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The debate between formalists and substantivists generated polemics for more than a decade. Polanyi and some of his followers notably George Dalton seemed ready to concede that the substantivists had little to contribute to the study of modern industrial economies. Since market exchange was the dominant form of integration, these economies could be left to the economists.

Nowadays, however, economic anthropologists are just as likely to undertake research in neoliberal capitalist factories and Wall Street banks as in tribal or peasant communities. The premise is that all economic activity, even that entirely dependent on new digital technologies, takes place in specific sociocultural contexts. Conversely, it is generally accepted that at least some techniques of the mainstream economists might be productively applied to preindustrial and even to nonmonetized societies.

Several approaches have been advanced to transcend the formalist—substantivist debate. Some have sought inspiration from the European predecessors of modern economics in the tradition known as political economy, and especially in the historical materialism of Marx. For critics, all attempts to generalize the concepts devised by Marx in his analyses of capitalism, such as alienation, exploitation, the labor theory of value, and class, were flawed by their ethnocentricity.

A quite different but no less sophisticated way to investigate economic systems comparatively without abandoning deep universalist assumptions was that developed in new institutionalist economics, which attracted a significant following among the heirs to the formalists see Ensminger The antithesis to the alleged determinism of these approaches is to take a more emphatic culturalist position that assigns priority to local models of economic life.


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From this perspective, the history of Western economic thought can be explored in terms of its metaphors, which were still predominantly agrarian in the age of the Enlightenment, as exemplified in the school of the Physiocrats. The neoclassical synthesis that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century is just another folk model. When this perspective is pushed to an extreme, analysts are obliged to give priority to the local cosmology. They must report, for example, that far from the extraction of surplus value by oppressive human power holders, or the maximization of utilities by rational individuals, the key actors in many tribal economies are the gods or spirits who reward sacrifices made to them by making the land fertile.

If economy is defined in terms of the social reproduction of the group, it can be argued that cosmology and kinship are no less important than consumption and material production for subsistence or for sale in a market. Subcommunities within economic anthropology tend to talk past each other: while some prefer dialogues with philosophy or cultural studies, others look to archaeology, agrarian economics, or development studies. The successors to the formalists are likely to maintain conversations with scholars in economics, especially in the field of development as will be discussed in a later section , because they share methodological techniques modeling and quantitative analysis as well as theoretical principles Gregory and Altman For this camp, value is determined through the price mechanism, the main aim is to link communities more effectively to markets, and the task of political actors is limited to creating the conditions for markets to do their job.

Substantivists and culturalists, by contrast, emphasize the holistic embedding of every human economy.

They deploy concepts such as moral economy to question statistical generalization and to ground value in thick descriptions of localized belief systems and social relations. One way to organize knowledge in economic anthropology, dating back to the era when evolutionist approaches dominated and persisting most strongly in environmental ecological subfields of the discipline, has been to classify societies according to the main means by which their members obtain their livelihoods, whether directly for subsistence or to earn money in a cash economy by disposing of their surplus, or some combination of the two.

These categories mark fairly coherent subfields in which anthropologists have found it helpful to distinguish patterns of economic behavior and explore the interplay with other dimensions of human social life, technologies, and ecological environments. Arguably, given their importance in the divisions of labor of the contemporary world, the service sector and the financial sector should now be added to this list.

Elective affinities have developed between subfields and topics. While anthropologists are alert to social change everywhere, the theme of economic transformation has been especially salient in investigations of peasants, migrant workers, and the informal sector.

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An alternative way to structure the field of economic anthropology is to borrow from the economists basic classifiers such as production, consumption, distribution, markets, credit, investment, and so forth. But, provided one remains conscious of their origins, no harm is done by proceeding in this way.

Work within the household is often not recognized as such, as feminist anthropologists have pointed out, and the line between work and other activities may be blurred in many other contexts. For example, animist horticulturalists may not distinguish between energies expended to transform their natural environment and energies expended in rituals to ensure the necessary cosmic environment. Even where a distinction is drawn in theory, in practice economy and ritual are thoroughly entangled in all human societies.

Most have structured institutions to promote cooperation, ranging from hxaro partnerships linking individual Bushmen to more elaborate forms of mutual aid in peasant societies in which acts of labor are inextricably bound up with socializing and commensality. Analayses of such phenomena, in which work, ritual, and consumption mingle inextricably, will reflect the theoretical orientation of the writer.


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Formalists and neoinstitutionalists will emphasize the rationality of cooperation in terms of increasing returns or reducing effort, while substantivists and culturalists will emphasize embeddedness and local explanations of why sharing and mutuality are dominant values. The study of consumption was neglected for most of the history of economic anthropology.

If consumption is identified broadly with social reproduction, then arguably it has been central to anthropological research from the beginning: the manner in which classificatory kinship terms map the social universe can be seen as equivalent to the way in which a price system integrates the monetized economy Gregory Anthropologists have contributed pioneering studies of historical changes in consumption patterns highlighting the emergence of a differentiated haute cuisine in the Bronze Age and the key role of sugar consumption in linking new plantation forms of production and factory work on either side of the Atlantic.

While hierarchical relations are crucial in these historical works, certain modern technologies may have egalitarian potential for their users, a possibility that anthropologists have explored in studies of the internet. Anthropologists have been attentive to aesthetics and material culture, and to the role of consumption in expressing collective identities, from ethnic groups to youth subcultures.

Theorists of globalization have focused intensively on consumption practices, often in order to show how apparently universal products are modified and appropriated in distinctively local ways. The experience of consuming a Big Mac is not the same everywhere; anthropologists have shown that, between world regions and also within them, appropriations vary significantly according to the local context.

No discussion of this field in economic anthropology can avoid engaging with a work first published in French in and in translated into English for the third time Mauss [] Mauss set out not only to display his scholarly erudition but also to make political points about his own society. It implied a world in which persons and things are not as neatly separable as the modern West generally supposes them to be. Mauss yearns for the reemergence of alternative economic forms based on solidarity from below, such as cooperatives. Yet he fails to demonstrate how a rediscovery of an aristocratic ethos of giving, as evidenced in the agonistic Kwakiutl potlatch or in the hospitality rituals and philanthropy of the European feudal nobility, can resolve problems of cohesion and inclusion in industrial social orders.

Trade and markets formed the main ground on which the substantivists, led by Polanyi, mounted their challenge to the formalists in the s and s. They held that commerce motivated by profit, as theorized by Adam Smith, was not the prime way in which trade had developed throughout history.

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Some of Polanyi's students supported this approach through ethnographic studies, for example demonstrating that markets in colonial Africa carried out a wide range of functions beyond narrowly defined economic ones. Unlike some of the early substantivists, and in spite of the technological changes that have transformed national and international transacting, economic anthropologists find it instructive to investigate the sociocultural contexts of complex capitalist economies and the social relations that shape every act of exchange. At the macro level, intensified marketization in the era commonly referred to as neoliberalism beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century has led some to argue that the critique of Polanyi is more relevant than ever before.

Contrary to liberal ideologies of the free market, it is a dangerous, utopian myth to suppose that deregulation and privatization are followed by a withdrawal of the state. Another key topic for economic anthropologists from the beginning has been money. Marcel Mauss argued for a broader definition that would include Kula valuables of the Trobriand Islanders , even if they did not satisfy the modern Western criterion that the prime function of money is to serve as a medium of exchange.

Polanyi was even more explicit in challenging the economists' assumption that money emerged in order to resolve the inefficiency of barter exchange. Like trade, barter needs to be seen as more than just the economic exchange of desired commodities; it usually has a rich cultural and diplomatic context. The ethnographic record is full of cases in which money serves to measure and store value rather than as a medium of exchange.

Even the modern form turns out to be soaked in sociocultural contexts, and it does not necessarily erode the boundaries between economic spheres, as the substantivists supposed. Recent contributions such as those of Keith Hart and David Graeber have continued to attack the simplifications of the economists' story. Debt may be related to productive investment, but it is also associated with exploitative relations akin to bondage and slavery.

Anthropologists have explored financialization at many levels, from the central institutions of Wall Street to microfinance schemes intended to allay poverty in the global South. Early enthusiasm for microfinance has waned in view of the negative consequences of indebtedness for many poor borrowers. Property rights are of fundamental importance for economic organization, and their investigation is therefore of great importance for economic as well as legal anthropology.

In the nineteenth century, the transformation of property rights from communal bodies to individuals was the cornerstone of most influential evolutionist theories. The simplifications of these theories were overturned by ethnographers such as Malinowski, who showed how individual and collective rights could exist alongside each other in a wide range of societies, including those of the modern West. These insights were developed in a large literature on systems of land tenure, as well as in studies of pastoral nomads. Economists have a strong tendency to assume that only societies that emphasize private property ownership, in production as well as consumption, can function efficiently.

In the twentieth century, experiments with socialist collectivization and central planning were commonly deemed to have failed for this reason.

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Despite the rise of a meritocratic ethos, in the contemporary global economy social inequalities still correlate closely with the inheritance of wealth. At the end of the last of his Trobriand monographs, in which he addressed questions of work and property, Malinowski , app. From the middle of the twentieth century onward, economic anthropologists took greater pains to situate their ethnographic studies within global dynamics, in particular the exploitative imperialist dynamics of capitalism as a world system. These localizing processes are increasingly driven by the astute policies of transnational corporations.

Advertising and branding are essential to successful marketing. The sociocultural dimensions of capitalism are also of interest to many researchers in business schools. There is an overlap here between traditional concerns of economic anthropology and an emerging business anthropology see the eponymous journal.

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No one doubts that capitalism was the winner of the Cold War i. During the decades before this collapse, numerous economic anthropologists explored the distinctive economic organization of socialist countries wherever it was possible to gain access to them. Most work in Eastern Europe was based in the countryside and concentrated on the collective farm. Studies showed that the more successful adaptations of the doctrines of central planning, such as those developed in Hungary after , were those that combined principles of social ownership with material incentives and market signals.

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Factory studies suggested that problems of alienation and exploitation might not be so different from the problems found in capitalist factories e. Investigations of socialism are of more than antiquarian interest. Anthropologists have discovered that many citizens of the former Soviet bloc now rue the loss of their former securities. They are also prominent among social scientists investigating changing ideologies and local practices in several states notably China, Cuba, and Vietnam that claim to be continuously updating their socialism rather than discreetly abandoning it. Moral economy is a significant field that has long been of interest to economic anthropologists, building in particular upon the use of this concept by the Marxist historian E.

Mainstream economists tend to approach welfare with a focus on the Pareto optimum the condition from which no deviation can be made without reducing someone else's utility. But this initial distribution has nothing to do with normative justice. Critics tend to draw on the earlier traditions of political economy, notably those stemming from Marx, even though he too aspired to a positive, scientific critique of the capitalist institutions of his day rather than a moral one.

Those invoking moral economy usually focus on the norms and values of the group in question, especially the ability of subordinate classes to assert these norms as a form of protest and resistance. There is a tendency echoing that of some early substantivists and arguably Polanyi himself to romanticize the integrated communities of the preindustrial era and to overlook the extent to which their members engaged in commercial activity or otherwise maximized utilities.

Some scholars delve into the moral background that informs economic decision taking of whole societies, while others focus more on the moral or ethical dimension of individual decision taking Brown and Milgram While much research in this field connects with sociological studies, an enduring interface also exists with economic psychology. Although this was eventually dropped or rather subsumed under the category of redistribution , studies of the distinctive features of economic life at this level have been one of the main components of economic anthropology from its early days.

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