I will admit that political economy is a difficult concept to describe. It encompasses so much, and has changed over the years. Not everyone follows the same definition of political economy. However, I believe it is a very important concept in anthropology and social science in general–too important not to write about. So let’s get into it!
What is Political Economy?
There are many ways to define the theory of political economy (especially depending on the field of study you ask). Based on my background in anthropology, I define it like this:
Political economy is the study of cultural phenomenon in the broader context of economic, political and social power structures. It is a way of studying culture that recognizes the influence of politics, economic structures and social hierarchies on everyday life.
Origins of Political Economy
The term political economy is credited to anthropologist Eric Wolf (1923-1999). He formed this concept with some inspiration from Marxist ideas, as well as notions of culture and social structures. He sought to examine the connections between culture and power in societies.
Other proponents of political economy include Jane Schneider and, more recently, Josiah Heyman. Schneider’s anthropological studies focus on globalization and production of materials such as textiles. Heyman’s work examines the effects of government policy on the lives of immigrants, especially those in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Research Questions from a Political Economy Perspective
Here are some examples of broad research questions that may be asked in a study that uses the theory of political economy:
- What are the effects of government policy?
- Who are the consumers, and who are the sellers?
- Who is profiting (or otherwise benefiting)?
- If there is a product, what is it and how is it marketed?
- What is the history behind this practice?
- Who holds the power?
- What are the important resources? Who controls them?
- What is the relationship between the individuals? Between groups?
- Are traditional power structures being challenged, and if so, how?
Examples of Political Economy (Applied to a “Real World” Concept)
As my anthropologist friend Kelly pointed out to me, (check out her anthropology/food/farming blog!) political economy can be easily applied to food systems.
For example, if we use the information presented in this documentary about corporations and food production in the U.S. to answer some of the research questions above, it might come out something like this:
What are the effects of government policy?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates food production. Their policies impact the ways that farmers and ranchers are allowed to run their businesses.
Who are the consumers, and who are the sellers?
The sellers are (mostly) large corporations, as well as small companies and other local producers of food. The consumers are U.S. American people—everyone needs to eat. However, what the people eat and how they eat it depends on many factors, such as income, culture, and location.
Who is profiting (or otherwise benefiting)?
Corporations that produce and process food are making the biggest profit in this kind of food production system. Consumers benefit when they purchase food that is healthy and enjoyable. In some cases, the government benefits from taxes on food industries and products.
If there is a product, what is it and how is it marketed?
In this case, the product is food. The documentary outlines the way that heavily processed foods are marketed as fun, beneficial, and tasty, despite their usual lack of healthy nutrients. For example, these foods are often placed front and center at grocery stores, while produce and dairy is placed on the perimeters.
What are the important resources? Who controls them?
The resources are those that are needed to produce food—soil, water, and land for farming, livestock for meat production, as well as factories and laborers for food processing. These resources are largely controlled by the corporations that produce and process food in the U.S. The government also has control over many of these resources. And of course, food itself is an important resource.
Are traditional power structures being challenged, and if so, how?
This documentary details how farmers markets have become a “counter-culture” that challenges the traditional corporate power system of food production in the U.S. Consumers sometimes turn to farmers markets as an alternative source of food.
Obviously, this is a very basic analysis, based on only one source (the video by Real Stories). The point of this exercise is to show how political economy theory is used to analyze concepts in anthropology. I used some parts of political economy theory in my own research on Dallas-area immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
Have you heard of political economy before? What’s your take on the concept? Is there anything else about political economy that you think I should have included here? Leave a comment below if you’d like!