I am a native of the Rockaway Beach section of Queens in New York City. I attended NYC public schools and graduated from Far Rockaway High School (as did Richard Feynman, my former teacher, Robert Murphy -- and, alas, Bernie Madoff). I attended Columbia University after being recruited as a fencer (believe it or not!). At Columbia, the core curriculum general education program lit an intellectual fire that set me on the path to academia. After changing my major six or seven times -- once on consecutive days -- I finally found anthropology. Where else could one be a social scientist, humanist, and natural scientist in a single quasi-respectable discipline? I was sitting one afternoon in the Hall of African Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History, and I had an epiphany in which I knew that anthropology would be my future career. My parents were not pleased with this career choice, but the epiphany won the day.
After getting my BA, I entered the graduate program in anthropology at Columbia. Although I still consider Columbia (especially Harris, Fried, Murphy, Alland, Price, and Holloway) to have provided me with my most important formative experiences in anthropology, after two years of graduate school I felt that I had exhausted the place. Having gotten an MA at Columbia, I entered the graduate program at Harvard University.
My dissertation research at Harvard (under the supervision of Prof. Peter Ellison) compared the effects of demographic constraints on marriage in two Indian states (Rajasthan and Kerala) with different marriage norms and sex ratio patterns. I began this project with the hypothesis that demographic constraints have important effects on marriage practices, especially on wealth transfers at marriage, but I ended up by minimizing the role of demography and affirming the salience of culture. Although it may not always be direct or readily apparent, this affirmation of culture against economic, demographic, and other simplistic determinisms has been the major theme of all my subsequent research. I consider myself an economic anthropologist, but much of my work undermines the neo-classical, rational choice, incentivist, functionalist, and adaptationist paradigms so dominant in the social sciences.
I began teaching at F&M in 1986 and received my Ph.D. from Harvard in 1987.
B.A., 1976, Columbia
M.A., 1979, Columbia
Ph.D., 1987, Harvard
In 1990 I travelled to the Western Visayas of the Philippines under the sponsorship of the Rotary Foundation. The sugar-producing island of Negros had just begun to emerge from a crisis characterized by extensive malnutrition, political violence, and class conflict. It was referred to as "Asia's Ethiopia" and a "social volcano." I became fascinated by the sources and implications of this crisis, and I ended up studying the Philippine sugar industry for the next twelve years. My 2003 book (see bibliography below) focuses mainly on elites, and uses this industry as an illustration of the transition from a colonial economy dominated by rural agrarian elites to one dominated by urban based industrial, commercial, and financial elites. Such transitions are the most important focus of all my research. In 1993 I received a Fulbright Award to spend my sabbatical year conducting this research in the Philippines. The photo here was taken that year at the Taal Volcano on Luzon. Shira (born in 1983, a 2005 graduate of F&M, a 2008 MA from American University in Film and Video Production, and currently working in Hollywood) is my older daughter, and Monica (born in 1986, a 2008 graduate from Smith College, a Masters from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, and currently working for the Environmental Finance Center consulting with local governements on stormwater abatement in the Chesapeake Bay watershed) is the younger. They are not amused that I keep that old picture of them on this web-site.
In addition to my ethnographic research on Philippine sugar, I also write articles that attempt to forge links between economic anthropology and institutionalist economics from the neo-Weberian theoretical perspective. I have positioned myself in opposition to "advocacy anthropology" and what I consider to be the over-politicization of the discipline. I have also written about the pleasures and pitfalls of teaching anthropology within the liberal arts context. In 2006 I received Franklin & Marshall's Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. (See the link below to my Lindback Lecture). At Franklin and Marshall I am an advocate for the liberal arts ideal, to which I am passionately dedicated (See the link to my Convocation address).
For the last several years, I have been collaborating with my friend and principal informant, Elam Zook (a "non-complaint" Amish) writing about the current transition occuring among the Lancaster County Amish. An increasingly large proportion of the Amish are making their primary livings from non-agricultural activies and this is having profound effects on Amish economy and culture.
When I am not doing anthropology, I listen to opera and folk music, play the guitar, fish, watch baseball, racewalk, and exercise at the gym.
In July 1998, I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and I had a stem cell transplant the Johns Hopkins Cancer Center in 1999. In 2017, I was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and had another stem cell transpant in 2018. I am feeling great, am back in decent shape, and am convinced that I have beaten the beast. 2018 has been a real "circle of life" year for me. Monica was my successful stem cell donor, and Shira recently (9/5) gave birth to my first grandchild, Daphne Simone.
- American Anthropological Association
- Association for Asian Studies
- Society for Economic Anthropology
- American Ethnological Society
- The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
- Federation of Small Anthropology Programs
- Philippine Studies Group of AAS
- American Center for Mongolian Studies
- Mid-Atlantic Regional AAS
Click to download Michael's 2006 Lindback Lecture, "Culture and Being Cultured: Anthropology Versus the Liberal Arts."
Click to download Michael's faculty address to the 2008 Convocation.
Click to download Michael's keynote address to the 2009 Emerging Scholars Symposium, or click here to access videos of all the addresses at the Symposium, including Michael's.
2017. Billig, Michael, and Elam Zook. “The Functionalist Problem in Kraybill’s Riddle.” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 5(1): 82-95.
2007. "The Interests of Competing Elites: Fighting Over 'Free Markets' and Protectionism in Philippine Sugar." Culture and Agriculture 29 (2): 70-77.
2005. "Anthropology Versus the Liberal Arts?: Culture and Being Cultured." Anthro-At-Large 12 (1): 6-9.
2000. "Institutions And Culture: Neo-Weberian Economic Anthropology." Journal of Economic Issues 34: 771-88.
1999. "Keeping Our Politics Out of Others' Business." Anthropology Newsletter 40 #2: 62-64.
1996. "The Six Dichotomies of Intro: Teaching Anthropology As a Western Cultural Experience." FOSAP Newsletter Volume 5, Number 1: 12-14.
1994. "The Death and Rebirth of Entrepreneurism on Negros Island, Philippines: A Critique of Cultural Theories of Enterprise." Journal of Economic Issues 28: 659-78.
1993. "Syrup in the Wheels of Progress: The Inefficient Organization of the Philippine Sugar Industry." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 24: 122-47.
1992. "Sweet Reason: The Rationality of Growing Sugar on Negros." Philippine Studies 40: 153-182.
1992 . "The Marriage Squeeze and the Rise of Groomprice in India's Kerala State." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 23: 197-216.
1991. "Stuck in Molasses: The Lack of Economic Diversification in Negros Occidental." Pilipinas 16: 19-43.
1991. "The Marriage Squeeze on High Caste Rajasthani Women." Journal of Asian Studies 50 (#2): 341-60.
List of Courses that I regularly teach at F&M
- Introduction to Social Anthropology
- Theory in Anthropology
- Anthropology of Wealth and Poverty
- The Philippines
- Transitions to Capitalism
- Class and Culture
- Modernity (Connections Course)
- Cultural Relativism