Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: On the Greek Crisis

From the Series: Greece is Burning

Photo by murplejane, licensed under CC BY SA.

Most ethnographic studies of Greece published during the last few years pay attention to issues like new forms of poverty, resistance structures, solidarity economy initiatives, the rise of the Left, the social and political consequences of the crisis for women, children and migrants, and the cultural perceptions of self in times of crisis. A number of ongoing research projects also examine Greeks’ migration overseas and the influx of refugees to the Greek islands since spring 2015. These studies share an interest in groups that are suffering the most from socioeconomic transformations in Greece since 2010, an interest that is consistent with the anthropology of Greece over the past three decades. The sociocentrism that developed among social scientists in post-1974 Greece (see Papataxiarchis 2013) influenced both the epistemological and the political standpoint of Greek social anthropologists. Meanwhile, most of the non-Greek social anthropologists who conducted fieldwork in Greece during this period have been influenced by a desire to advocate for the less privileged categories of Greece’s population: women, minorities, migrants, and so on.

Working from different intellectual starting points, both Neni Panourgiá (in progress) and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (2014) highlight the risk of orientalizing poverty and resistance movements in present-day Greece. Yet there is something else missing from the research agenda described above. We should not forget that the socioeconomic transformations that go under the name of the Greek crisis involve not only those who suffer but also those who take advantage of the crisis, who celebrate and enjoy it in many different ways. With very few exceptions, anthropologists have disregarded the existence of such people.

Needless to say, those who take advantage of the crisis have developed defense mechanisms to conceal their existence. As one British newspaper pointed out, in Greece “the rich still buy Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton—though they may be more discreet about flaunting it.” Notably, wealthy Greek bankers, top managers, and large property owners are not the only ones profiting from the crisis. Changes in consumption habits among the middle class have had negative effects on high-end shops, but have positively impacted the turnover of those who sell clothes and shoes in open markets (laiki). High costs prevent Greek households from using central heating; instead, households have expanded the use of fireplaces and increased the income of those who sell wood and coal. Staggering unemployment has forced Greek families to sell their gold jewelry for low prices in pawnshops. The voice of those who have been profiting from the crisis is missing in most ethnographic studies of Greece. A few scholars, however, have called for discussions of the experiences of those whom the crisis has benefited. Dimitrios Gkintidis (2012, 2014) critically presents the neoliberal habitus of cross-border political elites in Thrace. Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (2013, 2014) draws attention to the views of those whispering a crypto-neoliberal and apologetic support for the “good old days” of the 2000s.

What has been taking place in Greece since 2010 is a rapid transformation of power structures and a drastic change in the accumulation of capital and wealth. It is impossible to conceptualize this transformation by considering only one side of the story. We need to expand our research to incorporate the experiences, the mentalities, and the representations of those happy to live in the crisis. As one wealthy Greek bank manager recently told me: “No one knows the crisis better than bank managers [. . .] simply because we created it. Nothing comes from nothing.”


Gkintidis, Dimitrios. 2012. “‘That’s the Way They Do It in Europe’: Redefining Culture in a Greek Border Region.” European Review 20, no. 1: 43–53.

_____. 2014. “Towards a Powerful Nation: Neoliberalism and Greek Nationalism in Thrace at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 14, no. 3: 452–72.

Panourgiá, Neni. In progress. The “Greek Crisis” and the New Poor: Being, Phenomenon, and Becoming.

Papataxiarchis, Evthymios. 2013. “From ‘National’ to ‘Social Science’: Politics, Ideology, and Disciplinary Formation in Greek Anthropology from the 1940s till the 1980s.” In The Anthropological Field on the Margins of Europe, 1945–1991, edited by Aleksandar Bošković and Chris Hann, 31–63. Berlin: LIT Verlag.

Theodossopoulos, Dimitrios. 2013. “Infuriated with the Infuriated? Blaming Tactics and Discontent about the Greek Financial Crisis.” Current Anthropology 54, no. 2: 200–221.

_____. 2014. “The Ambivalence of Anti-Austerity Indignation in Greece: Resistance, Hegemony and Complicity.” History and Anthropology 25, no. 4: 488–506.