July 23, 2011

Anthros & Econs: Crossing the chasm

The more I read about political economy and economic anthropology, the more I have wondered about the discipline of economics. What, exactly, are those economists up to, how do they approach their field of study, and why? I have read a good amount about modern economics, and how it differs from anthropology, but I haven't really read all that much from economists themselves (especially about method and theory). Sure, I read Krugman's blog, and I follow sites like Calculated Risk, Economist's View (Mark Thoma), and Economics and Ethics. One of my favorite econ blogs was written by the late Alison Snow Jones (aka "Maxine Udall"). She had a real talent for writing about and exploring the implications of economics in a very personal and fascinating way.* Still, I wonder why there isn't more of a conversation between anthropologists and economists. Especially considering our overlapping interests.  So why is there such a chasm between the two disciplines?  Is it because our ways of thinking about and analyzing human nature are soooooo different that there is no room for dialog, or what?

Many anthropologists receive a caricature of economics. This caricature has been promoted by neo-classical economists, who sought dominance and the erasure of heterogeneous approaches. Restoring a fuller history can help to promote a rapprochement between anthropology and economics.
I agree that anthropologists often have a limited picture of what economics is all about, and that we sometimes lump any and all economists in with the neo-classical folks.  I, for one, am guilty of that, and I realize that I need to put some time in to learning more about what economists actually do if I want to move beyond arguments and understandings that are based upon mere caricatures.   Not all economists think alike--and that's a pretty important point to keep in mind.

Jason also argues that a renewed focus on the history of economic thought might be a good way to bridge anthropology and economics.  Interestingly, Loomnie recently posted something about a project that Bruce Caldwell--from Duke University--is heading, which focuses on putting discussions about methodology and the history of economic thought back into graduate training.  Caldwell states that an emphasis on the history of economic thought has been absent from many economics graduate programs around the country for some time.  Duke, apparently, is one place where this kind of training has survived.  Check out the video and Caldwell's explanation of his Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke.  Interesting, no?  

I would really like to see how this history of economic thought is taught, and what (if any) overlap there is with anthropology (and economic anthropology more specifically).  What kinds of readings are on the table, and does this open up a space for talking about human behavior and economics that moves beyond the standard neo-classical framework?  Some day, actually, would like to spend some time learning how economics grad courses are taught--I really have no idea what they do, how they set up seminars, and why anthropology and economics ends up in such different places when it comes to ideas about human motivations, etc.  I think it would be pretty fascinating, for instance, to sit in on some graduate seminars in economics--but that's just me.  Dialog--or even debates--require some sort of mutual understanding to actually be interesting (and effective).

When was the last time that anthropologists and economists had a sustained conversation about their overlapping interests in human behavior? Was it waaaaaaay back in 1941 when Knight and Herskovitz had their little fireside chat?  Was it during the infamous debate between the formalists and the substantivists?  What would a renewed conversation--or even debate--between anthropologists and economists look like?  Do we need some kind of collaboration or dialog between anthropologists and economists? What would we all hope to achieve with this? Is there room for dialog, or are the disciplines so theoretically, methodologically, and politically different that there is no possibility for productive engagement?

In their recent book Economic Anthropology, Chris Hann and Keith Hart write about one of their main goals:  "We hope to persuade economists with real world concerns to take an interest in what anthropologists have discovered about the human economy, and in the kinds of theories we have advanced to understand it" (Hann and Hart 2011:9).  However, they also make this point quite clear: "There is not much hope for dialogue with those who define economics exclusively as the application of an individualistic logic of utility maximization to all domains of social life" (Hann and Hart 2011:9).  Ultimately, they say, "The project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists" (Hann and Hart 2011:162).

David Graeber, in his seminal book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, argues: "In fact, the effort to reconcile the two disciplines is in many ways inherently contradictory. This is because economics and anthropology were created with almost entirely opposite purposes in mind" (Graeber 2001:7).**  Anthropologists and economists do approach the study of human behavior and society in some radically different ways.  However, it's pretty safe to say that not all economists think alike--and the same can of course be said of anthropologists.  So maybe, indeed, there is room for some sort of productive engagement. 

One thing that does seem pretty clear to me is that anthropologists talk about economists much more than the reverse.  When was the last time you saw an economist refer to an anthropologist in any way?  Anthropologists, especially those with an economic bent, talk about economists and their BIG IDEAS all the time.  The only problem?  I am not sure there's really anyone on the other end of the metaphorical phone, if you know what I mean (they aren't necessarily all that concerned with the BIG IDEAS from anthropology).  I could be wrong, but for the most part I do not think that economists spend much time, if any, reading about what anthropologists have to say about economic issues.  

What does this mean?  Well, considering the spate of economic "events" that have taken place since 2008, I think it's probably high time for anthropologists--who have more than their fair share of experience studying human behavior--to get themselves back into larger debates and discussions about economics.  It's definitely time for some rethinking about the relationships between individuals, the market, and society, that's for sure.  And if people aren't listening, we'll have to find ways to make our thoughts on these economic matters known.  Sitting around waiting for the Adam Smith's invisible hand to get this engagement started isn't doing us any good.  Where should this all start?  Well, as Jason Antrosio argues, a revamped exploration of history would probably be a good place place to begin.

*Here are a few of my favorite posts from Maxine Udall:

**Graeber's book, which I just reread this summer, is a fantastic read.  Highly recommended.  Now I just need to get my hands his new book on debt, which also sounds really good.

No comments: