The present book itself proves this once again.
It would be wrong to speak of the relationship between economics and anthropology as a dialogue. 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.
After briefly considering the idea of economy in anthropological perspective, we divide our account into three historical periods. The first covers from the s to the s, 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 Thesis history and memory 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 s to the s, when the welfare state consensus was at its peak and European empires were dismantled.
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.
Since economics is a product of western civilization — and of the English-speaking peoples in particular — Thesis history and memory 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 TransformationPolanyi 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.
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. 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. The days are long gone when politicians could concern themselves with affairs of state and profess ignorance of the livelihoods of the masses.
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 media.
The founders of neo-classical economics, such as Marshallstarted 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. At the very least, an anthropological critique will show, as it always has, that claims for the inevitability of currently dominant economic institutions are false.
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.
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