In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economic Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Journals, and Portals
  • Consumption
  • Globalization
  • Financialization
  • Moral Economy
  • Future Concerns

Anthropology Economic Anthropology
Chris Hann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0040


Economic anthropology emerged in the twentieth century at the interface between sociocultural anthropology (commonly known as ethnology in earlier times, hereafter anthropology) and economics (in earlier nomenclature commonly political economy). The latter is nowadays predominantly a universalizing discipline, theorizing deductively on the basis of maximizing individuals and firms. By contrast, anthropologists tend to work inductively from their particular ethnographic cases. Many are suspicious of generalizing the modern concept of “the economy” because it is not easy to demarcate; ways of procuring material livelihood are always embedded in larger contexts of immaterial values and practices that cannot be reduced to a utilitarian calculus. Such scholars may not recognize this subfield at all, or they may argue instead that every aspect of life has an economic aspect and that studies of this aspect should be dispersed across the other bibliographies of this series, rather than be brought together in one place (thus the economic ethic of world religions would be covered under religion, the importance of the family for small businesses under household and kinship, etc.). However, some anthropologists have sympathized with the universalist camp. They hold that the axioms of mainstream economics, increasingly shaped by work in fields such as evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, are applicable to all societies in time and space. Meanwhile, economics too varies in time and space. Heterodox practitioners have taken an interest in anthropological ideas in fields such as consumption and even in theories of ritual and symbols, where they may converge with anthropological approaches. In short, a significant body of literature has developed at this interface, but it remains decidedly fuzzy. To restrict consideration to scholars who self-identify as economic anthropologists would be too narrow. Practitioners who prioritize the cultural ordering of social life prefer the nomenclature anthropological economics. On the other hand, not every adaptation of the word economy (as in representational economy, occult economy, etc.) is relevant to our purposes. Not every ethnographic investigation of “economic culture” or social change can be considered a contribution to economic anthropology. Broad definitions of economic anthropology would include topics such as applied anthropology, business studies, comparative economic systems, development, environmental anthropology (subsuming ecology), climate change and the Anthropocene, and so on, but these subjects are not covered extensively here (some are the subjects of separate OBO articles). This article proceeds via pragmatic compromises, including a balancing of classical studies from the past with samples and overviews of contemporary trends. It is structured by the standard terms of economics, although recent anthropological investigations of global capitalism show a renewed holistic ambition. Whether economists will take any notice is another matter. The author of this article wishes to thank James G. Carrier, Stephen Gudeman, Keith Hart, Andrew Sanchez, Mihály Sárkány, and two anonymous referees.

General Overviews

Although economic anthropology has always been amorphous, synthetic overviews doubling as introductory texts have been readily available since the 1930s. Whereas early studies were shaped by the legacies of evolutionism and focused on the “economic life of primitive peoples,” this vocabulary was jettisoned after World War II (Herskovits 1952). Recent contributions pay more attention to the organization of contemporary economic life in societies dominated by capitalism. Hunter gatherers, peasants, and other marginalized forms of economic organization are still covered, but the attention paid to industrialization, financialization, and globalization reflects trends in the modern world. Carrier 2021 is a good point of entry for those lacking any previous familiarity with anthropology; Chibnik 2011 pays considerable attention to economic theory, as does Gudeman 2016 from a more critical, culturalist perspective; Hann and Hart 2011 charts the history of the (sub-)discipline and calls for a reengagement with the big issues of world history; Narotzky 1997 offers a Marxist feminist perspective; Wilk and Cliggett 2007 is particularly strong in highlighting links to classical sociological theory. Plattner 1989 is a solid multi-authored compilation.

  • Carrier, James G. 2021. Economic anthropology. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Agenda.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1mvw8q4

    An accessible introductory text by an experienced author who draws on his own field research in different parts of the world while offering stimulating comparisons with the modern West and contrasts to perspectives from economics.

  • Chibnik, Michael. 2011. Anthropology, economics, and choice. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    DOI: 10.7560/726765

    This author’s emphasis on choice and decision taking places him close to the concerns of mainstream economists, with whom he engages constructively when examining topics such as the commons, cooperation, and risk and uncertainty.

  • Gudeman, Stephen. 2016. Anthropology and economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316442739

    An accessible overview of the differences between the two disciplines by the most influential exponent of the approach that puts the generation of cultural meaning at the center of analysis. Like Carrier 2021 this work is designed to appeal to contemporary readers in the West, e.g., in the attention paid not only to consumption and to finance, but also to rituals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. For Gudeman, economy is best viewed as a species of ritual.

  • Hann, Chris M., and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic anthropology: History, ethnography, critique. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    This volume traces the history of economic anthropology to its origins in Western social thought and offers a periodization of its trajectory over the last century. It reflects the approach taken in this bibliography closely.

  • Herskovits, Melville J. 1952. Economic anthropology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    The first of numerous volumes to popularize this name, this was the second edition of a work first published in 1940 under the title The economic life of primitive peoples (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). The descriptor “primitive” was no longer acceptable in the postwar era. Some reviewers were critical of the greater emphasis the author seemed now to place on the applicability of mainstream economic approaches to the full diversity of human economic organization.

  • Narotzky, Susana. 1997. New directions in economic anthropology. London: Pluto.

    This introduction privileges Marxist approaches and draws heavily on the author’s own research into transformations of household and gender relations in southern Europe.

  • Plattner, Stuart, ed. 1989. Economic anthropology. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A landmark collection of fifteen well-informed contributions by leading US scholars; gender, Marxism, and common-property resources are all well covered.

  • Wilk, Richard R., and Lisa Cliggett. 2007. Economies and cultures: Foundations of economic anthropology. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    A well-written introduction that places economic anthropology in the context of Western sociological theory (Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) and anticipates the recent expansion of interest in the moral foundations of economy.

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