Rethinking Economic Anthropology : a human centred approach. Detailed Summary

This conference aims to rethink economic anthropology. As the concluding event in the UK’s ESRC-funded series “Rethinking Economies”, its objective is to build on the traditional strengths of economic anthropology, connecting the complexities of local situations to the grand sweep of global movements.

We seek to challenge the idea that the neo-liberal model of capitalism corresponds to a singular version of empirical reality. To this end we will explore how capitalism functions in several key sites of both “core” and “periphery” from an ethnographic perspective, juxtaposing the actions and beliefs of people to the effects of money and machines. A variety of forms and relations will be explored in marketplaces, corporations, factories and fields. Questions of economic ‘transition’ will be confronted with a variety of local histories and specific responses to global shifts.

These ethnographically grounded explorations will fuel an engaged critique of mainstream economics and, we hope, will help us establish a robust agenda for understanding the lived economies of the world. This means moving beyond anthropological nostalgia, engaging with developments in the discipline outside Britain, connecting with other voices of dissent and providing a coherent intellectual alternative to the neo-liberal, formalist consensus.

The earlier seminars, held in Britain and Italy during 2006-7, brought together British, European and North American anthropologists as well as scholars from other disciplines and non-academic practitioners. These seminars covered themes of vital importance to the world today: global apartheid; the informal economy and the organisation of production; the co-option of the ‘third sector’ economy by the state; and moral economies at work. They analysed connections between the global body politic and the human body; between political economy and individual/local strategies for survival; and the changing nature of work and productive relationships in a world where society is increasingly identified with the market. Ethnographic accounts revealed the complexities and creativity of these linkages. See www.rethinkingeconomies.org.uk/ for the seminar papers and discussions.

Concluding this series of discussions, our aims are threefold:

Examination: drawing out key concerns and strengths of different traditions of economic anthropology on both sides of the Atlantic in the twenty-first century.

Interdisciplinary conversation: trying to reconcile what sometimes appear to be irreconcilable approaches. What can anthropology bring to debates long dominated by formalist economics? Can we move beyond the global/local dichotomy to understand connections and dependencies between regions?

Synthesis: creating a new agenda for economic anthropology. We aim to engage directly with the means and effects of economic rationality, but also to explore new possibilities for a human-centred approach to the study of economies.

These aims inform the conference’s three themes:

Ethnography of capitalism at the ‘core’

Anthropology challenges common-sense understandings of neo-liberal capitalism as a unified process. Capitalism consists of specific practices in particular national and local settings that are made to appear universal and translocal. Without understanding the actual mechanisms, mores and cultures of economic organisation, and the social and moral dispositions of core protagonists in the corporate and financial worlds, it is impossible to engage with, critique and find alternatives to hegemonic forms. Ethnographers’ explorations of how abstract phenomena such as “markets” and “finance” are embedded in society, national or otherwise, are helping to shape a new anthropological approach to the economy. They have also begun to examine critically the utopian dream of a disembedded market, as well as the realities of global marketing and globalisation itself that animate capitalism today.

Panels within this theme will explore varieties of economic rationality and utopia and the ways these play out in markets, corporations and work places in America, Europe and elsewhere. Possible themes include

Political economy of capitalism in the ‘periphery’

The preoccupations of economic anthropology’s “golden age” have given way to a more disparate proliferation of themes. Key amongst these is critical social analysis of so-called transitional economies and of the effects of capitalism in less-developed areas of the world. Simple binary geographies of dependency are obsolete: where scholars formerly thought of the globe as divided unequally into core and periphery (latterly glossed as ‘north’ and ‘south’); post-industrial blight and urban decay now affect the wealthiest countries in the ‘developed north’. The ‘creative destruction’ brought about by capitalism is not new, but the perception of the periphery coming home to roost perhaps is. Anthropologists have played a key role in laying bare the complex and often devastating effects of economic growth strategies, in both north and south.

Panels within this theme address

When these insights are incorporated into economic anthropology, they would contribute to our third theme:

An alternative economics?

Any alternative, pluralist approach to studying the economy requires collaboration across disciplines if we are to achieve an intellectual synthesis. To this end, the third panel examines internal critiques of orthodox economics and how these resonate within sociology and anthropology. The movement known as “post-autistic economics” (http://www.paecon.net/) embraces a number of older traditions of ‘alternative economics’ along with more recent initiatives emphasising how the world actually works rather than being based on abstraction. We include here insights from feminist economics, Islamic finance and environmental economics. We call for closer attention to be paid to both the complex linkages between human and natural systems and to work and labour in a changing global economy. The former points to how nature is becoming politicised as well as commodified, the latter to the difference between transformative labour and waged work.

Panels within this theme will address areas such as:

All three themes focus on social relations and ethical considerations. They address topics that appear marginal to mainstream economics but are rapidly becoming of central importance in a more holistic vision of political economy. They ask: How can we generate a human-centred approach to economic anthropology that places ethics at the core?