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Economic Anthropology

  Economic anthropology emerged as a recognizable field in the 1950s. Its predominant aim was to integrate conventional economic issues with anthropological perspectives, to place these issues in their wider contexts of social relations, concepts and values. This included subjects such as the way labour is divided, the means for producing and distributing goods and services, and questions of ownership, property and inheritance. It was realized that in a Western market economy, economic institutions are separated from other spheres in social life, and that this distinction was not an appropriate framework within which to consider other societies. Prior to this period, nonmonetary economies had largely been overlooked: they were an area which lay outside the agenda of economic theorists (who concentrated on monetary economies). Economic anthropologists contributed by offering finer analyses on agricultural, horticultural and hunting gathering economies. They later considered how these economic organizations interacted with factors like colonial rule, industrialization and the global spread of capitalism.

Karl Polyani initiated a prominent debate in the 1950s by criticizing those economic anthropologists who, in his view, applied inappropriate market economy based concepts, such as supply and demand, profit maximization, etc., to societies not dominated by such principles. He proposed three types of goods distribution systems that could be prevalent in any society: one that featured ‘reciprocity’, the return of gifts, which was associated with societies organized by kinship relations. The second was based on ‘redistribution’, the pooling of goods for later distribution a system typical of those societies with a central institution of authority. The third was that of market exchange, in which goods were distributed at prices determined by supply and demand as is present in capitalist societies.

Supporters of Polyani were referred to as the ‘substantivists’ while ‘formalists’, in contrast, maintained that certain universal economic principles were relevant for all economies. This formalist-substantivist debate reached little reconciliation. Other anthropologists under the influence of Marxist theory, shifted the focus to study the economic forces and social relations determining the production of material goods as opposed to considering how these material goods are distributed in society. Marxist anthropologists (see Marxist anthropology) also considered ideas about reproduction. Not only was material production essential to the economic organization, but reproduction provided the means to perpetuate them by supplying a workforce.

A related issue in this area is the theoretical construct of ‘economic man’. This portrays individuals as decision-makers acting in their own interest within the economic system. The ability to gain maximum benefits for the minimum of input is considered paramount and an index of rational behaviour. However, the concept of ‘economic man’ overlooks non-market factors in decision-making. Nor does it adequately account for the social context, particularly when economic organizations are inseparable from the larger society typical of precapitalist societies. These societies lack a distinct economic sphere for it is more likely to be embedded in kinship, religious, ceremonial or other such social values. RK

See also colonialism; development; exchange; gift; modernization; rationality; scarcity; urban anthropology.Further reading Raymond Firth (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology; LeClair & Schneider (eds.), Economic Anthropology; , Stuart Platter (ed.), Economic Anthropology.



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