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Economic anthropology and its audiences

In October 2011, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, declared on a local radio talk show that ‘We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.’ His remark sparked outrage and a public statement from the American Anthropological Association. My own reaction was one of mild surprise and pleasure to learn that anthropology had actually become visible enough, at least in the US, that an elected official would bother to call it irrelevant.

These two recent books by eminent economic anthropologists attempt both to increase recognition of anthropology’s relevance to politics and public debate, and to overcome ruptures between economic anthropology and the field of economics within universities. Both books tell histories of economic anthropology in ways designed to broaden its audiences, while still affirming the field’s commitment to subtle explanation, its anchoring in extensive comparative data, and its productive skepticism about the universality of economic concepts.

Why have anthropologists – and economic anthropologists in particular – been until recently unable or unwilling to reach large or influential audiences inside and outside of universities? One answer lies in our very forte: our sustained focus on nuance, complexity and variation. Anthropology’s methods include long-term ethnographic fieldwork rendered in painstaking detail, an attention to what Bronislaw Malinowski called the ‘imponderabilia of actual life,’ and insistence upon the interaction of multiple variables in any given context. If anthropology had a tag line, it might well be ‘It’s more complicated than you think it is.’ We specialize, really, in making things complicated. Most anthropologists (including myself) firmly believe that they provide an essential service to the world in pointing out the complexities that go unseen, because taken-for-granted. But scholarly involution does not usually make for pithy sound bites or readable copy. In a recent commentary on ‘the quest for anthropological relevance,’ Matti Bunzl points out the costs of too much complexity. He takes the editors of the book Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back to task for their insistent ‘critique of generalization through insistence on complexity’ (Bunzl 2008: 58). Bunzl points out that if anthropologists achieved their aim of perfectly exact description free of generalization, their accounts would be unusable and certainly unreadable.

Nowhere has this been more true than in economic anthropology. The subdiscipline was founded in large part in dialogue with economics. In the past, many economic anthropologists dedicated themselves to finding counter-examples in the ethnographic record that undermined economists’ claims about the universality of their models, or to testing the applicability of universalist models in diverse settings. In its early years, some economists and economic anthropologists did engage in direct dialogue (as in the Knight-Herskovits debate about how to define and study “economics” in the 1940s). But as economics gained more prestige and rational choice theory more dominance within the field, economic anthropology withdrew to the corners of the discipline in both America and Britain, engaging less with economics, and hardly at all with those outside of universities.

As Rick Scott’s comments paradoxically suggest, this situation may be changing. In the past ten or so years, anthropologists in general and those studying economic phenomena in particular have begun to enter broader conversations. Many anthropologists now use classic anthropological techniques to study neoliberal capitalism, corporations and finance, and accordingly, their findings are reaching a wider audience. And the global economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent world recession have shaken confidence in the economists’ explanatory monopoly over the economy. Detail, complexity and significant variation don’t seem as negligible as they did only a few years ago.

Furthermore, economic anthropologists are more willing than before to speak and write in ways designed to reach a broad audience. For instance, David Graeber’s new book, Debt: the First Five Thousand Years, is ranked #3,529 out of several million on Amazon’s US site (as of August 9, 2012), and Graeber has been featured on the television programme “Democracy Now” and in the Atlantic Monthly and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He is a regular contributor to The Guardian on the Occupy movement and on topics like money and debt. Meanwhile, Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times and author of the bestselling book Fool’s Gold, holds a Ph.D in social anthropology from Cambridge and describes herself as an “undercover anthropologist.” At a Laura Nader symposium at UC Berkeley in March 2012, Tett called on anthropologists to get over their fear of centre stage and their disdain for the “grubbiness” of finance to address larger and more influential audiences.

Chris Hann and Keith Hart’s Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique (2011) and Michael Chibnik’s Anthropology, Economics and Choice (2011) situate themselves within this new movement towards broader relevance. The first of these books particularly aims to reach audiences outside of the university through scholarly discussion and repositioning of the field, while the second is more concerned to open a dialogue between economics and anthropology.

Each book takes as its warrant the recent financial crisis. In Hann and Hart’s words, ‘the latest, most serious crisis of the world economy… has led us not only to change the structure and rationale of this book… but conveniently demonstrates why this is more than a matter of antiquarian scholarship’ (ix). Chibnik, likewise, begins his book with the sentence ‘During 2008-2009 the world’s economy was mired in a terrible recession.’ He goes on to assert that ‘When most economists offer explanations of events such as the global recession of 2008-2009, they are guided by their discipline’s ideas about how individuals and groups allocate scarce resources’ (ix). His book, he tells us in the preface, is aimed at presenting an ‘important, iconoclastic challenge to conventional ways of looking at choice’ (ix). Each book situates itself within the events of 2008 and beyond, and proposes the relevance of economic anthropology to understanding the crisis and its implications. Yet each book takes this warrant and proceeds in a different direction. Together, they give a rounded picture of where economic anthropology came from, how it works and what it can do.

The subtitle to Hann and Hart’s book, “History, Ethnography, Critique” maps the book’s aims. The authors seek to uncover the common origins of economics and economic anthropology, to trace their divergence in the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the ethnographic work done on economic phenomena, and to draw attention to economic anthropology’s capacity for critique and its usefulness in moving toward what they call “the human economy.” By “human economy,” Hann and Hart mean

The satisfaction of all human needs – not just those that can be met through private market transactions, but also the need for public goods, such as education, security and a healthy environment, and for intangible qualities such as dignity that cannot be reduced to dollars spent per capita. (8)

Ultimately, they seek a productive conversation between anthropologists, economists and others that can help to bring about this human economy. They believe that a more broadly contextualized economic anthropology can promote such a conversation, by entering into fuller dialogue with economics and by situating fine-grained ethnographic work within what they call ‘history at both middle-range and macroscopic levels’ (13).

To accomplish these aims, the authors proceed chronologically. In its first half, the book follows the emergence and consolidation of the subfield of economic anthropology, particularly in the UK but also in France, Germany and the US. Hann and Hart point out that in the early years of the twentieth century, as both disciplines were being consolidated, anthropology and economics enjoyed about equal (that is, not much) amounts of attention and prestige outside universities. They show how anthropologists grappled with dominant economic concepts such as the so-called rational, self-maximizing individual. Their engagements took various forms: Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific sought to problematise this model through presenting alternative data, while Raymond Firth’s Primitive Polynesian Economy (1939) took a more sanguine approach to its applicability. In each case, anthropology’s contribution to economics took the form of using broad comparative data to test the universality of economic methods and ideas.

The highlight of the book’s first half is the chapter (“The Golden Age of Economic Anthropology”) which discusses Polanyi and the debate between formalists and substantivists. After reviewing several weakness of the institutionalist or substantivist approach, Hann and Hart underscore the enduring importance of Polanyi’s work and its relevance to the project of bringing out the human economy. They state that ‘[Polanyi] remains an influential, even inspirational, figure and the economic crisis which began in 2008 has lent his work a topicality it lacked half a century ago’ (71).

The authors’ account of this debate and their subsequent description of feminist and Marxist anthropology, the anthropology of money and other topics are not in themselves especially new or surprising. Hann and Hart’s contribution lies not in telling this story but in placing it in a much longer and broader context of Western thought about “the economy.” In particular, they trace the history of the field of economic anthropology from the definition of oikonomia in Aristotle’s work through Medieval and Early Modern periods through neoclassical economics, Marxism, and national and global capitalism. This contextualization allows for the possibility of renewed connections between economic anthropology and other fields and disciplines, and for the link between the study of economic activity and the possibility of shaping it for the good of all.

In Part II, the book takes on a new and compelling voice, discussing how economic anthropology has addressed fundamental issues in 20th and 21st century economic life. Here Hann and Hart can bring their own particular experience and expertise to bear. The discussion of Hart’s fieldwork and the concept of “informal economy” is one of the most interesting parts of the book (pp. 112-116), as is the discussion of socialist and postsocialist property relations informed by Hann’s work in the field and by a rich discussion of anthropological work from Eastern Europe (pp. 125-136). The final substantive chapter, on “one-world capitalism,” discusses fundamental issues of labor and capital transformation and concludes with the specific contributions of anthropologists to understanding the financial crisis (pp. 159-162).

Hann and Hart conclude by linking their repositioning of economic anthropology within a broader historical and cross-disciplinary framework to their notion of the “human economy.” Though I certainly agree with them on the importance on linking ‘the everyday with the world at large’ (p. 167), in fact, I think much recent work in the field does this beautifully. Likewise, I agree that long-term ethnographic work needs to be conceptually connected to midlevel and macro processes, but here too, I see this in many recent works in both economic anthropology and in the discipline as a whole. Karen Ho’s work on New York investment bankers (2009), Lucy Norris’ study of global recycling of Indian textiles (2010), and João Biehl’s examination of the effects of Brazil’s AIDS treatment policies (2007) are three disparate examples chosen almost at random. It seems to me that economic anthropology is thriving, but continuing to face challenges in communicating beyond the field. At the same time, I found that Hann and Hart’s expansive genealogy of economic anthropology suggested concrete points of entry where broader conversations could begin.

Unlike Hann and Hart, Chibnik is not primarily trying to mold anthropological concerns or modes of presentation. His target is more clearly economists, especially those who believe, with Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, ‘that all human behavior can be viewed as involving participants who maximize their utility from a stable set of preferences’ (Becker, quoted in Chibnik, p. 13). Chibnik takes aim at this perspective, known as rational choice theory and now dominant within U.S. economics. He states frankly at the outset of the book, ‘my principal argument is that the methods of economics alone are insufficient for understanding the complexities of choice’ (2).

In making this claim, Chibnik is carrying the battle into the economists’ own camp. For as he says, economics has long claimed a monopoly on choice, particularly choice ‘among scarce means which have alternative uses’ (Robbins 1932). And anthropology, which has an historical predilection for theories of constraint and belonging, has not, until relatively recently, had much to say about choice. Even those drawing on practice theory have usually not examined choice or decision-making in systematic ways; for the most part they content themselves with noting people’s choices as signs of “agency.” Chibnik’s innovative, even quietly radical, strategy in this book is to look at choice and decision-making using anthropological methods and suppositions. In particular, he wishes to show the contribution that ethnographic methods can make to understand how and under what circumstances people actually do make decisions.

Chapter 1 discusses in general terms how economists, anthropologists and sociologists have looked at choice and rationality, and what kinds of things they have written out of and into their accounts. In economics and economic anthropology terms, these are questions of what counts as “externalities” in the analysis of choice, or conversely, how “embedded” choices are within institutions and practices not explicitly defined as economic.

This introductory statement is followed by five chapters, which really work as separate essays, addressing specific dimensions and contexts of choice. In each essay, Chibnik draws extensively on his four decades of ethnographic fieldwork in Belize, Peru, Mexico and the United States, to demonstrate how ethnographic knowledge tells us things that the models constructed around rational choice theory cannot. Chibnik unpacks nearly all the central concepts in economic decision-making, including choices between paid and unpaid labor (chapter 2) the knowability of risk (chapter 3), the cross-cultural application of game theory (chapter 4), the household as a unit of analysis (chapter 5) and the so-called “tragedy of the commons” (chapter 6). Chapters 2, 3 and 5 do an especially good job of demonstrating why ethnographic research is so necessary to understanding these questions, many of which economics tend to take for granted.

Anthropology’s emphasis on complexity, holism, and variation is shown to particularly good effect, and Chibnik’s point that ‘the methods [of economics] must be complemented with more descriptive approaches that consider the context within which choices are made’ (172) is richly demonstrated. Chibnik does not deny the value of economists’ contributions or even of rational choice theory. But given how much more influential economists have been than economic anthropologists, he chooses to throw the weight of his argument on the side of ethnography.

Chibnik’s conclusions thus complement those of Hann and Hart, who call for economic anthropologists ‘to place their local knowledge within a larger historical vision’ (p. 164). Both books contribute to a bracing, urgent self-consciousness about economic anthropology as a scholarly field. Both compellingly show that economic anthropologists have vital things to say about the current global fix in which we all find ourselves.


Biehl, João (2007), Will to Live: AIDS Therapies and the Politics of Survival. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bunzl, Matti (2008), The Quest for Anthropological Relevance: Borgesian Maps and Epistemological Pitfalls, American Anthropologist 110 (1): 53-60.

Firth, Raymond (1939), Primitive Polynesian Economy, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Graeber, David (2011), Debt: the First Five Thousand Years, London: Melville House.

Ho, Karen (2009), Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, Durham: Duke University Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1984 [1921]), Argonauts of the Western Pacific, New York: Waveland Press.

Norris, Lucy (2010), Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Robbins. Lionel (1932), An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, London: Macmillan.

Tett, Gillian (2009), Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe, London: Free Press.

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