Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category.

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)’ »

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’ »

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’ »

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’ »

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart at Savage Minds

December 2012

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson.  The second interview was with Tom Boellstorff.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.
Part 1

Ryan Anderson: Thanks for doing this interview, Keith.  Let’s just jump right in here: What do you think about this whole ‘open access’ conversation going on in anthropology?

Keith Hart: Obviously I am in favor of it. The form that the discussion takes in contemporary anthropology seems to be specifically American, where the contradictions of established practice are most acute. In the most general sense, OA is a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons, any commons. As such it is central to the intellectual property wars. But here I think we are talking about a much narrower issue of how to make research publications freely available without undermining their role as cultural capital in academic career advancement. This reflects the interests of a mass of unemployed young researchers who can’t afford to pay for information and yet still hope to find academic employment some day. The tension is between maintaining the intellectual commons and conserving ideas as private property. The situation is exacerbated in American anthropology by the peculiarly obdurate policy of the professional association (AAA) which elevates a closed regime of private production for profit above sharing knowledge with the general public. I am reminded of Marx’s early journalism against restriction of peasants’ access to fallen wood in the Westphalian forests. Most OA activists can’t fight privatization with his polemical intensity because they have already bought into the premises of an academic career. I met some anthropology friends on Twitter in 2009 who were as agitated then by the AAA’s restrictive (I am inclined to say “insane”) policies as they are now. We formed the Open Anthropology Cooperative–but we will return to that later. I am still struck by the insularity of American anthropologists who rarely consider if the French, for example, have come up with interesting responses to this general problem. Is OA an issue in Brazil or Scandinavia, in Japan or India? American anthropology isn’t the world and I hope that the OAC’s global membership will discuss these questions fruitfully. But then we run up against the limitations of language. Being able to read and write in English is not universal, yet how often is concern with OA extended to the issue of language barriers? Continue reading ‘Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart at Savage Minds’ »

In Rousseau’s footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society

A review of David Graeber Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House, New York, 2011, 534 pages)

Debt is everywhere today. What is “sovereign debt” and why must Greece pay up, but not the United States? Who decides that the national debt will be repaid through austerity programmes rather than job-creation schemes? Why do the banks get bailed out, while students and home-owners are forced to repay loans? The very word debt speaks of unequal power; and the world economic crisis since 2008 has exposed this inequality more than any other since the 1930s. David Graeber has written a searching book that aims to place our current concerns within the widest possible framework of anthropology and world history. He starts from a question: why do we feel that we must repay our debts? This is a moral issue, not an economic one. In market logic, the cost of bad loans should be met by creditors as a discipline on their lending practices. But paying back debts is good for the powerful few, whereas the mass of debtors have at times sought and won relief from them.

What is debt? According to Graeber, it is an obligation with a figure attached and hence debt is inseparable from money. This book devotes a lot of attention to where money comes from and what it does. States and markets each play a role in its creation, but money’s form has fluctuated historically between virtual credit and metal currency. Above all Graeber’s enquiry is framed by our unequal world as a whole. He resists the temptation to offer quick remedies for collective suffering, since this would be inconsistent with the timescale of his argument. Nevertheless, readers are offered a worldview that clearly takes the institutional pillars of our societies to be rotten and deserving of replacement. It is a timely and popular view. Debt: The first 5,000 years is an international best-seller. The German translation recently sold 30,000 copies in the first two weeks. Continue reading ‘In Rousseau’s footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society’ »

Exchange in the human economy

This essay was written in August 2008 for a book that subsequently folded. The timing is important, the month of my retirement from the British academy (but not from university life), a month before the financial crash. I discovered it in my folders just recently and find it to be one of the better expressions of my thinking on the human economy. The owl of Minerva indeed.


In the wake of market fundamentalism

We have lived in the last three decades through an explosion of money, markets and communications and are now beginning to experience the consequences. Whatever else this hectic period of ‘globalization’ brings, it represents a rapid extension of society to a more inclusive level than the twentieth-century norm which identified society with the nation-state. In order to live in the world together, we have to devise new ways of doing things for each other that go beyond our attempts to achieve local self-sufficiency. I call this historical process ‘commoditization’ (Hart 1982), the evolution of methods for making work social, so that it can circulate in the form of commodities. This essay is one such commodity. It does not have to be sold, but it was written with the aim of finding some limited circulation in this form. So far in history commoditization has been closely linked to the extension of society by means of markets and money. But there are other means and they may become more important as a result of the digital revolution in communications — and no doubt other factors. Continue reading ‘Exchange in the human economy’ »