Economic anthropology


Economic anthropology

A forum to discuss how economic anthropology might be regenerated by taking advantage of new social forms such as this one.

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texts referred to on the comments wall

Discussion Forum

Keith Hart on the human economy at MAD, New York, 29th November 7pm 3 Replies

Started by Keith Hart. Last reply by Keith Hart Dec 9, 2012.

The Madness of National Rankings

Started by John McCreery May 2, 2012.

Anthropology of finance 10 Replies

Started by Nathan Dobson. Last reply by Nathan Dobson Apr 30, 2012.

The story of the crash (and what to do about it) 19 Replies

Started by Keith Hart. Last reply by Nathan Dobson Apr 30, 2012.

Fungible money 2 Replies

Started by Nathan Dobson. Last reply by Nathan Dobson Mar 21, 2012.

Comment Wall

Comment by Luke Alexander Heslop on November 24, 2009 at 11:20pm
Thanks Keith, I will certainly think more on a discussion thread on Altruism. The moral problematic of my exchange with other students does not stem from any antipathy towards money per say, as I do agree it is a canny way to mediate being both self-reliant yet belonging, and thus largely being social. It is more a problem of finishing a discussion with 'and that is the trick of capitalism highlighted by Marx's labour theory of value, and now I would like my £15'... My newest problem is an odd one in which the time I dedicate to the preparation is a division of the overall fee into an hourly rate based on anything else I could be doing to earn money. How good the session is/how well I have prepared can therefore fluctuate with the going rate of any other job but is often kept stable by the adage of a gift donation of more time put into preparation.
Comment by Kathleen Lowrey on November 24, 2009 at 11:34pm
Luke -- maybe I have misunderstood your point, but I think you might be doing the lefty version of the economic fantasy of "getting the prices right". I mean, it's probably much worse than you think -- if you divide the money you earn not just by your hours of course prep but by all the hours you spent in grad school, or worse yet school in general since learning to write and do sums, your salary is surely an outrage!!!!!. And of course, there is the point you raise -- if your class dynamic goes well, you learn from students as well as teaching them and then perhaps they should collect the occasional bit of pocket money from you after class.

but I think - - even if we were to take Keith's more optimistic view of money, that it could be made by us for us to keep track of social memory -- it could never be made perfect. the problem is you'd have have some idea of what the baseline unit quanitifies. A penny for one thought? What is the unit of thought? Or a penny for one dram of social solidarity? What is the unit of social solidarity?

I mean -- I think math is great. But some things really cannot be mathematized well, I don't mean that in a sentimental way, I mean in the sense that there is no baseline unit of "learning" or "sociability" which could be quantified in any logical way. No matter what kind of money system you use, you're going to have to accept always getting the calculations a bit wrong.
Comment by John McCreery on November 25, 2009 at 12:40am
Yes to what Keith and Kathleen have said. If I may add a bit, one of the most important things I have learned in business (thirteen years in a big advertising agency, thirteen more as a partner-owner in a small service business) is that capitalism in practice is far from the simple "X pays Y price Z set by supply and demand leaving no further claims on each other model" that the mythology preached in elementary microeconomics courses assumes. The most important asset for our small business is the clients who frequently send us work to do. Most have been referred to us by word of mouth from others who have worked with us in the past. They become repeat customers because they learn to trust us. Yes, we will deliver good quality on time. Yes, we will warn them in advance if we will be unavailable, allowing schedules to be adjusted. Yes, we will go the extra mile, e.g., staying up and working with them until three in the morning to get a presentation done. So, what about pricing? We have a set rate table for routine translation work that includes a surcharge for rush work and another for copy fitting text in Power Point or messy charts created with Excel. For copywriting, the question I usually ask is, "How much budget do we have?" I often do work without setting a price. Then when it's time to bill the job, I ask, "What are you comfortable with?" Frequently the client says, "How about X?" when X is far more than I would have demanded up front. On the other hand, if someone who frequently gives us business says, for example, "We've got this little job, the client is only willing to pay Y, can you do that?" my normal response is "Sure." The trust on which the business is built runs both ways. When a juicier job comes along, we'll get that one, too. One interesting thing about all this is that we have never gone in for the business entertaining and seasonal gift-giving that some of our competitors seem to think essential to keeping their business going. The trust built through the work itself and our willingness to be there for people when they need us has always been enough.
Comment by Elaine Forde on November 25, 2009 at 2:51am
based on john's comments, what does anyone think of the idea of town pounds, such as in Totnes?

are these schemes ways of quantifying the sorts of relationships that john discusses?
Comment by John McCreery on November 25, 2009 at 3:18am
Elaine, to me the answer to your question is "No," with a possible qualification. "No," because the trust I mentioned as our most precious asset cannot be directly quantified. Trust is a personal relationship; a particular X trusts a particular Y. Over the years trust can mellow into friendship. Caveat emptor no longer applies. Money is always a way of depersonalizing relationships. Whether Totnes pounds or pounds sterling, X and Y agree on a price; the price is paid; they are quits. The relationship is limited to the relationship in question.

Here, however, is where the qualification comes in. Part of the rationale for using Totnes pounds instead of pounds sterling is that by doing so the parties to the transaction support a community of which they both are members. In this case, the prior relationship, membership in the community, both precedes and survives the particular transaction.

The business relationships that I described below are, I believe, significantly different. The business relationships are put to the test with every new transaction. If we were to violate our clients' trust by failing to meet their expectations, they would find other suppliers. We are not a community that transcends transactions.
Comment by Geoff Chesshire on November 25, 2009 at 4:27am
As I see it, there are at least two values at play here: (1) market exchange value, which may be measured using a zero-sum currency (what am I willing to give up in order to get what I want?); and (2) value of generated wealth (how do we mutually benefit overall from our interaction?). As a zero-sum currency, money can measure only the former. Trust, friendship, shared knowledge, etc., are mutually beneficial, so a zero-sum currency does not measure these. The wealth inherent in these depends upon our shared values. This is not to say that mutual or common wealth cannot be measured, nor on the other hand to say that our values must be quantifiable, as economists would have us believe.

I think this might be the paradox that Luke refers to. When we convene to discuss and learn from each other, we may all benefit, increasing our common wealth of knowledge while building the wealth of trust and solidarity in our relationships. The fact that some must pay and others must be paid in this arrangement does not reflect the generated wealth. Payment does, however, reflect the relative status of the participants in the discussion.
Comment by Kathleen Lowrey on November 25, 2009 at 5:26am
Geoff -- I can see what you mean, but it's worth noting that there is no such thing as a zero-sum currency. Governments just decide how much money to print; there isn't a global Fort Knox anywhere anymore for which you can trade in cash for gold. So I think, in fact, the point is more that *all* currencies are not "zero sum" but instead "fuzzy", even the ones we are used to thinking of as hard & fast & all about math.

I'd also disagree with John -- my answer to Elaine (though she didn't ask me) is "yes, absolutely". One of the things that is nice about community currencies is that they are more transparent as to their own "fuzziness" -- people feel a bit funny about using them b/c of this, but the important point to realize is that all currencies are fuzzy and not based on quantitative anything, in the last analysis. The value of the U.S. dollar is what it trades for, which in turn is based on global trust: how the world thinks U.S. society is doing, how solid its economy looks, how confident they are its government can fulfill its promises.

The point is that it is fuzzy all the way down.
Comment by Keith Hart on November 25, 2009 at 5:46am
Thanks, Luke for triggering off one of the best sequences in this group so far, The great technical advantage of writing a comment here is that all members get it, whereas when you start a discussion, everyone is informed at the beginning, but after that we receive notice of new posts only if we choose to follow that thread.

Geoff and I have had several exchanges in which our position on giving (perhaps something you refer to as altruism) differs in what I find to be quite creative ways.

When I argue that money can be a means of recording social memory, I always add "of those relations we choose to calculate". Like Weber, I think that the drive to base enterprise on rational calculation was great contribution of the bourgeoisie, even if it was often achieved at the expense of everyone else. For me one of the goals of economic anthropology is to inform most people's pragmatic concerns in ways that would enable them to take more effective control of those parts of their lives they wish to calculate. Unlike the economists I recognize that we already routinely quantify many aspects of life, especially those involving money, time and energy. But I consider it to be a sort of violence to quantify aspects that we don't. The academics have been far too passive in allowing our practices to be taken over by the quantifiers. We need a few more people like Kathleen.

To Elaine, I would say that the paradox of community currencies is that so much of the focus is on the money itself, but, if it is successful, money becomes much less important as a measure of the value of the transaction. There are many echoes with John's description. But the crucial difference is that the money itself is created by the promise of each member to meet the obligation incurred by a service contract, as opposed to normal money which is kept in artificially scarce supply. There are many technical and social problems with maintaining these circuits, but that is the most important reason for their existence, that and the community that is so generated.

I have a wonderful book chapter by Makoto Nishibe in pdf form which I could post if anyone likes. It is called The theory of labour money: Implications of Marx’s critique for the Local Exchange Trading System (LETS). In it he explores how Marx opposed Proudhon, Robert Owen and the Social Ricardians on this issue of whether money was essential to a non-capitalist economy. He (and Nishibe and I ) thought it was and this is why the focus of LETS on the money itself is strategic.
Comment by Keith Hart on November 25, 2009 at 5:56am
I have posted the Nishibe chapter in the text box at the top.
Comment by John McCreery on November 25, 2009 at 10:38am
Sorry Kathleen, but "fuzzy all the way down" is, at the end of the day only hand-waving, at best recognition that we don't understand how to analyze what is happening. I agree that no currency is zero sum and, conversely, that all currencies have social dimensions that are not well understood — thus the fuzziness that plagues our thinking about them. But the simple fact of the matter is that the "trust" involved in local currencies and the "trust" involved in the sorts of business relationships that I was describing reside in two very different kinds of social relations.

Local currencies are, by definition, rooted in local communities where people interact in many capacities. It is community loyalty that is called upon to move people to use the local currency instead of the coin of the realm. In the kinds of business relationships that I was describing there is no such community. The relationships in question are normally strictly business, tempered with occasional friendly gestures that go beyond the business being transacted. These are social facts and to ignore them is, in my view, fuzzy thinking, indeed.


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