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Economic Anthropology and Archaeology

(Anthropology 46600)


This seminar is an exploration of anthropological approaches to the study of economic systems of the past and present.  Readings and discussions are structured so as to: 1) give the participants a grounding in the theoretical framework of, and intellectual background to, this domain of inquiry;  2) critically explore major current research issues and meth­ods; and  3) fur­nish a comparative perspective on the role of economy in society and history.  This is not a "cookbook" technical course in how to do economic analysis, but rather an exploration of how to think about economic issues in ways that may lead to productive research strategies and insights.


The course begins with a discussion of definitions of "economy" and a comparison of different approaches to the subject both within and outside the disci­pline of anthropology.  The place of economic archaeology in relation to the sub­fields of economic anthropology and economic history are evaluated, and both the potential con­tribution and special methodological and theoretical characteristics of economic archaeology are emphasized.  The first four weeks are devoted to understanding the different major theoretical and analytical orienta­tions that have guided research on the economy.  Subsequent class ses­sions are devoted to the exploration of particular themes illustrating the range of human activity subject to investigation within the rubric of "economy" and the range of competing, or complementary, theoretical approaches to the study of that activity.  Readings for each of these thematic discussions include both general statements of theory and goals and specific case studies that illustrate meth­ods, problems, and the state of current research.  Readings are drawn from the fields of cultural anthropology, archaeology, and ancient history.


This is a field animated by lively controversies over everything from basic definitions to methods, epistemology, and metaphysics, in which heated debate and polemic are frequent.  As will become clear, the one thing that unites many of these scholars is an extremely critical view of economic analysis as practiced by economists: neo-classical economics is often regarded as little more than "heavily mathematized superstition purveyed as science" (in the words of Yanis Varoufakis); that is, a set of narrow (and largely erroneous) ethnocentric assumptions projected as universal laws.  Students are advised to approach all the readings with a critical and practical eye, seeking to understand the competing perspectives within a larger theoretical framework and to evaluate them in terms of application and efficacy in comprehend­ing the role of "economy" in society and history.  This is also a field that has gener­ated an enormous literature that can only be highlighted selectively here.  Other readings are suggested for those who wish to pursue particular theoretical perspec­tives or issues in greater depth.  Some related perspectives and topics (such as ecological anthropology and hunter-gatherer economies) cannot be accommodated at all in the time available, and interested students are simply referred to some of the key literature.  The class format will be biased toward discussion, with formal lecturing kept to a minimum after some initial orienta­tion and exegesis.


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