The limits of naivety for the study of money

By | June 15, 2015

What would happen if anthropologists, for some limited purposes, abolished the division between academic writing and journalism that Mauss himself observed and that has prevented us from grasping how they fed into each other at a key moment in his life? The dominant presence before the war of his uncle, Émile Durkheim, obviously contributed to this compartmentalization, as perhaps did Mauss’s sexuality too. He was, after all, one person not several; and, in The Gift, he lays out a totalizing method of approaching individuals, groups, institutions and events, so he was certainly aware of the problem. For us, Mauss himself is a “total social fact” who lights up our own predicament.

My first attempt to approach money as an object of anthropological inquiry was a Malinowski lecture given at LSE more than two decades ago (‘Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin’, Man 1986). Malinowski set a trend for anthropologists to dispute economic universals in polarized terms, juxtaposing exotic facts and western folk theories, without acknowledging the influence of contemporary history on their own ideas. My lecture had three parts which, taken together, constituted a method.

“First, we should be more explicitly aware of the concrete conditions that stimulate our interest in some abstract problems rather than others. This means asking what it is in the world as we experience it that informs our researches, whether directly or indirectly. Second, it is no good taking potshots at vulgar reductions of economic ideas, when the history of western economic thought is itself extremely plural, even contradictory. A constructive reading of that intellectual history might have served Malinowski’s ethnographic analysis better than the straw man he chose to attack. Finally, when historical awareness and a more sophisticated intellectual apparatus are combined with our discipline’s standby of ethnographic fieldwork, the resulting anthropological analysis offers a more secure foundation for critical understanding of the world in which we live.”

So I first located the problem of money in contemporary economic history, arguing that state control of money was being undermined in the leading capitalist societies. Then I traced two strands of western monetary theory explaining money as a token of authority issued by states or as a commodity made by markets. These strands came together in the writings of Keynes. But, rather than acknowledge the interdependence of top-down and bottom-up social organization (“heads and tails”), economic policy has swung wildly between the two extremes (“heads or tails?”). Last I showed that the token/commodity pair could inform a reanalysis of Malinowski’s ethnography.

“Anthropologists have to be capable of comparing their exotica with a more profound picture of ideas and realities in the industrial world that sustains us. Conventional economic reasoning fails to enlighten us because it is so unremittingly one-dimensional. The coin has two sides for a good reason – both are indispensable. Money is at the same time an aspect of relations between persons and a thing detached from persons….Today’s effort is an act of bricolage rather than brokerage, formed from a vision of the anthropologist as a handyman who can help repair the damage done by professionals.”

Some anthropologists have drawn on this piece for their own ethnographic purposes, without embracing world history or the theories of economists. In other words, the academic division of labour still reigns supreme and most anthropologists prefer to stay on familiar ground rather than risk being exposed as naive interlopers on territory made familiar through common journalism or already colonized by experts.

In Closed Systems and Open Minds (Max Gluckman editor, 1964), an anthropologist and an economist explored “the limits of naivety” in social anthropology. They argued that anthropologists, given their pretension to address humanity as a whole, are obliged to open themselves up to the full complexity of social reality. At some stage they must seek analytical closure in order to draw simple patterns from these open-ended inquiries; and these abstractions may often seem to be naive from the perspective of other disciplines. Gluckman had in mind the rich texture of ethnographic encounters, whereas I was suggesting that conjectural history, overthrown by fieldwork-based ethnography, should be rehabilitated, even if specialists can easily show the naivety of anthropologist’s accounts. Specialization can be an obstacle to the growth of knowledge; for specialists become prisoners of their expertise (Popper). Anthropologists have long enjoyed a certain intellectual freedom that can be invigorating for the more conventional sciences. We just have to be more explicit about how this comes about.

Michel Foucault ended his “archaeology of the human sciences” (The Order of Things, 1973, translation of Les mots et les choses, 1966) with some reflections on why psychoanalysis and social anthropology (ethnologie) “…occupy a privileged position in our knowledge”:

“…because, on the confines of all the branches of knowledge investigating man, they form a treasure-hoard of experiences and concepts, and above all a perpetual principle of dissatisfaction, of calling into question…what may seem, in other respects, to be established.”

“[They] are not so much two human sciences among others, but they span the entire domain of those sciences, they animate its whole surface…[They] are ‘counter-sciences’; which does not mean that they are less ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ than the others, but that they flow in the opposite direction, that they lead them back to their epistemological basis, and that they ceaselessly ‘unmake’ that very man who is creating and re-creating his positivity in the human sciences.”

Foucault attributed anthropology’s originality to its being both “traditionally the knowledge we have of the peoples without histories” and “situated in the dimension of historicity”, by which he meant “within the historical sovereignty of European thought and the relation that can bring it face to face with all other cultures as well as with itself”. He was sure the human sciences had reached their limit and this was doubly true of a discipline whose premises were being undermined by the collapse of European empire.

Given the disappearance of the traditional object of social anthropology, “primitive societies”, we have to find not only a new one, but also a theory and method appropriate to it. This means identifying the historicity of our own moment, as well as complementing ethnographic fieldwork with world history, critical philosophy and more besides.

First psoted on the ASA blog 17th Novemeber 2009.

Leave a Reply