Economics, Culture and Social Theory

Economics, Culture and Social Theory

New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series

William A. Jackson

Economics, Culture and Social Theory examines how culture has been neglected in economic theorising and considers how economics could benefit by incorporating ideas from social and cultural theory.

Chapter 8: Idealism and Materialism

William A. Jackson

Subjects: economics and finance, institutional economics


Any cultural approach to economics must ask how culture relates to material production. Does culture determine the economy, or is it the other way round? No agreement has been reached on this question, and various accounts have coexisted. Whereas idealist (‘cultural’) views give causal priority to ideas and beliefs, materialist (‘economic’) views give it to material production. An idealist/materialist dualism reflects and feeds the divisions between culture and economics. The usual assumption is that economics, concerned with material production and consumption, should be predisposed towards materialism and wary of idealism. Orthodox economics, with its neglect of culture, has been quiet about such matters, although by default it falls on the ‘economic’ side of the argument. Heterodox economics, with a richer theoretical background, includes ‘cultural’ as well as ‘economic’ views. Cultural thought has often been idealist, underlining the causal influence of ideas and beliefs. The narrowest idealism restricts culture to just the prevailing beliefs or ideology, as distinct from institutions and material production. Culture then becomes the informing spirit of a way of life but remains separate from the social structures and physical activities on which a society depends (Williams, 1981b, Chapter 1). To define culture thus is at odds with the definitions in Chapter 2, which do not limit culture to ideas and beliefs. A broad perspective on culture should avoid equating it with ideas and show how it interacts with institutions, social structures and material nature. This leaves causality open and makes no presuppositions that culture exists separately from...

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