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

There is much talk today of a financial and economic crisis comparable to the 1930s. In the context of a currency war and the euro’s possible collapse, the US Congress pushes China to modify its foreign exchange policy as a check on its rise as a world power. The spectre of world war, the Great Depression’s bloody aftermath, has returned with a vengeance. Several distinct 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, despite humanity’s growing interdependence, today’s turbulence is discussed only in terms of a one-world capitalism driven by finance. What have anthropologists to say about that? It would seem very little. But recent developments in economic anthropology and a particular reading of its history suggest that a more positive case can be made for the discipline’s contribution to public debate. We make such a case here.

In their text book, Hann and Hart (2011) argue that the ethnographic revolution of the twentieth century removed world history from modern anthropologists’ repertoire and that this situation must be reversed if economic anthropology is to progress. We need to revisit classical authors who combined openness to ethnographic discovery with a global vision of contemporary economic history. Our starting point is Marcel Mauss (1990, 1997) writing immediately after the First World War, followed by Karl Polanyi’s magisterial contributions in mid-century (Hann and Hart 2009), when anthropologists still restricted their inquiries to “non-industrial” societies. It seems we all live in a world unified by capitalism these days and anthropologists now study that. The trend for money to dominate society, sometimes known as “financialization” (Epstein 2005), has seen the emergence of a prolific new genre, the ethnography of finance; and the anthropology of money has taken off since the 1980s. Our selective account of anthropology’s legacy identifies some leading questions and conceptual tools for understanding the present as transitional between past and future. With these in mind, we review here the anthropology of money and finance, listing its achievements, shortcomings and prospects.

Hart (1986) argued that 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. Anthropologists also need to be aware of the intellectual history of relevant outside disciplines and of contemporary currents of world history that shape how we think. When it comes to money, this means having some knowledge of the history of monetary economics and a perspective on global finance. Here we take the argument further. If the new ethnography of finance is to throw light on the human predicament, anthropologists need to address the present as a moment in the history of money. We all know that something important is ending, but what is it and what is coming next? This is the question for economic anthropology; ethnography alone will not provide effective answers.

Money and finance have been an object of anthropology since the discipline’s formation. We believe that anthropologists can still draw on classical questions and methods to address these topics today. Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi understood money to be a fundamental element in the constitution of social life. Money’s meaning, far from being simply a medium of exchange, a reserve fund or a means of accounting, can only be understood as an integral part of the hierarchies and networks of exchange through which it circulates. These multiple meanings in turn keep society together and reinforce the roles played by each person within it. Money’s capacity to reach beyond the boundaries of a social group also drives the extension of society and the transformation of identities. Anthropologists have explored aspects of money in the field, from the colonization of monetary spaces to the workings of trading rooms in global banks, showing how it allows a variety of relations and meanings to escape confinement to a single theory.

We have also argued that anthropology’s trademark of fieldwork-based research reaches a limit when we try to address money’s global circulation today. Only if anthropologists embrace world history will we be able to account for the social identities and relations that money both sustains and is sustained by in an emergent world society marked by new conflicts, hierarchies, interdependencies and solidarities. Today’s anthropology of money and finance is already exploring some of these processes, but it lacks the methodological tools and conceptual thrust to engage with them effectively. Any attempt to go beyond these limitations must be collective and interdisciplinary.

As the euro struggles to survive and a currency war between the US, China and their trading partners looms, the ghosts of the early 20th century have re-entered the debate. If anthropologists have so far failed to contribute new visions of humanity’s common plight to the search for a world society, drawing from the early contributions of the anthropological canon can only be a starting point. The solutions found by either side in the Cold War will not be of much use to us. We need somehow to build on experience to formulate conceptual approaches that might be a resource for all humanity. Such an aspiration goes beyond questions of money and finance, but these will necessarily be a key focus of any such process.






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Category: Anthropology | Money