Entangled Finance, Karen Ho, and a Genuinely Free Lunch

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It might be tempting, especially for an anthropologist who thinks a lot about finance, to frame the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association as a site of rapid, concentrated exchange. Beyond the warren of conference rooms, a glance at the hotel lobby (ever crammed from the coffee line to the concierge with academics trying to be heard) might 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 of sitting quietly through countless panels that so often end with time for no more than a few questions, let alone discussion. At its best, this all-day listening is productive, but it can also be exhausting and overwhelming. Even in finance, though, 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 the most hectic and passive aspects of the conference at large: our Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA)-sponsored faculty–student workshop on “Entangled Finance,” with Karen Ho.

To be perfectly honest, prior to the call for 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 about 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 conversation within the discipline. Constraint so often conducts creativity: the 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, I wondered, 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 the workshop participants were digging into our appetizers, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one with such questions. Considering our projects’ conundrums together, we found no simple answers but rather common challenges and productive directions for future work.

As our entrees arrived, Ho was already identifying some overarching themes: whereas anthropologists like herself previously had to argue for finance as a socially and historically entangled field, our ongoing research could reach to understand the depths and variations of this entanglement across diverse contexts. Moreover, as Nishita Trisal emphasized in thinking about her work in Jammu and Kashmir, these contexts take alternative financial configurations seriously and challenge the historical separation of the literature on exchange and value from that on finance. The state loomed large in all of our work, in ways that confounded narratives reifying the public and private as distinct, if interactive, spheres and pushed toward new theoretical treatments of these categories. Even as we traced complex entanglements, 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 became 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 was 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 no less challenging. Assumed political allegiances with informants, as in Mariana Saavedra Espinosa’s research on small businesses in Colombia, or with critical scholars, as for Maron Greenleaf in thinking about carbon credits in Brazil, required careful navigation. Reassuringly, Ho 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 lunchtime workshop. I so appreciated 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 Ho’s unique and expert perspective on our work. If the insights briefly outlined above provide a sense of Ho’s ability to provide quick, sharp, and productive critiques, let this serve as further proof of the warmth and generosity with which she did 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 Ho, and my fellow participants for a terrific experience that provided us all with much more to take away than just a delicious meal.