"Counting on Change," OAC e-seminar with Erin Taylor (June 22-July 6) is NOW OPEN.

Welcome to the latest installment of the OAC Press working paper series, an e-seminar focused on Erin Taylor's paper "Counting on Change: What can money tell us about inequality in Haiti?" If you haven't read it yet, the paper is available to read online or download as a PDF here. The seminar will be open for comments from June 22 until July 6th. Please feel free to read the paper and share your thoughts with us! Thanks goes out to Erin Taylor for sharing her work with us, and to Justin Shaffner and John McCreery for helping to organize this seminar!

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Ryan, I think the structure/agency debate was useful for showing us that it is really actually quite complex - many seemingly contradictory things can be happening at once, and it's not about a binary at all. In other words, it leads us back to anthropology, which isn't afraid of complexity. I think a similar thing could be said for money and inequality. The relationship between them is not straightforward at all. Money can be a "great leveller" and also an exacerbator of inequalities. Money itself is many things. Money, like language, is a medium of exchange of ideas and agreements; it is representative, symbolic. But people don't tend to see it that way, they view it as a thing with an inherent value. It is prone to fetishization.

I think Taussig's "The Devil and Commodity Fetishism" is still a great example of how we fetishize it and how weird money actually is. I think there is a lot of value in these kinds of analyses that help us to suspend our beliefs about money. Allison Truitt's book "Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City" presents a variety of wonderful ethnographic examples of how money operates in social settings. Karen Ho's Current Anthropology article about Wall Street performed a similar task in unmasking how investment bankers think about the world. Joris Luyendijk's book about banking in London isn't particularly anthropological but nonetheless it does a good job of illustrating the structure of the industry.

There is also a lot of good work being done elsewhere in the social sciences, and since the GFC particularly it seems to have exploded. People in many displines are tackling topics like mortgages, debt, financial tools, etc. These include Joe Deville's book "Lived Economies of Default" and Liz McFall's "Devising Consumption. In 2014 and 2015 I presented at Joe's mini-conference at SASE; a few months ago I attended the "Debt Trails" workshop in Budapest, and today I am off to Vienna for a panel convened by Aaron Pitluck at the International Sociological Association. Aaron and others are putting together a joint anthropology / sociology meeting for the next SEA conference. It is great to see these kinds of collaborations happening because so many academics are stuck in their own disciplines and have no idea of work going on elsewhere (present company excepted!). I do think that, when it comes to the topic of money and society, disciplinary barriers will continue to be broken down to a considerable degree. And this is a good thing for knowledge production. 

Thanks for this very clear and informative review, Erin. Money and language are the two main means of communication that humanity has. If you don't like the song, don't shoot the pianist. Money's role as a means of communication is, as you say, obscured by its being fetishized and demonized by people who don't understand much about it. I would argue that language has greater intrinsic scope to screw us up with its diversity, whereas money is less ambiguous and has a built-in capacity for universality. It is important to distinguish between the money-makers and the money-takers, people who understand what Oswald Spengler called the money force and made it work for them and the masses for whom money is an exogenous given over which they exercise no control. For this reason, I would argue that monolithic currencies like the euro have greater scope to generate and maintain economic inequality than situations of monetary plurality. The Haitian dollar introduces a measure of independence, however apparently weak, that would not be found in a dollarised national currency alone.

There was a related plan on the table in the 80s, to float politically managed national currencies alongside a hard ECU (European Currency Unit with echoes of a medieval coin), a low inflation currency managed by the ECB. I don't say that this would automatically eliminate the inequalities of the eurozone -- there would have to be something to monitor and control inequalities in transfers between member states, harmonize banking practices etc. But a hard ECU dualist monetary system would contain some counterweight to the coercive inequality currently manifested in relations between Germany and Greece for example and to the lack of democracy in relations between the troika (EC, ECB and IMF) and member states. There has been a seminar in Paris for a number of years on the singularity and plurality of money which takes the issue deep into the history of ideas and economic practice.

So money has some universal potential, but it is always embedded in local and global institutions which are more often a vehicle for inequality than money itself. This is obscured by oversimplified interpretations. I had a mother-in-law once who came from a Welsh mining community. She would say, 'If only we could get rid of money, than there would be no poverty'. With attitudes like that abundant, we have a struggle on. One handicap is the tendency for anthropologists to read and quote only other anthropologists, obviously not so in your case. Clearly issues of this magnitude require interdicsiplinary work. My PhD supervisor, Jack Goody, used to say 'Find a good question and follow it wherever it takes you'. Look where it got him...

Hi Erin. The seminar is technically over (thanks again for doing this) but I'm going to reply anyway. I like the comparison between money/inequality and the structure/agency debate. Many of the structure/agency debates sort of went in circles, but then we had Bourdieu and others enter the picture and make an argument that hey, things don't have to be one or the other. I think it's definitely good to look at money in these terms as well. It's not just one thing, and it doesn't do just one thing.

I need to re-read Taussig's book. I read it a long time ago, and it was great back then. It will be fun to revisit. That was probably the first book I ever read that made me start thinking more about how weird money really is. I definitely agree with you that breaking down disciplinary boundaries is a good thing when it comes to thinking about money, finance, etc. Clearly, I need to keep reading more outside of anthropology.

Keith writes, "So money has some universal potential, but it is always embedded in local and global institutions which are more often a vehicle for inequality than money itself. This is obscured by oversimplified interpretations." This is a powerful point put quite simply. It's easy to pin the blame for inequality on money, but that's like blaming language for inequality, or racism, or whatever. It is a medium, after all. Like language, money reflects power struggles etc, but also like language it can be used in various ways. I was just writing a paper about land speculation recently, and one of the issues was whether or not money is the actual problem. It appears to be, and would be easy to blame...but then the same currencies that can be used to fuel financial speculation can also be used to marshal protests and support for alternative modes of development and conservation. So...money is medium, and it doesn't necessarily point in one way or another. I do think your example of the Haitian dollar reminds us of the creative flexibility of money (and the ways that people use it), and this should push us to keep an open mind about what money actually is, and what can be done with it. Thanks again for taking the time to share your paper with us!!



Erin B. Taylor said:

Ryan, I think the structure/agency debate was useful for showing us that it is really actually quite complex - many seemingly contradictory things can be happening at once, and it's not about a binary at all. In other words, it leads us back to anthropology, which isn't afraid of complexity. I think a similar thing could be said for money and inequality. The relationship between them is not straightforward at all. Money can be a "great leveller" and also an exacerbator of inequalities. Money itself is many things. Money, like language, is a medium of exchange of ideas and agreements; it is representative, symbolic. But people don't tend to see it that way, they view it as a thing with an inherent value. It is prone to fetishization.

I think Taussig's "The Devil and Commodity Fetishism" is still a great example of how we fetishize it and how weird money actually is. I think there is a lot of value in these kinds of analyses that help us to suspend our beliefs about money. Allison Truitt's book "Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City" presents a variety of wonderful ethnographic examples of how money operates in social settings. Karen Ho's Current Anthropology article about Wall Street performed a similar task in unmasking how investment bankers think about the world. Joris Luyendijk's book about banking in London isn't particularly anthropological but nonetheless it does a good job of illustrating the structure of the industry.

There is also a lot of good work being done elsewhere in the social sciences, and since the GFC particularly it seems to have exploded. People in many displines are tackling topics like mortgages, debt, financial tools, etc. These include Joe Deville's book "Lived Economies of Default" and Liz McFall's "Devising Consumption. In 2014 and 2015 I presented at Joe's mini-conference at SASE; a few months ago I attended the "Debt Trails" workshop in Budapest, and today I am off to Vienna for a panel convened by Aaron Pitluck at the International Sociological Association. Aaron and others are putting together a joint anthropology / sociology meeting for the next SEA conference. It is great to see these kinds of collaborations happening because so many academics are stuck in their own disciplines and have no idea of work going on elsewhere (present company excepted!). I do think that, when it comes to the topic of money and society, disciplinary barriers will continue to be broken down to a considerable degree. And this is a good thing for knowledge production. 

Thanks to everyone for joining in on this seminar. I'll just make a couple of comments to wrap things up from my side.

A major problem with European monetary governance is that monetary policy is made on a different level to fiscal policy. The result is that the member states have very different economic situations but insufficient tools with which to manage them. I haven't seen enough research to make a call on whether we should head in the direction of more centralization or more diversification (e.g., going back to the old multiple currency system).

Again, though, the issue and the solution are not necessarily money, but distribution. This message has kept repeating throughout this seminar. For me, the lesson is that money, as an object of study, is a great starting point for analysis, but always points to something else, since it encodes all kinds of communications.

My general feeling is that those of us who are studying money need to get far more specific about what our focus is, before looking at ways to look at the big picture of money. Studying money as a kind of language is very different from studying the effects of monetary policy. Can they be brought together? I don't see why not, since they're all part of a socioeconomic system (Douglas Holmes found one interesting way to do this by viewing policy-making as an exercise in language), but they do come from very different vantage points and require quite different knowledge and expertise. Most scholars seem to either study the social without really understanding the economics, or the economics without understanding the social. The social studies of finance group has made a good effort to break down disciplinary barriers; perhaps this could be built upon (mostly they study markets, not consumers, for example). 

Thanks again, and a happy weekend.

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