Back in 2005 Bill Maurer of the University of California, Irvine, wrote a review on the anthropology of finance. His main point was that people that are interested in this field need to be more innovative if they are going to convince others that their work is different to previous studies of money, or institutions or economics (social science).

The crash and the part played by digital money transfers make this seem a particularly important and pressing issue but does the current situation merit an attempt to delineate a new sub-field of anthropology or are we taking something away from the best work in economic anthropology by suggesting that it should?

There is a story that has stuck with me and rightly or wrongly I often try to make it "fit" my vision of what an anthropology of finance might look like. A friend that lived in the area of Willesden in North West London swore that the reason there was never any cash in the hole-in-the-wall (ATM) on a Saturday was because the large numbers of Antipodeans living near the high street withdrew it each week to fund their weekend out (not necessarily drinking I hasten to add).

Now my friend's claim was not based on empirical evidence but a more detailed look at the cultural and historical reasons that might explain a phenomena such as low liquidity in an area through an ethnographic study is how I think an anthropology of finance might be formed. For example and hypothetically speaking, that the people from Australia and New Zealand that live in Willesden are usually 18 to 30 year old post-school/ University travellers (this pattern of migration offers a further area of research that might add to our explanations), that are relatively affluent but that do not open bank accounts with British banks because, for example, they don't expect to be there very long (maybe this isn't the case at all, and in fact most people in the area have long term insurance schemes, if so, why this area etc). Another hypothetical situation might be that because of historical and cultural factors, the property owners in an area are older than the norm and so are less likely to accept money transfers on the internet, so residents are forced to withdraw money in cash.

But is this just following the money in a "social life of things" sense, an "anthropology of finance", "finance" more generally or, and I say this more hopefully, "economic anthropology"?

 

 

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Good questions and example! First there is the difference between finance and money. Finance is the management of money through specialist institutions like banks. The anthropology of finance recently has been mainly ethnographic studies of people working in these institutions as brokers, analysts etc. How people in general use money and what it does to them is Parry/Bloch and Zelizer territory, but again anthropologists and sociologists have stuck with local accounts that make no effort to show how money links us all to a world society in the making, even creates the possibility for new kinds of human being and sociality. Mauss and Polanyi both did that in ways that drew on ethnographic research, even though neither of them was an ethnographer. That is what I call economic anthropology and it goes well beyond money or finance as such.

This doesn't disparage the perspective you have outlined as a fruitful way of doing limited research in the first place. Young anthropologists starting out have to have something doable through fieldwork, just as apprentice historians have to master an unexplored archive for their PhD. The difference is that the anthropologists want to leap to the largest questions at the same time, whereas the historians know they have to pay their dues first and build on that later, if they can -- only a few make it to the level that attracts outsiders' attention. So I would say that we lack a clearheaded methodology for relating local studies to the big questions confronting humanity at this or any other time. This is because the profession has substituted ethnography for anthropology. It's still a wonderfully fresh way of seeing society as people live it and indispensable to understanding. But we should be more cautious about the claims that can me made on that basis.

This kind of story or theory, about the ATM that is out of money on Saturday night, actually resembles earlier theories in economics proper, such as theories by John Maynard Keynes. Having studied both Economics and Cultural Anthropology, I see a clear space for an Anthropology of finance, which Economists have inadvertently opened up by 1) focusing so much on individual decision theory, so that they reduce social interaction to strategic interaction which leaves no room for culture and social structure and 2) by characterizing belief formation as hyper rational Bayesian updating (not allowing for misguided priors on top of that). For Anthropologists who don't get hung up on a Western guilt trip and who don't obfuscate what they are trying to say by using an overly flowery language, there is a real opportunity to fill a void of real explanation regarding such important things as the recent financial crisis and why in every Democracy 20% of the people hold 80% of the wealth and earn 80% of the income.
That is a great message, Keith, I'm really looking forward to reading your book! I feel that ethnography is a great way to gather data. Before gathering data one ought to have an idea what this data will be used for; one has to have an idea of what features in the data will be salient, i.e. social and business networks etc. and then during the data gathering phase and after, one ought to come up with a mechanistic theory. Lastly, once that theory has been constructed, one can use the data to evaluate the claims of the theory. 

Keith Hart said:

Good questions and example! First there is the difference between finance and money. Finance is the management of money through specialist institutions like banks. The anthropology of finance recently has been mainly ethnographic studies of people working in these institutions as brokers, analysts etc. How people in general use money and what it does to them is Parry/Bloch and Zelizer territory, but again anthropologists and sociologists have stuck with local accounts that make no effort to show how money links us all to a world society in the making, even creates the possibility for new kinds of human being and sociality. Mauss and Polanyi both did that in ways that drew on ethnographic research, even though neither of them was an ethnographer. That is what I call economic anthropology and it goes well beyond money or finance as such.

This doesn't disparage the perspective you have outlined as a fruitful way of doing limited research in the first place. Young anthropologists starting out have to have something doable through fieldwork, just as apprentice historians have to master an unexplored archive for their PhD. The difference is that the anthropologists want to leap to the largest questions at the same time, whereas the historians know they have to pay their dues first and build on that later, if they can -- only a few make it to the level that attracts outsiders' attention. So I would say that we lack a clearheaded methodology for relating local studies to the big questions confronting humanity at this or any other time. This is because the profession has substituted ethnography for anthropology. It's still a wonderfully fresh way of seeing society as people live it and indispensable to understanding. But we should be more cautious about the claims that can me made on that basis.

To quote Tim Ingold, "Anthropology is not Ethnography". I would see Anthropology of Finance as part and parcel of Economic Anthropology, and I welcome it with open arms. I agree very much with Nathan that the current moment is a brilliant opening for it, and aside from Bill Maurer's work, there are already some ethnographies of finance that are worth looking at (right now I am using Karen Ho's Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street in my undergraduate economic anthropology class).
I'd be interested to know what you think of Ho's book, Patty. I reviewed it positively for AA with some reservations. Here is a conference paper, The ethnography of finance and the history of money.

Patty A. Gray said:
To quote Tim Ingold, "Anthropology is not Ethnography". I would see Anthropology of Finance as part and parcel of Economic Anthropology, and I welcome it with open arms. I agree very much with Nathan that the current moment is a brilliant opening for it, and aside from Bill Maurer's work, there are already some ethnographies of finance that are worth looking at (right now I am using Karen Ho's Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street in my undergraduate economic anthropology class).

Thanks Johannes, Keith and Patty.

With hindsight I probably shouldn't have included the story about the cash machine because I feel it has taken something away from what I was really trying to get at which is to do with whether there should be an anthropology of finance. Having said that I'm glad to have got it out in the Open, it helps to have a sounding board for these unformed ideas.

I wanted to place a much bigger emphasis on the idea that turning the "regard" towards finance through for example an ethnography of a trading house, in fact dilutes it, renders it less effective as a critical tool and legitimises the thing that we are studying. It seems too convenient when anthropologists say that they had to become a trader for two years and earn shed loads of money to really understand high finance, or when financial experts undergo a conversion and become ethnographers, or when people dip into their anthropological roots for political reasons. Keith asks elsewhere on the site what OAC members can bring to the table in the crisis and the Occupy movement and I wander whether the most effective action on the part of anthropologists should be to ensure that we are studying anything but (haute) finance.

Why study patronage and couch it in solidarity?

Are those who study patronage or those who practice it expressing the phenomenon as an exercise in solidarity? Clearly patronage represents itself as solidarity or at least as reciprocal interdependence. I need more context to develop a conversation on this topic. I can think of several lines: depiction of politics as patrimonialism, the personal face of bureaucracy; the godfather as kin-friend; David Graeber's argumnent about hierarchy representing itself as reciprocity.

I sometimes write for a new organ called Think Africa Press. The editor sends round questions like this to a panel of "experts", but they tend to be anchored in the news. "One year on from the start of the Arab Spring and the fall of Ben Ali, what are the biggest opportunities and risks for the people of North Africa?" I couldn't answer that one either. I am up for an exchange if you give a bit more, Nathan. thanks for posting.

Why do people read the Sunday Times? Stories about rich and glamorous people are interesting. Same thing with studies of finance. Nobody is going to read an ethnography about working in an office in Slough (unless it's done in such a tragic way that it's funny, like the office). Or a supermarket chain. Finance is sexy. So is anything that can be romanticised like a coal mine or a factory. 

Has anyone read Georges Navel's "Travaux" 1945?

Pierre Aubéry did a review of it here: Travaux: Invention of a language in Navel's Works, The French Review, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Oct., 1972), pp. 24-34

Here's a bit from it:
"Wary of the pitfall recognized by Michelet (Le Peuple, 2nd part., ch. II; Paris: 1846, p. 196), into which many working class writers fall, giving up their native idiom and dabbling in the flowery, pretentious language of bad journalism when they attempt to write, Navel always felt bound, between two words, to choose the least emphatic one. A cultivated simplicity of language, a loyalty to the poor, straight-forward speech whose echoes have lingered in the writer's memory since his childhood, nonetheless demands careful avoidance of cliches already spoken, written, or read. Above all, as Navel humorously points out, it is imperative that the most unpretentious of his stories limits itself and does not re-spin a yarn which has already been spun" (pg 32). 

I'll get around to reading these once I've finished with the glossy magazine. (This and another paragraph was in the first post but I lost a big chunk when I lost my internet connection).

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