Take a Vacation from Economics: Anthropology Books to Read This Winter

December 20, 2018

A few weeks ago, a junior colleague walked into my office and accused me of sympathizing with anthropologists. “I heard you talking about inviting anthropologists to a conference,” she said. “I thought economists didn’t like anthropologists.”

“Not true!” I insisted. The truth is, I love reading work by anthropologists, and I think many economists (secretly) feel the same. Anthropologists study many of the same topics as development economists (e.g. development interventions, markets, etc.). Like many development economists, anthropologists organize their own data collection activities and spend a considerable amount of time “in the field.” But unlike economists, anthropologists often manage to present their findings in accessible, largely jargon-free prose that ordinary human beings might read voluntarily. How do they do it? Reading scholarly work presented in elegant prose is quite a treat.

So, to celebrate the season of hiding from your relatives behind the cover of a serious-sounding book, here are few suggestions for winter vacation reading. But first, a caveat (I am an economist, after all!). This is not a list of the best books of 2018. Actually, none of these books were written this year; two out of the three were written in the previous millennium and one of them appears to be out of print. What a great list, right? These may not be the books du jour, but if you bring them along on your holiday travels you are almost certain to earn points for originality—as my husband did last year when he sat by the pool reading Charles Manski’s Identification Problems in the Social Sciences.

Without further ado, my non-economics reading suggestions for the last weeks of 2018:

The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, and Changelings by David Lancy

The New York Times called this “the only baby book you’ll ever need.” Honestly, I think the Times might have exaggerated a little—it is also helpful to have a book that tells you which stroller to buy or whether that cup of coffee is OK—but Lancy’s exceptional tome will enlighten both researchers studying early childhood development interventions and parents (studying early childhood in considerably smaller samples). Lancy, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has spent decades researching childrearing practices in settings ranging from rural Liberia to Mormon Utah. His book summarizes his own work, but also the work of hundreds of other scholars studying children, childhood, and childrearing around the world.

Without wishing to give away the punchline, the main theme of the book is that childrearing practices in modern, industrialized societies are WEIRD. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies tend to be what Lancy terms “neontocracies” that revolve around babies and children. In contrast, most human societies (both now and in the past) are “gerontocracies” in which the needs of working-age adults, elders, and even ancestors take precedence. Children in gerontocracies grow up differently. From an early age, they take more risk and are assigned more responsibilities than in our society; they are more often expected to conform to adult behavioral norms, while neontocracies expect parents to adapt their activities and behaviors to focus on the children.

While redefining childhood as a golden age of play and human capital accumulation is almost certainly good for children and for society, the book highlights the ways that other approaches to childrearing are well adapted to suit other social and cultural goals. For economists working on early childhood (myself included), the book reminds us to look beyond our own cultural narratives when evaluating development interventions. As it turns out, children who grow up in societies less child-centric than our own mostly turn out OK. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage parents (and other caregivers) to nourish and stimulate their children. Instead, this brilliantly-written book will help us to better recognize the cultural and economic tradeoffs inherent in focusing our analytical attention on child outcomes while ignoring the larger familial and social context.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

OK, technically not an anthropology book, but still written by a humanities scholar shining a light on understudied aspects of the historical development process. Elizabeth Wayland Barber is an archeologist and linguist interested in the production and use of cloth in ancient societies. Making cloth, like food production, was one of the major tasks occupying humans until quite recently, and technological developments that made this process easier were major productivity shocks that facilitated the growth of modern societies. However, relatively little is known about the development of cloth production in early societies (as compared with, for example, the emergence of agriculture or even the production of beer)—both because this work was traditionally done by women (who didn’t get to write much until fairly recently) and because fabrics made from natural fibers are rarely preserved in the archeological record.

Barber pieces together archeological and linguistic clues to illuminate the technological development of cloth production over the last 20,000 years. She argues that a “string revolution” was comparable in importance to the agricultural revolution (which occurred 10,000 to 20,000 years later), allowing humans to create containers, clothes, and jewelry—and to begin tying all manner of things together. In contrast to the production of food and fuel, which are still central to our study of developing economies, spinning and weaving have largely disappeared from modern consciousness since the industrial revolution. In most poor communities throughout the world, you will still find households devoting considerable time and effort to farming and collecting firewood. However, they are more likely to be wearing Live Aid t-shirts than clothes made from homespun cloth. Barber’s book reminds us how recent and radical this change has been, and suggests that the history of cloth production may have been an important factor shaping patterns of economic development and the evolution of cultural norms.

Economic Development and Social Change in South Asia by T. Scarlett Epstein

Scarlett Epstein was both an economist and an anthropologist: her Wikipedia page states that she “completed a PhD in economics under the supervision of social anthropologist Max Gluckman” (which may cause a divide-by-zero error in the brains of those of us who trained as economists more recently). In fact, as she notes in the introduction to her book, she was also a student of Sir Arthur Lewis (who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979).

Epstein’s work is an early attempt to study the interplay between economic development and institutions. Between 1954 and 1956, she collected data from two South Indian villages, one of which had been connected to the irrigation network and one of which had not. Epstein’s interest is in documenting the economic and social forces that constrained individual responses to the technology shock of irrigation. For example, why did caste considerations limit the organization of the labor force in some settings but not in others? Why did irrigation reinforce the existing social and economic hierarchy in one village and upend it in the other?

In his foreword, Lewis states that economists “have tended to take institutions for granted . . . and to neglect interactions and conflicts between the market and other social institutions.” Fortunately, this is much less true now than it was 60 years ago. Nevertheless, Epstein’s book provides plenty of food for thought for modern scholars attempting to model the dynamics of rural land and labor markets—and often neglecting to fully incorporate the social constraints that may limit the set of feasible contracts and transactions. Equally interesting are Epstein’s insights into the indirect effects of irrigation on communities that were not irrigated (which some economists might sometimes be tempted to consider a control group). She has written what could be considered the first ever book on “trickle down” economics—showing that irrigation had larger social and cultural impacts on untreated communities than on those receiving treatment.

Many thanks to Matthew Jukes and Biju Rao for recommending the first and third books.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.