Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology

Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology

Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology

Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology


This text is the first synthesis of modern economic anthropology for advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students. It goes to the heart of an emerging subdiscipline and identifies the fundamental practical and theoretical problems that give economic anthropology its unique strengths and vision. Tracing the history of the dialogue between anthropology and economics, Richard Wilk identifies three recurring arguments about human nature and the moral basis of human action. Modern economic anthropology, he says, emerges from the controversies and tensions between these radically different propositions about the essence of humanity. More than any other anthropological subdiscipline, economic anthropology constantly questions and debates the practical motives of people as they go about their daily lives. Wilk moves economic anthropology beyond the narrow concerns of earlier debates and places the field directly at the center of current issues in the social sciences. He focuses on the unique strengths of economic anthropology as a meeting place for symbolic and materialist approaches, and for understanding humanity as both practical and cultural. In doing so, he argues for the wider relevance of economic anthropology to applied anthropology and identifies other avenues for interaction with economics, sociology, and other social and natural sciences. This short text is designed to be used with monographs or collections as a core reading for economic anthropology courses. It will complement other texts in general sociocultural anthropology courses and in graduate core courses, and it will be a useful supplement in teaching ecological and applied anthropology.


When I began graduate school at the University of Arizona in 1974, I was set on becoming an archaeologist, and my major goal in life was to run my own excavation of an ancient Mayan city. But the graduate adviser at Arizona thought that my training was much too narrow; as an undergraduate at New York University I had taken many archaeology and physical anthropology courses but had managed to evade almost all cultural anthropology and linguistics. Arizona emphasized balanced training in all four fields of anthropology, so my first two years of graduate school were devoted almost entirely to making up for my deficiencies, starting me down a path from which I never returned.

I was fortunate to have some excellent and inspired teachers who gradually seduced me away from my romance with the ancient Maya. Eventually, I got over my fear of cultural anthropology, and in my third year I dared to take a notoriously difficult seminar with Robert Netting on cultural ecology. The course drew me in and involved me in a study of household organization, population pressure, and economic change that eventually turned into a dissertation topic and resulted in a year and one-half of fieldwork with Kekchi Maya communities in Belize (a country in Central America) and the start of a career.

Three years later, I was still looking for a permanent job teaching anthropology and was sitting in a hotel room facing a hostile group of professors, who had already interviewed a couple of dozen candidates that day. They were tired and made no effort to be nice; the first question was, "So what kind of anthropologist are you? How do you label yourself?"

I don't like to label myself. I felt that my real strength as a scholar was just that I didn't fit into any category and did all kinds of different work--but I needed the job, so I gave it a try. I groped for the right mixture of telling the truth and fitting the job description: "I guess I'm kind of a cultural ecologist," I said. "I'm interested in kinship and social organization and also economic development. I've started to do some applied work on agriculture and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.