Political economy in anthropology

Political Economy in anthropology is the application of the theories and methods of historical materialism to the traditional concerns of anthropology, including, but not limited to, non-capitalist societies. Political Economy introduced questions of history and colonialism to ahistorical anthropological theories of social structure and culture. Most anthropologists moved away from modes of production analysis typical of structural Marxism, and focused instead on the complex historical relations of class, culture and hegemony in regions undergoing complex colonial and capitalist transitions in the emerging world system.[1]

Political Economy was introduced in American anthropology primarily through the support of Julian Steward, a student of Kroeber. Steward’s research interests centered on “subsistence” — the dynamic interaction of man, environment, technology, social structure, and the organization of work. This emphasis on subsistence and production - as opposed to exchange - is what distinguishes the Political Economy approach. Steward's most theoretically productive years were from 1946-1953, while teaching at Columbia University. At this time, Columbia saw an influx of World War II veterans who were attending school thanks to the GI Bill. Steward quickly developed a coterie of students who would go on to develop Political Economy as a distinct approach in anthropology, including Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf, Eleanor Leacock, Roy Rappaport, Stanley Diamond, Robert Manners, Morton Fried, Robert F. Murphy, and influenced other scholars such as Elman Service, Marvin Harris and June Nash. Many of these students participated in the Puerto Rico Project, a large-scale group research study that focused on modernization in Puerto Rico.[1][2]

Three main areas of interest rapidly developed. The first of these areas was concerned with the "pre-capitalist" societies that were subject to evolutionary "tribal" stereotypes. Sahlins' work on hunter-gatherers as the "original affluent society" did much to dissipate that image. The second area was concerned with the vast majority of the world's population at the time, the peasantry, many of whom were involved in complex revolutionary wars such as in Vietnam. The third area was on colonialism, imperialism, and the creation of the capitalist world-system.[1]

More recently, these political economists have more directly addressed issues of industrial (and post-industrial) capitalism around the world.


Cultural materialism

Cultural materialism is a research orientation introduced by Marvin Harris in 1968 (The Rise of Anthropological Theory),[3] as a theoretical paradigm and research strategy. Indeed, it is said to be the most enduring achievement of that work.[4] Harris subsequently developed a defense of the paradigm in his 1979 book Cultural Materialism.[5] To Harris, cultural materialism "is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence".[6]

Harris' approach was influenced by but distinct from Marx. Harris' method was to demonstrate how particular cultural practices (like the Hindu prohibition on harming cattle) served a materialistic function (such as preserving an essential source of fertilizer from being consumed).[7]

Economic behavior has a cultural side which indicates that the works of anthropologists is relevant to economics. The Motivation behind cultural materialism is mainly to show that cultures adapt to the environment they're produced in.[8]

Structural Marxism

Structural Marxism was an approach to Marxist philosophy based on structuralism, primarily associated with the work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser and his students. It was influential in France during the 1960s and 1970s, and also came to influence philosophers, political theorists and anthropologists outside France during the 1970s. French structuralist Marxism melded Marxist political economy with Levi-Strauss's structural methodology, eliminating the human subject, dialectical reason and history in the process. Structural Marxists introduced two major concepts, mode of production and social formation, that allowed for a more prolonged and uneven transition to capitalism than either dependency or World systems theory allowed for.[1] A mode of production consisting of producers, non-producers and means of production, combined in a variety of ways, formed the deep structure of a "social formation." A social formation combined (or "articulated") several modes of production, only one of which was dominant or determinant. Primary anthropological theorists of this school included Maurice Godelier, Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey.[9] Structural Marxism arose in opposition to the humanistic Marxism that dominated many western universities during the 1970s. In contrast to Humanistic Marxism, Althusser stressed that Marxism was a science that examined objective structures.[10]

Cultural materialism

Critical influences on Structural Marxism, primarily from the British Marxist historical tradition, included E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams. They criticized the functionalist emphasis in Structural Marxism, that neglected individuals in favour of the structural elements of their model. The British school was more interested in class, culture and politics, and placed human subjects at the centre of analysis. Where mode of production analysis was abstract, they focused on people. Where world-systems theory had little to say about the local, the Cultural Materialists began and ended there. Others connected with this school of thought concentrated on issues such as ethnic formation, labor migration, remittances, household formation, food production and the processes of colonialism.[11]