The Materiality of Finance: An Interview with Sarah Besky

The February 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea,” by Sarah Besky, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Ned Dostaler conducted with Besky about the article and her broader research agenda.  

Ned Dostaler: Can you say a little bit about how you became interested in studying the financialization of tea markets in Kolkata and, furthermore, contextualize your article in Cultural Anthropology in terms of your larger ethnographic and intellectual project? How did finance emerge as an anthropological object of interest for you?  

Sarah Besky: To be honest, I kind of fell backwards into studying the tea auction and financialization. I originally went to Kolkata and to Nilhat House, the site of the tea auctions, as part of my first book project on Darjeeling tea production. I wondered how professional tasters valued and thought about the specialty, fair-trade, and organic teas grown in places like Darjeeling and Assam. But when I met the professional brokers I profile in the article, they didn’t talk about that kind of tea at all! As it turns out, most of those teas don’t go to the auction. They didn’t have much to say about fair trade or organic certification either. They claimed that they could detect the taste of pesticides in a given lot of tea, but whether tea was organic or not wasn’t the point of their valuation practice. If a professional broker can taste the pesticide, then the grower is doing something wrong, no matter what the certification is. In the end, while this auctioning and tasting fieldwork didn’t end up figuring into The Darjeeling Distinction, it did cause me to wonder about the material and communicative infrastructures that link places like Nilhat House to plantations all over West Bengal and Northeast India, including but not limited to Darjeeling.  

I arrived at Nilhat House in 2009, and at that time, the tea auction itself was being questioned by industry leaders and the state’s main regulatory agency, the Tea Board of India. Experts and investors were questioning the efficacy of a valuation practice based on tasting and the esoteric vocabulary I discuss in “The Future of Price.” After some digging, I realized that the push for auction reform was about corruption in a narrow sense (i.e., a lack of transparency in valuation), but it was also about the future of tea within India’s burgeoning finance sector.  

As I mention in the article, tea is not traded like other commodities such as coffee, petroleum, or frozen concentrated orange juice, because there is no speculative market in futures contracts for tea as there is for these other commodities. Tea is an interesting anthropological and financial object because it’s such a radically particular thing. Ideas about tea’s value are always linked to the thing itself—to the actual lot of tea in question, rather than to a class or grade of teas. The proposed auction reforms were designed, in the first instance, to force tea brokers to find commensurability across lots: to abandon this radical particularism. A first step, however, was to get brokers used to the idea that auctions need to be fast, oriented to price, and open to as many participants as possible. This was where digital technology came in.  

As far as how this essay fits into my larger intellectual project, it is the start of my thinking for a new book on mass-market tea in India. Auction reform proposals have been advanced alongside land reform proposals. Changing the way tea tastes, how it is priced, and so on requires changing how it is produced and processed in the field and factory. What one could sort of awkwardly call financializability—the capacity of things to become subject to speculation—is enabled by the configuration of an entire infrastructure: from soil to teapot, as it were.  

But the article in Cultural Anthropology is definitely the product of a particular time. There was lots of momentum back in 2009, but a futures market for tea is still not a reality. At the moment, almost all tea auctions are on the Internet, meaning that you can log on from anywhere and bid.  The auctions remain, however, more similar to outcry auctions than first imagined. In my most recent fieldwork trip, this past winter, it was clear that the expertise of tasters, buyer-brokers, and seller-brokers is still entrenched. What has happened is that, thanks to the introduction of digital trading, brokers describe the auction as less exciting than it used to be. There is a sense that the tea trade is being desocialized, if not deskilled. When I was at the Siliguri auction in West Bengal in January, for example, some traders were still showing up to the auction hall. When I asked one trader why he still showed up when he could work from a computer in his office, he said: “If I don’t show up, they’ll lock up the auction hall forever.” Even so, fewer and fewer are showing up.  

ND: In the article, you begin with a description of Kolkata’s “most iconic relic of colonial power,” the Victoria Memorial. You return to the image of the Victoria Memorial later in the piece, using it as a metaphor for material and ideological changes in the outcry tea auctions that were your ethnographic focus. Your article is about “the how of financialization,” and I bring up your description of the Victoria Memorial because of my interest in the “how” of ethnographic writing. How did this metaphor emerge for you (in the field, in reviewing your field notes, in the process of writing itself)?  

SB: Like a lot of first-time visitors to Kolkata, I was introduced to the city through a visit to the Victoria Memorial. A cousin of a friend of mine from Darjeeling insisted on taking me there during my first weekend in the city. Like a lot of imperial buildings, the Victoria Memorial was built to be unavoidably visible, and it certainly is. Victoria Memorial is kept in impeccable shape. So not only does it stand out in the landscape, but it is also uncannily manicured.  

The Victoria Memorial makes a nice narrative entry point, then, because it is such a contrast to the surrounding city. It is as visible to the casual visitor or resident of Kolkata as the tea auction is invisible. The Victoria Memorial is an obvious relic of colonial rule, but so is tea itself. The methods of talking about, valuing, and selling tea are also kinds of relics. The question of how and whether to maintain all of these institutions, which are vital to the identity and economic workings of the city, is a real political and ethical conundrum for people in Kolkata.  

As for how the Victoria Memorial as narrative device emerged for me, it is definitely something that happened in the process of writing itself. The first version of “The Future of Price,” in fact, did not open with the scene at the Victoria Memorial. The editorial collective deserves the credit for pushing me to give the paper a more evocative opening. The addition not only made the piece stronger from a readability standpoint, but also from an analytical one. My feeling is that the struggle to do well in writing is closely tied to the struggle to do well in analysis.  

ND: You end the article with what could be read as a call for the anthropology of finance to join studies of environment and development. Can you say more about why you think this is important?  

SB: In the essay, I wanted to focus on the materiality of the things being financed in Kolkata, in London, and on Wall Street. With this approach, which is part of my bigger project, I draw on Tanya Richardson and Gisa Weszkalnys’s concept of resource materialities, the environmental and embodied “stuff” of extractive economies, and on Hannah Appel’s exciting new work on what she calls the “how” of capitalism, told through petroleum infrastructure. I think that a similar approach is valuable to commodity-crop stories. Even if we aren’t told to think of something like the tea plantation as an extractive enterprise, it has more in common with the mine or the oil rig than it first might appear. My other area of inspiration is environmental history, particularly William Cronon’s work on the early days of the Chicago markets. With tea, we have an opportunity to think about how the physical and aesthetic aspects of things being traded affect attempts to bring them into financial markets.  

In addition, of course, the environment and the world of development are being subjected to financial speculation. Whether in carbon markets, investments in “bottom of the pyramid” economic schemes such as those Julia Elyachar and others have discussed, or in the increasingly tight links between big food, big oil, and land insecurity in the global south, finance capital shapes development in all kinds of ways. I make a few references in my article to work well beyond the anthropology of finance that shows this. The new anthropological attention to financial traders remains incredibly important for me, but I’m just as inspired by work that links finance to what is going on in other parts of the value chain.  

ND: What you are currently working on?  

SB: I’m working on a couple of things. In thinking about the history of colonial tea production infrastructure, I realized that the actual houses in which plantation workers reside are a key form of that infrastructure. This is true of all plantations, to some extent. What distinguishes plantations is that they are vertically integrated not only in that crops are planted, harvested, processed, and packaged on-site, but also that labor remains on-site at all times. I’ve been using archival research to look into how plantation houses in Darjeeling took on a particular physical form, and how plantation owners and managers debated what counted as a proper or pukka house. I’m linking these debates to ethnographic work about the ways that workers inhabit houses over many generations that are, in an important legal sense, not their property. So I’m thinking about the fine distinction between houses and homes. This is my way of engaging a Gens-style approach to capitalism emerging in feminist anthropology by scholars including Laura Bear, Anna Tsing, Sylvia Yanagisako, Karen Ho, and Hannah Appel.  

I’m also working, as I said, on an ethnography of mass-market tea. “The Future of Price” is an early part of that project. I’m increasingly interested in the tea that is sold at very low prices (like Rs. 1 per packet) within India. The next project will thus focus on India’s internal, domestic tea market, which is continuing to grow. Much of this growth is in “cheap tea.” Most of the tea sold and packaged on India’s domestic market today comes from a region known as the Dooars, a narrow strip of land that hugs the India-Bhutan border. While the domestic market for tea continues to expand, the Dooars remain economically and socially volatile. Most alarmingly, a significant number of tea plantations there have closed over the past decade. Small tea growers are now able to supply tea at cheaper prices than plantations. Unlike plantation companies, small growers are not legally obligated to provide workers with medical facilities, food rations, firewood, and housing. In 2006, there were barely five hundred small growers in the Dooars. There are now as many as forty thousand. With small growers in the Dooars supplying tea cheaper than plantations, plantation workers, mostly Nepalis and adivasis, have been left stranded. Plantation closure turns landscapes that once kept workers marginally supported and alive into killing fields. In the past year, starvation deaths have become a frequent occurrence on closed plantations.  

This new book project addresses the paradox that while the market for cheap domestic tea in India is bigger than ever, plantations are closing and workers are dying. So I’m asking: what can the story of domestic, mass-market Indian tea reveal about the meaning, making, and mobility of cheapness in the global market more generally? Across the social sciences, the story of cheapness has generally been told as one of hidden costs. To meet consumer demand for cheap goods, we are told, laborers are exploited, soil and water are polluted, and government subsidies offset energy and transportation expenses.  

My project takes a different approach. In my previous work on Darjeeling tea, I showed how value is built into landscapes over time. While many labor and environmental costs of production are hidden, I argued that much of what consumers value about Darjeeling is explicitly and visibly built into the region’s plantation infrastructure: colonial nostalgia; moral economic relationships between laborers, owners, and tea itself; and ideas about nature and ethnic identity. While Darjeeling is a luxury brand, my preliminary study of tea production, blending, and auctioning in Kolkata, Siliguri, and the Dooars suggests that cheapness, as a value, is similarly embedded in the infrastructure of production, packaging, and brokerage.      

What I would like to do with this project, then, is to study cheapness as a complex social process involving not only economic externalization, but also culturally and historically particular forms of technology, labor, and aesthetics. Pushing back against the notion that cheapness indexes a dearth of value, my main theoretical objective is to rethink cheapness as a form of value in its own right, with its own rich symbolic, political, and social significance.