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Unit information: Anthropology and Contemporary Capitalism in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

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. Evaluate the approaches and methods of social anthropology in relation to other social sciences.
  5. Employ anthropological methods to research economic life.

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour lectures

Weekly 1-hour seminars to include a “show and tell” activity

Three accompanying activities (a film, an invited speaker and a half-day ethnographic field trip)

Assessment Details

  1. A two-hour seen exam (60%)
  2. A blog post of 1,500 words based on student-led ethnographic activity (40%)

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.