Economic Anthropology: An Interdisciplinary Field

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Economic anthropology is not a widely known field of study; most people could only guess what it is, and most would assume that it is some sort of obscure field restricted to academia. The anthropology part might suggest that it is “softer” and less about hard numbers than pure economics. In fact, the two words together might even seem to be a contradiction. However, economics is actually a social science, as is anthropology. A little more insight and thought reveal that the two definitely belong together. Ironically, what is harder to reconcile are the many answers to the question, what is economic anthropology? An interdisciplinary field like this requires a differentiated approach.

Specialists in relevant fields of social science are constantly debating the parameters and rules of the field of economic anthropology itself. Because of economic anthropology’s relative obscurity and elusiveness to definition, it is difficult to find actual, titled economic anthropology courses. However, as it turns out, a well-considered mixture of philosophy, economics, and sociology courses and resources gives you a great foundation in economic anthropology.

The Complex Definition of Economic Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of human beings, first and foremost. On the physical and individual level, there is anthropology’s connection with archeology and biology – learning what a human being is. Then, there is the cultural level – seeing the way human beings have interacted through the ages and the modern-day derivations and implications.

Economics is the study of how humans use and process resources. While modern-day economics evokes images of mathematical analysis – far from anthropology’s more nostalgic, liberal arts image – the two clearly have an unbreakable bond. They both have to do with how human beings solve problems, relate to each other, and ultimately, how human beings define themselves.

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Economic anthropology is essentially economics, but with a broader and, usually more human-focused, perspective. Economic anthropologists consider human nature over time, the similarities and differences between cultures, and how different cultures might interact economically. Ultimately, this is a difficult topic to pin-down. Some theorists have a more absolutist (one-truth) perspective – that all human beings are rational agents and will work to their greatest advantage.

Others have a more relativist view – that individual humans are different and that different cultures value different things, to the point that humans can literally experience different truths. The absolutist vs. relativist debate is also a big question in the field of philosophy.

Another important issue to address: the reconciliation of the modern values of the West with the generally older values of the East. Here, the question of what is economic anthropology really comes to a head. Many of the allegedly rational models of economic behavior do not hold true for Eastern cultures; some theorists argue that Western approaches are not as much rational as cultural, themselves. Some argue that humans are rational within whatever cultural or economic framework they are working. Others claim that culture is too much a part of the individual mindset for people ever to act as objectively rational individuals and that economics must be viewed in this culture-centric light.

Economic anthropology is inevitably an interdisciplinary field, involving not only economics and anthropology but also sociology and philosophy. It is almost difficult to distinguish it from other related inter-disciplinary fields, such as economic sociology and cultural economics. Furthermore, the field draws heavily on ethical philosophy and logic. (Sociology studies how humans relate to one another, usually more specifically how they develop groups and institutions. Philosophy is the study of knowledge and thought.)

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Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

A grasp of dialectics (philosophical debate) and formal logic helps a theorist organize and pin-down thoughts about what might otherwise appear to be muddled or subjective ideas. The study of ethics helps one take a more open, objective view of what it means to value something (or someone); a common issue in economic anthropology is whether or not different cultures value truly different things.

Once you get past these fundamental questions, there is still the question of how values impact exchange of commodities. Some cultures operate with the understanding that reciprocity should be perfect – no profit or exploitation on either side; others assume profit-seeking behavior. This introduces questions about what it means to give something to someone or what it means to do an altruistic act. These are things we normally take for granted, but as it turns out, they are very much worth considering and studying.

How Economic Anthropology Is Relevant Today

Economic anthropology is generally a very academic field, so most specialists in this area are employed by colleges and universities for both teaching and research roles. Many economic anthropologists also contribute writings to peer-reviewed academic journals or high-level informative sources for the public. However, if you love this field of study but do not want to be confined to academia, there are other career options. Economic anthropologists are qualified to act as policy consultants for government officials and to be members of think tanks (groups of experts brought together to solve a problem). Private businesses may hire an economic anthropologist for similar policy-making or consulting purposes. Sometimes data analysis and economic mathematical models are not enough; the social and cultural perspective needs to be explored in an objective, measured way.

Coursera: An Excellent Source of Relevant Courses

Coursera is a website that offers online courses in a variety of academic areas. It also offers certificates, specializations, master’s track course clusters, and master’s degrees, primarily in business, economic, and technological areas. Individual courses can be taken for free, but getting a certificate for a course, specialization, master’s degree, or other course clusters usually costs a fee. (However, the site does offer financial aid options.) Certificates, even when not formal degrees, are an excellent addition to resumes or applications. Any certificate-verified courses or degrees from Coursera can be directly posted to a LinkedIn account or other virtual resume service. The course content consists of video lectures (with transcript available), instantly graded and peer-graded homework assignments, and a discussion forum of students and instructors.

To choose relevant courses, you have to look back at the question, what is economic anthropology? While the specifics of the answer are debatable, what is clear is that an economic anthropologist should be someone well-versed in the fundamentals of economics, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and social sciences in general.

Coursera offers some excellent courses in all of these fields. It offers economics courses, including ‘The Power of Microeconomics: Economic Principles in the Real World’ and ‘Economics of Money and Banking.’ It offers relevant social science courses such as ‘Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions‘ and ‘Classical Sociological Theory.’ It also offers basic philosophy courses such as ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ and ‘The Modern and the Postmodern.’

The study of logic, a sort of cross between math and philosophy, is applicable to economic anthropology; fortunately, logic is often introduced as a natural accompaniment to other areas of philosophy.

Since economic anthropology is such an interdisciplinary field, some courses from more peripheral areas might turn out to be relevant. A history course, such as Coursera’s ‘The Modern World’ (Parts I and II), gives the facts about what happened – the economic anthropologist can consider why these things happened on a grander scale. Since sociology is an empirical (evidence-based) field, statistics can come into play, so a course like Coursera’s ‘Basic Statistics’ actually is relevant. It is even possible that courses in psychology, law, business, or government could be relevant. However, these are definitely “elective” courses within the field – they are peripherally important. However, this is where being self-motivated is so helpful: the route to discovery might be the road less traveled.

More About How to Study Economic Anthropology

The economic anthropologist who wants to work outside of academia has a special challenge. In today’s time, technology’s impact on how people think about trade and how they distribute commodities needs to be considered. (This is a massive sociological question, in and of itself.) These sorts of modern conditions have to be inventively dealt with by the economic anthropologist who is interested in drawing functional conclusions about today’s society. Ultimately, studying economic anthropology and finding your niche in this field is similar to doing so in other fields: pursue what really interests you, then consider whether other skills and studies might enhance your understanding or functionality.

You may have to do some things that play to your weakness or that are out of your comfort zone. Also, be aware that your goals may shift as you learn more – this is not necessarily indecisiveness – it is a natural part of the learning process, especially when you are dealing with a hard-to-pin-down field like economic anthropology. Ultimately, this is the perfect field for someone who loves “impractical” liberal arts studies, but longs to apply them to the real world.

Comments 9

  • It can still be called as the study of human behavior with respect to time.

    Economic anthropology is a field that helps to explain human economic behavior in  historic, geographic and cultural scope. It is practiced by anthropologists and has a complex relationship with the discipline of economics, of which it is highly critical.


  • You are certainly right when you say that economic anthropology is not a widely known field, as this is the first time I have seen an article online on this topic.

    The study of human beings should be a more popular subject choice, but it seems animals are a more popular choice at the moment.

    It seems like quite an exciting field to get into and if you can get a job with the government, then you will be earning a nice package.

    Is it possible to study Economic Anthropology online, or is it something that you have to study within a university or college?

    • Hi Michael. Both are possible since many universities offer online courses too. However, you must take into account that this is an interdisciplinary field, so you can find a lot of relevant information in many adjacent courses.

  • I guess you learn something new everyday. This is my first time hearing of Economic Anthropology, but from your review on the subject it sounds like a very beautiful field. Am going to go do more research on it to find out how difficult it is to have a degree in the field, Cause I have younger ones that might find it interesting 

  • This was an incredible educational article. I learned so much and am fascinated by the way it was all articulated. 

    I feel ill-versed in the way humans act within a society. When I traveled the US last year, I was astounded how state to state the culture was different, and that’s within the same country. I am astounded at us human beings– how different our beliefs can be, our rituals are.. it is truly amazing. 

    I would love to learn more about economic anthropology, so happy you included courses on this subject. 

    What made you interested in economic anthropology?

    Thank you for writing this article, the pictures are beautiful, conveying so much emotion.


    • Hello Ciara.

      I became interested in economic anthropology since I understood that relationships among people are based on their needs, and especially when I realized that these interests can fluctuate and change, influencing everything around them. Thanks for your appreciation.

  • Before reading this post I didn’t know anything like economic anthropology existed. I thought I knew the meaning of anthropology but man was I wrong. Wow I learnt a lot of new things from this post. I think I lean towards the relativist view more because I traveled around a bit and I can say from what I have seen people can be heavily influenced by different cultures. I myself is an example of that. Having lived in different countries my spending habits and personality is influenced by different aspects of the cultures I have picked in these countries.

    I would also like to ask, do you think altruism really exists? Can people nowadays really do something for an individual without wanting anything in return? I think there are people out there but very small in number. 

    Economic Anthropology seems like a very interesting field, I will definitely be reading more about it to enhance knowledge of it. 

    • Hi Zara. I think that you are right, relativists gained ground recently, due to the increasing knowledge of other cultures. Yes, I think that real altruism is possible, but not based on emotion, but more on moral duty.

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