Economic anthropology

Economic anthropology is a field that attempts to explain human economic behavior in its widest historic, geographic and cultural scope. It is an amalgamation of economics and anthropology. It is practiced by anthropologists and has a complex relationship with the discipline of economics, of which it is highly critical.[1] Its origins as a sub-field of anthropology began with work by the Polish founder of anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski and the French Marcel Mauss on the nature of reciprocity as an alternative to market exchange. For the most part, studies in economic anthropology focus on exchange. In contrast, the Marxian school known as "political economy" focuses on production.

Post-World War II, economic anthropology was highly influenced by the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi. Polanyi drew on anthropological studies to argue that true market exchange was limited to a restricted number of western, industrial societies. Applying formal economic theory (Formalism) to non-industrial societies was mistaken, he argued. In non-industrial societies, exchange was "embedded" in such non-market institutions as kinship, religion, and politics (an idea he borrowed from Mauss). He labelled this approach Substantivism. The formalist–substantivist debate was highly influential and defined an era.[2]

As globalization became a reality, and the division between market and non-market economies – between "the West and the Rest"[3] – became untenable, anthropologists began to look at the relationship between a variety of types of exchange within market societies. Neo-substantivists examine the ways in which so-called pure market exchange in market societies fails to fit market ideology. Economic anthropologists have abandoned the primitivist niche they were relegated to by economists. They now study the operations of corporations, banks, and the global financial system from an anthropological perspective.


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