May 16, 2011

On the added value of an economic anthropology class

How to answer the following question: 
What actual skills a student who has passed a course in economic anthropology should be expected to have?
Initial thoughts:

- Thinking critically outside the box of the assumptions of economics. This means to identify ways in which culture matters in the economy. Specially when informal institutions make human behavior deviate from standard neo-classical assumptions. Students who take a class in economic anthropology should understand that economics takes place within a social context, and that history matters.

- To build theories that explain economic development processes, organizational behavior, collective behavior in communities, etc., to better understand poverty, or almost any other challenge that an organization is facing. In economic anthropology the theories must be built based on: (1) an understanding of microeconomics tools and (2) direct interviews of people on the ground. To put forward solutions to specific challenges is one of the main objectives of economic anthropology.

- To learn how economics complement anthropology and vice versa. One very common and fatal mistake is to think that economists are the bad guys and anthropologists are the good guys or vice versa, both are trying to understand human behavior, both focus on different aspects of human life, economics on market transactions, and anthropologist on culture, we must gain a better understanding of human behavior if we combine the two. Anthropologists have more to loose if they see both disciplines as opponents. Economic anthropology is better understood when students have at least some notions of microeconomics (at least must know the model of supply and demand very well, why? because anthropology can bring constructive criticism to that model in specific contexts). Ideally students must have taken a sound course on microeconomics. One very good example of how ethnography and economics complement each other is the work of Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh. See Here.

- To learn how to make interviews on the ground (being sensitive to culture and context, but without forgetting that self interest is also a very powerful force behind human behavior).

The hard question is to ask what kind of skills a student of economic anthropology will bring to an organization, to a company, or to the government. Even more, what kind of skills would he bring to his(her) own entrepreneurial (for profit, or not for profit) endeavors. The key to answer this question is to understand that organizations, the government, and enterprises follow a mission, that mission becomes the core value, the culture of the organization. Organizations usually face hard trade offs between their mission and their financial survival. We see this existential conflicts everyday in organizations. With this in mind economic anthropology can contribute to better set up organizational strategies at the micro level.

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