David Graeber Awarded the 2012 Bateson Prize

SCA is proud to award the fourth annual Gregory Bateson Prize to David Graeber (University of London) for his book Debt. The First 5,000 Years (Melville House).

Among anthropology’s most distinguished experimental thinkers, Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) and his diverse body of work have long been emblematic of what the Society for Cultural Anthropology was founded to promote: rich ethnographic analysis that engages the most current thinking across the arts and sciences. Welcoming a wide range of styles and argument, the Bateson Prize looks to reward work that is theoretically rich, ethnographically grounded, and in the spirit of the tradition for which the SCA has been known—interdisciplinary, experimental, and innovative.

In this erudite study David Graeber uses core anthropological concepts to examine how debt, one of the most crucial topics of our time, has been central to human history and society. To be in debt, he argues, is to be human as debt binds people together in the series of mutual interdependencies from which society emerges as well as producing the conflicts and pressures that drive social change. Graeber upends the evolutionary narrative common in economics that sees societies emerging through barter, developing money to ease trade and finally generating complex systems of credit and exchange. Exchange, he argues, is not now, nor never has been simply a technical instrument of commerce but is enmeshed in broader moral and political worlds. Tracing the historically varying forms of debt across several millennia, Graeber makes significant interventions in a range of enduring scholarly debates, including the origins of money, credit and barter, and the emergence of religious systems in the Axial Age.

One of the most innovative aspects of the book is its reinvention of an older mode of anthropological analysis that draws on the comparison of ancient and modern, western and non-western societies to force a fundamental rethinking of one of our basic social and economic categories. At a time when grand narratives and big questions seemed to have receded from much academic scholarship, Graeber boldly asserts what anthropology can offer to contemporary scholarship and public debate. Both in its immediate reception and we believe, in its longer term scholarly influence, this book is a landmark, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.

The Bateson Prize is awarded annually at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association and carries a honorarium of $1000.

Honorable Mentions

The SCA would also like to recognize four other excellent books that made our final shortlist.

Timothy K. Choy, Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. (Duke University Press).

Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (University of California Press).

Juliana Ochs, Security and Suspicion An Ethnography of Everyday Life in Israel (University of Pennsylvania Press)

Morten Axel Pedersen, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (Cornell University Press).

Bateson Prize Committee

Brian Larkin (2012 Prize Steward), Associate Professor, Anthropology. Barnard College

Arvind Rajagopal, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications, New York University

Karen Strassler, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Queens College CUNY

To learn more about the life and work of Gregory Bateson, please visit the website of the Institute for Intercultural Studies.