Economic anthropology is the study of the issues connected to human nature, daily-life decisions and earning a living. The economic anthropologist examines how societies provide the material necessities and services that sustain life. As people consume and make material provisions, they relate to other people using behaviors that convey meaning and power.
Researchers have long debated the degree to which something is deemed necessary for life. Societies label things necessary for the sake of historical, environmental and cultural reasons. On the other hand, certain needs must be satisfied in order to ensure survival and prevent death.
This means that there is a physical limit in relation to absolute material needs. However, societies may perceive other provisions as absolutely necessary for survival, such as the good will of ancestors already deceased. Even nonmaterial items seen by societies as essential often have some form of material expression. For example, a society may offer food sacrifices to a deceased ancestor, which are believed by that society to ensure a steady supply of food for the living.
Economic anthropology looks at all things that relate to the manner in which individuals interact within their own societies and the ways in which social groups interact with each other. The economic anthropologist also looks at how individuals and social groups interact with their environments. But as opposed to the ecopsychologist, the economic anthropologist looks at all these details from the perspective of the necessity to provide those material goods and services that ensure survival and the individual's place in society.
It is traditional to divide economic processes into four parts: production, distribution, circulation and consumption. These are categories that appear to correspond to social interaction in every society. However, it is possible for a person to engage in behavior described as "economic" and which, when analyzed, manifests production, distribution and consumption all at one time.
Economic anthropology was once studied from the perspective of primitive societies in which symbols of Western commerce, such as money and marketing systems, were absent. Economic anthropologists observed these noncapitalist societies through work in the field, learning much about economic activities in undeveloped countries. But the discipline of economic anthropology came away from this field work with more questions than answers. The discipline of economic anthropology then evolved into a debate centering on four main questions:
1) Is there a universal application to Western categories of economic behavior?
2) How is value determined?
3) What is the connection between economic/human history and politics?
4) How much of an impact does culture have on economic processes?
These questions helped focus the discipline of economic anthropology into two schools of thought. In his 1970 work, Themes in Economic Anthropology Raymond Firth outlined his belief that optimizing the allocation of scarce resources for various uses had a universal application. Karl Paul Polanyi who outlined his idea in his 1957 article, "The economy as instituted process," and his proponents felt that rational actions in making economic decisions could only be applied to the market economy of the West and that defining the economy should be done in such a way that the definition might apply to any society, no matter what processes a given society might use for allocation.
Those who held the first view became known as "formalists" while those in the second group were known as "substantivists." A practical concept emerged from the debate between these two schools of thought: that economic activity is embedded into every social process. During the 1970s, a second debate emerged between anthropologists working on formal models of decision-making and Marxian anthropologists studying "mode of production." Here, the debate focused on how societies are transformed into capitalist economies and how various modes of production are articulated.
Economic anthropology also examines value, a function of exchange. The process of assigning value involves a need to create a sense of equivalency by comparing objects. But some of the aspects within the concept of value have generated constant debate among anthropologists.
Marx makes a distinction between the actual value of an item and its exchange value and how these concepts apply to peasant societies in which production has not been modernized. In addition, there is the labor theory of value, where the labor used to produce an item is factored into its value. How is this theory applied in a society where the labor market is not very active? Another concept related to value is the utility theory, in which an item may have multiple uses, with its value measured according to its different uses and/or according to different measures. The final theory of value involves cultural attachment, in which there may be special meaning attached to an object by one society, but not by another.