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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Works
  • Handbooks and Edited Volumes
  • Political-Economy Frameworks
  • Governmentality Frameworks
  • Globalization and Neoliberalism
  • The State and Nongovernmental Organizations
  • Citizenship and Civil Society
  • Audit Culture
  • Privatization
  • Financialization
  • Urban Transformations
  • Education
  • Flexible Capitalism, Entrepreneurialism, and the Workplace
  • Neoliberal Subjects
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Post-Neoliberalism and Populism

Anthropology Neoliberalism
Kathleen Hall, Rachael Stephens
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0275


Neoliberalism as a political economic philosophy emerged from a long history of over fifty years of debate within a transnational “thought collective” of scholars, think tank researchers, business and political leaders, and journalists most notably associated with the Mont Pèlerin Society (see Mirowski and Plehwe 2015 under Historical Works). Over time, their deliberations resulted in principles and associated policy instruments designed to produce and protect a stable global market. Key tenets of neoliberalism include an emphasis on competition, free trade, flexible labor, the reorganization of the state based on techno-managerial approaches to governance, the privatization of state enterprises, the legal protection of property rights, and the moral virtue of self-governance based in individual freedom and “choice.” These principles crystallized in the “free-market revolution” of the 1980s that followed the global macroeconomic crises of the late 1970s. Neoliberal doctrines were embraced and enshrined in Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s national policies and in “Washington Consensus” development strategies, which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank introduced worldwide. The “triumph of global capitalism” after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991 further fueled the global circulation and influence of market fundamentalist principles, policies, and projects as well as the anthropological study of these transformations. The concept of neoliberalism has been ubiquitous in anthropological research for nearly thirty years. This bibliography, then, is necessarily selective, presenting only a sampling of work representing central approaches and key topics found in this literature. What is most evident, perhaps, across this vast body of work is the absence of a single definition of or referent for neoliberalism as well as a lack of consensus on what an “anthropology of neoliberalism” might entail. The term neoliberal often appears in anthropological work, not as an object of analysis, but rather as a label marking a historical period (i.e., the neoliberal era). As an object of study, neoliberalism can variously refer to an ideology, policy, or form of governance that elevates the role of the market in relation to the state in political economic processes and approaches to reform. The concept “neoliberalization” captures the dynamic and unfinished nature of neoliberal projects. Given controversies over the concept’s analytic value as well as conflicting ideological assessments of neoliberal reforms, some anthropologists avoid the concept altogether, using terms such as late capitalism or advanced capitalism in analyzing similar phenomena.

General Overviews

Given the level of attention that neoliberalism has received from anthropologists, a number of scholars have produced overviews of the field. These typically have focused on the history of neoliberalism—for example, Graeber 2010—anthropological research on neoliberalism (its unique contributions and limitations), or some combination of the two. Ganti 2014 provides an extensive analysis of the anthropological literature on neoliberalism together with a brief history of the origins in interwar-Europe of neoliberalism as a political-economic philosophy. Gledhill 2018 highlights key contributions anthropologists have made to the multidisciplinary literature on neoliberalism. Gershon 2011 focuses more specifically on challenges anthropologists face in formulating a neoliberal conceptualization of agency. Richland 2009 identifies trends evident in anthropological accounts published in the major anthropology journals in 2008. The works of a number of scholars outside anthropology have also been highly influential and are widely cited in anthropological research. Rose 1999—whose author is a sociologist—integrates historical and theoretical analyses in discussions of key issues. Peck and Tickell 2002 (whose authors are geographers) considers political transformations often associated with neoliberalism to make a case for analyzing neoliberalism as a process—as neoliberalization—an ongoing ideological process (re)constituted in variable ways as different “local neoliberalisms.” Peck 2010 explores the nature and workings of “neoliberal reason.”

  • Ganti, Tesjaswini. 2014. Neoliberalism. Annual Review of Anthropology 43: 89–104.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155528

    Comprehensive review of the literature. Considers how anthropologists have understood and defined neoliberalism as well as why the concept has garnered such widespread attention (including criticism) in anthropology. Identifies three central themes: political-economic accounts of neoliberalism as a structural force; Foucauldian analyses of neoliberalism and governmentality; and research focusing on sites and agents of neoliberalism.

  • Gershon, Ilana. 2011. Neoliberal agency. Current Anthropology 52.4: 537–555.

    DOI: 10.1086/660866

    Gershon explains how corporate forms of agency presume a self that is a bundle of skills to be reflexively self-managed, marking a shift from a liberal notion of people owning themselves as property to a neoliberal vision of people owning themselves like a business. Considers challenges neoliberal restructurings of what it means to be agentive present for anthropologists as well as how to address them.

  • Gledhill, John. 2018. Neoliberalism. In International encyclopedia of anthropology. Edited by Hilary Callan, 1–11. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

    Analysis of four central concerns within anthropological work on neoliberalism: the relationship between neoliberalism and global capitalism; capitalism, the state, and governmentality; neoliberal technologies of the self, neoliberal multiculturalism, and managing resistance; and the possibility of a post-neoliberal world. The analysis considers a number of key anthropological works addressing these issues.

  • Graeber, David. 2010. Neoliberalism, or the bureaucratization of the world. In The insecure American: How we got here and what we should do about it. Edited by Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besterman, 123–149. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Analysis of the history of neoliberalism as an economic and political theory, considering its roots, deployments politically, as well as inherent contradictions. Considers how the ideology of neoliberalism, a philosophy of radical individualism, has become a justification for a system of global governance operating across a series of tiers (finance capital, transnational corporations, trade bureaucracies, such as the IMF among others, and NGOs) that together form a planet-wide trade bureaucracy.

  • Peck, Jamie. 2010. Constructions of neoliberal reason. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199580576.001.0001

    A historical and conceptual overview of neoliberalism written by one of the leading scholars (a geographer) in the multidisciplinary field of neoliberalism studies whose work has been influential in anthropology.

  • Peck, Jamie, and Adam Tickell. 2002. Neoliberalizing space. Antipode 34.3: 380–404.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8330.00247

    Article makes the case for approaching neoliberalism as a process, neoliberalization, rather than as an end state. Considers changing forms of neoliberalism, particularly the shift from early “roll-back neoliberalism” in the 1980s emphasizing deregulation and dismantlement to the active state-building and technocratic regulatory reforms beginning in the 1990s, which they characterize as “roll-out neoliberalism.”

  • Richland, Justin B. 2009. On neoliberalism and other social diseases: The 2008 sociocultural anthropology year in review. American Anthropologist 111.2: 170–176.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01110.x

    Review of 129 articles published in 2008 in five leading peer-reviewed anthropology journals. Richland discusses a number of themes found in the particular articles as well as overarching trends evident across these studies.

  • Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488856

    Extending Foucault’s writings on governmentality, Rose sets out a new analysis of political power and the governmental impact of neoliberalism. Bringing together historical and theoretical analyses, the book speaks to several issues, including: “the audit explosion”; entrepreneurialism and “skilling”; making citizen consumers; and technologies of the self.

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