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:


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

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Hi Kristian,

Thanks for the good wishes. You'll be happy to know that my current project is on employee owned companies and how those come to be. Towards the end of the private equity work I actually came across a few PE firms that were making employee owned companies. So it was a great example of the tools of finance which can produce all sorts of seeming inequality, actually making something that starts to look fair. It's been interesting research so far. It's also been a much more pleasant study.

Kristian Garthus-Niegel said:

I'm not sure I'm with those of you folks who'd like to keep boundaries, aesthetics, poetics, words etc. center of gravity. This stuff is absolutely interesting and important, but I think the crucial outcome is how it interacts with humans' external/interpersonal worlds. Keith wanted more dollars. Eirin asked for financializations' subjects. To roughly restate an insight I arrived at through these discussions: Inca domination transformed humanity en masse into slaves. Financial domination transforms it to waste. The art, I think, is to show the reality of such claims clearly and simply in a grain of sand. Doing so requires no big new unified theoretical paradigm (nor formal 'anthropology'-seals), just seeing the ethnography straight.

A while back, an engaging discussion was run here on OAC on 'the origins of equality'. But as it turned out, most all folks could actually talk about was inequality. Not surprising: All contemporary and archaeological evidence seems to say that humans are pretty good at equality in small groups, but that we suck at it as soon as we aggregate. Exactly for this reason I'm in with Sahlins, who recently advised that we turn our eyes on those few more exotic cases beyond hunter/gatherer-times where humans actually did/do manage to realize more equal forms of large scale social organization, and then try to explain why/how THAT could happen (and, I assume he meant to say LEARN from and TRANSMIT it).

Godspeed Daniel.

Yet there are times when particular words or sentences take on the larger meaning. And this is one of those times. Which review are you referring to? I was only referring to Bierstedt's review. You could trip over the sexist language (even for the time) in his review. He never actually takes up Hollywood as illegitimate, he only takes issue with "Miss Powdermaker's" efforts. In the forward to some editions of her book the review and her response appear back to back. She refers to the review as "violent." Which is correct.

Besides, since when do quant sociologists (or more apropos to this seminar, Binfordian archaeologists) get to decide legitimate anthropological topics? I don't think Bierstedt read Powdermaker's book anymore than Michael E Smith read Dan's paper.

I have to point out that Vogt's book is about the dream of the American frontier as it works its way through a community of New Mexico homesteaders. And, like Powdermaker's book, it is written within the outline of Kluckhohn's values project. Her book does not stand alone, it exists within the larger framework of the personality and culture paradigm. Which, actually, is the reason I find it disappointing. She could have pushed much further without that conceptual straight jacket.

As an aside, I wonder if anyone is familiar with Picture by Lillian Ross? Ross' journalistic account of a movie's production focuses heavily on the Wall Street-Hollywood connection and its effect on the final cut of the film Red Badge of Courage. I would just add that Powdermaker's book exists in relation to this book as much as to any piece of social science. And Lillian Ross is a hard act to follow. A word of warning to Dan.

But, of course, you are correct about the total picture. We know Wall Street is such a totality and that refusing it is impossible in both American life and anywhere similar financial institutions are operative. We are all faced with the same choice as Bartleby. Even Dan, who has to record their activities and jokes in his field notes on the pain of being refused a job.

Ahab draws all the attention but Bartleby is more the rule.

Lee Drummond said:

Michael:  I think an argument could be made that nostalgia for a lost golden age is the favored decadent pleasure within anthropology. As Norma Desmond pointed out in another context, the pictures got smaller when everyone started talking.


    On decadence in anthropology and the pictures getting smaller – tweaking a favorite quote: 

    What is the mark of every literary [read “anthropological”] decadence?  That life no longer resides in the whole.  The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole.  This, however, is the simile of every style of decadence: every time there is an anarchy of atoms. 

                                                --  Nietzsche, The Case Wagner (emphasis in original) 

Whether studying financiers or Amazonian tribes, let’s keep the total picture in view. 


    Regarding Powdermaker’s book:  It may be that the unforgiveable sin “Miss Powdermaker” committed was not her gender, but in discussing Hollywood and its movie-dreams as though that were a legitimate anthropological subject.  

Dan ,

    Thanks for the insider jokes.  Not sure these guys are ready for prime time, though. 



    If  Wall Street can be likened to generic risk-taking, i.e. gambling enterprises, it’s interesting that the water and marine-life metaphors are common in casinos.  A “whale” is a high roller whom the casino hosts take very good care of, and in the poker room a “shark” is an aggressive, successful player who preys on the hapless “fish” at his table.  

    Also, an afterthought re poker: players are warned not to "splash the pot," when they place their bets, meaning the puddle of chips in the middle of the table


Forgive me for beating the dead value horse here, but it's something that I continue to find both fascinating and perplexing. I'm really interested in what you're doing with this paper, particularly regarding the question of value. You contrast PE investors, who "seek hidden value that exists in the here and now" against Venture capitalists who seek "raw potential and a magical future." Both seek to make money, but in different ways and very different processes (methodical and secret vs a knack for predicting the "inscrutable future" (10). So the PE folks make money--or create value--through a sort of Protestant Work Ethic process--hard work, study, long drawn-out deliberations. And the VC folks work like value divination experts, whose success is "based on reputation and assessing where the economy or the zeitgeist is going" (10).

Sometimes it's easy to oversimplify or mystify financialization as some magical process through which some people are able to make money with money...it's all about the abstraction of value, tremendously detached from the world of production, and aided by the numbers, money flows, and market language (as laid out by Krippner). The definition you use identifies financialization as something where money is made through "financial channels" instead of through trade and commodity production. Keith defines financialization as a specific form of commoditization, in which some firms organize money in particular ways.

In some ways financialization has always appeared to function outside of the world of labor, work, and actual production. Does this make sense? As if there's a world of commodity production that requires actual work, and then there's this financial world in which people are making money by magically manipulating these things called "markets." Much of the discourse about finance, which includes lots of talk about abstraction, numbers, and money, is incredibly mystifying and abstracting in and of itself. This may be why many people feel they have no idea what, exactly, financialization is all about. And this is where I appreciate the historical and ethnographic angles that are coming in here, which help to reveal the specific, human sides of the people behind the world of finance. There's a lot to be said for demystifying the process to see how it actually works--and how value is imagined, created, transformed, and moved around.

In a later comment you write, "Ethnographically, I think PE folks just see "finance" as the industry they work in, that is concerned with banking, securities, insurance, and more generally moving money around. They're middle-men, and managers, in an idealized telling, giving the life blood to all sorts of productive activity and creating liquidity so that people can lend money and allow capitalism to continue unfolding."

Despite definitions that see financialization as something that contrasts with trade and commodity production, some of your ethnography seems to point to a process, glossed as "financial channels," through which people are working, in various ways, to actively create new commodities out of existing and/or potential value. So in that sense it's just another kind of commodity production...of already abstracted value. Your descriptions of PE and VC investors make the work of this process more clear--people are putting in lots of time and energy to "produce" these products--whether they happen to be a matter of "revealing hidden value" or convincing others of the potential value of one project, idea, etc. So in this sense it's very much a matter of work, labor, and production--even if the products themselves are often incredibly ethereal and abstract. So, overall, the details of how these investors think, act, and work help make the world of finance more visible to me, less abstract. This is something I really appreciate about your paper.


I think that's a good point--that there's only so much we're learning via a specific, ethnographic study of Wall Street finance, and that we need to be clear about what we can (and cannot expect) from this. We can get insight into how the process works within particular social circumstances, but this is not the same as getting a universal picture of finance at the global level. I also think you make a powerful point when you say that the power to make money with money is positional and historical--and that to understand how it plays out in specific situations we're going to need comparative work. And if we see financialization as money-making via abstraction/quantification, I think Dan's discussion of the Inka is useful and intriguing because it can push us to start to look at the role that numerical abstraction can (or has) played in wealth creation and the production of inequality. On that level I think the Inka comparison works well--and it has me thinking about other archaeological examples in which inequality/wealth is tied to various systems of abstraction (monetary, etc).

Huon Wardle said:

Some thoughts. Why do we want to study on Wall Street? If it is because we think it will tell us what is going on in the world at large then this is deluded. It must, instead, be because it will take us closer to the people most deeply involved in the magical process by which money that 'is worth more money, value that is greater than itself' is created -- what and how they think about the matter. This is certainly useful but, of itself, it does not provide anything like an answer to how money/financialisation actually works universally, except as a point of comparison.

The general principle of financialisation is that, once you can quantify something (anything at all) in a money vector then you can turn it into an investment and hence into the kind of money that makes more money. The power to do that is clearly a positional/historical one that takes us back to a locality -- Wall Street etc. However, the principle is extremely abstract when we try to match it up to economic processes at a notional 'global level', and it only really regains meaning in particular circumstances dependent on how quantification is understood locally as an aspect of, in relation to, other elements of social life as lived; that's why we need the comparisons. For example, the items that are financialised vary for infra-historical reasons. The Potosi silver mines were exploited by the Spanish because they were a going concern for the Inkas already. Or take the Piraha (Daniel Everett) who have no number words -- this makes them easy to play in an exchange of goods, but also rather resistant to the basic wilful self-quantification that is a key aspect of making financialisation work. Then there are the state interests, embedded tribute systems, gender relations, vested bureaucratic interests etc. etc.

From Daniel's paper: Ahab, stopped me short. He said that “family offices have different perspectives”. They have money already, so “the money rate of return does not apply to us with the same discipline as to an operating entity.” He went on to say that they “don’t teach in business school that the utility value of money is reduced once you have a lot.” And he pointed out that, “once you pay off expenses and have more than you started with, you’re doing fine.”

Hollywood the Dream Factory caught my eye because I happen to have a copy of this book on an adjacent shelf. This example makes a good point. It is not in fact anthropologists themselves who have become decadent, it is the bureaucracy they work in, and their continuing loyalty to it. I see plenty of energy in contemporary anthropology, but the sense in which the academic apparatus as a bureaucratic machine can crush innovative lines of thought and inquiry is desperate. The anonymous dead hand of 'you didn't cite my (or my client's) work in putting forward these ideas' is omnipresent in academic activity. That is why papers and seminars on the OAC are so refreshing, amongst other things. And it is why the crankiest off hand comment by Mary Douglas (who still sits there as amongst the most cited anthropologists of all time) is usually ten times more interesting to read than the stunted coprolite passed through the multiple digestive tracts of bovine peer review programmed by contemporary academic journals. Striking when you realise that peer review was only institutionalised in the 1960s. As far as I am aware, I could be wrong, OAC is the only publishing outlet for full-scale anthropological research that isn't owned by a university bureaucracy or by one of the big academic publishers.

As many of us, especially Lee, are already likely to know, an anthropologist named Hortense Powdermaker was among the first to employ ethnographic methods to study a modern industry. My concern is not with the content of the book she produced, Hollywood: The Dream Factory. An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie Makers, but, instead, at how it was received.  Kirkus Reviews (a service directed at middle-brow readers) praised the book, calling it insightful and well-written. Sociologist Robert Bierstedt panned it. His review begins as follows,

"Hollywood as 'Dream Factory' just Nightmare to Femme Anthropologist”—so runs the headline over the Variety review of this book. The Variety reviewer, Herb Golden, goes on to call it a "dull and tedious tome," remarks that it gets "downright silly" at times, and says that most of it could have been put together by any hep Hollywood correspondent in two weeks." He dismisses the author as naive and the book as a gimmick. Mr. Golden, no dope, has hit the nail squarely on the head.

A "native" has read the anthropologist's ethnography and finds it superficial, tedious, in some places "silly." What then does an anthropologist need to do, in order to be taken seriously, not only by casual readers but also by the people whose culture and social relations the ethnography purports to describe? 

And one more about the writing and publishing process...

Dan writes, "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."

Well, that process sounds familiar. Hazing indeed. I think you describe the process perfectly: "the manuscript got pulverized into a dissertation," which the expected theoretical "frameworks" of various interested parties, lit review, etc. I had a similar feeling after I went through the whole process--that the sense of the story basically got lost in the process. It's funny, actually: My conclusion was about 10 pages, and I wrote it in one shot in about a day. I just laid things out as best as I could...and one of my committee members read it and said "I felt like I finally understood the story--why didn't you put that in the beginning?!" It's hard not to get lost in everything--all of the various ideas and demands of different interested parties, the pressure of speaking to emerging theoretical trends, academic customs, etc etc. Now I too am trying to recover and rethink the story I had in mind when I first started out, and to rewrite it in a way that's somewhat readable. I hear so many people who go through this, and it makes me wonder how we can rethink the ways we write dissertations and what we're expecting from them. Ironically, from what I have heard the first thing that book editors do is ask authors to remove the "lit review" and other obviously dissertation-y aspects of the manuscript!  

Huon, also talking about writing and publishing, writes: "It is not in fact anthropologists themselves who have become decadent, it is the bureaucracy they work in, and their continuing loyalty to it. I see plenty of energy in contemporary anthropology, but the sense in which the academic apparatus as a bureaucratic machine can crush innovative lines of thought and inquiry is desperate. The anonymous dead hand of 'you didn't cite my (or my client's) work in putting forward these ideas' is omnipresent in academic activity. That is why papers and seminars on the OAC are so refreshing, amongst other things. And it is why the crankiest off hand comment by Mary Douglas (who still sits there as amongst the most cited anthropologists of all time) is usually ten times more interesting to read than the stunted coprolite passed through the multiple digestive tracts of bovine peer review programmed by contemporary academic journals. Striking when you realise that peer review was only institutionalised in the 1960s. As far as I am aware, I could be wrong, OAC is the only publishing outlet for full-scale anthropological research that isn't owned by a university bureaucracy or by one of the big academic publishers."

All of this makes me want to push harder to rethink how we write and publish. Of course, I do think there's value in peer review but I think there are other ways to do it. Or, we should at least try. Right now there's pretty much only one funnel and if you don't take that route, good luck. As Huon mentions (and Daniel too), we lose a lot by sticking with the "way things work." We lose the stories we're trying to tell, or, as if often the case, we end up losing the rights to the value we produce (ie publications). These seminars and papers are definitely refreshing, in part because 1) there are no pay walls; and 2) we can actually see and take part in the process itself. Not to mention the fact that authors still own the rights to their work when all is said and done. There is definitely something very valuable going on here at the OAC, and I think we should build upon it. It is, as Huon points out, a rare thing indeed.

Hi Dan,

 Thanks very much for your interesting responses. Even though you didn’t hear many water or Ahab metaphors used, that in itself is interesting, as it reminds me not to focus too much on a certain set of metaphors that appeal to my admittedly biased attraction to Melville, whales, and water. I also never would have thought of the beauty pageant or bake sale metaphors, so those are interesting to think about as well. I’m guessing that the lack of Ahab metaphors is related to the more controlled, careful business these PE investors, in particular are engaged in: having to get it right 9 out of 10 times.


It’s also interesting to hear that some younger financiers were aware of and concerned about Matt Taibbi, that they took him seriously enough to feel like they needed to even consider him. There’s another cross-over here: I believe Matt Taibbi’s coinage of the epithet “vampire squid” took off in the media partly because it was building on that large, pre-existing body of water metaphors out there. In fact, it brought together two money-as-liquid metaphors at once: money as water, and money as blood (lifeblood, blood money), etc. I’m pretty sure most financiers didn’t appreciate being called (indirectly) vampire squids, but in some ways, I think that term actually worked in their collective favor because: 1) again, a squid doesn’t have much consciousness or agency, hence, less ethical culpability; 2) vampires have become cool and sexy and powerful in the popular imagination these days (as we--John and I and others--discussed last year via Lee’s analysis of “Twilight”); and 3) squid has a comical ring to it, as in the cartoon character of Squidward. In any case, the way that term took off, at a time when there was just as much or more public confusion about the abstraction of banking as today, was an interesting case study in itself. I’m still waiting  to see what the next metaphor will be to take off in public.


Oh, and thanks for this reference to The Prophetic Melville. That sounds great, and I will definitely check it out. At the risk of taking us all out to the high seas, I’ll keep the Melville/money discussion going a bit more in upcoming responses to Lee and Michael. Thanks again for a super interesting discussion. As John says, this is OAC at its best, as true dialogue, clear writing and thinking, exchange, and playing off each other in the pursuit of new insights.





Hi  Lee, Michael, and everyone,

Thanks, Lee, for the point about the use of “whale” and “shark” in gambling contexts. This really helps and fits with the money-water imagery. I say this as a relativist just interested in analyzing these metaphors. For me at least, gambling is not always a dirty word (as in condemnations of “casino capitalism”). As you know, I’ve worked with 1st-generation immigrants who have had profound (yes, a fair word in this case) experiences with the casino—randomness made mystical, union of diverse peoples, etc. Too much to go into here, and certainly gambling can turn into a destructive addiction, but I’m still interested in the implications of these whale and water metaphors. In fact, just for the fun of it, I’m going to throw this out there: money is absolutely central to the mystical pursuit of Moby Dick.

That is, Ahab gave his speech about striking through the mask right after nailing a gold coin to the masthead, saying it would be the reward for the crewman who first spotted Moby Dick. That doubloon was referred to by the sailors as no less than the “ship’s navel” and “the White Whale’s talisman.” Talk about putting money at the center of the narrative! And the great thing is, as a powerful, multivocal symbol, the sailors saw so many different meanings in money, from the most religious meaning to the possibility of its utter emptiness.


Melville was apparently open to the mystical and pro-social possibilities of money, or at least ambivalent about it, when he wrote Moby-Dick, but that sprawling book didn’t pay the bills very well and next came Bartelby. Well said, Michael: “Ahab draws all the attention but Bartelby is more the rule.”


Hi all,

Given this is the closing evening of the seminar, I wanted to say thank you all for participating and thank you Ryan for inviting me to submit a paper. I very much enjoyed hearing what you all made of the piece, and bouncing of your ideas, suggestions, and just generally following the discussion. It's rare to encounter open-ended, lengthy discussion of ideas and research. So, for that I'm grateful.

As to substantive reflections, I think the point about numerical specificity when discussing inequality will most help illustrate the point of my argument. This will also give me space to elaborate on Mauss's total social fact, illustrating it and saving it from being an appendage to the piece.

The discussion of the sequence of financialization as a minor form of commodification was helpful in getting me to understand better how other theoretical approaches and people like to understand finance. For better or for worse, it also helped me appreciate how difficult it is to fit my actual ethnographic or historical data into this schema. While it is illustrative of a fair amount of what financiers do, it has trouble integrating what actually led private equity investors to do their jobs. One thing we didn't spend anytime talking about was decommodification, singularization, and the end of capitalism. It's interesting that the same financial mechanisms we talked about can produce this as well.

More generally, I still feel excited about the potential of value theories and theories of abstraction to make private equity cross culturally legible. I'm also still happy with the Inka illustrative case. I think, too, I have a pretty good grasp of evolutionary and Marxist critiques of the comparison. But, for better  or for worse, I think I see the way in which my approach accounts for ethnographic and historic specificity in both the private equity and Inka case that would otherwise be absent in a Marxist or evolutionary analysis (just as Marxist or evolutionary analyses allow for other and perhaps more systematic generalizations and comparison). In turn, accounting for ethnographic specificity gives me a powerful way to show that the inequality generated in the context of private equity investing and more general processes of financial abstraction is not as new as many analyst and practitioners claim. This should be heartening to anyone concerned with inequality as it means that we do have relevant analogies in the ethnographic and archaeological record to help make meaning out of our current moment.

As to the avenues and methods of scholarly production, I really like this model of sharing and discussing work. It's much more lively and instructive than much of the peer review that I have encountered.

And now, I'm looking forward to the next seminar. Long live the OAC!

Daniel, I think that's a great note to end on here. Thanks again for sharing your paper, and for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly to everyone's responses. As John said, this was indeed a great seminar. Thanks everyone for taking part!! Until next time...



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