The ethnography of finance and the history of money


Marcel Mauss was a prolific financial journalist, writing about the exchange rate crisis of 1922-24 at the same time as he was writing The Gift; but he kept them in separate compartments and economic anthropologists have been content to ignore his political writings. The recent emergence of the ethnographic study of finance promises to break down this division. But how might such an approach be integrated into the history of money at the global level? This paper outlines an approach to the anthropology of money drawing both on classical sources and on developments since the 1980s. With this in mind a number of ethnographies of finance are reviewed, paying attention to their methods and conclusions. How much has this exciting initiative contributed to a better understanding of the world economy today? What else is needed?

Paper presented at an international conference, “New perspectives in economic ethnography: modalities of exchange and economic calculation”, Museu National, Rio de Janeiro, 16-17 May 2011.


Marcel Mauss led a divided life (Fournier 2006, Hart 2007). He maintained a Chinese wall between his academic and political writings. One of the few occasions when he mixed the two was in the concluding section to his essay on The Gift (Mauss 1925) and his remarks there are hard to interpret in the absence of any systematic account of the modern capitalist economy. As a result, Mauss’s political project has largely been missing from discussions of his essay; and the ethnography of exchange and money has developed in isolation from more comprehensive accounts of contemporary economic history. Mauss’s financial journalism on the exchange rate crisis of 1922-24 – the same time that he was writing The Gift – takes up over a fifth of his published political writings (Mauss 1997). We will learn more from juxtaposing these bodies of work (Hart 2010) than by focusing on his famous essay in isolation.

In a recent text book, Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique, Chris Hann and I (2011) argue that the abolition of world history by the ethnographic revolution must be reversed if economic anthropology is to progress. I summarize some of our main findings here. Starting from Mauss’s example, I consider the main developments in the anthropology of money from Karl Polanyi’s magisterial contributions in mid-century (Hann and Hart 2009) to some influential sources since the 1980s, when anthropologists have no longer restricted their inquiries to “non-industrial” societies. We all seem to be living in one world unified by capitalism, so anthropologists now study that. “Financialization” (Epstein 2005) has led to the emergence of a prolific new genre, the ethnography of finance. I review here the methods and conclusions of some prominent examples of this new branch of ethnography with a view to assessing their contribution to our understanding of the economic crisis.

In “Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin” (Hart 1986), I argued that fieldwork-based ethnography – a commitment to joining the people where they live in order to discover what they do and think — was indeed the principal achievement of twentieth-century anthropology; but it is insufficient. Anthropologists also need to be aware of the intellectual history of relevant disciplines and of contemporary currents of world history that help to shape how we think. When it comes to money, that means having a perspective on global finance and some knowledge of the history of monetary economics. In the present paper, I take this argument further. For the new ethnography of finance to throw light on the human predicament, anthropologists need to address our moment in the history of money itself. Something important is ending, but what is it and what is coming next? This is the question for economic anthropology and ethnography alone will not provide effective answers.

Marcel Mauss’s divided legacy

Marcel Mauss (1925) was greatly enthused by Malinowski’s confirmation that the potlatch of America’s Northwest Coast flourished in Melanesia, but he held that money and markets were human universals, whereas Malinowski (1921, 1922) went out of his way to oppose the kula ring to both. The impersonal economic forms found in capitalist societies were recent inventions, according to Mauss. His anthropology was wedded to a quite explicit political programme; but the essay has since given rise to quite divergent interpretations and its radical message has often been lost.

In his first and most influential book, The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Emile Durkheim sought to establish the social foundations of modern economies. The idea of economic progress through specialization was at the core of the British economics founded by Adam Smith. A century later economic individualism was the cornerstone of evolutionary theory and Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was for a time the influential ideology of a triumphant Western bourgeoisie. Durkheim showed that the division of labour was a dialectical process of separation and integration whereby society became stronger and the scope for individual action was enhanced. The British emphasis on making individual contracts in markets obscured the social glue of “the non-contractual element in the contract” that made the economy possible – a combination of law, state, customs, morality and shared history that it was the sociologist’s task to make more visible. The individual is the result of social development and not, as in the British origin myth, its source.

The Gift is in a direct line of descent from Durkheim’s book, being focused explicitly on the non-contractual element of the contract. Mauss summarily eliminates the two utilitarian ideologies that purport to account for the evolution of contracts: “natural economy”, Smith’s idea that individual barter was aboriginal; and Spencer’s notion that primitive communities were altruistic, giving way eventually to our own regrettably selfish, but more efficient individualism. Against the contemporary move to replace markets with communist states, he insisted that the complex interplay between individual freedom and social obligation is synonymous with the human condition and that markets and money are universal, though not in their current impersonal form.

Mauss’s key term for the range of archaic contracts investigated cannot be translated into English and is something of a feudal relic in French. Prestation is a service performed out of obligation, something akin to ‘community service’. Mauss’s main interest was in a form that he named after the Northwest Coast example as ‘potlatch’. These forms of gift-exchange involved aggressive competition between individual leaders of groups. Mauss’s guiding question was: “What rule of legality and self-interest, in societies of a backward or archaic type, compels the gift that has been received to be obligatorily reciprocated? What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (1990: 4) His answer, broadly speaking, was that human beings everywhere find the personal character of the gift compelling and are especially susceptible to its evocation of the most diffuse social and spiritual ties.

Mauss’s chief conclusion was that the attempt to create a free market for private contracts is utopian and just as unrealizable as its antithesis, a collective based solely on altruism. Human institutions everywhere are founded on the unity of individual and society, freedom and obligation, self-interest and concern for others. Modern capitalism and economics rest on an unsustainable attachment to one of these poles and it will take a social revolution to restore a humane balance. If we were not blinded by ideology, we would recognize that the system of prestations survives in our societies – in weddings and at Christmas, in friendly societies and more bureaucratic forms of insurance, even in wage contracts and the welfare state. The economic movement from below that he advocated in his political journalism – professional associations, cooperatives, mutual insurance – is a secular version of what can be found in the religions of archaic societies, as well as in the central phenomena described in The Gift.

When Malinowski produced his account of native adventurers in the Western Pacific, latter-day heirs to the archaic tradition of noble heroes, his story found a receptive audience. The kula ring of the Trobriand Islanders and their Melanesian neighbours provided an allegory of the world economy. Here was a civilization spread across many small islands, each incapable of providing a decent livelihood by itself, that relied on an international trade mediated by the exchange of precious ornaments. Homo economicus was not only absent, but revealed as a shabby and narrow-minded successor to a world the West had lost. Marcel Mauss was excited by all this, but he felt Malinowski had gone too far. The latter was adamant that the Trobriand kula valuables were not money in that they did not function as a medium of exchange and standard of value (Malinowski 1921). But, in a long footnote, Mauss held out for a broader conception:

“On this reasoning … there has only been money when precious things … have been really made into currency – namely have been inscribed and impersonalized, and detached from any relationship with any legal entity, whether collective or individual, other than the state that mints them … One only defines in this way a second type of money – our own.” (Mauss 1990:127)

He suggested that primitive valuables are like money in that they “have purchasing power and this power has a figure set on it” (ibid.).  He also took Malinowski to task for reproducing the bourgeois opposition between commercial self-interest and the free gift, a dichotomy that many anthropologists have subsequently attributed to Mauss himself.

Mauss’s famous essay should be read alongside a series of articles he wrote for his party’s newspaper, Populaire, on the exchange rate crisis of 1922-4 (Mauss 1997). The stability of the franc was a matter of acute public concern, since it was taken to be a measure of France’s international standing; and political panic when the franc dropped was commonplace. When discussing what we would call “the markets”, Mauss adopted the tone of an expert player. He concluded that panic in the markets, not fiduciary inflation, was the cause of exchange rate depreciation. Storms were brewing from every direction: “These are human phenomena at work: collective psychology, imponderables, beliefs, credulity, confidence, all swirling about” (29 February 1924). In an unpublished paper, “A means of overhauling society: the manipulation of currencies” (Fournier 2006: 212 and 390 n.105), Mauss claimed that the great economic revolutions are “monetary in nature” and that the manipulation of currencies and credit could be a “method of social revolution …without pain or suffering”. His aim was to give an economic content to juridical socialism.

“It suffices to create new monetary methods within the firmest, the narrowest bounds of prudence. It will then suffice to manage them with the most cautious rules of economics to make them bear fruit among the new entitled beneficiaries. And that is revolution. In this way the common people of different nations would be allowed to know how they can have control over themselves – without the use of words, formulas or myths.” (Mauss, in Fournier, ibid.)

Mauss argued for a pragmatic understanding of the human economy that would be of use to people in their daily lives. Nearly a century and many more financial crises later, this is my argument too (Hart and Maurer 2009).

Karl Polanyi and the substantivist approach to money

If Mauss’s encounter with Malinowski remains the high point of the anthropology of money to date, it is worth spending a little time, en route to today’s ethnography of finance, with the “substantivist” approach to money in mid-century, as identified by Karl Polanyi (1957) and typified by Paul Bohannan (1955, 1959). In Dahomey and the Slave Trade (1966), Polanyi pointed to the difference between “general-purpose money” (our own, meaning that the money could be used to buy anything) and the “special-purpose monies” that enjoyed wide circulation in the non-industrial world (where they could only be used in exchange for a limited range of goods).  Bohannan developed this idea to argue for the existence of separate “spheres of exchange” among the Tiv of Nigeria. Subsistence items, luxuries and goods expressing the highest social values circulated in separate compartments, since they were incommensurate. The introduction of Western money by colonialism was a disaster since it broke down barriers to exchange between the spheres. This story has passed into anthropological folklore as a staple of what every student learns, even though it has been attacked as factually wrong by historians and found theoretically naïve and misleading by a wide variety of anthropologists.

In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi listed money as one of the three “fictitious commodities”: “Actual money is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance” (2001: 72). Here he comes close to suggesting that a free market in money entails buying and selling society itself. Consistent with this approach, Polanyi inverts the liberal myth of money’s origin in barter:

“The logic of the case is, indeed, almost the opposite of that underlying the classical doctrine. The orthodox teaching started from the individual’s propensity to barter; deduced from it the necessity of local markets, as well as of division of labour; and inferred, finally, the necessity of trade, eventually of foreign trade, including even long-distance trade. In the light of our present knowledge, we should almost reverse the sequence of the argument: the true starting point is long-distance trade, a result of the geographical location of goods and of the ‘division of labour’ given by location.  Long-distance trade often engenders markets, an institution which involves acts of barter, and, if money is used, of buying and selling, thus, eventually, but by no means necessarily, offering to some individuals an occasion to indulge in their alleged propensity for bargaining and haggling.” (Polanyi 2001: 58)

Money and markets thus have their origin in the effort to extend society beyond its local core. Polanyi believed that money, like the sovereign states to which it was closely related, was often introduced from outside; and this was what made the institutional attempt to separate economy from politics and naturalize the market as something internal to society so subversive.

Polanyi distinguished between “token” and “commodity” forms of money. Token money was designed to facilitate domestic trade, commodity money foreign trade; but the two systems often came into conflict. The tension between the internal and external dimensions of economy often led to serious disorganization of business. Money was thus

“not a commodity, it was purchasing power; far from having utility itself, it was merely a counter embodying a quantified claim to things that could be purchased. Clearly, a society in which distribution depended on possession of such tokens of purchasing power was a construction entirely different from market economy” (2001: 196)

The “spheres of exchange” identified by Bohannan among the Tiv were arranged in a hierarchy; and like could normally only be exchanged with like within each sphere. The lowest consisted of subsistence items like foodstuffs and household goods traded in small amounts at local markets. Then came a limited range of prestige goods linked to long-distance trade and largely controlled by elders: cloth, cattle, slaves and copper bars, the last sometimes serving as a standard of value and means of exchange within this sphere. The highest category was rights in persons, above all women, ideally sisters, exchanged in marriage between male-dominated kin groups. The norm of exchanging only within each sphere was sometimes breached. Conversion upward was highly desirable, while its opposite was disgraceful. The absence of general-purpose money made both difficult. Subsistence goods are high in bulk and low in value; they do not transport easily and their storage is problematic. Prestige goods are the opposite on all counts. How many peas would it take to buy a slave? After the arrival of money, anyone could sell anything in small amounts, accumulate the money, buy prestige goods and enter the marriage circuit on their own terms, regardless of the elders. It is as if the technical properties of modern money alone were sufficient to undermine a way of life.

What if we applied the spheres of exchange concept to Western societies? As Alfred Marshall (1890) wrote in the book that launched modern economics, it is not uncommon for modern consumers to rank commodities according to a scale of cultural values. Other things being equal, we would prefer not to have to sell expensive consumer durables in order to pay the grocery bills. And we would like to acquire the symbols of elite status, such as a first-rate education. If you ask a British person how many toilet rolls a BMW is worth or how many oranges can buy an Eton education, they would think you were crazy. Yet all these things have been bought with money for longer than we can remember. So the universal exchangeability introduced by modern money is compatible with cultural values denying that all goods are commensurate. The gatekeepers of Britain’s ancient universities insist that access to what they portray as an aristocracy of intelligence cannot be bought.

This gives us a clue to the logic of spheres of exchange. Ruling elites everywhere claim that you cannot buy class. Money and secular power are supposed to be subordinate to inherited position and spiritual leadership. In practice, we know that money and power have long secured entry into elites. One class above all others still resists this knowledge, the academic intellectuals. And so we line up with Tiv elders in bemoaning the corrosive power of modern money and vainly insist that traditional culture should prevail.

The anthropology of money since the 1980s

The anthropology of money has enjoyed a revival of late. We have become less willing to inhabit one half of the divide between modern and traditional economies. Not coincidentally perhaps, anthropologists’ traditional aversion to money has shifted towards recognizing some of its positive features for ordinary people. Anthropologists and sociologists have long rejected the impersonal approach to money and markets offered by mainstream economics. Normal people refuse to treat the cash in their possession as an undifferentiated thing, choosing rather to “earmark” it – reserving some for food bills, some as holiday savings and so on (Zelizer 1994). This is particularly the case in areas that remain largely invisible to the economists’ gaze, especially domestic life. People everywhere personalize money, bending it to their own purposes through a variety of social instruments. This was the message too of Parry and Bloch’s influential Money and the Morality of Exchange (1989).

The contributors to this collection share the view that indigenous societies take modern money in their stride rather than being subject to its impersonal logic. The underlying theory is familiar from Durkheim (1912). There are two circuits of social life: one, the everyday, is short-term, individuated and materialistic; the other, the social, is long-term, collective and idealized, even spiritual. Market transactions fall into the first category, but all societies seek to subordinate them to the conditions of their own reproduction, the second. For some reason, which they do not investigate, money has acquired in Western economies a social force all of its own, whereas the rest of the world retains the ability to keep it in its place. So here too we have a hierarchy of value where modern money comes second to the institutions that secure society’s continuity.

When money and markets are understood exclusively through impersonal and asocial models, awareness of this neglected dimension is surely significant. But the economy exists at more inclusive levels than the person, the family or local groups, and this would not be possible without the impersonality of money and markets. Money, much as Durkheim (1912) argued for religion, is the principal means for us all to bridge the gap between everyday personal experience and a society whose wider reaches are impersonal (Hart 2011a). Money, as a token of society, must be impersonal in order to connect individuals to the universe of relations to which they belong. But people make everything personal, including their relations with society. This two-sided relationship is universal, but its incidence is highly variable. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. It is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.

Malinowski set a trend for anthropologists to dispute economic universals in polarized terms, juxtaposing exotic facts and Western folk theories, without acknowledging the influence of contemporary history on their own ideas. Echoing Polanyi (1944), I identified two strands of Western monetary theory: money is a token of authority issued by states or it is a commodity made by markets (Hart 1986). I saw the coin as a metaphor for the two sides of money. One carries the virtual authority of the state; it is a token of society, the money of account (heads). The other says that money proper is itself a commodity, lending precision to trade; it is a real thing (tails). The two sides are related to each other as top to bottom; but, rather than acknowledge the interdependence of top-down and bottom-up social organization (‘heads and tails’), economic policy in the Anglophone countries swings wildly between the two extremes (‘heads or tails?’).

“Anthropologists have to be capable of comparing their exotica with a more profound picture of ideas and realities in the industrial world that sustains us. Conventional economic reasoning fails to enlighten us because it is so unremittingly one-dimensional. The coin has two sides for a good reason – both are indispensable. Money is at the same time an aspect of relations between persons and a thing detached from persons.” (Hart 1986: 638)

The dominant view holds that money, especially in the form of precious metals, is just a convenient means of exchange or barter between individuals who hold private property in what they buy and sell. A minority view argues that the state has always underwritten the issue of money, mainly as a way of guaranteeing payment of taxes. The bureaucratic power of states rests on coercion. Revenue collection depends on the authorities being able to force people to pay through the threat of punishment; and ‘sovereignty’ is indispensable to this.  But what if money came from the people instead? The German romantic tradition holds that money expresses the customs of a nation (Volk). Various English liberals too have considered bank money to be an expression of trust within communities, locating value in institutional guarantees for personal management of credit and debt. Anthropologists, in clinging to oversimplified notions of Western economic ideas, have failed to learn from complex intellectual traditions that long predate our recent entry into this field.

In recent years there has been a veritable deluge of anthropological work on money, including a spate of studies of financial institutions. This work aims to humanize the anonymous institutions that govern our lives; and some of it does begin to bridge the gap between readers’ everyday experience and the global economy. Jane Guyer’s extensive research on money has culminated in Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (2004). Starting from a foundation of prolonged ethnographic research in Cameroon and Nigeria, she identifies here an indigenous commercial civilization in the West/Central African region that is at least three centuries old. It is based on manipulation of multiple ordinal scales according to status differences. This distinctive approach to commerce has eluded not only the historians of European mercantilist expansion, but also the ethnographers whose narrow particularism and lack of historical depth made them as ignorant as foreign traders of the regional economic system they were encountering. Guyer rejects Bohannan’s discourse of “spheres of exchange” and has subsequently taken her African discoveries to a wide-ranging analysis of economic institutions in the United States and Britain.

Money is also a “memory bank” (Hart 2000), a store allowing individuals to keep track of those exchanges they wish to calculate and, beyond that, a source of economic memory for the community. The modern system of money provides people with a wide repertoire of instruments to keep track of their exchanges with the world and to calculate the current balance of their worth in the community. In this sense, one of money’s chief functions is remembering. If the proliferation of personal credit today could be seen as a step towards greater humanism in economy, this also entails increased dependence on impersonal governments and corporations, on impersonal abstraction of the sort associated with computing operations, and on impersonal standards and social guarantees for contractual exchange. If persons are to make a comeback in the post-modern economy, it will be less on a face-to-face basis than as bits on a screen which sometimes materialize as living people in the present. We may become less weighed down by money as an objective force, more open to the idea that it is a way of keeping track of complex social networks that we each generate. Then money could take a variety of forms compatible with both personal agency and human interdependence at every level from the local to the global.

It is not enough for economic anthropologists to emphasize the controls that people already impose on money and exchange as part of their personal practice. That is the everyday world as most of us know it. We also need ways of reaching the parts of the macro economy that we don’t know, if we wish to avert the ruin they could bring down on us.

The ethnography of finance

The anthropology of finance has flourished in the last decade or so. The doyen of this field is Bill Maurer (2005b, 2006) who conducts research on law, property, money and finance, particularly new and experimental financial and currency forms and their legal implications. He is the author of Mutual Life Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason (2005a). One focus of his research is on the shifting regulatory landscape of the offshore Caribbean; and on the cultural implications of new forms of electronic money and payment systems and regulation of mobile phone-enabled payment systems. Maurer has recently been engaged in a series of collaborations with industrial and design professionals who work on the development of new digital and mobile phone-enabled money transfer and savings systems. This led to the founding of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. By exploring people’s creative uses of money beyond its traditional functions, he hopes to provoke deeper reflection on the multiple meanings of money. Maurer recommends a sceptical, pragmatic approach to money and is thus more interested in what people can do with money than what it means to them. Like Jane Guyer, he believes that anthropologists have bought too easily into the liberal economists’ idea of money as a means of exchange rather than as a means of payment.

It has now become almost commonplace for anthropologists to work in financial centres. Ellen Hertz (1998) was prescient in carrying out field research on the Shanghai stock market. Caitlin Zaloom (2006) focused on how financial traders adjusted to new information technology. Both of these studies, however, are quite traditional in their focus, being concerned with the traders’ local practices and point of view, even if their business is global at another level. Karen Ho goes further by linking her ethnography to a broader analysis of political economy. Based on interviews with employees of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other great finance houses, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009) explicitly engages with larger distributional questions, such as those involved in the system of granting bank employees large bonuses.

The field research for this study took place during the long bull stock market of the 90s, also known as the “dot com boom”. What holds the book together is a story that is both world-historical and personal. Ho lays out two visions of what corporate capitalism is for: a social rationale based on durable interests linking communities of workers to loyal customers and company towns (where share prices were ephemeral and secondary); and an emphasis on immediate returns to private property in the form of shares held by a few (where employees and clients are readily sacrificed at the altar of the stock market). We can understand this conflict as the transition from post-war “social democracy” to “neo-liberalism” or as a history of class struggle, with the concessions made to ordinary citizens after two world wars and a depression being rolled back in the name of unrestricted private accumulation. Ho offers some commentary on the relevant economic history, pointing, as causes of the rise of “shareholder value”, to the mergers and acquisitions boom of the 1980s and the “downsizing” mania unleashed by the break-up of AT&T then. Both trends were encouraged by investment banks who made large profits whatever the outcome. A good deal of her analysis concerns how the junior staffers she was once part of and studied reconcile the frequent failure of the banks’ advice with their self-image of belonging to a successful aristocracy of the “smart”.

One persistent item in this study of cognitive dissonance is the seeming paradox that, having unleashed chronic instability on corporate America, Wall Street subsequently imported it, with the result that young wannabe bankers convinced of their own collective über-rationality were themselves subjected to extremely precarious employment conditions. The author does not hide what it felt like to be on the wrong end of downsizing herself; but she claims – and I believe her – that her own distaste for the system long predated this experience and indeed motivated her research from the beginning. There is a lingering question too over how biased her sample was. Did it include enough of the big league players to provide effective answers to the questions she and we are most interested in? Ho rejects what she calls “abstraction” in favour of “embodied” description (evoking Bourdieu). She is also pretty sceptical about “global” discourses. In both endeavours she would be supported by leading figures such as Guyer and Maurer. Anthropologists have always privileged the perspective of local people against more inclusive versions of social reality such as those peddled by the economists. The issue is how to get from one level to the other and back again. This book is striking for its refusal to stick with the local actors’ point of view. The main question concerns how Ho extrapolated from her field research to the bold general conclusions she reached and whether these are justified. Nor is this process finished, since she has since evoked Marx (not mentioned in the book) and has gone public with recommendations on bankers’ bonuses and the need to separate investment and retail banks.

Ho points to the particularly contentious issue of the distribution of wealth between shareholders and managers of corporations. Having earlier produced an exemplary ethnographic study of a multi-national corporation in Northern England (Ouroussoff 1993), Alexandra Ouroussoff carried out an extended series of interviews about risk with senior corporate actors in London, Paris and New York for Wall Street at War (2010). Her method is ethnographic, although her style is sometimes quite confrontational. Since the 1980s, the world economy has been in the grip of rating agencies such as Moody’s, who supervise what they take to be investment risk on shareholders’ behalf. They imagine that they can calculate and minimize future losses. Corporate executives, Ouroussoff found, have an opposed economic philosophy that holds profit and loss to be subject to unpredictable contingency. They have muted their public criticism of the rating agencies because of their need for investment capital; and their reports of company activities have become devious as a result. The resulting capitalist regime, she claims, has both stifled entrepreneurial growth and contributed to a systemic collapse of the economy. Yet academics, politicians and journalists persist in treating the financial crisis as a result of personal moral failure rather than of institutional contradictions.

Ouroussoff’s study is notable on two counts. She has gained access to the thinking of top executives and she has illuminated a central contradiction in the contemporary system of money between finance and the organization of production. Moreover, the rating agencies are still plying their dodgy trade in the successor to the financial crisis, the current one involving sovereign debt. When it comes to the ethnography of finance, studying up would seem to be essential.

The Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett has a doctorate in social anthropology which she credits with having taught her to examine the economic scene more holistically and critically than most of her journalist colleagues. Soon after the financial collapse, Tett published a best-seller on the market for credit derivatives, Fool’s Gold (2009), which she had begun to study long before the crisis broke. Her method was to get to know bankers by attending their conferences. The academic economist and blogger, Perry Mehrling (, shares her view that it is more revealing to study the behaviour of bankers than to peruse the writings of economists. If there is to be a new synthesis of anthropology, history and economics, this kind of social realist perspective on finance will be essential.

Tett uses Pierre Bourdieu to explain how the credit crunch came about, pointing to the veil of silence drawn over so many risky features of the boom and to the non-communicating “technical silos” of expertise that made outside criticism difficult or impossible.

“The story of the 2008 financial crisis is a story not only of hubris, greed and regulatory failure, but one of these deeply troubling problems of social silence and technical silos. If we do not use the crisis as an occasion to seriously tackle these problems, then it is a crisis we may well be doomed to revisit, albeit in an innovative new form.” (Tett 2010:xv)

Horacio Ortiz completed a thesis, Anthropologie politique de la finance contemporaine: évaluer, investir, innover (2009) which is now coming out as books and articles in French and English, while he explores Chinese finance in Shanghai. It was based on research as an intern in three branches of finance houses in Paris and New York. He and I wrote together a preliminary assessment of the anthropological significance of the financial crisis when it broke (Hart and Ortiz 2008). Ortiz’s ethnographic practice is matched by a subtle appreciation of the historical specificity of the period. He illustrates institutional and personal behaviour patterns that were characteristic of the credit boom, even if they were already in the process of being transformed. The work is held together by a political and philosophical critique of economic liberalism and of the unequal distribution of global resources that it brought about in recent decades. Ortiz shows how governments, professional bodies and corporations combine to issue credit in a variety of forms that are distributed through a dispersed network without a political centre. The dominant liberal ideology served to obscure the highly unequal power relations generated in this way.

Case studies of firms specializing in brokerage, investment and hedge funds respectively cover the dimensions highlighted in his subtitle. In order to document what these professionals really do and why, Ortiz located their actions within the bureaucratic institutions that they serve, in everyday social interaction at work and in the participants’ personal reflections. The problem with existing approaches to money is that economists, historians and philosophers have usually concentrated on the more abstract and impersonal dimensions of the topic, whereas anthropologists and sociologists have been at pains to emphasize its personal and social dimensions as revealed by ordinary human practice. This has left a gap between what each of us knows and the wider unknowns that threaten to undermine our precarious hold on society. Ortiz devised a method for bridging that gap. Money’s most significant property is to mediate between the extremes of concrete everyday life and abstract universal society. By illustrating the operations of financial professionals in such quotidian detail, he makes the abstract world of money more accessible to readers for whom it might otherwise appear to be a demonic force beyond their comprehension or control. Ortiz points to a global politics of distributive justice that would have as its premise the building of more democratic economic institutions than those we have known, based on a practical understanding of money as the product of human ideas and action.

Paul Jorion is an economic anthropologist with conventional ethnographic publications on fishermen in Brittany and Benin, concerned with kinship, price formation and the transmission of traditional knowledge (Delbos and Jorion 1984). But for the last two decades he has work as a trader and programmer in financial centres such as London, Paris, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. This led to a senior position at Countrywide, one of the leading culprits in the US mortgage-lending bonanza. Jorion published a penetrating critique of fraudulent financial practice at the height of the credit boom, Investing in a Post-Enron World (2003), and astonishingly issued a prediction of the coming global financial collapse, La crise du capitalisme américain (2007), that was published a month before the sub-prime mortgage crisis broke in February 2007. This was followed by a batch of books on the economic crisis of which the most recent, Le capitalisme à l’agonie (2011), argues that the end predicted by Karl Marx has arrived at last. Jorion’s long-term reflections on his time spent in the trenches of high finance appeared as Le prix (2010); and this, along with L’argent: mode d’emploi (2009), represents his most general contribution to economic anthropology. It is ironic that Paul Jorion was only able to achieve the level of insider knowledge and historical insight that he did by being denied a regular position in the academy for so long. Ethnographers of finance with university posts might want to reflect on that.

Notes on the history of money

What follows is a much abbreviated summary of an argument that I have developed at greater length elsewhere (Hart 2011b). The financial crisis is only superficially a question of credit boom and bust. A deeper cause is the breakdown since the early 1970s of the social organization of money that the world has come to live by. “National capitalism” (Hart 2009) is the modern synthesis of the nation-state and industrial capitalism, the institutional attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracy within a cultural community of national citizens; and its author was Hegel in The Philosophy of Right (1821). It is linked to the rise of large corporations as the dominant form of capitalist organization in a bureaucratic revolution of late nineteenth century. Its main symbol has been a national monopoly currency (legal tender or central bank money). The nation-state has become the dominant model for thinking about society, even though society itself has been leaking across its boundaries for a while now. It is hard to imagine society in any other way. I identify five ideal-types of community all represented by the nation-state (Hart 2006):

  • political community: our link to the world and a source of law at home
  • community of place: territorial boundaries of land and sea
  • imagined or virtual community: a constructed cultural identity of citizens
  • community of interest: subjective and objective (shared purpose in trade and war)
  • monetary community: common use of a national monopoly currency

The rise and fall of single currencies is one way of approaching national capitalism’s historical trajectory.

According to both Mauss and Polanyi, money and markets originate in the effort to extend society beyond its local core; society has to become more inclusive since none is self-sufficient. I have drawn on Polanyi’s distinction between “token money” which facilitates domestic trade and “commodity money” whose main use is in foreign trade; conflict between its internal and external dimensions often disrupts the economy. In “Money objects and money uses” (Polanyi 1964), he approaches money as a semantic system, like writing. Only modern money combines the functions of payment, standard, store and exchange in a limited number of “all-purpose” symbols. Primitive and archaic forms attach the separate functions to different symbolic objects or “special-purpose” monies. This is not the same as “general-purpose money” which just means money that can buy anything. Polanyi is arguing against the primacy of money as a medium of exchange and for a multi-stranded model of its evolution which can help us to understand the current global economic crisis as the break-up of “all-purpose money”.

Given the dominant model of national capitalism, how can we conceive of society as plural rather than singular, as a federated network rather than as a bounded and centralized hierarchy? The era of national monopoly currencies is very recent (from the invention of bank rate in the 1850s). Before that and already from some decades now, multiple currencies have been the norm. All-purpose money has been breaking up since USA went off gold in 1971 (Dembinski and Perritaz 2000). World economy has reverted since the break-up of the Bretton Woods system of fixed parity exchange rates to the plural pattern of competing currencies that was normal before the modern era. The financial crisis was precipitated in part by the separation of functions between different types of monetary instruments. Central bank control has been undermined by a shift to money being issued in many forms by a global distributed network, not just states and banks, as Horacio Ortiz demonstrates through his ethnography.

The recent formation of world society as a single social network has been driven by money, markets and telecommunications for several decades now. This process of social extension beyond the boundaries of local society is fraught with danger, much as the kula ring was and still is. We need to extend systems of social rights to the global level before the contradictions of the market system collapse into world war. But local political organization resists such a move, as it always has. The dialectic of globalization is ancient. After the convergence of a highly unequal world as a result of western imperialism, ours is now a multi-polar world whose plurality of associations and centres of influence resembles the medieval period more than anything since. The digital revolution in communications has been transforming money and exchange through a radical cheapening of the cost of transferring information comparable to earlier phases such as textiles and electrification. This has introduced new conditions for engagement with the impersonal economy (Hart 2000).

The apparent triumph of the free market after the Cold War induced two massive blunders based on the illusion that the design of specific political institutions was not an indispensable prerequisite of economic progress. Radical privatization of Soviet bloc public economies ignored the history of politics, law and social custom that shored up market economies in the West (Durkheim 1893). The new European single currency, introduced by the treaty of Maastricht, was to provide the social glue for political union without prior development of effective fiscal institutions or economic convergence between North and South. This error took longer to be exposed than the first because it was masked by the credit boom. Over-indebted countries with their own currencies inflate (mainly through devaluation); but currencies that borrow in foreign currencies deflate or default. By joining the eurozone, members have moved from the first category into the second.

The biggest mistake was to replace national currencies with the euro. An alternative, the hard écu, was available that would float politically managed national currencies alongside a low-inflation European central bank currency. Countries that didn’t join the euro, like Britain and Switzerland, have in practice enjoyed the privileges of this plural option, since they participate in Eurozone markets, but retain the flexibility of manipulating their own currency. The debt crisis can only be addressed through devaluation or deflation. The first option is denied Eurozone countries with the gruesome results we have seen in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The euro was invented as an expanded single currency after money had already broken up into multiple forms and functions. The Americans centralized their currency only after a civil war; the Europeans hoped that centralizing theirs would be a means of achieving political union. In an early article (Hart 2002) I drew parallels between the euro and the Argentine peso, arguing that a single currency could not possibly serve the interests of 300 million Europeans.

Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1900), written at the height of modernism, still has a lot to offer when it comes to thinking about the current crisis. He argued that money’s functionality (the ends to which it is put and its technical organization) would eventually be emancipated from its substance (metals, paper etc). The physical reality of currency provided one anchor of money’s stability. Money appears to be the exclusive property of a transaction between buyer and seller, but it always introduces a third party to bilateral exchange — the community that shares its use. The essence of money is what people use it for in society, within a community based on shared social institutions; and this second anchor of money’s stability would be progressively revealed as a result of money becoming more insubstantial. Simmel’s prophecy has been realised to the extent that the digital revolution has accelerated and cheapened electronic transfers.

The main problem with Simmel’s confident prediction of a social replacement for money’s materiality is that national capitalism has been losing its grip since the 1970s. The “non-contractual element in the contract” cannot be sustained by national frameworks alone. The old single-currency model of national economy must somehow be extended to a more plural, federal and inclusive conception of society. The European Union and its regional counterparts elsewhere (ASEAN, Mercosul etc), whatever the limitations of their design, are already a step in this direction. The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) likewise need a new Bretton Woods; and a bottom-up approach to building new world institutions is also vital (Pleyers 2010). The cultural logic of national capitalism leads the political classes who got us into this mess to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Politics is a dialogue of the deaf, between those who deny the need for any political regulation of markets and others who remain trapped in the outmoded model of central bank money.

The idea of world society is still perceived by most people as at best a utopian fantasy or at worst a threat to national sovereignty. The infrastructure of money has already become decentralized and global. A return to the protectionism of the 1930s is bound to fail. Where are the levers of democratic power to be located, now that the globalization has exposed the limitations of national economic management? We need to build an infrastructure of money adequate to humanity’s common needs. This agenda seems impossibly remote right now. The idea of a “human economy” offers a bridge to that movement for anthropologists (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010).

Economic anthropology after the financial crisis

The world’s trajectory has been extremely uncertain since 2008. No-one knows what the likely outcome will be, but one certain victim of the crisis has been free market economics. It is impossible any more to hold that economies will prosper only if markets are freed from political bondage. Mainstream economics has been holed below the water. Neo-liberalism has not yet been defeated, but the conditions for proposing alternatives approaches to the economy are much more favourable than before. After several decades when the idea of self-regulating markets seemed unassailable, even eternal, everyone now knows how precarious the world economy really is. This has opened up a new space for an economic anthropology with a critical agenda.

The idea of economy started out as a Greek principle of rural household management (Hann and Hart 2011: Chapter 2). This remained its prime referent for as long as the world was dominated by agrarian civilizations. In the last two centuries since the industrial revolution, English-speakers came up with a liberal successor whose purpose was to rationalize markets that were pulling a rapidly urbanizing world into ever closer association. The focus of world society now seems to be moving inexorably back to where most of the people are: Asia. Economic anthropology has the potential to offer a disciplined approach to questions of overwhelming significance for our species’ stewardship of the planet. Its Western roots must be cross-fertilized with other intellectual traditions if it is to fulfil its global mission and contribute to a more inclusive human future. A critical engagement with global history is essential, since what is at stake is a world economy that works for everyone and not just a few. Seen in this light, economic anthropology’s effort in the twentieth century to match the findings of exotic ethnography to a narrow utilitarian creed was bound to fail.  Both the anthropology and the economics were inadequate to our common human purposes. We are still struggling to break out of that straitjacket.

We can do no better than renew our engagement with the writings of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi whose writings are complementary in several ways (Hart and Ortiz 2008). One of Mauss’s key modifications to Durkheim’s legacy was to conceive of society as a historical project of humanity whose limits were continuously being extended to become ever more inclusive. The point of The Gift is that society cannot be taken for granted as a pre-existent form. It must be made and remade, sometimes from scratch. Heroic gift-exchange was designed to push the limits of society outwards. It was liberal as in the “free market”. The exchange was powered by generosity: self-interested for sure, but not in the way associated with Homo economicus. Malinowski’s account of the kula ring is the contested origin for Mauss’s discussion: “The whole intertribal kula is merely the extreme case … of a more general system. This takes the tribe itself in its entirety out of the narrow sphere of its physical boundaries and even of its interests and rights”. (Mauss 1990: 36) No society is ever economically self-sufficient, least of all these Melanesian islands. So to the need for establishing local limits on social action must always be added the means of extending a community’s reach abroad. This is why markets and money in some form are universal, and why any attempt to abolish them must end in catastrophe.

Polanyi drew attention to how economic institutions organize and are in turn organized by a plurality of distribution mechanisms that, in the modern world, affect the lives of millions of people who participate in them, without being granted any measure of control. This led him to highlight the inequality created by these institutions, as they swing between the poles of market and state, of society’s external and internal relations. In the current crisis, the immediate reaction was to turn to a variety of government institutions, flipping the coin from tails to heads as it were, instead of insisting that states and markets have to work together in less one-sided ways than before. To this end, Polanyi’s call for a return to social solidarity, drawing especially on the voluntary reciprocity of associations, reminds us of the need to mobilize ordinary persons to contribute their energies to the renewal of the human economy. It is not enough to rely on impersonal states and markets.

Polanyi and Mauss made sure that their more abstract understandings of political economy were grounded in the everyday lives of concrete persons, thereby lending to field research the power of general ideas. We have seen a sharp increase in anthropological research on capitalism.  Anthropologists have done a good job of showing that ‘free’ labour is always embedded in many kinds of identity outside the work place, and that even the most impersonal financial markets are in fact mediated by particular people. Some of these people are greedy, for sure, but not necessarily any more so than others; and they can change. A hedge fund manager like George Soros may become a philanthropist and critic of capitalism, for instance. So the main issue is not self-enrichment. The problem is that anthropologists have largely left the global effects of an unequal distribution of money, the class conflict between rich and poor everywhere, to other branches of the academic division of labour, especially to the economists.

Mauss and Polanyi point to the missing link between the everyday and the world at large. An unblinking focus on distribution at every level from the global to the local reveals how the social consequences of political economy and the way it is understood by those who make it are all part of one and the same social process. The current crisis renders this insight particularly visible, since it challenges contemporary financial ideas, while its tangible distributive effects are felt and feared throughout the world. We are witnessing a power struggle of potentially awesome consequences. Each political response to the latest economic calamity evokes the spectre of the Great Depression and its bloody aftermath.

Economy might be seen as a local political order based initially on the “house” and extended into the world through the “market”. Polanyi linked the internal and external dimensions of economy through conceiving of money both a “token” and a “commodity”; and I have found that fruitful in seeking to understand the world economy today. This world economy is a human economy (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010). Why “human”? Because the focus of economic anthropology should be on what people actually do and think; economic action is directed towards the well-being of whole persons and communities, not some mechanical and one-sided individualism. Emphasis should be on the local particulars of economic institutions in all their variety; and for anthropologists the horizon is humanity’s historical project to achieve stewardship of life on this planet. In the end everyone should feel “at home” in a world that has been made by markets, but we cannot survive on the basis of market economy alone.

I have identified a tradition of work in economic anthropology on money, starting with Mauss and Polanyi and now a flood of ethnographic investigations into the workings of capitalism. But none of the recent work on Western capitalism matches the discoveries of Jane Guyer (2004), patiently excavating from three centuries of African history and decades of fieldwork a model of indigenous commercial civilization that alters how we think of money everywhere.

Now that we are more used to working in the capitalist heartlands, economic anthropologists must still maintain the comprehensive geographical range of our knowledge. If some anthropologists have focused on commerce sui generis with its own specialist middle men and advertising agencies, others have shown that modern corporations have gone far beyond such specialized compartments in their drive to control all stages of the economic process from research and development, through production, regulation, distribution and marketing to household consumption (Applbaum 2004). An economic anthropology that limits itself to ethnographic studies of stockbrokers or traders will never grasp this level of humanity’s shared economic predicament.

Conclusion: the integration of division

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar (home). This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves every day between production outside and consumption inside, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between their own subjectivity and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two.

We need a concept of economy that embraces every level of our relations with the rest with humanity and avoids trying to perch on one end of the house/market pair. If we would feel at home in the world, we should try to integrate such divisions. Mauss and Polanyi saw markets and money as a way of extending local society’s reach. On the one hand we need to institute controls guaranteeing our rights and interests (the house, domestic economy) and on the other to engage with foreigners at a more inclusive level (the market, political economy). But there is always potential conflict between the external and internal dimensions of economy. In the past, certain institutions extended the range of household economy through engaging with a division of labour sustained by money and markets (estates, palaces, temples, monasteries). Now it is possible to envisage concretely what building a world economy fit for all humanity might entail. At least we have seen in recent decades the emergence of universal means of communication adequate to express universal ideas.

A human economy would be one where social rights and interests are instituted globally (as well as at all levels underneath). This means finding an emphasis and direction which goes beyond that fusion of industrial capitalism and the nation-state that I have called “national capitalism”. The notion of a human economy draws on some basic principles that are common to all societies in history as well as on some new institutional possibilities that are specific to our moment. In opposition to the one-sided ideologies that sustained military aristocracy, national capitalism and state socialism, I envisage an economic democracy that combines all levels of society: households, markets, states, voluntary associations, regional federations, global networks and much else besides.

In much the same way that Immanuel Kant dreamed of a Perpetual Peace (1795) while Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, I wonder what an economy might be like that has no outside and therefore no inside either, an economy for all humanity. Anthropology should be indispensable to its construction, but it would be a version that combines ethnography with world history and critical philosophy (Hann and Hart 2011). One of its principal aims would be to make the pragmatic study of money accessible to all the peoples of the world.


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Comments |1|

  • Enlightening as always! While reading I had this idea: maybe the blurring of the distinction between spheres of exchange in capitalism should be seen as the other side of the fact that it is precisely in capitalist societies, where allegedly everything is for sale, that hinting at the possibility of marriage as an economic exchange becomes most strictly forbidden or obscene. Differnet “moneys” allow the differentiation between profane and sacred exchanges. Eradicating the distinctions between different types of money does not simply result in universal equalization of all commodities. Rather it consolidates into a binary distinction between formal monetary exchanges and an obscene, disavowed dimension.

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