Economic anthropology was a prominent focus of the discipline in general during the period of what we might call the Rooseveltian or Keynesian consensus, 1950s to 70s. In the last three decades of neoliberal globalization, when sub-disciplines proliferated, this one became more marginal. Perhaps the economic crisis of 2008-9 brings in another epoch for our topic. Look at the number of related panels at this coming AAA meeting.
In any case, it would be useful for us to say why we signed up for this group. What is the significance of economic anthropology for each of you?
I can kick off by saying that I have always been attracted by the promise of economics to place our common and individual affairs on a more rational footing and appalled by the way the economists have abused the public's trust in their ability to do that.
My interest in economic anthropology is dominated by an interest in accounting practices and it's relation to entrepreneurial value creation. Together with three other anthropologist I have run an consulting company working on promoting the value of academic entrepreneurs. We also conduct work-place ethnography and diagnistics for cultural change. Working on promoting a knowledge based (academic) economy combined with getting deep into the immaterial values of companies is where my interest in accounting practices and it's relation with economic value creation comes from. Accounting practices have an immense pursvasive power and I am presently focusing on the finance analytics and their knowledge, attitudes and interests in the complex relation between valuation (speculation) and value creation.
I always feel up-lifted by the positive way you put the issues and, of course, you are correct to do so, for, ideally, anthropology is capable of showing us the full possibilities of being human and such, possibilities allow for the promise of "a better way". I was about to post my sentiments that a study of the economic was always for me an explanation of inequality. From my earliest undergraduate days when I explored how the simple exchange of a woven blanket for a buckskin could be an unequal exchange in a developmental sense. And from the global perspective, a gun for a human being led to even greater inequalities. These were my first interests in economic anthropology--as a way of explaining "how the world came to be".....so unequal.
I study waste, or what I call the 'afterlife' of things, so I am interested in the economic where it overlaps with the environmental and, following Mary Douglas, materiality, cosmology and power more broadly. I began by examining the controversial importation of Canadian waste into rural Michigan landfills - a peculiar form of exchange that many of the people I talked to blamed 'economics' or 'money' for. By this they meant, alternately, NAFTA, the price of landfill tipping in Michigan versus Ontario, the overproduction or overconsumption associated with 'modern' capitalism and the cheapness of dumping waste in holes relative to other treatment options. More recently I've become interested in government experimentation to create so-called 'new energy economies,' in order to prevent multiple global crises, economic and environmental. I find it interesting that a particular sphere of human activity is seen to have, and often does have, so much power, but a kind of power which seems so hard to imagine and resist.
My interest in economic anthropology centers in what is generally being left out by mainstream economists, that is, thinking about what makes the livelihoods of most ordinary people possible. Looking at issues of production and reproduction with the aim of explaining the majority of people's objectives, understandings and practices. What sorts of relations do we have to get involved in in order to make a living? What sorts of projects are available regarding our ability to secure future generations' livelihood? How does power produce and limit opportunities? How do different people or groups of people hold different positions and capabilities in their ability to advance their projects? In the beginning I was pulled into economic anthropology by marxist anthropology (first by the French marxist social scientists of the 70s, then by the anglophone 'political economic' anthropology). This perspective still provides the ground from where I think about what I observe and experience. I have studied 'peasant' petty commodity farmers, the informal economy in manufacturing sectors, the restructuring of large industry, the ways in which 'class' is produced or fails to emerge as a meaningful cohesive element in social conflict, the ways in which age and gender structure lines of power and differentiation... I have tried to be attentive to the discourses that are produced historically as social relations that become performative, that is, using the dialectical perspective that considers concepts and material objects as mutually constituted social relations.
Presently I am particularly interested in analyzing how different models of what the economy is, produce particular projects and constrain or enhance innovation. I am interested in learning from the actual 'economic' practices of ordinary people trying to get by in hard times. In this I am following Keith's orginal insight when he 'discovered' the informal economy in Ghana. I want to look into what forms of responsibility are produced and reproduced, what forms of 'trust', what cultural 'atmosphere' and social conviviality support reciprocal transfers, but also what sorts of differentiation structures, power lines and personalized struggles are embedded in these processes.
I started studying Sociocultural Anthropology in Vienna in 2004. It primarily was a decision out of desperation because I had already studied one semester international business at the University of Economics in Vienna. Economics as being taught at this university is quite dry and very neoliberal so to say in the first year. The main target then is to get rid of the hundreds of students that come there and for whom they just have too less resources.
This is the main problem at any university in Vienna.
So the first semester was not at all what I expected and I wasn’t very attracted by dry accounting, management, marketing, statistics, and so on. So I looked for different opportunities and just took courses in Sociocultural Anthropology without dropping Economics, mainly because it sounded different enough. For me that combination was like going to school and then just having fun, that fascinating were the anthropology classes at first.
In Vienna students studying anthropology (and other social sciences) have half of their studies free to choose. So I could stay with economics and study anthropology full time meanwhile still studying economics as what we call free optional courses. I soon realized that this was two worlds that I had entered. The knowledge that I gained from Anthropology was more or less totally misplaced in many of the Economics courses and brought me more than once into weird situations such as “being recognized as a naïve idealist that simply should not study Economics when he has that many basic problems with it”. That was and still is very disarming. On the other side in Anthropology when talking about the hard facts of Economics, it was not much different. It seemed that everybody already knew what it is to criticise in the discipline as a whole and it went rarely beyond the surface of how blind they all are in the struggle for profit.
So here I am, still quite not knowing were all this is leading. I can easily get into my studies of Economics and feel quite good with it, but only if I do not take too many anthropology courses at the same time, and the other way around.
I do not think I am the only one with that combination, and would be happy to hear different experiences. Currently I am writing my thesis about work in Starbucks and the view of baristas there over identity, social networks, alienation, and so on. I am planning to compare that to a Starbucks in Vienna, as well as to a normal coffee shop that is not part of a big cooperation. The question thereby is how much Starbucks succeeds to create their “meaningful work environment”, what instruments it uses and how they are adapted, neglected or altered by the workers themselves. In contrast to that what practices to baristas in a non corporate coffee shop have and how do they see their work.
I do this thesis in anthropology but I am aware that just with being a little less critical and using a little more business terms I could maybe sell it to economics as well
That’s all for my part so far.
Great network I start liking it more and more.
In my dissertation research I am studying the role of direct sales in household economies in the lower Brazilian Amazon, and the relationship between women's work in direct sales and gender roles. So the main significance of economic anthropology for me is the work on household economies, and the wonderful problems that households present because they are neither "black boxes," nor are they universally definable. I like the fact that households occupy this gray area between the individual and the community that mainstream economists have a hard time accounting for.
When I was an undergraduate and Masters student of anthropology, I wasn't very interested in economic anthropology at all. I managed to avoid most of it until I took my MSc in Social Anthropology at London School of Economics, which not only necessitated that I was more or less up to speed with Marx as well as Durkheim and Weber, but which also brought the economic aspects of social life into focus simply through the kinds of questions the faculty there were asking all the time. I still wasn't all that interested deep down, to be quite honest. My Masters dissertation, for instance, was a comparison of Ndembu ritual and bhakti yoga in terms of transcendence of social identities.
Before I left LSE, and England altogether to do fieldwork with Tibetans in India, Johnny Parry gave me one bit of advice: investigate what your informants do for a living. This turned out to be very good advice for me. I discovered during fieldwork that Tibetans in India undertake itinerant trade with sweaters every year and that it is a recurrent, highly important part of their lives in India. Yet, I hadn't read any meaningful or serious anthropological investigation of this in my preparation, as the anthropological literature on Tibetans in India displayed what my fieldwork unveiled to be a preoccupation with Tibetan religion and cultural preservation in exile. This sparked a change of research topic, in which I ditched my preconceived research plan in favour of accompanying some of my informants on their particular trade in Rajasthan. This has in turn led me to think about the ways in which Tibetan sociality in India arises out of the particular Indian context of their diasporic existence there. Making a living in Indian local economies is, of course, a huge part of the latter.
In the course of this, I have become quite interested in some questions one might locate within economic anthropology: the role of trust in market interactions and relationships, perhaps more generally the role of emotions in economic relationships, and the relationship between economic activity and (externally and self-ascribed) identity. The first two topics are currently on the fringes of economic anthropoloy; the third one is an old hat at least for the anthropology of India, although the economic actors' internal perspective seems to me to have not had full attention, more widely.
I am only beginning to decipher the many questions lying within this treasure chest. This is especially difficult as I am myself not (yet) making a living as an anthropologist; instead, I have to contend with labouring for a financial services corporation for most of my waking day. That's an interesting place for an anthropologist, one might think. To which I'd add, only if he or she isn't making their living there.
This coming fall, I'll be taking a graduate seminar in Economic Archaeology. This will be my first detailed look at what archaeological data can tell us about subsistence strategies, production, and exchange systems.
I was excited to see this fledgling group on the topic of Economic Anthropology, and hope to learn as well as share.
My view coincides with S.Narotzky's and some others expressed above. EAs either address questions ignored by "mainstream" economics, or ask similar questions but use more qualitative data and tend to research in unconventional locations--rain forests, shanty towns, or suburban garage sales, for instance: wherever it looks like we will come to understand economic activity as a feature of the human landscape (society, culture, morality, emotions) rather than the reverse. This can work powerfully in more conventionally-trafficked economic places, except that access by conventional ethnographic methods is often restricted, and the demands on the individual researcher to become an expert in a specialized practice (corporate finance, management, or public policy, e.g.) can be overwhelming. It grows correspondingly difficult to write about these subjects in such a way that will be taken seriously by more than just other anthropologists--which is presumably one of the goals. I've always felt an affinity with other students of economics operating on the periphery of the neoclassical school, such as institutional, development, and agricultural economics, and of course political economy and economic sociology. Some of these have worked out how to plug their research questions/conclusions into direct debate with the mainstream.
I agree that our greatest strength is to investigate how people manage their own economic affairs. But lately I have begun to feel that anthropologists and sociologists should not settle for studying how people make the eeconomists' abstract models concretely human. We also need ways of reaching the wider sphere of economic activity to which we are all vulnerable. Money mediates our finite needs/desires and our most inclusive, even universal associations. In order for us to get out there, we have to embrace more naive methods where we can no longer fall back on the Malinowskian recipe, "I've been there and you haven't".
Like Pam, I believe that the best part of our tradition is the anthropology of unequal society, a lineage from Rousseau through Morgan/Engels/Childe to Wolf and Goody. The antithesis of economic democracy (so much harder to achieve than formal political democracy of the one man one vote type) is inequality and therefore our prime concern if we would make a better world. How might our findings contribute to making ordinary people more effective in their economic lives? I have explored a 'pragmatic' approach to the economy with Bill Maurer, Horacio Ortiz and other anthropologists of money. Unlike them, I take my lead from Kant. But we agree about a lot too.
Finally, I could not have studied economy as I have without entering many collaborations, often with economists: John Bryden was my colleague and friend at Norwich when I stumbled on the informal economy idea; we later wrote a book together on rural development in Europe and have a manuscript on the agricultural revolution moldering somewhere. Vishnu Padayachee, a South African central banker, head of a school of development studies, seconhand bookshop owner and ANC activist, has been my closest collaborator for over a decade.
I am currently in the midst of my doctoral fieldwork, collecting data on the Oklahoma Indian art market. Among others, one area of my focus is on the transmission of cultural, symbolic and economic capital (yay Bourdieu!). This type of economic focus relates to varying forms of formal and informal education as predictors of 'field' based taste (perceptions and preferences). I am using these economic ideas to inform a larger study on the cultural transmission of 'traditional' arts, tourism, and ultimately ideas regarding the concept of authenticity and reality.
Now the challenge for me is to wed what I like to call, the 'Killer B's:' Bourdieu, Baudrillard, and Benjamin into a coherent argument!
I am presently developing a post-doctoral research on credit and retail banking, with fieldwork done in two portuguese banking institutions. My interest in this topic (and in economic anthropology in general) has to do with the impression that a good part of our lives depend upon the functioning of complex financial systems of which little is known once we step out of the realm of proficient economic agents. In fact, contrary to XIX century social science which consisted basically of a reflection and critique of the industrial economy, I think that current sociological and anthropological perspectives are somewhat dettached from such topics (with the exception of economic anthropology as a sub-discipline; and, even so, there are perhaps certain phenomena that could deserve more ethnographic attention in this field, like financialization processes).
I expect that, through etnhography and other empirical methods, economic anthropology may prompt alternative ways of looking at money, sources of value and other economic subjects, contributing to make them more mundane and discussable, since their influence is already so overwhelming.
(Sorry for the lack of photo, I'll post one soon...)