Political Economy In Anthropology Research Paper

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While in the history of economics, political economy is a widely accepted description of the general style of analysis of national wealth and international trade that emerged in the early nineteenth century in the writings of classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the term has come to be used in anthropology to refer to a variety of theoretical approaches that developed in the 1970s and shifted the focus of anthropological analysis away from isolatable local systems and toward ‘large-scale regional political economic systems.’ In this shift, research now took ‘the form of studying the effects of capitalist penetration upon these communities’ (Ortner 1984, p. 141).

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Although the term is sometimes applied only to developments within North American anthropology, it is misleading to see political economy in this sense as a description of a distinctively American ‘school’ limited to the 1970s. At least some practitioners had examined such broader links much earlier. Moreover, at around the same time, anthropologists elsewhere were also beginning to investigate more closely the links between global capitalism and the local social systems they had been trained to analyze. Doubtless American efforts in this direction were distinguishable because of their greater debt to the work of Andre Gunder Frank and the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein on the capitalist world system, as well the influences on them of earlier materialist tendencies within American anthropology.

But, particularly in France and Britain, and often under a rather different set of theoretical influences— most notably from contemporary Marxist theorizing—anthropologists were also reexamining the relationships between capitalism and what were often described as various precapitalist modes of production or social formations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Any assessment of this general move on the part of anthropologists from the 1970s to engage with global economic factors and their influence on the local groups anthropologists were more used to studying must then examine both of these developments.

1. Political Economy, Anthropology, And Global Capitalism

The development of political economy in North American anthropology was linked to a more general intellectual and cultural challenge to America’s imperial expansion, itself stimulated by opposition to the war in Southeast Asia. Consequently, political economy in the American context was on the one hand theoretically somewhat eclectic, and on the other, concerned primarily with issues of global capitalism. Given the tendency of anthropologists to engage with regions, societies, and cultures outside or on the margins of North Atlantic capitalism, much of the energy of political economists in America was devoted to analyzing the impact of capitalism on individuals and communities on what was sometimes called the ‘periphery’ of the capitalist system. This global emphasis in their approach to more traditional anthropological concerns, moreover, made American political economists less likely to classify these marginal individuals and groups as precapitalist. They were consequently also less interested than their French counterparts in any attempt to develop a general theory of modes of production, seeing this as being of little relevance to the concerns of social and cultural anthropologists doing field studies in the present.

Materialist analyses were well established in American anthropology some time before the emergence of political economy, although it could hardly be argued that these were based on any genuine engagement with, or even sympathy for, the work of Karl Marx himself. This materialist current is commonly associated with the name Leslie White, who is assumed to have been familiar with work in the Marxist tradition, if not with Marx’s own writings, although he was prevented from acknowledging the link explicitly because of a generalized American hostility to Marx. Marvin Harris was an influential advocate of materialist analyses from the 1960s, although, unlike White, he was openly hostile to Marxist theorizing, preferring a form of techno-ecological determinism that was rather nearer to that of White.

Closer to the interests of the new generation of political economists was the work of Julian Steward. Steward had formulated a more open, ‘multilinear’ theory of evolution. He also headed the Puerto Rico project, unusual for the ways it tackled issues to do with social change and colonial history as central concerns of anthropology.

But more than anyone else, a group of anthropologists studying in New York in the 1940s— including subsequently well-known figures such as Eric Wolf, Sydney Mintz, Elman Service, and Stanley Diamond—became the key figures in anthropology’s direct engagement with colonialism and global capitalism from within a materialist perspective, an engagement that subsequently attracted the label ‘political economy.’ Wolf and Mintz in particular became increasingly concerned with the implications of European global expansion for the anthropological analysis of peasant communities in the Caribbean and South America. Both wrote anthropological monographs that were unusual for their discussion not only of local systems of culture, kinship, and social organization, but of the formative links established in the long history of European colonization between local communities and the centers of the world economy in Europe and North America. Later, both also produced influential general works on the development of a world capitalist system, paying particular attention to the interconnections established in this process between Europe and North America on the one hand, and the only apparently isolated peoples on its periphery on the other (Wolf 1992, Mintz 1985).

Others, from both the New York group and outside it, contributed, if less directly, to the development of political economy. Unlike many materialists in American anthropology, Stanley Diamond made important contributions in Marxist theory, founding the journal Dialectical Anthropology in the 1970s, and working on a critical phenomenological Marxism that contrasted rather sharply with contemporary Marxist theorizing in France. Eleanor Leacock made her own contribution, both to the development of a Marxist anthropology, through a pursuit of themes of kinship, family, and gender raised in Engels’ Origins of the Family, and to political economy in some important work on the impact of the fur trade on indigenous North Americans.

Two further influences served to broaden the popularity of such analyses in American anthropology by the early 1970s. First, there was the publication of the very influential early works of the dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank and, shortly thereafter, the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (see Frank 1969, Wallerstein 1974). What this work brought in particular was a more sophisticated understanding of the imperatives of the global economy, and the compatibility, indeed even functionality, within it of apparently noncapitalist economic and political forms. Anthropologists such as Jane Schneider and Peter Schneider, Katherine Verdery, Gavin Smith, Carol Smith, William Roseberry, and others associated with the new political economy ‘school’ did not necessarily accept wholeheartedly the ‘capitalcentrism’ of these more global approaches, but instead entered into a sustained and fruitful debate with them over the global versus the local determinants of socioeconomic systems in what Wallerstein called the ‘peripheries’ of the world capitalist system.

The second formative influence, particularly on materialist anthropology in America in this period, was the growing movement against America’s military intervention in Indochina. This contributed greatly to the radicalized political and intellectual atmosphere on North American campuses, where a new generation of anthropologists was being trained. But it also has specific implications for anthropology, raising as it did the possibility that the discipline itself could be implicated in the project of imperial. In 1968, in an article that generated a heated debate, one anthropologist went so far as to describe anthropology explicitly as a ‘child of imperialism’ (Gough 1968). Similar concerns led to significant conflicts within the professional anthropological body itself (the American Anthropological Association), which debated at its annual meetings the involvement of anthropologists in covert operations.

2. The French Marxist Heritage

If in North America the main parameters of political economy were laid down by the engagement of anthropologists with a predilection for materialist explanation with issues arising out of the development of a world capitalist economy, in Europe the situation was somewhat different. This is not to say there was no interest in the relationship between global capitalism and local socioeconomic organization. On the contrary, this central concern in American anthropology found important parallels, especially in France and Britain. Here, however, the debates were informed by a far more theoretically sophisticated attempt to develop a Marxist theory appropriate to the analysis of anthropological materials, a level of theoretical concern largely absent in contemporary American anthropology. And the center of this reworking of Marxism was to be found in France.

Developments in French anthropology were subject to three distinctive influences. The first was the opening up of the Marxist left, in part spurred by the developing Marxist critique of Stalinism which, among other things, produced a space for Marxist intellectuals, both inside and outside the Communist Party, to criticize the kinds of mechanical and evolutionist interpretations of Marx that up to then were the only versions permitted by Marxist parties. Second, and related to this, the Sino-Soviet conflict inspired at least some Marxist intellectuals and political activists to search for alternative models of both socialism and the ways it could be achieved. Third, unlike the case in America, French anthropology was dominated by the imposing intellectual figure of Claude Levi-Strauss, and thus it is not surprising that when French anthropologists turned to the work of Karl Marx for inspiration, they developed a structural version of Marxism highly critical of the existential and humanist Marxism whose best-known exponent in France was Jean Paul Sartre. It is not especially surprising that the two main ‘schools’ in French Marxist anthropology—the first associated closely with the theories of the communist philosopher Louis Althusser, and the second with the structural Marxism of Maurice Godelier (a student of LeviStrauss)—while being critical of mainstream ‘mechanical Marxism,’ should both also have been equally if not more critical of the main alternative. While these ideas may have been influential in the wider student movement, Althusser’s anthropological admirers, most notably Emmanuel Terray and Pierre Philippe Rey, along with Godelier and his students, all sought to reformulate a Marxism that was ‘scientific,’ based on Marx’s ‘mature’ work, and avoided what they took to be the pitfalls of an approach based on humanistic assumptions about a universal human subjectivity thwarted by capitalism.

As this suggests, for structural Marxists, rethinking the Marxist heritage meant going back to the work of Marx on capitalism, and what they found in doing so was the beginnings of a general theory of historical materialism within which anthropology could play a very significant role. That role was to be the formulation of a general theory of modes of production, and the laws of transition from one to another. Contra some of their critics, this was not seen as a mere exercise in antiquarianism, since such a theory would provide, it was argued, the theoretical basis for a political practice aimed at stimulating not just a transition to communism, but the shaping the nature of the communist future as well.

It is suggested that there was no single Marxist approach in French anthropology, but instead a collection of competing and often antagonistic camps. And yet, in spite of differing allegiances—to Althusser, to Godelier’s version of structuralism, etc.—at least when viewed from the outside, French Marxist anthropology did seem to constitute a fairly unified discursive field for debate.

French Marxist anthropologists made important contributions to a number of areas of concern to both Marxism and anthropology (for an overview, see Kahn and Llobera 1981). A good example is provided by the debates over the nature of lineage-based societies in Africa that were sparked off by the early publications of Claude Meillassoux (see, for example, Meillassoux 1964, 1967). Scholars, including most centrally, Meillassoux himself, Emmanuel Terray, and Pierre Philippe Rey (both former students of Louis Althusser), as well as Maurice Godelier, Arienne Deluz, Pierre Bonte, and others, used Meillassoux’s material on the Gouro of the Ivory Coast, as well as ethnographic data on other uncentralized African societies, to debate the nature of most of the basic concepts of historical materialism—class, mode of production, productive forces and relations of production, exploitation, articulation, social formation, patriarchy—as well as the central theoretical tenet of historical materialism—economic determinism (or what one participant called Marx’s hypothesis of economic determinism in the last instance). This important debate, more than any other, serves to illustrate much of the potential theoretical benefits, as well as some of the main pitfalls, of the project of a Marxist anthropology as it was conceived by these scholars, namely a project to recover, by means of a careful reading of Marx’s own work, his ‘mature’ theoretical project, and to examine its more general validity in situations largely unknown to its originator. Moreover, the debate added considerably to the understanding of more traditional anthropological problems to do with the nature of authority and social cohesion in kinship-based societies, and societies without centralized political systems.

3. Marxism, Articulation, And Political Economy

From the perspective of the study of the linkages between global capitalism and local social and economic systems, the most important effect of these debates was in contributing to the formation of a theory of what some participants called the ‘articulation of modes of production.’ Drawing on the theoretical work of Althusser, Etienne Balibar, and Maurice Godelier, anthropologists, and others with an interest in the concerns of political economy, produced analyses of the relations between the local and the global understood as an articulation of capitalism with different precapitalist modes of production. It is not often unappreciated that exploring this relation was always a central concern of Meillassoux’s in a series of publications, including his early monograph on the Gouro. A sophisticated Althusserian analysis of articulation is to be found in the work of the brilliant Marxist anthropologist, Pierre Philippe Rey (see especially, Rey 1973). And other important contributions to this project were made in Britain by a variety of scholars influenced by French structural Marxism, including Ernesto Laclau, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, Talal Asad, and others, and by a group associated with the journal Critique of Anthropology including Felicity Edholm, Olivia Harris, Joel S. Kahn, John Gledhill, Josep Llobera, Stephen Nugent, and Maila Stivens. Mention needs also to be made of the important work of Jonathan Friedman on Marxist theory, anthropology, and globalization.

4. Beyond Political Economy

The central concerns of political economy have certainly not disappeared in anthropology. But it would be fair to say that in general within the discipline there have been significant shifts at the level of theory and analytic style, as well as at the level of the selection of problems and issues for research, so that very few anthropologists could now be described as political economists. The reasons for this declining popularity of political economy are varied. There has certainly been a recognition that earlier attempts to theorize the relationship between the global and the local in either a dependency world systems mode or by means of a concept of the articulation of modes of production suffered from problematic theoretical tendencies. These include an overly functionalist understanding of the needs of capitalism, a unidimensional economism, an inattention to the spheres of meaning and agency, and so on. Political economists have, like many others, been criticized for their eurocentrism, and for failing to appreciate that race, culture, and gender are not mere epiphenomena of social systems. Like those of many others, the truth claims of political economists have been subjected to wide-ranging critique by scholars influenced by poststructuralism, postmodernism, feminism, and postcolonialism.

Social and cultural anthropology has been affected profoundly by the critiques of those associated with the so-called ‘writing culture school.’ This has undermined claims about the reality of those other lives constructed in anthropological texts, by the demand for greater degrees of reflexivity, and by the placing of problems of cultural, religious, gender, racial, and national identity at the forefront of issues for investigation. Political economy which, despite the name, doubtless focused on economic issues more than any other, naturally was affected by these shifts. Finally, European versions of political economy, precisely because of their greater concern with issues of (Marxist) theory, have been damaged by the general intellectual and political rejection of Marxism, particularly since the late 1980s.

While political economy in the various forms that it took in Europe and North America in the 1970s and early 1980s will probably not regain the central role it once had in the discipline, for better or worse it would be misleading to pronounce it dead and buried. The tendency to see in the rise of Foucauldian and poststructuralist paradigms a complete rejection of, particularly, the basic conceptions of structural Marxism, is probably misleading. It is possible to argue that these merely take the structural Marxist project one step forward, from a critique of ideology, to a critique of discourse tout court.

Certainly, some of the central concerns of political economy have reemerged in more recent attempts by anthropologists to theorize the phenomenon of globalization. An anthropology seeking its roots in a variety of new social movements is very much on the agenda of anthropologists styling themselves as ‘radical’ and/or ‘committed.’ Some of the concerns of an earlier generation of political economists are evident in more recent feminist anthropology, as well as in various attempts to construct an anthropology of human rights. Recent attempts to forge a link between critical social theory and anthropology through various reworkings of the concept of modernity may be seen as an attempt to correct the economistic and unidimensionalist failings of the structural version of Marxism. There are even apparently once again calls to return to Marx. It remains to see how these will develop in anthropology in coming years.


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  3. Kahn J S, Llobera J R 1981 The Anthropology of Precapitalist Societies. Macmillan, London
  4. Meillassoux C 1964 Anthropologie Economiques des Gouro de Cote d’I oire. Mouton, Paris-Le Haye
  5. Meillassoux C 1967 Recherche d’un niveau de determination dans la societe Cynegetique. L’Homme et la Societe 6
  6. Mintz S W 1985 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, New York
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  8. Rey P P 1973 Les Alliances de Classes. Maspero, Paris
  9. Wallerstein I M The Modern World-system, Vol. 1. Academic Press, New York
  10. Wolf E R 1982 Europe and the People Without History. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA


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