The Human Economy Project: first steps

John Sharp, Theodore Powers & Vito Laterza

pages 99-101

The Human Economy Project is interdisciplinary in scope, but relies extensively on anthropological research methods. These methods are an appropriate counter to the methods adopted in mainstream economics, which has been criticised for its isolation from ‘the ordinary business of life’. Four essays in this collection illustrate the use of the ethnographic research method in posing questions about the way in which people in different parts of the world perceive the ‘big institutions’—the market, the state, business corporations—that impinge on their lives. The final two essays discuss the rationale behind the Human Economy Project and the meaning of the ‘human economy’ idea.

Subjects: Human economy, social anthropology, ethnographic research method, economics, abstract models


Responding to the crisis: food co-operatives and the solidarity economy in Greece

Theodoros Rakopoulos

pages 102-107

This article discusses a case of popular social response to imposed austerity and recession in Greece. It focuses on the anti-middleman movement in an Athens suburb. It also addresses the broader picture of the current Greek crisis, explaining how participants in this grassroots response extend their activity beyond food distribution, beginning to imagine modes of economic conduct and interaction different from those currently dominant in Greece. I explore their efforts to turn the food market they have established in Athens into a formal co-operative which links consumers in their neighbourhood directly to selected farmers through bonds of solidarity, and to work with others to create a network of similar co-operatives which will span the whole country. I argue that their endeavours strongly resemble the co-operativism and practical socialism advocated by important social theorists such as Mauss and Polanyi, and suggest that it may be important for the young activists in Athens to learn more about their ideas.

Subjects: Greek crisis, sovereign debt crisis, anti-middleman movements, food co-operatives, horizontal co-operative networks, Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi


On law and legality in post-apartheid South Africa: insights from a migrant street trader

Jürgen Schraten

pages 108-115

This article focuses on the experience of law and legality by a migrant street trader in post-apartheid South Africa. The experiences of this stall vendor are analysed alongside theoretical notions of law and the legal system. The ways that law and legality are constructed in everyday situations are highlighted by two events. In each social situation, legal texts were a central element in the negotiation between the migrant and representatives of the South African state. In both cases the interpretation of these texts reflected the power of those involved in negotiation rather than the abstract legal norms they represented. Therefore, differences between individuals in social and political power are determining factors in the production of a legal situation. This insight underlines a separation between the experience of law and the concept of legality in post-apartheid South Africa.

Subjects: Law, legal system, informal economy, ethnography, social change, South Africa


Institutions and social change: a case study of the South African National AIDS Council

Theodore Powers

pages 116-123

Institutions play an important role in the success or failure of social models, as they promote or limit particular political and economic activities. Central to this point is the understanding that institutions and traditions are in a constant state of flux. Taken in this light, state and non-state institutions are continually being ‘re-invented’ to reflect a particular society's changing economic, political and cultural division of power. Immanent in this constant process of change is the possibility of transforming formal political institutions to more closely reflect the needs of human beings. The South African National AIDS Council provides a useful case study to illuminate how non-state social alliances can transform state institutions to reflect the needs of society. Through the mobilisation of non-state and community-based organisations, the South African HIV/AIDS movement successfully influenced the South African government to expand the public health response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Subjects: HIV/AIDS, globalisation, institutions, social movements, social change, South Africa


A broken link: two generations in a rural household in Massinga district, southern Mozambique

Albert Farré

pages 124-129

Labour migration has long been a recurrent topic in southern Africa, owing to the appearance of industrialised mining production in the mid-nineteenth century, and its overall effects on land and agriculture. In Mozambique, historically one of the main suppliers to mines, the debate on labour migration has been a constant one. I draw on fieldwork research done in southern Mozambique to show the impact of a change in recruitment policies by the South African mines in the 1970s, and how the consequences last until the present. I suggest that the case study presented here helps us to build a broader picture on migration processes in southern Africa, as well as to be aware of the regional challenges underlying local realities.

Subjects: migration, household economy, mine dependency, Mozambique, Southern Africa


Towards a human economy: reflections on a new project

John Sharp

pages 130-134

The University of Pretoria's Human Economy project began at the end of 2010. To date it has involved eighteen post-doctoral fellows, drawn from around the world, and eight doctoral candidates, all from Africa. This paper reviews the project's progress, drawing attention to how its participants have come to construe the notion of a ‘human economy’ and the main social theorists on whom they have drawn in doing so. The development of our thinking regarding a human economy is explained by reference to the two edited volumes, comprising contributions from all the post-doctoral fellows, which will be published in the near future. Challenges for future research are considered in the final part of the paper.

Subjects: Human economy, plural economy, Mauss, Polanyi, market exchange, mutuality, reform, revolution


Some notes towards a human economy approach

Vito Laterza

pages 135-138

The diverse research activities carried out in the Human Economy Project focus on the economic practices that people on the ground perform in their everyday life, and the interactions between these actions and larger-scale political and economic structures and institutions. This article provides some partial reflections on what we mean by ‘human economy’. It will discuss some aspects of this approach that have influenced project members, including an ethnographic orientation, historical analysis and comparison across cases. Human economy research often cuts across geographic and theoretical scales. Many project members aim to move beyond the analytical distinction between local and global, and towards a conceptualisation of the economy as a Maussian ‘total social fact’. Finally, the knowledge produced within the project has the potential to help individuals and social groups in building a better world for all who live in it.

Subjects: methodology, human economy, total social fact, globalisation, engaged anthropology


Spirit and society: in defence of a critical anthropology of religious life

Hylton White

pages 139-145

According to recent criticisms, the critical anthropology of religious life in Africa, associated especially with the Comaroffs, has failed to take relations with invisible beings at face value. In this view, we should explore the social work that such relations do, rather than interrogating their ties to the economic and political forms of African modernity. Drawing on ethnography from my research on relations with ancestral spirits in rural KwaZulu-Natal, I argue that this criticism is misplaced. Relations with ancestral spirits are channels for the circulation of value, and here I show how that circulation depends upon the circulation of money for its pragmatic constitution. No amount of taking things at face value can account for this dependency of personal ties on impersonal ones that are organized by structures of political economy. Only an anthropology that is critical is up to the task of comprehending social ties, including ties with spirits, in an epoch such as ours.

Subjects: critical anthropology, value, money, religion, ancestors, sacrifice


‘Distraction from the real difficulties’: ethical deliberations in international health research

Helen Macdonald & Andrew D. Spiegel

pages 146-154

Increasingly, North based graduate students are seeking South based institutional homes whilst undertaking ethnographic research. Looking from a place in the global South, the article considers how requests to host such students influence, and are influenced by, both local and northern research ethics procedures. In particular the article focuses on the globalisation of the Institutional Review Board principle in defining much of the international landscape of ethical oversight, mainly because so much international health research funding is linked to northern institutions. We draw on a case study, the setting being an anthropological investigation by a northern researcher into health issues conducted in South Africa. The northern institution made a large investment in ethical oversight, but oriented it entirely towards limiting its legal liability. It was little concerned by ethical considerations posed by South African colleagues. This appears to have occurred because they were working from seemingly incommensurable reference points. We argue that, if we are to benefit from transnational excursions, debate about ethics must occur at a cross-national level. With research becoming globalised, and with varying actors across the globe, we are offered the possibility of transforming the currently dominant paradigm, based as it is on a logic of a northern donor and southern recipients of knowledge, to a more collaborative and equitable process.

Subjects: North/South, Institutional Review Board (IRB), ethics, international health research


Book Reviews

Oliver Human & Christian A. Williams

pages 155-159