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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Journals
  • Consumption
  • Globalization
  • Financialization
  • Future Concerns

Anthropology Economic Anthropology
Chris Hann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0040


Economic anthropology emerged in the 20th century at the interface between sociocultural anthropology (hereafter anthropology) and economics. 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 any narrow 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 kinship, etc.). However, there have always been some anthropologists sympathizing 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. 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), and so on, but these subjects are not covered extensively here (some are the subjects of separate OBO articles). This guide 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, 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. Recent efforts include Narotzky 1997, from a Marxist perspective; Gudeman 2001, from a culturalist perspective; Wilk and Cliggett 2007, which highlights links to mainstream sociological theory; Chibnik 2011, which pays more attention to economic theory; and Hann and Hart 2011, which charts the history of economic anthropology and calls for economic anthropologists to reengage with the big issues of world history. The major theoretical debates of the 1950s and 1960s were followed by several multiauthored texts for teaching purposes. Plattner 1989 remains the best of these.

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

    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. 2001. The anthropology of economy: Community, market, and culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    An accessible overview by the most influential exponent of the approach that puts the generation of cultural meaning at the center of analysis.

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

    This essay traces the history of economic anthropology to its origins in Western social thought and offers a periodization of its trajectory over the last century. Its arguments, especially concerning contemporary global capitalism, closely reflect the approach taken in this bibliography.

  • 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 current concerns with the moral foundations of economy.

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