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Economic anthropology, economic theory and the study of ancient religions

Barbara Kowalzig

New York University

This paper discusses the effectiveness and limitations of approaches from economic anthropology and economic theory for the study of ancient Mediterranean religions, distinguishing three broad directions. Ancient historians of religion are familiar with, firstly, approaches from classic economic anthropology from Marcel Mauss’ ritualized gift-giving to Mark Granovetter’s social embeddedness of economic actions (1985); but there is an array of contemporary approaches in economic anthropology, developed on the basis notably of Mesoamerican religions, that have escaped the notice of classicists. The paper, secondly, examines the usefulness of New Institutional Economics, popular with ancient historians, for an understanding of the interrelations between religion and economy in the ancient world. NIE broadly understands institutions, especially state institutions, as counteracting uncertainty in economic decision-making; they reduce transactions costs by providing information and establishing trust, and thus affect economic outcomes. An often-repeated tenet is that religious and cultural beliefs generate people’s knowledge and influence their economic choices, but this is rarely explored beyond common religious affiliation functioning as an informal, private-order enforcement mechanism within a trading diaspora (e.g. A. Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy (2006)). This section, then, examines, ‘religious and cultural beliefs’ in the ancient world as knowledge systems underlying economic choices, and explores the possibilities of understanding myth, ritual and cult as ‘institutions’ in the NIE sense. Ancient examples suggest that religious practice and imagination can be seen to affect outcomes under persistent conditions of uncertainty, particularly ecological precariousness, while sanctuaries in particular emerge as privileged institutional environment for the lowering of transaction costs through the aggregation of information and production of economic knowledge. Economic choices thus often fall squarely between social and religious imperatives and profit maximization. The third section of the paper briefly introduces the recent ‘economics of religion’ (e.g. L. Iannacone; R. Stark), which attempts to relate religion to economic growth through applying free market dynamics to religious choices. While problematic, some of the mechanisms developed in this school open up ways of thinking about the relationship between state and non-state sponsored religious practice, of festival competition and renewal, and of the economic role of festivals at large.

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God the Anthropologist: Text, Material and Theory in the Study of Ancient Religion

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