Political Economy Approach

What the heck is a political economy and why should we approach it?!

Early History of Political Economy

Think for a moment about your you are? What do you call your self and were do you belong? Are an individual or are you a member of your birth nation? How would you begin to label your self? This is no easy question to answer and chances are there are more than one or two or even twelve answers. Throughout the course of any day we label and define ourselves. I am a student, and archaeology, a son, a member of my kin group, and anthropologist, and an individual. These kinds of questions about how we identify, groups ourselves, and interact form the base if political economy. Specifically, political economy seeks to address these question within the framework of economic implications and behaviors. The political economy assumes that people can be forced, born, or enter into group and that group can have power over those members. This can create an environment where individuals in the group are forced to conform, whether they want to or not, and adopt the groups interests. As groups merge and/or grow in numbers and influence, they constitute power. These group leader seek grow power and maintain order and control over their group members.  Therefore, through these assumption, political economy seeks to understand the relationships of power and political influences on economy(Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Power and the Political Animal

Historically the notions optimism of an individuals ability to maker choices for themselves and to better society as a whole, began to change in the nineteenth century with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. This brought social change and dislocation followed by economic advancement with a large inequality of wealth and power.

This created three groups of social theorist classified by Robert Nisbet (1966):

Liberals: traditional social systems and commonwealth  are dangerous and inhibit progress and wealth.

Radicals: obstacles to social justice are the state, the church, and wealthy few.

Conservatives: when people loss respect for their traditional beliefs in traditions and authorities they create social dispute.

From these three perspectives of political philosophies on human nature two main themes of economic theory emerged, social economy and political economy (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Marx’s Influence on Political Economy

While not to discount the importance or alternative perspectives of Emile Durkheim‘s  concepts on society as an organism and the contributions of social economy, Karl Marx’s theory on human nature is the foundation of political economy and separate from the neoclassical thought (Wilk and Cliggett 2007; Moore 2009; Roseberry 1988). My particular focus is the intersection of political economy approach with the Marx perspective, therefore I will focus on the Marxian political economy.

Marx believed that people were not individual decision makers, but that their choices were deeply rooted in society. That they belong to groups and their choices where directly influenced by the social and historical structures of those groups. These structures influenced peoples economic rationality over which they not little or no power. From this, Marx’s decided looked at classes of people in society and how these classes engaged in work and ownership. He decided that classes defined members of society and their divisions. Therefore, Marx looked at inequality, domination, unequal distribution of power and property with a society. At the heart of this inquiry was labor, which he considered the ultimate form of value, and can create surplus value when true value of production is subtracted from what is needed to survive (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Marx began to look at modes of production and divided the social system into three parts (Wilk and Cliggett 2007) :

Economic Base:

  1. Includes tool, technology, skills, labor, and the social groups formed for production (aka. forces of production).
  2. The relationship between inequality and surplus (relations of production)

Ideological Superstructure:

  1. includes ideology, systems of idea, religion, cosmology, and philosophy
  2. these are used to rationalize and explain the economic system in a way that people (both the “haves” and “have-nots”) would believe it was a natural” process.

Mode of Production:

  1. Is the combination of the economic base and the ideological superstructure
  2. later separated into two models of society: Structural Marxists and Articulationists

In all these modes of production and discussions of labor, it must be pointed out that it was capitalism that Marx was trying to ultimately understand. Marx saw the capitalist system as divided into two smaller classes (Wilk and Cliggett 2007):

  1. Capitalists: that owned the mean of production
  2. Proletarians: those that sold their labor to survive.

Marx’s influence on modern approaches to political economy are based on his notion that relations of power to the prime mover was the basis of class conflict. Therefore, political economy looks at issues of power, control of resources, and politics though economic differences(Wilk and Cliggett 2007; Roseberry 1988).

Video of ABCs of Political Economy: Marxian Political Economy & Capitalist Development in Asia

 Anthropology, Marxism and Political Economy

Marxian anthropology has four general point that apply to any economic anthropologist drawing from Marx (Wilk and Cliggett 2007:101):

  1. A study of the issues of power and exploitation
  2. A concern with conflict and change
  3. An analysis of political power struggles between defined social groups
  4. Studies start with the material system of production and ownership of property

However, beginning in the 1970’s, two different approaches to Marxism emerged in anthropology and R. Firth coined the two new approaches. The first was coined”cerebral Marxism”, supported by French Anthropologist, that wanted to address higher theoretical problems. The second was coined “visceral Marxism”, supported by American anthropologist, concerned the application of Marx to address issues created by Western economic and political domination over lesser developed societies, migratory labor, proletarian consciousness, and class identity and struggle (Roseberry 1988). Orther (1984) also notes this divide but terms them “structural Marxism” (Firth’s “cerebral Marxism”) and Political economy (Firth’s “visceral Marxism” (Roseberry 1988; Orther 1984)


With political economy being distinguished from neoclassical economics, there are still vast range of ideas that work within anthropological political economy (Roseberry 1988). The primary early proponents of political economy can be separated into three streams (Wilk and Cliggett 2007):

  1. British cultural Marxism: dominated by figures like Raymond Williams, these individuals have a primary focus on ideology, consumerism, media, and popular culture.
  2. French Marxist: dominated by figures like Maurice Godelier and Claude Mesillassoux are grounded in the strict reading of Marx’s ideas.
  3. American Marxist: dominated by Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz who’s work was built on that of Julian Steward’s cultural ecology but incorporates Marx’s ideas.

Unfortunately, Marx was focused just on the historical development of capitalism. He saw this as a liner process and payed very little attention to pre-capitalist system and their inter workings. Modern French and American Marxists have begun to ask if reforming the political economy approach and applying it to nonindustrial societies. Looking for connections between the economic base, social organization and political influences (Wilk and Cliggett 2007). These critical approaches of political economy framed within Marxist perspective has led to the development of three major theories(Wilk and Cliggett 2007, Roseberry 1988):

  1. Modes of Production
  2. Dependency Theory
  3. World Systems Theory
  4. Prestige -goods Theory

Dependency theory, world-systems theory, and neo-Marxism forced anthropologist studying economy to look closely at both economic and political histories. Thes developments in economic theory are responsible (at least in large part) to the change in thinking about adaptation of modern Western culture by previously isolated peoples (“acculturation”). In North American neo-Marist political economy was being renewed by anthropologist and the developments of these three theories have had a great impact (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Final Thoughts on Political Economy

The most important strength of political economy and the theories of world-system and mode-of-production was that it  placed in anthropological inquiry within the larger political, historical, and economic movements. This transitioned to studies of impact on structures of power, which included topics like: the slave trade, colonial regimes, the growth of postcolonial states, international market cycles, plantation enterprises, etc (Roseberry 1988). As you might imagine, this kind of approach served historical archaeologist working in North America.

Issues with neo-Marxist perspectives on Political Economy

Despite all the advancements in political economy through Marxism, some short falls in the approach has lead to criticism and alternate views on the interaction between society and economy. Modes of production on a global scale often created conflicting forces across the landscape because there is little room for human agency.  Rather then serving the analysis of social groups, mode of production analysis has been  criticized as serving its self. Theories of political economy understand that studying people in terms of capitalist processes often move into a kind of functionalist reasoning (Roseberry 1988).

Structure vs. Agency

Many neo- Marxist recognize the debate of over structure and agency.  The main argument is that we can not truly account for the reality, force, and power of social structures, and address granting agency and autonomous decision making power to individuals at the same time.  With Political economy concerned with hegemony and consciousness, they are not accounting for outcomes of struggles that are not determined in advance. That people can change their world through action and resistance. Political economy gives no framework to predict why people are sometime social, sometimes not, and sometimes selfish (Wilk and Cliggett 2007) .

Therefore, political economy helps us understand long-term change through economic systems divided into historical types looking at class, conflict and inequality. However, it fails to find a place for the individual or deal directly with cultural values and local beliefs(Wilk and Cliggett 2007; Roseberry 1988).


ABCs of Political Economy: Marxian Political Economy & Capitalist Development in Asia

Referenced Cited

Nisbet, Robert
1966       The Sociological Tradition. Basic Books, New York.
Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett
2007       Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Second Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
Moore, Jerry D.
2009       Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorist. Third Ed. AltaMira Press, Lanham
Roseberry, William
1988       Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-185.
Ortner, Sherry B.
1984.     Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Science and History 26(1):126–166.


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  1. Pingback: Welcome! « Capitalism in archaeological theory

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