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7.7: Political Economy- Understanding Inequality

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    Humans are fundamentally social, and our culture is always shared and patterned: we live our lives in groups. However, not all groups serve the needs of their members, and some people have more power than others, meaning they can make the weak consent through threats and coercion. Within all societies there are classes of people defined by the kinds of property they own and/or the kinds of work they engage in.[62] Beginning in the 1960s, an increasing number of anthropologists began to study the world around them through the lens of political economy. This approach recognizes that the economy is central to everyday life but contextualizes economic relations within state structures, political processes, social structures, and cultural values.[63] Some political economic anthropologists focus on how societies and markets have historically evolved while others ask how individuals deal with the forces that oppress them, focusing on historical legacies of social domination and marginalization. [64]

    Definition: political economy

    An approach in anthropology that investigates the historical evolution of economic relationships as well as the contemporary political processes and social structures that contribute to differences in income and wealth.

    Karl Marx famously wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[65] In other words, while humans are inherently creative, our possibilities are limited by the structural realities of our everyday lives.

    Consider a typical college student. Is this student happy with the courses her department or college is offering? Are there courses that she needs to graduate that are not being offered yet? She is free to choose among the listed courses, but she cannot choose which courses are available. This depends on factors beyond her control as a student: who is available to teach which topics or what the administration has decided is important enough to offer. So, her agency and ability to choose is highly constrained by the structures in place. In the same way, political economies constrain people’s choices and define the terms by which we must live. Importantly, it is not simply structures that determine our choices and actions; these are also shaped by our community.

    Just as our college student may come to think of the requirements she has to fulfill for her degree as just the way it is (even if she does not want to take that theory course!), people come to think of their available choices in everyday life as simply the natural order of things. However, the degree of agency one has depends on the amount of power one has and the degree to which one understands the structural dimensions of one’s life. This focus on power and structural relations parallels an anthropological understanding of culture as a holistic system: economic relations never exist by themselves, apart from social and political institutions.

    Structural Violence and the Politics of Aid in Haiti

    Anthropologists interested in understanding economic inequalities often research forms of structural violence present in the communities where they work.[66]Structural violence is a form of violence in which a social structure or institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. In other words, how political and economic forces structure risk for various forms of suffering within a population. Structural violence can include things like infectious disease, hunger, and violence (torture, rape, crime, etc.).

    Definition: structural violence

    A form of violence in which a social structure or institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

    In the United States we tend to focus on individuals and personal experiences. A popular narrative holds that if you work hard enough you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in this country of immigrants and economic opportunity. The converse of this ideology is victim blaming: the logic is that if people are poor it is their own fault.[67] However, studying structural violence helps us understand that for some people there simply is no getting ahead and all one can hope for is survival.

    The conditions of everyday life in Haiti, which only worsened after the 2010 earthquake, are a good example of how structural violence limits individual opportunities. Haiti is the most unequal country in Latin America and the Caribbean: the richest 20 percent of its population holds more than 64 percent of its total wealth, while the poorest 20 percent hold barely one percent. The starkest contrast is between the urban and rural areas: almost 70 percent of Haiti’s rural households are chronically poor (vs. 20 percent in cities), meaning they survive on less than $2 a day and lack access to basic goods and services.[68] Haiti suffers from widespread unemployment and underemployment, and more than two-thirds of people in the labor force do not have formal jobs. The population is not well educated, and more than 40 percent of the population over the age of 15 is illiterate.[69] According to the World Food Programme, more than 100,000 Haitian children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition and one in three children is stunted (or irreversibly short for their age). Only 50 percent of households have access to safe water, and only 25 percent have adequate sanitation.[70]

    On January 12, 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck this highly unequal and impoverished nation, killing more than 160,000 people and displacing close to 1.5 million more. Because the earthquake’s epicenter was near the capital city, the National Palace and the majority of Haiti’s governmental offices were almost completely destroyed. The government lost an estimated 17 percent of its workforce. Other vital infrastructure, such as hospitals, communication systems, and roads, was also damaged, making it harder to respond to immediate needs after the quake.[71]

    The world responded with one of its most generous outpourings of aid in recent history. By March 1, 2010, half of all U.S. citizens had donated a combined total of $1 billion for the relief effort (worldwide $2.2 billion was raised), and on March 31, 2010 international agencies pledged $5.3 billion over the next 18 months.[72] The anthropologist Mark Schuller studied the aftermath of the earthquake and the politics of humanitarianism in Haiti. He found that little of this aid ever reached Haiti’s most vulnerable people, the 1.5 million people living in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Less than one percent of the aid actually was given to the Haitian government. The largest single recipient was the U.S. military (33 percent), and the majority of the aid was dispersed to foreign-run non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti.

    Because so little of this aid reached the people on the ground who needed it most, seven months following the disaster 40 percent of the IDP camps did not have access to water, and 30 percent did not have toilets of any kind. Only ten percent of families in the camps had a tent and the rest slept under tarps or bedsheets. Only 20 percent of the camps had education, health care, or mental health facilities on-site.[73] Schuller argues that this failure constitutes a violation of the Haitian IDP’s human rights, and it is linked to a long history of exploitative relations between Haiti and the rest of the world.

    Haiti is the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), having declared its independence from France in 1804. Years later, in order to earn diplomatic recognition from the French government, Haiti agreed to pay financial reparations to the powerful nation from 1825 to 1947. In order to do so, Haiti was forced to take out large loans from U.S. and European banks at high interest rates. During the twentieth century, the country suffered at the hands of brutal dictatorships, and its foreign debts continued to increase. Schuller argues that the world system continually applied pressure to Haiti, draining its resources and forcing it into the debt bondage that kept it from developing. In the process, this system contributed to the very surplus that allowed powerful Western nations to develop.[74]

    When the earthquake struck, Haiti’s economy already revolved around international aid and foreign remittances sent by migrants (which represented approximately 25 percent of the gross domestic product).[75] Haiti had become a republic of NGOs that attract the nation’s most educated, talented workers (because they can pay significantly higher wages than the national government, for example). Schuller argues that the NGOs constitute a form of “trickle-down imperialism” as they reproduce the world system.[76] The relief money funneled through these organizations ended up supporting a new elite class rather than the impoverished multitudes that so desperately need the assistance.


    Anthropologists have identified forms of structural inequality in countless places around the world. As we will learn in the Public Anthropology chapter, anthropology can be a powerful tool for addressing the pressing social issues of our times. When anthropological research is presented in an accessible and easily understood form, it can effectively encourage meaningful public conversations about questions such as how to best disperse relief aid after natural disasters.

    One of economic anthropology’s most important lessons is that multiple forms of economic production and exchange structure our daily lives and social relationships. As we have seen throughout this chapter, people simultaneously participate in both market and reciprocal exchanges on a regular basis. For example, I may buy lunch for a friend today with the idea that she will return the favor next week when she cooks me supper. Building on this anthropological idea of economic diversity, some scholars argue that in order to address the economic inequalities surrounding us we should collectively work to construct a community economy, or a space for economic decision-making that recognizes and negotiates our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy argue that in the process of recognizing and negotiating this interdependence, we become a community.[77]

    At the heart of the community economies framework is an understanding of economic diversity that parallels anthropological perspectives. The economic iceberg is a visual that nicely illustrates this diversity.[78] Above the waterline are economic activities that are visible in mainstream economic accounts, things like formal wage labor and shopping for groceries in a supermarket. Below the waterline we find the wide range of people, places, and activities that contribute to our well-being. This conceptual tool helps us to explore interrelationships that cannot be captured through mechanical market feedback loops.[79]

    The most prevalent form of labor around the world is the unpaid work that is conducted within the household, the family, and the neighborhood or wider community. When we include these activities in our understanding of the diverse economy, we also reposition many people who may see themselves (or are labeled by others) as unemployed or economically inactive subjects.[80] When we highlight these different kinds of labor and forms of compensation we expand the scope of economic identities that fall outside the narrow range valued by market production and exchange (employer, employee, or entrepreneur).[81] Recognizing our mutual connections and the surplus possibilities in our own community is an important first step toward building an alternative economy, one that privileges community spheres rather than market spheres and supports equality over inequality. This also resonates with one of economic anthropology’s central goals: searching for alternatives to the exploitative capitalist relations that structure the daily lives of so many people around the world today. [82]


    Gibson-Graham, J. K., Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy. Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

    Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978[1852].

    Schuller, Mark. “Haiti’s Disaster after the Disaster: the IDP Camps and Cholera,” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, December 10, 2013.


    1. Wilk and Cliggett, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology, 84, 95.
    2. Josiah Heyman, “Political Economy,” in Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology, ed. James Carrier and Deborah Gewertz (New York: Berg Publishers, 2013), 89.
    3. The historical evolution of societies and markets is explored by Eric Wolf in Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). The legacies of social domination and marginalization are discussed by Philippe Bourgois in In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
    4. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978[1852]).
    5. Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6 no. 3(1969): 167–191.
    6. See Max Weber’s work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism available at
    7. “Living Conditions in Haiti’s Capital Improve, but Rural Communities Remain Very Poor,” World Bank, July 11, 2014.
    8. “CIA Factbook: Haiti,”
    9. “Ten Facts about Hunger in Haiti,”
    10. Mark Schuller, “Haiti’s Disaster after the Disaster: the IDP Camps and Cholera,” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, December 10, 2013.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibid.
    13. Mark Schuller, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).
    14. Terry Buss, Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid has Failed and What We Can Do about It (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 2008).
    15. Mark Schuller, Killing with Kindness.
    16. J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), xix.
    17. Byrne, Ken, “Iceberg Image,”
    18. Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy, Take Back the Economy, 11.
    19. J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 62–63.
    20. Ibid., 65.
    21. Keith Hart, “Money in Twentieth Century Anthropology.”

    Adapted From

    "Economics" by Sarah Lyon, University of Kentucky. . In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    7.7: Political Economy- Understanding Inequality is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.