Economic Anthropology

Chris Hann

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Economic Anthropology

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Economic anthropology emerged in the 20th century at the interface between sociocultural anthropology (hereafter anthropology) and economics. The latter is nowadays predominantly a universalizing discipline, theorizing deductively on the basis of maximizing individuals and firms. By contrast, anthropologists tend to work inductively from their particular ethnographic cases. Many are suspicious of generalizing the modern concept of “the economy” because it is not easy to demarcate; ways of procuring material livelihood are always embedded in larger contexts of immaterial values and practices that cannot be reduced to any narrow utilitarian calculus. Such scholars may not recognize this subfield at all, or they may argue instead that every aspect of life has an economic aspect and that studies of this aspect should be dispersed across the other bibliographies of this series, rather than be brought together in one place (thus the economic ethic of world religions would be covered under religion, the importance of the family for small businesses under kinship, etc.). However, there have always been some anthropologists sympathizing with the universalist camp. They hold that the axioms of mainstream economics, increasingly shaped by work in fields such as evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, are applicable to all societies in time and space. Meanwhile, economics too varies in time and space. Heterodox practitioners have taken an interest in anthropological ideas in fields such as consumption and even in theories of ritual and symbols, where they may converge with anthropological approaches. In short, a significant body of literature has developed at this interface, but it remains decidedly fuzzy. To restrict consideration to scholars who self-identify as economic anthropologists would be too narrow. On the other hand, not every adaptation of the word economy (as in representational economy, occult economy, etc.) is relevant to our purposes. Not every ethnographic investigation of economic culture or social change can be considered a contribution to economic anthropology. Broad definitions of economic anthropology would include topics such as applied anthropology, business studies, comparative economic systems, development, environmental anthropology (subsuming ecology), and so on, but these subjects are not covered extensively here (some are the subjects of separate OBO articles). This guide proceeds via pragmatic compromises, including a balancing of classical studies from the past with samples and overviews of contemporary trends. It is structured by the standard terms of economics, although recent anthropological investigations of global capitalism show a renewed holistic ambition. Whether economists will take any notice is another matter. The author of this article wishes to thank James G. Carrier, Stephen Gudeman, Keith Hart, Mihály Sárkány, and two anonymous referees.

Article.  11742 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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