Greg Urban


As an anthropologist, coming out of three decades of research among indigenous Brazilian populations, I naturally saw modern for-profit business corporations as tribes—the collective bearers of adaptive cultural know-how. They appeared to me to be the entities housing the culture needed to produce commodities, to trade commodities on the open market, or both. I was also, of course, aware of the legal concept of the corporation as fictive person capable of owning property and having standing in court cases, which I thought of as akin to the anthropological corporation insofar as both recognized the group as social actor. However, it came as something of a surprise that the existence of corporations—or, more properly, “firms”—posed an intellectual challenge for economists. I knew that Adam Smith was critical of the old joint stock companies, like the East India Company, for a variety of reasons. But I hadn’t understood that economists, who viewed the world in terms of individual rational actors engaged in market transactions, might regard corporations as a violation of market efficiency principles, which they evidently are—or at least were until Ronald Coase’s classic 1937 paper The Nature of the Firm. It is his paper that brought together my anthropological understanding of corporations as social groups carrying cultural know-how with the economic model of the firm.