, 1989). Some of these still marginally concern themselves with the tensions associated with grand economic transitions (e.g., financialization, securitization, and depersonalization), while others resist or ignore this issue to focus on matters of purely local complexity. In either case, the accomplishment of the subsubfield (‘the anthropology of money’) at least since the 1980s is hardly contingent on this narrative.
At present, the broadest umbrella under which economic transitions are studied in anthropology concerns neoliberal restructuring, referring to policies enacted upon the belief that the market is always superior to the state at managing and distributing public resources. Sometimes the procedure is called ‘rolling back the state.’ The trend in many places since the Reagan–Thatcher revolution has been toward the diminishment of the state’s role in providing for health, utilities, education, environmental protection, and social insurances.
Case studies addressing themselves to the differing effects of and adaptations to neoliberal policies provide a rich corpus from which to compare outcomes and formulate generalizations. One key point where anthropological analysis of these trends is concerned is that inspection of them at the register of the local reveals aspects that are rarely discerned from afar. Few ethnographers neither end up endorsing unidirectional or unidimensional frameworks, nor do they invariably find that the decline of traditional economies always results in changes for the worse (Ensminger, 1992). Ground-level analyses show how macro-level terminologies (proletarianization, marketization, and trade concentration) are at best incomplete without reference to how these are experienced by individuals, families, communities, networks, institutions, and the culturespecific moralities that animate them.
History may prove that the long-term trend is as Bourdieu sketched for Algeria. There is benefit in any case to theorizing the processual mechanisms by which alterations in the fabric of economic consciousness conform to and actuate economic realities. Most anthropologists involve themselves with shorter range analyses, and at this level ’great transformation‘ schemes may be more diverting than helpful. At the axis point (the moment of articulation) of large systems, one finds economic actors operating “in the ambiguous boundaries between capital and labor, cooperation and exploitation, family and economy, tradition and modernity, friends and competitors .” (Smart and Smart, 2005). In many places, globalization has not cemented the role of formal capitalist institutions, but the reverse has occurred (Hart, 2012). A close look at entrepreneurs in many places reveals the contradictions of lives lived half in the local moral world of the village or tribal community and half in the aspirational world of the global market with its characteristic rationalities.
As ethnographers, anthropologists can observe the disruptions, ambiguities, and contradictions associated with economic change and stability (remembering that stasis is a social process). As global comparativists and long-range historians, anthropologists are well situated to track revolutionary changes as well as patterns of stable diversity in economic organization.
Underwriting and mediating the ruptures and continuities associated with economic change of whatever sort is the work of culture. Economic anthropologists have always minded the involvement of worldview, religion and cultural representation in their account of production, exchange, and so on. Starting particularly in the late 1970s, when symbolic and interpretivist anthropology crystallized into a permanent force in the discipline as a whole, a ‘cultural economic’ approach became more distinct (see, e.g., Geertz, 1979; Gudeman, 1986).
A signal culturalist position written in response to the world systems approach in anthropology (e.g., Wolf, 1982) is formulated by Sahlins in the following quote, which can suitably bookend that of Pierre Bourdieu at the opening of this section: “Western capitalism has loosed on the world enormous forces of production, coercion and destruction. Yet precisely because they cannot be resisted, the relations and goods of the larger system also take on meaningful places in local schemes of things. In the event, the historical changes in local society are also continuous with the superseded cultural scheme, even as the new state of affairs acquires a cultural coherence of a distinct kind. So we shall have to examine how indigenous peoples struggle to integrate their experience of the world system in something that is logically and ontologically more inclusive: their own system of the world” (1988: 10).
The history of the development of research themes in economic anthropology has largely been one of accretion rather than replacement. Growth has been catalyzed in response to new (or newly perceived) developments in world economic circumstances, and in dialogue with neighboring disciplines.
In addition to the continuation of traditionally-themed studies, as described above, in the late 1980s economic anthropologists began to take seriously the challenge of interpreting economic affairs beyond the scope of the village or town. (Anthropologists focusing on development achieved this enlightenment sooner; see Edelman and Haugerud, 2005.) First, the study of the cross-border movement of various types of objects, from craft goods to coffee, was identified as a useful way to grapple with the complexity of trade in both historical and contemporary economy. Much was learned about both cultural brokerage (cultural economy) and power relations (political economy) in such studies. At the same time, ethnographies of assembly plants in places such as Mexico or Malaysia linked in the labor conditions and the circumstances for export of manufactured commodities across commodity chains owned and organized under capitalist enterprise.
For some, the fascination with commodities expanded to include goods such as textiles, cellphones, and pharmaceuticals, whose intellectual patents and process management reside in industrialized countries and are reckoned as exports when they are sold elsewhere. Anthropologists studying these transactions were, whether they were cognizant of it or not, responding to corporations’ own recognition that developing countries were no longer important just as a source for material inputs or cheap labor, but as markets for their products. Some anthropologists went further and studied intermediary institutions, such as bottling plants, shopping centers, or advertising agencies, in urban centers in Thailand, Srilanka, or Trinidad, in the attempt to get at questions of cultural translation and power at the sites where these are ostensibly brokered.
Since the 2000s, a handful of economic anthropologists have surmounted the challenge of access and have rendered fascinating and complex ethnographies of economic institutions at the geographical, institutional, and informational ‘cores’ of capitalism – New York, London, or Tokyo, for instance. Banks, stock markets, global consumer goods corporations, as well as development agencies and nongovernmental organizations, have each been the focus of recent works.
The aim to engage capitalism on its home turf (bearing in mind that capitalism, like democracy, is hardly an unalloyed system; anthropologists sometimes speak of capitalisms) corresponds with a belief among some that the discipline ought to be seeking greater relevance to current world events. The financial crisis of 2008 in particular sparked reflection on this matter. In the immediate aftermath of the events, Hart and Ortiz (2008: 2) wrote, “It seems that, along with the bankruptcy of some banks and even countries, the delegation of the power to channel credit to the private bureaucracies of contemporary finance has already lost its air of inevitability and indeed its former legitimacy .[W]e need to devise new global institutions and to think about them in fresh ways . Do anthropologists have something to say about all this?”
James Carrier, editor of the Handbook of Economic Anthropology (2012), reconvened the contributors to the recent first edition to update the volume to account for the recent economic turmoil, with a view that readers both in and outside the discipline might benefit from how economic anthropologists were making sense of what had happened. One of the contributors, the anthropologist and anarchist intellectual David Graeber, is credited as one of the inspirations behind the Occupy Wall Street Movement; his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, is crafted as a conceptual and political antidote to current financial arrangements.
In 2012, President Barak Obama nominated Jim Yong Kim, an anthropologist, to the presidency of the World Bank. Kim is a medical rather than economic anthropologist, but his 2000 coedited book, Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor, is in tune with the conclusions of many studies by economic anthropologists involved in development. The relationship between economic anthropology and medical social science has been quietly blossoming as professionals in global health and related fields have come to recognize the ascendant role neoliberal market reforms have come to play in health care delivery and medical technology development and use.
The unofficial leader of the movement to catapult economic anthropology into public debate about the economy is Keith Hart. Citing the Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase who said in 2012 that “the project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists,” Hart and his associates have named their project at the University of Pretoria, the Human Economy Program.
In studying capitalism and its consequences, anthropologists have conventionally paid heed to inequality. The belated eruption of concern over degradation of the environment and the depletion of natural resources – resulting from our current economic system’s desideratum to expand – may lead to a shift in the discipline’s emphasis toward questions of sustainability (e.g., Wilk, 2010). This focus would inspire renewed associations with ecological/environmental anthropology. It may be that not just the future of the tiny subdiscipline of economic anthropology stands to benefit from these worldly engagements.
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