The best books in economic anthropology

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did I love 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.

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…

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

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did I love 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).

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

11 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.

Book cover of Stone Age Economics

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did I love 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.

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…

Book cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did I love 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.

By David Graeber,

Why should I read it?

6 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.


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

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did I love 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.

By Kate Raworth,

Why should I read it?

5 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,…

You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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