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 John McCreery on September 13, 2013 at 10:52am

Fascinating. I wonder why there have been so many views and zero comments. Personally, I wish I were back in graduate school. This would be a path worth pursuing. But one trouble with grand reviews is that they become overwhelming. A library of books are mentioned. To read them carefully would be the work of months, perhaps years. Given other pressing concerns, the prospect seems too daunting. "Best wishes" is all I have to say.

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