Good reads: Antrosio on Eric Wolf; Hart on Polanyi

I have been traveling from one place to another the past couple of weeks, but I have still had some time to keep up on the goings-on in the anthro-blogosphere.  The first one I want to share is Jason Antrosio’s post Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History–Geography, States, Empires.  Antrosio links the discussion to Jared Diamond and his famous answer to “Yali’s Question”:

Starting in the 1960s, Eric Wolf was already asking what Jared Diamond in the 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel called Yali’s Question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Answering that question, as Eric Wolf understood, means accounting specifically for how Europe went from being a land that in A.D. 800 “was of little account in the affairs of the wider world” (1982:71) to those effective polities that could launch overseas adventures. Diamond would have us believe that the answer lies in the shape of the continents, latitude and longitude gradients, and agriculture, particularly large domesticated animals. Although this much older story may account for the fact that many of the most powerful polities have been in Eurasia, it cannot account for the rise of Europe 800-1400 A.D.

Everyone agrees that geography matters. Eric Wolf’s survey of the world in 1400 is full of maps, descriptions of terrain, and accounts of available resources. But serious historians reject Jared Diamond’s rationale for the rise of Europe.

To truly get a grip on Yali’s Question, we have to turn back to Eric Wolf in 1982.

Go back to something written in 1982?  Is Antrosio crazy?  Actually, no, he’s not.  I think he’s onto something.  One question Antrosio asks is why Wolf’s work is not more influential today.  Maybe it was the ironic title?  Maybe it was the Marxian framework?  Was it the organization of the book?  Antrosio brings up one factor that’s pretty interesting:

Not long after Europe and the People Without History, the Writing Culture (1988) volume took a quite different tack from Eric Wolf’s vision. Anthropology seemed to be turning both elsewhere and inward upon itself, as the Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf Reply to Michael Taussig (1989) illustrates.

After the publication of Writing Culture, US anthropology did indeed veer off in another direction.  That book took us down a more reflexive road, one that has legions of detractors and defenders.  Personally, I think plenty of good came from the so-called postmodern turn in anthropology.  But maybe there is good reason to revisit Europe, retrace our steps a bit, and see what Wolf’s vision of anthropology offers us today.  A good idea.  Definitely check out the rest of Antrosio’s post–it’s worth it.

Now onto Keith Hart.  His post about the importance (and some of the shortcomings) of Karl Polanyi’s work is a good read for any of you economically-minded anthropologists out there.  Much of Hart’s post focuses on Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation.  Some might scoff at the idea of putting so much stock in book that was written back in 1944, but Hart makes it clear why his work still matters today.  I remember one of my colleagues in graduate school told me a story about a conference she attended.  During her presentation, a person in the audience was completely dismissive of the fact that she referenced Polanyi’s work.  It was “too old” and outdated, according to this person, to be of any import today.  Wrong.  This is just the kind of “intellectual deforestation” that rankled Eric Wolf.  Hart’s close look at Polanyi is a good reminder of just how important it is to study the ideas of those who came before us.  He introduces his post with this:

I am a fully paid-up member of the Karl Polanyi fan club. In the past few years I have published, with my collaborators, a collection of essays on the significance of The Great Transformation for understanding our times (Blanc 2011, Holmes 2012) and have made him a canonical figure for my versions of economic anthropology, the human economy and the history of money. I have also published two short biographical articles on him. I have contributed in this way to the recent outpouring of new work on Polanyi to which this book is a significant addition. I am a believer, but some believers also have doubts. I still have reservations about a Polanyian strategy for achieving economic democracy and these are linked to his historical vision of “market society”.  Theories are good for some things and not for others and, in my view, the plural economy would be best served by a plural approach to theory and politics. But first let me summarise what I most value personally in what I have learned from Polanyi.

Much of the post breaks down some of the dominant debates about “the market” and whether or not it is the epitome of all evil (as some seem to argue) or humanity’s unfettered force of salvation.  Hart writes:

The last two centuries have seen a strident debate between capitalist and socialist camps insisting that markets are either good or bad for society. The latter draws implicitly on the pre-industrial apologists for landed rule whose line was, broadly speaking, Aristotle’s. Karl Marx himself considered money to be indispensable to any complex economy and was radically opposed to the state in any form. However, many of his followers, when they did not try to outlaw markets and money altogether, preferred to return them to the marginal position they occupied under agrarian civilization and were less hostile to the state, pre-industrial society’s enduring legacy for our world. Polanyi falls within this anti-market camp since he acknowledged Aristotle as his master and considered “the self-regulating market’s” contradictions to have been the principal cause of the twentieth-century’s horrors.

A less apocalyptic version of socialism in the tradition of Saint-Simon acknowledges the social damage done by unfettered markets (what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”), but would not wish to do away with the wealth they produce. Indeed the leading capitalist societies at one stage all signed up for the idea that states should try to contain the inequality and ameliorate the social misery generated by markets. The BRICS are entering this stage now. The emphasis has shifted over time between reliance on states and on markets for managing national economy, between social and liberal democracy of various colours. The general economic breakdown of the 1930s turned a large number of American economists away from celebrating the logic of markets towards contemplating their repair. This “institutional economics” persists as the notion that markets need self-conscious social intervention, if they are to serve the public interest. John Maynard Keynes produced the most impressive synthesis of liberalism and social democracy in the last century. Much recent writing on Polanyi would place him within this tendency rather than as a card-carrying anti-marketeer. He did recognize a role for the market and lined up with those who sought institutional means to correct capitalism’s ills.

While Hart draws a great deal from Polanyi’s work, he also takes great pains to remind his readers (here and elsewhere) to keep an open mind about the positive aspects of markets, rather than assuming that the market is some massive, singular blog of capitalistic destruction.  Specifically regarding the work of Polanyi, he writes:

It is odd that Polanyi sometimes reduces the structures of national capitalism to an apolitical “self-regulating market.” For his analysis of money, markets and the liberal state was intensely political, as was his preference for social planning over the market. His wartime polemic, reproducing something of his opponents’ abstractions, was more a critique of liberal economics than a critical account of actually existing capitalism.

That’s something to keep in mind when reading Polanyi’s work–and some of the various responses to that work over the years.  Read the rest.


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.

8 thoughts on “Good reads: Antrosio on Eric Wolf; Hart on Polanyi

  1. Ryan, thanks for highlighting the Keith Hart article on Polyani. Most interesting given my previous comments to you on how one understands capitalism and its successes/failures, in relation to the discussion of Africa’s first female billionaire.

  2. Where did you get this idea that in a field like Anthropology old books are passe? What a horrible idea. I was raised on the idea that there were classics in the field to be revisited, and that most “new” writing was cheesy remaking of the old, with rare and wonderful exceptions.
    This is American disposableness at its worst.
    Surely The Great Transformation is one of the great books to be revisited again and again – and often way ahead of many current discussions (particularly by politicians).
    And Eric Wolf’s book, whatever I see as its limits, was one of the few books on Europe by non-archeological anthropologists in its time, and always worth revisiting.
    Let’s not read Aristotle, or Gibbon, or Adam Smith, or Hobbes, or even Weber or Marx.
    Surely it is the opposite of “crazy” to read the “old”.

  3. Thanks for the plug, Ryan. On your discussion of Jason and Wolf, I agree that Writing Culture was an influential book. Certainly it had a big impact on me. But this kind of question surely has three bigger answers: 1. the whole of cultural anthropology in the twentieth century went for ethnography, making Eric’s historical synthesis a real odd-man-out 2. The book was published at the beginning of three neoliberal decades which shifted the terms of argument to culture, consumption and all that. 3. The crisis of the universities produced a glut of graduate students seeking fewer jobs and there is no way they could use his approach (or mine for that matter) to get out a quick article or two. It takes decades to reach his level if at all.

  4. Ryan, apropos of this excerpt, which you quote above, I can’t help but think about Sara Ahmed’s discussion of ‘white narcissism’ in “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”:

    Not to be ‘strident’ or ‘denunciatory’ (though I am sure many will read the following comment as both since I am repeatedly accused of being ‘angry’, given gendered and raced expectations for if, when, and how some people should critique/analyze power and structural inequality), but I think it is worth asking if the ‘post-modern’ ‘self-reflexive’ turn in anthropology, post-Writing Culture, wasn’t also a kind of neoliberal strategy of its own (i.e. anthropologist as also neoliberal subject; a mid- to late-eighties retreat into ‘white narcissism’ coincident with a retreat from and backlash against affirmative action and other government-based post-Civil-Rights-Movement policies to address structural racism, which has also resulted in re-defining racism not as structural, institutional, and dysconscious, but as personal, intentional, individual, and conscious bigotry/hatred/discrimination), as well as a form of (white) narcissism, to once again re-position white anthropologists at the center of the discipline, and as anthropological authorities (not just authors). In the Mintz/Wolf critique of Taussig, I am struck by the assumption of agency present in a focus on self-reflexivity as ‘feelings’ and ‘visceral reactions’. And though Mintz/Wolf position themselves in opposition to Taussig in this regard, there need not be an opposition: the two positions, modes of anthropologically thinking subjectivity as always already intersubjectivity–and historically constituted–are apparent when one ‘discusses white privilege’ as a social-historical relation in which embodiment is central to the production (and reproduction) of racial subjects, and in which feelings and visceral reactions *are* important, not just when one is conscious of them, or allows oneself to be conscious of them and speak about this unpleasant consciousness, but also–and often most importantly–when one is not conscious of, or willing to admit, the feelings and visceral reactions one is having (say, of disgust, fear, revulsion, anger at being challenged by one a person sees as fundamentally inferior and ‘not like me’; i.e. implicit bias, aversive racism).

    Especially thinking about Wolf and Mintz’s reply to Taussig, it is interesting that the so-called ‘self-reflexive’ turn allowed people like Tausig to, fundamentally focus on their feelings/perspectives/experiences, instead of focusing on the kinds of historically-produced structural inequalities–and especially racial inequalities (e.g. the role of slavery, race, racialized dispossession in the formation of the ‘New World”)–of which Mintz and Wolf were writing. This is not to say that Taussig and other writing in the ‘self-reflexive’ mode did not acknowledge these structural inequalities, but it is worth thinking about the ways in which this acknowledgement became/becomes its own mode of displacement and/as the antiracist ‘non-performative’ of which Ahmed writes. Spending time talking about how one *feels* being white/male, for example, is not necessarily the same thing as discussing the daily, historically-sedimented and historically-produced practices of white and male supremacy which allow one to feel and be seen as white/male, and thus makes for both a different kind of anthropological inquiry/analysis and ethnographic writing. (Moreover, discussing white/male privilege does not necessarily produce antiracist *outcomes*.) Again, the question of Ahmed’s ‘white narcissism’. If the focus is really the (white anthropological) self, does one really need to write for a ‘public’ audience, or be concerned with the general intelligibility of one’s writing? This is not intended as an ‘aggressive’ question to put people on the defensive, but a serious question. Intended or not–and I am certainly not saying that the post-Writing Culture call for self-reflexivity and questioning the conditions on ethnographic production was not also beneficial for anthropological thinking and scholarship–the ‘self-reflexive’ turn also had the effect of making/keeping anthropology ‘white public space’ by refocusing attention on the experiences of people like Taussig.

    We do not, today, have an anthropology in which everybody gets to be self-reflexive, after all. We don’t all get to talk about our feelings, or the conditions which have produced us in the world as racial/gendered subjects. (When some of us, who are seen as race/gender subordinates who need to ‘know your place’, try to be self-reflexive, we are mocked by other anthropologists (including on this site), or by internet trolls, and told by other anthropologists that everything we have to say is “meaningless” and we need to “leave your ‘privilege’ critique at home”.) So its not like the ‘self-reflexive turn’ was really all that self-reflexive, or equally applied and universal. And, in many ways, it became, has become, a tactic for fending off structural critiques of race/class/gender privilege (in anthropology), or thinking about the structural-historical causes of present race/class/gender inequality (in anthropology). And this limited (if not pseudo) self-reflexivity certainly affects the kind of anthropological books and articles being written (its own ‘open access’ issue), and has very much been a disincentive to writing certain kinds of big-idea anthropology books with mass appeal. If a ‘smart’ book which advances one’s career and propels one into the realm of academic celebrity/(socio-cultural) anthropological superstar is the kind of book Michael Taussig would write, and not the kind that Eric Wolf wrote in 1982, what kind of book are ambitious young scholars (especially coming out of the top-ranked graduate programs) going to be inclined/induced to write? Of course this question is a reformulation of the coercion question I raised in response to your previous post on going open access in three easy steps. It’s all connected, really.

    It’s not simply a matter of one having good ideas, it is also about the reception those ideas get, and whether or not this reception advances one’s career (or is seen as advancing one’s academic career). Perhaps now with the success of David Graeber’s Debt more people will be willing to revisit Wolf (and Mintz) and the kind of ‘big idea’ book that each was writing circa 1982; but, as always, the forces of prestige will also affect who is read and what is written. Like it or not, anthropology is neoliberal too. The brand is you. In the fierce scramble for academic jobs, and especially tenure-track positions, those who best market themselves and best internalize the goals of the neoliberal corporate university will be academically rewarded. “Because as David Graeber accurately pointed out in your previous “Stop the Silence” post: Because of the corporatization of university bureaucracies, it hands more and more power to those whose skills lie in professional self-presentation and marketing – that is, who, whatever their ostensible political positions, have most thoroughly internalized a neoliberal habitus.”

    For me, the most provocative excerpt from Jason’s Eric Wolf post, and the one linking your comments on his post to Keith Hart’s comments on Polyani, is actually the following:
    “As I stated in Real History versus Guns, Germs, and Steel, I am sympathetic to Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz’s interpretation that Yali’s Question was not actually about getting more stuff, but about being recognized as fully human, about being treated with dignity and respect: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history” (Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History2010:335).”

    More often than not, the ‘self-reflexive turn’ in anthropology has *not* been about answering this fundament of Yali’s question. Obviously not given the findings of the 2010 AAA report on the state of minorities in anthropology, or its follow-up article “Anthropology as White Public Space?”. In anthropology, who gets (real) support to write ‘big idea’ books, and what topics are even seen as suitable for such ‘big idea’ books?

    The reformulation of Yali’s question, excerpted above, links to Keith Hart’s discussion of Polyani because it implicitly raises the issue of how capitalism, and the form and extent to which state-intervention occurs (in both colonies and post-colonial states), has determined both questions of some people having more stuff, and some people being seen and treated as full human beings or not. As I read your post, I found myself thinking of the following sentences, which clearly relate both to Jason’s Eric Wolf post (and Yali’s question, above), and a discussion of Polyani, state intervention, and capitalism (and are why I wrote what I did, several paragraphs above, about race, embodiment, capitalism, and (re)production):
    “No matter how you define it, black women have always worked. Our bodies were literally constructed through enslavement as work units and modes of production. Our reproduction was a capitalist endeavor in labor production.”

    When I read passages like the one quoted above from The Feminist Wire, I have to ask why the ‘self-reflexive turn’ did not make it easier to see these kinds of connections between ‘big idea’ books like Mintz’s and Wolf’s, and Taussig’s ruminations on feelings and visceral reactions, and capitalist modes of production and state intervention–or make it easier to discuss white privilege (in anthropology). So what, specifically, was it about Taussig and others engaged in the post-Writing Culture ‘self-reflexive’ that displaced the work of Mintz and Wolf? Especially because there are clearly ways in which these two anthropological traditions could have been perceived as compatible?

    It’s National Free Thinkers Day and National Curmudgeon Day here in the US. Yes, talk about a hilarious coincidence, and an apt one too (especially in relation to Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy and/as affect alien). So, if nothing else, I offer this comment in the spirit of both.

  5. @Keith: Just saw your response after posting mine. Thanks for the three points you make. Really interesting and thought-provoking for me. I appreciate you getting me to think about these factors as well.

  6. While agreeing with everything said so far, I would like to call special attention to Keith Hart’s third point.

    3. The crisis of the universities produced a glut of graduate students seeking fewer jobs and there is no way they could use his approach (or mine for that matter) to get out a quick article or two. It takes decades to reach his level if at all.

    It has long been my conviction that the situation Keith describes is a major if not the primary cause of, not just Writing Culture narcissism but also the turn to “theory” more grounded in loose readings of continental philosophers than ethnographic or other carefully examined data. Scrambling up the career ladder by publishing pieces that combine a few currently hot buzzwords with an anecdote or two has, let’s face it, a far higher marginal return than the painstaking labor of achieving serious fluency in obscure languages, carefully filtering relevant facts, and writing and rewriting descriptions that, while more accurate and more likely to yield improvements in theory, as opposed to trivial cookie-cutter “applications” of “theory,” are also more likely to languish in obscurity.

    It isn’t enough to say that people should write more “big idea” books without considering what it will take to give the right people the space and time required to accumulate the knowledge to write like Wolf instead of Diamond-—whom many people find plausible despite the fact that Latin Americanists say he got Latin America wrong, East Asianists say he got China wrong, Oceanists say he got PNG wrong…..

    What kind of a world is needed to make serious ethnography and serious scholarship possible?

  7. @Bryllars:

    “Where did you get this idea that in a field like Anthropology old books are passe?”

    Hey, that’s not *my* sentiment…it’s just one that happens to be floating around out there. Depends on who you talk to though. I happen to agree with you about the value of older works.

    “Surely it is the opposite of ‘crazy’ to read the ‘old’.”

    I agree.


    And when cultural anthro went all in for ethnography, that eventually led to some dead ends when none of the arguments connected to larger processes/narratives/trends. It’s too bad Wolf became the odd man out. His approach may have provided a good balance or tie-in with some of the “big picture” sorts of questions. Interesting point about the neoliberal decades and all the focus on culture, consumption, etc. Graeber brings up something similar in his book on value when he points out the ironic turn away from grand narratives during the decades in which “the market” became such a dominant arbiter of value. And your last point about grad students…that should give us all pause as to what, exactly, we are producing. At least it makes me stop and think. Thanks.

    @DWP: Thanks for highlighting that quote from Errington and Gewertz’s take on what Yali’s question was really all about–not stuff, but the desire to be treated human. That’s a good shift away from arguments that start to miss the point by focusing on things rather than politics and meaning. I think that’s one of the big problems with some of Diamond’s arguments–he sometimes forgets that the differences in material “stuff” are rooted in power struggles, conflicts, and inequalities. Thanks for bringing this up.


    “It has long been my conviction that the situation Keith describes is a major if not the primary cause of, not just Writing Culture narcissism but also the turn to “theory” more grounded in loose readings of continental philosophers than ethnographic or other carefully examined data.”

    I think that sums it up pretty well. I have read my fair share of the continental folks…and while I do think there is value there, I also think that sometimes the readings are pretty loose and the utility of making various references to this or that person can be pretty limited in the long run. I mean, it’s nice to refer to so-and-so’s ideas about power or whatever, but at some point this stuff has to translate into methods and analysis in a more substantive way (rather than being a series of allusions or references and not much more).

    I also like the last question you ask. Makes me think (again), about what we are really encouraging with the whole craziness about publishing that pervades academia at present…

    Thanks again for the comments everyone.

  8. Just want to add that I, too, find value in continental philosophers. Yes, it can be a pain having to learn their specialized vocabulary and the ways in which they use it. But that’s something that goes with the terrain whenever we try to figure out what people from other tribes or disciplines are saying in their languages—and if we’re unwilling to do that then our claims to capture “the native point of view” are comic in the extreme.

    My personal animus is directed against work that parrots what secondary sources attribute to say, Foucaut, Derrida, Gramsci or Bourdieu and cherry picks evidence said to confirm the framework in question. Serious scholarship only begins when we notice a partial fit between theory and evidence and try to figure out how to improve the theory. “Applying” what we have heard at second hand that some thinker has said generally produces juvenile crap. Half-assed imitation is a poor substitute for serious thinking and—the businessman in me speaks up—something nobody ever gets paid big bucks for.

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