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.

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That's actually an incredibly good point that I hadn't really thought about.

My undergrad social studies dealt with economics, but it was a single subject and most other, more sociologically or anthropologically inclined professors skimped on it, while those pol. sci. professors who actually mentioned economics mostly came from a very marxist perspective.

All this left a rather dismal view of economics in most students.

Daniel Seabra Lopes said:
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...)
I feel, just as Keith has expressed above, "appalled by the way the economists have abused the public's trust." My impression is that everyone is caught like deer in the headlights, at a complete loss for words and actions. There is a general feeling of vertigo, as the sand-built foundations of economics crumble and dissolve in a rising ocean of debt, with unprecedented insolvency on all of our human, social, cultural, spiritual and ecological system accounts. Is economic anthropology constrained by the same box within which economists define economics? I sincerely hope not, because then it could be only a study of the arrangements of deck-chairs on various sinking ships. What I am hoping to see in economic anthropology is leadership in redefining the role of economics from this day forward, to turn it around and prevent it from driving us further into insolvency. The economists are not going to redefine their own role, I think. I want to see economics redefined as the study of right-livelihood and right-relationship within all of nature's systems. I think E. F. Schumacher was on the right track with his "Buddhist Economics." I realize that as a field of anthropology, economic anthropology might be constrained to consider mainly the social and cultural systems. However, I think it is crucial to study these in the context of the larger natural systems within which they are embedded.
It could be interesting to understand why the voice of economists seems to be so determinant today (and, at the same time, why anthropologists seems so distant from a leadership role). It is, I think, a matter of performativity. Indeed, in order to be effective, one needs much more than mere words and the contemporary view of economists (if we may continue to designate them as a whole) depends a lot on massive data storage devices, large calculation models, fast computing machines, and a good deal of human networking. This economic system is still functioning and reproducing itself, even if the ship seems to be sinking. And, what is more, sometimes the view of uncompromised and critical social scientists can be suited to the aims of economic agents (as Narotzky brilliantly demonstrated on a recent article, using Bourdieu's 'social capital' and Polanyi's 'embeddedness' as an example). This makes it more urgent, in my opinion, to have a clear understanding of the current situation.


Geoff Chesshire said:
I feel, just as Keith has expressed above, "appalled by the way the economists have abused the public's trust." My impression is that everyone is caught like deer in the headlights, at a complete loss for words and actions. There is a general feeling of vertigo, as the sand-built foundations of economics crumble and dissolve in a rising ocean of debt, with unprecedented insolvency on all of our human, social, cultural, spiritual and ecological system accounts. Is economic anthropology constrained by the same box within which economists define economics? I sincerely hope not, because then it could be only a study of the arrangements of deck-chairs on various sinking ships. What I am hoping to see in economic anthropology is leadership in redefining the role of economics from this day forward, to turn it around and prevent it from driving us further into insolvency. The economists are not going to redefine their own role, I think. I want to see economics redefined as the study of right-livelihood and right-relationship within all of nature's systems. I think E. F. Schumacher was on the right track with his "Buddhist Economics." I realize that as a field of anthropology, economic anthropology might be constrained to consider mainly the social and cultural systems. However, I think it is crucial to study these in the context of the larger natural systems within which they are embedded.
Thanks, Geoff and Daniel. I think you both point us in an interesting direction, to examine the social source of the economists' strength, our own relative weakness and the need to develop an alternative. One question might be, Is economics the secular religion of capitalist societies? Another way of putting this might be, Does money act as the bridge between the known and unknown that Durkheim postulated for religion? I recall Ernest Gellner saying some time ago that the modern liberal recipe of market, democracy and science is probably as flawed as its preindustrial predecessor: landed property, war and world religion (Plough, Sword and Book). But, he said, until you have something substantial to put in their place, all the carping in the world against economists is useless.

People know that what they live by is flawed, even impossible to justify, but they have sacrificed their lives to these principles and this increases, not decreases their commitment to them. I once saw a documentary about millennarism in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, where the peasants marched to the sea in the belief that San Sebastian would rise from the waters to overthrow the landlords. Communist agitators from Sao Paulo asked them, "How can you believe in God when he makes your lives so miserable?" and they replied, "How can we not believe in Him, since without Him life would be intolerable." I have found tremendous cultural resistance to the notion that our system of money is transient and replaceable, when diffusing the possibility of alternative currencies or trying to persuade people that scientific gambling offers an alternative to working for a living. There comes a point when sticking with a bad idea (like a failed marriage) is preferable to embracing a new one.

Even so, we must articulate the possibility of something else. Socialism was that something for two centuries, but it ended up looking more like capitalism's twin than its replacement. We all know what the current contender for an alternative is and Geoff articulates it rather well. If the market and its associated structures of politics and knowledge truly fail in the current crisis, could some green ideology take its place? Is the ecological principle a throwback to Aristotle and the military landlord class he lived off, to the Nazi pioneers of green politics in the 20th century? Is it a crutch for elements in western society while they watch capitalism going somewere else in the world? Or is it a genuinely progressive alternative to the market and, if so, can it be reconciled with economics or not?
Thanks for this discussion. I really like us to follow Daniel's point that "I think that current sociological and anthropological perspectives are somewhat detached 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)".

And he also says "Indeed, in order to be effective, one needs much more than mere words and the contemporary view of economists (if we may continue to designate them as a whole) depends a lot on massive data storage devices, large calculation models, fast computing machines, and a good deal of human networking. This economic system is still functioning and reproducing itself, even if the ship seems to be sinking."

I feel that we are not equipped well. We dismissed economists' analysis too easily.We do not approve of nationalist governance but we studied how nationalists operated but we did not do the same to economists and co. We can explain the current situation to our student and to ourselves only in rather macro terms or at the very micro level to explain very particular situations. We are good at making the connections but we are the readers of our own analysis. I think Aiwa Ong showed a lot to my students but they only got through the book because they were taking the course.

Applbaum in May 31 had a comment "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". There are others like Gudeman as well but our reach and capacity to be able to explain what is going on is not that great and/or the reach of our knowledge production has been limited.

Do we have ethnographic means of explaining the mechanisms in financing. DO we know how companies insure themselves, then they are insured by bigger re-insurance companies, how these invest in other industries, how Western companies create new systems for including the Islamic rules of "takaful" in order to reach the bigger markets and control them? I am curious in these types of fields knowing it is not easy but at least I can try as an anthropologist rather than ignoring. I will start to audit economy courses next year to learn more how economists operate at the same time get more of ethnographic insight into the financial processes. I invited a colleague from Economy to be guest lecturer in my economic anthropology class, I pushed my economic anthropology course to the economy minor (non-technical as they call it) that is created be economics department at my university. But there is a long way to go for me at least. Enough for whining. Back to work.
I like Hulya's idea of auditing economics classes and inviting economists to anthropology classes, as ways to start productive conversations. At the University of Chicago, the econ and anthro departments have been completely separate and sometimes hostile to one another for a very long time (as in Marshal Sahlins' leadership in the fight against the University's new Milton Friedman Institute).
This seems to be a moment in which many people in business schools and some economics departments are looking for other perspectives on how capitalism works--think of the growing popularity of behavioral economics, or Gillian Tett's work (nicely summarized by Keith Hart over in the other discussion). On the other side there is a lot of new and exciting anthropological work on money, banking, and finance. This is a good opportunity for anthropology to develop a broader audience, but as Hulya points out, it will take a lot of work for anthropologists to become economically literate.

Does anyone have any favorite books on macro- or micro-economics?
"Does anyone have any favorite books on macro- or micro-economics?"

Thanks for asking this Lily. This may be a start of everybody bringing in some input. I actually studied macro and micro economics each one semester though more than 20 years ago, I am not sure if I would start with them.Still they perhaps help to learn how economics operate with models etc..

I wonder if it would be useful to read the inner debates in economics but more epistemologically grounded ones. Those of you who studied economics what do you think? What would you tell people who would like to be a bit more aware of the workings of economics rather than loosing time with unproductive hostility.

Lily I have to admit in the past, in Oslo I had moments with the rest of my doctoral cohort that we lived in different planets (while taking a faculty wide course). Despite all my goodwill I felt that there was no hope many times but having distant conversations only on the basis of assumptions about each other seems to get broken easily but if we read and talk about them among ourselves we may find it easier to talk to economists too. Some people have already done it but I think this group is a very good place for that. Richard Wilk for example shows to students very nicely various foundational ideas but trying to approach economists' work on a particular issues is different of course.
Starting with Hulya's and Lily's most recent comments, I would say that the dialogue and cooperation between anthropologists and economists, in the terms you propose, serves to illustrate that economists are not all alike, as one would tend to think bearing in mind certain hegemonic (and very discussable) economic views. I also have profited from reading some books of economics and, mainly, from the contact with economic agents through fieldwork (some of them also connected to academic institutions). This was almost a self-made initiation, since I had little theoretical support from my fellow anthropologists and felt the need to move to a research center in economic and organizational sociology, connected to a Business and Economics School.
I also think that we have ethnographic means of explaining how financial markets work and how they are connected to other markets (and to society as a whole).
Anyway, the task is not an easy one and Hulya points out what might be a curious handicap: we are indeed the main readers of our analysis (I think Keith Hart also says something about this in his «short history of economic anthropology», when talking of the golden days of economic anthropology...). That is to say, our voice is barely heard outside anthropology and since our discipline, as a whole, has showed some indifference towards economic matters over the last decades, we might be reduced, in the end, to the role of mere translators of economic concepts to other colleagues. I recently made a presentation of my current research to a group of PhD students in a portuguese anthropology department. The ethnographic material I brought to the seminar dealt with risk analysis and credit scoring. The final comment of the moderator was: "That's more exotic than the Trobriands!"
Now to turn to Keith Hart's interesting questions and remarks. I agree with the most part, except, perhaps, with Gellner's observation that those who advocate for an alternative model should demonstrate how it could supersede the actual model. As Polanyi showed, the industrial revolution came without warning (and, for a time, everyone felt confused about it); but, once settled, it became quite difficult to see beyond its own parameters and even to control these parameters well enough; we could say the same of the most recent turn in the capitalist economies (the financial turn), which resulted from the congregation, in the 1970s, of certain technological, theoretical and socio-economic factors at a time when most politicians and economists in Europe and USA were busy trying to rescue what was left of the welfare state. In sum, some of the most important systems of our world were not properly envisaged in advance by social actors, but rather perceived as they were evolving and self-organizing. We should perhaps think less in terms of big changes and programmes (by the way, is there any lack of alternative models?) and concentrate more on variations and clinamens.
Keith's question about the secular religiosity of money is a though one and I cannot but add a few humble remarks: there's indeed a lot of secrecy and confidential rules surrounding money and those who manage it in central banks; journalists, ethnographers and other social scientists are usually not allowed to know more than what's deemed necessary and even political representants such as parliament deputees may be unable to break the rule of confidentiality in order to investigate certain financial scandals (I'm thinking of recents events in Portugal). Why so much secrecy around a matter that, on the other hand, appears to be so mundane? I suspect that's because the connection between money and traditional sources of economic value is becoming more and more problematic, as the boom of financial derivatives, the expansion of the offshore system and the invention of credit securitization appear to show. In other words, money is becoming scarce, which leads to a refinement of the ways of dealing and profiting with it. But this idea deserves a lot of thinking and I know it's far from exhausting Keith's question...
Thanks for this thoughtful contribution, Daniel. It might be worth looking at this issue of the European Economic Sociology Newsletter. It contains a review of what sociologists think economic anthropology is and an interview with me. You can skip much of the latter, but my answer to question no. 8 is relevant to our recent discussion.

My first academic job was as an anthropologist in an outfit consisting almost entirely of development economists. I did not start mugging up on economics textbooks, but rather entered conversations with them. I also learned what I call "economese" (how to sound like an economist when lacking any formal training in the subject) by working part-time for The Economist. Out of this came the idea of an "informal economy" which has certainly brought anthropological work to the attention of many economists and others. (Perhaps this is why anthropologists themsleves care so little for the idea; It was largely missing from James Carrier's Handbook of Economic Anthropology).

It is worth recalling that sociologists, geographers, historians, political economists and others, especially when working in the field of development studies, are interested in and work with our ideas and findings on the economy. But I would say in this instance that the concept arose from an exchange between me and some economists (specifically the team that produced a report on Kenya for the ILO in 1972). So that what began as an attempt to introduce ethnographic findings to a discussion of Third World development ended up as a transdisciplinary concept of double provenance, ethnography and economics. This, it seems to me, is worth more than merely acting as a broker between two disciplines. We want to change both anthropology and economics, don't we?

By the way, the industrial revolution may have come as a surprise in Britain, but its unfolding elsewhere over the next century or more was the main stimulus for the development of modern social theory and one reason why we depend so heavily on the great French and German thinkers, who had plenty of time to contemplate its effects and remedies.

Daniel Seabra Lopes said:
Starting with Hulya's and Lily's most recent comments, I would say that the dialogue and cooperation between anthropologists and economists, in the terms you propose, serves to illustrate that economists are not all alike, as one would tend to think bearing in mind certain hegemonic (and very discussable) economic views. .
in re: this fascinating discussion of the relationship between econ and anthro -
It's been a while since I read much of this stuff, but several years I got kind of amused but also heartened by the economic literature on "contingent valuation" -- economists attempting to generate good methodologies to get at "prices" for goods for which there are no, or very thin, markets. Since economics can't really deal with things outside the rubric of price, but would like to have a model of everything, they've been attempting to invent reasonable proxies via survey methodologies.
The results are very funny. One example I love is a survey in which they went around asking people how much they'd pay to save dolphins, then how much they'd pay to save whales. (to get at the elusive but even-to-economists-evident "existence value" of dolphins and whales versus their current market price as units of whalemeat or whatever). It turned out that the "price" of the existence value of dolphins varies a lot with the order of questioning: the average North American would pay $50 to help promote dolphin survival, and about $50 for whale survival, too. But if you ask about whales first (people still say $50), *then* dolphins, the price for dolphin benevolence drops a lot -- to, say, $35 dollars for dolphins.
What economists eventually figured out was that "$50" is the price of "what a good person gives to a good environmental cause", and whales strike people as really important in that context. But having already given $50 hypothetical good person dollars to whales, asked in the reverse order, dolphins seem relatively less important ("I've already helped saved the whales, after all").
Economists aren't all silly people, and as they've done more and more contingent valuation studies and tried to hone their methods they've come up against "value" problems not captured well at all by price metrics, and found them worrying (but interesting). Reading that literature as anthropologist, I find lots of causes to laugh in a superior fashion about their blinkered view of human values but also to admire the sort of pigheaded quantitative empiricist ingenuity of economists.
-anyway, I'm not sure that says much about "what economic anthro is for" but it could intervene into those discussions, at least some economists would be receptive, I think. I don't know where one would publish to get read by them, however.
Thanks for your reply, Keith. I really enjoyed the interview you gave to ESN, it focus on a lot of important issues. Although a newcomer in the field of economic anthropology, I was already familiar with your 'informal economy' concept which resulted from a cooperation between anthropologists and economists (something quite unusual, as it seems). My PhD research centered in a group of Gypsies who, as economic agents, excelled in crossing the borders between the formal and the informal, so I reflected a little on this topic. After finishing this work, I realized I knew almost nothing of "the economy" in its more formalized, abstract, determinant or hegemonic sense (that is, the economy of the economists, investors and politicians or, as you say, the economy of big money). Then I embarked in my current research on credit and banking, hoping to understand a bit more of the money system and to contribute to a more informed and well equiped anthropology (and not just 'economic anthropology') when it comes to the discussion of such matters...
I am late to join the discussion but I wondered if anyone had read the book The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy? It came out a few years ago and was one of those simple little popular books that win accolades from mainstream press sources. As the title indicates, it followed a t-shirt from cotton in the fields of Texas to mitumba (second hand clothing) for sale in the markets of Tanzania. The final chapter referenced the work on second-hand sales in Zambia by Karen Hansen (an anthropologist and my thesis advisor many years ago), The author, a professor of finance and business, concluded that the only true free market that she found as she followed the t-shirt from cotton in the U.S. to production in China, back to the U.S. and, finally, to Africa was, in fact, in Africa.

While the book contained no meaningful theoretical discussions and was a rather simple exposition, it seemed somehow to hold interesting possibilities. Its sheer popularity speaks to some desire to understand the world economy through a more anthropological lens.

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