Monday, October 4, 2010

Anthropological Economics, Heritage, and Musical Sustainability

     The most influential thinker upon economic anthropology during early period (approximately 1940-1970) was Karl Polanyi, whose book The Great Transformation (1944) contrasted medieval European peasant economies with later capitalistic ones. For Polanyi, the “transformation” was not only a transformation of economic institutions but a transformation in the way of thinking about property, commerce, money, capital, and above all, social relations. Although for personal, political reasons he denied any connection between his thought and that of Karl Marx, the connections are obvious.

    Although Polanyi was not an anthropologist, his influence on economic anthropology was enormous and he remains a seminal thinker in the field. Like Herskovits, he promoted a cultural approach to economics, rejecting the classical and neoclassical construction of “economic man” and replacing it with an actor embedded in the social and cultural thought (Herskovits would have called it mythology) of his or her society. This approach to economics he called “substantivism,” and he contrasted it with the neoclassical approach, which he called “formalism,” maintaining all the while that formalism was not suitable for understanding economics in pre-literate societies. The implication was, of course, that it was unsuitable for understanding economics in developed Western societies as well; for economic decision-making and institutions are easily viewed as culturally embedded in the West as elsewhere.

    Polanyi's work was critiqued—by formalists—and gradually, beginning in the 1960s, economic anthropologists began relying on materialist rather than "mythological" explanations for economic transactions and institutions in pre-literate societies, to the point where in the 1970s and 1980s formal, quantitative, mathematical models prevailed. It appeared that principles of neoclassical economics could be applied universally with satisfactory results. “Formalism” in economic anthropology had re-established an “economic man” guided by principles of maximizing material well being at the center of many, if not all, non-literate societies as well as in developed economies.

    As the twentieth century came to a close, the powerful critique of cultural anthropology from within, based on post-structuralist, post-colonial Theory, attacked formalist approaches to economic anthropology, substituting instead the competing approach that has been dubbed “culturalism”: understanding a people’s economic thinking in their own terms or trying, as one would say now, to understand it in terms of local knowledge. In so doing, economic anthropology has, ironically, moved full circle back to Malinowski, who advanced the thesis, in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), that anthropology must be directed at grasping the native’s point of view in the native’s own terms. (Of course, for Malinowski, grasping the native’s way of thinking was only a starting point; ethnographic analysis and ethnological comparison followed on). 

    This post-structuralist strain within contemporary economic anthropology directs us at looking at local knowledge in order to better strategize sustainability for cultural as well as natural resources. In this reading a partnership, however uneasy, between local and comparative-based knowledge, so-called lay and expert knowledge, brings diversity to the enterprise and has the best opportunity for success.

    In our new century, a (predictable) reaction against post-structuralism has advanced formalism once more, to the point that formalist models now compete with culturalist ones, while a revival of interest is promoting Polanyi’s substantivist perspective. Formalists would direct culture workers towards “economic man” models stressing that sustainability of musical cultures depends on the degree to which they reward desires for material well-being. To that we may add desires for the social and cultural capital which participation in art worlds such as music provides.

    From a practical standpoint, commodification of music and heritage tourism do provide a certain degree of social and cultural capital, and of course there is a good deal of material culture surrounding the production and consumption of music, whether “gear” for producing music, or iPods and the like for consuming it. (Only a couple of decades ago one could speak of “cassette culture” and boom boxes.) More and more sophisticated, computer-based tools of music production are becoming available to lay individuals, while internet access offers unprecedented opportunities for individuals to market their own music. Whereas twenty years ago musicians had to depend on the recording industry to get their music out beyond what they could do with personal appearances, today virtually all commercially-oriented musicians in developed economies make their own music available directly via the internet. Economic anthropologists of a formalist bent would urge culture workers toward a “realistic” view of music’s place in the economy, in effect advising those musical cultures interested in sustainability to join the marketing bandwagon. Giving music the cachet of heritage, in this way of thinking, adds value in marketing, and provides cultural capital for those who are willing to place a value on traditional music, thereby sustaining it.

    As I’ve written earlier in this research blog, marketing heritage is the prevailing strategy among contemporary culture workers who would effect policy in the direction of sustaining music. Make certain that traditional music takes up its rightful place in the global jukebox that the internet has become. Make it prominent among available choices for musicians and fans; encourage it however one can by adding value through heritage designations and attracting tourists. Those who remain uneasy with the commodification of traditional music are dismissed as idealists, romancers of the folk, and so forth. Are they? Further exploration of economic thinking in terms of musical commodities and their alternatives (usually conceived of as gifts) may offer some answers, putting us back again in Polanyi’s “great transformation” way of framing the questions concerning sustainability of music cultures.


  1. Rachel Reynolds LusterOctober 4, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    Wonderful post! There's an excellent essay in The Mother of All Arts, by Gene Logsdon discussing the new wave of independent music making/distribution as an example of the Agrarian influence on the creative impulse. Your essay makes me wonder too about shifting ideas of "ownership" for compositions and materials sent out into the world-wide-web community by the musicians who create and share them.

  2. Dr. Titon - thank you for such a great article. On the idea of "marketing heritage" I would like to share a post with you I wrote last year. It was inspired by Utah.

  3. Jeff, the reduction of the variety of values humans can choose to pursue to just one - wealth (or perhaps wealth and power) is a crucial mistake for most economic models. Daly has some good critiques along this line, as you pointed out to me. The whole notion of 'ecosystems services' might have cultural parallel. This idea is one familiar most likely in the form of carbon markets - we need some way to include traditionally non-measurable services into economic considerations such that benefits like clean water, clean air, etc. are taken into account (literally). There are of course many critiques to be made about ecosystem services, but they do represent a desire (somewhat along the lines of cultural marketing) to render non-commodity values legible within the Lockean use economy. Those of use who are interested in advancing those values for 'uneconomic' reasons (moral, religious, etc.) are similarly accused of being hopelessly romantic. As one professor put it aptly, though, "What's so bad about a little romance?"