Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category.
This essay started out as an attempt to study the euro from an anthropological point of view; but it has ended up being more about anthropological method and money in general. Even so, a focus on the new European currency leads me to ask how we might study transnational or even global phenomena like this and still call ourselves anthropologists. For when ethnographers are not restricting their research to fieldwork in a particular place, they still tend to be limited in scope to working in one country. Social anthropology was once remarkable for the unity of its object, theory and method; but this disappeared along with “primitive” societies. Anthropologists still cling to “fieldwork-based ethnography” as their professional calling, but the study of money needs more than this. I propose as anthropology’s new object the making of world society, adopting provisionally an eclectic approach to theory and method. Anthropologists must appropriate both common knowledge and that of other specialists, if we are to identify the “historicity” (Foucault, 1973) of our own intellectual practices.
I approach the anthropology of money through four themes:
Money as memory, a meaningful link between persons and communities
Money as idea and object, the rise of virtual economy
Money as ‘heads & tails’, the impersonal expression of states and markets
Money as what people use it for, the potential for economic democracy
Following Marx, I conceive of ‘commoditization’ as a historical dialectic of social abstraction that is closely linked to the rise of money as a universal social principle. If we do things for each other in society, these services have to be separated from what we do for ourselves. This process draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence based on calculated exchange. The money circuit is becoming detached from production, trade and politics. I ask if the euro is something new or a throwback to older forms. In future people everywhere will issue their own money instruments. Meanwhile, the euro’s movement in history offers a glimpse of where world society is heading. Money is a suitable strategic focus for anthropological study of that society. Continue reading ‘Money and anthropology: object, theory and method’ »
The family took a trip to Normandy based on Caen, home to William the Conqueror (formerly known as the Bastard) and the Memorial to World War II. We went to Bayeux for the tapestry and visited the beaches of the Normandy landings in June 1944. We were exposed to a bombardment of images and sounds, all of them evoking the war. The weather was freezing, the sky blue and the winter sun cast a pale light on the landscape. We took in the buildings and the fine regional cuisine: there is nowhere like France for reliable pleasures of that sort.
The weekend had a considerable impact on me and not just the car crash (to which I will return). I spent my first year in a Manchester bomb shelter and it took a long time for the devastation to be cleared up after the war. I am a keen historian too. So it’s not as if this stuff is new to me. Even so, the vivid immediacy of it all made a deep impression, forcing me to reflect again on what that war means for us today. The symmetry of two historic invasions 900 years apart, in the same places and from opposite directions, set off a sort of poetry of association. Continue reading ‘Reflections on a visit to Normandy’ »
The period since 1945 saw a revolution in world society which, by the 1990s, had turned into widespread popular emancipation from the repressive state controls installed during the Cold War. The world was becoming more connected and more unequal at the same time, but people in general enjoyed more freedom than ever before. Since the millennium, an attempt has been made, led by but not restricted to the United States, to screw the lid back on. The battle cry of this counter-revolution is the war against terrorism, its theme-song, security, security and yet again security. Freedoms that came to be taken for granted after the war against fascism are now being lost. The left is disoriented and impotent. Who is the enemy and what is to be done? The fragments below reflect the confusion of our era, but they do point to a possible political strategy. They were written in two places at different times, in Europe and in America. Continue reading ‘Notes on the counter-revolution’ »
In 1900, about four-fifths of the planet’s land was controlled by people of European origin. Although European expansion was by then four centuries old, this land grab had largely taken place in the previous half-century and for most of Africa in the last two decades. It was manned by the world’s first population explosion, when European death rates fell faster than birth rates from the 1830s, and was enabled by rapid improvements in technologies for inflicting death on others. It is hardly surprising that the Europeans asked themselves how they came to enjoy what sometimes seemed like an effortless superiority over all-comers. This was also the time when modern anthropology was born with the aim of finding answers. The means seem obviously enough now to have been industrial capitalism, that combination of big money and machine production that took off around 1800 in Britain and a few other places. But where did this come from? It had to be something in the culture of Europeans that accounted for their successful application of scientific rationality to the task of world domination. Soon enough this cultural perception was given a biological foundation as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom and brown and yellow people in between. So, when world society was launched by western imperialism in the course of the nineteenth century, it took the highly unequal form of a racial order which most people had been coerced into joining. Not only the anthropologists, but western historians, philosophers and social theorists set out to explain this European triumph in self-congratulatory terms. And most of them are still content to do so. Continue reading ‘The theft of history’ »
We are all indebted to David Mills (Anthropology Today, October 2003) for his well-informed account of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA). We need reliable histories if we are to make sense of our own murky times and chart a way forward. Mills, thanks to careful research, a dispassionate style of writing and extensive scrutiny from the profession, has produced what I hope will be a consensual basis for future debate about the forms of association anthropologists need today, if any. Here I bring a more subjective line to the reconstruction of our shared past, fragmented present and precarious future. I argue that British social anthropology drew strength in its prime from the twilight of empire, when it seemed that European thought could make a universal object of the world’s peoples, especially those who lacked their own history. But the discipline’s social function was less in shoring up a fading imperialism than in reproducing a nationalist metaphysics at home. Continue reading ‘British social anthropology’s nationalist project’ »
‘Western values’ have officially remained more or less the same since the liberal revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas society has since been transformed — first by industrial capitalism and the nation-state, now by corporations running amok in an increasingly integrated world economy. For at least a century western societies have been based on impersonal principles (the state, capitalist markets, science) which placed an intolerable strain on the idea of personal agency that underpins what we are told is our way of life. The result is considerable confusion, a mixture of passivity in the face of anonymous forces and craving for recognition as a unique personality. This existential crisis sometimes takes the form of questioning national identity. Continue reading ‘British National Identity: The Roots of the Crisis’ »
Didier Fassin began his commentary on French anthropology’s non-response to last year’s riots (AT February 2006) with a reminder that an army of Andean ethnographers likewise missed the rise of Shining Path in Peru. While his subject matter is specifically French, the issue of anthropology’s relationship to contemporary society is a general one.
Fassin’s editorial begs for a sociological analysis of the discipline’s national predicament. Some readers may have recently received a letter asking them to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). The discipline’s marginality in France is not new. The fast track into the national educated elite (competitive entry to the École normale supérieure, agrégation etc) never had a place for anthropology; and the country’s leading anthropologists (Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Godelier) were often first agrégé in philosophy. The recent reorganization of the French universities has further entrenched sociology’s dominance over the smaller anthropology section. Continue reading ‘French anthropology and the riots’ »
The London bombings of 7 July have provoked an orgy of anxious introspection in the British media. Its chief focus has been the parlous condition of our national identity. How could four British men blow up themselves and scores of innocent commuters? If the second, failed round of bombings seemed to play into the phobias of the Tory press about parasitic and ungrateful immigrants, the first event undermined complacency about the British model of multi-culturalism.
It is not surprising that the right-wing newspapers would call for loyalty to crown and country, nor that this government would suspend the rule of law in order to be seen to be dealing with Muslim ‘extremists’. More remarkable were Polly Toynbee’s discovery, in The Guardian, that there might be something to the French ban on religious symbols in school after all, and Jonathan Freedland’s article in the same newspaper on 3 August, ‘The identity vacuum’, where he argued that Britain’s hold over its ethnic minorities is ‘weak’ and something should be done about it. Continue reading ‘The London Bombings: A Crisis for Multi-culturalism?’ »
France is notorious these days for two things – getting up the nose of the Americans (from French fries to ‘freedom’ fries) and banning the veil in schools. The second of these is a ‘total social fact’, something that taps into the deepest and most contradictory currents of modern French history. As an anthropologist who lives in Paris, I am often asked to comment, but I find it hard to say what I think.
I spend so many hours locked away writing that I hardly have the time to get out. But, when I do, I don’t feel excluded from the life of the streets. Alienation from social experience is so much the norm in Paris that it is stripped of its bitterness, allowing the stranger to sample the array of cultural distractions at will, not least the charming banter of the shops in his quartier. The palpably public character of Parisian society means that one can be alone, but not lonely. Everyone belongs. There isn’t much incentive to join an expatriate clique, although many ethnics here, including the British, are extremely insular. And, even if I am not fluent enough to participate actively in public discourse, I draw immense satisfaction from living in a place where intellectuals are considered to be indispensable to civil society. Continue reading ‘The French ban of the veil’ »
The year I got my doctorate, in 1969, there were 23 lecturing jobs I could have applied for in Britain; and at least one had no applicants. The fifteen new universities that had just been created were still recruiting and their graduate students had not yet reached the market. The situation quickly turned to one of job scarcity; and Heath’s government chose this moment to announce a pay review that included the polytechnics and teachers training colleges as well as the universities. The lecturers’ union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), chose to stay out on the grounds that we were part of the ruling class, the Civil List, and should not be considered with the others. Continue reading ‘How my generation let down our students’ »