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.

Views: 1986


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!

Comment by Keith Hart on September 25, 2013 at 10:20pm

Now you have me wondering what your empirical focus is. It sounds like Childe territory.

As for the money/land pair, the concept of oikonomia arose to express the interests of one side in a long-term civil war that crystallized the basic conflict of the agrarian empires which emerged in the late Bronze Age. The two sides would later be known in medieval Europe as “feudalism” and “capitalism”, systems of property and politics based on control of the land and money respectively. A military aristocracy with manor houses in the countryside extracted rents from a servile agricultural labour force, while cities linked by sea-borne trade supported their populations through commerce. In the Greek case the political slogans of the two sides were “aristocracy” and “democracy”, rule by the best versus rule by the people (not all of the people in our modern sense but at least a significant proportion of the male population of the polis). In most places aristocratic and democratic factions contended for power, forming alliances with like-minded parties that cross-cut geographical divisions. Fustel de Coulanges’ (1864) early anthropological classic documents the result: an endless series of wars and revolutions ranging from local fights to international conflicts lasting decades.

The sequence was suspended when Rome defeated Carthage and annexed the Eastern Mediterranean to its empire. By the beginning of the next millennium, military landlordism had triumphed over water-borne commerce and the ancient world was unified under Rome. It took another 1500 years for merchants to take on landed power again and win, this time in Northwestern Europe. England was the main site of that victory, but its colony the United States soon eclipsed Britain in shaping the global capitalism we know today. When Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto (1848) that the history of class struggle was one of a struggle between town and countryside, they had in mind this European history.

I wonder where you picked up an interest in Spinoza. Negri?


Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 25, 2013 at 4:49pm

Sorry for the late reply, I wanted to reread the introduction to the Grundrisse first. Having done so, I was struck in particular by the reference to Spinoza in the part dealing with the relation between production and consumption. This seems related to the discussion of consumption positing the object of production in ideal terms, as a need, so that the two are mutually dependent. Something for further reflection, as such ideas are very dense in philosophical terms.

As to your point on the relation between ways of pillage and means of production, this is very interesting as well and can be seen very well in the cases I'm myself working on. For example, it quite significant when the primary means to creating an agricultural surplus is through ownership (private or communal) of ploughing oxen or whether it requires intensification and water-management on a small-holder basis or at community or state level. The properties of such systems in early states are very important and exert significant (but not in the sense of geographical determinism) influence on the kinds of structures that are developed.

Your idea of a struggle between land property classes and money property classes is interesting, even if I would like to know more about the temporal and geographical context you would locate it in. Reading your last sentence made me think of the 'absolutism as reformulated feudalism' thesis put forward by Perry Anderson. Many of the structures of absolutism are still current in contemporary states, though obviously not rooted in a class based on landed property. So we may just conceive the neoliberal state as the instrument of a class based on property in money to concentrate power and enforce compliance in order to extract rent from their property.

Comment by Keith Hart on September 19, 2013 at 1:58pm

Thanks for the link's to Jason's work which does indeed look interesting.

I think it's important to express a theoretical or methodological approach as a means of answering a question rather than just as a matter of personal judgment. For example, how much of the euro crisis is attributable to trends in production? In the struggle for global hegemony between the US and China, how much does military power or being the world reserve currency count in relation to rising manufactures? These macro questions may lead one to try to understand finance better, for example and that might generate another question, do anthropologists have anything to say about that? And so on.

Have you read the introduction to Marx's Grundrisse? There a very important discussion there about the relationship between production, distribution, exchange and consumption. He notes that modern economics assimilated distribution (who gets what) to exchange and that hitherto distribution had dominated political economy, since wealth came from force not from production. He goes on to argue that nevertheless, production is logically prior to distribution, since "you can't steal from a nation of shepherds the way you would from a nation of bankers." He has a particularly interesting discussion there of the Mongols.

I have long taken an interest in the struggle over several millennia between classes with property in land (military aristocracies) and classes with property in money (trading city states), the rent/profit pair. This has contemporary resonance, since the brief ascendency of industrial capitalism seems to have reverted to accumulation of rents through political privilege.

Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 18, 2013 at 12:34am

Keith, that's a good question that led to some reflection. The answer I came up with is that yes, I would have been bothered by it, but less intensely so. The reason being that I've been thinking about production for a long time, even before seeing the Marxian view as useful. Politically, if that's what you mean with "do something about it", I think the focus on production forces one to think about class struggle, what it is based on and what it entails. This is not only from Marx, but can also be found earlier in Vico. Whereas, I think a focus on exchange might engender a comparatively more individualist and moral perspective. I may well be wrong in this oversimplification, though, what do you think?

But I do not want to support such a dichotomy. I've been reading the work of Jonathan Israel on the Enlightenment lately, and it really appeals to me. In particular his deployment of Spinoza's one-substance dualism (the order of ideas corresponds to the order of things) and its connection to the republicanism of the radical version of the Enlightenment. Although it's a bit of a stretch (given that it referred to hermeneutics and natural science in Spinoza), I wonder if we might not reconsider the impulse to separate exchange from reproduction along similar lines, as neglecting the insight that we have to treat cognitive tools (such as means of exchange) alongside productive tools and machines (which constitute our 'world of things'). Or think about art, which is both embodied form and a semiotic system. 

That said, I think your project is really useful and makes perfect analytic sense. You are right to note that to look at the connection between production and exchange can only be studied in a more circumscribed area. I'm very interested in doing so for the Bronze Age and early civilisations in general, but can hardly imagine the complexity for doing so the modern world. So I'm definitely not imploring you to change your approach. Yet perhaps of some interest is some recent work by Jason Moore that I came across just a few weeks ago and which might help to think about the productive/ecological aspect for the modern world as well:

Comment by Keith Hart on September 17, 2013 at 3:21pm

Marcus, thanks for your comment. As you know, there is a long debate about the relationship between production and circulation in economic life and Marx established a tradition which anchored the latter in the former. Moreover, in economic anthropology especially, there is a tendency to detach circulation from production which we could be said to reproduce in our work. One only has to think of Mauss, Polanyi and the rest.

Our justification might be that the global money circuit has developed some new properties in the last few decades to the point that finance often appears to have been separated from production and even trade. General Motors, before it went bankrupt, had become a finance house more than a car manufacturer for the simple reason that its executives thought money could be made more reliably and faster that way than by going to the trouble of hiring workers, organizing production, finding customers etc.

Our main drift is that anthropologists have adopted too narrow a local vision even when they studied finance professionals. Ethnographies focus on knowledge practices and often don't even tell readers what happens to the money, which is after all the main reason for these enterprises, never mind how th emoney is realted to production.

If you choose to see how trade and money are embedded in production, you will probably take a local ethnographic perspective. How things fit together -- a functionalist approach -- is well suited to studying small places at one point in time (Malinowski). But that leaves out a lot going on that cannot be examined by this method.

Horacio and I stand on the shoulders of the ethnographic achievements of the last century and say perhaps we ought to go further if we wish to have something to say about the world we live in. One contributor to such an enhanced perspective could be world history. Now this is already a very big topic and it has to be narrowed down in order to offer a reasonable chance of focused research. We chose money and finance as that narrower focus, a topic that is actually pretty big already.

So functionalist ethnography narrows down the space and time dimensions of an enquiry, while our broader time and space horizons require us to be more selective with regard to the topic. If I were honest, I would admit that I prefer a wide literature search to finding out how things work in particular places. But your complaint isn't just about micro and macro approaches; it is fed by the long argument about where to look if we would understand economy and perhaps do something about it. I leave you with a question. If this paper had been on the anthropology of ritual, say sacrifice, would the abstraction from social context bother you as much?

Comment by Marcus Bajema on September 17, 2013 at 12:28pm

Very impressive work, but I am in a certain way very uneasy with the notion of giving money such a central position in economic analysis. Not to discount the good work being discussed in the essay, but I miss the connection with the productive aspect of economic life. This is especially true for Graeber's periodisation, which as someone who focuses on the Bronze Age was a bit hard to swallow for me.

Now, one may study certain aspects of society separately from others in a comparative framework, and this is certainly useful, but it should always be born in mind that what is being studied is not truly independent of other things. Of course there are levels of independence and dependence, so we are not doomed to having to study everything to make some statement, but in the case of production and exchange I think it would be ill-advised to consider them too much in isolation.

To be honest, I'm personally more inclined to use ideas such as 'mode of production' (not as typology, but as critical method) and focus on basic questions of agriculture and technology as means of production (as well as on their control). Obviously means of exchange should not be neatly folded within this theoretical napkin, but why not explore the interplay between 'modes of production' and 'modes of exchange' in more detail?

Comment by Keith Hart on September 13, 2013 at 5:20pm

Thanks, Marta, much appreciated. Writers and teachers have to get used to low levels of feedback. The unusual nature of this medium is that it makes feedback technically so easy that one feels disapppointed that it doesn't happen more often. But, as John says, an essay of this kind can be overwhelming. By the way, when I said "Nobody is expected to read them all", I didn't mean all parts of the essay, but was responding to "A library of books are mentioned. To read them carefully would be the work of months, perhaps years."

I had a friend called Ruth, an old communist, English scholar, former gun-runner for the African resistance to Ian Smith's white regime in Rhodesia and my factotum at the Prickly Pear Press. She read novels, biography and poetry voraciously and write letters to the authors whose books she liked. She was both intelligent and generous, a rare combination. They often wrote back with four-page handwritten letters, evn invitations to dinner! "I don't know where they find the time", she used to say. "But Ruth", I would reply, "you are the only one who writes to them."

Comment by Marta Lobato on September 13, 2013 at 4:22pm

I read it all twice....and I sent a copy to my colleagues in the department. I found it increadibly useful and although I am not in the position to add anything new I want to thank you for sharing it, this is extremely valuable to students trying to engage with the subject. I hope to read more soon. Best wishes.

Comment by John McCreery on September 13, 2013 at 12:58pm

I did read them all. And have even read some of the books mentioned, Mauss, Polyani, Ho, McKenzie, and Tett. It's just that the thought of adding something new to my plate before I finish already long overdue projects instantly gives me a headache. 

Changing subjects: Just for fun I ordered a copy of Lee Drummond's American Dreamtime. had a copy in stock. Just arrived today. What I've read so far makes me wish I had met him back in the 80s. We might have had a lot of fun doing something with his pastiche of Lévi-Strauss, Fernandez, Victor Turner, pop-Physics, fractals, and creole linguistics. Lot of interesting potential there. All stuff I've played with, too (except for the creole linguistics, but I get what he is talking about having lived in Penang where people speak all sorts of variations of five or six distinguishable types of Chinese). 

Comment by Keith Hart on September 13, 2013 at 11:12am

Thanks, John. But it's a road map, aimed first at people with some knowledge of the field. Nobody is expected to read them all, but the review may spark the interst of some readers in one or two of them, depending on their particular interests and curiosity. It's not the sort of thing that people are likely to discuss. A shorter version will come out in Annual Reviews of Anthropology. It would be nice to get some feedback. That was my (forlorn) hope in putting it up here and on my website. So far no takers. But even when I send it by email personally to friends with a known interest, I rarely get a response. I think I am unusual in commenting on what is sent to me. I blame it on the current state of the universities.

David Graeber says that his most attentive and responsive readers are autodidacts. They even read the footnotes, academics never do. He has a funny story. Annette Weiner bases her theory of inalienable possessions on a footnote in Mauss's The Gift. Maurice Godelier did the same in his Enigma of the Gift. Graeber checked on the footnote and found that two citations never existed and the other two did not not support Mauss's point. But then Marcel too, as his uncle pointed out endlessly, was never much of a scholar either.


OAC Press



© 2020   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service