Peopled Economies

By | May 11, 2006

Staffan Löfving (Editor), Peopled Economies: Conversations with Stephen Gudeman Stephen Gudeman has earned the right, through a series of exemplary books published since the 1970s, to be considered the world’s leading practitioner of ‘economic anthropology’. His commitment has always been, under a number of labels, to bring an anthropological sensibility to the study of economies in the plural. Starting out from social relations and business studies at Harvard, his anthropology PhD at the other Cambridge diverted him from studying development in Panama to a structuralist analysis of compradazgo. But he reverted to his original topic in The Demise of a Rural Economy (1978); went on, in Economics as Culture (1986), to examine the cultural logic of some exotic economies and western economists; again juxtaposed the history of economic ideas and peasant ethnography in Conversations in Colombia (1990); and produced the nearest thing yet to a general textbook in The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market and Culture (2001). This last was a springboard for the 2003 seminar that yielded the present slim volume. Here four Swedish scholars offer commentary on Gudeman’s work, especially his latest book, allowing for a rejoinder from him. The disciplinary affiliations of the contributors are appropriately indistinct, but they may be loosely described as a Latin American ethnographer, a philosopher, an ecological anthropologist and an economic historian. Staffan Löfving offers an introduction to Gudeman’s main writings and situates them within the contemporary interest in culture and economy, as propagated by institutions such as the World Bank. Gert Hegelsson offers an admirably clear account of the concept of rationality in neo-classical economics and an equally uncontroversial appreciation of how Gudeman differs from it. Alf Hornborg launches into a polemical attack on the guest, arguing that The Anthropology of Economy, with a universalist style more akin to economics than anthropology, represents a regression from the more relativist Economics as Culture. Lars Pålsson Syll restricts himself to a detailed critique of the epistemology and intellectual history on offer in The Anthropology of Economy from a standpoint that he calls ‘scientific realism’. Stephen Gudeman’s riposte, in the longest essay of the collection, pulls no punches. The combined effect is less of a conversation than of ships passing in the night. But the book still works well as an often sharp set of reflections on economic anthropology stimulated by its leading practitioner. As it happens, I found some of my own reservations about The Anthropology of Economy reflected in Hornborg’s and Pålsson Syll’s criticisms. I am not keen on Gudeman’s discussion of trade and profit there, for example, and he and I have long exchanged divergent opinions on the weight to be given to Aristotle, Ricardo, Marx and the rest. I too prefer in some ways the detailed exegesis of models and metaphors in Economics as Culture and I consider Conversations in Colombia to be the pinnacle of Gudeman’s achievement so far, because of its harmonious integration of ethnography and the history of ideas, without having the same aspiration to being a general textbook. In this sense, the exchange offers engaged readers like me a tertium quid against which to assess their own similarities and differences with the main author. The fact that the protagonists talk past each other, rather than coming to a nuanced compromise, may actually enhance this function. All the authors express themselves with great clarity, which may be one of Scandinavia’s contributions to world English as a discursive field, and it rubs off on Gudeman whose prose has often been less lucid and passionate than here. The title of this collection is rather misleading, not just for the reference to a conversation that did not really take place, but for its suggestion that an anthropological perspective on economy ought to privilege the participation of people. All the principals probably sign up for this notion, as I do; but the only people on show in these pages are writers and their ideas. Gudeman himself has often been more directly engaged with the activities of the people he has studied than he was in The Anthropology of Economy. His cumulative attempt to explore economy as culture has involved him in painstaking exegesis of quite abstract ideas, and rightly so, as one of the few anthropologists who has immersed himself creatively in the history of economics. For Hornborg, this has brought Gudeman too close to the Great Satan in both style and substance; but economic anthropology will make no progress unless it emulates his great example.

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