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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Hi Ketih,

I appreciate this line of criticism. I'm certainly not an ascetic in terms of money or what types of political or social arrangements different monetary technologies necessarily create. Appelbaum and Batt (2014:1) open their book on private equity with an example of private equity investors successfully helping to grow a company, creating wealth and jobs (Aidells Sausage Company) and private equity profiting, despite trashing a company (Mervyn's Deparmtment Store). More to the point, my current project is on employee stock ownership plans (which I found a few private equity funds creating towards the end of my PE field work). There are somewhere between six and seven thousand of these in the United States, with around 12-14 million employees and around one trillion dollars worth of wealth. These ESOPs do something like an internal LBO to finance themselves--so the machinery of a PE deal used to create a retirement fund for employees.

Your point about getting mired in language and discourse and intellectual products, as though I were representing an academic department, is a good one. I do focus a lot on language, as much of my fieldwork took the form of recording people talking. It also gives me some though as to how to revise the conclusion of the paper, as you are right, in sofar as we're going to talk about inequality you gotta show what it looks like--and it's not in the paper in any sort of detail right now.

Following the money, at least from a big picture point of view, is not all that hard. Prequin does an excellent job tracking the size of the private equity industry (much of what follows is drawn from their 2014 and 2015 private equity report--a hard copy document with a cover price of $175, which I grabbed for free in the course of fieldwork at conferences). When I was doing field work PE managed $3.5 trillion, of which they had invested about $2.5 trillion. The rest was "dry powder" or a "capital overhang" (something that blows up, or something that sounds eerily like a hangover). Moreover, we know that private equity investors collect a standard fee of 2% of what they manage for breathing (a management fee to pay overhead salaries and keep the lights on). So 2% of $2.5 trillion is going to the industry. We even know average salaries for various size fund and investment strategy as well as employee rank. And then whatever profit is returned on investments is usually divided 80/20. 80 percent goes back to investors, and 20 percent goes to the private equity fund, mostly to managing directors and people who have equity shares--so this then becomes the ethnography of this class of super managers and how they use their money. As to the 80%, we know a reasonable amount about this, at least at a high level. The five largest university endowment investor in 2015 PE were Harvard ($10.6 bn), Yale ($7.6 bn), Princeton ($6.1 bn), University of Texas ($5.6 bn), Stanford ($5.4 bn). The five largest public pension funds were CPP Investment Board ($36.9 bn), California Public Employees' Retirement System CalPERS ($31.1 bn), California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) ($21.1 bn), ABP ($20.2 bn), Wshington State Investment Board ($16.6 bn). We have similar information for insutrance companies, family offices, sovereign wealth funds, and world region. This starts to illustrate the way in which private equity identifies, extracts, and redistributes value and by turn money from one company and restributes to themselves and their large investors.

I confess, I'm agnostic politically about this. On the one hand, much of what they distribute goes to savings schemes which are hard to fault. On the other hand, the politics of any given company getting taken over, and the creation of a class of super wealthy financial managers is distressing. I for one see the sort of difficulty that sort of class power creates in a university with a board of trustees that come from finance, or a legislature influenced by this kind of manager.

Your larger point, though, is well taken. Happily, I think we actually have a lot of data that starts to map the money, at least in a big picture way.


Keith Hart said:

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.

Hi Erin,

Thanks so much for the continued conversation. It is great to hear about your work. I look forward to seeing what sorts of relationships you turn up at the boarder of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

In my work I think I largely conceived of relationships between social groups, not so much the people in those particular groups (although I did spend a lot of time talking about how investors argue with eachother, prove points, and then act): employees to financial managers, financial managers to their investors, financial managers to their charitable activities, investors to their institutions. This is why I like the Maussian model--money resources and people go in, get rearranged according to PE's idea of value, and then money resources and people go back out. Several have pointed out, and I think your question also illuminates, the limitation of this approach in this paper. Specifically it seems to point to the lack of the type of interpersonal, family and life project data that might come out of a focus on consumer finance. I don't think this is entirely an oversight on my part (though perhaps it's conspicuously absent in this paper). My sense was that there is ample ethnographic reporting of the lived and felt effects of the structural changes that happened to the American economy over the last few decades. To take a few examples: Kathryn Dudley has written about it in a factory and on a farm setting, Carrie Lane writes about it in the case of tech workers, Richard Sennett philosphizes on the Corrosion of Character that has come with industrial change the private equity accelerates. So I think there's a way that my manner of reporting on private equity actually fits OK with this larger literature on economic change and how that affects working and middle class people. I think, too, this is part of the promise of that old idea of "Studying Up", the narrow case of PE financiers relates to and helps other accounts of industrial change.

As a coda: there is also a methodological point worth mentioning. Access was very difficult in this project. As originally imagined I had hoped to spend time in financier's homes, and get to know their families and a bit of their social networks. This never happened in any sustained or systematic way. People were willing to talk, perhaps get a drink, socialize at a conference, perhaps have me drop by the office, but not willing to let me into their home or private life in any sustained way. Also, I think the response I just sent to Keith may be of interest as it talks a bit more about money relationships and following the money.

Erin Taylor said:

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? 

Hi John,

Thank you very much for the thoughtful comments and question.

In re remark 2: I think you're very much on to something. I would have saved a lot of time had I dove deeper into the trade press at the start of my project. Also, at least with PE there is so much content on the internet. Via linked in and trade press you can find all manner of videos of private equity investors riffing and reeling on what they do. I think this has a limit though, there is a point at which whatever you're learning has to make in actual conversation and hanging out. One further point is so many PE firms have websites with CVs or bios and photographs of their employees. It's a great resource for building out a network of where people went to college, what degrees they claim, and what work history they recognize. In the past, perhaps, I've gotten excessive with data appendices due to how much of this stuff is out there.

in re to your question: Again, I think you're on to something. There is a lot of possibility and power in these financial forms. PE is an example of finance in the service of institutions that are capable of investing in PE (endowments, sovereign wealth funds, family offices and so on). The machinery of finance and financing can be put to all sorts of different ends though. A graduate student at Brandeis, Aneil Tripathy, is doing his dissertation work on climate bonds and the certification process people are trying to make for financing projects that are supposed to be good for the planet. In like fashion, a sort of internal leveraged buyout is the financing mechanism by which an employee stock ownership plan company (ESOP) is made. Given the fact that these financial strategies can be put to a variety of possible ends, I like the kind of argument Ferguson (2009) makes in his article "The Uses of Neoliberalism" in which he looks at what the "neoliberal arts of government" might actually do helps get away from a reflexive neoliberalism bad, money bad, capital bad analytic posture.

As to where hedge funds, PE investors and commodity brokers fit, I'm not sure they fit anyone place, at least absolutely. I know some folks who are trying to raise a PE fund to finance ESOPs. Across the PE industry there are a number of different investment strategies--the "vultures" pick over distressed companies, whereas "growth equity" wants to do just that, grow a company. Similarly Hedge Funds can have all sorts of different functions in terms of market intervention. Commodity brokers in turn summon all of our feelings about middlemen and what are we to do with them.

Does this start to fit with the type of possibility you are seeing in these various financial forms? Do you see other possibilities as well? 

John McCreery said:

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?

Hi Michael,

Thank you very much for continuing the conversation. My apologies if my response was off-putting. As far as the comments and replies go, I just respond to what's in front of me the best I can. Lord knows, that has its limits. For what it's worth, I don't think we're actually incommensurately distant.

Your observation about anthropology being bad at deep comparisons matches up with my own experience. I recall a story of one archaeology professor, exasperated, in front of a bunch of socio-cultural graduate students, saying, "you know, there's this thing called the past, right?" to, what I presume, was a room full of incomprehension.

If you're willing to comment further, I'd be very curious to hear what geographers, economists, sociologists, sustainability scientists, and that one physicists thought about the type of anthropological comparisons you like to make, what they were curious to engage with, and what sort of work can come out of that sort of comparison. But again, if you'd prefer not to, I totally understand. If nothing else, it's heartening to hear that you've found ways to make deep comparison work if not in anthropology.

Michael E. Smith said:

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 - I don't consider myself an anthropologist. I do have a degree in anthro, I teach classes called anthropology, and my students get degrees in anthropology, but I consider anthropology inadequate as a scientific or intellectual framework for my own work. I explain this position here: lhttp://www.anthropologiesproject.org/2011/05/why-anthropology-is-to...


Thus, I don't consider myself doing "anthropological comparisons." I use data from the past and present to address questions about cities in the past and the present. I won't comment about sociocultural anthropology, but I consider many or even most works in archaeology to be sloppy and unreliable, largely because of poor argumentation ("How can archaeologists make better arguments?"), and this affects any kinds of comparisons that are made. The kinds of scholars I associate with want good data. Archaeological data from the deep past are seen by people like this as particularly intriguing because they show independent societies and urban traditions that are very different form what exists today. Unfortunately most non-anthropological social scientists don't care about nonwestern societies or the past, and most sociocultural anthropologists don't care about the past. So my work is of little interest to these scholars. I am using "my work" as a stand-in for archaeological research that has a scientific epistemology and addresses questions of broad social-science interest.

Transdisciplinary research - research where researchers from diverse disciplines not only cooperate on a project, but also learn enough of the other disciplines to understand the issues and data - is difficult and very time-consuming. In my own case it has been edging out my availablility to work on my own archaeological projects in Mexico. But in my mind, this kind of work is important and has a better chance to make significant contributions to knowledge than the typical silo-oriented individual research project. But the proof is in the pudding and the jury is still out.


Daniel Souleles said:

Hi Michael,

Thank you very much for continuing the conversation. My apologies if my response was off-putting. As far as the comments and replies go, I just respond to what's in front of me the best I can. Lord knows, that has its limits. For what it's worth, I don't think we're actually incommensurately distant.

Your observation about anthropology being bad at deep comparisons matches up with my own experience. I recall a story of one archaeology professor, exasperated, in front of a bunch of socio-cultural graduate students, saying, "you know, there's this thing called the past, right?" to, what I presume, was a room full of incomprehension.

If you're willing to comment further, I'd be very curious to hear what geographers, economists, sociologists, sustainability scientists, and that one physicists thought about the type of anthropological comparisons you like to make, what they were curious to engage with, and what sort of work can come out of that sort of comparison. But again, if you'd prefer not to, I totally understand. If nothing else, it's heartening to hear that you've found ways to make deep comparison work if not in anthropology.

Michael E. Smith said:

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 writes, "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!) ... 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."

I agree that the "value" concept definitely has promise at this larger comparative level; I suppose I've always battled with figuring out where to draw the lines around ideas/actions that I see ethnographically (or via historical research) and put them under value category. But I think you're right that once we accept the idea of culture, which comes with a set of values and ideals about how the world should work and what matters, value theory can, perhaps, work as that comparative bridge. I think that's something along the lines of what Kluckhohn was trying to do with value theory, although most of my understandings are also coming largely from David Graeber.

It's not surprising that Graeber lays out value in a broad, comparative sense, considering Terry Turner's take on value. Here are some notes from Turner's 2008 paper on Marx, Value, and anthropology that I wrote up a while back:

In a recent article, Turner (2008) outlines his take on value theory, Marx, and anthropology.  He argues that the tools and concepts of the Marxian critique of political economy can be brought to bear on societies that do not directly participate in capitalist systems of production and exchange.  Turner explains that anthropologists are drawn to Marxian value theory because it offers “an alternative approach to the integration of ideas of agency, action and social consciousness with social organization to that offered by ‘practice theory’ and earlier forms of anthropological Marxism” (Turner 2008: 43).  The specific goal of the essay is to restate Marxian value theory in ways that “may render them more directly useful to anthropologists concerned with the comparative analysis of value in different types of productive regimes” (Turner 2008: 43).

And this:

Turner envisions a “comparative anthropological study of production” that is based in Marxian methods, concepts, and theories (Turner 2008: 45).  The fundamental issue, he argues, is that what might be seen as “production” in any given society is going to be “ethnographically inseparable from how it defines the need (or needs) that serve as the focus (or foci) of its productive activities” (Turner 2008: 45).  Turner suggests that these needs—in almost any mode of production—can be seen as exploitative, in the sense that one faction of any social group more than likely controls the means of production.  This leads to a situation in which dominant members extract surplus value from subordinates—in whatever form that may take.  “In many if not all societies,” Turner explains, “this surplus tends to be appropriated, not merely as a brute product, but in a form of value” (Turner 2008: 45).

So it sounds like you're definitely in broad agreement with this take on Value theory, and I'm right there with you. I suppose I'm still trying to work out how this can be reasonably accomplished without making too many leaps and broad brush statements. One of my concerns, analytically, is that sometimes it seems that pretty much *anything* can be subsumed into the value discussion if we're not careful about the edges. So for me it's still very much something I am working through, which is why I appreciate this discussion here.

There's one other issue you bring up when you write: "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."

I think this is a good question--what should cross-cultural comparison look like? And who gets to do it? If we want to open up these kinds of conversations, then those of us who want to do these kinds of comparisons are probably going to have to rethink our process (perhaps how we collaborate/communicate outside our fields), but also, on the other side of the coin, be open to these kinds of conversations from others who are not experts in our own fields. I think Michael has some interesting points about some of the limits of cultural anthropology, which largely ditched the comparative historical project for quite a while there (ironically in the mid 1980s right after Eric Wolf published a massive work that was highly comparative). I've long been a proponent of bringing back the comparative, cross-cultural perspective to anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology. Like you, I spend time with plenty of archaeologists (and actually started out AS an archaeologist), read a lot of archaeology, etc. But I too wonder about some of those more reliable methods for fomenting cross-disciplinary work that you mention. This could mean moving outside of anthropology's usual confines, as Michael suggests. While at the U of Kentucky, I did indeed find it incredibly useful to spend lots of time reading, talking with, and thinking about everything that was going on in the geography department. Sometimes they were just approaching things from a different vantage points that helped open things up. But, alternatively, it could be a matter of working from within and pushing against some of the usual confines of contemporary cultural anthropology.

Does this start to fit with the type of possibility you are seeing in these various financial forms? Do you see other possibilities as well?

The one that comes to mind is a mixed strategy that combines several approaches, e.g., the investing strategies that financial advisors recommend to individual investors, some ready cash, some mutual funds, some equities, with the relative proportions dependent on willingness to accept risk as the price of possibly spectacular growth and the expectation that as the investor ages they will gradually shift from riskier to safer investments. Personally, I prefer the model suggested by Naseem Talib, in which, having put aside enough to protect your current standard of living, you look at what is left over as mad money, which you are free to spend or gamble with. Being simultaneously very conservative and open to new possibilities appeals to me a lot more than faith in normal distributions.

It occurs to me that all of the various types of financial expertise you describe represent specialization in some specific combination of these possibilities, where becoming a particular type of professional involves an asymmetric accumulation of knowledge that is supposed to provide a competitive edge in that part of the game.

This sort of process is familiar in other sciences. The obvious example is embryology, where specialized structures gradually emerge from what was,originally, an undifferentiated mass. Ditto for astrophysics and attempts to explain the formation of stars, stellar clusters, galaxies, local groups and other cosmic structures. From this perspective, the scientific problem is to define a space of possible outcomes and try to explain the distribution of actual outcomes within it. The critical questions are no longer how do you define that and what are its essential features but how to you position that and explain how it got there.

    Here I’ll make a radical shift from the esoterica of Upper Paleolithic calendrical notation and Inka khipu to a topic I find of vital importance for the field of anthropology and its place in today’s world. 

    In other words, I’m about to commit, ah yes, popular culture. 

    But I can’t help myself.  Dan is embarked on a fine-grained ethnographic study  which details and documents the motives and behaviors of exotic types like private equity investors, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, private fund guys – in short he is applying anthropology to that mythical entity, Wall Street.  As Keith points out, the ethnography of finance is already a crowded academic field, with work being done in science studies, sociology, cultural studies, and history.  So, the anthropology of finance must situate itself within that rapidly growing field. 

    But Keith also references another, very different development in the representation of the world of high finance when he calls our attention to the popular movie, The Big Short (2016) dealing with bank fraud on Wall Street.  The camel’s nose now under the tent, I, as camel, must go all the way in. 

    I think it’s important to recognize that Dan has got hold of a major hot button issue in American culture:  Wall Street, its imputed greed and relation to the general society.  Here it would be hard to overstate the case.  On the left Bernie has whipped up his supporters to a fever pitch, so that some seem about ready to form a pitchfork-wielding mob and storm the high-rise castles of the big banks and brokerages houses.  Bern, baby, Bern.  [On the right equally strong emotions are stirred by the twin and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, interconnected issues of abortion and immigration.]  This is big. 

    Against this tableau of a society in a state of high agitation, we have the (now monotonous) clamor for a public anthropology.  Anthropologists are continually urged to find a voice that establishes their work in main forums of intellectual debate, if not the popular press.  I suggest that the subject of high finance, which has now leaped out of the pages of Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal to become a regular topic of discussion on TV news and talk shows, is ideal for an emergent public anthropology to strut its stuff, to show what it’s capable of. 

    Since Dan is perfectly situated to produce an ethnography of finance on Wall Street that speaks to the public, I’d love to learn his thoughts on how he, and we, might go about this enterprise.  The first question here, considering our dismal track record in making anthropology accessible, is whether it’s possible to bring it off.  Or whether our work continues to be buried in esoteric journals. 

    In considering this project, bear in mind that the public as a whole is terribly keen on cultural productions – yes, as in movies – which focus on Wall Street.  We haven’t depended on Bernie’s rants to get immersed in the intricacies of finance; for decades there has been a steady stream of hugely popular movies on the subject. 

    The Big Short which Keith mentioned is only the latest of a string of high-profile movies about Wall Street and the financial industry, movies that collectively have attracted tens of millions of viewers.  As a start, let me recommend an excellent cultural analysis cum cultural critique of that movie, by the anthropologist Peter Wogan:  “3 Ways Big Short Movie Downplays Banker Fraud,” which may be found on his blogspot, Blockbuster Anthropology: Cultural Analysis of Movies and Sports  (blockbusteranthropology.blogspot.com )

    The public’s imagination undoubtedly has been caught by a series of popular movies about the world of high finance: 

 

Oliver Stone’s classic, Wall Street with Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good.”) 

“Bonfire of the Vanities” 1990, based on Tom Wolfe’s novel and featuring Tom Hanks

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” 2005 major documentary

“Margin Call” 2011 

“Arbitrage” 2012  featuring Richard Gere 

“Wolf of Wall Street”  2013   Leonardo DiCaprio,  Martin Scorcese  

“The Big Short”  2016   

 

    In addition a new and highly successful Showtime TV series has just completed its first season:  Billions, featuring a powerful and unscrupulous hedge fund manager pitted against a U. S. Attorney intent on bringing him down.  An interesting thing about this series is that the dialogue is very technical – I have no idea whether it rings true to knowledgeable ears, but it sounds right.  Get a free trial subscription to Showtime and check it out – fieldwork! 

    On to the topic that concerns Dan and Ryan: value.  To me, nowhere near an economic anthropologist, your discussion already sounds very academic, definitely bound for a journal rather than Atlantic or Huffington.  Let me start a hare here and suggest that economic value, really all value, is ultimately aesthetic (here I ride the coattails of Nietzsche and Peirce).  Economic values shade into moral values, which in turn ultimately resolve themselves as a matter of aesthetics, of the beautiful and ugly, the compelling and incidental.  For example, Bonfire, even with Tom Hanks working off a marvelous Tom Wolfe book, is disappointing, even dismal, compared with the gripping story in Stone's classic Wall Street.  Why?  What separates a great movie from a so-so movie?  An anthropologist beginning a cultural analysis of high finance genre movies should have that question uppermost in mind. 

    Finally, I’d like to ask Dan if an aesthetic isn’t at work in the doings of his equity, venture, hedge fund guys?  Do they always evaluate a project in the bloodless fashion of “what’s the bottom line?”  Or may – and I’m guessing, you tell me – those guys admire style, fashion, finesse, surprise, quite apart from the dollar sign?  I ask this because I read somewhere that business involves something called “the art of the deal”.   Perhaps we anthropologists, economic, cultural, etc, should look into that.  

Lee,

I can't speak for Daniel and I certainly agree that popular culture representations of Wall Street are a fascinating topic in itself. One of the most interesting video clips appearing repeatedly on Facebook these days concerns a corporate raider asked which presidential candidate would be best....

That said, the terms in which this proposal is offered seem to me to miss the most important feature of what Daniel has done,  break through homogenous "Wall Street" stereotypes to begin describing different types of finance and the people who engage in them, describing a series of overlapping but distinct "subcultures," that range from risk-aversive family office managers whose prime directive is to preserve wealth to risk-embracing venture capitalists looking for "the next big thing." His primary focus is private-equity investors who spend a year or more on due diligence before buying companies that will then be turned around or dismantled in an effort to extract unrealized value from them. To me that suggests an interesting question: What, if any, cultural differences are there between private equity investors who specialize in turn-arounds and corporate raiders engaged in asset stripping? This is not, I suspect, a subject we will learn much about by looking at movies that focus almost exclusively on financial villainy.

Hi Lee,

I leave for now your well-argued case for anthropologists to engage with popular culture when studying high finance. I just want to make a point about Peter Wogan's blog post on the movie, The Big Short. I should make it to him, but it is now embedded in this conversation. His main complaint is that the movie soft-pedals on bank fraud. This is certainly true. But he misses the main story line which is that a few marginal players commit huge sums to bet that the boom in subprime mortgage bonds will inevitably go bust and soon. This should be obvious, but the whole of Wall Street is still selling these bonds like they are hot. And that makes the odds longer and the potential win greater. Anyone who has made a big bet knows that this is squeaky bum time and it adds to the drama.

Then the facts turn decisively against the mainstream position. More and more documents demonstrate that the subprime market is folding. Our heroes can't wait to collect. But nothing happens. The big banks are still selling subprime bonds as a great investment and the reason they can do that is because the Credit Rating Agencies have not reduced subprime ratings despite all the evidence of a market collapse. The Big Short gamblers are then squeezed in very unpleasant ways. The big banks want time to short subprime themselves -- and European banks are piling in to help them do that. But the rating agencies are in the pocket of the banks, which is the big fraud here, and it turns out they are not easily made accountable for their wrongdoing (then or now). It's a closed circuit and our small group of outsiders, not for the first time, could easily lose their shirts as a result. Eventually, and thanks to good luck more than good management, the Big Short wins, end of movie.

My first observation is that Michael Lewis's great book is different from the movie in important ways. He uses the main actors' real names, the movie uses aliases. Why so? Because a lot more money is involved in the movie. Brad Pitt is a producer and that would be very tempting for a predatory lawyer. This is from a tort class at Yale Law School. Students are presented with a fable. A construction worker drives his machine to the home yard at the end of the day. He reaches a railway crossing, the clutch slips in transit and his machine slams into a telephone booth on the other side, breaking the driver's ankle in the process. Who should he sue? Bell Telephone of course. Not his employer, the machine manufacturer or the railway company -- they have no money.

So Peter's critique misses the mark at two levels. Exposing bank fraud is not the main point of the story which is about little people taking on Wall Street and winning (with some palpitations). And legal/financial considerations must have played a major part in making the movie. This is certainly the best movie on US finance yet. It is not as tough on the banks as say Inside Job (2010) or as satirical as Wolf on Wall Street (2013), but it is a better movie and, I would guess, will have a greater impact on public education. I haven't established Michael Lewis's reasoning when he published his book.

Hi Ryan,

I think this is a great observation about the way I and others apply value theory, "One of my concerns, analytically, is that sometimes it seems that pretty much *anything* can be subsumed into the value discussion if we're not careful about the edges."

Truth be told, I'm OK with this. For this project at least, this is the high order framework that I'm using to make sense of what I'm learning from financiers. And to Lee's later point, this is absolutely about aesthetics--numbers and financial models come into it, but it is not, in my opinion at least, primarily about bloodless calculation. Though bloodless calculation can be a convenient artifice and rhetorical proposition. So much about financial calculation and modeling is about what will happen in the future, therefore about one's assumptions about what the future will bring, This sort of predicting work conjures assumptions and judgments which fit an aesthetic assessment of value.

Your wondering about what collaborative work might look like actually called to mind a strategy of writing that I heard about in the context of making anthropology more ethical--group collaboration on work. Find someone else who's the expert in what you're comparing things to and have them read it. I think this only goes so far though. There will always be a rhetorical position from which an expert in the thing you're not an expert in can critique you. Moreover, the disciplines don't really like popularizers, or at least have a complicated relationship with them. Insofar as the work you're doing gets read that way, I don't know that it even matters how good the comparison is. Crossing boundaries sometimes just leads to sanction.



ryan anderson said:

Daniel writes, "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!) ... 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."

I agree that the "value" concept definitely has promise at this larger comparative level; I suppose I've always battled with figuring out where to draw the lines around ideas/actions that I see ethnographically (or via historical research) and put them under value category. But I think you're right that once we accept the idea of culture, which comes with a set of values and ideals about how the world should work and what matters, value theory can, perhaps, work as that comparative bridge. I think that's something along the lines of what Kluckhohn was trying to do with value theory, although most of my understandings are also coming largely from David Graeber.

It's not surprising that Graeber lays out value in a broad, comparative sense, considering Terry Turner's take on value. Here are some notes from Turner's 2008 paper on Marx, Value, and anthropology that I wrote up a while back:

In a recent article, Turner (2008) outlines his take on value theory, Marx, and anthropology.  He argues that the tools and concepts of the Marxian critique of political economy can be brought to bear on societies that do not directly participate in capitalist systems of production and exchange.  Turner explains that anthropologists are drawn to Marxian value theory because it offers “an alternative approach to the integration of ideas of agency, action and social consciousness with social organization to that offered by ‘practice theory’ and earlier forms of anthropological Marxism” (Turner 2008: 43).  The specific goal of the essay is to restate Marxian value theory in ways that “may render them more directly useful to anthropologists concerned with the comparative analysis of value in different types of productive regimes” (Turner 2008: 43).

And this:

Turner envisions a “comparative anthropological study of production” that is based in Marxian methods, concepts, and theories (Turner 2008: 45).  The fundamental issue, he argues, is that what might be seen as “production” in any given society is going to be “ethnographically inseparable from how it defines the need (or needs) that serve as the focus (or foci) of its productive activities” (Turner 2008: 45).  Turner suggests that these needs—in almost any mode of production—can be seen as exploitative, in the sense that one faction of any social group more than likely controls the means of production.  This leads to a situation in which dominant members extract surplus value from subordinates—in whatever form that may take.  “In many if not all societies,” Turner explains, “this surplus tends to be appropriated, not merely as a brute product, but in a form of value” (Turner 2008: 45).

So it sounds like you're definitely in broad agreement with this take on Value theory, and I'm right there with you. I suppose I'm still trying to work out how this can be reasonably accomplished without making too many leaps and broad brush statements. One of my concerns, analytically, is that sometimes it seems that pretty much *anything* can be subsumed into the value discussion if we're not careful about the edges. So for me it's still very much something I am working through, which is why I appreciate this discussion here.

There's one other issue you bring up when you write: "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."

I think this is a good question--what should cross-cultural comparison look like? And who gets to do it? If we want to open up these kinds of conversations, then those of us who want to do these kinds of comparisons are probably going to have to rethink our process (perhaps how we collaborate/communicate outside our fields), but also, on the other side of the coin, be open to these kinds of conversations from others who are not experts in our own fields. I think Michael has some interesting points about some of the limits of cultural anthropology, which largely ditched the comparative historical project for quite a while there (ironically in the mid 1980s right after Eric Wolf published a massive work that was highly comparative). I've long been a proponent of bringing back the comparative, cross-cultural perspective to anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology. Like you, I spend time with plenty of archaeologists (and actually started out AS an archaeologist), read a lot of archaeology, etc. But I too wonder about some of those more reliable methods for fomenting cross-disciplinary work that you mention. This could mean moving outside of anthropology's usual confines, as Michael suggests. While at the U of Kentucky, I did indeed find it incredibly useful to spend lots of time reading, talking with, and thinking about everything that was going on in the geography department. Sometimes they were just approaching things from a different vantage points that helped open things up. But, alternatively, it could be a matter of working from within and pushing against some of the usual confines of contemporary cultural anthropology.

HI Lee,

Great turn in the conversation! Not surprisingly I have a lot of thoughts about anthropology, public anthropology, and how this fits with my project and perhaps compares to popular accounts.

First public anthropology, whenever I hear this, after thinking that this sounds like a great idea, I always wonder, "Which public?" When we say we want to go public, do we want to reach the people that are reading Michael Lewis books? Commenting in the New York Times? Watching Fox News? Completely politically disconnected? Doing ten years at San Quentin? Academics in other disciplines? Policy makers? Our informants? I'm never really sure. And this isn't just idle questioning, I feel that we could likely find a different literary diet for each of these chunks of people. Which of them are the 'public' to which we are writing? Then there is the idea of literacy. This is a hard thing to figure out, but insofar as we're writing stuff, it's useful to recognize that a lot of folks simply won't be able to read what we write, even stripped of citations and the like. In the United States at least, literacy and comprehension skills fall along a fairly wide continuum with only a plurality of the population even reading at a college level (https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf).

In my own case, I decided I wanted to write a book for a general undergraduate audience, with a possible spill over to Michael Lewis fans who might want something a bit more systematic. And actually, my manuscript is going out for peer review in a few weeks with an academic press. In between these posts, I'm putting the finishing touches on it.

Insofar as we want scholars to be able to reach an audience wider than their dissertation committee, I'd like to share a few observation from my own writing process. My first dissertation draft was a good book. I shared it widely with my informants, they felt I got things right. Family members and friends thought it was a page turner (one historian even said as much). I wrote it like a book I wanted to read. And then over the next eight months the manuscript got pulverized into a dissertation, with a theoretical orientation for each committee member, a grafting of abstruse linguistic anthropology, and a 40 page literature review to boot (here I thought I'd already completed my comprehensive exams). It left my sense of the story and the manuscript itself almost entirely illegible. So a lot of my work in prepping for a manuscript has been trying to recover from that process, and in many ways reverting to a lot of what was going on in that first draft, that I wrote like a book to begin with. I leave it to the senior scholars to reflect on how they might make this whole process less abusive and discouraging for junior scholars producing legible material. For me, much of it just felt like hazing.

Michael Lewis is an interesting case. Part of what makes his work so compelling is he focuses in on idiosyncratic marginal characters and tells their story. He's got narrative, plot, and psychodrama. It's great work! I think anthropological accounts of things often start at a disadvantage, though, when compared to this sort of story. We often want to portray a culture scene, and what's typical in a place. This means, if you use characters and plot to tell your story, you've got to do double work of describing the scene and setting faithfully and then do masterful character and plotting work. John Steinbeck's little book Cannery Row does this beautifully for Monterey, and in my head it's a great example of a quick novel with an ethnographic sensibility. The other thing that makes finance tough to write about in my case, is that I often meet people a few times and don't immerse with them. So I don't have super deep long lasting relationships with people, which in turn makes that sort of writing hard. Things almost inevitably end up schematic when that is the nature of your field site.

As to aesthetics, you're dead on. My first real chapter is on value, secrecy and sexiness. And takes as a long case an informant describing the sexiness of a dirty old warehouse and shipping company on which his private equity firm made a lot of money. The whole point of the story is that they could see value where others couldn't because the warehouse was not sexy, particularly if you had a fancy MBA or worked at the type of PE shop that employed fancy MBAs. This is why I start with value, sexiness, and aesthetic sense, and this is why I think it's so important to understand how different financiers have different ideas of what counts for sexy and what counts for valuable. This is how they (and I think how we) should distinguish the different types of finance.


Lee Drummond said:

    Here I’ll make a radical shift from the esoterica of Upper Paleolithic calendrical notation and Inka khipu to a topic I find of vital importance for the field of anthropology and its place in today’s world. 

    In other words, I’m about to commit, ah yes, popular culture. 

    But I can’t help myself.  Dan is embarked on a fine-grained ethnographic study  which details and documents the motives and behaviors of exotic types like private equity investors, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, private fund guys – in short he is applying anthropology to that mythical entity, Wall Street.  As Keith points out, the ethnography of finance is already a crowded academic field, with work being done in science studies, sociology, cultural studies, and history.  So, the anthropology of finance must situate itself within that rapidly growing field. 

    But Keith also references another, very different development in the representation of the world of high finance when he calls our attention to the popular movie, The Big Short (2016) dealing with bank fraud on Wall Street.  The camel’s nose now under the tent, I, as camel, must go all the way in. 

    I think it’s important to recognize that Dan has got hold of a major hot button issue in American culture:  Wall Street, its imputed greed and relation to the general society.  Here it would be hard to overstate the case.  On the left Bernie has whipped up his supporters to a fever pitch, so that some seem about ready to form a pitchfork-wielding mob and storm the high-rise castles of the big banks and brokerages houses.  Bern, baby, Bern.  [On the right equally strong emotions are stirred by the twin and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, interconnected issues of abortion and immigration.]  This is big. 

    Against this tableau of a society in a state of high agitation, we have the (now monotonous) clamor for a public anthropology.  Anthropologists are continually urged to find a voice that establishes their work in main forums of intellectual debate, if not the popular press.  I suggest that the subject of high finance, which has now leaped out of the pages of Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal to become a regular topic of discussion on TV news and talk shows, is ideal for an emergent public anthropology to strut its stuff, to show what it’s capable of. 

    Since Dan is perfectly situated to produce an ethnography of finance on Wall Street that speaks to the public, I’d love to learn his thoughts on how he, and we, might go about this enterprise.  The first question here, considering our dismal track record in making anthropology accessible, is whether it’s possible to bring it off.  Or whether our work continues to be buried in esoteric journals. 

    In considering this project, bear in mind that the public as a whole is terribly keen on cultural productions – yes, as in movies – which focus on Wall Street.  We haven’t depended on Bernie’s rants to get immersed in the intricacies of finance; for decades there has been a steady stream of hugely popular movies on the subject. 

    The Big Short which Keith mentioned is only the latest of a string of high-profile movies about Wall Street and the financial industry, movies that collectively have attracted tens of millions of viewers.  As a start, let me recommend an excellent cultural analysis cum cultural critique of that movie, by the anthropologist Peter Wogan:  “3 Ways Big Short Movie Downplays Banker Fraud,” which may be found on his blogspot, Blockbuster Anthropology: Cultural Analysis of Movies and Sports  (blockbusteranthropology.blogspot.com )

    The public’s imagination undoubtedly has been caught by a series of popular movies about the world of high finance: 

 

Oliver Stone’s classic, Wall Street with Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good.”) 

“Bonfire of the Vanities” 1990, based on Tom Wolfe’s novel and featuring Tom Hanks

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” 2005 major documentary

“Margin Call” 2011 

“Arbitrage” 2012  featuring Richard Gere 

“Wolf of Wall Street”  2013   Leonardo DiCaprio,  Martin Scorcese  

“The Big Short”  2016   

 

    In addition a new and highly successful Showtime TV series has just completed its first season:  Billions, featuring a powerful and unscrupulous hedge fund manager pitted against a U. S. Attorney intent on bringing him down.  An interesting thing about this series is that the dialogue is very technical – I have no idea whether it rings true to knowledgeable ears, but it sounds right.  Get a free trial subscription to Showtime and check it out – fieldwork! 

    On to the topic that concerns Dan and Ryan: value.  To me, nowhere near an economic anthropologist, your discussion already sounds very academic, definitely bound for a journal rather than Atlantic or Huffington.  Let me start a hare here and suggest that economic value, really all value, is ultimately aesthetic (here I ride the coattails of Nietzsche and Peirce).  Economic values shade into moral values, which in turn ultimately resolve themselves as a matter of aesthetics, of the beautiful and ugly, the compelling and incidental.  For example, Bonfire, even with Tom Hanks working off a marvelous Tom Wolfe book, is disappointing, even dismal, compared with the gripping story in Stone's classic Wall Street.  Why?  What separates a great movie from a so-so movie?  An anthropologist beginning a cultural analysis of high finance genre movies should have that question uppermost in mind. 

    Finally, I’d like to ask Dan if an aesthetic isn’t at work in the doings of his equity, venture, hedge fund guys?  Do they always evaluate a project in the bloodless fashion of “what’s the bottom line?”  Or may – and I’m guessing, you tell me – those guys admire style, fashion, finesse, surprise, quite apart from the dollar sign?  I ask this because I read somewhere that business involves something called “the art of the deal”.   Perhaps we anthropologists, economic, cultural, etc, should look into that.  

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