By Sierra Sernau

Main Point

In anthropology Political Economy is the study of how economics affect culture, with a modern focus on the effects of capitalism. Political Economy was developed from historical materialism, a theory developed by Karl Marx. Marx’s theory argues that material goods are the organizing force for society and the economy. Frank William Taussig, a leading political economy theorist, was a member of The Classical School of Political Economy, which developed free market economics into a science (Frank William Taussig: 2015). Political Economy was described by the school as ‘a materialistic interpretation of history’ in an article by Edwin R. A. Seligman (Seligman: 1901). Seligman argues that in order for humans to survive they must have the means to sustain themselves to have life and economics how humans sustain themselves therefore one must have economics if one is to have life (Seligman: 1901).

Marx’s theory of historical materialism is influential and has been applied to many areas of study including anthropology. Marx focuses on production and consumption in society and how the two are interdependent on each other and have a circular relationship (Twigg: 2015). According to Marx as humans we actively seek to create and produce as a way to sustain life and it is this drive that allows economics, countries and people to flourish. Free market economists agree with Marx that economics are a driving force of culture, but they also believe that free markets are a good idea. Marx did not believe that free markets were good for the people or that they advanced the society. Political economists can see global capitalism as a negative force, undermining local markets and local traditions.

Applied to anthropology, the interest is in how political economy can be applied to non-capitalistic societies, how colonialism has affected economies and how it has affected developing societies as they transition from a non-capitalistic economy to a capitalistic economy.

Key Figures

Sidney Mintz

William Roseberry

Frank William Taussig

Key Texts

Mintz, Sidney. 1992. .The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective.Beacon Press.

Roseberry, William. 1989. Anthropologies and Histories: Essays in Culture, History, and Political Economy (Hegemony and Experience). Rutgers.

Taussig, Frank William. 1969 Some Aspects of the Tariff Question. Greenwood Press.


"Frank William Taussig." Online Library of Liberty. Accessed March 10, 2015.

Seligman, Edwin R. A. 1901. "The Economic Interpretation of History I." Political Science Quarterly, December: 613.

"The Classical School of Political Economy." Online Library of Liberty. Accessed March 10, 2015. .

Twigg, Lauren M. "Karl Marx versus Adam Smith." Rebirth of Reason . Accessed March 10, 2015.