Grant McCracken offers an object lesson in how to think about the two disciplines. Along the way he tries to explain why so many people pursue “fruitless” humanities Ph.d. degrees, with no real hope of a job on the other end. Here is his follow-up post on the same topic. His whole blog, in fact, tries to get at the differences between economics and anthropology. I am a big McCracken fan, here is his home page, which includes his on-line trilogy about modern culture.
My take: Anthropology is most likely to outperform economics when wealth maximization is not a useful proxy for utility maximization. That’s quite a broad swathe of cases. We need then to see how other values become imbued with social meaning and why they hold such an important place in the utility function. The answers to these questions are almost certainly context-dependent. Yet most useful economic theories deliberately abstract from context. For this reason, every economist should do fieldwork at some point in his or her career. A stint in government, time behind the counter at Nordstroms, or a sojourn in a third world village can all qualify. That being said, without an inquiring and curious spirit, all of these endeavors are a waste of time. The problems with economics are, to large extent, simply the personal failings of various economists.