The Strange Life and Presumed Death of Homo Economicus: A Brief History of Economic Anthropology

The Strange Life and Presumed Death of Homo Economicus: A Brief History of Economic Anthropology

Michael Harkin (University of Wyoming, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2727-5.ch009


This essay traces the history of economic anthropology as a critique of classical economics, focusing primarily on two issues: reciprocity and the cultural valuation of goods. Both areas provide strong counter-evidence to the model of Homo economicus. Additionally, an analysis of consumer-based subcultures, focusing primarily on craft beer, is carried out. Finally, links between consumer choice, personal identity and group membership, social class, and electoral politics in the Age of Trump, are suggested.
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A figment of the Enlightenment imagination, Homo economicus (He hereafter) haunts the pages of economics textbooks to this day. A perfectly rational actor, He acts always in accordance with his own best interests. Producer by day, consumer by night, he always strives to maximize his basket of goods. This utilitarian idea of the individual actor obtaining the greatest advantage in every situation is most completely developed by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. However, earlier versions of this idea appear in the 17th century, especially in the writing of Thomas Hobbes, while ultimately tracing back to Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (Bacon 1899). Interestingly, though, both authors view the concept in terms of its possible limitations and constraints. Bacon talks about the four “idols,” including the “idols of the marketplace,” which prevent actors from having complete unbiased information about a situation. Hobbes, famously, sees humans acting out of enlightened self-interest, but only under the right political circumstances. In the absence of the leviathan state:

… there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes 1909, ch. 13:9).

It is, interestingly, the very excesses of striving behavior that lead to this situation. Men’s desire for, in particular, wealth and honor will cause them to act in ways that benefit them individually at the expense of the social order. In this sense Hobbes may be viewed as a precursor to Marx and other proponents of conflict theory.

From an anthropological perspective, one obvious flaw to the He model, including it early versions, is the radical methodological individualism. As I will argue in this chapter, anthropology necessarily views individual actors as embedded in networks of meaning and signification. Commodities, goods, and even brands circulate according to cultural logics; individual actors are only partially conscious of this matrix, and have limited freedom to act within it. Before advancing this argument by tracing the history of economic anthropology in the 20th century, I would like to return to the Renaissance and to Bacon’s contemporary, William Shakespeare. In what sounds like an anticipation of Benjamin Franklin, these lines appear in Othello:

Put money in thy purse; follow thou the wars; defeat thy favor with an usurp’d beard. I say put money in thy purse. It cannot be long that Desdemona should continue her love to the Moor—put money in thy purse—nor he his to her (Othello Act 1, scene 3).

Of course, these lines are uttered by one of Shakespeare’s arch villains, Iago, to the gullible Roderigo, who holds out hope of winning Desdemona away from Othello. Indeed, in this way Shakespeare is equating the unbounded pursuit of wealth and honor with social discord, much as does Hobbes. Indeed, this is a theme pursued throughout Shakespeare’s opus; his worst villains are characterized by the single-minded pursuit of wealth. Shylock’s “pound of flesh” is perhaps the epitome of, as Lévi-Strauss (1955) would say, the “overvaluation” of wealth and the “undervaluation” of social relations.

Methodologically, He is a product of such over/undervaluation. The undervaluation of cultural context is what has made standard economic accounts of consumer behavior woefully inadequate. Below I will trace the way that economic anthropology historically has attempted to provide a more realistic account of economic activity.

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