Marshall D. Sahlins are a social anthropologist who has worked on the economy of primitive peoples. He has argued that for a modern society money is everything and for a primitive society it is the kinship which is all important. Sahlins’ observation explains the relationship and differentiation between social anthropology and economics.
The status of economics among primitives can be seen from the theory given by Malinowski. His thesis was that among tribals the economy is an integrated part of social and cultural totality. His observation was that economic systems and actions can only be fully understood if we look into their interrelations with other aspects of culture and society.
Admittedly, social anthropology studies the tribal economy, and this brings it closer to the discipline of economics. Despite this inherent relationship between social anthropology and economics, it must be said that each has its own distinct autonomous status. They differ in their perspective and approach.
Marshall D. Sahlins (b. 1930) has worked on the processes of evolution. His study of polynesian social stratification (1958) is quite interesting. It is in this book that he shows the relationship between state formation and kinship organization. He has constructed the conceptual framework of cultural relativism, that is, each society has its own culture.
In other words, culture is group-specific. He has also been influenced by Marxism and structuralism. His study of primitive economy very clearly establishes and differentiates the relations between social anthropology and economics.
Recently, a new branch of economic anthropology has emerged in the wider domain of anthropology. This brings economics all the more closer to social anthropology.
Now it is being stressed that tribal economy is basically different from the general discipline of economics. To spell out the specificity of the tribal economy, it would be better if we refer to Eriksen. He observes:
Anthropologists have always wished to call attention to the ways in which the economy is an integrated part of a social and cultural totality, and to reveal that economic systems and actions can only be fully understood if we look into their interrelationships with other aspects of culture and society.
Just as politics ought to be seen as part of a wider system which includes non-political aspects as well, the economy cannot be property studied as an isolated sector.
Thus, the tribal economics as discussed by anthropologists has a functional nature. It is related to other parts of tribal life such as religion, kin, clan and polity. The modern economy is different in its perspective and approach. This economy is rational and is importantly based on market principles.
This theoretical difference between social anthropology and economics has been aptly brought out by Douglas and Isherwood, in their book, the World of Goods.
The authors have given an anthropological answer to the question: why people in modern societies want commodities? “The drive for consumption witnessed in these societies is far from natural, even if it is taken for granted with in academic economics and among lay people.
Why is it, for example, that people want to eat food (A) instead of food (B) if it can be shown that both are equally nutritious and even that food (B) is less expensive. The full answer must be sought in an analysis of the cultural categories of the society in question, not in an analysis of “rational choice and maximization of value”.
S.L. Doshi has elaborately worked on the food habits of the tribals of Rajasthan. He argues that there is culture in food and, therefore, food consumption cannot be analyzed wholly on the principle of economic theory.
The academic economics is quite different from the economy of social anthropology. Modern economy is basically a capitalist economy. It is a newcomer to the world. Its theory and principles are helpful in understanding the general economic behaviour but the tribal economy is essentially different for it stresses ethnicity rather than rationality.
The example of gift system, which is prevalent among the Trobriand islanders, fully explains the nature of tribal economy. As a matter of fact, among the tribals, much of the economics is guided by ‘gift economy’.
In a capitalistic economy, money is the common denominator for what is commonly thought of as an economic activity, and it serves to single out an economic institution in those societies as something apparently separate from the rest of society. If we look at a tribal society there is no single word for economy as an institution separated from social life in general.
What we find in the relationship of economics and social anthropology is that both are concerned with the study of production, distribution, exchange and consumption.
But, the understanding of these processes in social anthropology and economics is altogether different. To summarize the relations and differences between social anthropology and economics, we observe:
(1) Social anthropology is empirical whereas general economics is analytical.
(2) Social anthropology is basically micro; economics is importantly macro.
(3) Social anthropology considers economics as a part of the whole society. It cannot be studied separately. Economics, on the other hand, is separate and has a distinct existence in society.
(4) Economy in social anthropology is basically a community economy; general economics is individual centered. A person wants to maximize his benefits through cost benefit calculations.
(5) Social anthropology begins its economic research right from a small, little society. Contrarily, economics concerns itself with the macro level communities.
(6) Social anthropology looks at economic processes from the cultural point of view. General economics is national; it looks at the maximization of benefits.
Social anthropology has by now established itself as an autonomous academic discipline. It has its relations with other social sciences. These relations stem from the fact that as a social science, social anthropology shares some of the common aspects of theory, data and methods of other social sciences.
On a broader plane, it could be safely said that social anthropology is different from other social sciences on many counts. However, its distinctness is largely upheld by the study of indigenous people, holistic study and network of interrelationships in the primitive society.