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Relationship Anthropology Economics

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.

Relationship Anthropology Economics

Mauss, however, posited that the gifts were not merely between individuals, but between representatives of larger collectivities. These gifts were, he argued, a "total prestation." They were not simple, alienable commodities to be bought and sold, but, like the Crown jewels, embodied the reputation, history, and identity of a "corporate kin group". Given the stakes, Mauss asked, "Why anyone would give them away?" His answer was an enigmatic concept, hau, "the spirit of the gift." Largely, the confusion (and resulting debate) was due to a bad translation. Mauss appeared to be arguing that a return gift is given to keep the very relationship between givers alive; a failure to return a gift ends the relationship and the promise of any future gifts. Based on an improved translation, Jonathan Parry has demonstrated that Mauss was arguing that the concept of a "pure gift" given altruistically only emerges in societies with a well-developed market ideology.[4]

The relationship of new market exchange systems to indigenous non-market exchange remained a perplexing question for anthropologists. Paul Bohannan (see below, under substantivism) argued that the Tiv of Nigeria had three spheres of exchange, and that only certain kinds of goods could be exchanged in each sphere; each sphere had its own different form of money.[12] Similarly, Clifford Geertz's model of "dual economy" in Indonesia,[13] and James C. Scott's model of "moral economy"[14] hypothesized different exchange spheres emerging in societies newly integrated into the market; both hypothesized a continuing culturally ordered "traditional" exchange sphere resistant to the market. Geertz used the sphere to explain peasant complacency in the face of exploitation, and Scott to explain peasant rebellion. This idea was taken up lastly by Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch, who argued in Money and the Morality of Exchange (1989) that the "transactional order" through which long-term social reproduction of the family takes place has to be preserved as separate from short-term market relations.[15]

Rather than emphasize how particular kinds of objects are either gifts or commodities to be traded in restricted spheres of exchange, Arjun Appadurai and others began to look at how objects flowed between these spheres of exchange. They shifted attention away from the character of the human relationships formed through exchange, and placed it on "the social life of things" instead. They examined the strategies by which an object could be "singularized" (made unique, special, one-of-a-kind) and so withdrawn from the market. A marriage ceremony that transforms a purchased ring into an irreplaceable family heirloom is one example; the heirloom, in turn, makes a perfect gift.

The opposition between substantivist and formalist economic models was first proposed by Karl Polanyi in his work The Great Transformation (1944). He argued that the term 'economics' has two meanings: the formal meaning refers to economics as the logic of rational action and decision-making, as rational choice between the alternative uses of limited (scarce) means. The second, substantive meaning, however, presupposes neither rational decision-making nor conditions of scarcity. It simply refers to the study of how humans make a living from their social and natural environment. A society's livelihood strategy is seen as an adaptation to its environment and material conditions, a process which may or may not involve utility maximisation. The substantive meaning of 'economics' is seen in the broader sense of 'economising' or 'provisioning'. Economics is simply the way members of society meet their material needs. Anthropologists embraced the substantivist position as empirically oriented, as it did not impose western cultural assumptions on other societies where they might not be warranted. The Formalist vs. Substantivist debate was not between anthropologists and economists, however, but a disciplinary debate largely confined to the journal Research in Economic Anthropology. In many ways, it reflects the common debates between "etic" and "emic" explanations as defined by Marvin Harris in cultural anthropology of the period. The principal proponents of the substantivist model were George Dalton and Paul Bohannan. Formalists such as Raymond Firth and Harold K. Schneider asserted that the neoclassical model of economics could be applied to any society if appropriate modifications are made, arguing that its principles have universal validity.

In his work on livelihoods, Gudeman seeks to present the "people's own economic construction" (1986:1);[21] that is, people's own conceptualizations or mental maps of economics and its various aspects. His description of a peasant community in Panama reveals that the locals did not engage in exchange with each other in order to make a profit but rather viewed it as an "exchange of equivalents", with the exchange value of a good being defined by the expenses spent on producing it. Only outside merchants made profits in their dealings with the community; it was a complete mystery to the locals how they managed to do so.

Gudeman also criticizes the substantivist position for imposing their universal model of economics on preindustrial societies and so making the same mistake as the formalists. While conceding that substantivism rightly emphasises the significance of social institutions in economic processes, Gudeman considers any deductive universal model, be it formalist, substantivist or Marxist, to be ethnocentric and tautological. In his view they all model relationships as mechanistic processes by taking the logic of natural science based on the material world and applying it to the human world. Rather than to "arrogate to themselves a privileged right to model the economies of their subjects", anthropologists should seek to understand and interpret local models (1986:38).[21] Such local models may differ radically from their Western counterparts. For example, the Iban use only hand knives to harvest rice. Although the use of sickles could speed up the harvesting process, they believe that this may cause the spirit of the rice to flee, and their desire to prevent that outcome is greater than their desire to economize the harvesting process.

Gudeman brings post-modern cultural relativism to its logical conclusion. Generally speaking, however, culturalism can also be seen as an extension of the substantivist view, with a stronger emphasis on cultural constructivism, a more detailed account of local understandings and metaphors of economic concepts, and a greater focus on socio-cultural dynamics than the latter (cf. Hann, 2000).[22] Culturalists tend to be both less taxonomic and more culturally relativistic in their descriptions while critically reflecting on the power relationship between the ethnographer (or 'modeller') and the subjects of his or her research. While substantivists generally focus on institutions as their unit of analysis, culturalists lean towards detailed and comprehensive analyses of particular local communities. Both views agree in rejecting the formalist assumption that all human behaviour can be explained in terms of rational decision-making and utility maximisation.

While many anthropologists like Gudeman were concerned with peasant economic behaviour, others turned to the analysis of market societies. Economic sociologist Mark Granovetter provided a new research paradigm (neo-substantivism) for these researchers. Granovetter argued that the neo-liberal view of economic action which separated economics from society and culture promoted an 'undersocialized account' that atomises human behavior. Similarly, he argued, substantivists had an "over-socialized" view of economic actors, refusing to see the ways that rational choice could influence the ways they acted in traditional, "embedded" social roles. Neo-Substantivism overlaps with 'old' and especially new institutional economics.

Granovetter applied the concept of embeddedness to market societies, demonstrating that even their, "rational" economic exchanges are influenced by pre-existing social ties.[28] In his study of ethnic Chinese business networks in Indonesia, Granovetter found individual's economic agency embedded in networks of strong personal relations. In processes of clientelization the cultivation of personal relationships between traders and customers assumes an equal or higher importance than the economic transactions involved. Economic exchanges are not carried out between strangers but rather by individuals involved in long-term continuing relationships.

David Graeber argues that the inefficiencies of barter in archaic society has been used by economists since Adam Smith to explain the emergence of money, the economy, and hence the discipline of economics itself.[35] "Economists of the contemporary orthodoxy... propose an evolutionary development of economies which places barter, as a 'natural' human characteristic, at the most primitive stage, to be superseded by monetary exchange as soon as people become aware of the latter's greater efficiency."[36] However, extensive investigation since then has established that "No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing. But there are economies today which are nevertheless dominated by barter."[37]


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