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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 919-932

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Exploring the Fault Lines:
Introduction to the Minisymposium on the History of Economic Anthropology

Philip Mirowski

This HOPE minisymposium has been prompted by a question I have been asking friends in anthropology for some time now, namely, where are the writers who are revisiting and rethinking the history of economic anthropology? Lest one wonders if this question asks for something that no one wants, or else is hopelessly naive, let me quickly add that, in stark contrast to economics, anthropology has welcomed a wider range of philosophical reflections on its problems and prospects; has recently pioneered within its ranks the development and legitimization of a specialization in the history of anthropology, best represented by the work of George Stocking Jr. in America and Adam Kuper in Britain; and in general has revealed greater tolerance for inquiry into revisions of the fundamental tenets of the discipline. But having acknowledged these facts, some years of experience have convinced me, at least, that there is a serious lacuna in modern American anthropology having to do with an unwillingness to confront the heritage and status of their subfield known as “economic anthropology.” To put the case in a perhaps overly dramatic fashion, I suspect that the history of the specialization of economic anthropology has not been an altogether happy one for anthropologists in the recent past (while for economists it has been mostly invisible), and that this has had more than a little to do with long-standing tensions between the disciplines of anthropology and economics, as well [End Page 919] as postwar developments internal to the respective fields. Even more distressing, most historians of anthropology have shied away from dealing with the topic, apparently in order to preempt rekindling the blood feuds of honored ancestors. In a strange inversion, many economic anthropologists have displayed a strong interest in the history of economics itself, revealing more familiarity with François Quesnay and Marx than most modern economists (Gudeman 1986; Gregory 1982), but betray little or no motivation to confront the history of economic anthropology, other than as ceremonial homage paid to a small collection of classic texts.

Although many would deny that the situation is anywhere near so dire in the present, conversations with a number of economic anthropologists essentially confirm a tempered version of this hypothesis. Further, ethnological sojourns among the Anthro in their annual potlatches have provided further evidence.1 Economists have made a few tentative attempts to raise the issue of the narrative outlines of the history of economic anthropology as a discipline (Mirowski, 1994, 1997; Lodewijks 1994); their overtures, however, have been met with frosty silence on the part of anthropologists. This brings us to the centerpiece of our minisymposium, Heath Pearson’s essay “Homo Economicus Goes Native.” It seems that, if neither side will muster sufficient enthusiasm to explore the historical issues involved, then the task will devolve to outsiders to both disciplines to set out and write the history of economic anthropology. Pearson’s article approaches the question from a background in German studies, which is quite fortunate, given that the bulk of the earliest literature on what was once called “the economics of primitive man” was in fact written in German.2 Pearson’s essay constructs the narrative from the mid-nineteenth century up until 1945 around the disputed question of whether the aboriginal was essentially different from Homo economicus, or structurally similar but divergent in goals, or fundamentally identical. He provides prodigious evidence that, even in the German literature, the [End Page 920] question would frequently be phrased in individualist and psychological terms. In his telling, after 1945 the assertion of complete identity won out, thus undercutting much of the rationale for the existence of a separate or distinct discipline of economic anthropology.

It could be suggested that this is just one of many alternative ways the story might be told, although Pearson’s entry point through individual mentalities would seem to be congenial to a fin de siècle economist...


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