We have identified here three stages in the development of economic anthropology. In the first, up to and including the Second World War, ethnographers sought to engage the more general propositions of neo-classical economics with their particular findings about “primitive societies”. They failed, mainly because they misunderstood the economists’ epistemological premises. In the second stage, coinciding roughly with the West’s experiment in social democracy at the height of the Cold War, anthropologists argued among themselves about whether or not special theories and methods were needed to study their preserve, tribal and peasant economies, thereby opening the way for Marxists to exercise a temporary dominance, but again mainly referring to the traditional objects of ethnography. The third stage of neo-liberal globalization, which may or may not be concluding in our day, has seen anthropologists open themselves up to the full range of human economic organization, studied from a variety of perspectives. So far, they have only rarely addressed world economy as such, preferring in the main to stick with the tradition of ethnographic observation (Gregory and Altman 1989). The time is ripe for anthropologists to take the extra step of addressing the world economy as a whole as well as its parts; and engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre might be one means to that end.


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