Wilk begins his theoretical survey of economic anthropology with a review of the debate that spurred the birth of the field: the debate between the "substantivists" and the "formalists" during the 1950's, '60's, and early '70's. Wilk contends that, while some of the points made by both factions are valuable and deserve revisiting, each camp in effect argued past the other because of their shared mistaken belief that their respective viewpoints represented conceptually integrated, mutually exclusive wholes. The argument eventually sputtered out rather than came to a definitive conclusion, Wilk says, because this fundamental mistake fed into a series of ever-more-intractably convoluted polemics, but also because other issues (for example the emergence of applied anthropology) caused economic anthropologists to shift their interests toward other pursuits.
Wilk then divides the body of economic anthropological literature into three groups according to three major outlooks on human motivation. Unlike the case of the substantivists and the formalists, he maintains, these three are conceptually integrated and mutually exclusive: 1) humans are motivated by self-interest; 2) humans are motivated by an intrinsic sociability; or 3) humans are motivated by deeply ingrained, culturally instilled morals or values. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, Wilk also suggests that each school of thought may share some themes or dimensions in common with the others, and he discusses the work of two anthropologists who have employed all three models in hybridized or eclectic fashion.
The dominant undercurrent of Wilk's survey is a deep dissatisfaction with the fractured state of economic anthropological scholarship. The field remains fractured along these party lines, he says, because each takes certain fundamental propositions about human nature on faith rather than testing them. One consequence appears to be that each perspective seems to work out well enough only some of the time, there being copious counterexamples for each (not to mention those cases which might be just as well explained by one perspective as by another). The conflicted and fractured academy will remain so, he says, so long as each perspective's core concepts are held in such high, unimpeachable esteem.
I agree with Wilk that many of these allegedly self-evident and ergo unimpeachable presuppositions are in fact quite easily felled by well-known ethnographic data. I also agree that most or all explanation should rely on empirical testing. But I believe that Wilk goes to far in reviving the bad faith of the 19th and 20th century positivists (I find Karl Popper's expression to be the most articulate and historically informed of the positivists . . . a fact which also makes him the most articulate advocate of positivist bad faith, as pointed out by Thomas Kuhn): like the positivists, Wilk seems to insist that the epistemological veracity of every single proposition that we make about anything must lie in our ability to successfully hold it up against empirical testing, yet also like the positivists, he fails to recognize that this relentless policy of testing the hell out of every possible statement must also undercut our very ability to test because it must also bring under inspection any and every conceivable descriptive lexicon we use to formulate our empirical observations (whether linguistic or graphic).
Put differently, there can be no proposition rooted in empirical observation if there are not also propositions whose veracity has nothing to do with empirical observation; the descriptive lexicon or apparatus must remain a prerequisite of empirical observation, testing, and scientific explanation, not the subject of its inquiry. And from an epistemological standpoint, admitting that every empirical investigation begs certain conceptual associations is a far better option than being incapable of even formulating a simple descriptive proposition, or capable only of semantically unstable, eclectic corpus of statements; we must be comfortable with the fact that conceptual implications are an inescapable, incontrovertible side-effect of every descriptive apparatus, that we can derive an awful lot from even the simplest descriptive statement without ever having to qualify ourselves empirically.
The real problem of science, then, is striking a balance between maintaining a descriptive lexicon and choosing one which is immune from empirical falsification.
Unfortunately, though, Wilk acts in positivist bad faith. His "social-temporal" grid, ostensibly conceived to sidestep the dogmatic behavior of the factions he spends most of his book critiqueing, lands him in the same basic sort of activity. He also makes other dogmatic statements about human motivation while discussing the grid: "People want their acts to be ambiguous and hard to pin down; they may want to conceal their motives even from themselves." (150) But doesn't "want" fall into the same basic semantic domain as "motivation"? In the end, Wilk's descriptive apparatus turns out to be as endowed with conceptual baggage as do any of the schools he critiques, the main difference being that he is blind to his own presuppositions.
I don't mean to ride Wilk too roughly on this point. There are many excellent dimensions to the book, central among them being his contention that most of the major arguments in economic anthropology center around the issue of human motivation. Also, while the book is not a textbook in the conventional sense, it will immerse the reader in a survey of anthropological history comparable to Marvin Harris' "The Rise of Anthropology," both in terms of its breadth and its critical depth (though nowhere near as voluminous). I must also confess that I find Wilk's social-temporal grid to be more capable of doing what it is intended to do -- describe -- than any apparatus conceived by any of the other major schools of thought, exactly because it covers the broad variation of human motivations presumed not to exist by those other, more exclusive schools of thought. Yet I cannot keep with Wilk's epistemological bad faith; unlike Wilk, I am quite conscious of the presuppositional nature his descriptive grid, and as a pragmatist I am willing to accept the implications of whatever it might imply.