Recently, Naked Capitalism reported a London study entitled Bankers-Anthropological Study (  In it the Dutch anthropologist Joris Luyendijk indicates that while bankers are widely reviled, he is finding them to be very human and that he is beginning to almost like them.  Of course, this is a common occurrence for ethnographers and their subjects, though not always in reverse.  At the very least, the anthropologist admires their energy and the long hours they put in handling accounts in the financial world.


While I encourage urban anthropology and ethnographies on subjects other than tribal peoples, I have some reservations about this study.  Does a window into the human side of the men who engage in Casino Capitalism at its core make the detrimental effects of their activities any more palatable?  What I have read of the study so far seems very light ethnography, bordering on journalism and the journalist seems intent of presenting a feel-good story rather than delving into the shenanigans in the heart of the beast.  Let’s hope we see some of that in the final ethnographic monograph.


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Comment by Nathan Dobson on October 6, 2011 at 5:23pm

This discussion made me think of a recent economist article (

Out of power and in opposition the now Zambian president Michael Sata said "at least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us". In power, its a different story, and its the faces of Chinese bankers investing in Copper that smile down on Zambians:

Comment by John McCreery on September 19, 2011 at 3:48am

Could it be that we need a bit of ethnographic reflection on the meaning of "humanize"? It seems to me that to humanize entails noticing something that breaks a conventional stereotype. To recognize humanity in the other is always to become aware of something that breaks our conventional expectations of who they are and should, predictably, behave.


Thus, humanizing Hitler might involve, for example, noting his vegetarianism or fondness for dogs. Humanizing Mother Teresa  might involve discovering a secret passion for expensive chocolates or silk underwear. To humanize a villain, we look for something not villainous. To humanize a saint, we look for something not saintly. 

The result is not, however, to suspend or invert moral judgment. It is, I borrow this thought from John Wager, who posts on lit-ideas, to accept the ambiguity without which moral judgment is meaningless. If everything were black or white, no judgment would be necessary. 

This brings us down to cases, where even extenuating circumstances may only temper, not preclude, moral condemnation—and, thus, political combat. The critical necessity is not to leap to judgment, to reserve judgment and remain open-minded until all aspects of the case have been considered.

The situations in which we find ourselves may require instant action, leaving no time for anything but reflection and repentance after the fact. Our theories never do. If we have the time to construct a theory, we have the time to be open-minded. If we fail in this duty, the fault is ours. 

"Innocent until proven guilty" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you": still good words to think and live by.

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on September 18, 2011 at 11:54pm

One would never advocate “entering a study with the aim of demonizing the actors in a polarized way.”  Nonetheless an ethnographer does not go into the field tabula rasa.  For example, when I was preparing to do my PhD research in Northern Ghana I spent a year in the Haddon Library reading on Africa and specifically the ethnographic work on Northern Ghana.  I also read works by missionaries who had lived in Sisalaland.  I read historical works.  Before going to Sisalaland I had a general idea of the broad cultural patterns in tribal societies in Northern Ghana. 


We have enough public sources on shenanigans in the financial world and banks to have a similar understanding of the broad parameters of what an ethnographer could expect to find as s/he delved deeper into cases and facts to confirm or deny or clarify that broad understanding.  I recently watched one interview of an expert on the banking industry in which he indicated that the culture of the financial investment arm of banks is such that the worker bees in the industry are under great pressure to demonstrate success and this pressure and the general culture of the industry creates an environment of extreme risk-taking and outright criminal behavior to meet the benchmarks set by upper management.  That would be a supposition to investigate or is there more to the story? 


Comment by Keith Hart on September 17, 2011 at 2:53pm

The author's motive in this instance may be to trap bankers into making incriminating statements by getting them to relax their guard. Of course any method that aims to show the people behind social abstractions may end up humanizing them, as in the Yakusa example. But that is not the only possible result.

One problem with money and finance is that most people don't understand it at all and public education does nothing to enlighten them. The fact that most people can't count may have something to do with the recent development of a credit system where a teenager can have 30 credit cards and not realise that she has to pay them off (fact). Mental arithmetic is a useful skill in a market democracy, but what is the point of counting when vast sums of money are conjured out of thin air and then disappear just as quickly?

The fact is that anthropologists such as Gillian Tett, Alexandra Ouroussoff, Karen Ho and Horacio Ortiz have led the way in exposing how the financial crisis happened using ethnographic methods. What they did was to show the people behind the abstractions and in the process made it easier for readers to identify with and learn from the processes involved. It is not enough by itself, but a useful start. The success of Tett etc (celebrated in the recent text book I wrote with Chris Hann) encouraged an economics professor and regular FT columnist to suggest that there is scope for a new synthesis of anthropology, history and economics.

But fieldwork-based ethnography has its limitations, especially if linked to a cultural relativism that says any group is entitled to its own way of life. Nor is entering a study with the aim of demonizing the actors in a polarized way likely to yield useful results. There are always good and bad capitalists, for example. The main issue is having an informed basis for critical analysis and that necessarily requires historical and philosophical knowledge, leaving most contemporary anthropologists stranded when it comes to critique.


Comment by John McCreery on September 16, 2011 at 3:52pm

That people can be nice to their families, friends, dogs...or houseplants (remember Leon) and do terrible things or behave in ways with terrible consequences is an old story. But anthropology as a discipline has never been comfortable with tragedy. We prefer the comfortable route of blaming the pain and suffering we see on impersonal forces or faceless villains. Rare is the anthropologist who takes seriously what Marx knew well: Life is full of contradictions. We make history under conditions not of our own choosing (we get that), but (this is the missing bit) it is still we who make it. 

By refusing to recognize that the bastards in the boardrooms can be jolly good fellows bellied up to the bar, even good parents or friends, as fully human as anyone we study, we render our theories otiose, our claims to offer a fuller, holistic understanding of the human condition ridiculous.

If we can recognize the humanity in Comanches, Yanomami, Zulus and Dayaks, why not in bankers or Nazi bureaucrats as well? Not in the manner of the juvenile delinquents who sing "Officer Krupsky" in West Side Story—something more along the lines of Sophocles or Shakespeare, or (let's not set the bar too high) Battleship Galactica or Marvel comics.



Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on September 16, 2011 at 2:35pm

My point is that ethnography can be used to humanize those who are doing evil things.  But should it so be used?  What if a student of Malinowski had studied the Brown Shirts in pre-World War II Germany and reported that when they took off the blood-stained brown shirts they and went to the beer hall they were jovial and sang songs just like the other folk?  Or the Ton-Ton Macoute!  Or Pinochet’s army.  Or countless other evil-doers.  The only social good that would have come out of such ethnographic studies would have been to reveal the evil at work within, not that these guys went home to the wife and kids and played dominoes on the weekend.  At present we need an ethnographic study of the American Tea Party, but in the monograph I don’t want to be reading that Michele Bachmann knits doilies or that Rick Perry is an excellent pilot. 

Comment by Keith Hart on September 16, 2011 at 8:05am
An American anthropologist was studying the Yakusa, the Mob, in Northern Japan. One day a drunken policeman in a bar used by the Yakusa claimed that he was an informer for Tokyo CID. The news spread through the community like wildfire and soon reached the anthropologist. He received a request to meet the Godfather at home. Images of cement shoes were hard to banish. When he met the Godfather, he showed our friend some newspapers. "Look how they describe us", he said, "as witches, dragons and fiends. I know that whatever you write will make us look human and that can only be good. In any case, the police know everything we do already. Why would they need an American spy?"


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