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Unit information: Anthropology and Contemporary Capitalism in 2020/21

Unit name Anthropology and Contemporary Capitalism
Unit code ARCH20065
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Amy Penfield
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Whether waiting in long queues, extracting oil or offering money to ghosts, an anthropological lens can reveal unexpected insights into the mundane and extraordinary workings of economic life. This unit offers an anthropological approach to the contemporary economic context of capitalism, placing particular emphasis on lived experiences in different economic settings. Grounded in core theories of economic anthropology, the unit explores these approaches through a range of ethnographic case studies from around the world. The broader theme of the unit will enable students to engage with some of the latest themes and thriving debates within the discipline, including the topics of money, consumption, bureaucracy, transnationalism, finance, the Anthropocene, resource extraction and cosmo-economics. Lectures and class discussions will promote critical thinking and challenge students to interrogate many of their assumptions about capitalism, globalisation and economic life.

Unit aims:

  • To introduce students to a range of anthropological approaches to economic life, capitalism and globalisation.
  • To introduce students to key theoretical approaches and analyse them through ethnographic cases.
  • To develop an understanding of the relationship between social life and global processes.

Intended learning outcomes

On completing the unit, successful students will be able to:

  1. Utilise anthropological approaches to assess contemporary economic issues.
  2. Demonstrate an ability to question cultural assumptions about economic life.
  3. Apply cross-cultural perspectives to key debates on capitalism and economic anthropology.
  4. Employ anthropological methods to research economic life.
  5. Through the medium of a blog post, write about an aspect of economic life in Bristol and analyse it using literature from across the unit.

Teaching details

Weekly lectures

Fortnightly seminars to include a show and tell activity

Asynchronous accompanying activities (e.g. a half-day ethnographic activity, film screening

Assessment Details

  1. Coursework essay, 2,500 words (60%). ILOs 1-3.
  2. A blog post of 1,500 words based on student-led ethnographic activity (40%). ILOs 2-5.

Reading and References

Ganti, Tejaswini. 2014. Neoliberalism. Annual Review of Anthropology. 43: 89-104.

Graeber, David. 2016. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joy of Bureaucracy. London: Melville House Publishing.

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. London: Duke University Press.

Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. Mining capitalism: the relationship between corporations and their critics. Berkeley: California University of California Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.