HI all,

I am puzzled by the discovery that, not recently of course, economists seem to have done of moral concerns. An increasing number of scholars in economy and business is using moral,  cultural and ethical explanations for problems and phenomena as different as transparency, business integrity, transaction costs and even calculation of benefits among stakeholders. Of course the use these works do of "cultural" and "moral" explanations is very dissimilar from what anthropologists can do. But still I am puzzled. It looks like some of these theorists are discovering what in Italian we say the "hot water", at least to an anthropologist,. But  I understand that for a scholar who is used to think in terms of rationality, deductive efficiency and so on these ideas are somewhat innovative.


I was thinking that it could be interesting, probably some efforts have been done and I am not aware of this, to compare these approaches with "classical" anthropological accounts of moral economy. I know the debate has never completely withered in anthropology, although personally I am not a fan of the idea of moral economy as Thompson, Scott and others developed it, because it brings to the forefront a number of the limits of the economic anthropology approach to subsistence practices, to my view. One is surely the difficulty to ascertain whose morality we are dealing with, and who can benefit (apart from anthropologists) of this perspective. Particularly in an age of neoliberal domain, what can the anthropological ideas of morality in economic behavior have to say to more general economic ideas of ethical or culturally informed behavior? Is anyone aware of similar debates, conferences, publications at interdisciplinary level?

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An excellent set of questions, Davide. I will just pass on some links for now, but I hope others may take you up.

Karen Sykes and Chris Gregory are heading a research program at Manchester, "The Domestic Moral Economy: an ethnographic study of value in the Asia Pacific Region"and will hold a colloquium,  The Value Question Today: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the mor..., on May 20th.

Chris Hann has a very good review of the concept, Moral Economy, in the book I co-edited,  The Human Economy. He is critical of Thompson and Scott for reasons that may or may not be the same as your reservations. I have uploaded the chapter here.

The French anthropologist, Didier Fassin, has recently taken up a post at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies where he leads an ambitious program on morals. He has also published on the subject of moral economy(see referecnes in link).

So I think we may conclude that you have hit on a fashionable topic and we haven't yet explored what the economists think they are up to!




Hi Davide,

A few thoughts: I'd be very interested in learning more about the "moral" turn in economic and business writings. In what ways are these terms being used? Of course, there has always been a "cultural" turn in this genre of writing, probably best exemplified by the literature attempting to understand Chinese business through a Confucian model.  And, my work is in Greece -- where tax evasion, lack of transparency, etc., is still largely construed as a moral-cultural failing -- is by no means a new phenomenon. From my perspective, (where I don't see much that is new) "morality" and "culture" are once again recruited to talk about "the other" to justify why/how "culture" (= "the state" for neoliberals) gets in the way of nature working out its true, rational course. So, in other words, the more rationalized/naturalized the economy gets, the more people will need ways to account for "irrationality" they see (particularly in places they are trying to control)., Its actually a very old story getting played out here (c.f., Pietz's work on the fetish).


My question for Keith and others is with regard to fashion in anthropology: I'm an American grad student hopefully looking to go on the job market next year. In the past year and a half, I've kept abreast of job opportunities and not one of them, out of nearly 100, was interested in hiring an economic anthropologist. Medical and environmental anthropology are hot at the moment, but the (somewhat self-serving) question I have is: given the current period of global economic meltdowns, why isn't economic anthropology in fashion?

Dear Davide,


The attention to morality, ethics, and culture in economics can be found in the bounded rationality approach. In general, at least that is my impression, this approach treats morality, ethics, and culture as external constraints. They statically limit the choices that people can make. Within those boundaries that are set by culture or morality, the argument goes, people make rational decisions. So this attention to morality is highly static, there is no notion of interaction, cultural and moral categories are reified, and there is no attention for sociality or power.

In additon to the allready very helpful suggestions that you have received: I enjoyed Michelle Lamont's Money, Morals, and Manners very much, as well as Julia Elyachar's piece on empowerment money in Egypt.

Tracey and everyone, The University of Pretoria, South Africa's largest residential university with 50,000 students, has just advertised a teaching vacancy in economic anthropology and/or anthropology of de..., closing date for applications April 29th. The Faculty of Humanities there has just started a postdoc Human Economy program with seven fellows recently appointed and more to come.

It is true that economic anthropology has been in the doldrums, but it takes time for the events since 2008 to feed into academic hiring practises. Chris Hann and I have just published Economic Anthropology (2011) and Market and Society (2009, paperback coming out in June) in the hope that they will assist in a revival. The recent spate of ethnographies of finance is bound to have an effect. NYU's Insitute for Public Knowledge has a powerful working group, Cultures of Finance, led by Ben Lee and Arjun Appadurai. A case can be made that people like Bill Maurer, Jane Guyer, Steve Gudeman and quite a few others are doing the most original and important work in anthropology these days. So don't give up. By the time you complete, it may be a whole new situation. It was in any case always a mistake to read the future from the past.

On the question of morality and culture in economics, Erik is right. For them these terms are just a ceteris paribus assumption which allows them to carry on as before. I met a Belgian economist recently who claimed to be studying the role of cultural factors in the informal economy through national statistics! But try this one for size. I took part in a World Bank initiative which ended up as a book and program, Culture and Public Action (2004). It included people like Amartya Sen, Mary Douglas and Arjun Appadurai. Mallika Shakya reports in an article in press that an internal Bank review of this book referred to the contributors as "relatively unheard of scholars"! The arrogance is undiminished.

Hi Davide (Sono molto stanco e assonnato, 2 punti),

Why does "morality" needs to refer to a particular morality but not "the particular conduct of governing things". If one looks at the so called  Islamic economy (based on "shari' ah", "Takaful" etc. rules) one sees that it does not actually bring the ethic and Islamic ethos of operating in economy but just on the contrary reproduces new forms of operating in the global economic circuts only technically following the rules of Islam. This is the consequence, I would say here "morality is about rule of conduct for profit" and it really matters how it is done even lthough it reproduces the very capitalist structures it "stands" against it.


Keith do you think economists are all so similar that we talk about them as "them". Some Keynesians, progressive economists, and others I surely do not know are not as naive as we think, they are although Davide suggest that they discover "hot water".

Thanks a lot for the many hints Keith, and all for the comments.

I am not saying that most of the economists like to discover the hot water, I mean that I am puzzled how we as anthropologists and they as economists are closed in our positions even when we are talking of similar things. Think about Hofstede and his famous cultural values applied to business, or Thomas Dunfee's Integrative Social Contract Theory, they all make use of anthropological material to explain why business does not work the way it "should" under different cultural conditions. Morality is one of their main explanations. As Erik rightly pointed out it is another morality, a flat one, with a rhetoric of its own compared to the one we deal with, but when anthropologists argued about a safety-first principle, agricultural involution, informal economy, etc were they using ideas of morality that could be easily conveyed to non-anthropological public?

I am not saying that we should speak the language of economists, but that perhaps a better dialogue would be more fruitful, to avoid essentializations on both sides. I will never accept the idea that Italians are individualist, Japanese are collectivists and so on, but if as anthropologists we keep on saying that morals are socially/culturally and historically specific, then what is our final point when it is increasingly manifest that neoliberalism is amoral and so there will be more and more talk on morality in economy? We are debating on the death of economic anthropology and those  who read and (ab)use Mary Douglas, Murdock, Mead, Benedict, Kluckhohn and so forth influence global decision-making processes or make a fortune (as Hofstede)... sorry to be provocative :-)

I hope I'm not off-topic.  I believe religion, particularly in developing countries, is one of the causes of poverty.  First off, the Church, specially in developing countries with strong Catholic faith, reinforces the unproductive idea that God is always with the poor and there's nothing to worry about being poor; thus poverty is viewed as a matter of fate and faith not of finance and  economics.  Another is the opposition of the Church to family planning.  In the Philippines, even condoms are opposed by the Catholic Church.  The result is really discouraging- poor families have an average of six children.  Is this connected to the Church's teaching that having children is God's blessing and the poor's misunderstanding of the Church's doctrine against abortion as the more children a family has, the more blessing the family gets? 

I also see the increase of unemployment and  government welfare-dependents due to the concept of "renunciation" or "sacrifice" and monkhood or priesthood.  In India, there are professionals who give up their high-paying jobs because of spirituality and become homeless itinerants and beggars.  There  are also brilliant nuns and priests like my cousin who gave up his medical practice to become a Catholic monk.  Our village hasn't had a doctor since. I wonder  if cultists and fundamentalist Christians in rural America depend on government checks due to lack of education, employable skills, and even interest in legitimate employment because of their isolationist doctrines that reject mainstream economy, society,  and culture.   The example I can cite is the  extreme  form of Mormonism where families have multiple wives and children.     


The practice of tithing or giving part of a devotee's income to the Church is also not helping the economy.  The Church does not always spend them in the community where the funds come from.  They are either sent to the Mother Church or hidden under the bed of a village priest.  In agricultural villages in the Philippines, priests don't have to buy their food since devotees give them rice, chicken, fish, fruits, and vegetables as mass offerings, and masses are held daily.  Also, the Church does not pay taxes even though they receive huge financial donations and run lucrative businesses such as  schools and hospitals.  I see all  these as not helpful to the local economy.  Just imagine every village has a church that is run like a business but without a tangible contribution to the local  economy.  If totaled, their resources are huge.      


The questions are:  Is it possible to quantitatively assess religion as an economic issue that causes poverty?  Is morality, in relation to poverty, quantifiable?   Is Catholicism one of the reasons why most "Catholic countries" like those in Latin America and the Philippines are poor?  Do  Western religions in developing countries continue the practice of the colonial past, the exploitation of local resources, peoples, and their labor using faith?  How can economic anthropologists deal with these religions when questioning their economic practices and activities is also questioning the cultures and the  social institutions where these religions have taken roots?

Hulya, the notion of economists as 'them' is an ideal type and it does have some internal consistency, but it is not social reality. Of course there is a loose alliance of heterodox economists which includes Marxists,  institutionalists and many more varieties. I have written articles, reports and books with economists, all of whom were drawn from this cluster. Nor do I find it hard to talk with economists. But I developed this practice at a time (the 60s and 70s) when dialogue was more open than now. Both the anthropologists and the economists have retreated into their professional redoubts and talk only to each other in increasingly specialized ways. There are economists who address the general public, but no anthropologists who do. Marilyn Strathern is hardly a Mary Douglas when it comes to addressing a wider public.

So Davide, your point is so laden with irony that it is hard to know where you are really coming from (I always say don't try to tell jokes in a foreign language). Are you really upset that Hofstede borrows from the work of anthropologists to peddle best-selling bullshit? Do you want more of us to enter that field? I like to cite Foucault who claimed that the historicity of anthropology in the late colonial period lay in Europeans being willing to generalize about humanity on the basis of their studies of the peoples without history. I think this confidence -- which is now long gone along with all its props -- did allow an earlier generation of anthropologists to speak across disciplinary boundaries to a wider public. On the specific question of morality and culture, anthropologists are handicapped by a systematic refusal to engage with Kant, preferring rather to peddle the heresies of latterday anti-liberals, usually French. Kant knew that morality was always culturally different, in that what we think is good varies, but he held out hope that a human conversation might emerge on the basis that we all want to be good. The neo-Kantians we cite as our classical masters each had a position on that question. So I blame anthropologists for replacing any ambition to study humanity as a whole with ethnographic method. Humanity is after all not just a collective noun, but a moral quality of kindness. When did you last read about that in an anthropology journal? Instead we have endless rehashes of Thompson and Scott on moral economy. We will be in a position to have a dialogue with economists when we are less timid and introverted.


that is exactly what I wanted to say. I am sorry to have been cynical, I am simply missing more scholars like Mary Douglas among anthropologists. Perhaps I have heard too many times, recently, the question from non-anthropologists:  but aren't you able to provide a more universalistic explanation? And on the other hand I see so many of us giving up, when we have the intellectual, theoretical and methodological instruments to establish extremely fruitful dialogues with any other discipline.

I am profoundly convinced that morality is one of the key issues on which to build, but I still dont know why.

Anyhow, many thanks for the very inspiring discussion to all. 

Thank you for launching it, Davide. It doesn't have to stop if anyone wants to continue...

What's fashionable is rarely what is important.


Hi Davide - wonderful to re-encounter you in this way! And very interesting points raised.


Keith, the last time I read anything in a journal about humanity as a morality of kindness, it was written by you in Social Anthropology and I was heartened, so please don't stop.


I recently created an undergraduate course in economic anthropology at my university - I normally teach from Rick Wilk's book, but I appreciate learning of Keith's new book and I will see about using it next time around. I don't think economic anthropology has ever been taught here, and I don't think anything could be more relevant in an Ireland that is daily bludgeoned by the relentlessly-prolonged economic crisis.The first time around teaching this here in Ireland, the students seemed to respond most visibly to the stuff of "moral economy", and I think it is perhaps because it speaks to their gut-level sense that there is something immoral in sparing banks and bondholders by institutionalizing the plunder of the wider population's paychecks (speaking personally as as one of the plundered). I don't know... I don't think, as Davide's initial post seems to suggest, that ideas of morality in economic behavior are ever explicitly anthropological.


This is a bit obtuse to the discussion (maybe), but I recently ran across a book that I found somehow surprising:

Demartino, George F. 2011. The Economist’s Oath: On the Need for and Content of Professional Economic Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Here is the link to the publisher's site:




This is a great discussion. Thank you all for your comments. I have a few questions, though, and would appreciate some guidance.

1) I agree with that calling economists "them" is resorting to an ideal type. However, it seems the discipline, according to my friends pursuing Phds in economics in America, has become incredibly specialized -- specialized to the degree that anthropologists read more of the history of economics than they do. For example, why is it that Kindleberger on manics, panics and crashes isn't widely read by economists? Yet Michael Blim at CUNY assigns the book in his economic anthropology course. I recently finished reading Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm and it seems they allude to divisions in the discipline of economics. As anthropologists, how can we dialogue with economists if there are so many divisions (i.e. what can we offer to Paul Krugman and would The Economist finally give job postings to economic anthropologists rather than economists?)?

2) On that same note, I have really enjoyed Bill Maurer's work. However, I could never really figure out how his article "A Fish Story: Rethinking Globalization" fits into "economic anthropology". I guess I am confused as to what constitutes this sub-discipline. In particular, Maurer writes: "Consider the mine of Empire that made slaves into subjects but in so doing had to deny their very hybridity and the impossibility of their becoming British no matter how much they might be disciplined and molded by the colonial state apparatus. Similarly, the copper mine could never be Cornwall, but rather served as Cornwall's dark shadow, its Other, depriving the Cornish mines of the central significance to imperial
consolidation and introducing Latin American speculations troubling the clean constitution of the imperium. Now, as the quicksilver capital of flexible financing requires shadowy offshores in which to park assets temporarily in their flights around the globe, the BVI is busily cleaning itself up-and removing the dumpsite. It offers transparent accounts without
the taint of scandal and transparent histories with clear spatio-temporal origin points, like the Cornwall of the 19th century, histories considerably sanitized for the consumption of international investor. Of course, once you take away the rubbish heap, nothing is really there. The copper mine may be billed as a tourist attraction, but few tourists are actually attracted to it. All you see is slag. The mine serves as symbol only to allay investors' fears about the sort of place in which they are thinking about burying their talents."


I apologize for taking Dr. Maurer's work out of context. However, I wanted to use part of it to illustrate my confusion with "economic anthropology" and also the quandary explored in this discussion about how to get anthropologists and economists to fruitfully dialogue with each other. How might an economist interpret this work and would they find it useful to their purposes? Also, in what ways does this innovative study fall under "economic anthropology"? 



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