Economic Anthropology

Economics can be defined as the science which lends a helping hand to the economic units enabling them to make rational choices from the available information. The economic units include households, producers, consumers, entrepreneurs, government, etc. Anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.

Economic anthropology analyses decisions and behaviour of economic agents who are embedded in the networks of social relationships and cultural influences. Economic Anthropology is directly concerned with the most central anthropological issues of human nature, choice, values, and morality.

Of late, the sociological aspects of issues pertaining to the economy are increasingly being avoided. The convenient answer which is given for such occurrence is that a ‘lobby’ has exerted tremendous pressure. The issue is discarded and the media has a majority share in making most of the populace ‘conveniently informed’.

Like any other science, the social sciences are interdependent and interrelated. Thus, to learn economics as an isolated subject, will not enable the learner to get a totalitarian comprehensive view of the economy in the real sense. Mathematics has got so entrenched in economics, that other social science like sociology, history etc are not given the required importance.

Thus, it is of paramount importance that a paper in Economic Anthropology be offered to the students of economics, especially at the undergraduate level. In India, owing to the impact of Occidentalism and the better research opportunities provided in the west, especially in the US, a frantic race for learning mathematics is imminent. (Other social sciences are ignored) This can lead to a clique of economists who have limited knowledge about the sociological impacts of policies and issues under their purview.

Resources online

1) Society for Economic Anthropology
2) Economic Anthropology books
3) University of Sussex (Study abroad: Economic Anthropology)
4) Clifford Geertz (Anthropologist)

8 thoughts on “Economic Anthropology”

  1. I prefer Lionel Robbins’ definition:

    “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

    You might want to keep in mind the distinction between “positive economics” and “normative economics”. I’m also a bit scared by your used of “totalitarian” in the above text. I think you were looking for “comprehensive”.

    In my view, “anthropology” is a bunch of unscientific leftist propaganda. I’ll take the methodology of quantitative testing of falsifiable hypotheses over all kinds of silly texts any day. Math is important… it want gives our field its coherence. A properly trained economists has all the tools he needs to analyze social phenomena. Other social sciences are mostly superfluous.

    If you want stories without any applications or consequences, real anthropology. If you want to be able to forecast, understand and propose policy, you need economics.

  2. Gabriel’
    First of all my apologies for using ‘totalitarian’ in the place of ‘comprehensive’. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Human emotions or preferences to an extent can be predicted by math, but beyond that it is impossible to forecast. To frame effective policies, keeping in mind the interests of the majority of the population, anthropology is essential. Be it any study, we need to incorporate as many variable as possible, which might effect the phenomenon under consideration.

    I believe economics to be normative in nature.

    I have a strange feeling that you despise the left. :)

  3. Yes Math..Science and Economics indeed…anything without a human touch to it is futile….
    To know and to understand are two very different things….and obviously it only matters if you understand what you know.
    Like always enjoyed your post..keep ‘em coming

  4. Alex,
    Thanks for bringing up the link between economics and other social sciences. My brief study of economics left me very impressed by it. Yet, I was also unsatisfied for economics depends too much on incentives without understanding other sociological causes. To treat us as automatons that react only to financial incentives is to miss a great part of our lives and identities.

    I’m interested in other explainations, particularly those of social & public choice theory but will dig through your references first.

    As for Gabriel’s assertion that economics is the only true science, I’d ask where exactly his much vaunted ‘quantitative testing’ figures in the creation of national economic policy? Not unless you can recreate a stock market crash or hyperinflation and change only one condition, can you ‘test’ policy. My first lesson in macroeconomics was that economists do not have the luxury of repeating tests. So they, essentially, are also armchair theorists. Simply because there are more numbers in economics, does not make it more of a science.

    Of course, being ‘scientific’ gives economics greater legitimacy, and makes economists believe they are somehow better :-)

    PS: Thanks for the typo.

  5. Great Post and great comments. My point of view will split both comments. First, Economics is a great science (yes I am biased), it combines the maths with human psychology. Nevertheless it cant and will never answer every question. The dynamic nature of global economies, on the macro and micro level, limits economist from always having the answer. This is a curse but a blessing as well, we will always have questions to answer!
    Your post emphesis an important area where economics needs more resources. Some ethnic and cultural behaviours can not be explained by economics. One area that I can reference is Islamic Banking. When viewed in the context of a profit maximizing entity, Non interest banking does not fit. However this may be possible to explain if individuals are Utility maximizers and abiding by religous laws maximizes their utility.
    …..Point being a bridge can be constructed if the interest is there.

  6. Very interesting and important issue you raise here Alex.

    “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

    This is my preferred definition, it is in fact the one I grew up with (I studied at the LSE) although if you look around you will find it is rather out of fashion. The reason why it is out of fashion is interesting. Robbins talks about behaviour, and behaviour is observable (you don’t need to postulate too many unobservable entities to work with this). Modern economics switched to rational agents and expectations, but hasn’t really resolved the deep methodological issues that are produced by this turn.

    Robbins was a behaviourist in the restricted Wittgensteinian sense (this has not got a lot to do with Skinner), and this was about methodological parsimony. Keep to the observables.

    Funnily enough there is a branch of modern evolutionary anthropology, known as Life History Theory, which is very close to this way of seeing things. LHT is concerned with ‘trade-offs’, and precisely those trade-offs which operate under resource constraint.

    Examples of such trade-offs would be those organisms (like ours) make between maintenance, growth and reproduction, or in the context of fertility between reproduce now/reproduce later and quantity/quality.

    So LHT has a lot of relevance for issues like mortality and life expectancy, and these are, of course, of fundamental economic importance.

    I had a shot at writing a draft paper elaborating all this over the summer:

    Two anthropologists which are of immediate interest to economists are Hillard Kaplan:

    and Michael Gurven:

    Interestingly it was the work of an anthropologist – Marcel Maus The Gift – which set me off as a young student on a chain of reading and thinking which lead me to where I am now.

    You are asking the right questions, keep asking them.

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