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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There are some meta-issues (epistemological issues) here, irrespective of the particulars of the Inka case. What, precisely, does a comparison of a single ancient institution with a modern institution accomplish? Suppose, for the purposes of argument, that the Inka comparison is a productive and insightful one. Why did you pick the Inkas? What about the Aztecs, or early Babylonia, or Shang China? Yoruba or Bali or Iron-age France? Were the Inkas bizarre in their resemblance to modern financial practices? Or would your comparison for for all early state economies? To me, a single isolated comparison like this does little to illuminate either the modern or the ancient case.

Daniel Souleles said:


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.

 

    Thanks to Dan for focusing the anthropological lens on the world of high finance – more alien to me, I confess, than the Amazonian forest. 

    Thinking about “financialization” (who comes up with these words?) did cause me to reflect on two background or ancillary issues, which I’ll mention here because a very good thing about anthropology is its providing the long view of human life.  But by all means take them as tangential to your lively and interesting discussion.

    Counting.  It struck me that to understand the complex systems of accounting used by financiers it is useful to reflect that accounting is first of all counting.  How did we come to count?  And why?  Long before the bean counters of early civilizations began their tedious work, long before there were beans to count, counting was an integral feature of socio-religious life.  The first “thing” to be counted was not a thing at all – it existed only through tabulating, incising it: time, time as instantiated in the movements of sun, moon, and stars.  If we lend any credence to Alexander Marshack’s intriguing thesis, then we may posit that calendrical notation began in the Upper Paleolithic.  The best known example of his theory is his analysis of an engraved eagle bone from the Abri Blanchard cave, dated to around 30 kya: 

 

Blanchard bone

 

 

 Blanchard bone figuration, by Marshack

    Measurement or counting of time is key to the development of religion, as instanced by the early Roman practice of identifying a sacred place, templum, as a place where time, tempus, was measured.    

    It’s not unreasonable to think that this long and deep association of counting with the sacred realm of life persists into the world of today, where numbers on a spreadsheet endow arcane entities such as derivatives with a special aura.  Our high priests are investment bankers, arbitrageurs, hedge fund managers.  They have special knowledge of that most sacred substance that is not a substance: money.  Time is money, money is time. 

    Inka Khipu.  As Ryan noted, comparing Wall Street financiers with Inka khipu-keepers is a masterful piece of a wide-ranging anthropological perspective.  The comparison may even go deeper than Dan describes in his brief essay, for khipu may have been more than a novel form of record-keeping; they may have been a form of “writing” and a conduit for Inka ideology and resistance to Spanish conquerors.  In Signs of the Inka Khipu Gary Urton argues that khipu were constructed using a binary code that communicated words as well as numbers.  Khipu are a three-dimensional script based on textiles so important to Inka life, as Sumerian and Egyptian figurative signs were based on clay tablets.  The Spaniards who observed Inka using khipu certainly thought they were more than an innocuous accounting tool; they systematically ferreted out and destroyed them.  As ideological and religious expression, khipu infused record-keeping with basic tenets of Inka culture, something in the way that  modern spreadsheets derive their authority from millennia of an association of numbers with the sacred.  

Hi Michael,

Thank you very much for the quick reply!

Insofar as one takes it as a first order premise that a comparison of an "ancient" institution with a "modern" institution is pointless, I don't think I have much to say. Moreover, I have not made an argument for the blanket ability to render such comparisons. I'm also not making an evolutionary argument to justify my comparison. For the purpose of this paper at least, I'm not all that interested in whether the Inka might be classified as an "early state economy", and what accounting practices come with that presumed stage of social evolution. I'm making a specific comparison meant to illustrate what light may be shed on cross cultural cases of social inequality by using a particular definition of value, value's abstraction, and value's capture. In the particular case, it's a fairly narrow argument. I'd be happy to discuss whether this mode of thinking is more widely applicable given the nature of accounting practices, their social import, and their service of state power in other contexts.

If you'd like address the specifics of the argument, I'd be happy to engage further. Otherwise, I hear your critique of the nature of my comparison loud and clear, I think I understand the epistemological position from which you are writing (and am sorry I can't bridge it further), and again, appreciate the fact that you took any time at all to engage. Given that this is an academic paper it always feels like a small miracle that anyone at all reads it!

All the best,

Daniel


Michael E. Smith said:

There are some meta-issues (epistemological issues) here, irrespective of the particulars of the Inka case. What, precisely, does a comparison of a single ancient institution with a modern institution accomplish? Suppose, for the purposes of argument, that the Inka comparison is a productive and insightful one. Why did you pick the Inkas? What about the Aztecs, or early Babylonia, or Shang China? Yoruba or Bali or Iron-age France? Were the Inkas bizarre in their resemblance to modern financial practices? Or would your comparison for for all early state economies? To me, a single isolated comparison like this does little to illuminate either the modern or the ancient case.

Daniel Souleles said:


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.

When I started out, I soon realised that I could do well peddling economics to the anthropologists and anthropology to the economists. It was really just a matter of switching codes and taking advantage of the two disciplines' mutual ignorance. Introduction of the Inkas here -- it really could be any case -- makes an audience of anthropologists feel more at home. As several people have pointed out, Daniel has produced an unusually accessible account of an activity -- private equity firms -- that most anthropologists know little about and some avoid at all costs. If the Inka story helps some readers connect to something they know better than most of the paper's substance, I for one would say fair enough. Taken out of this rhetorical context, as Michael says, the comparison doesn't stand up epistemologically or methodologically. But this is a popular public seminar, a semi-serious conversation, certainly not an article submitted to a professional journal. That doesn't mean comments can't be rigorous -- or funny.

How did I resolve my choices in early career? I decided that I wanted to make something new and stronger out of the combination of the two disciplines. And I did. There is a lot to like in Daniel's paper, certainly a lot to learn from. Maybe some anthropologists would be encouraged by it to take up similar topics. The style points towards wider public engagement and I am sure the form of future writings will vary. Daniel is willing to experiment outside the groove. I like that. Even so, how anthropologists deal with questions of expertise in areas where their knowledge of other relevant disciplines is naive is an important one and we have an excellent example to think with here.

 Lee and Keith,

These are great posts. Thanks very much for them. Lee, I suspect that the way in which your thinking about counting and the way it allows for abstraction and granting of significance would be a really useful cross-culturally comparative starting point. Your further explanation of the significance of the Inka Khipu is also most welcome. One thing I might add to the comparison in my own paper is the way in which the Inka extended metaphors of family units and obligations to the people they conquered. They made use of existing kinship systems, and elaborated and coopted them. Again, noting this part of the logic of a system of labor control can usefully illustrate the way in which private equity investors play with the logic of a firm and it's operation to justify their control--they slide into roles that already exist (chief financial officer, or chairman of the board) yet argue that they are uniquely and potently qualified to fill those roles at the exclusion of people who are already in the company.

Keith's larger point about what one is to do when one is out of one's comfort zone or area of scholarly expertise is an interesting one as well. I'm obviously not an Inka specialist nor an archaeologist. That said, in my graduate work and independent reading I had a lot of exposure to archaeological anthropology--a graduate level seminar, TAing a "Rise of Civ" course a few times, and my dissertation supervisor happened to be an Inka specialist with whom I sat numerous lectures on the Inka as well as did independent studies in economic anthropology. So it's a funny thing. As a plain old (applied) cultural anthropologist, I likely will never have the deep expertise of a cultural ecologist,or evolutionist, or an archaeologist. And yet, there's really not much more you could imagine me doing to read up on the Inka. So if we want this type of thinking across the fields at the same time as having a fairly set division of labor across the fields, what should cross cultural comparative work look like? What's fair game, or just misguided from the get go? And by what process of composition might we make it. I try to hang out with archaeologists, read what they write, but I bet we could think of more reliable ways.

Dear Daniel,

To my knowledge, apart from Douglas Holmes' "Economy of Words", there hasn't really been done any ethnographic work within the central quarters of the World Bank, IMF, ECB, or the Eurogroup (but Keith could surely supply some references from the development-anthro-corpus). 

Based in Europe, extensively preoccupied with recent twists and turns of the Euro-/Austerity-debate, these were among your generalizations that trigged my comparative interests:

1: "within the domain of finance, people distinguish themselves over how they understand worth and value...and the time under which worth and value can be realized"

2: "working on a concrete real institution with the idea of changing that institution’s numerical abstraction...is the work of finance...When financiers argue about value and the time in which to produce it, they are arguing about how to change the representation of the entities they invest in and buy, and in turn how to take that previously unrecognized value and profit over a given timeframe"

Judging from contemporary public discourses on how to deal with severely indebted states, both your above generalizations seem to frame well most expert opinionating on the issue. And my sense is that the dominant players, when formulating their value-realization schemes (perhaps better called something like "rescue strategies"), strive to perform as economic players in a manner akin to your PEs; safe, sober, long-term, low-profile (take for instance the Scheubele-Varoufakis contrast).

This comparison does, however, come with various quandaries. A main one, resounding Michael's, is the divergent social nature of the concrete players. Even though time-value computations are certainly central to all, finance agents hold quite different cards, perhaps even playing quite a different game, than governmental bodies. Some blunt key difference of the latter to the former would be their sovereignty characteristics, which involves at least (a) explicit, legitimate capacities to shape law and order, and (following this capacity) (b) affiliations to additional value-forms apart from raw wealth creation (i.e. communalism).

Is there evidence that the Khipus were, from a native point of view, instrumentally tied to wealth accumulation aims?

Hi Kristian,

Thanks so much for elaborating your inquiry. I really do appreciate it.

Though I'm not versed in it, I am aware that there is a literature on the types of bureaucratic institutions you're talking about, though perhaps not as centrally focused as you'd like. A quick google search turned up Harper's Inside the IMF and Lie's Developmentality: An Ethnography of the World-Bank Uganda Partnership. A bit more generally there is a nice literature on bureaucracy stretching back to Weber, some contemporary examples of which are Herzfeld's Social Production of Indifference and Graeber's Utopia of Rules. Again, I'm not deep in this literature, but I know it's out there and may be of use. Also, Holme's Economy of Words is a great ethnography.

As to the question at hand, I don't think Khipu were good for any one thing particularly, but kind of like a spreadsheet, could be used to store information about a number of different social tasks. D'Altroy (from The Inca) is worth quoting at length:

Inca khipu were used to record a wide range of numerical data, form census records, to warehouse contents, counts of the royal flocks, tax obligations, land measurements, military organization, and calendrical information. They aided in keeping royal genealogies, conquest sequences, and myths, and were even used as aids for literary works, such as poetry. The everyday populace used them to keep track of such things as community herds, a practice that continues today. Each khipu was accompanied by an oral account memorized by a knot-record keeper, or khipu kamayuq. The position passed down form father to son, along with the oral information that was needed to read each record fully. The Incas made this position into a professional office and ranked the specialists according to the level or kind of information that they were responsible for. Since khipu-accounting was common, the Incas probably found it fairly easy to recruit individuals to fill the state offices in many places. Several different forms of tying the khipu existed, however, and we do not know if the Incas allowed local techniques to continue or standardized them across the realm. The Spaniards found the accounts to be so reliable that they allowed witnesses to read their data into court records as part of their tersimony. The khipu was an instrument for recording information, however, and not for doing arithmetic calculations [pretty significant difference from the spreadsheet]: for that purpose, the Incas used piles of pebbles or grain, or by mocing counters about on a tray with rows of compartments (Rowe 1946:326). The amount of oral information needed to read a khipu--or conversely the amount of information embedded in a khipu that any specialist could read--is still uncertain. Despite the profess that has been made, khipu clearly contained a more nuanced code than researchers have been able to crack. The message transmitted by the chaski (postal messengers), for example, often consisted of a short verbal message accompanied by a khipu. In addition, the way in which the knot-records were used to record narrative verse and other non-numerical information has always been a puzzle. (2003:18)

So it seems fair to say that the Khipu, though it didn't have a fixed use, could certainly serve the purpose of recording and organizing, or even compelling tax or labor obligations.

There's another point that I think is worth making. Private equity financiers have a funny relationship to wealth. There is a basic way in which making a lot of money is the point of what they do. However, they do this in the service of making money for their investors (often pension funds, or university endowments). So they can, and often do say they're not doing this to get rich, necessarily, they're doing this to fund someone's pension, or raise university scholarship money. Moreover what we really want is to make businesses and society more efficient. Sure we get paid, but we're not greedy by any stretch, our pay is fair for the social benefit our work provides. There was very much a rhetoric of a calling and an idea that you should want to do this job even if it paid less. So it's not clear to me how much they would frame their own "wealth accumulation aims", much less presume it was the guiding light of what they were doing.

I hope this helps answer you question. Please feel free to press me if I'm being obtuse. Thanks again for clarifying.

More generally: thanks all for a fun day of conversation--looking forward to seeing you all tomorrow,

Dan

Hi Kristian,

Thanks so much for elaborating your inquiry. I really do appreciate it.

Though I'm not versed in it, I am aware that there is a literature on the types of bureaucratic institutions you're talking about, though perhaps not as centrally focused as you'd like. A quick google search turned up Harper's Inside the IMF and Lie's Developmentality: An Ethnography of the World-Bank Uganda Partnership. A bit more generally there is a nice literature on bureaucracy stretching back to Weber, some contemporary examples of which are Herzfeld's Social Production of Indifference and Graeber's Utopia of Rules. Again, I'm not deep in this literature, but I know it's out there and may be of use. Also, Holme's Economy of Words is a great ethnography.

As to the question at hand, I don't think Khipu were good for any one thing particularly, but kind of like a spreadsheet, could be used to store information about a number of different social tasks. D'Altroy (from The Inca) is worth quoting at length:

Inca khipu were used to record a wide range of numerical data, form census records, to warehouse contents, counts of the royal flocks, tax obligations, land measurements, military organization, and calendrical information. They aided in keeping royal genealogies, conquest sequences, and myths, and were even used as aids for literary works, such as poetry. The everyday populace used them to keep track of such things as community herds, a practice that continues today. Each khipu was accompanied by an oral account memorized by a knot-record keeper, or khipu kamayuq. The position passed down form father to son, along with the oral information that was needed to read each record fully. The Incas made this position into a professional office and ranked the specialists according to the level or kind of information that they were responsible for. Since khipu-accounting was common, the Incas probably found it fairly easy to recruit individuals to fill the state offices in many places. Several different forms of tying the khipu existed, however, and we do not know if the Incas allowed local techniques to continue or standardized them across the realm. The Spaniards found the accounts to be so reliable that they allowed witnesses to read their data into court records as part of their tersimony. The khipu was an instrument for recording information, however, and not for doing arithmetic calculations [pretty significant difference from the spreadsheet]: for that purpose, the Incas used piles of pebbles or grain, or by mocing counters about on a tray with rows of compartments (Rowe 1946:326). The amount of oral information needed to read a khipu--or conversely the amount of information embedded in a khipu that any specialist could read--is still uncertain. Despite the profess that has been made, khipu clearly contained a more nuanced code than researchers have been able to crack. The message transmitted by the chaski (postal messengers), for example, often consisted of a short verbal message accompanied by a khipu. In addition, the way in which the knot-records were used to record narrative verse and other non-numerical information has always been a puzzle. (2003:18)

So it seems fair to say that the Khipu, though it didn't have a fixed use, could certainly serve the purpose of recording and organizing, or even compelling tax or labor obligations.

There's another point that I think is worth making. Private equity financiers have a funny relationship to wealth. There is a basic way in which making a lot of money is the point of what they do. However, they do this in the service of making money for their investors (often pension funds, or university endowments). So they can, and often do say they're not doing this to get rich, necessarily, they're doing this to fund someone's pension, or raise university scholarship money. Moreover what we really want is to make businesses and society more efficient. Sure we get paid, but we're not greedy by any stretch, our pay is fair for the social benefit our work provides. There was very much a rhetoric of a calling and an idea that you should want to do this job even if it paid less. So it's not clear to me how much they would frame their own "wealth accumulation aims", much less presume it was the guiding light of what they were doing.

I hope this helps answer you question. Please feel free to press me if I'm being obtuse. Thanks again for clarifying.

More generally: thanks all for a fun day of conversation--looking forward to seeing you all tomorrow,

Dan

On deep comparisons: This is something anthropology is not very good at, or sympathetic with. My own deep comparisons of ancient and modern cities are usually rejected when I send them to mainstream anthro journals (Am Anth, Cur Anth), but they get published easily in urban journals and archaeology journals. After a career of my cultural anthro colleagues not giving a hoot about my research, I discovered many interested colleagues in geography, sociology, urban planning, economics, and other fields, once I took the time to explore other areas. So I have no idea what to suggest about how to do deep comparisons in anthropology. This doesn't seem to work. I have published very little with cultural anthropology co-authors, but quite a bit with geographers, economists, sociologists, sustainabiltiy scientists, even physicists (well, one physicist). People in these fields see the comparability of ancient and modern institutions and practices as an empirical matter, not something to accept or reject on first principles (which tends to be the approach in anthropology). But since you are willing to find an uncrossable epistemological gulf between your and my views of scholarship on the basis of some offhand remarks, perhaps we really don';t have much to say to one another.



Daniel Souleles said:

 Lee and Keith,

These are great posts. Thanks very much for them. Lee, I suspect that the way in which your thinking about counting and the way it allows for abstraction and granting of significance would be a really useful cross-culturally comparative starting point. Your further explanation of the significance of the Inka Khipu is also most welcome. One thing I might add to the comparison in my own paper is the way in which the Inka extended metaphors of family units and obligations to the people they conquered. They made use of existing kinship systems, and elaborated and coopted them. Again, noting this part of the logic of a system of labor control can usefully illustrate the way in which private equity investors play with the logic of a firm and it's operation to justify their control--they slide into roles that already exist (chief financial officer, or chairman of the board) yet argue that they are uniquely and potently qualified to fill those roles at the exclusion of people who are already in the company.

Keith's larger point about what one is to do when one is out of one's comfort zone or area of scholarly expertise is an interesting one as well. I'm obviously not an Inka specialist nor an archaeologist. That said, in my graduate work and independent reading I had a lot of exposure to archaeological anthropology--a graduate level seminar, TAing a "Rise of Civ" course a few times, and my dissertation supervisor happened to be an Inka specialist with whom I sat numerous lectures on the Inka as well as did independent studies in economic anthropology. So it's a funny thing. As a plain old (applied) cultural anthropologist, I likely will never have the deep expertise of a cultural ecologist,or evolutionist, or an archaeologist. And yet, there's really not much more you could imagine me doing to read up on the Inka. So if we want this type of thinking across the fields at the same time as having a fairly set division of labor across the fields, what should cross cultural comparative work look like? What's fair game, or just misguided from the get go? And by what process of composition might we make it. I try to hang out with archaeologists, read what they write, but I bet we could think of more reliable ways.

Daniel,

First, allow me to add my latecomer's thanks for your sharing this paper with us. Then, a few remarks and a question.

Remark 1: Those interested in the history of counting and its relationship to government and finance should take a look at China.This reference is to official propaganda but may nonetheless be useful as a place to begin: http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_madeinchina/2005-08/18/content_71...

Remark 2: Keith's comments on the naive anthropologist resonate strongly with my own current concerns. Serendipitously, I will be giving a paper at the IUAES meeting in Dubrovnik in which I point out that business anthropologists frequently deal with "natives" who are industry insiders. How does one learn the language required to get ethnographic interviews beyond superficial platitudes? Reading the industry trade press is a good place to begin.

Question: As I consider the relationship of different forms of financialization to social inequality, I find myself imagining a space of possibilities. One dimension ranges from conservative,maintaining existing inequalities, exemplified by family offices to innovative, creative destruction that transforms existing hierarchies, exemplified by venture capitalists. The other dimension is degree of abstraction from transactions involving material goods, ranging from barter at one extreme to securitized debt in regions of abstraction largely floating free from material goods, except, of course, at the margins where debt is transformed into payment for the sorts of goods that masters of the universe purchase to display their financial success. Does this approach make sense to anyone but me? And, if so, where would private equity investors, commodity brokers, and hedge fund managers fit on the map?

Daniel, thanks for your reply. Good to know that Caitlyn Zaloom is writing another book, I enjoyed Out of the Pits and it will be good to have an entire book on student loans. I suspect that we're going to see a whole lot more being published by anthropologists on the "consumer" end in the coming years. 

I do like your approach of looking at value. Last year I wrote a conference paper on money and inequality in Haiti, and really it was all about who has control over money as a resource and a material thing that can confer symbolic properties. But I also could have easily applied the concept of value in both the economic and symbolic senses.

Relationships are also hugely important, and this is reflected in most (if not all) the work done by anthropologists about finance at any level (high, low, sideways, etc). Currently I'm writing a journal article on finance and relationships on the border of Haiti and the Domiincan Republic, in which I try to understand consumers' experiences of finance by tracing out the different financial relationships that they have - not just with professional financial service providers, but also with other individuals, within households, employers, clients, and states (since citizenship and papers can have a huge effect on who accesses which services). In this one I don't talk about value at all, but the structure of different kinds of relations. 

So, maybe I can pose a new question to you: How did you see relationships manifest in your research, and what might this add to your understanding of finance and inequality?



Daniel Souleles said:

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? 

Erin has brought up the ethnography of finance, to which your study could be said to be a contribution, Daniel. It is worth pointing out that a good part of this field is produced by science studies, sociology, cultural studies and history, in addition to anthropology. Probably the leading figure in the non-economic study of economics and finance is Michel Callon who once was Bruno Latour's sidekick. I believe that we should not be exclusive or partisan in this interdisciplinary area; but there are some features that have come to infect it which we should be more critical of than usually appears to be the case.

Horacio Ortiz and I have a review of the anthropology of money and finance in ARA (2014) where we point out one of these flaws:

"Much ethnography of finance focuses on cognitive aspects of the situations observed, as if knowledge production were the firms’ principal objective. We learn how barriers to the communication of information challenge the regulators’ assumptions concerning “efficient” markets and the optimal allocation of resources. But in these studies, we rarely discover where the money goes and in what quantities, yet these are businesses, not academic departments. An inability to examine the relationship between money and knowledge reflexively risks reproducing the finance industry’s own vision of itself."

An emphasis on how knowledge gets from the back office to the trading floor, for example, is compatible with the tradition of science studies. But most of these ethnographies avoid money like the plague, especially in its manifestations as the main point of 'finance'. If you say you are in interested in finance and inequality, it is almost impossible to avoid the politics of distribution and money is its measure. Think of how difficult it would be to follow the plot of 'The Big Short' without concrete calculations of the money transfers involved. Are ethnographers of finance uninterested in how the mortgage debt of US subprime homeowners once dominated western financial markets, while Brazilian bonds had hardly any takers and the national debt of the Democratic Repubic of Congo none at all? Douglas Holmes ('Economy of Words', 2105) goes further. He says that words have replaced money in public economic discourse. This would be great news for American cultural anthropologists if it were true. But it is not.

So what do you want first, Daniel, the good news or the bad news? You use the word money two-dozen times in this paper, usually in a positive, not pejorative sense. This shows that you are definitely not in the Paul Bohannan school of Brahminical anthropology which holds that money destroys all we hold sacred, like tradition or culture. But there are no $ signs in your text. Maybe some other time. The fact is it is hard to get good monetary information. Safer to stick with less controversial matters.

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