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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Pastoralism
  • Hunter-Gatherers
  • Domestic Economies, Kinship, and the Household
  • Modes of Production and Marxist Anthropology
  • Colonialism and Changing Rural Economies
  • Property, Land Rights, and Inheritance
  • Money, Exchange, and Debt
  • Slavery and “Wealth in People”
  • Migration and Mobility
  • Informal Economy
  • Labor Settings
  • Women, Gender, and Economic Life
  • Structural Adjustment, Development, and Economic Liberalization
  • Resources and the “Resource Curse”
  • Poverty, Precarity, and Dependency
  • Witchcraft, “Occult Economies,” and Economic Cosmology
  • Youth, Unemployment, and a Crisis of Masculinity?
  • New Aspirations and Cultures of Consumption
  • Africa and Global Economies

African Studies Economic Anthropology
Peter Lockwood, Constance Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0217


Anthropology has a long and complicated history in Africa, and its study of economic life is no exception. In the early days of the discipline, in the 1930s and 1940s, anthropologists like Audrey Richards, Meyer Fortes, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard all departed for Africa to conduct fieldwork. In general, early British social anthropology was committed to holistic studies of small-scale societies, and thus what counted as “economic anthropology” was subsumed within broader studies of kinship and sociopolitical organization. Though later criticized by Manchester School anthropologists for their “bounding” of specific peoples, and by Marxist anthropologists for their neglect of “modes of production,” from a contemporary vantage point these early studies made the same point that anthropologists working in the substantivist tradition of Karl Polanyi also would: that the economy is embedded in social relations and practices. The growing influence of Marxist approaches from the 1960s, as well as growing sympathies between social anthropology and the historical study of Africa, introduced an appreciation of historical processes in the formation of local and regional economies. Feminist approaches expanded the frame of inquiry by demonstrating the gendered character of African economic life, and of the crucial role of women and households to markets and production. New analytical tools borrowed from political economy paved the way for studies of colonial economies—for instance, how the emergence of cash crop production shaped labor migration and land ownership, as well as the shift toward cash itself. The contemporary anthropological study of economic life in Africa has been transformed by pressing events in the latter part of the century—structural adjustment and economic liberalization, not to mention scholars’ identification of the “informal economy”—as key terrain for anthropological research. New attentiveness has been given to how Africans imagine and conceive of economic change, as well as the new types of wealth, credit, and debt brought about via access to foreign capital. The era of economic liberalization has transformed cities and African expectations of the future, sometimes in terms of improved living standards and “middle class” lifestyles, but also a growing disparity between rich and poor. Moving away from the narrative of crisis, newer work seeks to explore African attempts to pursue “the good life” amid ongoing economic turbulence. While anthropologists remain attuned to the effects of economic change, what continues to characterize their approach is an understanding of economies embedded in regional contexts, including their values and established practices.

General Overviews

While there are several excellent overviews of Africanist anthropology in general (e.g., Moore 1994, Desai and Masquelier 2018), there is currently no single volume that surveys Africanist anthropological work on economic life more specifically. Guyer 2019 provides an important overview of trends in Africanist economic anthropology that emerged from the turn to Marxism in the 1960s, and of the contributions made by African scholars to debates about African political economy. However, Guyer’s overview does not document more recent work. Adebanwi 2017 demonstrates the effect Guyer’s work has had on Africanist scholarship more widely, with varied contributions focusing on currencies and labor relationships. The contributions to this edited volume on “the political economy of everyday life” primarily focus on Nigeria and South Africa, and many of them show a deep appreciation for the historical formation of contemporary economic circumstances and African experiences of economic life.

  • Adebanwi, Wale, ed. The Political Economy of Everyday Life in Africa: Beyond the Margins. Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2017.

    A recent volume bringing together perspectives from a range of scholars on African economic life. Adebanwi’s introduction stresses a need to study African aspirations to lead good lives amid economic difficulty often emphasized by macro perspectives.

  • Desai, Gaurav, and Adeline Masquelier, eds. Critical Terms for the Study of Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

    Includes chapters such as “Colonialism” and “Value” that shed light on economic life in Africa.

  • Guyer, Jane. “The Economic Anthropology of Africa.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of Africa. Edited by R. R. Grinker, S. C. Lubkemann, C. B. Steiner, and E. Gonçalves, 13–31. Oxford: Wiley, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119251521.ch1

    Useful review of economic anthropology in Africa, with important attention given to the growing influence of history and neo-Marxist approaches from the 1960s onward.

  • Moore, Sally Falk. Anthropology and Africa: Changing Perspectives on a Changing Scene. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

    Important reflections on the history of the anthropology of Africa, particularly the impact of Marxist analyses from the 1960s onward.

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