Monday, July 4, 2011

Introduction: Taking an anthropological perspective to economics

Coins, 2005.  Photo by Ryan Anderson.
Coins are fascinatingly innocuous and mundane.  Or that's how it seems, since they are everywhere.  They are the minutia of our everyday economic transactions; rarely do we think much about them.  They are just there, stuffed under seats, lost in the bottom of purses and backpacks, even cast aside in the middle of the street.  Coins are such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives that we don't really think about how these small things are connected to wider economic networks.  There is a kind of double meaning when it comes to economics: the economics of quotidian life (coins, credit cards, receipts, bills, etc), and the economics of economists, policymakers, academics, bankers, and Wall Street.  One is so everyday that it doesn't seem to require much attention; the other is so abstract that it seems impossible to comprehend.

What does "the economy" really mean, anyway?  Despite the confidence of the folks who write those introductory economics textbooks, I don't think it's as simple of a question as many people assume (and there are plenty of anthropologically minded folks who agree with me on this point).  In the United States, for example, when politicians start talking about the economy they often speak in vague terms about "jobs," "taxes," "the Federal debt," "social security," and "unemployment."  There are some key terms and debates that come to signify what talking about the economy entails--this is a discussion about a large, global system that involves numerous nations, corporations, and individuals.  This is "the economy" of the economists: large, powerful, daunting, and undeniably abstract.  It is a massive system that can only be understood through charts, graphs, models, and numbers.  Even the experts (as the collapse of 2008 quite clearly illustrated) don't seem to know exactly what this huge economic machine is really all about.  Ultimately, the global economy seems strangely devoid of humans--and this might, just might, be a problem.

As complex and abstract as the economy seems, it's critical to realize that it's all a human creation and the result of human meanings, values, desires, choices, politics and decisions.  Economists tend to make a lot of abstract assumptions about individuals in order to build their models about the relationship between human behavior economic systems.  But what gets lost when humanity is reduced to self-interested hypothetical assumption?  What details about real human behavior are obscured when an entire discipline is built around theoretical, idealized humans?

This is where anthropology can--and should--come into the picture.  Despite the fact that economists and anthropologists happen to cover some similar territories, there isn't much discussion between the two.  Maybe there was some conversation between the two back in the heyday of the formalist-substantivist debate...but these days?  Not so much.  And it is certainly the economists who are promulgated as the "experts" when it comes to the ways in which humans engage in buying, selling, producing, and consuming goods, ideas, and services.  The general public usually doesn't think about anthropologists when they hear the word economy--although they should.  But this is going to require some renewed work and effort on the part of anthropologists to get that message out.  Certaain folks like Gillian Tett and Karen Ho--to name just a few recent examples--are leading that charge.  Hopefully, those sorties into the territory of the economists is just the beginning. 

Why does this even matter?  What do anthropologists really have to bring to the table when it comes to discussions about the economy, human nature, consumption, and desire?  Everything.  Economics is not just a bunch of models and formulas--it's about people.  And if there's anything that anthropologists can bring to the discussion about the meanings and complexities of economics, it's a human perspective.  This is precisely the point that Chris Hann and Keith Hart make in their latest book "Economic Anthropology".  They argue--convincingly--for the need to development a way of investigating economics that explores the rich, complex details of actual human behaviors:
Whereas rational choice theorists emphasize the individual, in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, and believe that even decisions to cooperate with others are ultimately to be explained as the outcomes of individual calculation, the emphasis in speaking of the 'human economy' is on persons, whose preferences and and choices are sometimes shaped by calculation, but usually also by the familial, social and political contexts in which humans are enmeshed or embedded (2010:9).
On that note, this issue of anthropologies is all about "taking anthropology to economics" and making a few steps toward putting humanity back into discussions about economics.  This month features posts by Jeffrey H. Cohen, Toby Austin Locke, Jason Antrosio, and yours truly.  I am also sharing a few photographs from my pre-economic crash landscape series that I took back in 2006, just before the global economy took a free market dive into the abyss.  Thanks to everyone who took time out of their summers to take part in this issue--I really appreciate your contributions!  I hope you all enjoy this issue, and don't hesitate to comment and make your opinion heard!



Hann, Chris and Keith Hart
2010  Economic Anthropology.  Cambridge: Polity Press.


matthewjoy said...

When the first person said to the one standing next to them, "Can I trade you two dead squirrels for that stick you made into a cool backs scratcher?, economics was born. Economics is as part of Social Science as Archaeology and Anthro is. The problem with US economics is that they have forgotten that, nor do they teach anthro ideals and logic in college courses that pertain to economic degrees(International Business is the exception).

When Allen Greenspan and all his male counterparts headed the Federal Reserve in the earlier part of this decade just before our nation's collapse, the head of an economic department that I can't recall the name of(I just saw this on Frontline, PBS), she, being a very intelligent and a visionary woman, predicted and warned all these guys about what could and what will probably happen soon. They told her, because they didn't have anthro beliefs and knowledge, to keep her mouth shut and mind her own business. This gal then resigned and six weeks later the crap hit the fan and we haven't quit spiraling down yet( I believe this process will take several years more and the recovery will take up to ten years, if ever.)

All because they didn't take anthro classes. Pride on the part of Greenspan and his cronies is a common human condition and caused the downfall. The gal whose prediction came true knew the human condition and how when you involve numerous amounts of people on a global scale, something has to give.

Let's take China. They are celebrating their 91st anniversary of communist rule. How did they do it? They did it by taking anthro classes and by getting good marks! The Soviet Union didn't take these classes and they lost the race. Ever since Richard Nixon visited China in the 1970s, our healthy economy has been transferred to china. My job as a machinist as well as most of US manufacturing has been sent to Asia and China.

So what you say? How else do you think China can continually get away with their violations of human rights over there? They own our debt, that's how. We can't raise a finger against them. They know it and our gov knows it. Without the Chinese studying American ideals concerning capitalism and consumerism (Anthropology, Cultural Studies)they would have fallen on their butts along with the Soviet Union. On the contrary, they are an increasing world power as of this century and will be the most powerful twenty years hence, or sooner.

China has learned to use all the knowledge in the world, over all the disciplines of higher education to an exact science and the rest of the world had better realize this and do the same or die in ignorance.

My degree may only be one in Cultural Resource Management, but I have enough brains and foresight to have studied topics and issues having little to obtaining my degree. To dig in the ground for artifacts, I need to know about all cultures, a bit about all things. Doing the opposite keeps my mind closed and subjective, and I don't want to pull a "Greenspan".

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks for your comment, Matthew. I agree with you that keeping an open mind is always imperative. It's best to try to avoid pulling a "Greenspan," as you say, as much as possible. Ironically, at least Greenspan was able to admit that he was wrong about the economy, unlike many of the hardliners who refuse to admit there were any issue with the "free market"!

matthewjoy said...

I did see that Greenspan admitted he was caught unawares. As for the others, they did not and are working with Obama as we speak. That is scary.

matthewjoy said...

I left a message at your other blog concerning submitting essays. How do I do it?