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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 disciplines 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 economys 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 subdiscipline 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 Polanyis 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 Polanyis 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 Clintons famous memo to himself, Its 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
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 peoples 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
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 humanitys 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. Marxs
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 selfsufficiency 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 capitalisms
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 isnt 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 worlds 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
The term economy is as specific to the English language as solidarit 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, Nationalkonomie
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
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 Lon 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
Marshalls Principles of Economics (1890), a name that rhymes with mathematics and physics
(Mirowski 1989). Following Edgworths example inMathematical Psychics (1881), economists
began to rely more on numerate methods, but to nothing like the same degree as today.
Marshalls 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 neoclassical economists there in the interwar period (Yonay 1998). The modern notion of the
economy, along with Franklin Roosevelts 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, Bcher 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 Morgans 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 mans 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 Webers

first appointment was in Nationalkonomie, an economic discipline that rejected the universalism
of the British political economists.
A dispute arose in the 1890s between Karl Bcher and Eduard Meyer over the oikos thesis of
Rodbertus published thirty years earlier (Harry Pearson 1957). Bcher supported Rodbertuss 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 wouldnt 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 Kants 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 peoples livelihood. This was an attempt
to resolve the Battle over Methods (Methodenstreit) then being waged between Schmollers
historical economists in Berlin and the followers of Mengers 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. TheMethodenstreit 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 Pearsons 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).
Malinowskis 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 Machs epistemological individualism provided the
theoretical foundation of Malinowskis 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 Mausss Essai sur le don (1924) as the main source of opposition to
Malinowskis fusion of individualist traditions from Britain and Central Europe. Mauss was greatly
enthused by Malinowskis confirmation that the potlatch of Americas 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 Durkheims lead in The
Division of Labour in Society (1893), Mausss 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 Mausss chef doeuvre; it took two translations and a secondary literature,
inspired above all by Lvi-Strauss (1950) and Sahlins (1972), for its radical message to be
absorbed into Anglophone economic anthropology (Sigaud 2002). David Graebers long chapter
on Mauss in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value(2001) is the most complete treatment in
English. Mausss example never launched a school of economic anthropology as such in France.
Richard Thurnwalds 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 Firths 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 Hayeks 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 Lintons 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 formhe simply doesnt 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 generalwish 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 Knights 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. Knights
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.
Malinowskis challenge to the economists was easily ignored by them, just as the Freudians were
able to dismiss his assault on the Oedipus complex (1926). Mausss 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 Pearsons words, economics and anthropology went through an ugly, drawnout 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 worlds 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 Polanyis 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 Polanyis 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.
Polanyis 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
Polanyis 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
nave (Dupre and Rey 1973) and misleading by a wide variety of anthropologists (Parry and Bloch
1989, Guyer 2004, Hart 2005).
Bohannans 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
Polanyis 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
Cooks (1968) parody of Polanyis 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 postwar 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 Salisburys 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 Hills (1963) The Migrant Cocoa Farmers of
Southern Ghana. Ghana was the worlds 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 Ghanas 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 Javas 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 Webers (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 Geertzs
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
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 SahlinssStone-Age Economics (1972). This
was an eclectic melange of formalism (Chayanovs marginalism), substantivism (Polanyi meets
Hobbes) and the domestic mode of production (a Marxist-sounding variant of Bcher 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 Lvi-Straussian structuralism and Marxism, France and the Anglophone
world was Maurice Godelier, whose Rationalit et irrationalit en conomie (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 Polanyis 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
Meillassouxs Lanthropologie conomique des Gouro de Cte dIvoire (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. Terrays (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 Reys
monograph on a matrilineal tribe of the French Congo, Colonialisme, no-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). Kahns Indonesian ethnography
(1975, 1980) is the more explicitly economic of the two, but Friedmans (1975) reconstruction of
the Edmund Leachs celebrated Highland Burma ethnography can also readily be assimilated into
a holistic version of economic anthropology and is the most interesting application of Godeliers

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 neoliberal 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 postmodernism. 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 dure, 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 Wolfs synthesis, Europe and the People without History (1982), offers a
comparative framework for the incorporation of the twentieth centurys ethnographic legacy into
Marxist economic history. Their contemporary, Marshall Sahlins, launched a structuralist critique
of the western culture of consumption in La pense 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 Boass 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 Millers 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 Blochs 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
Shiptons East African monograph, Bitter Money (1989), evokes Taussigs 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 Guyers extensive research in this area the collections Money
Matters (1994), Credit, Currencies and Culture (2000, with Stiansen) andMoney 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 MaurersMutual Life,
Limited: Islamic banking, alternative currencies, lateral reason (2005) is another highly original
contribution to this topic. Ruben Oliven (1998) offers a Brazilian anthropologists 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 Liens 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 Bourdieus 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
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 Mllers 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 Parrys 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
The vast region formerly known as the second world has become not only a laboratory for neoliberal 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. Lemons (1998)
analysis of cultural understandings of money in Moscow and Humphrey on the housing
preferences of new Russian elites (2002). Humphreys 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
Mcgaffeys The Real Economy of Zaire (1991), the second volume of an outstanding trilogy, has
extended this tradition of ethnographic realism; while Janet Roitmans Fiscal Disobedience (2004)
looks at the question through attempts at economic regulation in Africa. Parrys 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 poststructuralist discourse that is mainly talk about talk (Escobar 1995). James Fergusons The AntiPolitics Machine (1994) is a brilliant expos 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 reexamination 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 neoclassical 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 postmodernism. In reality, such work is best seen as an extension of the line from Raymond Firth, via
Schneiders 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 transdisciplinary 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. Polanyis 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 Caill 2000) consistently produces excellent critical work in
the spirit of the great man himself. Economists such as Bruno Thret (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 lautre
conomie (Laville and Cattani 2006) sixty entries each concerned with an aspect of alternative
economics (conomie solidaire, micro-credit, social capital, third sector etc) and written by
scholars of several disciplines reveals how widespread Polanyis influence is today among those
who reject mainstream economic doctrines and policies.
In some Anglophone economic anthropology, Daltons opposition between capitalist and noncapitalist 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 Gregorys 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 Mausss 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
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 expos 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, notablyThe
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 Gudemans 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). Gudemans
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 Ortizs (1983) collection inaugurated the
Society for Economic Anthropology; Stuart Plattners (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
Robertsons 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 worlds 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 Wests 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 Polanyis 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 disciplines 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.