Interfaces 1 – Anthropology and Economics



The interface between anthropology and economics is as old as the discipline itself. ethnographic monographs have dealt with the economies of the people under discussion as a matter of course. The evolutionists were fundamentally interested in levels of technology and environmental “adaptations,” and functionalists interpreted all social systems in terms of the satisfaction of basic human needs. Subsequently, anthropologists influenced by Marx would see a given society’s “mode of production” as determinant, at least in the last instance, of politics, law, and ideology. Even though none of these theoretical paradigms dominates the field today, it is generally accepted that compelling accounts of social and symbolic behavior must relate them to the material organization of society. Economics is such an integral part of anthropological studies that a separate branch of economic anthropology has been developed.

Brief history:

The interface between economics and anthropology follows a three phase of development.
The purpose of economic anthropology in the nineteenth century was to test the claim that a world economic order must be founded on the principles that underpinned Western industrial society. The search was on alternatives that might support a more just economy, wheather liberal, socialist, anarchist or communist. Since, society was understood to have not yet reach its final form, there was great interest in origins and evolution. Anthropology was thus the most inclusive way of thinking about economic possibilities. Therefore, in the first phase most anthropoligists were interested in whether the economic behaviour of the ‘savages’ was underpinned by the same notions of  ‘raitonality’ that were taken to motivate economic action in the West. The result was the famous formalist-substantivist debate. Formalist-Substantivist Debate is the dispute in Economic Anthropology between those scholars who argue that formal rules of neoclassical economic theory derived from the study of capitalist market societies can be used to explain the dynamics of premodern economies ("formalists") and those who argue that goods and services in the substantive economy are produced and distributed through specific cultural contexts ("substantivists"). Formalists contend that because all economies involve the rational pursuit of, access to, and use of, scarce resources by self-interested, maximizing social actors, formal economic rules can be used to explain them (H. Schneider 1974). Substantivists, by contrast, contend that different forms of exchange have different sets of rules and expectations (Dalton 1961). Following Karl Polanyi the substantivists argue that there are three major forms of exchange: reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange (K. Polanyi et al. 1957). By this view, the rational, maximizing strategizing that lies at the heart of neoclassical economics and formalist economic anthropology is characteristic only of market economies.
In this phase the debate was whether mainstream approaches and methodologies of studying economics was adequate for studying economics of pre-industrial – especially ‘tribal’ society or not. Formalists held that the tools of mainstream economics were adequate to this task, while, ‘substantivists’ were of the opinion that institutional approaches is more apt to study a substantive economy (Le Clair and Schneider 1968). Substantivists argued that economic life of substantive societies are embedded in other social institutions, ranging from the household to government and religion (Hart 2008).
The formalist-substantivist debate has been replaced by more enduring issues such as Marxist approach (Seddon 1978) and Feminists approach (Moore 1988). Eventually, with globalisation and neo-liberal opening up of markets in post-colonial nations anthropologists started to include more aboutfill range of human economies and not just the exotic economics. We all now live in one world driven by capitalism, so anthropologists have studied that. There was a marked shift back home to the Western heartlands : but in real sense of a shrinking world, anthropologists are encouraged to develop new ways of studying ‘globalisation’ everywhere (Eriksen 2007).

Enduring issues:

Anthropologists today are dealing with the following issues with increasing close working relationship with economics:

Informal economy:

Is an outcome of attempts to see what happens to the rural people who migrates to the cities (Hart 1973). Anyone who visits the sprawling cities of what once called ‘the Third World’ can see that their streets are teeming with life, a constantly shifting crowd of hawkers, porter, taxi drivers, beggers, pimps, pickpockjeters, hustlers -  all of them getting by without the benefit o a ‘real jon’. Ethnographic study of this phenomenon generated the principal contribution made by anthropologists to development studies and economics.

One World Capitalism:

This results from a shift in the centre of production from so called developed nations to countries with cheaper labour like China, India and Brazil. This is most important feature of recent decade. In the neoliberal homelahds, a wave of outsourcing, downziging and casualization of the labour force undercut the political power of the unions and implied that the Western masses now participated in the capitalism primarily as consumers rather than producers.

Money economy and crisis:

The traditional substantivist understanding of the function of money in economies of pre-industrial societies have gathered enough evidence to teach the ‘modern’ money based economics what do to avert financial and economic crisis. Anthropologists have unearthed in what ways money based economics is seen as informal and contractual by the ‘pre-modern’ societies and that they have developed their own mode of economic practices coupling with money and their traditional means of subsistence economy.


Marxist approach

The Marxist anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s made much more profound theoretical attempts to wrestle with noncapitalist economies. Althusser’s structuralist reading of Marx identified the analytic tools that might be extracted from Marx’s study of the rise of industrial capitalism and applied to alternative social formations. Meillassoux is considered the first anthropologist to analyze a precapitalist society in Marxist terms with his study of the Guro of Côte d’Ivoire (1964). Rather than applying Marx’s unsatisfactory prefabricated constructs of “Asiatic” or “slave”mode of production, he identified a lineage mode of production by analyzing the direction of surplus extraction in Guro society. In this work and in his subsequent Maidens, Meal, and Money (1981), Meillassoux pointed to the central importance of biological reproduction as a means of production in a situation of abundant land and relatively capital-poor technology.

Cultural ecology to political economy

With some exceptions, American anthropologists never adopted a Marxist problematic in the way that French and some British anthropologists did. There was, however, a turn to materialist principles of explanation in the 1960s and 1970s, as the ecological determinisms of an earlier period (Julian Steward, Leslie White) were revisited. Orlove categorized this work as neoevolutionist (Elman Service, Marshall Sahlins) and neofunctionalist (Marvin Harris, Andrew Vayda, Roy Rappaport). The latter group tended to view human societies and their environments as interactive systems, taking inspiration from the systems theory.Marshall Sahlins described a state of primitive abundance, calculating the resources required for hunters and gatherers to supply their needs and observing that their societies did not induce scarcity of want-satisfying means. Marvin Harris and Elman Service worked out different versions of the evolution of human society and culture in terms of adaptations to environmental constraints, the former tending to a techno-environmental determinism. Roy Rappaport derived the ecologically adaptive functions of various religious and ritual observances. Although materialist and evolutionary, none of this work was historical or dialectical.
Eric Wolf emphatically introduced history when he turned to dependency and world systems theory for a reappraisal of anthropology’s modus operandi. Dependency theory had been elaborated by radical economists working in Latin America and Africa who argued, against development and modernization theory, that global integration was serving to underdevelop peripheral regions of the globe at the expense of the capitalist “core.”Wallerstein examined the ways European imperialist expropriations had financed the industrial revolution at the expense of the colonies. The new attention to global interconnection took anthropology by storm.

Exchange and value:

In The Social Life of Things, Appadurai made an appeal for the utility of examining exchange independently of production (although it might be argued that this is what non-Marxist anthropology has been doing since Malinowski reported on the kula ring or since Paul Bohannan brought back proof of Polanyi’s ideas about the social embeddedness of trade from the Tiv). For a Marxist anthropologist, to look at exchange without considering production is to participate in ideological mystification. For most anthropologists, however, exchange processes offer a rich field for examining the cultural construction of meaning and value. Much anthropological and ethnohistorical work has addressed the historical exchange of objects across cultural space, where the meanings of the objects transacted are a matter of contest. In the early part of the century, Mauss drew widely on existing ethnographic sources to describe a kind of exchange in “archaic” societies that was essentially the opposite of the commodity fetishism of capitalist exchange. Anthropologists have taken up Mauss’s ideas about the relationships of debt and obligation created through gift exchange as a fundamental mechanism of social cohesion. Apart from Gregory’s attempt to ground gifting in specific social relations of production and reproduction, most of the theoretical impact of gifting seems to have been registered outside of the subdiscipline of economic anthropology.

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