Thursday, September 30, 2010

Early Anthropological Economics

     Neoclassical economists take Euro-American economies as their principal subject of study, just as musicologists take Euro-American music as theirs. And just as it is short-sighted for musicologists to take Western music to stand for all music (see this blog, Feb. 6, 2009 entry), so in the context of my continuing exploration of ecology/economy, it would short-sighted to think Euro-American economies are fully representative of all economies. Looking at economic thought and behavior in non-Western (and early Western) societies should offer alternative possibilities and strategies for sustainability, both natural and cultural. This includes music, and it brings me to economic anthropology. 

     Economic anthropology as a sub-specialty within cultural anthropology developed in the US beginning around the time of World War II. Economic transactions in so-called primitive societies were an important topic for early twentieth-century anthropologists, especially because economic behavior of then-called primitive societies sometimes puzzled them. Malinowski's Trobriand Islanders and the Native Americans of the US Northwest Coast appeared to waste resources uneconomically. Western economists had assumed (and still do) that human beings always try to act in their economic best interests, to grow rich with the least amount of effort. “Economic man” came to be associated with rationality, self-interest, and the accumulation of material wealth; in John Stuart Mill’s words, “as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” (See J.S. Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It," 1836.)

     As anthropologists studied their ways of life, information on indigenous economic thought and behavior accumulated. Some behaved as “economic man” did in the West; some did not. One of the first attempts at a comparative economics was Melville Herskovits’ Economic Anthropology: the Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940, 1952). He came to comparative economics with Cold War era questions concerning collectivity and economic determinism: whether “primitive” (by 1952 he was calling the societies “non-literate”) economies were based chiefly on individual or collective efforts; and the degree to which economic choices determined the rest of a people’s way of life. But he also considered sustainability in terms of tribal practices that seemed uneconomic or wasteful, such as the deliberate destruction of property, and not in the best interests of economic efficiency. As an anthropological relativist, he concluded that cultural reasons trumped economic ones: “economic considerations will not prevail over mythological ones if the latter are strong enough” (Herskovits, Economic Anthropology (New York: Norton, 1952), p. 492.)

     Neoclassical economists, not surprisingly, faulted Herskovits' understanding of economics. For them, the science of economics must apply to all cases; otherwise it could not be a science. There could not be one science of economics for developed economies and another for non-literate societies. Economist Frank Knight argued that Herskovits failed to comprehend that economics is a theoretical science based on principles which describe ideal, not actual, economic behavior. “Economic man,” according to Knight, is not meant to describe how people do behave; it aims at describing how, in the abstract, absent other considerations, they would behave. The behavior of economic man in an ideal world is analogous to the way an object would remain in motion in the physical world were it not for friction. Herskovits replied that, to an anthropologist, the facts on the ground, actual economic behavior, must be the starting point—that anthropological economics must be an inductive and practical science, deriving principles from actual behavior, and not the deductive science that Knight postulated. Actual economic behavior among non-literate peoples was not always rational in the Western sense; if one wanted to understand the economies of non-literate peoples, one needed to understand how “mythology” directed economic behavior. This was a different goal than Knight's.

    Separating the mythological (or ideological) considerations from the economic ones is no longer so simple, if it ever was. Veblen’s famous early twentieth-century work on “leisure class” economics showed that waste, or conspicuous consumption, did have economic advantage, in that a conspicuous consumer would be regarded as a wealthy, powerful person and be treated with due respect. In understanding the apparently inefficient behavior involved in the economics of art, it’s important to take into account social capital (roughly, a storehouse of trust and reliability among people who interact with one another) and cultural capital (roughly, a storehouse of taste, which includes appreciation of the fine arts, and which enables one to travel among the refined and wealthy.)  All of this “mythological” activity, this accumulation of social and cultural capital (knowledge, reputation, authority), is critical to any understanding of the ways in which musical cultures may be sustained, for behavior in relation to music cannot always be explained by recourse to the “economic human.”

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