Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks

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"Wall Street." December 11, 2012.

In February, 2005 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Karen Ho analyzes the ways in which Wall Street investment banks proclaim and define themselves as global and project images of their dominance and hegemony. Ho explores the differing versions, uses, and definitions of the global at various sites of cultural production and transmission such as marketing schemas of investment banks, and the process of recruitment, orientation, and training of new employees. The work that it takes to constitute “global presence” is “partial, incomplete, high-pressured, and ephemeral” and even the most seemingly global and powerful actors generate “contradictions, complexities, and implosions.”

Juxtaposing the self-representations of investment banks with academic critics of global capitalism, Ho points out that many cultural theorists and social scientists overlook the heterogeneous and complicated particularities of global capitalism, parallel representations of capitalist promoters they criticize, and thus help to create an image of capitalist totality. Global capitalism is not a “borderless world” whose global power and control relentlessly saturates “any remaining void,” nor is it a “no man’s land” that is “foggy and slushy, impassable and untamable.” Instead, Ho argues, it is “a set of constructed events,” based on a variety of promises, performances, and proclamations which can also become “actual goals with precarious outcomes.” Globalization is “a hope, a strategy, and a triumphalist ideology.” Moreover, within a political economy that requires constant change and flexibility, global strategies of Wall Street investment banks are “context specific, prone to change, and continually unstable.”

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on globalization and neoliberalism. See Ahmed Kanna’s “Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City Corporation'” (2010); Daromir Rudnycjyk’s “Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia” (2009); and Bill Maurer’s “Due Diligence and ‘Reasonable Man,’ Offshore” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a range of articles on capitalism and finance. See, for example, Douglas Holmes’s “Economy of Words” (2009); Hirokazu Miyazaki’s “Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques” (2006); and Caitlin Zaloom’s “The Productive Life of Risk” (2004).

About the Author

Karen Ho is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. She writes and teaches on capitalism and globalization, cultural studies of finance capital, feminist studies, comparative race and ethnicity, and American culture. Her book Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, published by the Duke University Press in 2009, examines the everyday practices and ideologies of Wall Street investment bankers and explores how a financially dominant but unstable market system is produced and justified through the structures and strategies of corporations and larger economy. Ho has also published in American Anthropologist: “Disciplining Investment Bankers, Disciplining the Economy: Wall Street’s Institutional Culture of Crisis and the Downsizing of American Corporations”, and in Encypledia of Social and Cultural Anthropology: “Finance.”


Commercial for Morgan Stanley: "World Wise"

Commercial for JP Morgan: "I work for JP Morgan"

Even though Karen Ho conducted her fieldwork before the most recent financial crisis of 2007, her research offers insight into the ways in which financial booms and busts are constructed. 

An Interview with Karen Ho on the Culture of Wall Street

Related Links

Dismantling a Wall Street Club

Merrill Lynch cuts offices in Japan

More about the Financial Crisis of 2007

How a Market Crisis Unfolded: Some of the key events in the upheaval, from the bursting of the tech bubble to the rescue of A.I.G.

A Year of Financial Turmoil: A timeline of the most pivotal events in the financial crisis.

Wall Street's Money Machine Breaks Down

Additional Works by the Author

"Finance". Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Ed, eds. A. Barnard and J. Spencer. 2010, Routledge.

"Disciplining Investment Bankers, Disciplining the Economy: Wall Street's Institutional Culture of Crisis and the Downsizing of "Corporate America"American Anthropologist. Vol.111(2) June 2009.

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. 2009, Duke University Press.

Liquidated in the Media

An Anthropologist on what is wrong with Wall Street? Time Magazine.

Brain food: An Anthropologist visits Wall Street. Guardian.

The Anthropology of Wall Street. New York Times Blog.

Liquidated. Financial Times.

Did Wall Street Cause Economic Woes? Smart Money

Related Readings

Elyachar, Julia. Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Cairo. 2005, Duke University Press.

Fisher, Melissa and Greg Downey, eds. Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy. 2006, Duke University Press.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. "The Temporalities of the Market." 2003, American Anthropologist Vol 105(2)

Zaloom, Caitlin. Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. 2006, The University of Chicago Press.

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