The Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died today. His four-volume series on modern history from the French revolution to the fall of the USSR is the best guide available. To some extent, anthropology until recently offered an escape from modern history. While the world turned to industry, cities and war, ethnographers studied yam piles on remote Pacific islands. It is different now. We live under a regime of one-world capitalism and anthropologists study all of it. But our preference for local and regional approaches means that we have little to offer that might help humanity understand better the world society in the making. Hobsbawm's contemporaries, like Eric Wolf and my teacher, Jack Goody, shared his passion to study our world and to change it. Marxism gave Hobsbawm the confidence to attempt universal history, but it also restricted his vision in important ways. He saw the period 1948-1973 as a "golden age" when social democratic states managed capitalism in the general interest and Stalin's Russia for a time seemed likely to outperform the western economies. But this was also a period of nuclear terror and, however benign that time may now seem when compared with what succeeded it, the neoliberal era has opened up the world's movement and communications in ways that I for one would not want to exchange for the restrictions of that "golden age". The point, however, is that anthropologists need to complement our ethnographies with a vision of world history. As a profession, we are like peasants: we like digging holes in obscure places. But sometimes we need people to show us where to dig. Eric Hobsbawm had no rival in that respect.

A full and highly informative obituary may be found here in The Guardian.

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Paul, glad we got that straightened out. So let's move on and address that question you raise about the lack of political response from investors to ups and downs in the market. I'm an investor myself. That said, I only check my accounts two or three times a week, typically when I get an email from The Mötley Fool or an interesting looking alert from Bloomberg. So what I'm about to say needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

My anthropological insight is that the market, as I see it represented on the investing sites I follow, as a game for individual players. The players share information and banter about good and bad moves, but the prevailing ideology, the basic rule of the game is, "You take your chances. You win a few, you lose a few,but you have to be a good sport about it." Unless you feel seriously cheated, I'm thinking shareholder lawsuits here, it's not done to gather a mob and attack fellow players or demand changes in the game—the game is supposed to be apolitical, and that is the way most investors play it.

There is also, I speculate, another lurking premise here, that hardship makes us tough and drives innovation. I recall a piece I wrote for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan where I challenged this notion, observing that the real question in Japan following the collapse of the economic bubble of the 1980s was why Japanese were behaving more like conservative bankers, hoarding their cash, instead of entrepreneurs, maxing out their credit cards to invest in new businesses. My proposed answer involved an aging population, with most of the investable weath concentrated in the hands of older people unwilling to risk their savings. I was, of course, projecting—I am one of those older people—but, as a thought experiment, this made me realize how much economic models assume a young, vigorous, and short-lived population whose members are highly mobile and willing to gamble to get ahead while they can.

I credit my training in anthropology for equipping me to think these kinds of thoughts. Are they valid? My experience says yes, but that's just my experience. How about yours?

Well I probably have many insights - sometimes I think I do, sometimes I think I don't - but I am not sure how valid they are.  However, my question is more about the lack of political response from those who are losing from financial globalization than it is about a response from investors.  For the most part people who are in the markets can look after themselves, or at least should be able to look after themselves or they should not be in the markets.  Over time, as I get my thoughts straight, I will hopefully reveal a useful insight or two.

But I am serious when I say I am here because I have questions, not answers.  Let me tell you a bit more about why I ended up here.

A few years ago a book, The Black Swan, caused a big stir in the world of finance.  The author, Nassim Taleb, had previously authored another book, Fooled By Randomness, which is essential reading for any serious investor.  So I rushed out and bought a copy of The Black Swan.   I am sure at some time you have been to a movie and sat there waiting for something to happen before you realized nothing was ever going to happen.  That is what reading The Black Swan was like for me.

His thesis was simply that there are improbable events which occur, which cannot be predicted, or understood within our current knowledge, and that these events will have a dramatic impact, while also being retroactively interpreted.  While I was underwhelmed by the book, I was overwhelmed by the reaction.  To many people in the world of finance and economics, including many I highly regard, this was considered revolutionary thinking, even a paradigm shift.   It revealed  to me something important about the way people in the world of finance and economics, including many very intelligent and influential people,  view the world.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I assume most people with a background in Anthropology would find The Black Swan fairly mundane.  Thirty years ago, as an undergrad, I read Primitive Classification which was perfect for me because it is a short and  easy to understand book, and I am lazy and not terribly bright.  It got me thinking (and reading far too much epistemology) about how people see the world and how they explain things they do not understand, and I have been thinking about it ever since. 

Since reading The Black Swan I have been thinking more about the role of Anthropology, especially regarding the world of finance and how the people there understand and explain the world.  Then a few months ago someone knowing my interest sent me Graeber's book.  So a few days ago I googled Anthropology of Finance, found this site and here I am.   Sorry I have no insights to offer at this time but maybe sometime in the future I will be able to answer some of my questions.


Paul, your reaction to The Black Swan is really interesting to me. I am an anthropologist, and I was incredibly taken with the book when I read it, for three reasons:

1) the reminder that what we take as given in the field may be old, new, durable, or fragile and the situation in which  we take our field notes may be only the lull before the storm or changing in ways that elude our theoretical notice. When I did my dissertation research in Taiwan I studied Daoist magic, but our first night in the field my wife and I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and the movie theater in the market town where we were conducting our research, and the next day the foreign affairs policeman asked if we new Susan, who turned out to be a sixteen-year old redhead from Iowa spending the year with the family of a local doctor on a Rotary Club exchange student. Taleb's story of growing up in Lebanon, when it was considered a model of peace and harmony in the Middle East, just before things fell apart, had a big impact on me. 

2) the puddle in the street example (it recently rained? a discarded ice cube melted? a dog took a leak?) made me think of how often we imagine social life as moving from A to B in mechanically determined ways, forgetting that many different causal paths may lead to what we observe.

3) the realization of how much investors and policymakers are betrayed by the normal curve assumptions of risk-management theory and how disastrous the consequences can be if a very small likelihood intersects with immense consequences. I vividly remember the example of the turkey, who has collected data for 364 consecutive days on each of which the sun has risen and the farmer appears with the turkey's food. Then it's Thanksgiving, and the farmer turns up with an axe. And, of course, I live in Japan where the nuclear accident at Fukushima No. 1 resulted from an earthquake and tsunami whose likelihood was deemed so rare that proper steps to prevent the accident had not been taken, even though there were stone markers on the hills behind the plant showing where a similar tsunami had reached just a century earlier. 

In any case, this anthropologist found lots to think about in The Black Swan.

The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley?

Indeed. Just now I am reading Nate Silver's _The Signal and the Noise-Why So Many Predictions Fail, and Some Don't_. Just started but looks to be very good.

John, I am beginning to wonder if I cannot win with you.   My point was more about the reaction to The Black Swan in the world I inhabit, more than about the quality of the book.  I had little problem with the book other than there was little there I had not encountered before (including in Taleb's earlier, superior book).   But then I deal with uncertainty and the limits to my knowledge on a regular basis.   I even have a process where I evaluate what I know and do not know on a subject.  It allows me to sleep at night.  Maybe my reaction to the book was more a product of my personal experience than my long past education in anthropology.

Still the reaction to it among economists, pseudo economists (imo the dominant group in the financial world) and others in the financial world, astounded me and made me wonder if anthropologists could not teach them a few things.  In an environment where uncertainty and risk are supposed to be of primary concern it revealed how routinely they are just assumed away.  While he was far from the only one to make this apparent, Taleb was very effective.  For a brief period many of the assumptions of economics and risk assessment were widely questioned.  Some of the widespread doubt still lingers, but it has mostly passed and certainty, or blind faith in the infallible judgement of free markets, has returned. 

I am not sure how I got here on a thread on Hobsbawm. I suppose it because I have come to view the people who make financial markets work (I do not consider financial markets a force of nature)  as a social group and become interested in their perceptions of the world, their myths and how they shape the larger world.  

I turned to Hobsbawm, specifically The Age of Revolution, because I wondered how another social group, those whose economic security was threatened or worse by the Global Financial Crisis, were responding.  Or, more precisely, I wondered why they were not responding politically.  Since I think of political action as part of a larger social process, I thought that reading Hobsbawm might help me think more clearly about what is, or is not, happening.  

John McCreery said:

Paul, your reaction to The Black Swan is really interesting to me. I am an anthropologist, and I was incredibly taken with the book when I read it, for three reasons:

Paul, are we not caught together in a familiar Internet trap. We both write as if the bit of the world with which we are most familiar is the one most familiar to everyone else and find ourselves disturbed when what we take for granted is seen by the other as problematic and, altogether too often, wind up talking past each other instead of addressing each other's concerns. My bust. 

Could you provide a few more details about who you have in mind when you write "those whose economic security was threatened or worse by the Global Economic Crisis"?

John, I often think  we now can know so many things about the world we have deluded ourselves into believing we understand it better.  Thank you for taking time to read my posts while I try to get my thoughts straight.  As I read through more of the threads here I wish I had found this site a couple of years ago.  Many of the things that are of concern to me have been covered in various forms already.   Mind you it is a bit of a challenge getting myself back up to speed on the world of anthropology.  I have forgotten so many things.

When I say "those whose economic security was threatened or worse by the GEC" I mean those people who have lost jobs, homes or savings or prospects for these, or are feeling threatened with the potential loss of any of these.  I guess I mean people mostly in North America and Europe because it is there I am always told there will be a strong political response to this economic insecurity.  It appears to me there has in fact been little political response from these people and I wonder why.   I am also doubtful there will be a strong political response.

Perhaps we are in a period like the last half of the 18th century before the beginning of the Age of Revolution.  Today technology is making more labour redundant just as at that time.   Then it resulted in increasing urbanization and migration.  There was some rebellion and rioting, but Hobsbawm did not consider it politically important.  It was a prelude to the French Revolution, the revolts of 1848 and the class-based politics that dominated European politics through the 20th century.

I guess my hypothesis is that many people are being similarly economically marginalized today.  Economic globalization and technological development is dramatically reducing the need for labour (at least in the developed world) and that process shows no signs of slowing.  The GEC just accentuated this.  At the same time the state that had developed to protect these marginalized people is being weakened.  So what are these people doing?

I wonder if there is not a place for anthropology in telling us what these people are doing.  Economics can tell us a lot of things about what these people are doing.  But what I have always liked about Anthropology is that I felt that question could be answered in a multitude of ways, many which we could not even conceive of in advance.  


Just look at the riots in Spain, Cataluna, Italy, Portugal and Greece and remember these also belong to the Europe you was refering


I wonder if there is not a place for anthropology in telling us what these people are doing.


I would certainly think so. My question is, as always, how. In terms of my personal experience, the fieldwork for which I was trained in the 1960s assumed a settled situation and a focus on customs and habits. I had read work like that by Anthony Wallace on revitalization movements or Peter Worsely on cargo cults but had no very clear idea about how to study situations where people's lives are in flux without becoming an historian. Even now, I find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to do participant-observation in a situation I entered not knowing the historical background, what I should see as traditional and what I should see as new. What I do imagine would involve a lot of emotional as well as intellectual stress. It is one thing to study customs and habits, a way of life that the anthropologist does not embrace as his own, and quite another to study people like oneself whose lives are falling apart. 

I just a Google search for "Anthropology and Crisis" and found a piece on that may be more useful than these first, feeble musings. 

I'm late.  But here goes anyway:

Keith wrote: "The point, however, is that anthropologists need to complement our ethnographies with a vision of world history. As a profession, we are like peasants: we like digging holes in obscure places. But sometimes we need people to show us where to dig. Eric Hobsbawm had no rival in that respect."

I agree about the need to complement to local and super specific of ethnography with much greater attention to world history. That's the way, or one way, to broaden the scope of anthropology and maybe even make some more folks pay heed to what we're up to these days. Interestingly though, I think there are a lot of anthros who think this sort of approach, with an intention toward change, is "too political" and that we should just try to stick to yam counting. I have no issue with the yam counting approach per se, but I think anthropology can offer quite a bit more than super detailed micro-details about humanity.

Paul wrote: "I spend all day following financial markets and I know many many people are not only not prospering but are being hurt badly. But there has been little or no political response."

Ya, I wonder about the same thing all the time: where's the response to all of this? I see a lot of recycled arguments and complacency, esp here in the US. Many of the solutions sound like the same old economic arguments.

"I think there is a place for Anthropology to shine some light on this, but perhaps, as Keith says, they are busy counting yams someplace else."

I think there is definitely a place for anthropology to shed some light on these issues. Fortunately, not everyone is stuck doing census work on tubers. There is hope yet.

In other news, I clearly need to read more of and about Hobsbawm. Thanks for posting this Keith.

PS: I laughed when Paul wrote: "It brought back memories of my undergrad and grad school years where there was always someone ensuring we were showing the appropriate anguish." That's a good way of putting it.

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