This post builds on the research article “Ecologies of Investment: Crisis Histories and Brick Futures in Argentina,” which was published in the February 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on banking crises, the anthropology of money, and finance including Daena Funahashi’s “‘Wrapped in Plastic’: Transformation and Alienation in the New Finish Economy” (2013); Clara Han’s “Symptoms of Another Life: Time, Possibility, and Domestic Relations in Chile's Credit Economy” (2011); Michael Hardt’s "For Love or Money" (2011); Smoki Mujaraj’s “Tales From Albarado: The Materiality of Pyramid Schemes in Postsocialist Albania” (2011); Karen Strassler’s “The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia” (2009); Douglas R. Holme’s “Economy of Words” (2009); Karen Ho’s “Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks” (2005). See also Bill Maurer's edited Theorizing the Contemporary series, "Finance," the curated collection “Business Cultures,” and the “Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings” Hot Spot, all published on the Cultural Anthropology website, for additional articles, resourses, and commentary.
About the Author
Nicholas D’Avella received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Davis and currently holds a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society. His research focuses on the intersections of markets, expert knowledge, and politics in Latin America. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled, Concrete Dreams: Ethnographies of Practice and the Lives of Buildings in Buenos Aires, an ethnographic study of a construction boom in Buenos Aires following Argentina’s economic crisis in 2001. Based on two years of fieldwork with investors, architects, and neighborhood residents, it examines the reconstitution of the real estate market on new terms after the crisis.
D’Avella’s next project, Developing Economics, is a study of post-neoliberal economic policies in Latin America. In contrast to neoliberal economic doctrines brought to Latin America by U.S.-trained economists in the 1970s, financial crises, and a political turn to the left in the region have given voice to economists whose theoretical perspectives fall outside those recognized by mainstream economics. In Argentina, these economists have worked to reconceptualize inflation, and its relationship to the national economy, and to develop alternative financial products such as sovereign debt bonds linked to economic growth. A shared commitment to rethinking economics and development have brought several Latin American governments together to build institutions like BancoSur, a regional bank designed to provide a Southern response to the International Monetary Fund. Through the ethnographic study of economists and economic cultures in Latin America, this project will ask how different forms of economic expertise emerge from local historical contexts and are negotiated transnationally to produce new, regional forms of knowledge and policy in Latin America.
Stefanie Graeter: When you began fieldwork in Argentina, did you intend to study the aftermath of the economic crisis? How did your focus on buildings unfold in your preliminary research?
Nicholas D’Avella: I didn’t. I originally went to Argentina with another project in mind. But it was 2005 the first time I was there, and the crisis was still (as it continues to be) a very prominent part of what was on people’s minds, especially because it was just the beginning of what would later be called an economic recovery. And then within that context, there was the curious thing of the construction boom—which was palpable on the streets, especially in certain neighborhoods—and which struck me as strange given the still-unclear economic trajectory in the country. So I started looking into the boom, and piecing it together with the other stories about money and the crisis that I heard. Then there were other aspects of the project that weren’t detailed in the paper that influenced the focus on buildings and how it came about. The neighborhood where I was staying, Caballito, was a center not only of the boom, but also of neighborhood resistance to the way construction was being done in the city—organizations that were at the time nascent, but were making occasional headlines in the papers through their victories in stemming the tide of construction of tall buildings in particular. So there was this obvious political component—alternative investments if you want to say that—that were obviously something I also had to think through. So in addition to working with small investors—really a very nebulous group—and attending real estate investment seminars, I started attending neighborhood meetings about construction in several parts of the city, and my contact with those groups took me into the government bureaucracy. Finally, I was beginning to be exposed to ideas from STS [science and technology studies] at the time, so I started looking into the situation with architects, who I knew were guiding much of the production of buildings. There was a fascinating interview with some small, entrepreneurial architectural studios in the country’s major architectural journal about the changing professional field, given what were at the time emergent forms of real estate investment and the shift to small-savers. So I started interviewing architects and doing fieldwork in the architecture school at the University of Buenos Aires. And there was the project: on the different lives of buildings within these communities, with a particular eye to how the crisis and its aftermaths inflected a kind of shift in the market in urban housing, and these different worlds connected with buildings, and how each of them worked to enact their divergent visions for what buildings could and should be.
SG: Thinking investment ecologically seems to be particularly fruitful for materializing financial relations and cultures that often appear to be intangible, virtual forces. Could you give us a little more of a genealogy of how you arrived at this analytic, both in terms of the challenges offered by your own ethnographic material and what the authors you draw from made possible, which perhaps other analytics of finance could not?
ND: Well, I'd been following the ethnographies of finance, which have been really wonderful for situating the world of finance geographically and culturally, but also in tools and technologies. People like Bill Maurer, Karen Ho, Caitlin Zaloom, Vincent Lepinay, Annelise Riles. So then I started to think about what a perspective based in those financial worlds might not capture about Buenos Aires and about real estate there. The first instinct for many people is to see the brick as “materiality,” whereas finance is immaterial and ephemeral. But if you do a serious reading of those ethnographies, that idea quickly falls apart. Zaloom’s book and Lepinay’s, for instance, are all about voices, embodied shouting, computer screens, and paper getting shuffled (or not) between rooms. So bricks aren’t the material to finance's immateriality. Then, if you read what is often treated as a kind of separate literature, on money, there’s a very long history of attention to this kind of question of how different things circulate with or without one another—this goes back at least to Paul Bohannan and his classic article on spheres of exchange. What Argentines were doing with bricks, dollars, and national currency seemed to be a modern version of what he was looking at. Jane Guyer’s book was a major influence on this piece in this sense, particularly for helping me bring together the dollars, pesos, bricks, and other things and to think about how they move differently through space, in Argentina and Wall Street. The section on circulatory asymmetry, as well as a lot of background thought and inspiration for the article came from her book. And then ecology—this was a word I went back and forth about. At first I used it, probably somewhat carelessly, to think through how people relate to the world around them when that world is highly stratified and diverse, which has been very richly treated in the anthropology that I know—I cite Tsing and Choy specifically. In some ways I found the complexity marked by much work on ecologies as a much richer conceptual tool for thinking through investments than, for example, embeddedness, which is one of the key concepts used in economic anthropology, which stems from the work of Karl Polanyi. Embeddedness gets you part of the way there; how the dollar is embedded in Argentina, for instance, is a useful question to ask. But at least as I had always taken it, embeddedness felt kind of flat and all-or-nothing alongside the complexity that I saw in work on ecologies. I was unsure about using ecology, however, because I feared people would understand it as linked to nature. Although the word has been much more widely adopted, for many people it’s grounded in the concerns of biology and the organisms it knows. Was I committing some act of conceptual violence by using it to talk about investments? Ecology does share with economy the Greek root oikos, or the house. I experimented using the word economy instead: an “economy" of investments, a rich monetary “economy." Conceptually this works, but economy didn’t make people slow down. They skipped right over it because it seemed so obvious, because they already thought they knew what it was and the way it was relevant to what I was talking about. The issue was settled for me when I read Marilyn Strathern’s article, in which she draws on several other scholars to talk about ecology as a metaphysics of having (on her way to talking about eating and feeding). This brought the concept back into the realm of the gift and some of the classic concerns that I was interested in thinking with. It allowed me to enrich the way I was thinking about investments, not as things in themselves, but as relations.
SG: I couldn't help but be curious about some of the unattended effects of colchonismo. While the Argentine case illustrates how banks are less secure places to guard savings then they appear, they do offer physical protections that an average person's home cannot. Did you hear stories about how people protected the dollars hidden in their homes? Was there a rise in home robberies? I suppose this might be another reason for the popularity of investing in real estate!
ND: This was a concern for people who kept money in their house. Most people did use safe deposit boxes, so there was the security offered by the bank in that sense (though there are also different risks in moving cash between banks etc., like in the example I gave about the apartment purchase and taping the money to their bodies). One did read articles about people being robbed and their entire life savings being stolen. So when people talked about investing in real estate, that was definitely a part of what people found attractive.
SG: It's striking as a reader from the United States, where we have seen the illusory security of housing investments, how safe and secure investment in housing appears to be in Argentina by comparison. In your article, you clarify that housing developments are not tied to financial institutions the way they are in the United States, that people buy apartments outright, and that people are not overly concerned about increasing the value of their investment. Could you expand a bit on the types of relationships people have with their ladrillo investments? Are they primary or secondary homes? What are the ways their "value" is assessed personally, even as their price may fluctuate or even tank? Did the U.S. housing crash reverberate through this ladrillo-centered investment ecology in anyway?
ND: In general, I was focused in my work on people who bought apartments as secondary homes, not primary homes. I think that they themselves were often unsure of how their investment in ladrillos would pan out in the future. Many thought to rent them out—in fact, one of the effects of this kind of investment on the real estate market was that nearly all construction in these years was in one-bedroom and studio apartments. This was in part because people prefer to rent out to students or single people than to families and in part because it gets you a much wider population who can access the market (studios are cheaper, so people with less savings can buy them). When you talked to people about what they would do with it, it was also very common to hear that they hoped their kids might one day be able to use the apartment. This is the kind of reason that people give when you ask them what would happen if the apartment would fall in value, or the rental market would bottom out. As it was, renting out apartments was not very profitable at the time, though it was better than keeping your dollars in a safe deposit box. So when you ask them about that kind of scenario, they tell you that their kids will one day grow up and study at the university and might want to move out of the house, and the apartment could be for them. As far as the global financial crisis of 2007 (née U.S. sub-prime crisis), I was in Argentina when all of that was happening, and both the small-savers and the real estate market analysts I worked with were paying attention to what was going on (it was effecting the housing market in Spain and several other countries as well). It was seen as a kind of validation of their own sensibility about risky relations with banks and an opportunity to think through the ways that their own ecology of bricks was different.
SG: Your work really draws attention to how banks and financial institutions require the faith or trust of those who invest in them, and when it is lost, how new financial relationships are invested in instead—in this case real estate or bricks. At the end of the article, you suggest that the relationship between the dollar and the brick are disentangling, making precarious the security of bricks, though some efforts continue to keep this relation intact. Do you see new sites of investment arising if trust is also lost in the solidity and security of the brick?
ND: I’m agnostic but hopeful about what new sites of investment might open up. Politically, the government’s efforts to reorient investment towards productive national projects are something I would align myself with, in the sense that I hope it works. But the paper outlines the challenges they face in this regard given Argentina’s long history of instability, about which Argentine savers are particularly aware. I really don’t know what will happen, and most of the people I speak to in Argentina don’t either. Some are very hopeful; some are very concerned. This is what the last bit of the paper was really about, when I said that thinking ecologically about investments doesn’t tell us what the future will be, but about the art of asking questions, about developing sensibilities about a world rife with risky relations and possible new and unforeseen forms of connection. In the time since the government has limited the ability to purchase dollars, many people continue to purchase dollars on the black market (the dólar blue). How the government manages to open up new avenues for saving in which people can invest (can be invested) is the question that will in many ways determine what will happen in the future. My next research project is about the rising influence of what are called heterodox economists in national and regional economic policy in Argentina and several other Latin American countries. These economists, whose work challenges some basic tenets of the neoclassical tradition, are working to forge new economic theories and policies grounded in the Global South as part of broader efforts to find alternatives to neoliberalism. In Argentina, they have worked to re-conceptualize inflation and its relationship to the national economy, and are experimenting with other ways to integrate state populism with market-based, capitalist development. One of the outcomes of their work has been the issuing of a new kind of sovereign debt bond that is linked to GDP. This might sound like a minor tweak, but the idea of a country paying its debts only when it is allowed to grow economically is a radical idea grounded in economic policies and politics developed in and for the Global South. Those financial products are directed mostly at foreign investors, but that kind of innovation and the political commitment behind it is where I would want to look for promising new forms of investment that might be developed for Argentine savers.
Questions for Classroom Discussions
1. How does D’Avella mobilize the concept of “investment” in his text? How does it permit “a metaphysics of having” rather than “a metaphysics of being”?
2. How has the 2001 crisis shaped the Argentine relationship with banks, as well as its national and international currencies? What strategies have Argentines deployed to solidify their savings? Why have building investments played such a critical role?
3. How is “every Argentine an economist”? What role do stories play for the reformulation of financial futures?
4. What challenges does the Argentine state face in its strategies to reclaim its national financial sovereignty?
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