Political Economy: Comparative Approaches from Prehistory

PhD course, The Norwegain Institute at Athens, April 7- April 11, 2017.

Dialogues with the Past. The Nordic Graduate School in Archaeology

Photo Credit: Martin Furholt.

Inspired by severe crises of both our economic and political systems, the last decade has witnessed a renewed interest in political and economic anthropology and has rekindled discussions about the origin and legitimacy of our socio-economic and political systems. Established narratives about the connection between economic interaction and political organisations have been questioned in political debates, in social movements all over the world, and also in the scientific discourses. World-wide bestselling popular books and essays have used historical (Piketty 2015) and anthropological sources (D. Graeber 2001; 2014) to challenge the supposed lack of alternatives to the capitalist economic and political order and open up new spaces for ideas on economic and political organisation. What is the role here for archaeology? Prehistory provides independent cases for long-term social change that shows alternative lines of potential development for human societies as well as a rich material to explore the potential variability of different modes of economic transaction systems and political organisation that reject the naturalisation of profit maximization and self-interest that characterizes neo-liberal economic theories.


In European Archaeology, the dominant narrative has been strongly dominated by a Marxist based, top-down approach to understanding political economy (T.K. Earle 1997; T.K. Earle 2002; T. Earle & Kristiansen 2010), which was developed on a basis of a tradition, which classified modes of political organisation along a clear-cut and unidirectional scale, which strongly links population size and degree of political centralisation (Fried 1967; Service 1968). Others (Brück & Fontijn 2013; Kienlin & Zimmermann 2012) emphasise the inherently social nature of economic transactions, its embeddedness in social relations and cosmological beliefs, religious and magical thinking as emphasized by Mauss or Polanyi (Polanyi 1995; Hann 1998; Mauss & Evans-Pritchard 2011; Hahn et al. 2015). This “bottom-up”-perspective pays more attention to the specific historical contexts of economic relations. The collective action approach has been developed primarily by American scholars (Blanton & Fargher 2008; Carballo 2013). It emphasises the role of social actors and their abilities to form corporative networks within systems of power and thus seems to hold potential for a reconciliation of top-down and bottom-up perspectives on economic and political development.  As a main goal of this seminar, we want to explore ways to integrate and balance top-down and bottom-up perspectives, generalising models and the study of historically situated contexts. 


This workshop seeks to discuss the following issues:

  • Is the political economy (top-down) narrative, by essentialising modern concepts of (private) property and naturalising self-interest-driven and dominant individualistic behaviour, legitimising neoliberal doctrines? Or can it provide a toolkit to approach current debates from an archaeological perspective (T. Earle & Spriggs 2015)?
  • To what degree is the critique of the political economy narrative justified? Does the historical materialism of Marx provide flexibility to understand historical and social variability? Is a Marxist-based approach to political economy incompatible with notions of social and cultural embeddedness of economic relations as articulated by Polanyi?
  • In what ways does the substantivist approach (Mauss, Polanyi) to economy contribute to our current debates, how can a more differentiated contextualisation of central concepts like property, exchange and value contribute to the political economy model?  Or can they inspire new perspectives on our current systems of politics and economy?

Course work

The course will consist of both seminars and lectures. Faculty participants will present their theoretical position as linked to the different approaches to prehistoric variability and processual change in political systems. Before the course starts, each PhD student will prepare a paper for pre-circulation, addressing her or his research project in relation to the course theme. In the course seminars, each paper will be allotted ca. 45 minutes, beginning with the student presenting a 15-minute summary of its contents. This is followed with a 10 min commentary from one of the other PhD students (selected in advance), after which she or he will chair an open discussion on the paper for approximately 20 minutes.




    Timothy Earle      Matthew Spriggs      David Wengrow       Colin Grier 


(Photo credit, from left to right: Northwestern University, ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Washington State University) 


Professor Timothy Earle (Northwestern University)

Professor Matthew Spriggs (Australian National University)

Professor David Wengrow (University College London)

Associate Professor Colin Grier (Washington State University)


The participating lecturers will each give a lecture during the course, exploring different perspectives on political economy based on their field of expertise, as well as participating as prime movers in the discussion of PhD presentations. The seminar days will be structured with adequate time for spin-off debates and networking opportunities in mind.



1 month or 7 ECTS


Location, Travel and Costs

The Graduate School will finance and arrange travel and accommodation, as well as supply a daily allowance during the seminar for all participating PhD students who are part of the Dialogues With the Past network. Two PhD students will share a room.



The Graduate school invites all registered PhD students to apply for participation. Please follow this link to apply for the course (in English only). From these applications, c. 20 PhD students will be admitted to the course.

For more information please contact: dial-past@iakh.uio.no


Important dates

Application for participation: January 5, 2017. Confirmation on your participation will be sent out shortly after this date together with a reading list.

Submission of working papers (10 pages, Times New Roman 12, Spacing 1,5): March 6, 2017.

Appointment of discussants: March 13, 2017.

Tags: Political Economy
Published Oct. 3, 2016 3:20 PM - Last modified Feb. 27, 2020 12:19 PM