Anthros & Econs: Crossing the chasm

The more I read about political economy and economic anthropology, the more I have wondered about the discipline of economics. What, exactly, are those economists up to, how do they approach their field of study, and why? I have read a good amount about modern economics, and how it differs from anthropology, but I haven’t really read all that much from economists themselves (especially about method and theory). Sure, I read Krugman’s blog, and I follow sites like Calculated Risk, Economist’s View (Mark Thoma), and Economics and Ethics. One of my favorite econ blogs was written by the late Alison Snow Jones (aka “Maxine Udall”). She had a real talent for writing about and exploring the implications of economics in a very personal and fascinating way.* Still, I wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation between anthropologists and economists. Especially considering our overlapping interests.  So why is there such a chasm between the two disciplines?  Is it because our ways of thinking about and analyzing human nature are soooooo different that there is no room for dialog, or what?

In a recent essay called “Anthropologists and the Economists Without History,” Jason Antrosio wrote:

Many anthropologists receive a caricature of economics. This caricature has been promoted by neo-classical economists, who sought dominance and the erasure of heterogeneous approaches. Restoring a fuller history can help to promote a rapprochement between anthropology and economics.

I agree that anthropologists often have a limited picture of what economics is all about, and that we sometimes lump any and all economists in with the neo-classical folks.  I, for one, am guilty of that, and I realize that I need to put some time in to learning more about what economists actually do if I want to move beyond arguments and understandings that are based upon mere caricatures.   Not all economists think alike–and that’s a pretty important point to keep in mind.

Jason also argues that a renewed focus on the history of economic thought might be a good way to bridge anthropology and economics.  Interestingly, Loomnie recently posted something about a project that Bruce Caldwell–from Duke University–is heading, which focuses on putting discussions about methodology and the history of economic thought back into graduate training.  Caldwell states that an emphasis on the history of economic thought has been absent from many economics graduate programs around the country for some time.  Duke, apparently, is one place where this kind of training has survived.  Check out the video and Caldwell’s explanation of his Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke.  Interesting, no?

I would really like to see how this history of economic thought is taught, and what (if any) overlap there is with anthropology (and economic anthropology more specifically).  What kinds of readings are on the table, and does this open up a space for talking about human behavior and economics that moves beyond the standard neo-classical framework?  Some day, actually, would like to spend some time learning how economics grad courses are taught–I really have no idea what they do, how they set up seminars, and why anthropology and economics ends up in such different places when it comes to ideas about human motivations, etc.  I think it would be pretty fascinating, for instance, to sit in on some graduate seminars in economics–but that’s just me.  Dialog–or even debates–require some sort of mutual understanding to actually be interesting (and effective).

When was the last time that anthropologists and economists had a sustained conversation about their overlapping interests in human behavior? Was it waaaaaaay back in 1941 when Knight and Herskovitz had their little fireside chat?  Was it during the infamous debate between the formalists and the substantivists?  What would a renewed conversation–or even debate–between anthropologists and economists look like?  Do we need some kind of collaboration or dialog between anthropologists and economists? What would we all hope to achieve with this? Is there room for dialog, or are the disciplines so theoretically, methodologically, and politically different that there is no possibility for productive engagement?

In their recent book Economic Anthropology, Chris Hann and Keith Hart write about one of their main goals:  “We hope to persuade economists with real world concerns to take an interest in what anthropologists have discovered about the human economy, and in the kinds of theories we have advanced to understand it” (Hann and Hart 2011:9).  However, they also make this point quite clear: “There is not much hope for dialogue with those who define economics exclusively as the application of an individualistic logic of utility maximization to all domains of social life” (Hann and Hart 2011:9).  Ultimately, they say, “The project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists” (Hann and Hart 2011:162).

David Graeber, in his seminal book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, argues: “In fact, the effort to reconcile the two disciplines is in many ways inherently contradictory. This is because economics and anthropology were created with almost entirely opposite purposes in mind” (Graeber 2001:7).**  Anthropologists and economists do approach the study of human behavior and society in some radically different ways.  However, it’s pretty safe to say that not all economists think alike–and the same can of course be said of anthropologists.  So maybe, indeed, there is room for some sort of productive engagement.

One thing that does seem pretty clear to me is that anthropologists talk about economists much more than the reverse.  When was the last time you saw an economist refer to an anthropologist in any way?  Anthropologists, especially those with an economic bent, talk about economists and their BIG IDEAS all the time.  The only problem?  I am not sure there’s really anyone on the other end of the metaphorical phone, if you know what I mean (they aren’t necessarily all that concerned with the BIG IDEAS from anthropology).  I could be wrong, but for the most part I do not think that economists spend much time, if any, reading about what anthropologists have to say about economic issues.

What does this mean?  Well, considering the spate of economic “events” that have taken place since 2008, I think it’s probably high time for anthropologists–who have more than their fair share of experience studying human behavior–to get themselves back into larger debates and discussions about economics.  It’s definitely time for some rethinking about the relationships between individuals, the market, and society, that’s for sure.  And if people aren’t listening, we’ll have to find ways to make our thoughts on these economic matters known.  Sitting around waiting for the Adam Smith’s invisible hand to get this engagement started isn’t doing us any good.  Where should this all start?  Well, as Jason Antrosio argues, a revamped exploration of history would probably be a good place place to begin.


*Here are a few of my favorite posts from Maxine Udall:

Economics: Art or Science?

Amartya Sen: The Uses and Abuses of Adam Smith

Faith-Based Economics

The (Crippled) Invisible Hand

**Graeber’s book, which I just reread this summer, is a fantastic read.  Highly recommended.  Now I just need to get my hands his new book on debt, which also sounds really good.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

21 thoughts on “Anthros & Econs: Crossing the chasm

  1. This is an excellent article, and your point on the discourse between economists and anthropologists is especially valid. In my experience it is not only about economists not listening, but also anthropologists. I think on both sides we refuse to accept the arguments of the other – largely because our interests are dissimilar.

    Economic anthropology takes so much more into account: human values, the way that people engage with another beyond mere monetary exchange and also how political structures & power are more than just a battle

  2. … between Hayek versus Keynes. On the other hand, economics sees the world as it is now – and attempts to quantify what anthropologists only want to qualify.

  3. i agree that social theory tends to draw selectively on neoliberal economics as a straw man for its own purposes. there are some noticeable exceptions, and anthropology has played some part in building such bridges:

    elinor ostrom, amartya sen or partha dasgupta’ work is, if not directly conversant with anthropology, at least sensitive to its cultural focus.

  4. Nice post, some good ideas. But what part of economics are you talking about? And what part of anthropology? They are both large diverse fields, and in some corners there is interaction. Economic historians concerned with the ancient world do interact with archaeologists (I am thinking here of Peter Temin, Michael Hudson, Robert Allen).

    And I would guess that the chartalists would like to have input from anthropologists – their view of the origins and significance of money (an alternative to the standard origin myths of neoclassical economics) resonates with much work in economic anthropology, yet they don’t seem to have paid much attention yet to our work.

    Bell, Stephanie A., John F. Henry, and L Randall Wray
    2004 A Chartalist Critique of John Locke’s Theory of Property, Accumulation, and Money: or, is it Moral to Trade Your Nuts for Gold? Review of Social Economy 62(1):51-65.

    Bell, Stephanie A. and Edward J. Nell (editors)
    2003 The State, the Market and the Euro, Chartalism vs. Metalism in the Theory of Money. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.

    Henry, John F.
    2004 The Social Origins of Money: The Case of Egypt. In Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes, edited by L. Randall Wray, pp. 79-98. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA.

    Hudson, Michael
    2004 The Archaeology of Money: Debt versus Barter Theories of Money’s Origins. In Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes, edited by L. Randall Wray, pp. 99-127. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northamton, MA.

    Wray, L. Randall
    2010 Alternative Approaches to Money. Theoretical Inquiries in Law 11(1):29-48.

    On the other hand, check out any of the works that survey different theoretical or epistemological approaches across the social sciences and you will find that most anthropology is far removed from most economics.

    Abend, Gabriel
    2008 The Meaning of “Theory”. Sociological Theory 26:173-199.

    Mjøset, Lars
    2001 Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

    2009 The Contextualist Approach to Social Science Methodology. In The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods, edited by David Byrne and Charles C. Ragin, pp. 39-68. Sage, London.

    Tilly, Charles
    2008 Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

    Tilly, Charles and Robert E. Goodin
    2006 It Depends. In Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, edited by Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, pp. 3-32. Oxford University Press, New York.

    And don’t forget the great joke about the economist, the geologist, and the physicist stranded on a desert island, which I first saw here in Savage Minds (and which gets to the heart of how economics differs from anthropology). At the risk of boring some, here it is again.

    A can of beans floats up and the hungry scholars are trying to figure out how to open the can. “Knock it open with a rock” is the geologist’s suggestion. The physicist wants to use his eyeglasses to concentrate the sun and burn the can open. “No, no, those methods will make a mess and spill a bunch of the food.,” objects the economist. “First, we assume a can opener…..”

  5. I think more dialogue/collaboration between anthropologists and economists is a great idea. While there can be more productive exchanges at the grand theoretical level, I think one major stumbling block lies in basic methodological approaches – most economists like to model and quantify things in ways that for most anthropologists would be problematic. While on leave last academic year, I spent the last year actually taking a couple of graduate-level classes in resource economics, learning how to model and use statistical packages like R (and yes, I know most economists use STATA, but I think among the environmental-types, R seems to be popular). It was a bit rough for me, since I hadn’t taken or used any calculus for over 25 years (since college), but at least it got me to appreciate the epistemological risks (and benefits) that economists make everyday.
    For dialogue and collaboration to be fruitful, we anthropologists will need to be more skilled and accepting of quantitative approaches, as we preach about the strengths of qualitative ethnographic approaches.

  6. Hej,

    as Elinor Ostrom was already mentioned above, I wanted to share a link to an (I hope) interesting article to come in the next issue of the international journal of the commons:
    I think, there are some areas where economists and anthropologists already work together and exchange ideas, but for sure there should be way more. And I would have been very happy if I would have gotten a deeper insight also in different quantitative approaches while I studied anthropology.

  7. Yes, oh yes, to what Fuji Lozada says. Economists are in the great tradition whose origins are beautifully described in Edward Dolnick (2011) The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. In this tradition, the first step in theorizing is to reduce the problem to simple terms sufficiently precise to allow hypothesis testing and mathematical analysis. When scholars who work in this tradition are criticized by those who say that they have ignored this or that context for what they claim, their response is to see such critique as medieval, rooted in thinking that has not yet caught up with the experimental method and use of mathematical (and now computational) methods that, to them, are the hallmark of serious science.

    If the anthropologist’s rebuttal consists of nothing more than “You ignored this, this, and that,” their response is, quite properly in their tradition, “No, duh. How else are you going to simplify the problem enough to get your head around it?” They know full well that neither bumblebees nor aircraft violate the law of gravity; they employ mechanisms that offset gravity’s effects and enable them to fly.

    People who work in this tradition can, of course, be very annoying. xkcd captures the annoyance beautifully in this wonderful cartoon about physicists. The point is that if anthropologists want to be taken seriously, by economists or by others who share this world view, they need to learn the language and how to present suggestions in ways that are seen as useful instead of noise.

  8. I’m very interested in more dialogue between economists and anthropologists. As an undergrad coming away with a degree in both anthropology and economics, I can confirm that anthropologists spend more time talking about economists and their ideas than the other way around,

    I’m really not sure I like the idea of “starting a dialogue” by taking a whole chunk of the profession (neo-classical economists) and basically stating that their ideas are not worth paying attention to. Sorry if I misunderstood, but that seemed to be what a portion of the article was implying. I feel it’s worth mentioning that the economists I know personally who take anthropologists and their methods (ethnography especially) very seriously in the context of their own field of study are, funnily enough, neo-classical economists. My advisor is one of them. In particular, she has been using ethnography and theory from anthropology to look at social entrepreneurship in post-disaster environments such as New Orleans.

    I’ve been sitting between both of these fields of study for the entirety of my college career and I’ve watched both sides throw out well-reasoned arguments and ideas from the other field without so much as a backward glance. I’m glad to see there are other anthropologists out there with an interest in taking a serious look at economics, just as I was happy to find an economics advisor who was both very interested in and admired anthropology. That said, I really can’t believe that starting out a dialogue by saying, “Yeah we want to talk, so long as your beliefs can’t be described as neo-classical” is a good way to get anywhere fast.

    If we want to have a dialogue with economists, let’s have a dialogue with economists; NOT just economists that we find we like and agree with.

  9. @Nishma: Good points. I agree with you that both sides can be guilty of not listening. I certainly found myself arguing against a strawman version of economics at times–hence the need to read more about what they actually do and think. It’s an ongoing project…

    @Josh: Agreed about Graeber. I really like his approach and am looking forward to his new book. He has certainly helped me rethink economics and its relation to anthropology, among other things.

    @Alberto: thanks for the heads up about that book–that’s one that I haven’t seen yet. I need to check my university’s library to see if they have a copy!

    @Michael E. Smith:

    “But what part of economics are you talking about? And what part of anthropology? They are both large diverse fields, and in some corners there is interaction.”

    When it comes to the econs I am thinking about micro- and macro-economists in general (and the relationship between the two). Especially those economists who are closely involved in policy discussions, international finance, and development, and who base their ideas on theoretical assumptions about human behavior. You’re right that economic historians are already in conversation with anthropology in many ways though–good point. Maybe they can be a starting point for a wider engagement with other econs. I definitely think that an anthropological and archaeological approach to human behavior, markets, trade, and economics is needed. What parts of anthropology could add something to discussions about economics? Probably all of them, in some way or another! And thanks for all the references–much appreciated!


    “For dialogue and collaboration to be fruitful, we anthropologists will need to be more skilled and accepting of quantitative approaches, as we preach about the strengths of qualitative ethnographic approaches.”

    Agreed. That’s a good point. There has to be more of an understanding of what it is that they are doing, and why, instead of just launching into critiques outright. I think an anthro-econ methods seminar would be pretty interesting–if each side could figure out what the other was talking about!

    @Lena: I know what you mean when you say that you wish you had learned more about the quantitative approaches during school. I think there is something to be said for learning a balanced approach–and it would probably go a long way toward fostering some kind of mutual conversation. Although–I am pretty sure that most econs are not all that worried about learning more qualitative approaches! I could be wrong though…

    @John M:

    “The point is that if anthropologists want to be taken seriously, by economists or by others who share this world view, they need to learn the language and how to present suggestions in ways that are seen as useful instead of noise.”

    Ya, exactly. Well, the suggestions need to be either useful or challenging in ways that really strike home. I guess some of this is tactical–learning enough econ theory and methodology to construct arguments that cannot simply be dismissed.

  10. @Michael Williams:

    Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences learning about anthro and econ all at once. I think you’re on a really cool path, and I’ll be interested to hear more about your take on the boundaries between the two disciplines.

    “I’m really not sure I like the idea of “starting a dialogue” by taking a whole chunk of the profession (neo-classical economists) and basically stating that their ideas are not worth paying attention to.”

    That’s not what I am trying to argue here. In fact, I’m not arguing that we need to dismiss anyone. Instead, the point was that some anthros tend to think of economics in a very limited way, and sometimes assume that the ideas of *certain* neo-classical economists (Friedman, for example) define the whole field. There is a lot more to economics than Milton Friedman and the Mont Pelerin Society, for example.

    So my argument is definitely *not* to simply dismiss any and all neo-classical economists, but instead to realize that we can’t let a few neo-classical (or neoliberal) economists define the entire discipline. In essence, a lot of arguments against “economics” are actually against certain individuals or factions. Further, those arguments are sometimes based upon lots of assumptions, which results in the creation of straw men, etc. So, as Antrosio argued, we end up arguing against a slim caricature of economics, rather than what they really do and think. My argument is for an actual dialog that moves beyond some of this. In fact, I think an actual open dialog and debate with more neo-classical folks would be fantastic (and lots of other econs).

    “If we want to have a dialogue with economists, let’s have a dialogue with economists; NOT just economists that we find we like and agree with.”

    Yep. Absolutely. If we’re simply looking for people who agree with us, then what’s the use? Great points, Michael.

  11. @Ryan – Although–I am pretty sure that most econs are not all that worried about learning more qualitative approaches! .

    As anthropologists, we need to ask why this is. Quantitative approaches make finding something to count or measure in other ways, step No. 1 to constructing a serious model of the phenomenon in question. Quants are not insensitive to the fact that measurement can be a messy problem. How, for example, can you quantify the taste of wine? (Here, by the way, there is being serious work done. FOR EXAMPLE.

    But unless our critiques point to something that, because it is measurable, can be fit into a framework that economists or other quants can work with, they are likely to be heard only as distractions from what they see as useful work. This doesn’t mean that the only way to talk to a quant is to become one. The art is in thinking about how the considerations we raise might be quantified and what hypotheses might be testable if they could be.


    There is no need these days to give up on quantitative methods because your formal education didn’t include them. One of the marvels of the Internet is ease of access to (often interactive) tutorials on math at all levels. A great place to begin exploring these riches is Khan Academy. Sigh…if only anthropologists included a Salman Khan…

  12. @Ryan

    Thanks for replying, I’m glad I misunderstood. I’m sensitive to folks taking entire parts of fields they don’t agree with and chucking it out the window without serious engagement with the people who spend their lives putting effort into developing the theories and ideas (which I see happen constantly on both sides). I feel this happens very often with the neo-classical school in particular because it tends to touch on very charged political issues, and people tend to walk away from these discussions disgusted with the entire economics profession.

    You’re absolutely right: this leads to a caricature that economists have to overcome when having discussions outside their field. A lot of my initial discussions with economists centers on how they try to avoid bringing up their background in economics in friendly discussions due to the amount of negativity and irrelevance people tend to attribute to the field. Mentioning the word “economist” in relation with yourself tends to radically shift many initially friendly discussions into a steep uphill battle against being dismissed as an immoral person.

    I’m psyched to see a lot of discussion about anthropology and economics coming together lately. Like you said, I think both sides have a lot to gain from serious engagement with the other.

  13. @John:
    Thanks for the hint. Right now I am sitting at home surrounded by a pile of math books from the library because I want to fill that gap 🙂
    I like “our” qualitative approaches a lot, but I think it is very important to easily understand (and also to be able to criticize them on a good base) information based on quantitative research.

  14. @Lena

    My pleasure. Let me add one more recommendation, a ebook by Kalid Azad titled Math, Better Explained. This is a delightful book whose basic proposition is that we study math starting at the wrong end, with the modern, rigorous definitions enshrined in cryptic formulas. Instead, says Azad, we should start with the problems and intuitions from which the thinking that led ultimately to the formulas began. In Chapter 1, “Developing Math Intuition” he writes,

    “Suppose we want to define a ‘cat’:

    * Caveman definition: A furry animal with claws, teeth, a tail, 4 legs, that purrs when happy and hisses when angry…

    *Evolutionary definition: Mammalian descendants of a certain species (F. Catus), sharing certain characteristics.

    *Modern definition: You call those definitions? Cats are animals sharing the following DNA…

    The modern definition is precise, sure. But is it the best? Is it what you’d teach a child learning the word? Does it give better insight into the ‘catness’ of the animal? Not really. The modern definition is useful, but after getting an understanding of what a cat is. It shouldn’t be our starting point.”

    In subsequent chapters, he applies this method to a variety of basic concepts, circles, the Pythagorean theorem, compound interest, etc. I find myself amused, and yes, enlightened. Like I said, a delightful book.

  15. “Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams” by David Graeber [This volume is a synthesis of economic, political, and cultural theories of value. David Graeber re-examines a century of anthropological thought about value and exchange, in large measure to find a way out of ongoing quandaries in current social theory, which have become critical at the present moment of ideological collapse in the face of Neoliberalism. Rooted in an engaged, dynamic realism, Graeber argues that projects of cultural comparison are in a sense necessarily revolutionary projects. He attempts to synthesize the best insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss, arguing that these figures represent two extreme, but ultimately complementary, possibilities in the shape such a project might take. Graeber breathes new life into the classic anthropological texts on exchange, value, and economy. He rethinks the cases of Iroquois wampum, Pacific kula exchanges, and the Kwakiutl potlatch within the flow of world historical processes, and recasts value as a model of human meaning- making, which far exceeds rationalist/reductive economist paradigms.]

    “Debt” by David Graeber [Economic history states that money replaced a bartering system, yet there isn’t any evidence to support this axiom. Anthropologist Graeber presents a stunning reversal of this conventional wisdom. For more than 5,000 years humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods. Since the beginning of the agrarian empires, humans have been divided into debtors and creditors. Through time, virtual credit money was replaced by gold and the system as a whole went into decline. This fascinating history is told for the first time.]

  16. The web page description isn’t entirely accurate. Here let me append something the distributor had me write to give you a better idea:

    By the way, the book takes on economists in interesting ways that might make a good contribution to this discussion. Do people think I should put together a little blog on this?

    DEBT by David Graeber
    by David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011)

    Debt is all around us. Modern economies run on consumer debt; modern nation-states, on deficit financing; international relations turn on debt. What’s more, for the last three years, we’ve faced a global debt crisis that’s hobbled the world economy and still threatens to send it crashing into ruins. Yet no one ever stops to ask: how did this happen? What is debt, anyway? What does it even mean to say we “owe” someone something? How did it happen that, in almost all times and places in human history, “paying your debts” has been a synonym for morality, but money-lenders have been seen as the embodiment of evil? I first began asking myself these questions as an activist, during the “drop the debt” campaigns in the early 2000s. But it was only after the financial meltdown of September 2008

    that answering them became a driving passion. It seemed to me that in the days immediately after the crash, the space had opened up for a genuine conversation about money, markets, credit, and finance, about the nature of debt, about value, the relation of money and morality, about what people genuinely owe to one another. Yet somehow, this conversation never happened.

    It was as if we’ve forgotten how to ask big questions any more.

    It was at this point I realized that with my training in history and anthropology, I was in a unique position to try to open the conversation up. Thus began a series of investigations that culminated in the writing of this book. What I discovered along the way startled even me. First of all, almost all our familiar assumptions about money history turned out to be wrong. We are used to assuming that economic life began with barter, moved on to money, and only then did we develop credit systems. In fact, what happened was precisely the opposite. Credit came first. What we’d now call “virtual money” preceded coinage by thousands of years, and human history has alternated back and forth between periods of virtual money, and periods dominated by gold and silver—which have also, invariably, been times of empire, war, and slavery. What’s more, since the dawn of recorded history, arguments over credit, debt, virtual and physical money have been at the very center of political life—the language of the Bible and other great religious texts resonates with it, untold popular uprisings have been inspired by it, and the outcome of these battles have shaped our own laws, our economic institutions, our very conceptions of freedom and morality, in ways we can no longer even see.

    Reconstructing this history of debt reveals odd concepts—life debts, blood debts, flesh debts, milk debts—but also, throws all our familiar conceptions of history askew, from the real nature of the African slave trade, to the origins of Adam Smith’s free market rhetoric in Medieval Islam. Above all, it reveals we stand, today, at a precipice. There is every reason that the return to virtual money marks a major turning point in world history. But it’s only by looking at the full sweep of the past that we have any chance of understanding what that might really mean.

  17. oh, and while I’m at it, in reference to Michael E. Smith’s helpful list: one of the things I did in the book was to try to serious engage with the Chartalist (slash MMT-Modern Money Theory, slash neo-Keynesian, slash state & credit-theory) approach. Keith Hart first suggested anthropologists think about such heterodox economic schools in his “Two Sides of the Coin” essay two decades ago but always complained that no one really took him up on it.

    It’s very ironic. Within economics, that tradition, which insists that money should primarily be considered as a unit of account and only secondarily medium of exchange (rather than the other way around, as in the Adam Smith-Walras-Jevons tradition), is considered quite marginal within economics – many (including most Marxists) immediately denounce it as the domain of cranks and wingnuts. The only exception are archeologists and historians, since, basically, all empirical evidence we actually have supports the Chartalist position rather than the orthodox one.

    One of the things I try to do in the early chapters of the book is demonstrate that the tension within economics about the nature of money – is it primarily a commodity used to facilitate the exchange of other commodities, or an abstract accounting system used to calculate credits and debts – has been around a long time, that in different historical periods (remarkably well-coordinated across Eurasia) one or the other aspect becomes dominant, both philosophically, and in practice.

  18. @David Graeber:

    “By the way, the book takes on economists in interesting ways that might make a good contribution to this discussion. Do people think I should put together a little blog on this?”

    Sounds like a good idea to me–It’d be great to hear more about your take on all this.

    “The only exception are archeologists and historians, since, basically, all empirical evidence we actually have supports the Chartalist position rather than the orthodox one.”

    This is pretty interesting–after Michael Smith’s comment and your input about this, it’s clear that I need to go read all about the Chartalist approach–and how it has been sidelined and dismissed by many folks.

    Thanks for the comment!

  19. I’m very glad to see the interest in this topic here, as I’m wrestling with how to understand economics myself — I’m in the middle of fieldwork on economists, specifically, the economists of Moscow. About time we got around to studying them, right?

    Making my project make sense both to my informants and to fellow anthropologists hasn’t been at all easy. The anthropologists have more curiosity but I find are actually far more judgmental and opinionated; the economists are less curious but more innocently so. But they each are probably as equivalently ignorant of the other.

    My informants have a great deal of trouble understanding what kind of questions anthropologists pose, the nature of our methods, and the adequacy of our methods for our questions. My fellow anthropologists have a great deal of trouble understanding _what there is to study_, because it is nearly a commonplace to many anthropologists that economics (either mainstream or all of it) is a a) methodologically ungrounded form of knowing that b) functions merely as an apology for the upward redistribution of wealth. The kind of methodological move that we’ve learned to make with regard to other cultures and other sciences — that it is not for us to question as to the ground or legitimacy of the practices, but rather to try to make sense of the practices themselves– is one they’re surprisingly loathe to make with economists.

  20. With the rise of econometrics, a lot of economists have started mining anthropological data for their regressions. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas is a favorite — see, for instance, Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou’s work on states in Africa (one paper: Economists have taken on an increasingly wide span of topics in recent years; more than ever, they’re addressing questions similar to those of anthropologists. Ted Miguel’s work on witchcraft in Tanzania comes to mind ( The possibility of dialogue is there for those who want it. Though I’m very happy to be an anthropologist, I’ve found my conversations with economists to be enriching too.

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