Malinowski, Herskovits, and the controversy over economics in anthropology

Scott Cook*, Michael W. Young

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    11 Citations (Scopus)


    Bronislaw Malinowski and Melville Herskovits were founding contributors to the anthropological study of economic life—Malinowski as a pioneering ethnographer in Melanesia and a late-career ethnographer in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Herskovits as the leading exponent of comparative studies. The definition of their respective approaches to the study of economic life began in the 1940s with Karl Polanyi and in the 1950s with Raymond Firth, culminating in the formalist-substantivist debate of the 1960s–1970s. Malinowski's contribution was defined as emphasizing the institutional matrix of the economy while denying the universal applicability of classical/neoclassical economics; Herskovits's was defined as promoting the applicability of economics in comparative studies. A reconsideration of Herskovits's writings shows that his advocacy of the application of economics by anthropologists had qualifications and caveats. New documentary information about Malinowski's approach reinforces his commitment to the study of economic life as an ethnographic pursuit rather than a comparative one. It further reveals his late-career openness to the use of classical/neoclassical economic principles and concepts, his familiarity with market economics, and his views on the role of theory in ethnographic economics.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)657-679
    Number of pages23
    JournalHistory of Political Economy
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


    Dive into the research topics of 'Malinowski, Herskovits, and the controversy over economics in anthropology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this