Monday, July 4, 2011

Economic Anthropology

People are typically surprised when I describe myself as an “economic anthropologist.” Once we move past the silliness of, “yes, I really don’t study dinosaurs or chase Nazis through Egypt” I usually have enough time to describe my special corner of the field. In a nutshell, economic anthropology takes the best of economics and anthropology and creates a hybrid that allows for the investigation of economic behavior as it is lived and practiced.

When I think about my history as an economic anthropologist I recall a conversation with Roger Janelli (a folklorist who specializes in Korea). Roger reminded me “there is no economy without people.” I start my course in Economic Anthropology with that truism, yet it never fails to surprises me when students believe that there is an economy to be discovered and that it has little or nothing to do with social or cultural life.

Melville Herskovits described economic life as “essentially based on the broader organization of society” (1965 [1940]:7), and it is from that position that most contemporary economic anthropologists begin. We realize the importance of cultural beliefs and social practices and understand that beliefs and practices are balanced against decision making and maximizing. We see individuals as “economic actors” who are involved in making choices; the best choices they can. Balancing needs, wants, beliefs, social practices and the various realms (home and the market or the private and the public) we inhabit, decisions may seem odd to the outsider but the economic anthropologist asks the questions necessary to interpret and translate what is going on.

Economic anthropologists focus a good deal of our work around three areas: production, exchange, and consumption and it might seem fairly simple to ask:

How does a social group produce what it wants, needs, and desires?

How are those goods exchanged?

How are those goods consumed?

In fact, these are difficult questions. Whether we study farmers or foragers, industrial capitalists or the indigenous of a place, the utilitarian and immediate meaning and role of goods (whether produced, exchanged, or consumed) is only a small part of what we want to know. What makes economic anthropology exciting is the energy we bring to looking beyond utilitarian models (see Wilk 2002: 243) as we rethink and focus on the complex nature of production, exchange, and consumption, and the link between consumption and culture, symbolism and the individual.

Economic anthropologists continue to focus their efforts on new issues and bring new perspectives to debates. Economic anthropologists are critical players as we focus on economic relationships that are not male, public, and seemingly rational. We are engaged with discussions of globalization, transnationalism, development, and economic institutions including the stock markets, multinational corporations, and health care. Ecology, landscape, and environment also influence and guide our studies as we define the complex ways in which our lives are intertwined with the world we live in.

Our interests and methods have shifted from categorizing economic behavior to looking at outcomes and processes that define economic space for individuals, communities, businesses, and social groups. We’ve also started to apply the tools of economic anthropology, tools forged in the analysis of rural, tribal peoples (those anthropological populations) to new and heretofore understudied settings--board rooms, stock markets, and the like. To understand the economy doesn’t just mean we should study it; rather, we are in the unique and enviable position to “anthropologize” it (see Eric Wolf 1997). In other words, to look at the social and cultural basis of economic behavior.

Jeffrey H. Cohen
The Ohio State University


Herskovits, Melville J.
1965 [1940] Economic Anthropology: The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wilk, Richard R.
2002 When Good Theories Go Bad: Theory in Economic Anthropology and Consumer Research. In Theory in Economic Anthropology. J. Ensminger, ed. Pp. 239-250, Vol. 18. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Wolf, Eric R.
1997 Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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