Economic Anthropology

Offered at the University of California, Riverside, Winter 2013

This course explores the social and cultural dimensions of production, exchange, saving, borrowing and consumption. We hear every day about "the economy," an identifiably separate sphere of human life with its own rules and principles and its own scholarly discipline (economics). This class starts from the premise that this common sense idea of the economy is only one way to view the way people meet their basic and not-so-basic human needs.

This class asks some big questions. Do all people everywhere seek to accumulate property, and to maximize profits? Is rationality the same in every culture? Do all think the same way about debt, bribery, or marriage payments? Do human economies evolve inexorably--for example, from public to private property, from cowrie shells to electronic money, or from gifts and barter to sale and credit? Or is the picture more complex and the direction inconstant? Is there really any such thing as a free gift? Why do people value things?

We'll ask these questions in a characteristically anthropological way. In considering other ways of understanding the aspects of human behavior that are conventionally called economic, we'll read in detail about peoples' lives, including Maine lobstermen, Oaxacan migrants, West African traders in New York City, and aspiring entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Throughout the course, we'll take a cross-cultural perspective, confronting Western arguments about economic behavior and human nature with alternative practices and understandings.

A few notes

With some serious misgivings, I have decided to host materials for this course on iLearn (UCR's Blackboard installation) rather than on a public site. Feel free to contact me with questions.