Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 14: Economic Anthropology
Jeffrey H. Cohen Economic anthropology might seem at some level an odd title for a field. Perhaps it is neither completely economic nor entirely anthropological. Certainly, economic anthropologists have been described as posers by their critics; not fully understanding the implications of economic theory nor embracing the ethnographic realities of anthropological research. Yet a second and more satisfying way to think about economic anthropology is as a field that borrows from economic theory while applying anthropological practices to understand the human dimensions of economic behaviour, this most social of processes (see Herkovits’s original statement  1965). The roots of economic anthropology, in fact, lie in bridging economic and anthropological concerns. As can be imagined, such bridge building has come with a great deal of conflict and debate concerning what constitutes ‘the economy’ for a given group. Debates among economic anthropologists have raged concerning how we define the economy, how we approach economic motivations and how we can best explain the social and cultural basis of economic practices. Early work in anthropology sought to understand the economics of people who were assumed to live well outside the market systems, capitalist frameworks and rational actions that define Western economic practices. This research was informed not by concerns for economic processes, but rather by the assumption that anthropologists would encounter some form of production, systems of exchange and consumption regardless of the society or culture studied. Paul Bohannon (quoted in Dalton 1961, p. 12) described the situation as follows: ‘the anthropologist is not...
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