The best books in economic anthropology

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Author Of Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology
By Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Who am I?

I’m an anthropologist and writer who has published more than fifty books, ranging from novels and essays to academic monographs and textbooks. I am passionate about trying to make the world a slightly better place, and I am convinced that we need to think differently about the good life and the economy in order to get out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. Economic anthropology offers alternative perspectives on the world and the human condition. It's far less obscure than it sounds.


I wrote...

Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen,

Book cover of Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology

What is my book about?

It is a book that invites the reader to explore the breadth and diversity of human culture across the world. Conceived as a textbook, it is nevertheless written in a narrative style, and it's chock-full of stories and anecdotes from all over the world. I cover the breadth of social and cultural anthropology, from kinship in Melanesian villages to the digital revolution in African cities, from swidden agriculture to tourism. The book, originally from 1995, is due to be published in its fifth revised and expanded edition in 2023. This upcoming edition has been thoroughly revised and updated, and contains a couple of brand new chapters. As the world changes, so must we.

The books I picked & why

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The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

By Marcel Mauss, W.D. Halls (translator),

Book cover of The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

Why this book?

If there is one foundational text in economic anthropology, this is it. The French anthropologist Mauss showed, in this 1924 book, that gift exchange is the glue that connects people in communities with no formal authority. He is perfectly aware that there are no free gifts, but shows that all economic transactions have a moral element: They create social obligations, they connect us to each other.

The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

By Marcel Mauss, W.D. Halls (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Gift as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its first publication in English in 1954, The Gift, Marcel Mauss's groundbreaking study of the relation between forms of exchange and social structure, has been acclaimed as a classic among anthropology texts.

A brilliant example of the comparative method, The Gift presents the first systematic study of the custom―widespread in primitive societies from ancient Rome to present-day Melanesia―of exchanging gifts. The gift is a perfect example of what Mauss calls a total social phenomenon, since it involves legal, economic, moral, religious, aesthetic, and other dimensions. He sees the gift exchange as related to individuals and groups as much as…


The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

By Karl Polanyi,

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Why this book?

An economic historian, Polanyi showed, in 1944, the logic of societies with limited markets, and how privatisation and commodification of land and labour took away local autonomy and led to increased inequality. Markets have always existed, but they have not always dominated everyday life as they do today. A non-Marxist socialist, Polanyi believed in collective solutions to shared problems rather than the fragmentation entailed by so-called free markets (which are actually anything but free).

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Great Transformation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.


Stone Age Economics

By Marshall Sahlins,

Book cover of Stone Age Economics

Why this book?

Building on Mauss, Polanyi, and others, Sahlins described, in 1972, societies without money, without states or formal power, but which nevertheless did well. The most famous essay in the book is titled, appropriately, "The Original Affluent Society" and describes the lives of hunter and gatherers before they were overrun by farmers and armies. Very thought-provoking. Sometimes, less is more.

Stone Age Economics

By Marshall Sahlins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stone Age Economics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its first publication over forty years ago Marshall Sahlins's Stone Age Economics has established itself as a classic of modern anthropology and arguably one of the founding works of anthropological economics. Ambitiously tackling the nature of economic life and how to study it comparatively, Sahlins radically revises traditional views of the hunter-gatherer and so-called primitive societies, revealing them to be the original "affluent society."

Sahlins examines notions of production, distribution and exchange in early communities and examines the link between economics and cultural and social factors. A radical study of tribal economies, domestic production for livelihood, and of the…


Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber,

Book cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Why this book?

Massively researched, superbly written, and vividly debated, this 2011 tour de force by the late David Graeber develops the surprising argument that money is mainly debt. This is how money is a key ingredient in the reproduction of social inequality and some people’s power over others. Everybody knows that being poor is expensive; Graeber shows why, with examples from Mesopotamia to the present day.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Debt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The groundbreaking international best-seller that turns everything you think about money, debt, and society on its head—from the “brilliant, deeply original political thinker” David Graeber (Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me)
 
Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.

So…


Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

By Kate Raworth,

Book cover of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

Why this book?

This one is a bit different. The others give a foundation for thinking differently about the economy and the quality of life, and Raworth actually does it in this book from 2017. The doughnut is deceptively simple, limited by planetary boundaries externally and human needs internally, and the challenge consists in not falling off. Raworth has stimulated our intellectual and political imagination, showing that a different world is possible in practice and not just in the world of slogans. Business leaders and radical activists alike are inspired by her thinking, and that is no mean feat in today's divided world.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

By Kate Raworth,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Doughnut Economics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times "Best Book of 2017: Economics"

800-CEO-Read "Best Business Book of 2017: Current Events & Public Affairs"

Economics is the mother tongue of public policy. It dominates our decision-making for the future, guides multi-billion-dollar investments, and shapes our responses to climate change, inequality, and other environmental and social challenges that define our times.

Pity then, or more like disaster, that its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date yet are still taught in college courses worldwide and still used to address critical issues in government and business alike.

That's why it is time, says renegade economist Kate Raworth,…


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