The real economy? The challenge of dialectical method

By | January 6, 2018

The real economy? The challenge of dialectical method[1]

 Keith Hart[2]


This blatantly introspective essay seeks to trace a path from the postulation of an informal economy as a device of ethnographic realism to participation in virtual reality through the social media. The Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria is the dialectical outcome of this process, but it is invisible here.[3] The argument is organized as two parts which are concerned with the dialectics of ethnographic realism conceived of as a historical movement. The first considers the origins of the formal/informal pair in urban ethnography; the second examines virtual reality and the scope for anthropology online.

Ethnography is grounded in the fieldworker’s lived experience, not objective records. The dialectic of imagined and real took shape in my Accra research; the real economy of the slum was analysed through the formal/informal pair. Hegel showed that an idea lends ‘form’ to experience, using the ‘house’ as an example. Because of neoliberal deregulation, the informal economy has become universal. Anthropologists must reflect reality and reach out for imagined possibilities.

Virtual reality involves extension from the real to the imagined. The digital revolution replicates face-to-face encounters at distance. The offline/online dialectic is illuminated by Kant’s and Heidegger’s metaphysics. Anthropologists must engage directly with the world revolution. The Open Anthropology Cooperative offers important lessons. Anthropology online has far to go. The idea of a ‘real economy’ must adapt to movement and distance communications, not just to local forms of society.

The realism of ethnography

Raymond Williams (1961) defined ‘realism’ as a modern literary genre. 1. It revealed a new class to the reading public. 2. It was contemporary rather than backward-looking. 3. It dismantled the sacred myths of old society. Soon after the devastation of the First World War, Malinowski (1922) fulfilled all three criteria in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. The Trobriand Islanders organized international trade without markets, money, states or an ethos of buy cheap, sell dear. Like the hit movie of the same year, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, they offered a dignified alternative to a western civilization demoralized by mass killing. By insisting on encountering them as they currently were, Malinowski rejected an evolutionism that saw them only as precursors of civilization. And the main sacred myth of the day, homo economicus, was consigned to the dustbin of history (perhaps). Fieldwork-based ethnography was a winning recipe and it has served anthropologists well ever since.

Ethnography has not only taken over anthropology, but it has been adopted by many other disciplines. Anthropologists know that their version is different and superior, but they have been inhibited in arguing the point by Malinowski’s other legacy – his claim that ethnography was a science. Ethnography for non-anthropologists usually means recording qualitative observations made in limited time and space. These then become public documents to be cited in analysis. Anthropologists collect field notes too, but they don’t grant public access to them, except sometimes after death. Why this reticence? The relationship between ethnographic analysis and field notes is speculative, not positivist. Long-term fieldwork allows anthropologists to build understanding based on their own practical experience and a people’s own concepts, learned in their language.

Durkheim (1912) taught us that we internalize ideas by living in society. This is one consequence of extended fieldwork. We absorb much from the places we live in, but this knowledge often lacks the concrete objectivity of a documentary record. We may start from notes, but we put them within a broader understanding of that society. It is this reaching out for more general intuitions that distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines. We may well discover more profound truths this way, but we often can’t demonstrate their source, as a science should. That might be less embarrassing if the discipline had not sold itself to the academy as a science when positivism ruled. So anthropologists cannot celebrate their method, since their speculative humanism is caught between an older sense of ‘science’ as organized knowledge and the objectivism of a social version of natural science.

Since 1990 my main excursions into ethnography have been online. This has led me to explore the dialectics of virtual reality. The idea of an objectively real economy is less plausible when relations are mediated by the internet. Dialectical reason is intended to capture the movement of thought in society and history. Rather than merely reproduce the status quo, we must imagine future possibilities whose initial conditions are actual. The movement of thought and practice is thus from the actual to the possible. Rather than being restricted to a positivist version of reality, we can envisage change, grounded in what already is.

This paper highlights a persistent thread in my work that might be called ‘the dialectics of realism’ with particular reference to the economy. In a 2011 interview with Federico Neiburg and Fernando Rabossi,[4] I recalled how as a teenager I wanted desperately to bridge the gap between myself and impersonal society. I felt oppressed by anonymous examiners and sought to influence them through a variety of techniques of self-presentation. Later this became an idée fixe of my anthropology, connecting the everyday to the wider reaches of a society whose principal mechanisms were impersonal – state bureaucracies, capitalist markets and science.

This took shape in my Accra research on the informal economy in 1965-68. Around 1970 the state was considered universally to be the main actor in development. Economists were either Marxist or Keynesian, with liberals extremely scarce. I knew that no idea, however big and strong, could ever capture what people really do. So I set out to document the real economy of the slum, with Hegel as my guide. Here ‘real’ meant the actual stuff of experience, rather than an analytical concept.

Hegelian dialectics

G.W.F. Hegel pioneered a historical version of dialectical method in The Science of Logic (1812-16). The object of philosophy for him was not individuals, but societies. These move because they are in history. So how can thought move systematically along with its object? The answer is dialectic. Dialectical method is often considered to be difficult, especially in the Anglophone tradition of empirical reasoning. But it is part of human thinking in general, where it is known as conversation. The other method of thinking in movement is story and this has not yet become a branch of philosophy.

Hegel begins with experience, a disorganized muddle. An idea gives part of it ‘form’. Form is an idea whose origin lies in the mind. It is the rule, the invariant in the variable, predictable and easily recognized. In a birdwatcher’s guide, it would not do to illustrate each species with a photograph of a particular bird. It might be looking the wrong way or missing a leg… So a caricature shows the distinctive beak, the wing markings and so on. Idealist philosophers from Plato onwards thought the general idea of something was more real than the thing itself. Words are forms, of course.

Hegel shows the error of taking the idea for reality. We all know the word ‘house’ and might think there is nothing more to owning one than saying ‘my house’. But before long the roof leaks, the paint peels and we are forced to acknowledge that the house is a material process requiring attention. It is legitimate to oppose the real to ideal abstraction. But Hegel wanted a more inclusive historical method.

An idea gives form to experience. If it is a powerful idea, like the state or family or economy, it may come to be seen as being synonymous with society itself. But the idea is not reality and a complementary category may eventually organize what this one is not. The movement of this paired negation may come to stand for society. This is positive dialectic. We need to know society as it is, but we also aspire to do better than that. Dialectic allows us to consider possibility in relation to the actual. When a people aim to realise a powerful idea, they may be disappointed for a time, but they can try again, sometimes replacing the status quo by revolution.

Eventually the dialectical pair loses its power. Each side leaks into the other and the division between them becomes blurred until the negation appears to be spurious. This is negative dialectic. Perhaps a new idea will organize reality and the process of positive dialectic starts all over. Despite Hegel’s reputation as an idealist philosopher, his main preoccupation was with the mutual determination of ideas and reality. To return to the house example, what do we do when our words are not enough? Redecorate? Read poetry while the place falls apart? Are a leaky roof and cracks in the walls the only reality? Or do we reclaim our ownership and learn how to fix the house?

The formal/informal pair

 The formal/informal pair first saw light during the world crisis of the early 70s – a sequence of events that took in America’s losing war in Vietnam, the dollar’s detachment from gold in 1971, the invention of money market futures the following year and the dismantling of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed parity exchange rates. This was soon followed by a world depression induced by the oil price hike of 1973 and by a glut of petrodollar loans that ended up as the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s. ‘Stagflation’ in the West (high unemployment and inflation) prepared the ground for Reagan and Thatcher from 1979-80 onwards. After the ‘modernization’ boom of the 60s, the idea that poor countries could become rich by emulating ‘us’ gave way to gloomier scenarios, fed by zero-sum theories of ‘underdevelopment’, ‘dependency’ and ‘the world system’. In development policy-making circles, this trend was manifested as fear of ‘Third World urban unemployment’. Cities were growing rapidly, but without comparable growth in ‘jobs’, conceived of as regular public and private sector employment. The question was how were ‘we’ (the bureaucracy and its academic advisors) going to provide the people with the jobs, health, housing etc. that they need? And what will happen if we don’t? The spectre of urban riots and revolution raised their head. Some advocated forcibly returning the urban mob to peasant agriculture where they could do less damage. ‘Unemployment’ evoked images of the Great Depression, of broken men huddling on street corners.

This story didn’t square with my fieldwork experience in the slums of Accra (1965-68). In trying to work out why, I did not consult my field notes, but my store of intuitive knowledge gained from living there for over two years. The people I knew were working, often for small and erratic returns, but they were not ‘unemployed’. The result was a paper for a 1971 IDS, Sussex conference (Hart 1973). It eventually appeared after an ILO (1972) report, led by the organizers of the Sussex conference and influenced by my paper, had launched the idea of an ‘informal sector’ in Kenya without attribution. I had hoped to persuade development economists, from my ethnographic perspective, to abandon the ‘unemployment’ model and accept that there was more going on at the grassroots than their bureaucratic imagination allowed for. My first section was a vivid Malinowskian description; the second engaged with development theory, using ‘economese’ (how to sound like an economist without formal training in the discipline) which I had learned by moonlighting for The Economist. I had no ambition to coin a concept, just to insert a particular vision of irregular economic activity into the ongoing debates of development professionals. It was a classic move in the genre of ‘realism’. The ILO Kenya report did want to coin a concept, which is what it subsequently became, a keyword that organized a segment of the academic and policy-making bureaucracy. So the ‘informal economy’ has a double provenance, between bureaucracy (the ILO) and the people (ethnography).

Much later, I published a critique (Hart 1992) which endorsed drawing attention to activities that had been invisible to the bureaucratic gaze, but I was struck by how static my analysis had been. I held that no single idea (‘the state’) can ever capture the complexity of life as lived by people, including ethnographers, leaving the residue as potential material for another idea, its negation. But I first conceived of informal income opportunities as a minor appendage of the state-made economy, going nowhere. I never thought of the ‘informal sector’ as a new means of bootstrap development.

I could not anticipate what happened next: under a neoliberal imperative to reduce the state’s grip on ‘the free market’, manifested in Africa as ‘structural adjustment’, national economies and the world economy itself became radically informal (Hart 2015). Not only did the management of money go offshore, but corporations outsourced, downsized and casualized their labour forces, public functions were privatized, often corruptly, the drugs and illicit arms trades took off, the global war over ‘intellectual property’ assumed central place in capitalism’s contradictions, and whole countries, such as Mobutu’s Zaire, abandoned any pretence of formality in their economic affairs. Here was no ‘hole-in-the-wall’ operation living in the cracks of the law. The market frenzy led to the ‘commanding heights’ of the informal economy taking over the bureaucracy. The Cold War ended in a ‘negative dialectic’ of confusion – ‘state capitalism’, ‘market socialism’ and so on. The poles of the formal/informal opposition, inspired by the state/market pair, were now often indistinguishable. What is the difference between a Wall Street bank laundering gangsters’ money through the Cayman Islands and the mafias running opium out of Afghanistan with the support of several national governments (Hart 2005)?

So the informal economy concept was insufficiently dynamic. My next criticism was that ‘informal’ says what these activities are not, but not what they are. The next phase of negative dialectic (‘postmodernism’ and ‘deconstruction’ in the 1970s and 80s) was succeeded by a new positive idea (‘globalization’). Now we needed to know what was going on under the rubric of ‘informal’, rather than lump everything together in a catchall phrase that allowed bureaucrats to think they knew the unknowable. It remains to expose the principles organizing the informal economy in a historical context. But there are still limited political uses for the idea as well as empirical applications.

The dialectics of form

“General Forms have their vitality in Particulars, and every Particular is a Man”. William Blake.

Most academics live largely inside the formal economy. This is a world of salaries paid on time, regular mortgage payments, clean credit ratings, fear of the tax authorities, regular meals, moderate use of stimulants, good health cover, pension contributions, school fees, driving to the commuter station, summer holidays by the sea. Of course some households suffer economic crises from time to time and many feel permanently vulnerable, especially students. But what makes this lifestyle ‘formal’ is the regularity of its order, a predictable rhythm and sense of control that the middle classes used to take for granted.

When I first went to live in Accra, I would ask questions like how much do you spend on food in a week? Households were often unbounded and transient. If someone had a regular wage (which many didn’t), it was pitifully small; the wage-earner might live it up for a while and then was broke, relying on credit and help from family and friends or not eating at all. A married man might use his wage to buy a sack of rice, pay the rent and meet his children’s school costs, knowing that he would have to hustle outside work until the next pay check. In the street economy people sold everything from marijuana to refrigerators in an economy of flux more than stable income. I later worked in a development studies institute, where I tried to convey my ethnographic experience to development economists. The formal/informal pair came out of those conversations.

These two aspects of society were already linked of course, since an ‘informal economy’ is entailed in the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. ‘Form’ is an idea that ought to be universal in social life; and in the twentieth century the dominant forms were those of national bureaucracy, since society had become identified with nation-states. This identity has been weakened by neoliberal world economy and the digital revolution in communications. This is the historical context for the mutual imbrication of public bureaucracy and informal popular practices.

The term ‘informal sector’ implies that the formal and informal are located in different places, like agriculture and manufacturing, whereas they are always found together. Their relationship is sometimes represented as a class war between the bureaucracy and the people. It was not supposed to be like this. Modern bureaucracy was part of a democratic political project to give citizens equal access to what was theirs as a right. It still has the ability to co-ordinate public services on a scale beyond the reach of individuals and most groups. Bureaucracy (‘the power of public office’) should be seen not as the negation of democracy (‘the power of the people’), but as its natural ally.

Forms are necessarily abstract and a lot of social life is left out as a result. The ‘informal sector’ is a device that seeks to reduce the gap by incorporating informal practices into abstract models. The forms of informality are largely invisible to the bureaucratic gaze. Equally, the formal sphere of society also consists of the people who staff bureaucracies and their informal practices. What makes something ‘formal’ is its conformity with an idea or rule. Formality endows a class of people with universal qualities, with being the same and equal. The world’s ruling elite is known as ‘the men in suits’ because they wear what was once an informal alternative to formal evening dress and now represents a modified formality. The dialectic is infinitely recursive. There is a hierarchy of forms and this is not fixed for ever. The dominant economic forms of the twentieth century were closely linked to the state as the source of law. The uneasy alliance of governments and corporations (‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors) was classified as ‘the formal sector’. How do non-conformist activities relate to this formal order? In any of four ways: as division, content, negation and residue.

The moral economy of capitalist societies seeks to keep separate impersonal and personal spheres of social life. The formal public sphere entailed another based on domestic privacy. The two constitute complementary halves of a single whole. Most people, traditionally men more than women, divide themselves every day between production and consumption, paid and unpaid work, submission to impersonal rules in the office and the free play of personality at home. Their interaction is an endless process of separation and integration that I call ‘division’. The division of sexual labour is the master metaphor for this dialectic of complementary unity and it is now unravelling before our eyes.

For a rule to be translated into human action, something else must be brought into play, such as personal judgment. So informality is built into bureaucratic forms as unspecified ‘content’. Workable solutions to problems of administration are always partly invisible to the formal order. For example, workers sometimes ‘work-to-rule’. They follow their job descriptions to the letter (the formal abstraction of what they actually do) without any of the informal practices that allow these abstractions to function. Everything grinds to a halt. Or take a commodity chain from production by a transnational corporation to final consumption in an African city. Invisible actors fill the gaps that the bureaucracy cannot handle directly, from the factories to the docks to the supermarkets and street traders. Informality is indispensable to the trade, as variable ‘content’ to the general form. Some of these activities break the law — a breach of health and safety regulations, tax evasion, smuggling, the use of child labour, selling without a licence. Informal activities here relate to formal organization as its ‘negation’. The informal is often illegal; and rule-breaking takes place both within bureaucracy and outside it. It is hard to distinguish between colourful women selling oranges on the street and the gangsters who supply them. When the law is weak, criminal forms of society usually fill the vacuum. The public image of bureaucracy must somehow be protected from a corrupt and criminal reality. We understand the realism of movies about cops and robbers who are often indistinguishable, but somehow we retain a belief in the separation of the legal and illegal.

Some ‘informal’ activities exist in parallel, as ‘residue’, untouched by the bureaucracy. It stretches the logic of the formal/informal pair to include domesticity, peasant economy and traditional institutions under the rubric of ‘informal’. Yet their typical social forms often shape informal economic practices and vice versa. Is society one thing – one state with its rule of law – or many? For practical purposes, society’s constituent communities use implicit rules (culture) rather than state-made laws and regulate their members informally, relying on the sanction of exclusion rather than punishment. European empires, faced with a shortage of administrators, turned to ‘indirect rule’ as a way of incorporating semi-autonomous subject peoples into their systems of government. Legal pluralism delegated supervision of indigenous customary forms to appointed chiefs and headmen, reserving the levers of power for the colonial regime.

How the informal economy took over the world 

The informal economy was born when the post-war era of developmental states was drawing to a close. The 1970s were a watershed between three decades of state management of the economy and the ‘free mar­ket’ decades of one-world capitalism. It seems now that the economy has escaped from all attempts to make it publicly accountable. What forms of state can regulate a world of money that is now lawless? The formal/informal pair started off as a way of talking about the Third World urban poor living in the cracks of a rule system that could not reach down to their level. Now the rule system itself is in question. Everyone ignores the rules, especially the people at the top — the politicians and bureaucrats, the corporations, the banks — and they routinely escape being held responsible for their illegal ac­tions. Privatization of public interests is probably universal, but the alliance between money and power used to be covert, whereas now it is celebrated as a virtue. The informal economy has taken over the world, while cloaking itself in liberal rhetoric (Hart 2015).

We are witnessing the world-historic collapse of the twentieth-century’s attempt to impose national controls on the economy. Inevitably, we dream of restoring the post-war era of social democracy, developmental states and even Stalinism. The rules operated then with some suc­cess. This nostalgia for the heyday of “national capitalism” will not serve us well today (Hart 2009a). Above all, we should acknowledge that the core problem is not narrowly economic, but one of political failure, both national and international. Money and markets have escaped from public control and cannot be put back in that straitjacket.   To talk of the world economy being informal suggests that there is a global rule-system, whereas effective rules are now marginal for the rich, if not the poor and increasingly the middle classes. The crisis is not merely financial, a moment in the historical cycle of credit and debt. It is a formative episode in the history of money. Central banks and the states who claim to represent society as a single actor no longer control money. Offshore banking deals in sums that vastly exceed national budgets (Shaxson 2011) and money is created in myriad ways by a distributed network of corporations, not just banks licenced by governments. Politics is still mainly national, but the money circuit is global and lawless. The system that the world lived by in the last century has been unravelling since the U.S. dollar went off gold and its chief symbol today is the euro crisis, a single currency meant to protect European countries from global markets. The disconnection between economic and political institutions makes effective solutions unattainable at present.

The informal economy’s improbable rise to prominence is one re­sult of the current mania for deregulation, linked to the wholesale privatization of public goods and services and to the capture of politics by finance. Deregulation provides a fig leaf for corruption, rentier accumulation, tax evasion and public irresponsibility. The removal of official re­straints on finance generated a banking culture of personal excess from the trading floor to boardroom politics; moral responsibility towards clients was replaced by an ethos of predation. Yet, while the credit boom lasted, criticism was drowned by celebrations of unending prosperity. Even after the bust, the political ascendancy of finance has hardly been challenged. The shadow banking system — hedge funds, money market funds and structured investment vehicles that are unregulated — is literally out of control. Tax evasion is an international industry that dwarfs national budgets (Shaxson 2011). The Cambridge economist, Sir James Mirlees, won a Nobel Prize for proving that you cannot force the rich to pay more than they want. The criminal behaviour of transnational corporations, who now outnumber countries by two to one in the top 100 economic entities, goes largely unnoticed (Perkins 2004). The story goes on: the drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia to Russia, the illegal armaments industry, the global war over intellectual property (“piracy”), fake luxury goods, the invasion and looting of Iraq, four million dead in the Congo scramble for minerals. In 2006, the Japanese electronics firm NEC discovered a criminal counterpart of itself, operating on a similar scale under the same name and more profitably because it was outside the law (Johns 2009). The scale of it all passes belief.

We tend to talk about this disaster in eco­nomic rather than political terms. Even neoliberalism’s detractors reproduce the free market ideology that they claim to oppose. Clearly, we are at the end of something. This is the synthesis of nation-states and industrial capitalism whose main symbol has been national monopoly currency (legal tender). ‘National capitalism’ was the institutional attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracy within a presumptive community of national citizens (Hart 2009). It was never the only active principle of political economy: regional federations, empires and globalization are as old or older.

I once studied identifiable persons scratching a living in a West African slum. They did not add up to much; but I considered these activities to be ‘real’. What are we to make of a world economy where corporations and governments run amok in blatant defiance of the law? Global finance is often portrayed as unreal and abstract. Our task is to show that it is the real economy.

The real and the virtual

The digital revolution seeks to replicate face-to-face encounters at distance. All communication, whether the exchange of words or money, has a virtual aspect in that symbols and their media of circulation stand for what people really do for each other. This involves the exercise of imagination, an ability to construct meanings across the gap between symbol and reality. For millennia the book sustained that leap of faith in human communication. Karl Marx (1867) showed how the power of money was mystified through its appearance as things (coins, products, machinery) rather than relations between living men. Both he and Max Weber (1922) emphasized how capitalists sought to detach their money-making activities from real conditions that could obstruct their purposes. Money-lending — charging interest on loans without production or exchange — is one of capitalism’s oldest forms. The apparent separation of the money circuit from reality is not new.

The ‘virtual’ is abstract (Carrier and Miller 1998), a function of the shift to ever more inclusive levels of exchange, to the world market as principal point of reference for economic activity. But more abstract forms of communication have the potential for real persons to be involved with each other at distance in very concrete ways. ‘Virtual reality’ expresses this double movement: it refers to a computer-generated environment explored by a person who becomes immersed in it while performing a series of actions in real time. It involves interaction between machines whose complexity their users cannot possibly understand and live experiences ‘as good as’ real. It is the same with money. Capitalism has become virtual in two main senses: the shift from material production (agriculture and manufacturing) to information services; and the corresponding detachment of the circulation of money from production and trade, partly as a result of the digital revolution in communications (Hart 2004)

If we would make a better world, rather than just contemplate it, we must learn to think creatively in terms that both reflect reality and reach out for imagined possibilities. Imagination then becomes central to ‘realization’. ‘Reality’ is present, in terms of both time and space; and its opposite was once imagined connection at distance, something as old as story-telling – hence the traditional contrast between fact and fiction that is now collapsing in the era of the internet. Already the experience of near synchrony at distance, the compression of time and space, is altering our conceptions of social relations, of place and movement.

Martin Heidegger (1930) says that ‘world’ is an abstract metaphysical category for each of us and its dialectical counterpart is ‘solitude’, the idea of an isolated individual. Every human subject makes a world of their own whose centre is the self. The world opens up, however, only when we recognize ourselves as finite individuals, and this leads us to ‘finitude’, the concrete specifics of time and place in which we necessarily live. So ‘world’ is relative both to an abstract version of subjectivity and to our particularity in the world (seen as position and movement in time and space).

The internet is often represented as a self-sufficient universe with its own distinctive characteristics, as when Castells (1996) writes of the rise of a new ideal type, ‘network society’. The idea that each of us lives alone in a world largely of our own making seems to be more real when we go online. But both terms are imagined, reciprocal and transcendental, therefore untenable as an object of inquiry, according to Heidegger. We approach them from where we actually live. It is thus unsatisfactory to study the social forms of the internet independently of what people bring to them from their lives. This social life of people off-line is an invisible presence when they are on-line. We must, however, grant some autonomy to ‘virtual reality’. Would we dream of reducing literature to the circumstances of readers? And this is Heidegger’s point. ‘World’ and ‘solitude’ may be artificial abstractions, but they do affect how we behave in ‘finitude’.

Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Immanuel Kant extended this principle to metaphysics. In The Critique of Pure Reason, he writes, “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects…. but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge? (2008:22)” That is, the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to bring the two poles together as subjective individuals who share the object world along with the rest of humanity (2003).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, society was identified with the state, entailing a separation of the personal from the impersonal, the subject from the object, humanism from science. The decline of national capitalism in the face of the digital revolution is undermining these divisions. National monopoly currencies are giving way to competition between multiple currencies, many of them specifically adapted to the internet; and informality on a world scale is driven in part by the illegal opportunities it affords. In The Memory Bank (Hart 2000), I argued that cheapening of the cost of information transfers thanks to the digital revolution allows much more information about persons to enter into what were largely impersonal commercial transactions before. This development is reproduced in many aspects of contemporary social life. It involves a new idea of the person based on digital abstractions as much as on more concrete forms of individuality. Customized interactions with Amazon, at once personal and remote, reflect this trend.

The use of new technologies in teaching means that learning can now be much more individual and ecumenical at the same time; this juxtaposition of self and the world poses a threat to the academic guild. It adds up to a radical revision of attitudes to subject-object relations, including the positivist dogmas that once underpinned scientific ethnography. Learning anthropology would be impossible if we were not, each of us, human beings in the first place. Anthropologists, who once could rely on public ignorance as support for their exotic tales, must now cope with mass movement and communications. What can our expertise offer that is not delivered more effectively through novels and films, journalism or tourism?[5] The rhetoric and reality of markets now encourage individuals to choose the means of their own enlightenment. We may be on the verge of a new paradigm for anthropology, reflecting the social and technological changes of the internet era.

Anthropology in the world revolution

The new communications technologies are blurring the boundaries of our disciplines, transforming the content of education, spawning new genres and sites of research, demanding fresh intellectual strategies. Anthropologists have not yet grasped the potential of this new world. We need to think again about its scope, reach and impact, about the audiences we wish to address and how.

We are living through the first stages of a world revolution as far-reaching as the invention of agriculture. Plants don’t move and building society around their cultivation engenders static conceptions of reality. Our world is built on movement and communication at distance. It is a machine revolution: the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital system; a social revolution, the formation of a world society with means of communication adequate at last to expressing universal ideas; a financial revolution, the detachment of the money circuit from production, linked to the West’s loss of control over the world economy; an existential revolution, transforming what it means to be human and how each of us relates to the rest of humanity.

Oswald Spengler (1918) observed that the world historical moment you are born into does not need you; it will carry on with or without you. But still he offers a challenge to his readers “Do you have the courage to embrace it?” So too with this revolution: you can engage with it or you can hide from it. And every person’s trajectory is particular to them, even if the revolution has some general outlines. The point is to embrace the new technologies and discover at first hand the opportunities they offer. The World Wide Web made the internet more visual, personal and interactive. But the digital revolution is linear. Everyone enters it with their own bundle of assets and liabilities at a particular moment. The technology evolves, so that early users may be over-adapted to older techniques, while latecomers can make more creative use of less demanding software. The society made by the machine revolution is a river; you never step into the same river twice.

We are like the primitive digging-stick operators who inaugurated the agricultural revolution. They hadn’t a clue that it would end up as Chinese civilization. Nor do we know where this thing is going. But our stumbling steps into this new world have implications for those who follow; future generations will be interested in us for what we do with this revolution. To take one example from many, social bookmarking is particularly important (Weinberger 2008). Classification of knowledge was hitherto done by experts and every piece of information had its unique place somewhere in a folder. Now tagging makes it possible for anyone to leave a mark on something they like or consider useful and you can find their guidance with sophisticated software. The people are generating the categories; and even Google’s search engine is becoming obsolete because its millions of hits are less attuned to the user’s profile.

When the Latins invented ‘society’ to describe their aspirations for collective order, the word they used had as its root the word meaning to follow (Hart 2003). The new social networks are personal and unequal; they often have a commercial feel (Barone and Hart 2015). Participation in them can be an alienating experience. But anthropologists do need to engage with them. I have long studied alternative approaches to money, especially community and complementary currencies (Hart 2006); they have not yet found the social and technical principles to would help them take off. Maybe Twitter would be an ideal platform for them.

Between social networks and academia: anthropology online

The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) was launched in 2009 (Barone and Hart 2015). It now has over 20,000 members from an amazing diversity of backgrounds, divided between two social media sites. They include faculty, postgraduate students, undergraduates and outsiders. The OAC at one time had over a hundred discussion groups, including some in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Russian, Georgian and Norwegian, blogs, a forum, a wiki repository, its own Press (still going strong), a seminar series and personal pages in all their variety.

How do we transform anthropology into a more publicly engaged discipline? The OAC’s founders proposed to do this through new media, open technology, cooperation, public outreach and a passion for anthropology. We hoped to establish a universal medium capable of expressing anthropology’s unlimited potential. Yet we soon reverted to the anthropologists’ safe zone: observing, participating, collecting more data, but always failing to catch up with the world.

Participation in the machine revolution is both passive and active. We are all affected by the Internet’s impact, whether we choose to join in every day, occasionally as needed, or to ignore it. The Internet and social media are powerful tools because anyone can participate with little effort. Blogging, social media and open access publishing online are still downgraded by universities. Anthropologists have been slow to take up the new media because they do not fit traditional academic models. The struggle to break through established prejudices about online publication and interaction continues. The OAC’s popular online seminar series recreates the values of an academic mode of production. Its network is an anomaly in an otherwise tidy classification system, a reminder that anthropology has become an exclusive practice, treating online and academic conversation as mostly incompatible.  The OAC is a compromised public island seeking to avoid academic bureaucracy, yet largely populated by its victims. Being an active OAC member takes more time commitment than Facebook or Twitter — at least some critical thought and the expectation of pointed exchange.

Academics change slowly, even if new modes of communication make a difference to how we live and work. We already know that fieldwork will never be the same again as a result of the digital revolution. But what can anthropologists, with our supposed expertise in social relations, do to help shape the future of our institutions? Our students, readers and the people we study will expect to be engaged through these new media. For some this will be an uphill struggle. We must move from monologue to dialogue, from guild disciplines to the kind of lifetime self-learning that the internet makes possible. The universities now lag behind their students in media literacy. The ‘edupunk’ movement, armed with user-friendly digital technologies, rejects the imposition of outdated software systems that universities have spent millions on. Anthropology has always been an anti-discipline, sitting uneasily with academic bureaucracy. We have a lot to gain, professionally and as human beings, from embracing this revolution.

From ethnography to social movement

The ethnographic model still dominates social and cultural anthropology; but that model was never intended to inform a movement to change the world. Contemporary anthropology reflects our world, but is not designed to change it. Anthropologists are conservative. After all, we spent the last century – a time of massive urbanization, total war and the break-up of empires – seeking out isolated places to study as if they were outside modern history. Now, having realized that we are part of a world unified by transnational capitalism, we spend our time bemoaning the fate of the universities and our own irrelevance to public discourse. The internet’s growth has generated a strong counter-movement that few anthropologists take seriously (Coleman 2012). Yet the new media have generated some dramatic political responses to the world economic crisis. Perhaps anthropology could still be affected by this development.

We have hardly used anthropology or social theory — old and new — to address the problems we now face as a discipline. The idea of society as a bounded hierarchy synonymous with a state was a medieval French invention. If we are now living in the “network society” (Castells 1996), it seems to be one where “followers” and “friends” play a major part. These relations are often ephemeral. We should think more about the implications of all this for anthropology and the academy.

Anthropologists suffer from an inability to catch up with a changing world while we meticulously document it. We are losing control of our master-concepts like culture to other disciplines and even to web moguls who are not afraid to engage with the popular media (Breidenbach and Nyiri 2010). We do have something to offer the general public. It is just that we are terrible at communicating it. We all know this. Anthropologists are often confounded when interacting with the world outside academia. Fear of marketing our expertise, of ‘branding’ anthropology or seeking out media attention fatally undermines an innovative project that once promised so much. Our web-based activities closely resemble office-based politics in this respect. The OAC began as a public-facing anthropological experiment and ended up being by and for academics, with similar prejudices and hierarchical constraints to those in the universities.

Tom Boellstorff (2012) has written a penetrating assessment of digital anthropology’s potential.[6] Unusually, he gives definition to its object, theory and method. All contemporary anthropology is digital, he says; but digital anthropology is a technique and thus only indirectly an object of study. In order to distinguish it from ‘online’ anthropology, he develops the volume editors’ dialectical concept of ‘digital’ as the gap between the virtual and the actual (similar to online and offline). The two are mutually constituted as indexical relations by the virtual and the actual. Boellstorff makes ‘indexicality’ his big theoretical idea, drawing on Peirce. He denies that the lines between virtual and actual are becoming blurred (as in Hegel’s negative dialectic above). His chief method is participant observation, the universal technique of ethnographic fieldwork; but he argues that digital anthropology can take this further since it involves self-conscious construction of identities to a greater degree that in normal fieldwork.

I have traced my thinking on the dialectics of realism from the informal economy to the world of social media today.  Entering fully into that world provides a way of taking engagement with informal sociality further than I could fifty years ago. The idea of a real economy seems quite close in some ways to my original use of the formal/informal pair. Whatever dialectic it is part of, however, remains hidden by objectivist logic. A comparable pair, fact and fiction, lies at the heart of a doomed attempt to construe ethnography as science in the positivist sense. In pursuit of such a goal, early twentieth century ethnographers, while the world was being turned upside down, sought out remote agricultural societies conceived of as being outside world history. This allowed them to maintain their preoccupation with stable unconnected societies with economies and cultures to match, a preoccupation sustained, consciously or unconsciously, by identification of society with the nation-state. In the second half of the last century, anthropologists embraced the world’s movement and interconnectedness more openly, but still often retreat into a static methodology based on narrow ethnographic localism. The internet era has set in train revolutionary developments that have destabilised the ideas we have grown accustomed to work with. The only way we can catch up with this runaway world (Leach 1968) is to abandon static binaries of the yes/no type and fully embrace engaged movement. The concept of a ‘real economy’ could help anthropologists to understand and shape a world in revolutionary turmoil: but to do so a method grounded in dialectical history is urgently needed.



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[1] Paper presented to a conference, “Real Economy: Ethnographic Inquiries into the Reality and the Realization of Economic Life”, Rio de Janeiro, June 16-18, 2016

[2] International Director, Human Economy Programme, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria.



[5] Jane Guyer (2016) suggests that anthropologists’ originality could now lie in patient tracking of ‘realizations’, understood over time in local terms in one place, social category or domain of action. We now bring our expertise to the process of ‘emergence’, in economy as elsewhere.

[6] Tom Boellstorff’s (2016) essay on ‘the digital real’ appeared too late for me to take full account of it here.

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