Anthropological Foundations of a Moral Economy


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 …as flies in a jar of honey, trapped in a single paradigm of thought from which we are finding it difficult to escape.  We perceive the need for new thinking that will source new policies that address the human challenges of social inclusion, poverty elimination, gender equality, public health, and security in its widest sense…                        

– President Michael D. Higgins,

New York University address 28/9/2015


The concept of Moral Economy articulates concerns that economic forces can override moral behaviour which is conducive, indeed necessary, to establishing a thriving, flourishing society. Moral economies are sustained by central anthropological concepts such as sacrifice (R. Girard) and reciprocity in gift relations (M. Mauss) This project will explicate the anthropological foundations of a moral economy. We seek to utilise the tools of anthropology to excavate our modern predicament that has resulted from a failure in the prevailing model of economic theory. We will do this by excavating the historical discourse surrounding thrift and our ambitions for a thriving society; and by comparing flourishing communities that came into conflict with supra-communal forces. The project seeks to reinforce the ethical connection between economy and society and will be carried out under the Centre’s first research theme: Recovering the Anthropological Foundations of Social Life led by Professor Arpad Szakolczai.

Stream 1 – “Thriving”

Stream 1 seeks to establish an anthropological understanding of thrift. Although the etymological origins of the word are linked to thriving, thrift has been about frugality and austerity since the Puritan communal notion of it was over-taken by a more judgemental and economically-focussed version. It was with this change that thrift became aligned with moralizing discourses on individual responsibility. For example, Victorian thinkers such as Samuel Smiles emphasize the need for individuals to behave in financially responsible ways. Thrift as everyday practice was overtaken by such discourses and came to be seen as a specific economic and cultural practice based on frugality, often linked to respectability. But thrift goes far beyond a need for frugality, extending into choices about how to gain freedom, time, and autonomy. We aim to re-claim the 'moral' aspects of thrift with a view towards an ethics of thriving (a moral economy). An archaeology of thrift, underpinned by ethnography, can question, reconceptualise and provide policy directions for thrift as an alternative to current political and economic discourses on austerity, thereby re-conceptualizing thrift as a social activity.

Stream 2 – “Flourishing”

Stream 2 will provide comparative investigations of moral economies. The concept of a moral economy was popularized in anthropology by James Scott and has been an effective explanatory tool in interpreting social movements in China and regions within South East Asia in both contemporary and historic times. Drawing upon anthropological literature of both modern and 'traditional' cultures this research stream will bring an external frame of reference to bear on our modern economy. At the juxtaposition of local communities with market dynamics, and its ‘faceless’ alienating forces, there is a wealth of archival and ethnographic information to explore; From understanding a local community’s normative worldview, their subsequent perceptions and ambitions for a flourishing society to how unjust economic forces can be negotiated, resisted and potentially overcome. A comparative analysis coupled with ethnography will unveil the techniques of political economy and alternative narratives for a moral economy, thus explicating stratagems with which to identify and uncover forces at work in our own societies, and, vitally, to propose resources for those affected by austerity and economic hardship.

 These projects are led by Dr. James Cuffe (WIT) and Dr. Alison Hulme (Royal Holloway).