In the 20th century, we've become accustomed to professional economists working away in splendid isolation from the rest of us with their blackboards, computers and their deductive Great Truth of general equilibrium.
They seek to convince us that they are universal social scientists, that however hazy we may be about our motives and intentions, beneath our muddled views there is an objective reality that can be grasped only through their formal models.
Every once in a while, some new group of economists comes forward to tell us that they've figured out some new institution -- the family, say, or education, or elections, or discrimination or status. Meanwhile, they continue wrangling among themselves about how best to manage the economy.
Over the years, an opposite tack has been taken by Stephen Gudeman, a University of Minnesota anthropologist. Gudeman first went to Panama to study the rural economy in the late 1960s. He has been there and in Colombia off and on ever since, talking to peasants, doing what he calls ''the imaginative and hard work of learning about others' lives.''
The result is three remarkable books that weave back and forth between conversations with peasants and high economic theory -- and not just the latest neoclassical jazz, either, but all the roads-not-taken of technical economics.
You're as likely to encounter Francois Quesnay as Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill, as likely to meet Piero Sraffa as Keynes. More attention is lavished on the views of the Gogo and Bemba and Bisa tribes of Africa than on German, American and Japanese styles of corporate organization; more weight is given to careful listening to what people say than to the application of mathematical tools devised by astronomers to human affairs.
Gudeman's vision is fairly radical. There is no demonstrably superior ''hard science,'' in his scheme of things, no objective truth. He draws no sharp lines between amateur and pro, between scientist and crackpot, as economist Milton Friedman would have us do.
Instead, for Gudeman, there is only a rich collection of models and metaphors that are elaborated upon in a series of ''conversations'' among living folk. The high conversations are interesting, but so are the low, and the ideas flow clumsily back and forth between. Just as there are ''voices in the air,'' Gudeman says, there are ''voices on the ground'' -- and the stubborn fact of their continuing existence requires ''a new look at the communities in which models are made.''
Philip Mirowski of Notre Dame University has dinged economists for borrowing most of their metaphors from physical scientists; now comes Gudeman to take them to task for ignoring the large stock of metaphors that they have inherited from common speech.
In his latest book, ''Conversations in Colombia, The Domestic Economy in Life and Text'' (Cambridge University Press), Gudeman distinguishes between two fundamental forms of economic organization, the ''house'' and the ''corporation.'' Each is modeled after a quite different and distinct idea, he says.
The corporation is organic, the house is mechanical; one is naturally given, the other is humanly constructed.
The corporation is a relatively recent invention. The house is a folk institution of long standing, a source of ideas to economists from Aristotle to Marx, but still little understood. Its style of organization can be seen in the Roman villa, fundus or praedium, in the manor, the great estate and the hacienda. A house has no balance sheet, no assets and liabilities; it is not susceptible to economic cycles because the whole idea is a distancing from the intentions of others.
The key difference between a house and a corporation has to do with ''making savings'' instead of ''making money'': What's hoarded for a rainy day among members of a household becomes invested for growth by the owners of a corporation.
In recent centuries, corporations have been picking up shares at the expense of houses, and not just in the industrialized nations of the world, according to Gudeman. But that doesn't mean that they are gone or that an understanding of how they work can be conveniently dispensed with.
''The recipes of domestic economy, including ways to be thrifty and the art of home baking that used to be so avidly taught in land-grant universities are the remnants of this once-vibrant way of life. In the United States 'fast foods' sold by corporations and bought in the market have replaced the slow foods that used to be prepared in pots on the stove, but the house economy is still alive in many parts of Latin America today.''
So? Well, in the end, what Gudeman offers is a different way of pursuing economic development, by listening first instead of immediately giving advice.
''Rather than using the various forms of power -- from monetary control of capital to the writing of texts -- that subjugate and exclude these other voices, rather than offering prescriptions for 'deepening capital' or raising agricultural productivity through doses of technological improvement (such as the Green Revolution), we might try to develop an 'appropriate economics' that would expand the community of conversationalists by drawing upon the work of both,'' laymen and pros.
And where would that lead? One of the haunting images in Gudeman's book is that of the ragpicker, the hunter after the flotsam-and-jetsam of modern industrial life. There are thousands of persons, after all, who make careers of picking through Mexico City's garbage dumps, day after day, searching out scraps to recycle and use. ''Old rubber tires are recycled into sandals, discarded plastic sheeting becomes a windbreaker and raincoat; distant forests are used for firewood, leftover grass by the roadside becomes pasture for animals.''
This is the house organization doing what it does best, Gudeman says, putting remainders to use -- and understanding its principles is vital to bettering the lot of those who now live bleak lives on the periphery of markets.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.