Money and finance: For an anthropology of globalization

Keith Hart (London School of Economics and University of Pretoria) and Horacio Ortiz (Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, Paris)

There is much talk today of a financial and economic crisis comparable to the 1930s. With the threat of a currency war and the euro’s collapse looming, the specter of the Great Depression’s bloody aftermath has returned with a vengeance. Several versions of how to make human beings and build society co-existed during the Cold War, when much of the world won independence from colonial empire. Yet, discussion of humanity’s growing interdependence is today limited to a one-world capitalism driven by finance. What have anthropologists to say about that? It would seem very little. But a positive case can be made for the discipline’s contribution to public debate. We make such a case here. We review recent developments in the anthropology of money and finance, listing its achievements, shortcomings and prospects, while referring back to the discipline’s founders a century ago. Economic anthropologists have tended to restrict themselves to niche fields and marginal debates since the 1960s. We hope to reverse this trend by focusing on money’s role in shaping global society and bringing world history into a more active dialogue with ethnography.

Money and finance have been prominent in anthropology since its formation as a modern discipline. Rather than emphasize what money does, as the economists do — a medium of exchange, reserve fund or means of accounting – anthropologists can approach it as an integral part of the hierarchies and networks of exchange through which it circulates. Its multiple meanings in turn keep society together and reinforce the roles played by each member. Money’s capacity to transcend group boundaries drives the extension of society to more inclusive levels and transforms identities in the process. It is a commonplace for our discipline to show that money’s meanings and relations cannot be confined a single theory. Fieldwork-based ethnography – a commitment to joining the people where they live in order to discover what they do and think — was the principal achievement of twentieth-century anthropology; but it is insufficient for studying money (Hart 1986). The ethnographic revolution eventually removed world history from twentieth-century anthropologists’ repertoire. This is hardly conducive to the task of investigating money’s global role in our historical moment. Progress in economic anthropology depends on combining ethnography and world history within a critical perspective (Hann & Hart 2011). Continue reading ‘Money and finance: For an anthropology of globalization’ »

Scaling the world down, scaling the self up, bridging the gap

On the one side, ladies and gentlemen, what passes between the ears of a puny self; on the other, a vast unknowable universe that could come crashing down around your ears at any time — and will when you die, as everyone must. How to bridge the gap? This is an existential question that goes far beyond the claims of a minor twentieth century academic discipline currently down on its luck. But it is one that anthropologists might address, if we wanted to.

Traditionally religion performed this task and, as long as those governing society acknowledged its role, there was a tangible bridge between men of power and the masses. A fraudulent one, perhaps, but civilizations were built on it. For over a century now this link has been broken in the societies with most influence on world history. Rather, science presumptively rules and social science has replaced the humanities. It is worth recalling the method of the humanities — truth of potentially universal significance was sought through the exercise of personal judgment on particular cases backed by scholarship and rigorous thought. Kant’s Copernican revolution consisted in this (but we could just as easily attribute the movement to Michel de Montaigne): “Hitherto we have made our knowledge conform to the world of objects, but perhaps the objects should conform to our knowledge”. Great literature was always the main vehicle for this approach, but also history, law, philosophy and, let it be acknowledged, ethnography.

There is a common method to all this which exceeds the limits of academic inquiry. We need to scale the world down and scale the self up so that they can meet somewhere with the prospect of making a meaningful connection between them. That is the problem and anthropologists could throw light on a great variety of ways that people have tried to solve it. The classic means to this end is prayer. Religion is, among many other things, an attempt to maintain a binding link between something deeply personal and subjective inside each of us and the impersonal world out there that we inhabit. I can talk to God, privately or collectively in public. Marcel Mauss made prayer the topic of his unfinished PhD thesis because “speech is the unity of thought and action”. Many people in our world still bridge the gap this way. Continue reading ‘Scaling the world down, scaling the self up, bridging the gap’ »

Why is anthropology not a public science?

Anthropologists have given up on speculating about the unity of humanity and simply chronicle the diversity (as Lévi-Strauss put it in his UNESCO paper on race). Everywhere we look these days, the question arises of why anthropology has so weak a public profile. This is my answer, some parts tongue in cheek, others less so. My case study is the one I know best.Between the wars British social anthropology had a coherent object, theory and method. The object was primitive societies (as a sort of metaphor for complex societies), the theory was functionalism (whatever they do adds up to something) and the method was fieldwork-based ethnography. So you lived in exotic places and observed what they did there. Since then we have dropped both the object and the theory, retaining only the method which leads to short-sighted localism.

Foucault has an interesting observation towards the end of The Order of Things. He ended his “archaeology of the human sciences” 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 anthropology, 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 and humanist philosophy. Continue reading ‘Why is anthropology not a public science?’ »

The anthropology of money and finance: references

References

Abolafia, M., 1996, Making Markets. Opportunism and restraint on Wall Street, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Agar, J. 2004. Constant Touch: A global history of the mobile phone. London: Faber & Faber.

Akin, D. and J. Robbins (eds) 1999. Money and Modernity: State and local currencies in Melanesia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Appadurai, A. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—– 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural dimensions in globalization. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

2012. The spirit of calculation, Cambridge Anthropology 30.1: 3-17.

Applbaum, K. 2004. The Marketing Era: From professional practice to global provisioning. New York: Routledge.

Ayache, E. 2010. The Blank Swan: The end of probability. New York: Wiley. Continue reading ‘The anthropology of money and finance: references’ »

Prospects for the anthropology of money and finance

What directions might the anthropology of money and finance take in future? Anthropologists have only just begun to address monetary relations as a global phenomenon. This means that fieldwork-based ethnography must be integrated with the study of world society and history. There are precedents for this, in addition to the legacy of classical founders like Mauss and Polanyi. Even if money and finance have become global in scope, we should not forget either the nation-states that gave birth to this system. The development of communication technologies has also changed how billions of individuals relate to humanity at every level from the most intimate to the most inclusive. There is much left to discover about the specific meanings money has today and what social relations it allows. Since money is a major means for the making of world society, we offer some normative propositions concerning the political ends of the anthropology of money. Continue reading ‘Prospects for the anthropology of money and finance’ »

Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance

Since the 1980s, anthropologists have once more begun to investigate the specific roles that money can play in different social settings. Research on the everyday uses of money in traditional “exotic” fields, but also at “home”, has vividly exposed the limitations of mainstream economics’ theoretical models. Yet, although these studies usually represent their efforts as a critique of neo-liberalism, the horizon of their investigations is still framed by the ethnographic approach. Because ethnographers are still restricted to a local or regional level, they have little to say about the global context of their particular observations. In the last decade, younger anthropologists have flocked to do fieldwork on finance. They have highlighted the importance of religious and moral ideas for financial models and narratives, and how relations in the workplace are linked to the distributive effects of the financial system. Yet these studies still fall short of engaging with money as a fundamental element in the constitution of world society. Continue reading ‘Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance’ »

Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy

Sociology and anthropology emerged as modern academic disciplines as part of the attempt to grasp how industrialization was changing the place of Europe and North America in world history.  Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and George Simmel are the classical sources for this enterprise; but we have chosen to highlight the contribution of Durkheim’s nephew and close collaborator, Marcel Mauss. He helped to establish the ethnological tradition in France; but he was also a prolific financial journalist and political commentator. Mauss took the commonplace intuition that money is an important aspect of how people relate to each other further to claim that monetary relations are the foundation of social identity, especially when it comes to extending our social reach beyond what is local and familiar. Our reading synthesizes Mauss’s famous essay on the gift (1990) with a later one on the person (Carrithers, Collins and Lukes 1985).

Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian historian, is next in line after Mauss. It is not clear how directly he drew on Mauss’ work; but he refused to be limited to exotic and historically distant objects of enquiry, at least before becoming an American academic after the Second World War.  Moreover, he went beyond Mauss in investigating monetary relations throughout world history in order to highlight the political plight of his times — the terrible period of world war and economic depression from 1914 to 1945. Polanyi traced these conflicts to the unequal distribution of wealth and asked how this might be redressed.

These two authors’ contributions suggest an analytical framework for assessing the anthropology of money over the last half-century and especially since the 1980s, before we end by outlining our own constructive proposals. Continue reading ‘Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy’ »

The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history

Keith Hart (London School of Economics and University of Pretoria) and Horacio Ortiz (Centre de sociologie de l’innovation, Paris).

This is an essay in the making currently posted in three parts with a separate bibliography. We hope to circulate it widely and invite you to comment and discuss all or bits of it, as you wish. The project reviews developments in the anthropology of money and finance over the last century, listing its achievements, shortcomings and prospects. We are working on it for publication as a literature review that we hope will engage not only students, but also some professionals in the field of money and finance, not only anthropologists, but all who want to understand better the world economy today. Since the 1960s, anthropologists have tended to restrict themselves to niche fields and marginal debates. We hope to to reverse this trend, integrating world history and stressing the importance of money in shaping global society.

Apart from this introductory post, we list the three parts and bibliography as follows:

Part 1  Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy

Here we take our departure from the work of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi, both of whom combined openness to ethnographic research with a vision of world history as a whole. Polanyi stimulated a prominent debate in economic anthropology at a time when its subject matter was still largely non-industrial societies.

Part 2  Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance

From the 1980s the anthropological study of money and especially ethnographies of finance have taken off, including by sociologists influenced by science and cultural studies. Younger scholars have begun to tackle the financial industry itself. In spite of taking on new objects and directions, they still fall short of meeting the potential that we explore in the first part.

Part 3  Prospects for the anthropology of money and finance

Our constructive proposals for a way forward emphasize the need to extend a narrow ethnographic focus on local professional practices towards a more inclusive perspective on the world economy that is inspired in part by Mauss and Polanyi’s example. Here we present our own version of how anthropologists might engage more effectively with the momentous developments of our own times.

Part 4  The anthropology of money and finance: references Continue reading ‘The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history’ »

West African political economy: a regional history

The origins of West African political economy

In the course of the twentieth century West Africa went through a revolution consisting of an explosion in population, the rise of huge cities and the political division of the region into nominally independent states. While becoming more closely integrated into the world economy than ever before, the region remains poor when compared with most other parts of the world. If we wish to understand why this is so and what the prospects are for a more prosperous future, it will not do to focus solely on external determinants of economic backwardness. Many of West Africa’s problems have deep-seated causes, while others are the result of quite recent factors. I attempt here to place contemporary political economy within a long-run framework emphasizing the region’s unity and variety. If I devote more than usual attention to the traditional variety of West African societies, it is because they still shape the present strongly, especially if we wish to take into account the many differences between them.

West Africa is the nearest tropical region to Europe, from which it is separated by the Arabic civilizations of North Africa and the Middle East. Much of its peoples’ history depends on this fact; but the origin of the tripartite relationship between the regions bordering on the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean seas remains shrouded in mystery. For modern Europeans, the history of West Africa goes back only half a millennium to the time when the Portuguese began to explore an African route to the east round the flanks of Islam. For Arabs, it began in the eleventh century, with the temporary expansion of Almoravid conquerors beyond the Maghreb down the coast toward the Senegal River. They did not stay long. Those who have attempted to conquer West Africa never have. Continue reading ‘West African political economy: a regional history’ »

The human economy: a strategy in the struggle for happiness

An earlier essay, ‘Manifesto for a human economy‘, deals explicitly with the object, theory and methods of a human economy approach. Here I examine some of the precedents for such an approach in the history of modern revolutions.

‘Human economy’ is one way of taking forward the great conversation about making a better world. Here I will mention a few individuals who have helped me to find my own voice in this conversation, all of them participants in the revolutions that made the modern world.  I focus on two historical sequences – the Western liberal revolutions of the 17th to 19th centuries and the anti-colonial revolutions which displaced European empire in the 20th. The American Revolution was both liberal and anti-colonial. A similar combination undermined the Soviet Empire two decades ago and now fuels resistance to the American Empire in North Africa and the Middle East today. After three decades of neoliberal globalization, we are entering a new phase of the struggle for a world fit for all people to live in. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. So the context for a human economy approach is this unfinished attempt to remove unequal society, a process that has often been shaped by war and revolution. Continue reading ‘The human economy: a strategy in the struggle for happiness’ »