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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 999-1009

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Anthropology, Economics, and Political Economy:
A Critique of Pearson

C. A. Gregory

The charge that Heath Pearson levels at some of the theorists he discusses—that they were ignorant of the German economic thought around the turn of the century—certainly does not apply to him. He clearly knows this literature well, so well in fact that he could be accused of turning the problem upside down. British economic thought hardly gets a look in. Where is John Maynard Keynes for example? Not only did he, as editor of the Economic Journal in the early 1920s, actively encourage a dialogue between economists and anthropologists; he was also a keen student of comparative economic systems. Indeed, Keynes’s analysis of the spheres of exchange of the ancient currencies anticipated Paul Bohannan’s seminal work on the Tiv economy of West Africa.1 Similar criticisms could be made of Pearson’s treatment of leading British economic anthropologists. The description of Raymond Firth as a “Maori specialist” may have been true in the mid-1920s when Firth had just completed a library thesis on the Maori economy, but it fails miserably as a description of the subsequent career of the man who went on to conduct fieldwork in the Solomon Islands, Malaya, and London; who wrote books not only on tribal and peasant economics but also on religion, language, kinship, and social organization; and who, at [End Page 999] ninety-nine years old, is still intellectually active. Criticisms of Pearson of this kind, important though they are, do not address the spirit of his essay. He is concerned with the big picture, and the norm of reciprocity obliges the critic to repay like with like.

Pearson talks about the “ugly, drawn-out divorce” of economics and anthropology, which presupposes there was a “marriage.” I would like to question the historical adequacy of this depiction of the early relationship between economics and anthropology by questioning his assertion that the fundamental question motivating the study of economic anthropology was that of the psychological substrate of the aborigine. I will suggest here that the sociological substrate, situated comparatively, was the fundamental concern. As Firth (1987) has noted, “I myself see the significance of economic anthropology as giving systematic attention to the human/social factors in an economic situation” (his emphasis). Pearson’s history of the relationship between economics and anthropology has the debate about rationality and irrationality at its core: Is man a rational mortal animal or is it just European man who is rational?2 There can be no doubt that this has been an extremely important debate in the history of European philosophical and anthropological thought. The question has its origins in early Greek thought, but the debate was given a new lease on life in the 1870s when the discipline of anthropology, rightly dubbed the “child of Western capitalist imperialism” (Gough 1969, 128), was born. The rich new ethnographic data on the aborigines of Australia and the Pacific posed new questions about the universality of European logical and philosophical thought. What sense are we to make of the Amazonian Indian who says “I am a parrot” and the Australian aborigine who says “I am a crow”? Philosophers and anthropologists are still debating issues like this today, and while the debate is long and complicated the three logical possibilities identified by Pearson—the mind of the aborigine is different, it is the same, it is both the same and different—could also be used to sort out the different positions in this debate.

The history of economic thought that Pearson narrates, then, is a particular variation of the debate about aboriginal “mentality” that occurred in different forms in different disciplines. The novelty and importance of Pearson’s work lie in the data presented, which, for those of us who [End Page 1000] do not have his command of German literature, is very useful indeed. Important too is his exposure of the contradictions and ambiguities in the thought of anthropologists such as...


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