Working Paper 205

One Hundred Years of Substantivist Economic Anthropology 

Chris Hann 

Department 'Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia' 

Year of publication

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Working Paper 205

The paper offers a perspective on the history and epistemological status of economic anthropology, ranging from the contributions of Bronislaw Malinowski in the early 1920s to the state of the field today. The focus is on the substantivist tradition, associated in the history of anthropology primarily with Karl Polanyi. The deep-rooted confusion that results from what he termed the “two meanings of ‘economic’” is already visible in the earlier oeuvre of Bronislaw Malinowski. The substantivist tradition initiated almost unwittingly by Malinowski continues to flourish and is compatible with a variety of theoretical approaches. Tensions will always exist between the relativist, empiricist thrust of substantivist economic anthropology and the allegedly universal reach of the deductive models that dominate in mainstream (neoclassical) economics. These theoretical tensions may in some places acquire a political tinge, but they can always be mitigated through meticulous ethnography. The point is illustrated in this paper with reference to work on property relations in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe.

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