Entangled Finance, Karen Ho, and a Genuinely Free Lunch!

It might be tempting, especially for an anthropologist who thinks a lot about finance, to frame the AAAs as a site of rapid, concentrated exchange. Beyond the warren of conference rooms, a mere glance at the hotel lobby (ever crammed from the coffee line to the concierge with academics trying to be heard) might easily suggest a sort of annual bazaar—or even trading floor—for intellectual ideas. In practice, however, and perhaps especially for graduate students, it’s easy for the conference experience to turn passive: days on end sitting quietly through countless panels that so often end with time for no more than “just two questions,” let alone discussion. At its best, this all-day listening is incredibly productive, but it can also be exhausting—even overwhelming—and hardly resemble the exciting intellectual exchange any of the above comparisons might suggest. But even in finance, scheduled public platforms are hardly the only sites for the most meaningful and significant wheeling and dealing. Just as markets stretch into alleyways and private back rooms, for me this year, it was the quiet social exchange over lunch that supplied the best antidote to both the most hectic and passive aspects of the conference at large: our SCA-sponsored faculty-student workshop on “Entangled Finance” with Karen Ho.

To be perfectly honest, prior to the call for various SCA workshop applications, I hadn’t thought of my research as part of the anthropology of finance. I knew of Karen Ho’s work and was excited for the opportunity to join a small group of other graduate students to meet with her, so I got to work imagining how my project might contribute something to this vein within the discipline. Constraint so often conducts creativity: the mere task of refiguring my project as part of the anthropological literature on finance suggested new lines of inquiry and analysis for my work on the pursuit and promotion of entrepreneurship in Botswana: how are neoliberalism and social welfare intertwined when governments invest in small business? How does moral authority accrue differently to public and private investors? How do people negotiate a “right to finance?” By the time we were all digging into our appetizers, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one with such questions. Considering all of our projects’ conundrums together, we found no simple answers, but—much more exciting—common challenges and productive directions for future work. 

As our entrees arrived, Karen was already identifying some overarching themes: whereas anthropologists like herself previously had to argue the case that finance was in fact a socially and historically entangled field, all of our ongoing research is now reaching to understand the depths and variations of this entanglement across diverse contexts. Moreover, as Nishita Trisal further emphasized in thinking about her work in Jammu and Kashmir, these contexts take alternative financial configurations seriously and challenge the historical separation of literature on exchange and value from that on finance. Importantly, the state looms large in all of our work in ways that confound narratives reifying the public and private as distinct, if interactive, spheres and push toward new theoretical treatments of these categories. Even as we trace complex entanglements, Karen Ho nevertheless challenged us not to shy away from framing these in traditional, economic terms where useful: considering Mengqi Wang’s work on real estate in Nanjing in particular, it becomes clear that race, gender, class, generation, kinship, and even normative morality are themselves constitutive of supply and demand.

A few bites into dessert, our discussion turned to what Karen reminded us is not only practical, but highly and profoundly theoretical as well: methodology. Having reviewed our projects’ primary questions and designs, we discovered that establishing our position as researchers was posing as many common concerns. Assumed political allegiances with informants on the one hand, as in Mariana Saavedra Espinosa’s research on small businesses in Colombia, and with critical scholars on the other, as for Maron Greenleaf in thinking about carbon credits in Brazil, require careful navigation. Reassuringly, Karen contended that this did not represent a problem but an opportunity to iteratively examine our own place in our research, and, by “confessing” this process in our writing, to enhance our own credibility as participant observers and thoughtfully engaged scholars.

Thanks to the generosity of the SCA, I think we all had a lot to digest—both literally and figuratively—by the end of our lunch workshop. I so appreciate the opportunity to think about my own project in new ways, to engage with students from diverse institutions with complimentary interests, and to benefit from Karen’s unique and expert perspective on our combined work. On this last point, if the insights briefly overviewed above provide a sense of Karen’s ability to provide quick, sharp and productive critiques, let this serve as further proof of the warmth and generosity with which she does so: not only did she offer to share her heaping bucket of French fries, but she made us all feel perfectly comfortable taking her up on it. Thanks very much to the SCA, Karen, and my fellow workshop participants for a terrific experience that provided us all with much more to take away than just a delicious meal.

A doctoral candidate at Stanford, Hilary studies business as a social and historical production.  This year, she'll be wrapping up field research for her dissertation project on the pursuit and promotion of entrepreneurship in Gaborone, Botswana.

Hilary Chart, "Portrait." January 10, 2013.