Informality: problem or solution?

Presentation at the World Bank PSD Forum 2006, Washington DC, April 4-6

Bureaucratic form and informality
Most people attending this Forum live substantially inside what we may call the formal economy. This is a world of salaries or fees 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 the car to the commuter station, summer holidays by the sea. Of course households suffer economic crises from time to time and some people feel permanently vulnerable. But what makes this lifestyle ‘formal’ is the regularity of its order, a predictable rhythm and sense of control that we often take for granted. I only discovered how much of this had become natural to me when I went to live in a West African city slum forty years ago. Continue reading ‘Informality: problem or solution?’ »

Varieties of community currency

LETS and ‘open money’
The late twentieth century saw a revival of self-organized credit money, paradoxically in the leading centres of western capitalism. LETS, meaning ‘Let’s do it’, but later elaborated as Local Exchange Trading Systems, began in British Columbia in 1982-83 at the initiative of Michael Linton. This was in response to a temporary downturn in the local economy because of reduced demand for the defence industry and provincial government finances. Since then the LETSystem design has spread through the English-speaking countries and beyond, to France, Germany, Japan and Argentina. Many thousands of people have joined LETS systems which until now have generally been independent of each other. Most communities and even nation-states depend heavily on imports and exports and their internal economy has a weakly developed structure. Community currencies, on the other hand, sustain self-regulating economic networks allowing members to issue and manage their own money supply within a bounded system. As such, they may be conceived of as a way of closing off local communities from the market economy; but Linton has subsequently emphasized the need to integrate these circuits into existing commerce. Continue reading ‘Varieties of community currency’ »

Keith Hart Interview in Porto Alegre

Transcription of a video interview with Ruben Oliven and Arlei Damo held at UFRGS postgraduate programme in Social Anthropology, Porto Alegre, Brazil on 27 May 2011. To be published in Portuguese in Horizontes Antropologicos 45, January 2015.

Q: This is an interview with Professor Keith Hart who has already been here several years ago. The first question, Keith, is how did you become an anthropologist?

KH: I was a professional student. I never imagined another life than to be an academic. When I was at school the high prestige subjects were Classics (Latin and Greek) and Maths. So I chose them; but when I got to Cambridge, where I was a classicist, mostly translation, I found there were several things about a career in classics that didn’t appeal to me. One was that the research possibilities were very narrow: the idea was to build up the textual tradition and most of the great authors had been dealt with long ago; so if I did any research, it would be on fragments of an obscure 4th century satirist or something like that. The second thing was that Classics was in decline: there were lots of bright boys like me and not many jobs.

This was a time in Britain, the early 60s, when the social sciences were booming. Sociology had not existed before as a proper subject, but suddenly it was taking off. I was an opportunist career academic more than anything. I loved the Classics, but it wasn’t offering me much chance, so I decided to change to social science, probably sociology, but sociology was part of the Economics faculty and, curiously in view of my later interest, economics was a turn off for me. Then I heard that social anthropology was sociology with travel thrown in and I thought that sounded good. But there were two decisive events. I had a rowing coach called Claudio Vita-Finzi who was a geographer from the Turin Jewish aristocracy. He used to spend the winters studying desert erosion in the Mediterranean basin, so he disappeared during the bad weather and went to Lebanon or Sicily to see how the goats were doing it; and then he would come back in the spring to take part in the rowing and all the rest. I thought that was good and maybe social anthropology could give me something like that. Continue reading ‘Keith Hart Interview in Porto Alegre’ »

Waiting for emancipation: the prospects for liberal revolution in Africa

MP3 of the Audrey Richards lecture in African Studies at Cambridge University, 22nd May 2014

This was an improvised talk lasting 49 minutes. It contains several verbal mistakes:

Kreisler for Kreutzer (violin sonata)

George for Peter Peckard (echoes of George Peppard?)

The city of Nantes was part of Brittany in the 1790s and La Vendee is a district South of the Loire; but Nantes stood out for the Republic after the revolution when the whole district around it lanched a counter-revolutionary revolt known as the “War in the Vendee”.

Globalization from below: The world’s other economy (New Preface)

1. The great transformation
2. Globalization from above
3. Globalization from below (and above)
4. The informal economy has taken over the world
5. The digital revolution and intellectual property
6. Anthropology and economics

The great transformation

We are forming a world society and call it “globalization”. There is nothing inevitable about this. Globalization on a similar scale occurred before 1914 and was then reversed by an age of war and revolution. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, like the catholic or bourgeois versions that preceded it, but the fact of 7 billion people living together on this planet. We urgently need to find new principles of association that will make our world habitable. In approaching such a task, I imagine modern world history as a sequence of three centuries, 1800-2100, each profoundly different from the others. Indeed, if the 21st century repeats the pattern of the 19th or the 20th, there will not be a 22nd.

In 1800 the world’s population was roughly one billion. At that time only 3% lived in cities. The rest lived mainly by extracting a livelihood from the land. Animals and plants were responsible for almost all the energy produced and consumed by human beings. A bit more than two centuries later, world population has reached seven billions. The proportion living in cities is about a half. Inanimate sources converted by machines now account for the bulk of energy production and consumption. For most of the intervening period the human population has been growing at an average annual rate of 1.5%; cities at 2% a year; and energy production at around 3% a year. This last figure is double the rate of population increase, a powerful index of the economic expansion of the last 200 years. In consequence, many people live longer, work less and spend more than they did before. But a third of humanity still works in the fields with their hands; and the distribution of all this extra energy has been grossly unequal. Americans each consume 400 times more energy than the average Ugandan.

This hectic dash from the village to the city is widely assumed to be driven by an engine of economic growth and inequality known as “capitalism”. But several social forms have emerged to organize the process on a large scale: empires, nation-states, cities, corporations, regional federations, international organizations, capitalist markets, machine industry, global finance and telecommunications networks. There is a pressing need for more effective social coordination at the global level and the drive towards local self-organization is strong everywhere. Special-interest associations of every kind proliferate. Those who resist this unequal society often denigrate the dominant bureaucratic institutions — “the state” and “capitalism” being favourites – in favour of promoting small-scale self-organized groups and networks. Yet it is inconceivable that any future society of this century could dispense with the principal social forms that have brought us to this point. So we must work out how states, cities, big money and the rest might be selectively combined with citizens’ initiatives to promote a more democratic world society. A first step would be to emancipate ourselves from viewing the economy exclusively in national terms. Continue reading ‘Globalization from below: The world’s other economy (New Preface)’ »

Europe is the main and permanent loser in this world crisis

Europe is likely to be the main and permanent loser in the current world crisis. It is once again the focus of world attention; and its current plight has implications for all humanity. The European Union holds parliamentary elections later this month. These are generally considered to be much less important than national elections in each member country. The world – and Europe in particular – is in crisis, yet no-one expects the European parliament to do anything about it. Rather, a self-appointed ‘troika’ consisting of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund issue orders to failing Southern European governments that everyone knows are underwritten by Germany’s strategy for saving the euro.

Is this just a parochial matter that can be safely ignored by the rest of the world? Western Europe has been an island of complacency in the seismic upheavals on its Eastern and Southern periphery in the last 25 years (collapse of the Soviet bloc, Balkan wars, Arab Spring, Iraq, Libya, now Ukraine). The Europeans themselves treat the immigrants from neighbouring territories on whom they depend for their pensions largely as a threat to their own cohesion and sovereignty. Yet the prolonged crisis of their single currency threatens to exacerbate internal conflicts. While there are other danger zones, some of which may be even more lethal, Europe and the countries on its eastern and southern borders should be taken seriously as a threat to world peace. For we live in a world that the Europeans made and lost. It would not be beyond them to unleash another world war or at least a collapse of global equity markets. If civil war returns to Europe, the world will feel the consequences. Continue reading ‘Europe is the main and permanent loser in this world crisis’ »

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


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’ »