The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history

Come read and discuss an essay by Horacio Ortiz and myself posted online in separate parts, either here or on my website.

We review developments in the anthropology of money and finance over the last century, listing its achievements, shortcomings and prospects. Since the 1960s, anthropologists have tended to restrict themselves to niche fields and marginal debates. We hope to reverse this trend by integrating world history and ethnography while stressing the importance of money in shaping global society.

Part 1  Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy

Here we take our departure from the work of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi, both of whom combined openness to ethnographic research with a vision of world history as a whole. Polanyi stimulated the formalist-substantivist in economic anthropology which remains the last time that this field held centre stage in the discipline.

Part 2  Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance

From the 1980s the anthropological study of money and especially ethnographies of finance have taken off, including by sociologists influenced by science and cultural studies. In spite of taking on new objects and directions, these scholars still fall short of meeting the potential that we explore in Part 1.

Part 3  Prospects for the anthropology of money and finance

Our constructive proposals for a way forward emphasize the need to extend a narrow ethnographic focus on local professional practices towards a more inclusive perspective on the world economy. Here we present our own version of how anthropologists might engage more effectively with the momentous developments of our own times.

There is much talk today of a financial and economic crisis comparable to the 1930s. In the context of a currency war between the US and China and the euro’s possible collapse, the spectre of world war, the Great Depression’s bloody aftermath, has returned with a vengeance. Different versions of how to make human beings and build society co-existed during the Cold War, when much of the world won independence from colonial empire. Yet, despite humanity’s growing interdependence, today’s turbulence is discussed only in terms of a one-world capitalism driven by finance. What have anthropologists to say about that? It would seem very little. But recent developments in economic anthropology and a particular reading of its history suggest that a more positive case can be made for the discipline’s contribution to public debate. We make such a case here.

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Comment by Erin B. Taylor on October 9, 2013 at 11:18am

Thanks, Keith! It's all really useful. I'll keep chipping away at it. By the way, have you seen Ignacio Mas's blog posts on money metaphors and the longstanding nature of virtual money?

Comment by Keith Hart on October 8, 2013 at 12:12pm

Erin, there is a lot to respond to here and I am under the gun (as usual), so please take this as a down payment.

It is worth interrogating what is old and new about neoliberalism. If it is the privatization of public wealth, it is very old indeed. But whereas before how public money got into private hands was hidden and now it is paraded as a public virtue. That's new. Also the transformation of capitalism into a system for accumulation of politically secured rents is new in the modern era, if it was not new before. So I don't think that whether you think th eproicesses are old or new should influecne your attempt to study the modes of extraction in detail. There will be elements of both in them. Even the notion of empire is contentious since some say it has moved on beyond the old imperialism (Hardt & Negri) and others disagree.

The more lasting question is what markets have been and are used for and is this a good or a bad thing? Btw, I am not familiar with your usage, "social goods". Is this the same as "public goods" or does it refer to the mode of delivery or use? Is it easy to draw a line between them and "commodities"? Jane Guyer has an interesting article on composite prices in Market and Society ed Hann and Hart 2009 which blurs the overall contrast.

I like your preliminary discussion of the different destinations for mobile payments. You can shift the perspective to a more general level, by asking what this mode of payment distinctively does for people (pragmatics). Thus in Kenya, farmers can get price information from different markets for their vegetables; migrants can make remittances to their families; peasants can pay their taxes without having to walk to the nearest town and be given the runaround by bureaucrats; the relatives of a accident victim in the remote countryside can buy blood in a regional hospital that day and save his life; a Pentecostalist can make a donation to a televangelist in Atlanta. Above all, money helps people manage many different institutional contexts of economic life and this form of money helps them do it more quickly. Low transaction costs make complex management strategies accessible to ordinary people. The point of the mobile phone is that it has a built-in means of payment and the internet doesn't. It can also be carried around unobstrusively on the person. Everthing changes as a result. It isn't necessarily a virtue for ethnographers to point out how many different social uses may be attached to these payments.

Comment by Erin B. Taylor on October 6, 2013 at 1:41pm

Okay, excellent, that makes it clearer. I know about the human economy program (I'm affiliated with it!) but it's nice to be reminded of the core and especially get some clarity on your position regarding the state.

One thing I've just begun working on with my Haiti stuff is payment for the delivery of social goods and commodities and how they are tied up together. I'm especially interested in the relationships between providers and users (citizens/consumers). You might remember that I am fascinated with how much people trust Digicel, the MNO and a mobile money provider. I'm not a fan of neoliberalism as a lens through which to look at this because I don't think there's much that is neo in respect to what's happening in Haiti. Yes, there has been a trend towards the outsourcing of welfare, and the "marketization of poverty", but it's part of a project of empire that's been happening for a long time indeed. Many people there have never had much of a relationship with the state so the provision of social goods has always largely been left up to markets of one sort or another, with the state being always present but somewhat uneven throughout Haiti's history and geography. (Maybe Polanyi would disagree with me but I think there might be a case to be made for seeing Haiti as a market society).

Looking at money brings these relationships into perspective when you begin to think about how transactions for social goods / commodities occur. When you purchase a mobile money service (or any other commodity), you engage in a direct and finite transaction with the company. When you pay taxes (which most Haitians don't), you give money to the state and it provides social goods in return, and this is a little less direct because people don't choose how money is spent (but at least theoretically they choose representatives to choose for them). When you pay money to the church or another religious institution, in one way you get what you pay for directly (exchange money for spiritual services), but it isn't at all conceptualized like this, hence it is the most indirect transaction of the three because it's not viewed as a transaction at all. NGOs are fascinating because they purport to provide things for free to the poor, but really it is the poor who are commodified and the funding bodies / donating individuals who are the buyers. I'm thinking out loud, but all this stuff is part of the landscape in which mobile money sits and helps me think about its roles as commodity and social good.

This is how money is thus far taking me beyond Haiti and towards global structures and histories. My general idea is to look at mobile money in Haiti as part of a series of interwoven relationships. While these relationships are characterized by different things, and at times money may not be the most important thing, money does appear to be that which ties them all together. So, yes, I think we're more or less on the same page :-)

If you have any specific recommendations for reading regarding my ideas I'd love to hear them! 

Comment by Keith Hart on October 6, 2013 at 12:22pm

Thanks for commenting, Erin. I agree with you that mobile money ought to be part of the picture we present. Of course Bill M has something of a lock on that topic through his Institute at UC Irving : )

I have written so much on the human economy in many different media, but this is the core of my position:

The Human Economy programme started out with only loose guidelines. Our aim is to build a conversation, among ourselves and with other specialists, ultimately with the general public. This conversation is as much based on empirical investigation and comparison as it is on developing a theoretical and methodological framework for planning research. Our first basic method is inspired by the ethnographic revolution that launched social and cultural anthropology in the twentieth century. This was the first sustained effort by a class of academics to break out of the ivory tower and to join the people where they live in order to discover what they do, think and want. Second, the economy is always plural and people’s experience of it across time and space has more in common that the use of contrastive terms like “capitalism” or “socialism” would suggest. This approach addresses the variety of particular institutions through which most people experience economic life. Third, our aim is to promote economic democracy by helping people to organize and improve their own lives. Our findings must therefore ultimately be presented to the public in a spirit of pragmatism and made understandable for readers’ own practical use.

Given our preference to anchor economic strategies in people’s everyday lives, their aspirations and their local circumstances, the intellectual movement that defines our research is conceived of as extension from the local towards the global. We can’t arrive instantly at a view of the whole, but we can engage more concretely with the world that lies beyond the familiar institutions that immediately secure people’s rights and interests. According to Mauss and Polanyi especially -- but all the founders of modern social theory too -- the chief way of achieving social extension has always been through markets and money in a variety of forms.

All of this is compatible with a humanist view of the human economy. It must be so, if the economy is to be returned from remote experts to the people who are most affected by it. But humanism by itself is not enough.  The human economy must also be informed by an economic vision capable of bridging the gap between everyday life (what people know) and humanity’s common predicament, which is inevitably impersonal and lies beyond the actor’s point of view (what they don’t know). For this purpose a variety of methods have to be drawn from philosophy, world history, literature and grand social theory. Globalization is irreversible and we have to extend our normal reach to address its contradictions.

          Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association (Hart 2010). We urgently need to make a world where all people can live together. Small may be beautiful and a preference for initiatives grounded in local social realities is unchallengeable, but large-scale bureaucracies, whether governments or business corporations, are also essential if our aspirations for economic democracy are to embrace the movement of the world we live in....

Lindiwe (a character in my story) could not juggle the plethora of institutions and activities she relies on without money. Money and markets are intrinsic to our human potential, not anti-human as they are often depicted. Of course they should take forms that are more conducive to economic democracy. Her unanswered questions require answers grounded in the circumstances she knows well, but also capable of opening up to broader perspectives. It helps to recognize that money and markets span the extremes of human existence: they link us to the universe of our social relations and give precise definition to our most intimate circumstances. As Simmel said, money reflects our human potential to make universal society.

My positions on alternative currencies and the state have shifted since I wrote The Memory Bank. I was very keen on the former when I wrote it and so anti-statist that I could almost qualify as an anarchist. I then spent two years working with Michael Linton on a book about LETS (which never came out) and I went cooler on the idea. Since then and especially since 2008, I have moved back to my position in the heads or tails paper of 1986. States and markets are equally indispensable to money, but the world is now in the parlous situation where the economy is global and politics are national. So the issue is where the state might be located if we are to avoid falling in chaos. regional associations like the EU are one answer, but they made the fatal mistake of opting for a single currency. Plural money is inevitable, but the political grounds for organizing it still have to be discovered.


Comment by Erin B. Taylor on October 6, 2013 at 10:56am

Keith, thanks for the summary. I agree with you that there's room for finance, and money itself, to be looked at in a more historically-informed way and from a macro perspective. The stuff I'm doing on money in Haiti is really still a "local" study with a bit of political economy thrown in but I think the topic of mobile money does lend itself to the kind of analysis you're talking about, especially its place in broader trends in thinking about money and how we use it. I am very interested in your suggestion that money's where it's at when thinking about how to redefine the "human economy" but I'm not really clear on what your vision is. How do you see alternative currencies and the state fitting into this? Have you written something that spells this out in more depth, or is it possible for you to write a fourth blog post? Thanks :-)

Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 27, 2013 at 10:43pm

Yeah, I can understand that, I enjoyed it very much too, thank you.

Comment by Keith Hart on September 27, 2013 at 3:36am

That's a nice way of rounding off this exchange, Marcus. I have enjoyed it very much. Thank you. If I come up with an answer to the money question, I'll get back, but don't hold your breath.

Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 27, 2013 at 12:20am

That sounds like a fun and rewarding seminar, I think the scenario is correct for most regions, with the caveat that weapons are oft more visible due to the focus on burials in the archaeological record and the understudy of tools. You are right that this transitory period is very interesting: what happened with the Hittite knowledge of iron-working (since they used it on a wider scale very early), how can we understand continuity and discontinuity in craft, especially with regard to the organisation of craft-workers?

Also, a question that occurred to me. If we see that monetisation was most extensive in some regions (such as Athens), while very slow to penetrate in others (much of the Near East even in Hellenistic times), then what about one of Aristotle's theories of money: as a means for achieving justice in exchange within communities? Perhaps we can understand such different means of exchange as an outgrowth of the different socio-political structures that developed out of the new possibilities offered by production augmented by iron-working technology. I'm not an expert in the development of money and coinage, but perhaps this would be a way to consider how it is related to production again.

Comment by Keith Hart on September 26, 2013 at 11:24pm

I once taught a seminar at Yale on the transition from bronze to iron in the Eastern Mediterranean 1600-500 BC. I had Assyriologists, classicists and anthro archaeologists. Everyone took a region -- Anatolia, Egypt, Italy etc and we compared the written with the carbon dating chronology with the idea also of putting together a regional story rather than staying within the usual compartments. One interesting feature was "the sea peoples" around 1000. I can see why it might seem reasonable to start with the Assyrians and the Phoenician city states -- that where I usually start for an account of the first millennium BC, but the centuries before are interesting if vague. We came up with a story on the adoption of iron: starts out in various places at different times as ornaments for the ruling class, then weapons and only after several centuries does it find its principal use for agricultural and industrial implements. Maybe I oversimplify, but I had a great time. It's the only time I was allowed to run a graduate seminar in archaeology. The carbon dating was consistently about 200 years earlier than the historical dates.

Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 26, 2013 at 11:14pm

No not Negri, but rather from a previous interest in Vico and the connection drawn between Vico and Spinoza in the work of Jonathan Israel on the radical Enlightenment. To be honest, I'm always more interested in applied philosophy as related to society, as can be seen in their treatment of history and myth through philology, and the ideas behind that. In general I tend to avoid works that are predominantly theoretical in orientation.

It is Childe territory, very perceptive, his work has had quite a significant impact on me. I have previously been working out the long-term impact of iron technology on settlement patterns in southern Greece, seeking to investigate at a smaller idea Childe's ideas about the significance of widespread use of iron-working technology. In fact, this is one reason I would be cautious to extend your thesis back into the Late Bronze Age, for I think the two were still conflated here in the sense that there was no separate class based on property in money. Certainly not in the Mycenaean case I'm working on, but I'm very sceptical as to such a separation in the more developed Near East as well. I think the merchants that did exist were dependent on either the state or powerful elite households, and though they could have some independent agency it was only within this overall context. There was no independent territorial power base for them as with the Phoenician city-states in the Late Bronze Age.

I think this is partially due to the control and application of metals, including in agriculture. Many of the regions I studied in southern Greece have very little development in the Bronze Age (maybe villages, if you can infer a village from, say, twenty-odd pottery sherds lying on the surface) but after the introduction of iron show often a couple of smaller city-states. The reason, I think, is that because the more wide availability of iron for ploughshares and for sickles, both increasing efficiency at the key labour bottlenecks of ploughing and harvesting. This allows for a larger surplus and different class structure (the aristocracy and democracy, for example), as well as larger empires. Now this should not be read in a determinist way, and there are other factors like coinage and the alphabet, but the structural features of the Bronze Age are quite different from that of the Iron Age. So, I would prefer to see the start of your cycle in the relation between the Phoenicians and the neo-Assyrian empire, rather than in the Late Bronze Age. Certainly, as a Dutchman I can appreciate its longer-term validity.



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