What is Economic Anthropology?

Economic anthropology is the mixture of two academic studies, economics and anthropology. Economics is the study of things that are made (production), how they are used (consumption), and how money is transferred; while anthropology is the study of humans and their development.

Therefore, the short answer to the question of what is economic anthropology is that it is the study of how production and consumption affect cultures and societies. Economic anthropologists are less interested in formulas, (like economists are), and more interested in how economic behavior is affected by social aspects.

Basically, economic anthropologists study how people use material items in society; essentially they want to know how people use material items to better themselves. Their activity is centered around two main points, provisioning and the formalist-substantivist argument in multiple areas of research.


The first avenue is the concept of provision. This belief is that everything is empirical and naturalistic. Economic anthropologists view (empirical) people’s lives as they go about their everyday (naturalistic); there also has to be a deep understanding of production, distribution, and consumption. The economic anthropologists gain information about their subject’s daily life, such as what they do for others (services/labors), their ideas/beliefs, and the settings they do these things in (such as household, the villages or marketplaces). They are especially interested in how goods/services are distributed throughout the household, household, or marketplace, gender roles of people doing the services, how people become recruited to do their jobs and rewards that are given to those who do a good job.

Economic anthropologists also have watched how trends in society work, meaning the movement away from bartering to using funds to purchase goods.


For this avenue, it is important to know what the neoclassical economic theory is; this theory assumes that competition creates the distribution of resources in the economy. Formalists believe that this theory can explain pre-modern societies. Formalists thought that because all economics look the same on the outside (people wanting some type of goods/services in exchange for a price), all societies (even those that don’t use money, such as hunter/gather tribes), can have the same economic concepts applied to them; they also believed that choice was up to the individual, and not up to society.

Substantivists believe that goods/services were produced for cultural reasons. They believe that because other societies didn’t have a self-regulating, supply and demand market, they could not be studied like those who did.

Many of these markets had money but had a very limited supply, since these markets were much different from the markets with a regulated, supply and demand market, there could be no universal method to study them. Substantivists believed that choice was made according to the norms and the impact of society.

Eventually the formalists beliefs won out over the substantivists and are used more so today.

There are four main approaches that are used to study economic anthropology. Three of which were found outside of the economics, while one is based on an economic theory.

The Conceptual Basis Provided by Neoclassical Economics

Economic anthropologists believe that goods have a way of being used as a means to the end. People are normally believed to make rational decisions and to put their own interests first, so goods are an important factor of the economy.

Farming Systems

In some non-Western cultures, economic anthropologists had to rely on outside factors, such as the landscape, social, and political concerns, to help them study the economy. In some cultures, especially those who heavily rely on agriculture, the goods were managed by households or kin-based system. Economic anthropologists also had to take into consideration the information that was made available to the farmers and how they applied that to their farms, and also the risk/reward for trying something new or foreign in their farming practices.

Problem Solving

People are expected to make rational decisions when it comes to the economy. However, some economic anthropologists believe that culture and social norms play an essential role in determining an individual’s decision-making process. They also believe that depending on a person’s class and amount of power that person has, will also determine their decision-making process.


People who are considered peasants tend to have to negotiate with others to have access to certain things, such as land and labor. These people are able to expand their production ability by doing things such as renting or sharecropping their land with others. They must also negotiate a wage or payment in exchange for the labor. Economic anthropologists have noticed that in these situations, there tends to be an imbalance of power. People who own the land, are able to tell the workers what they can and can’t do with it.

Importance of Economic Anthropology

The importance of economic anthropology is to bring new perspectives to the economy. Economic anthropologists focus on all different types of factors, and not just those that typically study: men, rational decisions, and the decisions made in the public. They study how to intertwine people’s lives with the world around them. They help review outcomes for the economy for individuals, communities, and on a global scale.

Global Impact

All different areas of the world are now linked together through a supply and demand market. In this system, the world is divided up into different regions, some regions are wealthy and powerful, while others are not; however, they are all competing for the same wealth and power.

Some say this economy is based on capitalist exploitation, the rich taking from the labors and keeping the surplus to themselves, also on a global scale the individual person is not as important as the country they belong to as a whole.

Branches of Study

There are several branches of economic anthropology that are studied, for example, economic history, primitive economics, peasant economics, urban economics, and business anthropology.

Economic history uses the economic process to understand historical events. Most economic anthropologists that study economic history, study it from the 1750s during the British Industrial Revolution, until 1945 and the ending of World War Two.

Primitive economics is based on a barter/exchange system, with no regular markets and very seldom is profit the motivation for things.

Peasant economics is based on the relationship between rural areas, household incomes, and agricultural jobs.

Urban economists study how land is used in urban areas and housing policies, infrastructure and transportation, problems that occur in urban areas, and local governments. They study these areas to see how each one affects the economy.

Business anthropologists use anthropological theories and methods to solve problems in the business world. They study things that are part of the business world, such as management, operations, marketing, consumer behavior, etc.

In a nutshell

Economic anthropology is the study of how the economy affects people. Economic anthropologists are more interested in how the impact of societies affect the economy and are less interested in formulas. They want to bring new ideas to boost the economy and help better people’s lives. Economic anthropologists also study different branches of economic anthropology.

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