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Despite our focus on historical change, there are some abiding questions at the intersection of economics and anthropology. Is the economists’ aspiration to place human affairs on a rational footing an agenda worthy of anthropologists’ participation or just a bad dream? Since economics is a product of western civilization – and of the English-speaking peoples in particular – is any claim to universality bound to be ethnocentric? If capitalism is an economic configuration of recent origin, could markets and money be said to be human universals? Can markets be made more effectively democratic, with the unequal voting power of big money somehow neutralized? Can private and public interests be reconciled in economic organization or will the individualism of homo economicus inevitably prevail? Should the economy be isolated as an object of study or is it better to stress how economic relations are embedded in society and culture in general?
That is where our services come in.
In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi brought a radical critique of modern capitalism to bear on his moment in history. We too must start from the world we live in, if we are to apply the vast, but inchoate intellectual resources of anthropology to a subject that is of vital concern to everyone. Ours is a very different world from when Polanyi so confidently predicted the demise of the market model of economy. Yet the revival of market capitalism and dismantling of state provision since the 1980s furnishes plentiful material for Polanyi’s thesis that the neglect of social interests must eventually generate a political backlash and a retreat from market fundamentalism. In our Introduction, we suggested that the world may now be emerging from the period of neo-liberal hegemony, with obvious potential consequences for the project known as ‘economic anthropology’. The ongoing globalization of capital – its spread to Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere after centuries of western monopoly – is also bound to affect our understanding of economy. The absolute dominance of market logic, at least in the form devised by neo-liberal economists, may be coming to an end. Then, not only will Polanyi’s ideas receive more favourable attention, as they already have in some quarters, but the urgent need to review the institutional basis of economy may stimulate anthropologists to renewed efforts.