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Thursday 13 October 2011

Political Economy in Anthropology

Political economy is characterised by an analytical approach which treats the economy from the point of view of production rather than from that of distribution, exchange, consumption or the market. It does not ignore distribution and exchange but analyses these in relation to the role they play in the production of the material needs of a society, including the need to reproduce and expand the means of production themselves (Dupré and Rey 1978). The field is a vast one and contains many disputes.

Before gaining an insight into the dynamics of political economy approach in Anthropology, it is important to recognise that political economy presents itself as a general theory of society, inequality, politics and culture. Some of the most significant work in political economy has been done in relationship to politics, for example the very important work of the late Eric Wolf (1999). Likewise, it is difficult to understand many of the current approaches to gender inequality in anthropology unless one understands the basis of this in theories of political economy. Here debates

around the earlier work of Lisette Josephides, which explains the inequality of women in Melanesia as deriving from the exploitation of women in the production process, have played critical roles (Josephides 1985; Strathern 1988).

The emphasis on production:

From the point of view of economics, the central concept in political economy is that of the ‘mode of production’. This focus on production is in sharp contrast to various forms of exchange theory, which characterised the work of both the formalist and substantivist schools of economic anthropology and which continues unabated in recent work on anthropological theories of value (Graeber 2001). The political economy approach is also part of a broad Enlightenment metanarrative of progress. At its core this is the question of the nature and significance of history in general and economic history in particular. Analyses of particular societies are placed within a broader schema of social evolution that strongly affects the specific study (Godelier 1978: 216–17). Critical issues which continue to preoccupy anthropologists are the significance of the non-Western economic experience in its own right and from the point of view of Western and world economic history, the related issues of Third-World development and of economic alternatives to globalisation. These issues are addressed in political economy from a distinctive point of view.

The articulation school: Structural Marxism and economic anthropology

The tradition of economic anthropology which falls within the purview of political economy has a Marxist inclination. This tradition of economic anthropology derives from the works of Georg Hegel, and from the critique of British political economy in the work of Karl Marx and of Friedrich Engels. However, there is a vibrant version of political economy which is the application of rational choice theory to political decision making at the collective level in both developed and underdeveloped economies. Practitioners of such brands of political economy, ultimately deriving from the work of Adam Smith, exist in anthropology (Bates 1987).The discussion begins with the themes raised in the work of the most influential group of political economists in the field of anthropology to date; the French structural Marxists, also known as the ‘articulation’ school. This trend arose in the late 1960s and exerted a major influence on economic anthropology and anthropology in general through the entire decade of the 1970s. Here the critical representatives were Claude Meillassoux, Maurice Godelier, Emmanuel Terray, Pierre-Phillipe Rey, Georges Dupré, Marc Auge as well as historians of Africa – Jean Suret-Canale and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch – with whom they worked closely (Seddon 1978). Today all of these anthropologists have abandoned or substantially modified their theoretical outlook with the consequence that this once highly influential school of economic anthropologists is now largely defunct. Where their influence is still strongly felt is in South African anthropology and social science, where structural Marxism was one of the inspirations leading to the efflorescence of neo-Marxist political economy (Asad and Wolpe 1976). Structural Marxism was primarily an Africanist school, except for Godelier whose speciality is Melanesia. Their work was characterised in particular by a detailed empirical knowledge of the societies of West and Central Africa and Madagascar, which had been a part of the French African colonial empire. This was by no means the first application of a Marxist-influenced political economy in anthropology. The work of Godfrey Wilson and of Ronald Frankenberg, strongly influenced by the more processual functionalism of Max Gluckman, preceded that of the French by decades (Frankenberg 1978; Wilson 1939). This group of early British political economists was not theoretically oriented. They were primarily interested in analysing and documenting empirically the impact of British colonialism: the transformation of land tenure relations; the effects of copper mining in Zambia and of diamond and gold mining in South Africa; the breakdown of ‘tribal cohesion’ in the economies and societies of Central and Southern Africa; the rise of large-scale labour migration, forced or otherwise, leading to urbanisation and ‘detribalisation’. Their work in the application of political economy in anthropology, economics and history was pioneering. It provided an invaluable account of the dire economic and social impact of colonialism in the inter-war and early post-war years.

What was distinctive of the French school, however, was the combination of traditional ethnographic empiricism with a self-consciously theoretical orientation. Strongly influenced by the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the highly abstract structural Marxism of Althusser and Balibar, their intervention was aimed at having a far-reaching impact on anthropological theory in general (Althusser and Balibar 1998). Whereas previous Marxist theoretical interventions tended to distort anthropological knowledge in order to force it into a preconceived schema, their approach was different. Their aim was to use fieldwork as a necessary point of departure for theory. They insisted on a detailed, fine-grained analysis of the economic, political and kinship relationships revealed in their data. On this basis, they approached theory as a construct that should respect and be supported by the data. Part of their influence on economic anthropology was due to this derivation of theory from the familiar fieldwork ethnography long characteristic of anthropology.

As a result of this approach, the French school raised fundamental challenges pertaining to the entire endeavour of economic anthropology. What were the relations of production characteristic of kinship societies? Did exploitation exist within them? What was the connection among production, exchange and the development of markets? How were the main concepts, in particular the central one of ‘mode of production’, to be understood and applied? What was the source of value in such economies and what was the relevance to other concepts of value in economic theory? How were such economies to be understood in the broad sweep of human history? Could the orthodox metanarrative of progress that had always characterised Marxist political economy satisfactorily resolve such issues?

Anthropological political economy in mainstream academia:

As the Structural Marxist approach dominated the economic anthropology in 1970s, anthropological political economy entered the academic mainstream at the same time. At that time two paradigms prevailed in the social sciences: the development and underdevelopment paradigm that emerged to challenge modernization theory, particularly in its focus on newly independent Third World nations; and the modern world-system model of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. Anthropological political economy defined itself in contradistinction to both. It would be unrealistic not to relate the emergence of these paradigms to the historical events of these years. Politically, in the Third World, this was an age of advocacy of armed revolution: Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Regis Debray, Che Guevara, Fanon. Peasant revolutions were clearly the order of the day rather than social science analyses of nation states. The work that most influenced anthropology was that of Samir Amin, Arrighi and Rodney in Africa; and Andre Gunder Frank and Cardoso in Latin America. Eric Wolfs Peasant Wars appeared in 1969.

The term ‘political economy’ became widely used in anthropology during the Vietnam War (1965–73). Teach-in movements in the universities, radical political economic and history journals and a campus movement, Students for a Democratic Society, spearheaded the emergence in the United States of a New Left. The critical thrust of these radical movements was applied to society at home, to the university system, and to anthropology itself in the United States, Britain and France. Critiques of structural anthropology’s representation of African societies, with its emphasis on kinship and its neglect of political economy, appeared in re-evaluations by Kathleen Gough, Peter Worsley and Talal Asad of classic ethnographies. These seminal studies stimulated more explicit discussion of the theories of political economy and their application in Third World countries, by Joel Migdon in Indonesia, for example, and Keith Hart in Africa. An entire cadre of French Marxist anthropologists and Africanists—among them Godelier, Meillassoux, Terray and Coquery-Vidrovitch—became prominent exponents of economic anthropology worldwide. With the emergence of a new group of radical Left scholars within the American academy, Marxism became academically respectable. Propagation by American publishers of the work of European Marxists led to the sequential introduction to anthropology of Lenin, Gramsci, and Althusser. Africanists, for example, drew on Lenin’s thesis of the uneven development of the capitalist economy in agrarian societies and emergent rural differentiation, documenting the increasing pauperization of the mass of the people in Africa’s so-called ‘development decade’. Marxist theories of petty commodity production were criticized by anthropologists, stimulating valuable historical ethnographies of petty commodity production in, for example, Minangkabau in Southeast Asia (Kahn 1980) and the Peruvian Andes in Highland South America (Smith 1989). An intellectual connection with Marxism has, at different times and in different places, both strengthened and undermined anthropological political economy. Yet, when political economy came of age in academic anthropology in 1978 in a special issue of American Ethnologist, it was apparent that there was no one unifying vision or discourse among its self-proclaimed practitioners. Thus when Wolf published a subaltern alternative to prevailing paradigms of expanding western capitalism, Europe and the People without History (1982), his book was subjected to keen debate among anthropological political economists, historians and social scientists. Criticisms of the paradigm it offered both consolidated anthropological political economy and moved it forward.

Studies at periphery:

The end of modernism in anthropology brought no resolution to the problem of employing universalistic analytic categories. What it did bring was a more explicit application of Marxism. The question in anthropological political economy remained one of the relationships between capitalism and those societies conceptually located on its periphery. Was capitalism to be understood as a single world-system or as a heterogeneous assemblage of subsystems which Western capitalism had penetrated to varying degrees? For such peripheral situations, Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980) and Jacques Chevalier’s Civilization and the Stolen Gift (1982) provided key texts for a clear formulation of the issues involved. Both provided ethnographies of communities in highland South America. Chevalier found non-capitalist modes of production to be subsumed within the dominant framework of capitalism. Taussig described a cultural system that had internalized the contradictions of capitalism in several different ways but most notably through beliefs in ‘the devil’ as an indigenous critique of commodity forms of exchange and wage relations. In a critical review of the two books Terence Turner urged appreciation not simply of the possible integration of two systems of economic production but of the qualitative differences that might be attached to defining and articulating production itself. With absorption into capitalism, †indigenous peoples lost the ability to define themselves in their own way. Turner thus argued for moving beyond the analysis of economic production to social reproduction. This raised the question of whether on the periphery subsistence might not simply be an alternative mode of production to capitalism but a form of resistance to it. Analyses of such relations in the historically earlier peripheries of Northeast Scotland and colonial Africa had suggested that developing industrial capitalism required a peasant subsistence sector so that the costs of reproduction might be borne by the agrarian sector as both food resources and labour power. The South American peripheral situations suggested the very real need in anthropology to distinguish more precisely between mercantile, industrial and finance capitalism. Discussion of the peripheral situation opened up space beyond the debate between those who saw capitalism as largely determinate of local social systems and those asserting the relative autonomy of local peoples and their cultures. Appreciating that the periphery of capitalism is but the furthest extension of the core (Nugent 1988) is not unrelated to the growing corpus of political economic research carried out in modern Western cities and within the apparatus of the modern state. Thus anthropological political economy provides ethnographies of race in the inner cities, educational discrimination, poverty and the underclass. It has sometimes questioned the validity of sociological paradigms and, indeed, the very way in which phenomena have been defined as problems within complex societies. The current challenge of anthropological political economy is to interrogate its own intellectual equipment.


  1. This is an unusual blend of Political economy with the discipline. Every one in anthropology should read this.

  2. Thank you for such a well written article. It’s full of insightful information and entertaining descriptions. Your point of view is the best among many.
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