Institutions and Culture: Neo-Weberian Economic Anthropology

By Billig, Michael S. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Institutions and Culture: Neo-Weberian Economic Anthropology


Billig, Michael S., Journal of Economic Issues


After a long moribund period, economic anthropology is undergoing a renaissance. There has been a notable resurgence in the study of consumption (Miller 1994, 1995, 1997), globalization (Appadurai 1996; Friedman 1995), neo-Marxist political economy (E. Wolf 1982, 1999; Clammer 1985; Roseberry 1988, 1989; Mintz 1985; Donham 1990), ethnographic analyses of particular industries (Attwood 1992; D. Wolf 1992; Janelli 1993; Moberg 1997), economic ideology and methodology (Gudeman 1986; Gregory and Altman 1989; Gudeman and Rivera 1990; Carrier 1997), gift-giving (Strathern 1988; Weiner 1992; Godelier 1999), and the cultural underpinnings and concomitants of economic life (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Douglas and Ney 1998; Appadurai 1986; Parry and Bloch 1989; Hefner 1990). There have even been a number of new textbooks and subdisciplinary studies (Halperin 1994; Wilk 1996; Narotzky 1997; Gudeman 1998).

This paper discusses one theoretical perspective that is emerging within this reborn economic anthropology. After almost two decades in which Marxist approaches have dominated, economic anthropologists are increasingly looking to Max Weber as the venerable ancestor who asked the most prescient questions about the relationship between economy and culture. Rather than viewing culture as part of the epiphenomenal superstructure determined "in the last instance" by material forces, these neo-Weberians integrate a meaning-centered view of culture into their institutional and social analyses and view all of social life--including economic life--as animated by culture. Whereas an older tradition viewed economic life in nonmarket-oriented societies as being "embedded" in the social and cultural, neoWeberians see such cultural embeddedness even in the most urban, complex, capitalist setting. The Neo-Weberian approach is, in this sense, an economic anthropology more in tune with the interpretive, cultural turn in many contemporary social sciences, including the rest of anthropology.

Although in true Weberian fashion this perspective is diverse, diffuse, and still being defined in practice, some of the characteristic features of neo-Weberian economic anthropology include causal eclecticism, political neutrality (in a specific sense discussed below), a penchant for inductivism, and self-consciousness about building models. All neo-Weberians stress the importance of culture, but they do not consider culture as either a separate and isolated "box" apart from social, political, and economic life or a looming set of traditions and precepts immune to the innovative action of individual agents. It is, in a way, an attempt to forge a middle ground between those structuralist, neo-Marxist approaches that (idiosyncratically in anthropology) have come to be called "political economy" and the interpretive, meaning-centered approaches to economic life.

Since this perspective has many similarities and shares many interests with institutional economics, and yet is new enough to be scarcely known by most institutionalists, the purpose of this paper is to describe and present this approach in anthropology to the readership of this journal in the interest of fostering the kind of interdisciplinary cooperation that is--or should be--among our respective legacies. American institutionalism in the early twentieth century had some connections to the German historical school of economics (Mayhew 1988), of which Weber was an eminent member. With the decline of the German historical school, the links between the Schmoller-Sombart-Weber perspective and the Veblen-Commons-Mitchell-Ayres perspective began to wither. Perhaps this paper can be a small step toward reviving a lost connection to our common birthrights.

But, so as not to give any false impressions, let me state outright a few things that this paper is not intended to be. It is not a history of economic anthropology and it is even less a history of the interactions between anthropology and institutional economics.

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