Karen Sykes

in Anthropology

Published online June 2016 | | DOI:

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The anthropology of value differs from its study in economics and philosophy. It can be said that these disciplines compete to create universal theories of value that exclude or reconcile contradictory evidence to them. By contrast, the anthropologist’s aim is to understand value in its many particular forms, as grounded in discrete places and times. A primary aim of anthropological theories of value is to repose the question of what value is, by embracing the complexity of ethnographic accounts of value. The legacy of anthropological research that raises “the value question” is distinguished by at least three features. One is the recognition of cultural differences in judging value. The second is the analysis of commensurability of expert with common sense definitions, and the third is the capacity of the theory to embrace logical contradictions, rather than deny these. Anthropological scholarship that recognizes value theories as common knowledge or “common-place” theorizing, or as culturally distinct theories of value highlights informants’ explanations, which are often expressed in vernacular terms, idioms, and phrases, or even apocryphal stories. Whether value is defined as a quality of a thing or person, or as a measure of that quality, the etymology of the word value in the English language alone shows the range of its usage, including its disparate connotations from the deep past into the present, or the many different ways of measuring what is valued in specific social settings. This article lists the most comprehensive and insightful general overviews of the anthropology of value; followed by classic ethnographic studies of value before turning to the legacy of philosophical discussions of value in anthropology; its role in the founding of social science; its branches into political economy, moral economy, and material culture; and as a key point of discussion in modernity theory. The final sections distinguish the French critique of value as a central concept in the comparative method, the American critique of modernity theory’s ethnocentric definition of value, and the new pathways for a Post-Crash revision of value theory in a new moral economy.

Article.  8826 words. 

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

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