Upcoming OAC online seminar: Finance, Value, and Inequality (April 15-22, 2016)

When you think about capitalism, globalization, or neoliberalism, does your thinking stop with conventional stereotypes of greedy corporations exploiting the weak or unwary? If someone asked you how private equity investors, venture capitalists, commodity traders, and hedge fund or family office managers differ in how they conceive of markets, their investing styles and personal habits—could you answer their question? Have you thought about financialization--the process of shifting financial transactions from material goods and processes to abstractions traded and managed as if they had value in their own right? Can you imagine anthropology and archeology having important things to say about this process and the way its different forms shape social inequality?

If any of these questions interest you, the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) invites you to join a seminar on Finance, Value, and Inequality: Towards a comparative anthropology of wealth and poverty, a paper by Brandeis University anthropologist Daniel Souleles. The paper can be downloaded here:

http://openanthcoop.net/press/2016/03/28/finance-value-and-inequality/

The seminar is NOW CLOSED! Thanks everyone for taking part!!!

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Thanks, Daniel, for your brave and stimulating paper. I have some questions that loosely address method. Feel free to ignore some, but I hope not all of them.

1. Do you have any personal background in the field you studied? Do you think it makes a difference?

2.Inka comparison:  in Frank Knight's critique of Herskovits (trying to get economists interested in exotic ethnography), he said he thought anthropologists operated with an impoverished version of western capitalism -- he had just translated Weber's General Economic History. But he had no use for comparisons between Pacific islanders and New York businessmen, since "if I couldn't do better than most businesmen, I wouldn't be an economist". Do you see this piece as part of an interdisciplinary dialogue? Are anthropologists' understandings of capitalism better now?

3. William Poundstone wrote a hugely entertaining popular book, Fortune's Formula. This boiled down to exploring three propositions: you can't beat the markets (Samuelson); you can beat the markets with insider knowledge (but it's illegal); and you can beat the markets with advanced mathematical techniques. Does this triad inform your study in any way?

4. German economic history before 1945 focused on the individuality of entrepreneurs and firms. I wrote my doctoral thesis on 70 small entrepreneurs and then entered the development debate through the informal economy. I later thought that I had sacrificed the specificity of individual cases to general abstractions. Does this reflect your own perspective in any way?

5. Your title has three big hitters in it. Yet there is almost nothing about inequality here, for example. What were you thinking of?

I will come back later with a couple of specific points, but I found the methodological aspects of your paper very thought-provoking.

Hi Keith, Thanks very much for the thoughtful questions. Also, it's kind of you to describe the paper as "brave". It does leave the question open of how brave junior scholars are allowed to be. But, hell, I'll take it!

1. I have no background working in finance. That said, I do have a fair amount of things going in my life that made this project more doable. Before graduate school I worked as a paralegal in a law firm that dealt with ERISA, a United States law that allowed pensions to get into the types of investments that private equity does. I also know lawyers and accountants and was housed at Columbia University in New York City for my doctoral work. All this stuff lent a familiarity to many of the things I observed in my field work that someone without that type of cultural capital might be playing catch up with. I think, actually, this is a lot of what happens in more conventional anthropological field work--you spend a lot of time learning the background assumptions that make the work possible. So I started with a bit of an advantage.

I don't think you have to have worked in finance to study finance. But any sort of familiarity with finance, corporate law, accounting, elite cultures, etc.--all that helps immensely, particularly when fieldwork ends up being opportunistic and you have relatively little time with many of your informants. Particularly with the higher-up people, I had very little time and hence very little margin for screwing up interviews (which happened from time to time).

2. That's a funny anecdote from Frank Knight. It actually sounds a lot like how my undergraduates often frame what motivates people. It seems like Knight had an idea that if you could make money you both should and would. I hope there are other motivations for why people do that stuff. I feel like I could work in finance, or at least that I'm capable of it, but I wouldn't really want to because I value other things in life and I'm not so sure about the ethics of how they accumulate wealth.

As to the Inka comparison, I really do hope this can open things up. I'd very much like to have a longer interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of inequality and how it is structured and justified. Part of the idea with the Inka comparison is that I want to domesticate, for anthropologists at least, what is going on inside of finance. You can boil down a lot of financial transactions to an accounting of who is doing what with whose money? There is a lot of particular ethnographic complexity, but in a way I think a lot of that is obfuscation. A spreadsheet to justify a leveraged buyout can look very complicated and have lots of pages and nested formulas and accounting artifices. But at the end of the day it's an attempt to predict one company's future earnings and see how that relates to a whole set of things we think will happen with the company. I guess I feel if you can get over the shock and boredom of the form, from the point of view of value argument and capture, the spreadsheet is actually not doing something all that socially complicated.

As to other anthropologists, I'm not sure. I think people who encounter finance are pretty savvy and can keep up in discussions about corporate forms and taxation regimes and so on. But outside of studies of finance I encounter a fair amount of "neoliberalism bad, capitalism bad, the people I study good." When I told one colleague about my research topic, he blinked, and then said "String em up." It's hard to work with that. I think hitching the anthropology of finance to larger conversations about value's creation and stockpiling will start to get colleagues to see similarities to their sites and mine, and perhaps start to break down the black box of larger economic trends that are often the backdrop to much ethnography.

3. I'll have to read Fortune's Formula, it sounds great. The argument sounds resonant with my prejudices. Analyically, and I think by conviction, I see most work of financial modeling in the context of investment banking and private equity transactions as starting with a gut sense of worth and then backing into a model to justify a sense of how a company should be valued. Or to echo Sahlins, culture is antecedent to practical reason. Particularly with junior bankers, I'd hear a lot about how vice presidents or managing directors would push particular felt valuations. One example that stands out is one of my informants got told that his deal felt like a "100 million dollar deal" and should build the model accordingly. This is why I think understanding the aesthetic of value is so important, it gives you the cultural presuppositions that bound and structure a financial model.

4. I think this is a fair point. Certainly in this paper I've sacrificed individual voices to a larger task of generalization and interpretation. I work against this in the book manuscript by quoting individuals at great length, and trying to have them recur. I also try to preserve individual voices by describing the form arguments take, not necessarily their individual conclusion. What any given PE executive says about a particular company is unpredictable, yet, with a certain degree of certainty, I can tell you the types of questions they will ask and the structure their argument will tend to take.

5. Sorry for giving inequality the short shrift. I hoped by alluding to Piketty and Krippner I'd cover my assumptions about the structure of inequality in the United States, and particularly how financiers fit into it and how financiers fit into it. From a big picture point of view, finance and financialization seem to be how many elites are accumulating wealth now. To take one example, Tim Geithner doesn't go and work for GM now, he goes and works for Warbug Pincus. GE makes much of its money through financing and not from selling products. You can also see it in the composition of charitable boards at all the institutions I've been at--generally speaking, lawyers, real estate, and financial wealth. Leon Black of Apollo makes headlines for buying up impressionist art and pushing the Museuom of Modern Art Around. Steve Schwartzman's name is chiseled into the outside of the New York Public Library. The chair of the Brandeis board of trustees is a financial analyst. So I'm thinking about the structure of capital accumulation currently, as well as the societal bleed over effects of having finance people exerting their influence. Whether that influence takes coherent, class-like, form, I'm not sure. But, I'd love to talk more about this if you have a sense.

Thanks again for the excellent questions. I hope these answers were helpful. Happy to clarify or ramble further as you'd like.

Keith Hart said:

Thanks, Daniel, for your brave and stimulating paper. I have some questions that loosely address method. Feel free to ignore some, but I hope not all of them.

1. Do you have any personal background in the field you studied? Do you think it makes a difference?

2.Inka comparison:  in Frank Knight's critique of Herskovits (trying to get economists interested in exotic ethnography), he said he thought anthropologists operated with an impoverished version of western capitalism -- he had just translated Weber's General Economic History. But he had no use for comparisons between Pacific islanders and New York businessmen, since "if I couldn't do better than most businesmen, I wouldn't be an economist". Do you see this piece as part of an interdisciplinary dialogue? Are anthropologists' understandings of capitalism better now?

3. William Poundstone wrote a hugely entertaining popular book, Fortune's Formula. This boiled down to exploring three propositions: you can't beat the markets (Samuelson); you can beat the markets with insider knowledge (but it's illegal); and you can beat the markets with advanced mathematical techniques. Does this triad inform your study in any way?

4. German economic history before 1945 focused on the individuality of entrepreneurs and firms. I wrote my doctoral thesis on 70 small entrepreneurs and then entered the development debate through the informal economy. I later thought that I had sacrificed the specificity of individual cases to general abstractions. Does this reflect your own perspective in any way?

5. Your title has three big hitters in it. Yet there is almost nothing about inequality here, for example. What were you thinking of?

I will come back later with a couple of specific points, but I found the methodological aspects of your paper very thought-provoking.

Thanks for answering so fully, Daniel, and with such clarity.

Just one comment at this stage. Knight was saying that his brand of economics is a deductive science, whereas institutional economics, anthropology, sociology etc are empirical sciences. His rejoinder to Herskovits was that he wasn't interested in empirical ethnography any more than in the practices of New York businessmen, since he thought he could do better, based on abstract principles. This position came to look quaint after the mathematics and computing revolution of the 1940s (Tinbergen, Koopmans) which opened up positive economics to empirical induction on a huge scale.

Poundstone's book is a wild collection of entertaining anecdotes with rather less analytical rigour. Its subtitle is The untold story of the scientific betting system that beat the casinos and Wall Street (the hook that got me into it). It starts with a mob racing scam in Chicago, dwells at length on Bell Labs and Claude Shannon who invented information theory and liked to punt on stocks. It goes on to junk bonds, insider trading, Boesky, Rudy Giuliani, mechanised stock tips, LTCM and Scholes Merton. The basic actors recombine over time, with the mob owning financial conglomerates and so on. It's a hoot.

I'll leave space for others, maybe pick up on your many excellent points later.

I recognize that 'brave' can be used ambivalently, but not by me here.

Thanks for sharing this paper Dan. There's a lot to appreciate here, particularly the scope that you're going for in a methdological sense (as Keith has already mentioned). As someone who spent a lot of time worrying about "what value really means" during my own fieldwork, I like the move you make here to look at value/inequality by taking a "wider vantage point than recent studies that take neoliberalism or capitalism as their starting point" (from your abstract). When I was digging into and trying to explore understand this "value" thing in my work, I often wondered whether or not I was creating more conceptual confusion by bouncing back between some different processes and putting them all under the "value" umbrella. Anyway, I think the approach you're taking here, which draws from ethnography and archaeology, has a lot of promise for explore broader meanings and of wealth, inequality, valuables, etc. In fact, I think that digging deeper into the archaeological aspect (in this case, of the Inka), would be well warranted. I'd like to see more.

I do think that bringing in archaeological perspectives on value/wealth/inequality can open up the discussion a bit more, especially since much of the literature on value tends to be set within certain frameworks--capitalism, political economy, neoliberalism, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of this, but I do think it's interesting and helpful to open up the discussion about "value" and think about it in a more anthropological, generalized sense. How does this concept of value relate cross-culturally and throughout human history? I think this is an important question to ask. There's a great annual review of anthropology about the archaeology of money (Haselgrove and Krmnicek 2012) that argues, quite convincingly, that we should be wary about taking contemporary conceptions of things like "money" (and maybe value) and extending them into past societies. I agree, but I also think that your approach here can lead to some interesting cross-historical/cultural comparisons of analogous human behaviors--I am especially interested in your focus on the intentions and effects of abstraction (via accounting) with modern finance and the Inka state. The trick, of course, is making the argument stick to convince the naysayers who insist that we can't make cross-cultural/historical comparisons. I think we can, but, as the archaeologist Matthew Johnson argues, the analogies we build up have to be more than simple comparisons.

My last point for now: I also appreciate your rationale for pulling in the Inka when you write, in a comment above, "As to the Inka comparison, I really do hope this can open things up. I'd very much like to have a longer interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of inequality and how it is structured and justified. Part of the idea with the Inka comparison is that I want to domesticate, for anthropologists at least, what is going on inside of finance." I particularly appreciate it when say that some of the stuff we sometimes chalk up to "ethnographic complexity" can all too easily be little more than a bunch of obfuscation. We often hear a lot about how finance and hedge funds are these complex, mystical processes, and your attempt to step back from all of this is great. Pulling back and bringing in some comparative data can help us stop with the "it's so complex" narrative and start looking into the different forms and patterns that we can see throughout human history and maybe moving toward understanding what they mean, in a broad sense, rather than how unwieldy they are. After all, if we're not aiming to explain things or make them understandable then what's the point of this anthropology thing?

So the point that we need to consider the possibility that the spreadsheet isn't actually doing something that's all that terribly complex--through a comparative look at Inka accounting systems--is definitely intriguing. I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

Great paper Daniel; most accessible account of various main finance players I ever read.

One question that came up with me was how state reform programs and their antecedent governmental agents would compare here (aka IMF-South, or EU center-periphery structural reform)...along your framework, it seems these thrusts would be closest to the PE time-value-type...?

Hi everyone,

Daniel, thanks for a thought-provoking paper. I was intrigued by your comparison of the Incas with financiers, especially the image of officials being buried with their accounts, as though they can communicate from their graves. To me, the value of such as comparison is that it prompts us to put our assumptions aside. I completely agree with you that it is a mistake to view all contemporary financial activity as being analytically inseparable from capitalism and neoliberalism. Of course they're there, but this kind of lens is way too entrenched and gets in the way of us forming other interpretations. Hence while I agree with Ryan that we need to think carefully about what we mean by terms like "value", these terms can at least provide a bridge between thinking across disparate historic and geographic contexts. We just need to be aware of the limitations of our analyses.

I also very much appreciated your efforts to disentangle the world of finance. Have you read Joris Luyendijk's book "Swimming with Sharks"? He does the public a great service by explaining just how diverse the "financial industry" actually is. We (the public) tend to so little about this world that we can't even begin to ask questions. And I feel that most anthropologists know little more than the general public, despite the fact that there are quite a few anthros writing ethographies about financial worlds today. We are moving in the right direction, however.

I think anthorpology needs to complicate our definition of "finance" to include consumer / everyday finance as well. We've historically looked at informal practices, then "high finance", but there isn't that much anthropology on formal financial products offered to consumers (individuals and households, mostly). The sociologists, historians, and social studies of finance people are way ahead of us and doing some really good work. In my opinion, if we really want to understand the link between inequality and finance, we need to look at how consumers are integrated as well as how profit is generated through financialization. These things go together.

Moreover, I would assume that when you talk about "inequality" you aren't just talking at the macro level (e.g., regional or national divisions) but also at the micro level. If this is indeed what you mean, then it doesn't make sense to leave ordinary people out of our analysis  (à la Picketty). 

So my question is: how can anthropology move towards an integrated understanding of finance and inequality, taking into account finance's diversity? How do we relate the different sectors of finance that you identify with practices of retail banking, proliferating digital finance products (e.g., online insurance, payments, mobile money), and even so-called "informal" financial products and services? 


Hi Keith,

Thanks very much for the Knight explanation. That reminds me of the economists alleged insistence that you shouldn't do field work because informants will lie to you. As a card carrying anthropologist, I suppose I'm pretty firmly on the side of inductive methods in the social sciences. That said, that inductive/deductive divide sure is a messy one, and is often recursive or dialectic in practice.

Keith Hart said:

Thanks for answering so fully, Daniel, and with such clarity.

Just one comment at this stage. Knight was saying that his brand of economics is a deductive science, whereas institutional economics, anthropology, sociology etc are empirical sciences. His rejoinder to Herskovits was that he wasn't interested in empirical ethnography any more than in the practices of New York businessmen, since he thought he could do better, based on abstract principles. This position came to look quaint after the mathematics and computing revolution of the 1940s (Tinbergen, Koopmans) which opened up positive economics to empirical induction on a huge scale.

Poundstone's book is a wild collection of entertaining anecdotes with rather less analytical rigour. Its subtitle is The untold story of the scientific betting system that beat the casinos and Wall Street (the hook that got me into it). It starts with a mob racing scam in Chicago, dwells at length on Bell Labs and Claude Shannon who invented information theory and liked to punt on stocks. It goes on to junk bonds, insider trading, Boesky, Rudy Giuliani, mechanised stock tips, LTCM and Scholes Merton. The basic actors recombine over time, with the mob owning financial conglomerates and so on. It's a hoot.

I'll leave space for others, maybe pick up on your many excellent points later.

I recognize that 'brave' can be used ambivalently, but not by me here.

Hi Ryan,

Thanks again for the opportunity to share the paper! These are some great thoughts and I'll try to take them in turn.

That is a useful point about being wary using our, local, or native concepts as universalizing bits of theory. I personally have the most trouble when people talk about various types of "capital". Social capital, or some such, is a useful, often indispensable, concept. But I always wonder if we really want to analogize everyone's resources to the inputs for industrial capitalism--something gets lost when we do that, and many things become unavoidably instrumental.

My hope is that with "value" and value theories we're not just naturalizing our own romantic protests to capitalistic or business oriented ways of deciding what is meaningful in our world (in the same way some pure notion of gift-giving and exchange theory can become a universal stand in for "not capitalistic" or "not selfish"). The reason I think value works as a cross cultural comparative concept is that it lines up with some of the basic theoretical presuppositions that I think are reasonably settled within anthropology (I'm really courting disaster with this claim!). I think most of us start from the premise that in order to understand humans and their social lives we have to understand some version of the culture concept (as a web of meaning, as a semiotic inventory, as an assortment of ontological possibilities, whatever really). Then once we accept some version of the culture concept, we also accept that people do all sorts of sorting exercises either around binary categories, along spectrum, or perhaps according to some even more idiosyncratic scheme. The outcome of this is then that some things become important, or meaningful, and align with whatever version of culture system we came up with (as an aside, this is why I find exchange theories so useful--they give a social picture of value in motion). It's in this spirit that I'm using value, and value theories (largely poached from Graeber) as a way to make sense of my ethnographic data and then compare cross culturally. It's my hope that this renders the Inka case "more than simple comparison."

All that said, Graeber (2013) at the start of his Hau article on value makes the point that any theoretical term is a statement about human nature. Given that a critic disagrees with or can disprove the steps by which I got to value, I'd probably have to reconsider this theoretical approach. The flip side of that, though, is insofar as I am accepting this idea of value theory is sets up a hypothesis of what you might find when you start looking cross culturally, and hopefully gets you to many more cases like the Inka one.

Also, so glad I found a sympathetic ear with the reduction of complexity argument. Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!


ryan anderson said:

Thanks for sharing this paper Dan. There's a lot to appreciate here, particularly the scope that you're going for in a methdological sense (as Keith has already mentioned). As someone who spent a lot of time worrying about "what value really means" during my own fieldwork, I like the move you make here to look at value/inequality by taking a "wider vantage point than recent studies that take neoliberalism or capitalism as their starting point" (from your abstract). When I was digging into and trying to explore understand this "value" thing in my work, I often wondered whether or not I was creating more conceptual confusion by bouncing back between some different processes and putting them all under the "value" umbrella. Anyway, I think the approach you're taking here, which draws from ethnography and archaeology, has a lot of promise for explore broader meanings and of wealth, inequality, valuables, etc. In fact, I think that digging deeper into the archaeological aspect (in this case, of the Inka), would be well warranted. I'd like to see more.

I do think that bringing in archaeological perspectives on value/wealth/inequality can open up the discussion a bit more, especially since much of the literature on value tends to be set within certain frameworks--capitalism, political economy, neoliberalism, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of this, but I do think it's interesting and helpful to open up the discussion about "value" and think about it in a more anthropological, generalized sense. How does this concept of value relate cross-culturally and throughout human history? I think this is an important question to ask. There's a great annual review of anthropology about the archaeology of money (Haselgrove and Krmnicek 2012) that argues, quite convincingly, that we should be wary about taking contemporary conceptions of things like "money" (and maybe value) and extending them into past societies. I agree, but I also think that your approach here can lead to some interesting cross-historical/cultural comparisons of analogous human behaviors--I am especially interested in your focus on the intentions and effects of abstraction (via accounting) with modern finance and the Inka state. The trick, of course, is making the argument stick to convince the naysayers who insist that we can't make cross-cultural/historical comparisons. I think we can, but, as the archaeologist Matthew Johnson argues, the analogies we build up have to be more than simple comparisons.

My last point for now: I also appreciate your rationale for pulling in the Inka when you write, in a comment above, "As to the Inka comparison, I really do hope this can open things up. I'd very much like to have a longer interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of inequality and how it is structured and justified. Part of the idea with the Inka comparison is that I want to domesticate, for anthropologists at least, what is going on inside of finance." I particularly appreciate it when say that some of the stuff we sometimes chalk up to "ethnographic complexity" can all too easily be little more than a bunch of obfuscation. We often hear a lot about how finance and hedge funds are these complex, mystical processes, and your attempt to step back from all of this is great. Pulling back and bringing in some comparative data can help us stop with the "it's so complex" narrative and start looking into the different forms and patterns that we can see throughout human history and maybe moving toward understanding what they mean, in a broad sense, rather than how unwieldy they are. After all, if we're not aiming to explain things or make them understandable then what's the point of this anthropology thing?

So the point that we need to consider the possibility that the spreadsheet isn't actually doing something that's all that terribly complex--through a comparative look at Inka accounting systems--is definitely intriguing. I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

Hi Kristian,

I am so glad you found the paper accessible! So much of finance is meant to obfuscate and hide, it's always a small victory when someone says they understand it all a bit better.

As to the substance of your question, I confess I likely don't know as much as I should about the processes or organizations your mentioned. My apologies. Would it be possible for you to explain a bit more about "IMF-South" or the "EU center-periphery structural reform", or perhaps supply a few news articles that would get me up to speed? Then I'd be happy to think through how these processes might work with the time-value schema I'm using.

Kristian Garthus-Niegel said:

Great paper Daniel; most accessible account of various main finance players I ever read.

One question that came up with me was how state reform programs and their antecedent governmental agents would compare here (aka IMF-South, or EU center-periphery structural reform)...along your framework, it seems these thrusts would be closest to the PE time-value-type...?

Hi Erin,

Great comments and a great question! Thank you.

Your point about the limitation of cross cultural comparison is well taken. From a methodological perspective, doing this type of work demands a lot of research to make sure we're getting things right. And then from a textual perspective, we need to be circumspect in terms of how far we extend our comparison.

Luyendijk's book is great. If I ever get to teach a cultures of finance course, this book easily makes the syllabus. He captures both the variety of people in finance, and how people at different life stages think about their current or past relationships with the finance industry. It's a really awesome perspective, given how pyramidal the industry is, and as even many of my informants had no idea what happens to people who don't make it in finance. For all they know there could be a hole somewhere in New Jersey were ex analysts are tossed after burn out.

As to your question: I think anthropology can move towards an integrated understanding of finance in inequality in two ways. First via the study of consumer finance. Your point about consumer finance is spot on. Caitlin Zaloom is working on a book on student loans and the way in which colleges make use of familial bonds to get multi-generational family groups to take on the work of paying for a student loan. The obligation of the loan, it's timing and it's structure all push the family around, opening up soem life opportunities (younger generation goes to college) and foreclosing others (older generation is unable to stop working). Similarly, Hadas Wiess's (2015) article, Financialization and its Discontents: Israelis Negotiating Pensions looks at the ways in which people become responsible for complicated, unpredictable financial instruments and securities.

Second, the approach I am advocating, is thinking in Maussian terms of total social facts, or the nodal processes and events that bring move people and things around. That was jargony, sorry. What I mean is that you can see a private equity transaction as pulling in people and things and rearranging them according to the logic of private equity value. This is real power over the structure of social life. Susan Faludi's 1990 Wall Street Journal article "The Reckoning" I think gives about the best account I've found of how exactly a private equity transaction moves the world around according to the logic of private equity value. Here's a link to it: http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2014/03/05/safeway-buy-.... In my larger manuscript, I make this argument at much greater length.

So consumer finance to get at the rearrnagment of intimate daily lives, as well as tracing out deals as total social facts, both give intellectual ways to connect finance to other spheres of social life and track inequalities, or even just the shape of life that is created.


Erin Taylor said:

Hi everyone,

Daniel, thanks for a thought-provoking paper. I was intrigued by your comparison of the Incas with financiers, especially the image of officials being buried with their accounts, as though they can communicate from their graves. To me, the value of such as comparison is that it prompts us to put our assumptions aside. I completely agree with you that it is a mistake to view all contemporary financial activity as being analytically inseparable from capitalism and neoliberalism. Of course they're there, but this kind of lens is way too entrenched and gets in the way of us forming other interpretations. Hence while I agree with Ryan that we need to think carefully about what we mean by terms like "value", these terms can at least provide a bridge between thinking across disparate historic and geographic contexts. We just need to be aware of the limitations of our analyses.

I also very much appreciated your efforts to disentangle the world of finance. Have you read Joris Luyendijk's book "Swimming with Sharks"? He does the public a great service by explaining just how diverse the "financial industry" actually is. We (the public) tend to so little about this world that we can't even begin to ask questions. And I feel that most anthropologists know little more than the general public, despite the fact that there are quite a few anthros writing ethographies about financial worlds today. We are moving in the right direction, however.

I think anthorpology needs to complicate our definition of "finance" to include consumer / everyday finance as well. We've historically looked at informal practices, then "high finance", but there isn't that much anthropology on formal financial products offered to consumers (individuals and households, mostly). The sociologists, historians, and social studies of finance people are way ahead of us and doing some really good work. In my opinion, if we really want to understand the link between inequality and finance, we need to look at how consumers are integrated as well as how profit is generated through financialization. These things go together.

Moreover, I would assume that when you talk about "inequality" you aren't just talking at the macro level (e.g., regional or national divisions) but also at the micro level. If this is indeed what you mean, then it doesn't make sense to leave ordinary people out of our analysis  (à la Picketty). 

So my question is: how can anthropology move towards an integrated understanding of finance and inequality, taking into account finance's diversity? How do we relate the different sectors of finance that you identify with practices of retail banking, proliferating digital finance products (e.g., online insurance, payments, mobile money), and even so-called "informal" financial products and services? 

Ryan asked for my input here. I am swamped right now and could only skim this paper superficially. But I will note that of all the ancient state economies ever documented, the Inka are one of the few non-commercial (state-dominated) economies on record. No money, no markets, no merchants. Yes, there were low-level commercial institutions on the periphery of the Inka empire, and yes some archaeologists are arguing (without evidence) for Inka commercial practices. But my choices of economies that would have the LEAST in common with contemporary finance would be the Inka and dynastic Egypt.

That said, perhaps there is room for a useful higher-order comparison,based less on the specific principles and practices of the economy, and more on the attributes of complex adaptive systems (or some other parallel analogical approach). But I don't have the knowledge of the time to explore this paper on such a level.


Hi Michael,

Thanks very much for taking a look at the paper, particularly given how busy you are. I really appreciate it.

I think your point about Inka exceptionalism is worth keeping in mind. Certainly, from a technological perspective the Inka don't look much like contemporary financiers. But by that same technological token, contemporary financiers look like just about no one else, historically at least, given that they have smartphones, MBAs, microsoft excel, a system of corporate law rooted in a federated state-system (and so on, and so on, and so on). I think there is a reasonable argument, at least from these technological points of view, that financiers (and perhaps the Inka too) are incomparable. But, this is why I didn't want to root my argument in specific technological comparison. This is why I was hoping to root my argument in that higher-order system of value identification and abstraction and then capture (culture and then practical reason). My hope is that this manner of comparison gets us to a place at which we can see the sort of patterns that unequal social systems take across societies, even ones so apparently dissimilar as the Inka empire and contemporary financial capitalism.

I do hope, should you find that you have time, you might let me know if the higher order comparison works for you. I, of course, understand how busy the end of the semester can be, so, thanks again for taking a look!

Michael E. Smith said:

Ryan asked for my input here. I am swamped right now and could only skim this paper superficially. But I will note that of all the ancient state economies ever documented, the Inka are one of the few non-commercial (state-dominated) economies on record. No money, no markets, no merchants. Yes, there were low-level commercial institutions on the periphery of the Inka empire, and yes some archaeologists are arguing (without evidence) for Inka commercial practices. But my choices of economies that would have the LEAST in common with contemporary finance would be the Inka and dynastic Egypt.

That said, perhaps there is room for a useful higher-order comparison,based less on the specific principles and practices of the economy, and more on the attributes of complex adaptive systems (or some other parallel analogical approach). But I don't have the knowledge of the time to explore this paper on such a level.

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