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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 273-281

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Primitive Economics:
A Reply

Heath Pearson


A recent HOPE minisymposium featured much trenchant, and generally gracious, commentary on my recent effort in the history of economic anthropology (Pearson 2000). Needless to say, I found much to agree with, learn from, and object to. Of the many issues raised, three may claim the interest of this journal's readers, and I beg leave to address them briefly in turn.

First is the suggestion that psychology is the wrong leitmotiv for ethnological inquiry, and thus also for the history of ethnological economics. According to Philip Mirowski (2000, 921), for instance, interrogating the cognitive status of the primitive “evokes more queasiness than analytical precision in either anthropologists or economists.” This is true enough for the present day, but I must insist that during the period in question (1860–1945) psychology was a staple in the diet of both ethnography and political economy, and one that practitioners found entirely palatable. As A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn ([1952] 1963, 296) have stressed, nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropology was oriented “toward origins, stages, progress and survivals, and spontaneous or rational operations of the human mind.” Culture—the favored entrée of today's anthropologists—had not yet differentiated itself from the concept of psyche, and indeed was most typically viewed as a handmaiden to it. Franz Boas, the guru of cultural studies, forcefully perpetuated this [End Page 273] view into the twentieth century: whereas the principal problem of anthropology is “understanding culture as a whole,” he averred that this problem in turn “is essentially a psychological one and beset with all the difficulties inherent in the investigation of complex mental phenomena of the lives of individuals” (Boas 1938, 5–6).1 Here Boas was wielding Ockham's razor with an expertise that today's social scientists, not least historians, ignore at their peril. The reign of culture as a thing unto itself belongs to a later era.

A second qualm raised by the commentators is that by ending the story in 1945 I have neglected the greatest florescence of economic anthropology, one featuring (up to 1970, at least) exactly the sort of cross-fertilization between anthropologists and economists that I had celebrated in the earlier period. The thought of premature conclusion is troubling to me, so I have turned to the Social Sciences Citation Index for some guidance in the form of summary statistics. The results are presented in table 1, which lists twenty-three publications relevant to the broad themes of economic anthropology. Column 1 lists the number of citations to each work in the SSCI between 1955 and 2000; column 2 lists the number of those citations appearing in any of the 234 economics journals tracked by ISI Journal Citation Reports; column 3 gives the number of economics citations as a ratio of total citations to that work. Finally, column 4 presents the number of citations in what are commonly viewed as the “core” journals of economics, that is, the twenty-seven periodicals that shape disproportionately the direction of economic thinking (Diamond 1989). When segregated by disciplinary provenance, these data are revealing. Column 1 indicates wide variations within each category, but no striking dissimilarity among them. The remaining columns tell a rather different story, however. What I call the “control group”—publications by economists and appearing in economics journals—evinces a wide range in terms of raw citation numbers, but a much narrower range of ratios: from 45 percent for Harold Demsetz's study of the origins of property and Richard Posner's study of primitive legal [End Page 274] [Begin Page 276] practices, to 77 percent for Douglass North and Robert P. Thomas's essay on economic revolutions.

The lower three panels report results for publications written by anthropologists, subdivided into “monuments” (items named by the minisymposium's participants as noteworthy contributions to postwar economic anthropology) and “substantivists” and “formalists” (the two sides in a famous debate over the proper method of economic anthropology). In each of these groups the number of citations in economics journals is...


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