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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 991-998

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Economics and Barbarism:
An Anthropological Comment on Pearson’s “Homo Economicus

James Ferguson

I must begin by thanking Heath Pearson for his provocative and courageous article, and Philip Mirowski for staging this exchange of views around it. I am convinced that the relation between anthropology and economics is a subject of great importance for both disciplines, and I am pleased to see a rare attempt being made to stimulate some cross-disciplinary discussion on the topic.

I should disclose from the start that I do not know much about economics, and I am not able to assess those parts of Pearson’s article that describe the history of that discipline. I do, however, know a bit about the history of anthropology. Unfortunately, Pearson’s account does not fit very well with what I know.

According to Pearson, the anthropology side of the story can be summarized as follows: In the good old days, anthropologists theorized about the primitive mind, which laid the basis for an engagement with economists about “the psychological substrate” of “primitive” economies. But then anthropology turned away from its vocation to collect “useful psychological data” toward an emphasis on endless institutional variability, about which there existed no possibility of generalization. By the time we reached the postwar era, a particularizing anthropology could only talk about “authenticity” and “cultural relativism” while [End Page 991] economists had moved on to “modernization” and “development.” The useful discussion between the disciplines was at an end, and there was “little left to talk about.”

Several corrections would seem to be called for here. First, it needs to be recognized that anthropology’s twentieth-century turn away from attempting to explain economic behavior by reference to the mentality of “primitive man” was part of a larger rejection of the very idea of primitive man itself (a move that Pearson himself—to judge by his first footnote—is still not ready to make). Recognizing that “primitive man” was not a coherent empirical entity, but rather an ethnocentric projection, twentieth-century anthropology steadily turned away from the old view that different customs proceeded from different racial natures, stages of evolutionary development, or national-psychological essences, and moved toward the comparative study of social and cultural institutions and the analysis of the historical and social contexts of thought and action. Pearson seems to see this as the regrettable moment when a promising research program was abandoned. Contemporary anthropologists are more likely to see it as the foundation of their science.

If Pearson seems disappointed by anthropology’s turn away from speculating about the primitive mind and toward social and institutional specificity, it is because he is convinced that such a shift amounted to an abandonment of the possibility of any generalization (and thus of any meaningful dialogue with the generalizing science of economics). His claim on this point seems to rest on a tendentious reading of Franz Boas, which he is content to borrow from Marvin Harris. This choice of source could charitably be described as ill advised; the works of George Stocking Jr. are the standard—and vastly more reliable—source on Boas’s intellectual project and its roots in German scholarship. Pearson is quick to chide the Boasian, Melville Herskovits, for his “limited facility with German,” but he himself betrays a weak grip on the German tradition of historical social science, and at a key point in his argument badly mistranslates the German ethnologist, Wilhelm Koppers. According to Pearson, Koppers (oddly standing in for Boas here in Pearson’s argument) maintained that the ethnological approach to economic institutions should be a historical one, which, moreover, “absolutely excludes all scientific regularity [naturwissenschaftliche Gesetzmäßigkeit].”1 But [End Page 992] this last phrase does not mean “scientific regularity,” but something more like “natural-science-type laws,” and it draws on a German distinction, with which the Boasians were very familiar, between the sorts of generalizations to be expected in the natural sciences, and a very different sort proper to the historical and cultural sciences...


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