Exploring Political Economy in Anthropology: Bridging the Gap between Language Analysis and Contemporary CapitalismExploring Political Economy in Anthropology: Bridging the Gap between Language Analysis and Contemporary Capitalism
An Introduction to Political Economy in Anthropology
Twenty-five years have passed since Susan Gal published her landmark essay in the Annual Review of Anthropology, “Language and Political Economy”. This special section attempts to bridge a gap between the socio-cultural analysis of language and contemporary capitalism.
To do so, the articles in this collection utilize Peircean semiotics, Goffmanian approaches to symbol and speech act, Bakhtinian notions of (inter)textuality, and Gramscian understandings of hegemony.
A political economy approach to anthropology involves an exploration of the way that culture and economics intersect. It draws on classical and modern theory. Often, the phrase is used as a euphemism for Marx-influenced or left-leaning work, but it can encompass a wide range of approaches.
The work of Karl Marx is important to this field, because he developed a theory called historical materialism. This view believes that human beings seek to create and produce as a means of life. It also believes that this drive has a direct effect on the development of a society.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a group of anthropologists developed a version of this theory called structural Marxism. This trend is characterized by the use of a Marxist approach to studying culture and its effects on the economy. Some of the key figures in this movement included Maurice Godelier and Claude Meillassoux. This school of thought has largely faded from the field in recent years.
The term “political economy” is often a euphemism for Marxist approaches and politically left-leaning work, but it offers penetrating insights into the nature of unequal power in social, cultural and economic relations. Political economy flourished during the political climate of the 1960s and 1970s, as anthropologists analyzed the history of anthropology’s own marginalization and embraced a critique of colonialism and imperialism.
The linguistic anthropology that emerged from this era drew on Peircean semiotics, speech act theory, Goffmanian approaches to symbolic interaction and Bakhtinian notions of (inter)textuality to theorize how language use and language ideologies (re)produce forms of inequality and power in interactions. These analyses provided a foundation for analytics such as indexicality and performativity, entextualization, metapragmatics and language ideologies.
Recent studies have expanded from classical explorations of hunter-gatherers and peasants to embrace a broader range of contemporary trends in global capitalism. While pragmatic compromises are needed in these studies – including balancing classical approaches with samples and overviews of current trends – they are marked by an increased holistic ambition.
Economic anthropology is concerned with how people integrate and distribute material goods, as well as the ways these activities shape and are shaped by their social and cultural relations. It also examines the emergence of new forms of wealth and the effects of globalization on local economies.
Contemporary economists often make several assumptions about what people want, how they express their wants, and the way that culture influences their choices. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are largely descriptive in their approach and focus on how people actually behave.
Some anthropologists have developed an interest in what has been termed “relational economics.” This approach focuses on how people’s decisions are affected by their relationships to others. It also draws on theories of morality and ethics to understand how people try to achieve their desired outcomes. It also looks at attention, which is central to many forms of human economic activity. For example, studies of prayer in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic show how important it is for some to pay attention to others’ needs.
A scholarly debate continues about the nature of political economy in anthropology. Some anthropologists, such as the authors of this article, have been critical of the field’s focus on sociocultural particularities, and have called for an emancipatory reworking of language and social analysis. Others have developed a more explicitly political-economic analytical toolkit, drawing on Peircean semiotics and speech act theory, Goffman’s approaches to symbolic interaction, Bakhtin’s notions of (inter)textuality and metapragmatics, and Gramscian understandings of power and hegemony.
These articles suggest that a vibrant anthropology of political economy is here to stay. It is one that grapples with fundamental economic questions from a sociocultural perspective and tries to lift the fog of ideology from the world in which people live.