From the inception of the discipline of anthropology, ethnographic monographs have dealt with the economies of the people under discussion as a matter of course. The evolutionists were fundamentally interested in levels of technology and environmental “adaptations,” and functionalists interpreted all social systems in terms of the satisfaction of basic human needs. Subsequently, anthropologists influenced by Marx would see a given society’s “mode of production” as determinant, at least in the last instance, of politics, law, and ideology. Even though none of these theoretical paradigms dominates the field today, it is generally accepted that compelling accounts of social and symbolic behavior must relate them to the material organization of society. Ironically, it appears that economic anthropology loses relevance as a subdiscipline as the larger discipline concerns itself with economics.
Formalism Versus Substantivism
Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders set the tone for an anthropological approach to economic phenomena with his functionalist analysis of the marvelous inter-island kula exchange system. He described this symbolically charged system of transacting shell armbands and necklaces in great detail, explaining kula practice in relation to cultural values other than material advantage. Malinowski used his Melanesian data to challenge the supposed universality of “economic man”—the egotistical schemer of Bentham’s utilitarianism. As Firth pointed out, however, Malinowski’s straw “economic man” was already an outmoded figure for economics by the time the latter was making his argument.
Firth argued that the distinctions Malinowski made were invalid: Economics was a question of means, not ends, and economic relations were simply a component part of the social relations that it was anthropology’s job to study.
Anthropology has, clarified Burling, alternately taken the economy to be (a) a primitive society’s technology and material culture or (b) that range of things that are priced by the market in our own society. There is nothing, he maintains, in the definition of economic behavior that limits it to material ends. There is nothing, to return to the Trobriander, to justify considering the choice to maximize reputation or adhere to custom as antieconomic. The idea that economics consisted in techniques for analyzing behavior regardless of its content—hence “formalist”—was articulated with increasing precision by both anthropologists and economists. It formed one pole of the heated “formalist-substantivist” debate that polarized economic anthropology for at least a decade and, it is argued, made the subdiscipline intellectually inhospitable.
The subject of economics, according to the formalists, is a kind of behavior—”economizing”—that is universally applicable to situations where only limited means are available for achieving a range of ends. Herskovits endorsed this position in the 1952 reissue of his 1940 text The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. Scarcity, he maintained, is universal, as is maximizing behavior on the part of the individual. It is only the cultural matrix within which these occur that varies. The same means are everywhere applied to achieve different ends.
The opposing view was championed by Polanyi and a group of his students from Columbia University. Polanyi analyzed the identity of the economy in contemporary capitalist society and argued that the extent of its autonomy was an absolutely novel historic development. Therefore, not only could other societies not be assumed to have assigned the same independence to economic processes, but the science premised on that independence was, ipso facto, only appropriate to our own society. The difference between the industrial capitalist economy of the West and both contemporary and historic premarket economies was one of substance—hence “substantivist”—and different forms of economy were not susceptible to analysis by a uniform method.
Polanyi defined the economy as “an instituted process of interaction between man and his environment, which results in a continuous supply of want-satisfying means.” The “institution” of an economy or, more famously, its “embeddedness” is subsumed under three general “forms of integration”: reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange. Under systems characterized and provided stability by means of reciprocal exchange or redistribution, the rates of exchange are set by the imperatives of the larger social institutions—such as in the obligation in the Inca Empire for every subject community to make offerings to the son of the sun, which could then be redistributed by the center. Neale and Mayhew pointed to the ongoing tradition of institutionalist economics, which had long been considering nonmarket societies and mechanisms of economic change and noted that the formalism-substantivism distinction was operating within the discipline of economics as well.
Dalton was one of Polanyi’s proponents, using his volume on Markets in Africa to work out Polanyi’s ideas about the different social and political circumstances for trade and elaborating ideas about the separation of the various functions of money in nonmarket societies. He also devoted room in the volumes of Research in Economic Anthropology under his editorship to elaborations or defenses of Polanyi’s ideas. Halperin is another former student who promoted and defended Polanyi’s ideas. Sahlins labeled himself a “substantivist” in Stone Age Economics (1972), but, in fact, he employs neo-classical means to analyze the choices made by hunters and gatherers there.
Formalists bitterly disputed the substantivists’ emphasis on the irreducible particularities of economic systems. At issue, in the claims of neoclassical analysis to be able to model economic behavior the world over, in part, was the authority to direct “development.” Economists could initially dismiss anthropology’s contributions to the larger practical task at hand because, “in addition to a lack of interest in social change, [Anthropology] has been marked by lack of a theory of change powerful enough to have practical consequences.” Similarly, economists and anthropologists disagreed about whether development would be achieved by a given increase in productivity and consumption tout court or whether development involved the strengthening of institutions that could direct resources toward socially and culturally desired ends.
All sides to the debate had numerous chances to refine their theoretical apparatus as development schemes failed throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, the most potent critiques of “development” and its sociological version “modernization” theory were coming from political economy and development studies.
Although he had read Marx, Polanyi stopped short of identifying regular rules underlying the relationships between economies and different social institutions or attempting to account for the motors of social change. The Marxist anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s made much more profound theoretical attempts to wrestle with noncapitalist economies.
Althusser’s structuralist reading of Marx identified the analytic tools that might be extracted from Marx’s study of the rise of industrial capitalism and applied to alternative social formations. Meillassoux is considered the first anthropologist to analyze a precapitalist society in Marxist terms with his study of the Guro of Cote d’lvoire (1964). Rather than applying Marx’s unsatisfactory prefabricated constructs of “Asiatic” or “slave” mode of production, he identified a lineage mode of production by analyzing the direction of surplus extraction in Guro society. In this work and in his subsequent Maidens, Meal, and Money (1981), Meillassoux pointed to the central importance of biological reproduction as a means of production in a situation of abundant land and relatively capital-poor technology. Terray commended Meillassoux for his breakthroughs but argued for a larger vocabulary of “modes of production.” Terray made the historical materialist point that a kinship system is the reflection of social relations of production rather than (contra almost all of British social anthropology except Edmund Leach) a first-order principle.
Rey described the articulation of the capitalist mode of production with the lineage mode of production, including in his analytical frame the world-historical changes taking place in the Congolese society he studied. In Godelier’s work in Oceania, he attempted to show the inseparability of mental and material in both economic base and social superstructure— criticizing Althusser’s layercake image and paralleling the cultural Marxism of someone like Raymond Williams.
From Cultural Ecology to Political Economy
With some exceptions, American anthropologists never adopted a Marxist problematic in the way that French and some British anthropologists did. There was, however, a turn to materialist principles of explanation in the 1960s and 1970s, as the ecological determinisms of an earlier period (Julian Steward, Leslie White) were revisited. Orlove categorized this work as neoevolutionist (Elman Service, Marshall Sahlins) and neofunctionalist (Marvin Harris, Andrew Vayda, Roy Rappaport). The latter group tended to view human societies and their environments as interactive systems, taking inspiration from the systems theory. Marshall Sahlins described a state of primitive abundance, calculating the resources required for hunters and gatherers to supply their needs and observing that their societies did not induce scarcity of want-satisfying means. Marvin Harris and Elman Service worked out different versions of the evolution of human society and culture in terms of adaptations to environmental constraints, the former tending to a techno-environmental determinism. Roy Rappaport derived the ecologically adaptive functions of various religious and ritual observances. Although materialist and evolutionary, none of this work was historical or dialectical.
Eric Wolf emphatically introduced history when he turned to dependency and world systems theory for a reappraisal of anthropology’s modus operandi. Dependency theory had been elaborated by radical economists working in Latin America and Africa who argued, against development and modernization theory, that global integration was serving to under-develop peripheral regions of the globe at the expense of the capitalist “core.” Wallerstein examined the ways European imperialist expropriations had financed the industrial revolution at the expense of the colonies. The new attention to global interconnection took anthropology by storm. Though reactions to the top-down, center-out determinism of dependency theory were quick to appear, the emphasis on the global relations of power that intersect anthropology’s “local” has been tremendously influential.
The move from economics to political economy paved the way for an analysis of the interrelation between power and value at even the most local level. Keith Hart identified the significance of the state in undergirding the value of exchange tokens. Parallel insights have enabled John and Jean Comaroff, James Ferguson, and Sharon Hutchinson to think about the value of cattle in relation to competing political economies.
Exchange and Value
In The Social Life of Things, Appadurai made an appeal for the utility of examining exchange independently of production (although it might be argued that this is what non-Marxist anthropology has been doing since Malinowski reported on the kula ring or since Paul Bohannan brought back proof of Polanyi’s ideas about the social embeddedness of trade from the Tiv). For a Marxist anthropologist, to look at exchange without considering production is to participate in ideological mystification. For most anthropologists, however, exchange processes offer a rich field for examining the cultural construction of meaning and value. Much anthropological and ethnohistorical work has addressed the historical exchange of objects across cultural space, where the meanings of the objects transacted are a matter of contest.
In the early part of the century, Mauss drew widely on existing ethnographic sources to describe a kind of exchange in “archaic” societies that was essentially the opposite of the commodity fetishism of capitalist exchange. Anthropologists have taken up Mauss’s ideas about the relationships of debt and obligation created through gift exchange as a fundamental mechanism of social cohesion. Apart from Gregory’s attempt to ground gifting in specific social relations of production and reproduction, most of the theoretical impact of gifting seems to have been registered outside of the subdiscipline of economic anthropology.
In a general way, the concept of the gift has been helpful in providing insight into processes of incomplete or unstable commodification. The inability of “money” to fully shed its associations with particular people, things, or productive processes and, therefore, to fully close a particular transaction of the type C-M-C (in Marx’s famous notation) has been usefully looked at in terms of the hau of the gift in the nonmarket economy. Anthropologists have also revisited theoretical understandings of “money,” turning to phenomenological philosopher Georg Simmel as well as to Marx and Polanyi to understand various ways in which money fails to operate as a perfect abstraction or fails to be correctly “fetishized.” Taussig describes a case where the money commodity is seen to embody magically generative properties. Jane Guyer argues that precolonial African polities valued people, not as labor power, but as the bearers of unique and irreducible knowledge, who served as critical technologies of production and reproduction. She offers a description of a social imaginary in which value is not ultimately measured in terms of “money”—an abstract, quantifiable medium—primitive or otherwise.
Consumption has also been looked at as a meaning-making practice. Veblen interpreted a wide range of behavior in turn of the century North America in terms of the concept of conspicuous consumption. Bataille proposed that the potlatch be viewed with sacrifice, rather than with trade, as the expression of a quasi-natural law of “expenditure.” Douglas and Isherwood collaborated to produce a general theory about consumption as symbolic, communicative behavior. Bourdieu used the language of markets to analyze processes of cultural consumption as well as to analyze linguistic production, exchange, and accumulation.
The Subdiscipline of Economic Anthropology
Keith Hart argues that the first economic anthro-pologists—Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Kautsky, and Nikolai Bukharin—were anthropologists of the capitalist transition in the West. Certainly, the classics of economic anthropology were often meant as critiques of industrial capitalism, whether as explicitly, as in Malinowski and Mauss, or not.
Given this, it is perhaps ironic that as a subdiscipline, economic anthropology seems currently to be largely constituted by applied anthropology and development studies. A great deal of anthropological work on exchange, in particular, is not generally classified as economic anthropology, nor are studies that examine changes in consciousness that result from and underpin changes in political economy.
Some of this can be attributed to historical accident and terminology, but it seems that, in a larger sense, the science of economics has swallowed the subdiscipline of economic anthropology theoretically—and anthropology deals in its subject matter at the cost of conceding the term. The pages of economic anthropology texts are filled with attempts to understand entrepreneurial behavior across the globe in terms of calculations of marginal utility, opportunity costs, and game theory. When anthropology looks deeply and imaginatively at production, exchange, accumulation, distribution, and consumption, these become “symbolic,” “linguistic,” or just “cultural” phenomena.
- Appadurai, A. (Ed.). (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Douglas, M., & Isherwood, B. (Ed.). (1979). The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. New York: Routledge.
- Halperin, R. H. (1988). Economies across cultures. London: Macmillan.
- Hutchinson, S. (1996). Nuer dilemmas: Coping with money, war, and the state. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Meillassoux, C. (1981). Maidens, meal, and money: Capitalism and the domestic community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Neale, W. C., & Mayhew, A. M. (1983). Polanyi, institutional economics, and economic anthropology. In S. Ortiz (Ed.), Economic anthropology: Topics and theories (pp. 11-20). Lanham, MI: University Press of America.
- Schneider, H. K. (1975). Economic development and anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 4, 271-292.
- Thomas, N. (1991). Entangled objects: Exchange, material culture, and colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
- Valensi, L. (1981). Economic anthropology and history: The work of Karl Polanyi. In G. Dalton (Ed.), Research in economic anthropology (Vol. 4, pp. 3-12). Greenwich, CT: JAI Pre.