In anthropology, it seems everyone has something to say about finance these days. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it helps break up some of the blanket generalizations to which we’ve been prone regarding “the economy,” “capitalism” and “neoliberalism.” Talking specifically about finance gets at the hows and whats, the infrastructures and operations, the channels and pathways and the ways-it-gets-done. This allows anthropologists to do what they have always done best: pay attention to the tiny technicalities, the practices and proclivities, the winks and epistemologies of everyday life in broader systems. It’s also a good thing because in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007-08, some anthropologists have taken on meaningful public roles and contributed to broader global discussions on financial improprieties, regulation, as well as the cultural shifts afoot in contemporary political economy: think Gillian Tett in the Financial Times, Karen Ho on MSNBC, Annelise Riles’s dialogue with the regulators, and David Graeber at Occupy. And many of us – including the authors represented below – now participate in all kinds of backoffice locations, editorial rooms, policy conclaves, using access we acquired as fieldworkers to engage in discussions that are sometimes of great import. So – all good.
What’s bad? Well, sometimes we have given short shrift to whatever it is our interlocutors are trying to do in their gardens – some of which we benefit from, should support, and are uninformed about. We also sometimes miss what’s actually been going on for quite some time in our own discipline and beyond its borders. There is a lot of really, really excellent work on finance out there -- in geography, political science, sociology -- literature that contains insights and evidence from the worlds of finance and fiscality we would do well in anthropology to heed. Sometimes in critical inquiry, there’s too much critical and not enough inquiry. Things are never so simple as “abstraction,” “fiction,” or just plain “fraud.” We are inheritors of a long tradition that is skeptical of the things of finance because we are wedded to a notion of the real that we should be equally skeptical about. We think as anthropologists we are closer to the ground than the other social science disciplines. Yet we also continually question the grounds of others’ and our own experience. So, we can’t just extoll the values of Main Street against the voraciousness of Wall Street. And yet – we forget, wrapping the warm comfortable sweaters of our 19th-century social theorists around us, clutching our warm mugs as we sit by the cracking fire and tell the children about Finance and Capitalism sapping the strength of the Social.
I don’t think this will do anymore. The matters at hand are deathly serious, indeed, but my concern is with accepting a certain comfort level in old verities rather than to really engage the vitalities of our object of study – to really engage (to boldly go! split infinitives be damned), to the point of uncomfortable and unequal collaborations, co-laborings with those who might unfold a world very different from what we imagine but who also might, just might, find that to labor with us is to open to new worlds altogether, ones we can’t yet jointly envision but toward which we may nonetheless together strive.
The contributions collected here represent a collective striving around, and with, and toward finance. I am extremely grateful to all the contributors for agreeing to write for this venture. The fields represented range from geography to sociology to anthropology, law and political science (and others, too). The approaches represent the performativity paradigm, the cultural economy orientation, the “anthropology of finance,” the sociology of material devices, journalism, risk analysis, and more. With this collection I hope to give readers in anthropology and beyond a sense of the range of work being done out there. The contributions represent a range of national origins and institutional locations, too. And you will find links here to research networks from the Southern Cone to the UK and elsewhere that are all engaging financial domains in one way or another.
In thinking about how to organize these contributions, I hit upon the matrix and the word frequency “word cloud,” Wordle. These are meant only half-seriously. Matrices have been taking up a lot of my time lately – in my role as an academic administrator and in my role as a collaborator in various projects to map “risk” of mobile-phone enabled financial services. Making a table like this forces one to think about covariation, the cross-tabulation of various categories, and the categories themselves. The categories include terms that occupy some of the general conversation about finance, like risk, fiction, crisis, credit, and terms that emerge from more “anthropological” discussions: apocalypse, otherworldly, derivation and ethnography itself. It also makes it easier to make relations. Of course, I made these myself – someone else might make different ones altogether. And word frequency charts can convey stories in a different aesthetic from normal academese. (To make this one, I took out the words "finance" and "financial” because they, well, overpowered everything else…) Matrices, frequencies and visualizations are also technologies that are of a piece with the fields of finance. Make of them what you will. But I end with Jane Guyer’s reflections upon seeing the Wordle, which themselves sing in another key to anthropology and finance:
Bill, I'm seeing this as a kind of vertical garden, like an espalier. Green, brown, latticed, with mysterious recesses behind the grid: how did “life” manage to hide so effectively? Along with “know” and “idea”, “trust” and “another”? Back to the “ecosystem,” which people tell me is now the metaphor for everything, even in the “tech scene”!
Look into that vertical garden again. Meaningless, but, well, one does learn from clouds – and phrases like, "conditions become rather Goldman" or "One power, future value." These may index standard stories of finance. Or "first just make [a] human system." This may be the anthropological story.
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Davis, Gerald. 2009. Managed by the Markets: How Finance Re-Shaped America. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Economist. 2011. More anthropologists on Wall Street please. Oct 24th 2011 (downloaded March 21st 2012).
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