A short history of economic anthropology

Economic anthropology is the product of a juxtaposition of two academic disciplines in the twentieth century. It would be wrong to speak of the relationship between economics and anthropology as a dialogue. From the beginning, economists in the ‘neo-classical’ tradition have rarely expressed any interest in anthropology and none at all during the last half-century, when their discipline has become the dominant ideological and practical arm of global capitalism. Anthropologists, on the other hand, when they have been concerned with ‘the economy’, have usually felt obliged to address the perspective of mainstream economists, sometimes applying their ideas and methods to exotic societies, more often being critical of the discipline’s claim to be universally valid. Since anthropologists in this period based their intellectual authority on the fieldwork method, discourse in economic anthropology has generally been preoccupied with the interpretation of economic ideas in the light of ethnographic findings. But civilization is often thought of as an economy these days; and some anthropologists, drawing on a variety of theories and methods, have offered alternative visions of the economy’s past, present and future.

After briefly considering the idea of economy in anthropological perspective, we divide our account into three historical periods. The first covers from the 1870s to the 1940s, when economics and anthropology emerged as modern academic disciplines. A bureaucratic revolution concentrated power in strong states and corporate monopolies, yet economics reinvented itself as the study of individual decision-making in competitive markets. Later, when a rapidly urbanizing world was consumed by economic disaster and war, anthropologists published ethnographies of remote peoples conceived of as being outside modern history. Neither branch of study had much of a public role. The period since the Second World War saw a massive expansion of the universities and the rise of economics to the public prominence it enjoys today. An academic publishing boom allowed anthropologists to address mainly just themselves and their students. Economic anthropology sustained a lively debate from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the welfare state consensus was at its peak and European empires were dismantled. The sub-discipline has been less visible since the 1980s, the era of ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘globalization’ in world economy. A lot is still produced on exchange, money, consumption and privatization, but, as with much else in contemporary anthropology, the results are fragmented.

Despite our focus on historical change, there are some abiding questions at the intersection of economics and anthropology. Is the economists’ aspiration to place human affairs on a rational footing an agenda worthy of anthropologists’ participation or just a bad dream? Since economics is a product of western civilization – and of the English-speaking peoples in particular – is any claim to universality bound to be ethnocentric? If capitalism is an economic configuration of recent origin, could markets and money be said to be human universals? Can markets be made more effectively democratic, with the unequal voting power of big money somehow neutralized? Can private and public interests be reconciled in economic organization or will the individualism of homo economicus inevitably prevail? Should the economy be isolated as an object of study or is it better to stress how economic relations are embedded in society and culture in general?

In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi brought a radical critique of modern capitalism to bear on his moment in history. We too must start from the world we live in, if we are to apply the vast, but inchoate intellectual resources of anthropology to a subject that is of vital concern to everyone. Ours is a very different world from when Polanyi so confidently predicted the demise of the market model of economy. Yet the revival of market capitalism and dismantling of state provision since the 1980s furnishes plentiful material for Polanyi’s thesis that the neglect of social interests must eventually generate a political backlash and a retreat from market fundamentalism. In our Introduction, we suggested that the world may now be emerging from the period of neo-liberal hegemony, with obvious potential consequences for the project known as ‘economic anthropology’. The ongoing globalization of capital – its spread to Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere after centuries of western monopoly – is also bound to affect our understanding of economy. The absolute dominance of market logic, at least in the form devised by neo-liberal economists, may be coming to an end. Then, not only will Polanyi’s ideas receive more favourable attention, as they already have in some quarters, but the urgent need to review the institutional basis of economy may stimulate anthropologists to renewed efforts.

In this volume, we identify a possible convergence between economic anthropology, economic sociology and institutional economics, yielding an alternative version of economic knowledge to challenge orthodoxy. Agreeing on a common label for this enterprise matters less than identifying clear questions for collaborative inquiry. This short history of economic anthropology is offered as a contribution to that end.

Anthropology and ‘the economy’

It is a good thing that civilization is conceived of largely as an economy these days, since most people care a lot about their economic circumstances. The days are long gone when politicians could concern themselves with affairs of state and profess ignorance of the livelihoods of the masses. Hence Bill Clinton’s famous memo to himself, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ For millennia, economy was conceived of in domestic terms, as household management. Then, when money, machines and markets began their modern rise to social dominance, a new discipline of political economy was born, concerned with the public consequences of economic actions. For over a century now, this discipline has called itself economics and its subject matter has been the economic decisions made by individuals, not primarily in their domestic capacity, but as participants in markets of many kinds. People as such play almost no part in the calculations of economists and find no particular reflection of themselves in the quantities published by the media.

The founders of neo-classical economics, such as Marshall (1890), started out with the same broad style of questioning as their classical predecessors, with speculations on human nature and society, that subsequently dropped out of the modern discipline, leaving it to anthropologists to pick up on these questions. Anthropologists aim to produce an understanding of the economy that has people in it, in two senses. First, we are concerned with what people do and think, both as workers or consumers in economies dominated by large-scale organizations and when left relatively free to be self-organized as farmers, traders, managers of households or givers of gifts. Second, our interest is in the universal history of humanity, in its past, present and future; and our examples are drawn from all over the world. Somehow we have to find meaningful ways of bridging the gap between the two. There are of course many economies at every level from the domestic to the global and they are not the same, but the prevailing approach to economic life is itself universal in pretension and so we too, in giving priority to people’s lives and purposes, aspire to a degree of intellectual unity. At the very least, an anthropological critique will show, as it always has, that claims for the inevitability of currently dominant economic institutions are false.

The twentieth century saw a universal experiment in impersonal society. Humanity was everywhere organized by remote abstractions – states, capitalist markets, science. For most people it was impossible to make a meaningful connection with these anonymous institutions and this was reflected in intellectual disciplines whose structures of thought had no room for human beings in them. Whereas once anthropologists studied stateless peoples for lessons about how to construct better forms of society, scientific ethnography no longer sought to change a world where ordinary citizens felt for the most part disempowered. Of course, people everywhere sought self-expression where they could – in domestic life and informal economic practices. The three most important components of modern economic life – people, machines and money – are not properly addressed by the academic discipline devoted to its study. In Capital, Marx (1867) expressed humanity’s estrangement from the modern economy by making abstract value (money) the principle organizing production, with the industrial revolution (machines) as its instrument and people reduced to the passive anonymity of their labour power. Marx’s intellectual effort was aimed at reversing this order and that remains our priority today.

What might be meant by the term ‘economy’? English dictionaries reveal that the word and its derivatives have a number of separate, but overlapping referents:

1. Order
2. Efficient conservation of resources
3. Practical affairs
4. Money, wealth
5. The circulation of goods and services
6. Involving a wide range of social units

The word comes from ancient Greek, oikonomia. It literally meant ‘household management’, the imposition of order on the practical affairs of a house, usually a large manor house in the countryside with its slaves, animals, fields and orchards. Economic theory then aimed at self-sufficiency through careful budgeting and the avoidance of trade, where possible. The market, with its rootless individuals specialized in money-making, was the very antithesis of an economy that aimed to conserve both society and nature. So in origin ‘economy’ emphasized the first three above while focusing on the house as its location. For Aristotle and thinkers like him, it had nothing to do with markets or money or with wider notions of society.

This ideal persisted in rural Europe up to the dawn of the modern age. Indeed countries like Russia and France were still significantly peasant societies well into the 20th century, as the agrarian economist, A.V. Chayanov (1925) insisted. Even so, the economy has moved on in the last 2,500 years and especially in the last two centuries. In particular, a revolution in ideas led by Adam Smith (1776) switched attention from domestic order to ‘political economy’ and especially to the functioning of markets using money. Instead of celebrating the wisdom of a few patriarchs, Smith found economic rationality in the myriad selfish acts of individuals buying and selling commodities, the famous ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Two things happened next. First, the market was soon dominated by large firms commanding more resources than most, a system of making money with money eventually named as ‘capitalism’ (Sombart 1902). One of capitalism’s chief features is a focus on growth. States claimed the right to manage money, markets and accumulation in the national interest; and this is why today ‘the economy’ primarily refers to the country we live in.

The question of world economy has encroached on public consciousness of late; and almost any aggregate from associations of states like the European Union to localities, firms and households may be said to have an ‘economy’. In the process, ‘economy’ has come to refer primarily to the money nexus of market exchange, even though we retain the old meaning of efficient conservation of resources. So part of the confusion with the word ‘economy’ lies in the historical shift from the self-sufficiency of rural households to complex dependence on urban, national and world markets. But that isn’t all. It is by no means clear whether the word is primarily subjective or objective. Does it refer to an attitude of mind or to something out there? Is it ideal or material? Does it refer to individuals or to collectivities? Perhaps to all of these — in which case, we should focus on the links between them. Economists may argue that economy is principally a way of reasoning (Schumpeter 1954), but we can hardly say that all those people who talk of economies as social objects are wrong. Moreover, if the factory revolution shifted the weight of economy from agriculture to industry, mainstream economic life now takes the form of electronic digits whizzing around cyberspace at the speed of light. The idea of economy as provision of material necessities is still an urgent priority for the world’s poor; but for a growing section of humanity it no longer makes sense to focus on economic survival. The confusion at the heart of ‘economy’ reflects not only an unfinished history, but wide inequalities in contemporary economic experience.

The term ‘economy’ is as specific to the English language as solidarité is to the French. If the various meanings of the word are obscure in English, their translation into most other languages is even more problematic. In German, for example, Wirtschaftswissenschaft, Nationalökonomie and Sozialpolitik have all occupied the space filled by the English word, ‘economics’ at various times and normal usage is still evolving. Britain and America have dominated global capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively and so, gradually, the peoples of the world have come to absorb something of their economic terminology as common usage. All of these issues and more have to be addressed if ‘the economy’ is not to be trapped in ethnocentric abstraction.

The rise of modern economics and anthropology (1870s to 1940s)

Mill and Marx are widely recognized as the last of the classical political economists. While Marxism has since gone its own way, the liberal utilitarianism of Mill (1846) was refashioned from the 1870s onwards as the ‘neo-classical’ paradigm, which still defines economics today. The core of this paradigm, the notion of diminishing marginal utility, was independently pioneered by William Jevons in Manchester, Carl Menger in Vienna and Léon Walras in Lausanne during 1871-1874. They each located economic value in individuals conceived of as maximizing their utility, thus making a revolutionary break with the macro-sociological concerns of the classical economists (Hutchinson 1978). The new school achieved a synthesis in Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890), a name that rhymes with mathematics and physics (Mirowski 1989). Following Edgworth’s example in Mathematical Psychics (1881), economists began to rely more on numerate methods, but to nothing like the same degree as today. Marshall’s neo-classical economics was challenged by an Austrian version and, during the Great Depression, by the even more contrary paradigm of his student, J. M. Keynes. In the United States the institutional economists, led by Veblen (1904) and Commons (1934), promoted a more explicitly political version of economic science. They were more than a match for the neo-classical economists there in the interwar period (Yonay 1998). The modern notion of ‘the economy’, along with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was a product of this era of general crisis (Mitchell 1998).

In the late nineteenth century, numerous scholars began to examine the relevance of new ethnographic data for theories of human evolution (Tylor 1871, Morgan 1877, Bücher 1893). Material based on fieldwork spawned increasingly systematic inquiries, with Germans in the forefront (Heath Pearson 2000). Leading economists were indifferent to their findings, the major exception being Marx, who in his last years took careful notes from works by Morgan, Lubbock and others (Krader 1974). The result was Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) which drew heavily on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877). Morgan paid much attention to property, but did not engage concretely with systems of production and exchange. Like other leading contemporaries, he was trained in law, not economics. Edward Tylor, in Primitive Culture (1871), gave only superficial descriptions of the major modes of subsistence and stages of technical progress; the last generation of Victorian ‘armchair anthropologists’ did no better. Since anthropologists did not have a clear concept of the economy, they were in no position to contribute new theoretical ideas on the subject.

In Germany, scholars of diverse disciplinary backgrounds, not content with vague descriptions of material culture, addressed theoretical questions of economic origins and technological determinism with considerable rigour. Gerd Spittler (this volume, forthcoming) approaches these early contributions through a focus on work: was work central to man’s self-realization or did humanity have a natural aversion to toil? The German forerunners of economic anthropology were almost all anti-socialist, but they were nonetheless influenced by Marx. This strong interest may be attributed in part to the dominance of historicist approaches in Germany. Max Weber’s first appointment was in Nationalökonomie, an economic discipline that rejected the universalism of the British political economists.

A dispute arose in the 1890s between Karl Bücher and Eduard Meyer over the oikos thesis of Rodbertus published thirty years earlier (Harry Pearson 1957). Bücher supported Rodbertus’s idea that ancient Greek economy was organized on fundamentally different principles from those of contemporary German capitalism. These principles were based, following Xenophon and Aristotle, on household management. Meyer pointed to the existence of thoroughly modern capitalist firms in Athens and elsewhere producing for the international market. Max Weber (1922) put the lid on this argument by suggesting that we wouldn’t be interested in ancient Greece unless it was different and we could not understand it unless our knowledge was capable of embracing the Greeks as in some sense the same as us. This was the dialectical premise of Hegel and, before him, Kant – sameness in difference, not same versus different.

Weber made much of Kant’s dualistic conception of the human faculties, the division between form arising from the operations of the mind itself and substance or perception of the material world through the senses. In his magisterial Economy and Society (1922), he argued that not only were the formal and substantive rationalities of capitalism different, but they were at odds. The ‘bottom line’ of accountancy for profit could, and often did, lead to economic failure (unemployment and the like) at the cost of disruption to people’s livelihood. This was an attempt to resolve ‘the Battle over Methods’ (Methodenstreit) then being waged between Schmoller’s historical economists in Berlin and the followers of Menger’s marginalism in Vienna. Here, as in the debate over economic primitivism (Harry Pearson 1957, Heath Pearson 2000), what was at stake was the pretension of the new economics to offer a universal foundation for the pursuit of human welfare. Weber, as a liberal, was sympathetic to the subjective individualism of the new economics, but, as a sociologist, he could hardly discount the human disasters wreaked in its name. The vehemence of these German debates owed something to rivalry between the German and Austro-Hungarian empires for leadership of the German-speaking world. To some extent they were just academic turf wars. Schmoller managed to get Viennese economists excluded from German universities for a time. The Methodenstreit resurfaced in American economic anthropology after the Second World War as ‘the formalist-substantivist debate’ which peaked in the 1960s (Leclair and Schneider 1968).

The concept of homo economicus provides the main focus of Heath Pearson’s overview of ‘primitive economics’ (2000). To early travelers the natives seemed to contradict European criteria for rationality, through their ‘childlike’ inconsistency in exchange, destruction of valuable property or painstaking efforts for no tangible benefit. Alongside this category of homo erroneous, Pearson identifies homo gustibus, a human subject who is endowed with a different psychological make-up, making his rationality appear quite different from the hedonism of the individual agent of neo-classical theory. Eventually, both of these stereotypes gave way to homo paleoeconomicus: the economic behaviour of ‘primitives’, allowing for differences in environment and technology, was similar to that of modern Western individuals. Superficially contradictory patterns of economic action could be seen as being consistent with the premises of homo economicus. One just had to abandon notions of time-discounting where there were few storage facilities and recognize the constraints of custom in societies lacking developed markets and money. Anthropologists were often no more consistent than the natives: Raymond Firth held all of these positions at different times (1929, 1939, 1967).

Malinowski’s standing as a founder of economic anthropology rests partly on his introduction of intensive fieldwork as a method. He obtained his doctorate at Cracow with a dissertation, ‘On the economy of thought’, about Ernst Mach; and Mach’s epistemological individualism provided the theoretical foundation of Malinowski’s functionalist approach (Stocking 1995: 245). His major contributions to economic anthropology are the first and last of the Trobriand monographs, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), which is devoted to exchange, and Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935), on work, technology and property arrangements. He insisted early on (1921) that the Trobrianders’ propensity to transfer goods as gifts showed that ‘tribal economics’ refuted any claim that the idea of ‘economic man’ is a human universal. The attention the Trobrianders gave to their gardens’ appearance contradicted the supposition that savages restricted their efforts to the minimum necessary for their survival. Argonauts was intended as a demonstration that a complex system of inter-island trade could be organized without benefit of markets, money or states and on the basis of generosity rather than greed. Yet his data — whether the transfer of kula valuables, the barter exchange known as gimwali or yams paid as urigubu tribute to matrilineal relatives – are entirely consistent with the notion of individuals maximizing utility (Parry 1986). Malinowski did much to support the rise of ‘applied’ anthropology in the colonies and this prepared the ground for later generations of anthropologists to become involved in ‘development’. Much of this work took place in Africa and Audrey Richards (1939) supplied the outstanding early monograph.

We now recognize Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le don (1924) as the main source of opposition to Malinowski’s fusion of individualist traditions from Britain and Central Europe. Mauss was greatly enthused by Malinowski’s confirmation that the potlatch of America’s Northwest Coast flourished in Melanesia, but he insisted that money and markets were human universals: only the impersonal variant found in capitalist societies was distinctive. Following Durkheim’s lead in The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Mauss’s attack on economic individualism emphasized the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of exchange in all societies, including ours. His anthropology was wedded to a quite explicit socialist programme; but the essay has given rise to quite divergent interpretations since (Hart 2007). Only much later was The Gift widely acknowledged as Mauss’s chef d’oeuvre; it took two translations and a secondary literature, inspired above all by Lévi-Strauss (1950) and Sahlins (1972), for its radical message to be absorbed into Anglophone economic anthropology (Sigaud 2002). David Graeber’s long chapter on Mauss in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) is the most complete treatment in English. Mauss’s example never launched a school of economic anthropology as such in France.

Richard Thurnwald’s impressive contributions to economic anthropology have been eclipsed by the marginalization of German scholarship after 1945. There are grounds for claiming that he discovered the concept of ‘embeddedness’ long before Polanyi. Raymond Firth’s monumental study of the economic life of the Polynesian island of Tikopia (1939) made less use of German sources than his earlier Maori study (1929). At much the same time, Melville Herskovits published The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940), a compilation of published sources aimed at drawing the attention of economists to the cumulative achievements of scientific ethnography. These systematic exercises in juxtaposing economic ideas and the results of ethnography launched economic anthropology in its modern form.

Thurnwald, Firth and Herskovits all emphasized that primitive economics was a ‘social affair’ (Thurnwald 1932: xi) and were careful to stress the differences between economies lacking money and machines and those dominated by markets. Lionel Robbins’ (1932) definition of economics as the study of choices made under conditions of scarcity summed up the dominant paradigm at the London School of Economics, even though he had Hayek’s radical Austrian views to contend with there and those of Keynes in the broader arena. Firth was more impressed by this economic orthodoxy than were Herskovits and Thurnwald. Indeed he was concerned to show that the concepts and tools of modern economics had general validity. Firth thought he had solved the ‘pseudo-problem’ raised by Malinowski by insisting that ‘complex social obligations’ do not detract from the basic explanatory power of ‘rational economic choice’ (1965: 331). To this extent he deserves to be seen as the first ‘formalist’. He used the basic categories of economics to organize his chapters; but, in order to understand the rationale for any given pattern of behaviour, he had to describe the context in some detail. The result is a rich ethnographic description of economic institutions, lightly informed by a rhetoric of rational choice.

The field of economics that Herskovits (1940) wished to confront with findings on economic life around the world was much more contested in America, where neo-classical economics faced a serious challenge from institutional economists (Yonal 1998). The Great Depression had destroyed the credibility of laissez faire: finding ways of regenerating public trust in the banking system had a higher priority than refining a micro-economic theory that was only normative at best. American anthropologists were accordingly less deferential to liberal economics. Herskovits too organized his material under headings that would be familiar to economists, even arguing that ‘…since land, labor and capital are ever-present forces in non-industrialized economies, it is apparent that they must yield some returns’ (1952:303). But he also felt free to criticize economic orthodoxy, drawing on the likes of Keynes, Veblen and even Marx, as well as ethnographic evidence culled from ‘non-literate peoples’.

If Herskovits was hoping for a dialogue between anthropologists and economists, Frank Knight, author of a pioneering book on the economics of risk (1923), quickly disabused him. Knight was sure that outsiders did not understand the principles of economics – or at least his branch of it. He began by attacking Ralph Linton’s puff for the book:

[When] Professor Linton says: “…the economic problems of ‘primitive’ man are essentially the same as our own and many of them can be studied even better in ‘primitive’ societies, because they manifest themselves in simpler form”…he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. (Knight 1999 [1941]:108)

Herskovits did in fact contrast ‘machine and non-machine societies’, but he also tried to show that the classical categories of economics should be extended to the latter and he criticized economists for failing to recognize their own cultural limitations. Knight claimed that ‘buying and selling at a profit’ was not the central feature of American ‘business enterprise’, as Herskovits seemed to think, but rather ‘the impersonal attitude (which excludes bargaining!) and a labour market are really distinctive.’ (Ibid.:109) His main criticism, however, concerned epistemology. The other social sciences, including institutional economics, were empirical and neo-classical economics alone

…effectively uses inference from clear and abstract principles, and especially intuitive knowledge, as a method….[T]he conceptual ideal of economic behaviour is assumed to be, at least within limits, also a normative ideal, that men in general…wish to make their activities and organization more “efficient” and less wasteful…[T]he anthropologist, sociologist, or historian seeking to discover or validate economic laws by inductive investigation has embarked on a “wild goose chase”. Economic principles cannot be even approximately verified – as those of mathematics can be, by counting and measuring. (Ibid:111-113, our italics)

The principles of economics are the same wherever they are applied, but economists should beware of professing to be anthropologists and the latter had better learn what economists know before they tick them off for cultural ignorance.

Herskovits included Knight’s review along with his own rejoinder in the second edition of his book (1952). He still argued that ‘comparative economics’ was a project to which the two disciplines should each contribute. He rejected the notion that any science could rely exclusively on deduction and intuition or could be indifferent to facts; and clearly did not feel that he had lost the argument. Nor did anthropologists stop indulging in the practices that Knight complained of. But in the meantime, economics was rapidly remaking itself as a positive science. The organizational demands of the war led to a mathematical revolution in the discipline in the 1940s, led by two Dutchmen, Jan Tinbergen and Tjalling Koopmans (Warsh 2006). The post-war rise of economists to a position of unprecedented intellectual hegemony was fuelled by these econometric methods and by information-processors of increasing sophistication. Knight’s intuitive and normative approach to economic reasoning came to look rather quaint. It was displaced by an aspiration to model the real world; and economists asserted their new mastery of the public sphere with a dazzling repertoire of theorems, charts and numbers.

Both economics and anthropology had experienced major changes since the 1870s. Professionalization, in the form of mathematical skills or learning vernacular languages, increasingly separated scholarly communities that had never been particularly close. Malinowski’s challenge to the economists was easily ignored by them, just as the Freudians were able to dismiss his assault on the Oedipus complex (1926). Mauss’s armchair speculations were hardly noticed outside his own country. Firth and Herskovits claimed that the burgeoning literature on primitive economics was ripe to launch a comparative analysis broadly using the categories of neo-classical economics, but this never came about. Instead, after the Second World War, in Heath Pearson’s words, ‘economics and anthropology went through an ugly, drawn-out divorce’ (2000: 982). It is not evident that they were married in the first place.

The ‘golden age’ of economic anthropology (1950s to 1970s)

In retrospect, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s has a unity that was not obvious at the time. The world’s leading industrial powers, led by a United States committed to public spending and international co-operation, together engineered the longest economic boom in world history. Writing of ‘the short twentieth century’, Eric Hobsbawm (1996) described the period 1948-1973 as a ‘golden age’, marked by the close integration of nation-states and industrial capitalism on both sides of the Cold War. Certainly it was the heyday of the universities and of the social sciences in particular. So perhaps it is not surprising that economic anthropology seems to have flourished at this time.

As we noted in our Introduction, Karl Polanyi’s direct impact on the field of economic anthropology came, not from his historical critique of capitalism, The Great Transformation (1944), but from a contribution to Trade and Market in the Early Empires (1957), ‘The economy as instituted process’. He argued here that two meanings of the word ‘economic’ have been conflated: the substantive and the formal. The first refers to the provisioning of material wants, whereas the second is a means-end relationship, the mental process of economizing. Most pre-industrial societies are ruled by institutions that guarantee collective survival; but industrial societies have a delocalized (‘disembedded’) economy, ‘the market’, in which individual decision-making rules. Anthropologists and historians can study the first on concrete empirical grounds, while the abstract methods of economists are suited to the latter. In other words, economists can retain their commanding intellectual position in modern society, as long as the rest of us concentrate on studying exotic or dead societies. This left economic anthropology to be fought over by Polanyi’s followers (‘substantivists’) and those who insisted that an abstract individualism of universal pretension had a place in the subject (‘formalists’). The 1968 volume edited by Edward Leclair and Harold Schneider, Economic Anthropology, is a representative collection of both sides’ positions. It was of course the Methodenstreit again, with one side claiming that economy is everywhere the same and the other that it is different, while each produced accounts of sameness-in-difference to varying degrees.

Polanyi’s main venture into anthropologists’ territory was the historical study, Dahomey and the Slave Trade (1966), and Africa was a principal location for the work of his followers. Their leader was Paul Bohannan, a student of Herskovits who produced the most notable substantivist ethnography, concerning the Tiv of Nigeria (1968, with Laura Bohannan) and several articles which have shaped the anthropology of exchange, markets and money ever since. In his monograph, Bohannan insisted on the importance of indigenous cultural categories for an understanding of Tiv economy, while introducing as a means of cross-cultural comparison Polanyi’s three-fold typology of exchange. Polanyi in his Dahomey study had insisted on the difference between ‘general-purpose money’ (our own) and ‘special-purpose monies’ which he claimed enjoyed wide circulation in the non-industrial world. Bohannan (1955, 1959) developed this idea to argue for the existence of separate ‘spheres of exchange’ among the Tiv. Subsistence items, luxuries and goods expressing the highest social values circulated in separate compartments, since they were incommensurate. The introduction of western money with colonialism was a cultural disaster since it broke down barriers to exchange between the spheres. This story has passed into anthropological folklore as a staple of what every student learns, even though it has been attacked as factually wrong by historians (Dorward), and found theoretically naïve (Dupre and Rey 1973) and misleading by a wide variety of anthropologists (Parry and Bloch 1989, Guyer 2004, Hart 2005).

Bohannan’s main partner in taking up the cudgels for the substantivist cause was an economist, George Dalton. They produced a number of collections together, notably Markets in Africa (1963), where the focus of economic activity in non-industrial societies on market-places rather than ‘the market’ is explored through an impressive range of case studies. Dalton pushed the logic of Polanyi’s original suggestion (1957) to the formal extreme of proposing that anthropologists’ efforts be limited to non-capitalist economies. He was a keen polemicist (1969, 1971) who did more than anyone to keep the flames of academic debate burning.

The formalists did not lack their own polemicists, the most memorable example being Scott Cook’s (1968) parody of Polanyi’s followers as victims of an ‘obsolete anti-market mentality’. Harold Schneider produced his own synthesis of the formalist position in Economic Man (1974). His economic analysis rested ultimately on a generalized utilitarianism which at times descended to the level of examples about calculating whether to accept a kiss. A new strand of ‘transactionalist’ anthropology, drawing its inspiration from Fredrik Barth (1963), flourished at this time, demonstrating (as Firth had long before) that a utilitarian framework could be a means of describing a complex institutional context. Formalist anthropologists, whose knowledge of the history of economics does not appear to have been strong, sacrificed the sensitivity to institutional context shown by leading economists such as Marshall in order to promote a universalizing rhetoric of ‘maximizing individuals’. Eventually some of them found that a serious exposure to economics lent weight to their efforts; and formalism broke up into a number of specialist approaches drawing on information theory, game theory, cost-benefit analysis, rational choice, agricultural development and a host of other spin-offs from mainstream economics. By the 1980s many US universities were insisting that economic anthropologists should have a higher degree in economics rather than maintain the foolishness of the recent past.

Meanwhile, the anti-colonial revolution gathered pace, launching the project of collaboration between rich and poor countries known as ‘development’. This was an explicit revival of Victorian evolutionism, administered now by America in the context of the collapse of European empire, and as such its premises did not sit easily with fieldwork-based ethnography. As long as the post-war economic boom lasted, there was some point in anthropologists signing up for a constructive programme of ‘modernization’; but before long, more critical perspectives (‘underdevelopment’, ‘dependency theory’, ‘world systems’) took on greater salience. It was not until the 1980s that anthropologists found regular employment in development bureaucracy (Hart 2002).

Richard Salisbury’s From Stone to Steel (1962), an account of economic transformation in Melanesia, showed how a formalist premise could produce a rich and nuanced ethnographic argument. Another outstanding study was Polly Hill’s (1963) The Migrant Cocoa Farmers of Southern Ghana. Ghana was the world’s leading cocoa producer, but its farmers were assumed to be African ‘peasants’ adding cocoa production to their subsistence farms. Hill traced the industry to its origins in the late nineteenth century and showed that the cocoa farmers were pioneers, opening up virgin forest, often in companies capable of hiring Swiss construction firms to develop the infrastructure that they needed. They invented new share-cropping institutions as a means of recruiting labour. Hill (1970) was sure that Ghana’s cocoa industry was capitalist from the beginning; but this capitalist class did not capture the state and her message so disturbed prevailing assumptions of western superiority (often held by anthropologists, despite themselves) that it has still not been fully absorbed.

Clifford Geertz was closely associated with the ‘development’ paradigm while laying the groundwork for the ‘cultural turn’ in economic anthropology two decades later. He published two exemplary monographs in our field at the same time. Agricultural Involution (1963a) is framed as a conventional study of the causes of Java’s underdevelopment until the analysis takes off using a concept borrowed from art history. In Peddlers and Princes (1963b), Geertz addressed the contrasting faces of Indonesian entrepreneurship, identifying two economic ideal-types in a Javanese town. The majority were occupied in a street economy that he labeled ‘bazaar-type’. Opposed to this was the ‘firm-type’ economy consisting largely of western corporations who benefited from the protection of state law. These had form in Weber’s (1981) sense of ‘rational enterprise’ based on calculation and the avoidance of risk. National bureaucracy lent these firms a measure of protection from competition, thereby allowing the systematic accumulation of capital. The ‘bazaar’ on the other hand was individualistic and competitive, so that accumulation was well-nigh impossible. Here and in his work on the Moroccan suq (Geertz, Geertz and Rosen 1979), Geertz pointed out the irony of an economics that takes the bazaar as its model for studying the decisions of individuals in competitive markets, while treating as anomalous the monopolies preferred by capitalist firms and state bureaucracy. Even more curious, the modern discipline made this switch to methodological individualism just when a bureaucratic revolution was transforming mass production and consumption along corporate lines. This was when the more powerful states awarded new privileges to capitalist corporations and society took its centralized form as national bureaucracy (Hart 2005). The economists did not adopt Geertz’s conceptual vocabulary. A decade later, however, Hart (1973), drawing on the same Weberian idea of rationalization, was able to sell them the concept of an ‘informal economy’ in Third World cities.

The world turned for the worse in the 1970s and the other side in the Cold War gained a lot of intellectual credibility as a result. French structuralist Marxism and underdevelopment theories coming out of Latin America and the Middle East achieved widespread circulation among Anglophone economic anthropologists at this time. To some extent the gap left by the end of the formalist-substantivist debate was filled by Marshall Sahlins’s Stone-Age Economics (1972). This was an eclectic melange of formalism (Chayanov’s marginalism), substantivism (Polanyi meets Hobbes) and ‘the domestic mode of production’ (a Marxist-sounding variant of Bücher and the oikos theory). By the end of that decade, Stephen Gudeman signed off on post-war optimism with The Demise of a Rural Economy (1978) a study of commoditization in a Panamanian village that made sophisticated use of classical political economy to address basic questions of value.

French Marxist anthropology enjoyed cult status during the 1970s. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar (1970) produced a reading of Capital that divested it of any residual elements of Hegelian philosophy and brought it into line with both structuralist methodology and the most modern ‘scientific’ approaches emanating from America, notably systems theory. The phenomenology of the human subject, the dialectic and indeed history itself were in effect dropped from their scheme. In their place a deep structure of the ideal mode of production was outlined, having three elements – producers, non-producers and means of production – whose variable combination was realized as concrete modes of production (Balibar 1970). Much attention was paid to the relationship between economic, political and ideological levels of the mode of production and to the question of which was dominant and/or determinant in any given case. Althusser abandoned the ideological notion of ‘society’ in favour of ‘social formations’ in which, it was recognized, more than one mode of production were normally combined.

The key figure in bridging Lévi-Straussian structuralism and Marxism, France and the Anglophone world was Maurice Godelier, whose Rationalité et irrationalité en économie (1966) was translated into English in 1972 with a new Introduction. In this work Godelier borrowed explicitly from the structural-functionalism of Parsons (1937) and Radcliffe-Brown (1952). A long review of the formalist-substantivist debate led him also to endorse Polanyi’s ideas, while the whole book attempted to redeem a universal concept of rationality from its abuse in the hands of liberal economists and their sympathizers. Godelier applied this notion of rationality not only to persons but also to systems, thereby setting up a contradiction between structure and agency that he was unable to resolve. This scheme has never been successfully applied to a moving, historical society; but it paved the way to a greater openness to Marxism in the 1970s.

Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey all acknowledged their debt to Althusser, but they sustained a lively debate among themselves over their common ethnographic area, West and Central Africa. All three wrote major field monographs, but Meillassoux’s L’anthropologie économique des Gouro de Côte d’Ivoire (1964) became the locus classicus for discussion. His later synthesis, Femmes, greniers et capitaux (1981), was a more ambitious attempt to compare the means of accumulation in tribal, peasant and capitalist societies. Terray’s (1972) reanalysis of the Gouro ethnography set out a method for classifying the material base of a society in great detail, so that its modes of production may be inferred empirically and concrete particulars incorporated into a materialist analysis. Pierre-Philippe Rey’s monograph on a matrilineal tribe of the French Congo, Colonialisme, néo-colonialisme et transition au capitalisme (1971), was seminal. First, it marked an original contribution to the literature on matriliny, slavery and European penetration of the Congo, whereas many Marxists merely restated what was already known in a new jargon. Second, Rey outlined here his famous idea of a ‘lineage mode of production’ (Rey 1975). Third, he spelled out the issue of ‘articulation of modes of production in a structure of dominance’, showing concretely how colonial capitalism restructured the lineage and petty commodity modes of production for its own ends.

Why should this small band of men have had such a disproportionate effect on English-speaking anthropologists? Their success may be attributed in part to the synthetic position French structuralism occupied between German philosophy, including Marxism, and Anglo-Saxon scientific empiricism. The modernization of Marx, by incorporating systems theory and dumping the dialectic, produced a version of structural-functionalism sufficiently different to persuade readers that they were learning something new and similar enough to allow them to retain their customary way of thinking, temporarily discredited by the end of empire. The most prominent enthusiasts in the English-speaking world were Joel Kahn and Jonathan Friedman, the former more influenced by the Althusserians, the latter by Godelier; both contributed to a volume of British Marxist anthropology edited by Maurice Bloch (1975). Kahn’s Indonesian ethnography (1975, 1980) is the more explicitly economic of the two, but Friedman’s (1975) reconstruction of the Edmund Leach’s celebrated Highland Burma ethnography can also readily be assimilated into a holistic version of economic anthropology and is the most interesting application of Godelier’s approach. Friedman later became a convert to the ‘world systems’ approach of Immanuel Wallerstein (1974).

French Marxism disappeared as suddenly as it had burst on the Anglophone scene. It did not survive the great watershed of post-war history, when social democracy gave way to rule by neo-liberal conservatives (later abbreviated to ‘neo-liberalism’). With it went the last vestige of a central focus to debates within economic anthropology.

Anthropologists’ encounters with neo-liberal capitalism (1980s to 2000s)

It was clear even at the time that the 1980s were a watershed. This was the decade of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and of the first systematic applications of the neo-liberal ideology that had been threatening Keynesian hegemony for some time already (not least inside economics itself, where Milton Friedman was the chief apostle of ‘monetarism’ and ‘free’ markets). And then the annus mirabilis of 1989 brought, if not the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama 1992), at any rate that of the ‘second world’. Three trends underwrite the claim that the world economy became more integrated than ever before in the last quarter century. First, the collapse of the Soviet bloc left the world market undivided for the first time; second, the economic resurgence of China, India and the rest of Asia, has brought half of humanity into the global circuit of capital at a new level; and third, a revolution in transport and communications has created a single interactive network for which there is no precedent.

The work of economic anthropologists has been rather fragmented of late; but they have generated a critical commentary on capitalist civilization at a time when the market economy became truly global. There has been greater theoretical self-awareness, even a degree of openness to the history of economic and political ideas (e.g. Dumont 1977); but anthropologists have so far avoided making a direct challenge to the economists on their home territory of national and global economic analysis. At the same time, although most anthropologists still rely on fieldwork as their distinctive method, the ethnographic model of research has come under considerable pressure as a result of theoretical developments sometimes labelled ‘post-modernism’. This has led to new approaches to the economy using experimental methods; but these efforts have generally stopped short of offering an anthropological perspective on our moment in world history. This is a pity, since the end of the Cold War, the birth of the internet and the globalization of money markets cry out for comprehensive historical treatment. The result, however, is that economic anthropologists now study the innermost workings of capitalism at its core and in its global spread; the privatization of what were recently communist economies (‘post-socialist transition’); and the plight of poor people in non-western countries, as defined by international bureaucracy (‘development’).

When anthropologists turn to studying world capitalism in the longue durée, the example of a few pioneers will weigh heavily. Sidney Mintz, long an ethnographer of Caribbean economy, has been particularly innovative in his methods. His biography of a Puerto Rican plantation worker (1960) serves as one model for research and writing and his history of sugar production, trade and consumption in England, the cradle of modern capitalism, another; but he has rarely been emulated. Eric Wolf’s synthesis, Europe and the People without History (1982), offers a comparative framework for the incorporation of the twentieth century’s ethnographic legacy into Marxist economic history. Their contemporary, Marshall Sahlins, launched a structuralist critique of the western culture of consumption in La pensée bourgeoise (1976) and has since examined the cosmological roots of western economic ideas (1996). He has become a trenchant opponent of anthropologists’ new preoccupation with western capitalism, believing that it substitutes for developing a theory of culture through study of non-western alternatives (2000). Finally Jack Goody, having taken on the Western parochialism of Marx, Weber and the founding fathers of social theory in The East in the West (1996), has engaged with the history of modern capitalism itself in Capitalism and Modernity: the great debate (2004).

Following Boas’s example in making culture plural, anthropologists have been quick to identify a variety of capitalisms (Blim 2000), and not only of the national sort. Daniel Miller’s study of Trinidad, Capitalism: an ethnographic approach (1997) is a defiant assertion of the validity of traditional methods under contemporary conditions. Others have examined the dominant forms of corporate capitalism in a more experimental frame of mind (Marcus 1998, Hart 2005). Consistent with this new focus, there has been a veritable deluge of anthropological work on money, including a recent spate of studies of financial institutions (Maurer 2005, 2006). This work aims to humanize the anonymous institutions that govern our lives; and some of it does begin to bridge the gap between readers’ everyday experience and the global economy, showing, for example, how digitization is altering the conditions of speculation and trade for workers in the finance industry (Zaloom 2006).

Thomas Crump (1981) was the pioneer in the anthropology of money. Parry and Bloch’s Money and the Morality of Exchange (1989) then brought together a number of ethnographers to explore how non-westerners make money serve their own social purposes; (the sociologist Vivienne Zelizer (1994) does something similar for western societies). Hart (1986, 2000), drawing on an initial contrast between states and markets as ‘two sides of the coin’, analyzed the consequences of the information revolution for money seen in world historical perspective. Lately he has analyzed the persuasive power of money through a comparison with other universals, such as language, time and number (Hart 2007; cf. Crump 1978). Gregory (1997) explicitly places his Indian ethnography within the turbulence of global money markets in recent decades; while Weatherford (1997) provides a wonderfully diverse history of money.

Money is often considered to be a bad thing, especially by people who have little of it; Parker Shipton’s East African monograph, Bitter Money (1989), evokes Taussig’s famous The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980). Recently, Heonik Kwon (2007) has shown how the process of dollarization in Vietnam is projected into the sphere of popular religion through payments of ghost money to the dead. The collection, Money and Modernity: state and local currencies in Melanesia (Akin and Robbins 1999), contains important essays by Foster (1999) and Guyer (1999), among others. Jane Guyer’s extensive research in this area – the collections Money Matters (1994), Credit, Currencies and Culture (2000, with Stiansen) and Money Struggles and City Life (2002) – has culminated in a synthesis (2004) in which she makes the case for the emergence of a distinctive commercial culture in Atlantic Africa that has been largely missed by ethnocentric economic historians and myopic ethnographers alike. Bill Maurer’s Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic banking, alternative currencies, lateral reason (2005) is another highly original contribution to this topic. Ruben Oliven (1998) offers a Brazilian anthropologist’s take on the American way of money, thereby opening up the endless possibilities for cross-cultural research in this field today.

The process of getting people to spend money – marketing, the art or science of selling – is also a rapidly expanding field. Marianne Lien’s Marketing and Modernity (1997) is based on research in a Norwegian food company. She argues that corporate marketing is an expert system of shared, specialized knowledge; and describes marketing as a “disembedding mechanism” that operates on a global level. Kalman Applbaum, in The Marketing Era (2003), is in substantial agreement. He shows how modern marketing, from its origins in 18th century England to its culmination in 20th century America, has absorbed moral criticism into its own quasi-religious system. Whereas an earlier generation of ethnographers (Taussig 1980, Ong 1987) highlighted the devastating consequences of capitalist development for local cultures, Applbaum shifts the culture contact model to one more suited to the globalizing present. He emphasizes the emergence of mutual or shared meanings and goals in economic actions (why articulation often appears to be consensual) rather than explicit power dynamics. William Mazzarella (2003), following the lead of Brian Moeran in Japan (1996), shows how advertising, one branch of marketing, takes on local dynamics in Bombay.

‘Everyone knows’ that the chief site of capitalist economy has shifted from work to consumption (Miller 1996); and economic anthropology has been no exception. In The World of Goods (1979), Mary Douglas and Byron Isherwood argued that, if economists were serious about consumer choice being the engine of modern economy, they should turn to anthropologists for guidance on its cultural logic. But of course the marketing professionals had already made a science of that. Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984) influentially examined how social class is revealed in everyday consumption practices. But Arjun Appadurai, with ‘Commodities and the politics of value’, his introduction to The Social Life of Things (1986), inspired a generation of ethnographers to explore subject-object relations in what had previously been taken to be the anonymous sphere of capitalist commerce. Since then, Daniel Miller has published a series of books taking the theory of consumption into shopping, the internet and mobile phones. His Dialectics of Shopping (1999) is a Hegelian approach to the subject; and in Virtualism (Carrier and Miller 1998), anthropologists unusually address the consequences of the digital revolution for the economy. James Carrier has been a pioneer of the new anthropology of Western capitalism with books such as Meanings of the Market (1997), while Miller (1998) has developed ‘material culture’ as the umbrella term for his associates’ focus on the importance of things (e.g. Chevalier 2002).

This heady mix of money, marketing and consumption has marginalized the study of production, which was never a central focus of economic anthropology (Spittler 2007). Even so there have been some intriguing studies of post-industrial production, such as Birgit Müller’s of collective enterprises in West Berlin (1991) and later in East Germany (2007). Mollona (2005) brings a perspective from structuralist Marxism to his ethnography of neo-liberal deindustrialization in an English steel town, but he also draws on the idea of an ‘informal economy’ (Hart 1973, 2006) and on Parry’s investigations of work and labour relations in an Indian steel plant, the Nehruvian antithesis of the informal sector (Parry et al 1999).

Distribution, the question of property in particular, has attracted a lot of attention in recent years (Hunt and Gilman 1998, Hann 1998). This is a contested field in which there is disagreement over basic concepts: while legal anthropologists have recently elaborated a sophisticated analytical model for the cross-cultural analysis of property, setting economic aspects alongside many other social functions (F. and K. von Benda-Beckmann and Wiber 2006), others maintain that the very notion of property is Eurocentric and therefore inappropriate in studying regions such as Melanesia (Strathern 1999; Strathern and Hirsch 2004). Despite such concerns, land tenure has remained a major focus of empirical research efforts worldwide; the contributions of Elinor Ostrom and her associates (e.g. 2002) to debates over common property have attracted much attention outside anthropology. More recently, issues of intellectual property (Verdery and Humphrey 2004, Hart 2005) and ‘cultural property’ (Kasten 2004, Kaneff 2004, Brown 2003) have been gaining ground. In an overview of this new literature Hann (2007) applies the perspective of Polanyi to the application of property rights to such new ‘fictitious commodities’; rather than exaggerate contemporary ‘propertization’ trends, he draws attention to a new form of ‘double movement’: the scope of property is continuously modified, both from above through the regulations of states and other authorities, and from below through the actions of citizens and consumers.

The vast region formerly known as ‘the second world’ has become not only a laboratory for neo-liberal experimentation at every level of society, but also one for competing styles of investigation in anthropology, including economic anthropology. Some have remained faithful to ‘community study’ approaches as they document the often painful processes of rural decollectivisation (Abrahams 1996, Verdery 2004, Hann et al 2003, Hann 2006). Werner has pursued the classical theme of reciprocal exchanges in showing how rural people cope with dislocation in Kazakhstan (1999). Others have been more adventurous, e.g. Lemon’s (1998) analysis of cultural understandings of money in Moscow and Humphrey on the housing preferences of new Russian elites (2002). Humphrey’s work on barter (together with that of other Russian specialists) generated a rare empirical collaboration with economists (Seabright 2000). The contrast between her recent work (2002) and her earlier classic account of a Soviet collective farm (1983) shows how this anthropologist has kept abreast of changing styles in the discipline.

In Doctrines of Development (1996), Cowen and Shenton suggest that, since the time of the industrial revolution, the word ‘development’ has had two principal meanings when applied to the economy: the sources of capitalist growth and ameliorating the destructive consequences of that growth. Anthropologists have been drawn to the ‘development’ industry in increasing numbers, but this has generally been as purveyors of sticking plaster, not as part of a serious investigation into the roots of economic growth and decline (Hart 2002). There have been overviews of regional development drawing on anthropological studies (Hart 1982, Cook 2004). The literature on ‘informal economy’ has burgeoned since its inception in the early 1970s (Hart 2006). Janet Mcgaffey’s The Real Economy of Zaire (1991), the second volume of an outstanding trilogy, has extended this tradition of ethnographic realism; while Janet Roitman’s Fiscal Disobedience (2004) looks at the question through attempts at economic regulation in Africa. Parry’s long-term study of a steel plant and its surrounding area and the collection he co-edited, Worlds of Indian industrial labour (1999), have generated findings of great comparative significance.

If anthropologists have developed critical perspectives on capitalism at the core, the dominant trend in studies of ‘development’, reflecting the sad history of poor countries, has been overwhelmingly negative. It could be said that the commitment of rich countries to ‘development’ of the periphery has been more rhetorical than real; and this is reflected in a post-structuralist discourse that is mainly talk about talk (Escobar 1995). James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine (1994) is a brilliant exposé of development projects in Lesotho, where he shows that economic initiatives are disembedded from any local meaning and end up promoting metropolitan rather than indigenous interests. His Expectations of Modernity (1999), a re-examination of life in the Zambian Copperbelt, featuring the work of Gluckman and the Manchester School, is an exemplary application of historical methods to anthropological questions. His colleague, Akhil Gupta (1998), has performed a similar critical service in relation to agricultural development in India. Here are the first stirrings of an anthropological engagement with global structures of inequality.

* * * * * *
If economic anthropology has changed its object in the last few decades, what has happened to its theories and methods? Has the formalist-substantivist debate, with Marxism as its negation, survived globalization after the Cold War? Formalism in economic anthropology now represents itself most conspicuously as a (neo-) institutionalist approach (Ensminger 1996, 1998, 2002; Acheson 1994). This ‘institutionalism’ consists mainly in extending market models and rational choice approaches into new areas, while relying heavily on the concept of ‘transaction costs’ borrowed from Douglass North and others (Acheson 2002). It is far removed from the institutional economics of Veblen, Commons and Polanyi and is perhaps best seen as a modern variant of the rationalist paradigm whose standard-bearer in the 20th century has been mainstream neo-classical economics (Hann 2003, Gudeman 2005b, this volume). Ensminger (1998) presents the school as battling heroically to keep the ship of science on course against a raging tide of post-modernism. In reality, such work is best seen as an extension of the line from Raymond Firth, via Schneider’s formalism and Barthian transactionalism, that has allowed ethnographers to engage with the institutional complexity of concrete situations employing a rhetoric of rational choice.

A related approach has been the cross-cultural application of game theory. Tests in Western societies have suggested that considerations of fairness, for example, can lead individual agents to deviate from the model of homo economicus. Some have come to similar conclusions on the basis of ‘experiments’ with games in different parts of the world (Henrich et al 2004). The objective of this research is not just to demonstrate that ‘culture’ determines economic behaviour, but to establish systematic links between cultural and biological evolution. Few contemporary anthropologists have been impressed by the results, but this attempt to get back to a 19th century agenda does build bridges to economists and biological anthropologists. Perhaps for the first time since Malinowski, papers by anthropologists have appeared in leading economics journals (Henrich ) (the reverse has not yet occurred).

Although the Karl Polanyi Centre for Political Economy continues to flourish as a beacon of trans-disciplinary scholarship that goes against the neo-liberal grain (e.g. McRobbie and Levitt 2000), it is hard to identify a successor to the Polanyi school in economic anthropology. Polanyi’s mantle has passed to historians (Thompson 1991), sociologists (Beckert this volume) and political economists of neo-Keynesian and other persuasions (e.g. Stiglitz 2002; Servet 1999 and this volume) who draw on his work to theorize and critique the ‘Washington consensus’ and globalization in general. The revue du MAUSS school in France (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales; see Godbout and Caillé 2000) consistently produces excellent critical work in the spirit of the great man himself. Economists such as Bruno Théret (1992, 2007) and Serge Latouche (2004, 2005) enter territory that the English-speaking world tends to reserve to anthropologists and freely draw on their work. The recent publication of a Dictionnaire de l’autre économie (Laville and Cattani 2006) – sixty entries each concerned with an aspect of alternative economics (économie solidaire, micro-credit, social capital, third sector etc) and written by scholars of several disciplines – reveals how widespread Polanyi’s influence is today among those who reject mainstream economic doctrines and policies.

In some Anglophone economic anthropology, Dalton’s opposition between capitalist and non-capitalist economies lives on, if not as an injunction for anthropologists to study one type rather than the other. This antinomy now takes the form of a contrast, allegedly inspired by Mauss (1925), between ‘commodities’ and ‘gifts’, conceived of as representing exchange in the capitalist West and the rest of the world, respectively – or as Marilyn Strathern (1988) puts it, ‘Euroamerica’ and ‘Melanesia’. Chris Gregory’s Gifts and Commodities (1982) helped to crystallize this opposition, even though he never intended the logical contrast to stand for ethnographic separation of whole societies and emphasized their practical combination in Papua New Guinea (Gregory 1997: ). There can be little doubt that Mauss wrote his original essay against the bourgeois tendency to oppose individual commercial self-interest to the altruism of the gift; and this is how he is still understood in France (Hart 2007). Jonathan Parry (1986) made the point that, for Mauss, the archaic gift was a hybrid of the two extremes; somehow, a market ideology that represents Christmas presents as pure gifts was then projected onto Mauss’s text as a basis for contrasting whole economies, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. The difference from the substantivist anthropology of the 1960s is that proponents of the gift/commodity antinomy feel able to write about both types of economy, while keeping the same moral distance from ‘capitalism’.

As we noted above, the neo-Marxist wave had already run out of steam long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Political economy’ is sometimes a codeword for Marxism and it often underpins work in the fields of development, international migration etc. Don Donham (1990) keeps up the Marxist tradition, but this collection of essays on Ethiopia is largely based on earlier work. Scott Cook, who made his name as a ‘formalist’ critic, has recently published an interesting historical review of economic anthropology (2004), written from a Marxist perspective and based solely on Mexican examples. One Marxist anthropologist for whom perestroika was liberating is Don Robotham (this volume). His Culture, Society and Economy: bringing production back in (2005) offers an iconoclastic exposé of the limits of classical liberalism in the face of world production today. Robotham argues that a preoccupation with cultural studies and postmodern social theory has buried the economy from view and, when it is taken into account, the sphere of circulation is given precedence over production. He draws on a delightful metaphor of Marx to contrast ‘the noisy sphere’ (the market) with ‘the hidden abode’ (production). Maurice Godelier, too, has proved that there is life after Marxism by continuing to produce significant work, notably The Enigma of the Gift (1999) and a review of economic anthropology (2000). Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi. The convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi that he pioneered in the 1960s has gained momentum since the end of the Cold War, particularly in France, where the lines between anthropology and the other social sciences were never drawn firmly, since the time of Durkheim and Mauss (Steiner 2005). Jonathan Friedman has continued to mine world systems theory with fruitful effect (Friedman 1994, Friedman and Chase-Dunn 2005), without locating his work within the trajectory of economic anthropology as such. The same can be said of the Comaroffs’ collection, Millennial Capitalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001).

Economic anthropology has been much influenced by the recent focus on culture. Here, the work of Stephen Gudeman stands out for the intellectual rigour of his cultural approach to the economy. In Economics as Culture: models and metaphors of livelihood (1986), he applied his ‘local models’ perspective to the discipline of economics itself as well as to peasant economies in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific. In Conversations in Colombia (Gudeman and Rivera 1990), a sophisticated argument is made for treating contemporary societies made accessible through ethnographic fieldwork as live instances of the historical forces the classical economists grappled with in what became their dead texts. Certainly Gudeman has challenged anthropologists to combine serious exposure to the history of economic ideas with the standard tools of our trade. His recent synthesis, Anthropology of the Economy (2001), opposes the concepts of ‘community’ and ‘market’ (see also this volume), grounding the former in what he calls ‘the base’, in developing a framework that can in principle be applied to the human economy anywhere. In Peopled Economies (2005), a Scandinavian tribute to Gudeman’s leadership in this field, one critic (Hornborg 2005) argues that this takes him away from privileging local actors’ conceptions towards a universalism that owes more to economics than anthropology; while for another he is a slippery post-modernist, lacking a ‘realist’ epistemology (Palsson Syll 2005: 109). Gudeman’s spirited response (2005a) to these critics recalls the polemics of the 1960s: now as then the protagonists seem to be talking past each other.

The field has not lacked works of synthesis in recent decades. John Clammer (1978) had already announced The New Economic Anthropology; Sutti Ortiz’s (1983) collection inaugurated the Society for Economic Anthropology; Stuart Plattner’s (1983) review reflected an American anthropology still strongly linked to the formalist tradition; Rhoda Halperin (1988) considered both formalist and institutionalist approaches in aiming for ‘a comparative science of the economy’; Richard Wilk (1996) is also sympathetic to the cultural turn; while Susana Narotsky (1997) draws on a wider exposure to both Marxist and South American literature. Friedland and Robertson’s Beyond the Marketplace: rethinking economy and society (1990) is an important antecedent for the present volume. Several of the most dynamic currents in contemporary anthropology – such as feminism (Moore 1988) and indigenous knowledge systems (Richards 1985) – have evident implications for the way we think about economy. Finally, James Carrier has recently edited an admirably comprehensive Handbook of Economic Anthropology (2005), the premise of which would be familiar to Firth and Herskovits: anthropologists are still trying to reach economists with their findings. Who knows if any are listening out there?

Conclusions: the next stage

Anthropologists aim to discover the principles animating economic organization at every level from the most particular to the universal. The purpose of economic anthropology, when still known as ‘the economics of primitive man’, was to test the claim that a world economic order must be founded on capitalist principles. The search was on for alternatives that might support a more just economy, whether liberal, socialist, anarchist or communist. Hence the interest in origins and evolution, since society was understood to be in movement and had not yet reached its final form. Anthropology was the most inclusive way of thinking about economic formation; only secondarily was it a critique of capitalist inequality.

The First World War marked a new stage in the convergence between capitalism and highly centralized state bureaucracies. The universities expanded and knowledge was compartmentalized as so many impersonal disciplines modelled on the natural sciences. Anthropology found itself pigeon-holed as the study of those parts of humanity that the others could not reach. The concentration of social power in immense anonymous institutions discouraged people from trying to make a better world by themselves. So, from being at one time a constructive economic enterprise of universal intent, anthropology came to be driven by the passive aim to accumulate an objectified data bank on ‘other cultures’, largely for internal consumption. The profession became fixed in a cultural relativist paradigm, by definition opposed to the universalism of economics. Anthropologists based their intellectual authority on extended sojourns in remote areas and their ability to address the world’s economic trajectory was much impaired as a result.

We have identified here three stages in the development of economic anthropology. In the first, up to and including the Second World War, ethnographers sought to engage the more general propositions of neo-classical economics with their particular findings about “primitive societies”. They failed, mainly because they misunderstood the economists’ epistemological premises. In the second stage, coinciding roughly with the West’s experiment in social democracy at the height of the Cold War, anthropologists argued among themselves about whether or not special theories and methods were needed to study their preserve, tribal and peasant economies, thereby opening the way for Marxists to exercise a temporary dominance, but again mainly referring to the traditional objects of ethnography. The third stage of neo-liberal globalization, which may or may not be concluding in our day, has seen anthropologists open themselves up to the full range of human economic organization, studied from a variety of perspectives. So far, they have only rarely addressed world economy as such, preferring in the main to stick with the tradition of ethnographic observation (Gregory and Altman 1989). The time is ripe for anthropologists to take the extra step of addressing the world economy as a whole as well as its parts; and engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre might be one means to that end.

The issue remains whether or not capitalist economy rests on human principles of universal validity. This argument about sameness and difference plagued post-war economic anthropology, much as it plagued nationalist discourse in 19th century Germany. Anthropologists can be proud of our discipline’s commitment to joining the people where they live in order to find out what they think and do. But fieldwork-based ethnography needs to be integrated once more with the perspective on world history that it overthrew.


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Paper written with Chris Hann, originally for a workshop on Polanyi, the neo-liberal crisis and anthropology, held at Halle, Germany in June 2006. Later expanded into a co-authored text book, Economic Anthropology: history, ethnography, critique, Polity Press (2011).

Comments |3|

  • Polyani’s views on the power of “social interests” are echoed in the work of the economist-turned-philosopher Friedrich Hayek, who argued that modern societies are driven by a basic sympathetic ethic, which evolves out of the family unit, to have reservations about the market. This is because the market involves people benefiting each other, but without doing so intentionally, which is different from our basic ethic. Hayek argued that the only hope, insofar as there was any in the long-term, for economic liberty would be evolved principles and traditions that could provide a counter-weight to the basic sympathetic ethic.

    In fact, few famous economists have been to keen to engage in the other social sciences and humanities as much as Hayek.

    • I am glad you broguht this up. I agree that Hayek is a much more interesting figure that the common stereotype suggests. As it turns out, he was Polanyi’s bete noire, but their shared background in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century should encourage us to go beyond the polemical contrast between them. Thank you.

Category: Anthropology | Economy