Marcel Mauss, a founding father of Sci-Fi economic anthropology?

At the Sci-Fi Economics Lab we are always on the lookout for tools to broaden the scope of our economic thinking. Neoclassical economics has been so successful that it has become difficult to see the world in any other way. For this reason, I have long been drawn to scholarly work that takes on economic problems from a different intellectual background. In the past ten years it has been mostly biology for me; but, starting about five years ago, I have been drawn more and more to anthropology.

Economic anthropology is fascinating to an economist. Anthropologists use familiar terms (production, exchange, trade), but their approach to these phenomena could not be more different from that of economists. The latter look for abstraction: first, make a minimal set of assumptions on human nature, just enough to enable the emergence of a coherent mathematical model of these collective phenomena. Next, discard the phenomena altogether and study, instead, the model.

Antropologists are different. They are constantly drawing in aspects of these phenomena that resist to abstraction, and that most economists would consider unimportant. For example, upon learning that an indigenous population exchanges certain objects considered valuable – for example weapons, or cloaks – they ask questions like: do these objects have names, or are they equivalent to each other? Do they carry religious or mythical connotations? Are they supposed to be metaphors for something else, for example a spear might be alluding to the bones of a god, or a mythical ancestor?

In sum, anthropologists tend to be context people. As they study a phenomenon, they are intensely aware of what actually goes on in the background. For this reason, they have often been invoked to help out economic analysis where “the model” could not be depended upon to work reliably, and where concrete results mattered. Historically this has meant two areas: development economics and economic policy making. In development economics, the first name that comes to mind is that Albert O. Hirschman, one of the heroes of my student days. He was an economist, not an anthropologist, but his attention to “what lies outside the model” is reminiscent of the anrthopologist’s gaze.

In policy making, I have placed James Scott into my personal pantheon for his magnificent Seeing like a state. This piece of work has influenced profoundly the way I look at economic policy, and inspired possibly my grimmest lecture, The Black Briefing. In more recent times I have followed the star of the recently deceased David Graeber. Graeber specialized in theories of value: his Debt: the first 5,000 years provides a much-needed long-term history of money. Debt is exactly the kind of book contemporary economists are incapable of writing, because it requires viewing their paradigm as the product of its own time and ideology, instead of considering it as a natural law.

At the moment I am reading a precursor book to Debt, called Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. In typical Graeber style, it meanders across the subject, taking frequent detours to explore interesting thoughts and nuggets of the evidence to the side of the main argument. One of these asides is dedicated to French social scientist Marcel Mauss. I knew next to nothing about Mauss, but he turns out to be a natural candidate as forerunner of the Sci-Fi Economics Lab. In what follows, quotes are from An Anthropological Theory of Value.

He was social science royalty: his mentor and uncle was Emile Durkheim. Naturally, he was part of an intellectual climate where French scholars, including Durkheim himself, worked on a systematic critique of a British school of thought descended from Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes exerted a powerful influence of the thinking of those times (and of our own) with the notion that

given human beings’ endlessly acquisitive propensities, a state of nature could only have been a “war of all against all”; society proper could only begin when everyone agreed to create some overarching political power.

In this intellectual climate, it made sense to study contracts. Hobbes himself called “social contract” the act whereby people sacrifice their “natural” agency to exert violence on one another, and confer it to a collective entity: the state, the Leviathan. Mauss addresses the issue in his most famous piece of work, called Essai sur le don. In it, he came up with the signature move of economic anthropology, the same one that Graeber himself uses in Debt: look at historical records and observe that they contradict the story told by theorists.

He also notes that, contrary to the speculations of the likes of Hobbes, or Adam Smith, or modern economists, the first voluntary, contractual relations were not between individuals but between social groups: “clans, tribes, and families” (3). Neither were they essentially political, or for that matter economic, in nature; rather, they were, as he puts it, “total,” bringing together domains we would differentiate as “religious, legal, moral and economic.”

Anthropology comes into it because, at this time, anthropologists can still observe “live” non-capitalist societies. If pursuing self-interest (Hobbes) through “truck and barter” (Smith) is a natural attribute of humans, we should observe it in action in any human society. And, Mauss points out, they don’t. Furthermore, the concepts themselves used by these theorists are far from universal, and do not necessarily make sense outside of the culture that has generated them.

Mauss did wish to argue that it is only with the market that it is even possible to imagine a pure self-interest—a concept that, he remarked, could not even be translated into Greek, or Latin, or Sanskrit, or classical Arabic—and that the modern ideal of the pure selfless gift is simply an impossible mirror image of this notion.

But Mauss is a great ancestor for the Sci-Fi Economics Lab also in another sense: he seems to have consciously worked to construct the theoretical foundation of radically different, utopian economic systems. His biography confirms that he was a committed (though, in his own words, “irreligious”) socialists, very active in the French cooperative movement. In the early 1920s, as he was writing Le don, he had become very interested in the reality of post-revolutionary Russia, and specifically in Lenin’s New Economic Policy. It carried a very important lesson:

With the first great attempt to create a modern alternative to capitalism foundering, Mauss apparently decided it was time to bring the results of comparative ethnography—crude and undeveloped though he well knew them to be—to bear, in order to sketch out at least the outlines of what a more viable alternative might be like. He was particularly concerned with the historical significance of the market. One thing the Russian experiment had proved was that it was not going to be possible to simply abolish buying and selling by writ. Lenin had tried. And even though Russia was the least monetarized society in Europe, he had failed. For the foreseeable future, Mauss concluded, we were stuck with a market of some sort or another.

And here comes the money quote (emphasis mine):

Still, there had to be a difference between “the market” as a mere technique for the allocation of certain types of economic good (for instance, between democratically organized cooperatives or professional organizations), and “the market” as it had come to exist in the industrial West, as the basic organizing principle of social life, the ultimate determinant of value. What Mauss set out to do, then, was to try to get at the heart of precisely what it was about the logic of the market that did such violence to ordinary people’s sense of justice and humanity. To understand the popular appeal of socialist parties and social welfare programs, and by examining the ethnographic record, imagine what a society in accord with such popular standards of justice might look like: one in which the market could be relegated to its proper function, as a technique for decentralized decision-making, a kind of popular polling device on the relative appeal of different sorts of consumer goods, and in which an entirely different set of institutions preside over areas of really significant social value.

Graeber then goes on to explain how Mauss is a sort of complement to Marx. The former focuses on critiquing capitalism, the latter seems more interested in what alternatives to capitalism would look like. To do it, he asks hard questions, that – if followed to their ultimate consequences – put the very foundations of modern economics in doubt. I could not imagine a better legacy for the Sci-Fi Economics Lab.

Photo credit: By Société des Amis du Centre d'Études Sociologiques (SACES) - Marcel Mauss 1872-1950 - MédiHAL, CC0, File:M.Mauss 1872-1950.jpg - Wikimedia Commons


Hi, Alberto-

For an economist you have a poor opinion of economists, and an exaggeratedly positive one of anthropologists.

Which is a bit odd to me — I have been drawn very much to both Mauss and Graeber in my studies, and have incorporated much from their world-view into my own. That said, it seems to me pretty clear that Mauss was more of a scientist; Graeber by the end was basically an activist and advocate rather than a scientist.

Mauss’ The Gift should have revolutionized the study of Macroeconomics by showing the extent to which gift-giving and personalized exchange is a powerful force in every economy, including capitalism — this is why Piketty’s point is insufficient — you don’t need an abstract point like “r>g” to figure out why the rich get richer: these are humans — they are always more likely to give their business to people they know. But it also explains why socialism fails: again, these are humans — bureaucrats are more likely to help those they know and/or those who give them gifts — you scratch my back, I scratch yours. Lenin could have done with a better understanding of how humans operate before he set up his system — but Lenin was no dummy — he must have known that he could set up a network of mutually dependent kommissars by ensuring that it was always his people who had the power to give financial and other rewards.

So to this extent I am disappointed in my peers in the profession. That said, I recognize the benefits of conservatism. Economics has avoided the excesses of anthropology, which, like Graeber, has often abandoned science in favor of activism. IMHO, both require a much bigger dose of social psychology… but that is another topic.


I find it courageous that you can criticise your alma mater discipline so objectively, @alberto. I think self-reflexivity also carries with it the open channels for core inquiries in intellectual landscape. I think, @petussing regards this as a rejection of science for activism as in the case of Graeber. In the contrary, I think Graeber never wantef to call himself scientist or academic since he refused hierarchy and the elite formation of academics since the Enlightenment. His choice for deeper study of economic anthropology is, in that regard, a pivot rather than a serendipity. Thank you, both, for opening up a new thread that could possibly move beyond disciplines.

Great point

That is very possible (neighbor’s grass etc.), Philip @petussing, and always great to hear from you. :slight_smile: However, as you say,

But that did not happen. And this seems to be a pattern in economics. I remember the outrage I felt when I was an undergrad upon discovering Sraffa’s claim that neoclassical theory determines incorrectly the profit rate. The model leaves it undetermined, he explained. Of course, in the real world we see a determined profit rate. It follows that it must be determined outside the model – in the world of wielding power to appropriate a bigger slice of the cake. Historical data on profit rates seem to be compatible with a political determination of the profit rate.

My outrage was because economists saw this, and simply shrugged it off and carried on. And that seems to be a pattern. It goes like this:

NEOCLASSICAL ECONOMISTS: Here’s a nice, elegant model. It says that the economy rewards us on the basis of our productivity.

EVERYONE: Nice! But your assumptions are bizarre (Murray Gell-Mann: “You guys really believe that?”).

KAHNEMAN AND TVERSKY: Yep, assumptions do not stand empirical tests, even in the lab.

POLANYI: That model never existed, and can never exist. Human societies treat it as extreme dislocation and react by producing fascism.

MAUSS: Hm, interesting. Why is it that people find this thing so unfair and intolerable? And what would a fair model look like? Let’s develop one!

KEYNES: Your model leads to disastrous policies.

SRAFFA: Even in pure theory the model is inconsistent.

NEOCLASSICAL ECONOMISTS Lalala we cannot hear you we go right ahead.

Now this is unscientific. This is betrayal. It’s as if 16th century astronomers had looked through Galileo’s telescope and decided to ignore what they saw. Which, actually, they did, and then they got Tycho Brahe proposing an earth-centric cosmos where planets move on all kinds of supercomplicated curves to reconcile observation with the untouchable truth that Earth must not move. So maybe we are in Tycho Brahe economics right now. Certainly Ole Peters thinks so, and it is hard to argue with his statement that “if you need to invoke two hundred biases to reconcile your theory of rationality with the data, you probably have a wrong theory and should start over. It sucks for you, but it’s how science is supposed to work”.

I am not qualified to judge Graeber’s work. I use him as a popularizer: I realized keeping in my head a history of economic thinking perspective helps me, a lot. But, like @atelli here, I see no contradiction between being an activist and doing science: Bertrand Russell and Einstein were activists, and used their prestige to push denuclearization, involving Born, Pauli and others. Hirschman himself worked on the Marshall Plan from the background of a German Jew that had been part of a clandestine network smuggling Jews out of Vichy France. All cool people in my book.


I am aware of many of the criticisms of many economists, of course – I make many of them myself. I am, I guess, less inclined to see “Economics” as a monolithic enterprise. What happens, as we agree, is that the economies of rich countries are captured by the wealthy among their citizens, and very often, especially among those who achieve tenure in mid-level universities, the economics which they write about in textbooks justifies the way things are without accurately describing what is actually going on. That said, I find hope among some top-level economists who are increasingly willing to tell the actual story of oligopolization leading to wage suppression and profit increase, for example.

No, surely there is not a necessary divide between science and activism. I find myself ever more caught up in my small economics faculty as an advocate of telling the truth about systemic racial and socio-economic discrimination in this country. I see it as a form of science – not to tell this story is a clear misrepresentation – it is a lie about how our economy works, and it is a lie that has suppressed the legitimate aspirations of several classes of our fellow citizens, and which, moreover, holds our economy back – there are economists who have written in well-regarded economics journals about how this is the case. I don’t need to knock the profession as a whole to tell this story – just those who are not willing to seek out the truth.

And that is what bothers me about Graeber – he takes sides in a way that does not make clear that this is ultimately science that we are doing, not merely taking sides. Yes, this understanding is the correct one, based on a lot of careful study and thought – I have no reservation providing all the evidence I know, and refuting those who provide partial or bogus perspectives.

But I see why you have taken the position you have – it is often frustrating.

Oh, absolutely. Plenty of people who either follow other stars (for example MMT folks – though they paid by being marginalized for a very long time) or magisterially use extensions of the neoclassical model (Stiglitz). But, in my perception, economics is a monolithic enterprise, or at least it tries to be. As a PhD student, you are told you must “speak the language” (micro, macro, econometrics) before you are allowed to specialize. My supervisor used to say that you could randomly draw any two economists in the world and they would understand each other: they share much more vocabulary and background than, say, two chemists, or two historians.

The interesting question is: why? You could define economics as “the discipline which looks at a certain set of problems, such as production, distribution, trade etc.”. And then you would have people with all sorts of theories, metrics and so on. But there is an advantage in “speaking the language”: if you are going to work for the IMF, or US Treasury, it helps that you have the same way of seeing the world as everyone else in those organizations.

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Just today I was reading a paper using an approach derived from ecology to study financial markets. The conclusions say (emphasis mine):

One of our most striking results is that the approach to efficiency is highly uncertain and exceedingly slow. As already pointed out, this should be obvious from a straightforward statistical analysis, but it is not widely appreciated.

People from other disciplines are looking on and shaking their heads. Meanwhile, we continue to rule the world. :man_facepalming:


That strikes me as a very odd thing to say: that any two economists from anywhere in the world would understand each other. Really? A French economist and a Russian economist and a Chinese economist and an Argentine economist? And throw in an American. In what country was your supervisor trained?

To say nothing of specialities: a labor economist, and an environmental economist, and a finance economist, and a development economist. I’m starting to wonder if your supervisor was not a proponent of a myth of the unity of the culture of economists – it has a kind of creepy “Illuminati” feel to it.

Perhaps what he meant was the business of “thinking like an economist”. There is a unity of approach to solving problems – this is why Steven Levitt and the Freakonomics phenomenon of using econ analytical approaches to consider problems not usually thought of as econ problems has been so popular. It is a fairly loose unity, but maybe not utterly implausible. You drop the politics and drop the emotive side and dig down to an answer that is supported by the statistical evidence. Although I’m not sure that dropping the politics is feasible in, say, China. I have a Russian wife who worked for the IMF, and from what I have seen, Russian economists do mostly drop the politics, even now.

Ah, well, I firmly believe that eventually an ecological approach to the economy will triumph. It makes so much sense: industries are niches and interactions are transactions, but of course are strongly affected not only by the considerations of the individuals concerned, but also by the economic climate (see “culture”), by institutions (I’m a fan of Institutional Economics, but it doesn’t go far enough), etc.

There is actually a specialty within economics: Evolutionary Economics. I have looked at it, and am sorry to say I have not read as much as I should have. But here is one of many examples:

How much common ground there is between these folks and Finance economists? I wonder…

Two PhDs, actually! University College London, then U Bologna. He was the director of the doctoral school at U Alicante, where I did my own PhD. Here he is.