Anthropology and capital

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Gustav Peebles. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.021


Anthropology and capital

Gustav PEEBLES, The New School

Editor’s preface to the HAU Book Symposium on Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the twenty-first century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

The history of the relationship between economics and anthropology is rife with stark and unforgiving dualisms. As Chris Hann and Keith Hart (2011: chap. 4) convincingly show, first our two disciplines agreed to divide the world territorially, consigning anthropology to the “exotic or dead” societies of the world, while the economists took on the “modern West.” Then, we agreed to segregate ourselves on the theoretical plane, between those who studied “home” spaces and their “substantivist” dictates, while economists studied more “complex” and “anonymous” market spaces, supposedly governed by more formalist ones (arguably, this latter divide maps onto a more classic divide between labor and capital, wherein the former is marked by colorful and concrete human qualities, and the latter stands in for the colorless and abstract power of quantity).

Today, we are heirs to these grand divides. We struggle to transcend them, and we still labor under the muddle they have bequeathed to us. By sustaining and nurturing an ongoing conversation that probes these divides, we at Hau hope to continue working through this sometimes fruitful, sometimes frustrating, inheritance. We will not find obvious and easy answers, and especially not ones that hew too closely to one pole or the other. But we can at least grant our disciplines a second chance to end the stalemate, born out of an odd reductionism that is normally regarded as antithetical to the methodological principles of anthropology itself.

Thankfully, Thomas Piketty has offered up this second chance for a more constructive dialogue between the two disciplines, by allowing us to have his bestselling Capital in the twenty-first century be the focal point of one of our Book [478]Symposia. This is especially appropriate, for in his book, he openly announces that he might well admire some leading lights of anthropology—such as Maurice Godelier and Claude Lévi-Strauss—more than he appreciates the work of Robert Solow and Simon Kuznets. Moreover, as our respondents here clearly show, he has delved into questions of central concern to our own discipline. Not least, he opens up a broader public debate concerning classic anthropological questions of kinship ties, institutional histories, lived practice, and social hierarchy, and each of their crucial roles in the production and distribution of wealth in society. As you will see, our five distinguished panelists have outlined these issues and more, helping us all to reignite a discussion that never should have waned.

In his response, Piketty substantially clarifies that he agrees with the anthropological tradition of insistently studying the richness and complexity of local context. Though many proponents and pundits have hoped to pithily reduce Capital in the twenty-first century to its now famous formula for inequality (r>g), he himself accepts the broad measure of the commentaries published here—in short, that ethnographic detail is indispensable to any helpful analysis of the manner in which capitalism thrives or falters in any given society. Both followers and enemies of Marx likewise attempted to reduce him to his own curt formula for the rate of exploitation (s/v). And, yet, the lion’s share of anthropologists has never been guilty of reducing Capital to this shadow of its arguments. Our assembled experts have shown that this same disciplinary spirit remains alive and well today, by engaging with Piketty in deepest detail, and refusing to turn his work into a mere sound bite.

I cannot imagine a better primer for anthropologists who plan to leap into the global discussions that Capital in the twenty-first century has spawned. Certainly, as the contributions gathered here reveal—as well as the excellent extant reviews of Piketty by anthropologists elsewhere (see Alexander, Neveling, and Salverda 2014; Graeber 2014; Gregory 2014; and Gudeman 2015)—anthropology and economics will continue to have our significant (and productive) differences, of both method and opinion. But taken as a whole, they affirm Piketty’s own aspiration, that social scientists in multiple fields work conjointly as “part of the same conflicting, deliberative process” to continuously improve the rigor and findings in all disciplines.

The editors sincerely thank our panelists, and Dr. Piketty, for the time and care they have put into this forum.


Alexander, Patrick, Patrick Neveling, and Tijo Salverda, 2014. “Piketty #1!” “Piketty #2!” Piketty#3!” http://allegralaboratory.net/special-review-section-piketty-1/.

Graeber, David. 2014. “Savage capitalism is back—and it will not tame itself.” The Guardian, May 30.

Gregory, Chris. 2014. “The three faces of Thomas Piketty: Reflections on a #1 best-seller.” Anthropology of This Century 11. http://aotcpress.com/articles/faces-thomas-piketty-reflections-1-bestseller/.

Gudeman, Stephen. 2015. “Piketty and anthropology.” Anthropological Forum 25 (1): 66–83. doi: 10.1080/00664677.2014.072339.

[479]Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic anthropology: History, ethnography, critique. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Gustav Peebles
Departments of Global Studies and Liberal Studies
The New School
66 W. 12th St, Rm 603
New York NY 10011