Economic Anthropology

Economic Anthropology:

This is a scholarly field that attempts to describe human economic behavior in its widest geographic, historic, and cultural scope. It is the description and analysis of economic life, by using an anthropological perspective. The anthropological perspective approaches and locates aspects of people’s specific and collective lives, which is to say their societies and lives, in terms of how these aspects associate to one another in an interconnected, though not essentially bounded or very orderly, whole.

The economic anthropologists concentrate on the economic transactions and processes covering, consumption, production, distribution and exchange of products in the primitive societies and peasant societies. They target on the modes of exchange by including ceremonial exchanges. The concepts of redistribution and reciprocity by including the nature of trade and market systems are also studied. The procedure of economic raised and development in societies in the light of socio-cultural factors that effect and find out the economic activity in the society is also intimately studied.

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

Economic anthropology targets on two aspects of economics:

(1) Provisioning, that is the production and distribution of essential and optional goods and services; and
(2) The approach of economizing frequently put in terms of the formalist-substantivist debate.

Empirical approach: provisioning:  

The first approaches that earn prominence in anthropology are that the perspective is basically naturalistic and empirical. It rests on the observation (empirical) of people’s lives as they live them (naturalistic). Extended empirical naturalism, participant observation, has come to describe the field. Their discovering reports how humans gain their living? The answer was a thorough understanding of distribution, production, and consumption. Subsistence strategies by including agriculture, fishing, pastoralism ,hunting and gathering and industrial production has been locus and focus of study. Ethnographers gather information regarding these and other economic features through intensive observation, through lengthy conversations and using a variety of sampling techniques to protect quantitative data. They have been especially thoughtful to how people are rewarded and recruited for their work, to the gender division of labor, and to the ways that burdens and rewards for women shift as the market expands to new areas.

As the early studies of Malinowski (1922) and Mauss ([1925] 1990), exchange has also been of special interest to anthropologists who have explored how transactions may range from pure to obligated gifting to barter, market trade and theft; this research in turn has stimulated studies on consumption and display. Economic anthropologists have study as well the several ways that resources are distributed, goods are situated, and political regimes are supported. Early on, this led to long discussions concerning the conditions under which a surplus is generate in society, who secures it, and how it can be measured in non-monetary contexts. More generally, economic anthropologists target on the ties among power and material life, ranging from gender control of food in households to financial control of monopolies in capitalist markets. Much of the ethnographic data defies our common sense categories, though: for instance, today farmers on marginal land can work the earth with wooden implements and seed potatoes for home consumption, whereas listening to tapes on headphones.

The substantivists: Polanyi

Karl Polanyi (1886–1964) was a Hungarian lawyer turned journalist & economic historian who’s reading of anthropology, especially the work of Richard Thurnwald and Bronislaw Malinowski, led him to generate work that made major contributions to classical Greek studies, economic anthropology and post-Soviet eastern European social policy (Polanyi, 1936, 1944). Polanyi attempts to describe the causes of great depression and the fascism of the year 1930s and 1940s (Goldfrank, 1990). His larger goal was to lay the groundwork for a general theory of comparative economics which would accommodate all economies; past & present.

In anthropology, his influence was great throughout the 1960s and 1970s; then, his work became identified strongly with the ‘substantivist’ side of the strident and irresolvable ‘formalist–substantivist’ debate, and his prominence faded while the formalists largely won the day.

Polanyi’s master work was, The great transformation (1944), in which he study the emergence and (in his view, disastrous) consequences of a new kind of economy, market capitalism, first in England throughout the early nineteenth century and then in the rest of the industrializing world and its global extensions. This new economy was unique in being disembodied from the social matrix; in ideal form, at least, it commoditized and commercialized all services and goods in terms of solitary standard, money, and set their prices through the self-adjusting mechanism of demand and supply. At all earlier times, in contrast, ‘man’s economy submerged in his social relationships’ (Polanyi 1944: 46), and the factors of manufacture were neither monetized nor commoditized. Rather then, access to land and labor was achieved through ties of kinship (adoption, birth marriage) and community. Several pre-capitalist economies had marketplaces, but they did not contain self-regulating, supply-and-demand market economies. Likewise, several employed money but only in transactions involving a restricted range of goods and services.

By commoditizing not only goods but also labor (‘another name for a human activity which goes along with life itself’) and land (‘another name for nature’), the disembedded capitalist (market) economy of nineteenth-century England threatened to eliminate ‘the protective covering of cultural institutions’, by leaving the common people to ‘perish from the effects of social exposure’ (Polanyi 1944: 72–3). In accordance, the nineteenth & twentieth century’s saw a ‘double movement’: firstly, the disembodying of the economy under the self regulating market, then the emergence of countermeasures ‘designed to verify the action of the market relative to land, labor and money’ (1944: 76). These countermeasures complete their reason politically, by partially re embedding the economy, typically culminating in the welfare state or state socialism.

Formalist – Substantivist debate:

This is the dispute in ECONOMIC ANTHROPOLOGY among those scholars who argue that formal rules of neoclassical economic theory derived through the study of capitalist market societies can be employed to describe the dynamics of premodern economies ("formalists") and those who argue that goods & services in the substantive economy are generated and distributed through specific cultural contexts ("substantivists"). Formalists contend that since all economies include the rational pursuit of, access to, and use of, scarce resources through self-interested, formal economic rules, maximizing social actors,  can be utilized to describe them (H. Schneider 1974). According to the formalists, the subject of economics is a sort of behavior “economizing” that is applicable universally to situations where only restricted means are available for obtaining a range of ends. Herskovits endorsed this location in the year of 1952 reissue of his 1940 text The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. Scarceness, he maintained, is universal, as is maximize behavior on the part of the individual. It is just the cultural matrix in which these take place that varies. The similar means are everywhere applied to obtain different ends.

The opposing view was championed through Polanyi and a group of his students from Columbia University. Polanyi studies the identity of the economy in contemporary capitalist society and argued that the extent of its autonomy was an absolutely novel historic development. Thus, not only could other societies not be supposed to have assigned the similar independence to economic processes, however the science premised on that independence was, ipso facto, only suitable to our own society. The difference among the industrial capitalist economy of the West and both historic premarket and contemporary economies was one of substance therefore “substantivist” and distinct forms of economy were not susceptible to analysis by a uniform method. It contends that distinct forms of exchange have distinct sets of rules and expectations (Dalton 1961). Following Karl Polanyi the substantivists argue that there are three fundamental forms of exchange: redistribution, reciprocity, and market exchange (K. Polanyi et al. 1957). By this viewpoint, the rational, maximizing strategizing that lies at the heart of formalist economic anthropology and neoclassical economics is characteristic only of market economies.

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