A Conversation Around Keith Hart: Swimming into the Current of Human Society Through History

Photo by Keith Hart.

Many of Keith Hart’s students, colleagues, interlocutors, and friends have long wanted to express their appreciation for the influence that the man and his ideas have had on the intellectual trajectories of their lives, the discipline, and—as he often says himself—the academy beyond social anthropology. This piece, written in honor of Keith’s life and works, was never going to be a conventional Festschrift. Rather, we felt it was entirely in Keith’s spirit that it should be rendered as an open-ended, far-reaching, and multi-voiced conversation, in which Keith was an active participant.

The current piece is a transcription of the conversation we held in honor of Keith, which took place at the 2018 European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) meeting in Stockholm. We asked people to think about the great themes of Keith’s work, including both methods and topics: money and currency; and scale and how to bridge individual experience, global process, and world history. For good reason, we invited a poet, a playwright, and a novelist, as well as a post-colonial literary critic, to join the group of anthropologists who had come together, mindful of Keith’s injunction to use whatever writing form best communicates what we’re trying to say. The speakers in our conversation were Vito Laterza, Catherine Alexander, Huon Wardle, Horacio Ortiz, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Sophie Chevalier, Theodoros Rakopoulos, Ulf Hannerz, Chris Hann, and, of course, Keith Hart. Ato Quayson was unable to join us, but provided an afterword to the exchanges recorded here.

As the conversation flowed, it merged accounts of friendship, collegiality, and kinship with ways of hearing, as well as understanding and being in the world, and the different ways in which to render these accounts. For many of us, this exercise was like John Mortimer’s 1963 autobiographical play A Voyage Around My Father, except that it was a Voyage Around Keith Hart: throughout the conversation, there appeared various perspectives on what we can learn from Keith. In his teaching and writing Keith approaches an incorrigibly plural and diverse world as something only apprehensible though individual experience. Accordingly, what we learned was not to be summed up in a tidy conclusion, although we ended on a neat enough note. It was in the ebb and flow of exchange that we found ourselves swimming into the current, as Keith (1990) himself suggested long ago.


The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation held in honor of Keith Hart at the 2018 European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) meeting in Stockholm.

Huon Wardle: Our first theme is scale: How do you scale up a world that is made up of individual experiences? How do you move from the individual to world society? How can you read individual lives as encompassing worlds? The second theme is Keith’s big theme: money and numbers—or, rather, how money and numbers are intermediaries between world society and ourselves. By using numbers you can move from the personal to the impersonal, from the big to the small; you can move across and within scales and you can create scales with money. The third theme is one to which Keith has given a lot of time—and I remember this from when I first met him in the 1980s: How do you tell the story of world society? How do you write world society? Keith is an amazingly effective oral communicator. He’s also a very good writer, and there’s the methodological question of how do you write about world society when what you’ve got is a bunch of individuals doing diverse things?

The other thing about Keith is his anti-formalism. What we usually have to do as academics is to create a model that’s bulletproof and then we fit information into that model until we have exhausted it. Keith’s approach is totally against that way of thinking. He has always thought in an open-ended way, focusing on movement and how ideas change. They change through debate, argument, fighting with each other—and there is always a lot of tussle in any relationship with Keith. One striking example of that was how quickly he became aware of the power of the internet. I left Cambridge for fieldwork in the early 1990s and, when I came back, Keith had suddenly realized that there was this thing called the World Wide Web. We could use it to communicate with everyone; and even though all it was at that point was a load of messages coming down a mailing list, Keith intuited that this was where it was all going to happen. I remember teaching a class in Cambridge and telling the students that Keith says the World Wide Web is really important and it’s going to take over everything. They came back, “But Sue Benson [our beloved former colleague] says that the internet is the last resort of desperate men” and I could see the truth in that. But I could also see why Keith would be very annoyed. In fact he was right—the internet has turned out to be absolutely epoch changing and he got there far in advance of anyone else I know in anthropology.

Sophie Chevalier: What have I taken from Keith in my work as an anthropologist? It’s not easy to answer, since my intellectual interests, especially in this case, are embedded in my personal life; Keith and I are married. I will address Keith’s work by “following the money.”

I will focus on one topic that we share, which is betting—on horses. Keith has been betting since he was twelve years old and this trained him in the world of money, taught him how to be an active player in the world and test himself against the future. He developed a scientific system, but was rescued by the knowledge of horse racing he had accumulated. Empiricism beats rationalism, which leads me to read you an anecdote from my field notes (we sometimes go to the races as a family):

We were at the racecourse sitting next to an Indian couple: the husband practiced scientific betting and had his laptop open at a program that allowed him to analyze all the runners. He advised Keith to back the second favorite. Keith, knowing nothing of the runners, picked a horse just for pleasure—at the longest odds of the runners that had won at least four times recently. This won at 35 to 1, paying out over 150 euros, which was a big sum in that circle! Our neighbor was beside himself. That horse had been well beaten by his in their last race together. He appealed to others around us to back up his claim that Keith’s horse couldn’t win. How did this stranger ignore probabilities and the bookies’ market? Keith knew he had been very lucky, but his choice had not been at random. The horse combined form and long odds. It has been known for horses not to try before and then win at long odds. Contingency sometimes matters more than probability.

The racecourse was in South Africa, a country that Keith loves and feels very much at home in. Joining him there has opened up a completely new world for me, given my exclusively European background. I entered the place through research projects I am familiar with—on consumption, shopping, urban life, and food, and then launched an ethnography of horse racing as one example of how previously segregated spaces came to be shared after apartheid. A focus on betting pushed me out of my comfort zone because I knew nothing about horses or betting and was bad with numbers.

At first I saw horse racing as a South African phenomenon that mirrored national society. But there has been a recent explosion of sports betting and I followed the money—along with the horses and people. Through betting, especially online betting, South Africans of all classes and races participate in English football; American golf; racing in Hong Kong, Dubai, Newmarket, and Longchamp; and huge lottery prizes anywhere in the world. My ethnographic encounters in Durban led me to a globalized social reality that I am now exploring in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. I recently did a short study of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. South Africa has transformed the scale of my anthropological project to embrace world history in the making, through the life histories and journeys of horses, people, and money.

In reflecting on his own history as a betting man, Keith identifies a middle ground between the mega-rich and the rest of us with little money. Through betting we can enter money and markets as agents who take and make them at the same time. We all participate in the global circuit of money and we just might meet other players there with whom we could transform society.

Horacio Ortiz: I am very happy and touched to be here. I met Keith when I was doing my PhD thirteen years ago and we soon connected on anthropology on many levels; but I will not enter into all of them. I want to highlight here a couple of Keith’s ideas about money that have been influential for me, even if I don’t agree with them completely.

Keith picks up certain elements in theories of money that we find in Marcel Mauss and Georg Simmel and transforms them—through his interest in the internet and history—into thinking about world society. In my own short period of studying money, I find again and again how original Keith’s ideas are and at the same time how applicable in research. The main idea we get from Simmel is that money is a connector and that it makes us conscious of our interdependence. That consciousness makes us aware of belonging to humanity in a very empirical way. It’s not just the idea of humanity, but the knowledge that through money we are interconnected.

At the same time, in heavily monetized societies, money is a very important part of constructing the self. Keeping in mind these two poles or elements of the dialectic when studying money allows us to connect a vast array of ideas and institutions. In my own research on the finance sector in New York, Paris, and Shanghai, for instance, I know how useful it is to have tools that are not restricted to a particular locale or group. Money allows me to engage personally with people and places and still connect them globally. Keith has been developing this move in relation to money since the 1980s with impressive results.

One last point, briefly. The idealist approach to money that we find in Simmel and even in Mauss sometimes stresses the idea of connectivity too much at the expense of the violence it engenders. Of course these and other authors engage with inequality, violence, and exploitation; but their moral thrust is to highlight connection and universality. Keith’s deep knowledge of post-colonial theory and intimate engagement with the politics of Marxism, on the other hand, highlights money as a tool of violence, destruction, and death, as well as a means of connection, love, and sharing.

Gabriel Gbadamosi: I am not an anthropologist, but a writer—really a poet, then a playwright and novelist. But one thing Keith has taught me is to listen. Keith is a constant listener, because it matters not only what people say but how they feel and what new things they see. In the ordinary course of conversation, Keith gives you new ways of seeing yourself in relation to others. I will read a short piece of creative nonfiction that was only made possible through my exchanges with Keith. It is called “Standing with the Dead in Charleston, South Carolina.”

"What are your bodies telling you we’re doing standing here in this parking lot?" It was probably too bold a question to put to the two young African-American women scholars standing beside me. But I had to ask it. My body was in trouble, my body was feeling bad, my body had shooting pain—imaginary bullets passing through its shoulder blades, belly, upper thigh, left hand, brain, ear, eye—my body felt hot.

We’d come in two buses to the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston to stand at the locked gates and be there in solidarity with the people who had been shot dead inside by a racist murderer. With so many of us gathered, spilling onto the road, we had been moved round the side to the back of the building and that’s where my troubles started.

What if, I thought, with upward of a hundred people, artists, and scholars standing together, someone hearing us started shooting at us: what could we do? My body was feeling bullets. Have I shocked you yet? No. The news reports played out in my brain. He’d have wanted someone to live to tell the world what he’d done to spark the race war. I tried to make small talk with a medical doctor whose humanity shone out of the quietness of his face. We had sat beside each other on the bus and became friends. Did he have an explanation for this violence some people were calling a “hunger for Black blood.” “Not really,” he said, “I’m from Charleston and my mother sent me away. She used to say, ‘Much of Charleston is below sea-level and so is the mentality of its people.’”

A car drove past, slowly. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but that car moving too slowly. It wasn’t until it turned the corner and didn’t backfire that I could register two young women scholars who had come to join us, asking the doctor what he knew about the circumstances of the church being built. “Forgive me for butting in, but what are your bodies telling you we are doing standing here in this parking lot?” For a short moment I had gone too far. I had presumed on my friendship with the doctor, failed to introduce myself properly to our young colleagues, spoken out of turn, and asked too intimate a question of their bodies.

Yesterday, in the conference, we heard about migrants and time, of the whole Sisyphean experience of having to negotiate barriers and walls again and again. One of the things I have learned from Keith, minting from my memories of him, is having “skin in the game” as a witness, being there, and listening to other witnesses. You can form a really engaged appreciation of the kinds of situations and pressures that people are facing. And, again, one of the implications of doing this is that it teaches you how to listen to what people say.

Theo Rakopoulos: It isn’t easy to say what you have learned from Keith because you are spoiled for choice; and, when you are in his presence, you never know what is going to come your way [laughter]. I have ten years of that to choose from. But if I had to pick one thing it would be his informal attitude to life and towards anthropology. We are becoming increasingly a discipline that wants to pin you down to one thing, one idea. So you have to use a specific term or claim one area of expertise. Keith is an inspiring proof of why this is a crap way to approach anthropology, the science of anthropos; but, also, of why it is an extremely dangerous path to follow for all sorts of political, cultural, and epistemological reasons.

Following Keith’s mantra of “scale up the self, scale down the world,” what I have taken from him is that we must pay attention to how the world works, that ethnography really is a path into society. But I have also learned that we must bring the world down to our own level so that we can find homeostasis as we move around in it. If you have the ability, the talent to go beyond the often tedious drive to write social science, as Gabriel has shown us and as I do with poetry for example, Keith says you should fully embrace it, not shy away from it.

When you are with him, any name can come up—Beethoven, Gandhi, whoever. Different people have inspired him in different ways and he has a personal conversation with them that informs what you exchange with him. He has a real passion for anything from football to jazz music, from romantic poetry to historical linguistics. That sort of interconnectedness suggests reconstituting the self in terms of Keith’s "scale up the self, scale down the world" mantra. What this means for me is that anthropology is not an end, but a means to an end, a means to understanding world society and especially those interconnections that Keith’s work has mostly been concerned with.

The two most widely recognized of his contributions are understanding the informal economy and money. Both of these, as objects of inquiry, are polyvalent, diverse, and bottomless. They are necessary to humanity and so with us at all times. They are personal for each individual while attaching us to human universals. That is an idea I got from Keith and it is just one of many, but the one I would like to leave you with.

Vito Laterza: My focus here is more objective than an account of what I have learned from Keith. I will focus on the history of the informal economy concept which he is identified with and which evolved into the Human Economy program at the University of Pretoria, where I worked in close collaboration with Keith from 2013 to 2015.

Reading his classic 1973 article on the informal economy (Hart 1973), we can find the seeds of why its ideas—and not just the label—have proven to be so durable. Keith has reworked these ideas in each subsequent decade to bring them up to date. This is why he could intuitively see that the World Wide Web was going to be the next big thing and, in an era of globalization, formulate the idea of a human economy. I think—and Keith likes to say so too—that dialectical thinking lies behind all this. The dialectic of formal and informal in that original paper is basic. Informal is not some separate other: informality is an aspect of all formal structures. This way of thinking can better capture movement than the top-down analytical approach that we find in policy-based development studies or in a more structuralist understanding of the economy.

Keith’s contribution will be long lasting because he was able to show that everything is in motion. At the same time—and this links to Theo’s point about anthropology needing to reach beyond its formal academic self—Keith’s Human Economy project is an explicit conjuncture of anthropology and development studies. What this has in common with that original work in Ghana and everything afterwards is the need to show that personal interaction—how people are making economy on the ground—takes place within structures and in a given historical moment. So everything at the micro-level is already encapsulated in the movement of world history. To be polemical, no other anthropologist has been able to do that.

Keith’s most recent focus on human economy will have a bigger impact in the long term than most current anthropological thinking. Anthropology appears to be closing down into a fetishized form of ethnography. This is not only an error, but the best things we have to say have already been taken up elsewhere. Keith, while remaining firmly inside anthropology all the way, has been able to break with all that. And that is why over the years he has become the public intellectual he is. I consider myself his student and all I have learned from him has its origin in his powerful analysis of his Ghana fieldwork. What his human economy approach has done is to bring together in a clear methodological way what makes an economy human.

The informal economy phase was foundational in this respect. There was a structural problem of development and, to find out how things currently worked, Keith had to engage with what people are doing on the ground and learn how to operationalize that. The result was a method, not just a theory or set of ideas, and far more than a routine doctoral thesis. In the 1970s it offered a critique of the notion that an economy is either the state or big markets by showing how people were destabilizing these structures in their everyday lives. The human economy approach rests on a synthesis of how large-scale bureaucracies interact all the time with social levels where all citizens can make a personal difference.

A mid-point to this evolution came when Keith published a chapter, “Market and State after the Cold War” (Hart 1992), where he claimed that we need to get beyond debunking the market/state dichotomy and explore the potential for intermediate association to bring together large- and small-scale forms of social life, at once local, national, and global. Society, in Keith’s vision, is organic, spontaneous, and often impervious to direction from above. The human economy project, half a century later, will carry forward the legacy of the informal economy.

Catherine Alexander: Keith was both Huon’s and my PhD supervisor. He taught me that we need to use whatever methods and sources we can to understand the world we live in, whether that means drawing on Dickens or Marx and Polanyi. One of my favorite quotes from Keith is, “Anthropology’s a holding company for a bunch of mavericks.” I’ve read this as a way of replenishing the discipline by being relatively undisciplined: keeping the conversation going with other disciplines and the world.

I’ll end with a brief anecdote. Keith has also been a colleague. Years ago, after a long and lively department meeting, the chair said, “I believe that the sense of the meeting is . . . ” and went on to say what he wanted us to agree to, which we did. As we walked out for coffee, Keith said, “Wasn’t that interesting—he used the word ‘sense’ in an eighteenth-century way” [laughter]. Recently, I was asked to write an article on meetings and Keith’s observation from all those years ago inspired me to think about the changing inflections and uses of sense and common sense in the context of meetings. The acknowledgment says, “This thought, as with so many, came from conversation with Keith Hart.”

Ulf Hannerz: My history with Keith goes back a long way, longer I think than most people here. Forty-eight years ago he showed up at my gate in Georgetown, the Cayman Islands, when I had just come back from a day of fieldwork (Hannerz 1974). A colleague I didn’t know had been told by a Jamaican economist working for the Caymanian government that, “There is another of your kind around here—you may find him in that ramshackle area in Northern Georgetown.” Keith and I began a conversation then. Of course, being in the service of the empire, Keith had much more luxurious accommodation. At the time he had not yet become famous by way of the informal economy, which he would discover in Accra while doing various other things like study a people previously known as the Tallensi, now the Frafra. Meyer Fortes’s Tallensi were more famous than Keith Hart. But the concept was picked up by the International Labour Office and it was soon all over the place. He got it out from the slums of Accra into the thinking of economists and bureaucrats; and it was somewhat corrupted when the bureaucrats discovered that the informal economy consisted of people who were not paying their taxes.

For me it was a good notion to think with later on when I was doing fieldwork in a medium-sized Nigerian town with a nice marketplace and I saw the informal economy all over the place. This coincided with my interest in informal knowledge, or useful practical knowledge picked up in ways that people are not thinking about themselves. A few years later I was a Simon Senior Fellow at Manchester University around the time that Keith escaped from there and went off to the States. That was a very interesting term for me at one of the declining centers of British anthropology.

Our next encounter was in Southern Sweden when we took a ferry to the island of Bornholm. Keith was looking for the origins of the Burgundy state. We didn’t find it in Bornholm at the time. There was a Burgundy café [laughter]. I later found in a local newspaper that this was not a fiction of Keith’s mind, but there was a historical basis for the idea.

To sum up, when we met in the Cayman Islands, while Keith was conducting a manpower survey, they were still relatively unknown—the offshore finance industry had not yet got very far. One French Canadian banker, Jean Doucet, had what was almost a monopoly then. But the place has stayed in both our minds. Last year it was revealed that Queen Elizabeth banks in the Cayman Islands. So moving from underground economic activities via this small manpower survey to the world economy is an important thread in Keith’s story. I could go on to talk about other things like the Prickly Pear Pamphlets series which I enjoyed over the years and which were then turned over to Marshall Sahlins [laughter]. It should all make a fine interactional autobiography.

Tijo Salverda: I joined the Human Economy program at the University of Pretoria in 2012. When I arrived there, Keith was communicating to the postdocs from Paris and the messages were mainly about two things: research and the need to focus on economy as a priority. I had been working on elites, but I had been taught to avoid an explicitly normative approach, even if there is always something normative about anthropology. Keith told us that the human economy approach had to be political and normative. After discussing this with the others, I felt that I didn’t want to go this way. Even so, our conversations about capitalism were lively and I had a fantastic time. Over the years I have come to appreciate Keith’s point of view. We must adopt a normative perspective, but as he says this doesn’t mean that we should remain trapped in an uninspected ideology.

This is one thing that I appreciated. Another, which is more personal, echoes what Theo referred to: you never know what kind of reaction you are going to get from Keith. I did, however, appreciate that he is one of the few senior academics I met who will apologize afterwards. Most people in positions of power, when they say something insulting, would never apologize for it. Keith would say, “I am sorry; I was too harsh.” At least he was honest about it and that’s rare.

Keith Hart: It’s also rare in academic life to be beaten up directly [laughter].

Chris Hann: Keith and I go back quite a long way. I don’t remember ever getting an apology [laughter]. I liked much of what I have heard, but I want to make a couple of linked points about the potential of digital technology and China’s example. Horacio works on the financial sector there and I don’t know much about that, but I hear a lot about credit. The vast majority of the population have to demonstrate their social suitability in order to gain access to it. An extremely authoritarian state intervenes in dynamic markets in this way. Doesn’t this reveal the darker side of those 1990s dreams about the emancipatory potential of digital technology?

Huon Wardle: Certainly, one way money and credit now work in China with platforms like WeChat is that you are being audited at all times by algorithms. We could make an easy comparison, for we are all being audited by algorithms and now this is happening in China, too. Keith is by no means unaware that the Internet is double-sided like every other mediating technology. At the same time, the internet does have all these other much more interesting features. Not only that, someone like Chris Kelty (2008) has shown that it was actually designed to be a form of enlightenment. That it is also used for all these dark web purposes is another issue.

For me—and for Keith, who can speak for himself—what matters about the internet is that it’s another way of mediating between the individual and world society. Keith mentioned yesterday that he put one of his papers up on academia.edu and it got two thousand views in two days. The average academic book will sell two hundred copies and the rest will be remaindered. The potential of the internet can be valuable if we want to know how anthropology could be transferred between people in world society. The other side, of course, is vast swathes of pornography, malpractice, and crime—all of which, interestingly, Keith has also taught and written about.

Horacio Ortiz: I don’t want to go into what’s happening to money in China for too long, since it is not our topic. Payment in China is increasingly digital, within a broad use of algorithms and big data for all sorts of relations, and that is not unrelated to what happens elsewhere with companies like Facebook or Google: algorithms are increasingly part of practices in finance, health, education, government, playing, consumption, romance, friendship, and more. Chris, like many critics, stresses the concern of this being controlled in a few hands, those of states and a few corporations, and run by a class of engineers. Many authors have raised similar concerns. All this is obviously crucial for many reasons. But states and corporations are themselves multiple and contradictory. They can combine poverty reduction, control, and much more, sometimes unintentionally. And we cannot see states and corporations as acting in isolation. On the contrary, we must understand these processes, and their organization, as part of the social relations of billions of people who use Google, WeChat, and other such apps and algorithms.

This is a vast organization that has developed quickly in what is for most of us an unknown territory. It is also uncharted to our contemporaries who set up these companies, and manage and regulate them through state practices or through the production of algorithms. Where is it all going? I don’t know, but we should keep in mind the multiplicity of practice from which these organizations of social relations result, with their shifts, openings, and hierarchies; forms of inclusion and exclusion; love and violence; creativity and control.

Keith Hart: The informal economy was an example of the literary genre of realism, providing access to a class of people that had hitherto escaped notice in middle-class literature. At that time, the main approaches, whether Keynesian or Marxist, believed that the only means of development was the state. There was a democratic impulse to my work, but not at any practical level. I was saying, “Look, there are people out there doing things you wouldn’t dream of in your air-conditioned rooms and maybe you ought to think about them.”

I spent two years in Jamaica in the late 1980s, which changed everything for me. Living in the Caribbean allowed me to put together my travels between Britain, West Africa, and North America in a way that I had not been able to before. I met C.L.R. James in that context and he has been the most influential mentor in my life. And then the Berlin Wall came down. Until then I had felt out of sorts. In the 1960s especially I felt out of sync with how the world was. People told me that there was a cultural revolution going on and I thought British society was immobile—I didn’t know how to connect with it. Obviously, the end of the Cold War set the world moving in a new way that liberated me and enabled me to draw on that historical moment. The period 1989–1991 also saw the emergence of India and China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the internet going public.

My first thought was that the informal economy had resurfaced, this time in tandem with the largest and most forward-looking agglomerations of money and machines in the world. If you wanted to participate in this process then, you had to have your hand held by geeks who understood the maths and software engineering. This gave rise in the 1990s to a class of advanced techies who saw themselves as the democratic revolution; and it was they who grossly exaggerated the liberating potential of the internet. They were celebrating their own emancipation, nobody else’s, not then. I thought we were in the first phase of the biggest historical transformation since the agricultural revolution, but I had no clue where it would all end up. This same class reacted to the social media in the years after 2000 by rejecting them as a crassly commercial and ultimately coercive development that would marginalize them and take over the world. They were right, but many people like me began to feel more like actors in the digital media, not stooges as before.

Around the millennium I wrote a book, The Memory Bank (Hart 2000), about the impact of the internet for the future of money. However, its subtitle was Money in an Unequal World, which, as some of you have said today, is something I have always been aware of. But many academic readers saw only the positive message since it disrupted their own dystopian vision. People used to ask C.L.R. James after a spellbinding talk, “Why do you sound so optimistic when the picture you paint of the world is so dire?” He would reply, “I am not optimistic or pessimistic. The hardest thing in this world is to decide who the sides are, then pick your side and do your best for it. But don’t waste your time figuring out which side is going to win.”

The two sides are totalitarian bureaucracy, of which we have just heard an example, and democracy—whatever that may mean, but, broadly, the people having a chance to do things for themselves. Just do your bit for the democratic side. I always saw this as a game that was going on and I didn’t know or couldn’t imagine what the outcome would be. It’s been looking worse and worse ever since—there’s no question about that. But it’s still the case that I can write something, upload it to academia.edu and get a thousand people reading it in a couple of days. Shit, it’s a bloody miracle. I can be writing a book and I can talk about it by email or on Skype with anyone in the world.

I have 7,000 Twitter followers, 4,000 Facebook friends, 6,000 on Academia, and 22,000 members of the Open Anthropology Cooperative. I can converse instantly with anyone I like anywhere in the world without leaving my chair. Of course, these other terrible things are happening and they may plunge us all into the abyss. I don’t waste time wondering if this is the case or reducing the issues to a shouting match. But I do know whose side I am on and what some of the tools available to us are if we want to get our act together, whoever “we” are. The mistake is to start with a teleological extrapolation from a weakly understood present and turn it into a fake struggle between good and bad sides. There is no hope if that is the only way to engage with our world.

Vito Laterza: First, just an empirical note, Facebook has two billion users, if I am not wrong, and it’s basically unaccountable, as the recent hearings in the U.S. Congress have shown. They work with multiple interests they don’t want to account for, and they’ve got one of the biggest data capabilities in the world. So Facebook is as authoritarian as China. When anthropologists focus just on non-Western others, without looking, as Keith does, at world history, we become dupes of our own institutions. Horacio offered us a lot to work with; it was not just about China.

Horacio Ortiz: I don’t do China studies and I know that I come across as a global connector. I am unhappy with the idea that there is a West and the Rest or that China is one thing. These geographical categories are not very useful. There are many other things going on. The question in this room is about the world we live in and what happens there. My planet is the doorstep and that’s something I share with Keith.

Huon Wardle: This reminds me that a theme of Keith’s that we have only hinted at is the “personalization” of the economy. One of his stronger dialectics involves the idea that the economy becomes more personalized over time, so that if, for example, my money transactions are being policed by the Chinese government, this takes the form of an increasing personalization of my experience of what the economy is like. That also is a two-sided phenomenon—the more individualized you become, the more you personally are a focus of the bureaucracies, but the more individualized you become, the more you can also realize some of the individual freedoms that come with that. That two-sided theme is very important in Keith’s writing, for me anyway.

Gabriel Gbadamosi: Mine is a response to Chris’s question, which I thought was a fair and good one; and Keith came close to answering it. For a moment I saw in Chris’s face something that he didn’t quite accept. What Keith communicated to me was that, as a beginning point, we should each of us recognize that we are broken—which I am. A wonderful way that we are broken is in our relationship with the world. We hear on the telly or across the internet about some new disaster or unspeakable suffering in the world, but what can we do about it? We are broken in our relationship with the world. I think Keith identified the internet very early as another medium of connection that is not yet an active one for most of us.

Keith told me once that in the twentieth century one of the reasons people went for totalitarian solutions was that they are total solutions. They offered to heal broken individuals by putting them in the Nazi party or in Stalin’s communism, so that they had the sense of their brokenness being healed. Instead of choosing, deciding, and figuring out what the sides are in conflicts or developments in the world, you start with yourself, with your own subjective thinking, and you may then realize that other people have that brokenness too. As for the internet, there is not a dark side but a better side, a more human side of a medium with which to work, to connect.

Keith Hart: Thanks, Gabe, I hope you are going to write some of that [laughter].

Chris Hann: I think Keith would welcome the chance for us to reflect on the wider theme of this conference, migration. He was born in Manchester, a city created by migrants from far afield, and he’s worked in West Africa, the Caribbean, South Africa, and a number of other places. Those movements across the Atlantic go to the heart of the topic we are supposed to be engaging with at this conference. My views are different from most participants here because I worked in rural Hungary, where enthusiasm for opening borders is not great [laughter]. I am not sure either that Karl Polanyi held cosmopolitan views about migration. He was himself a migrant, as Keith has been. But in Polanyi’s (2018, 146) writing he condemns a world where human beings are “treated like cucumbers” and moved across oceans just because it suits capital. He had a point. I would be interested in our speakers reconsidering the common anthropological assumption about people’s right to move, when it is often to wherever it is convenient for capital to place them. “Manchester man” is sitting next to me, so perhaps he would like to comment on that.

Keith Hart: Chris makes a strong case, but as usual his argument is one-sided in negation, he thinks, to what the rest of us believe, even when we actually say that the human condition has at least two sides. There is a chapter in my autobiography called, “Movement and Inequality: The Globalization of Apartheid,” where I argue that restriction of movement is the main tool of unequal society and advocate a new free trade politics based on movement as a human right (Hart, in preparation). As long as capital can move freely and people cannot, we will not be able to mobilize effectively against capital. The opposite of movement is fixing people in place.

Movement is also in a permanent dialectical relationship with stability. You can’t move around the world without airports and railway stations that stay put. Several people here have rightly said that my Ghana fieldwork made me who I am and I am still trying to find out what that means. I have been inspired by Immaneul Kant’s (1917) The Perpetual Peace, where he lays out a cosmopolitan agenda that was completely at odds with the historical reality of the 1790s (the Napoleonic wars when coalitions of states were mobilizing to kill each other). He claimed that human beings originally moved freely around the world and now you can only do so on the terms of states. He wanted to know how people made society beyond the boundaries of states, like sailors on the high seas.

If we don’t like poor people coming to sponge off our rich states and would use the physical force of those states to determine their prospects, what might happen if we could all go wherever we like? The rich would then have to divert a lot more money to where the poor already are in order to encourage them to stay at home. These are fanciful speculations, but we should be able to imagine alternative worlds, since this one hardly works perfectly. I have moved all my adult life, but Sophie could tell you, if she changes the position of a chair in the living room, it drives me crazy [laughter]. I really need that space to be the same always—except when we decide to redecorate, since nothing actually stays the same.

About my attitude to anthropology, I am sometimes accused of wanting to tear down what others have built up. My core role is to be an intellectual historian. I gave up being a fieldworker long ago to read books and write about them, drawing on what I could from my personal encounters (memories, travel, conversation, the news, and social media). I engage with how anthropology can move on, but I have always been immersed in the history of anthropology. My anchorage in the history of great thought provides some stability for my nomadism, starting with the ancients, then the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century, and even what is published today, but there is too much of it for me to figure out what is great and what isn’t. In order to move in the world, I need to stabilize my life and thought. The two are indispensable to each other. I privilege movement because society, as an antidote to some of its pathologies, claims to be based only on stable institutions.

I am an empiricist, like Chris. And yet I am also a historian of ideas. I can’t imagine being anything but both. I often get the balance between them wrong because, again like him, I often feel that I have to correct the dominant tendency. I engage with people and take things personally. It is pointless to perch on one end of a dialectic. “Money is always personal and impersonal” (an article of mine) (Hart 2007). Any institutionalized idea has its counterpart in what it makes marginal, obscure or repressed, especially our experience of life.

I once read a book by the philosopher Stephen Toulmin (1990): Cosmopolis. He identifies a type he calls a “radical conservative”—someone who is disgusted with the world and would reform it in the name of a past value. John Donne and W. B. Yeats are cited to illustrate the type. I thought, “Hang on. Yeats and Donne are my two favorite poets, so what does that make me?” A radical conservative and my past value is the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Huon Wardle: Going back to Chris’s point, I would suggest that the Hungarian peasants can only maintain stasis through acts of amnesia. Vienna had a bigger population in 1900 than it does now because it was then the center of an empire. The current Windrush scandal in Britain has come about through an act of amnesia. We forgot that there was once a British Empire where these people arrived into the country as naturalized citizens from the Caribbean, because we thought of society as a place where you are fixed. We forgot that people were once constantly moving around this empire and some were given British citizenship. The notions that anthropologists work with are often based on amnesia to a striking degree. I suspect that something similar is going on in rural Hungary.

Chris Hann: Yes, there is a lot of amnesia in Eastern Europe and everywhere else. I will be going to Budapest on Friday. People like us, a gathering with titles and PhDs, deplore what 90 percent of the Hungarian population outside Budapest are doing and thinking in re-electing Victor Orban. They do so because they are less mobile, stuck in villages and small towns like the one I have done my fieldwork in. They say, “How come these privileged people in Budapest—some paid by George Soros in Central European University—can preach a cosmopolitan message of open borders when, even in the European Union, we don’t stand a chance of getting a job in London or Germany unless we are prepared to wash dishes?” Why is our empathy in this room directed to the world, but not to our fellow citizens at home? These are the kind of debates I want to engage with.

I regard Keith’s magnum opus to be The Memory Bank (Hart 2000) and its sub-title is Money in an Unequal World. Inequality in Europe is the main issue there today. People should stop trashing the Hungarian population and come to terms with these fundamental political and economic inequalities inside Europe.

Vito Laterza: You are basically repeating what populist leaders are saying across Europe. I would like to know who is doing the social media messaging on these topics in Hungary? Who is spreading conspiracies about Soros? What is your research on that? To mention Italy, for example, if we jump from this economic crisis, which of course is there, to “All Italians have turned racist overnight,” there is something missing. In history there are economic crises all the time, and yet, people don’t just all of a sudden go on Facebook to say, “All migrants should drown in the sea.” If they do that, something is happening, there are messages that are circulated by certain political actors; we need to study more of that.

Chris Hann: I have gone back to the same village for four decades to provide an ethnographer’s perspective on exactly these issues (Hann 2019). I too try to make connections with world history. Keith mentions Kant; I would throw in the name of Herder who is not so politically correct these days. He says that slavery is deplorable because it tears human beings from where they are born, grew up, and feel at home in the world. The migration we have seen to Europe in the last decade is nothing more than a modern form of slavery.

Vito Laterza: This is a colonial view, a view of people ontologically stuck to specific places. We need more history before making value-laden analogies.

Horacio Ortiz: From a more critical point of view, I would ask what the object of research is when we do anthropology? I said before that, as someone who studies money, what I admire in Keith’s work is his insistence on the concept of world society and, if not “world society,” then “world.” “Money in an unequal world” does not mean money in an unequal country, an unequal European Union, or an unequal Africa. This is an epistemological issue, but it is also a political issue for the anthropological voice. What kind of world are we trying to build when we describe people as anthropologists? This must inform the questions we ask of the people we describe. To situate a town within a country is already limiting the political scope of its inhabitants to particular debates about nationality or the European Union. When working with money as a global connector, I prefer to situate someone in a town, a New York building, or a shack without electricity in the world as homo universalis.

Keith and I also agree that there is an important poetic element in anthropological writing, and that this does not reject empiricism at all. We don’t deny the value of observations, but rather try to create possibilities built on describing what we observe. Our moral and political injunction is to think of ourselves as being part of the world. I am not a Kantian, but this is something important that Keith finds in Kant and the first step in linking yourself to humanity is to know that this is the ground for your question. This opens up new, poetic ways of thinking about migration, space, countries, and all the other categories as being part of the world and world society.

Speaker from the floor: Concerning anthropology, I must say I am like Chris. I have dedicated my entire career to ethnography. I am not a historian; I am an anthropologist and I use our theory, not the Greeks or German history. Our theory is built on other people’s ways of managing in the world. That doesn’t exclude us from theorizing within a larger framework of history and philosophy. But our job is to reconstruct that other world, whatever or wherever. That makes anthropology what it is. Our theories are wild—in fact anyone’s thinking is wild [laughter]. That has been our virtue: we can explore anything, even the Greeks. There is common ground between Chris’s point of view and the rest of you.

When I do ethnography and submit my articles for review and even when I make presentations at conferences, I am sometimes told that you cannot say that. Are there things we don’t want to hear because they can’t be said? Whatever people say, it is there, it’s their worldview. But no, people who have read Marx or Freud in the 1970s tell me that I have twisted their minds. I don’t buy it. It is my job to take people seriously, to convey what was said. My task is also to contextualize what I report, to explain how that statement was made. My point is to place what I hear in context, to explain what possibly could have made that person say it, not to justify it or to provide another explanation and put it in the wider context of money or the world. This is a huge challenge and it grows day by day. That is what I tell our students. It is sometimes very difficult for me to digest and work with this material. I often go back, do my homework again, re-contextualize.

Theo Rakopoulos: Speaking of context. Going back to someone mentioned by Keith, C.L.R. James, I read Keith’s autobiography recently and I am now reading James’ (1963) autobiography. It’s called Beyond a Boundary. It’s about cricket and is considered to be the best book on sport that’s ever been written. Now I come from one of the few post-colonial places without cricket, Cyprus [laughter], and I know nothing about this sport whatsoever. However, my understanding, as of any other sport, is that cricket needs boundaries. The book is about self in the world, the bounded-ness and cosmopolitanism of the post-colonial condition and the ways we can negotiate this condition for a fairer society. The idea of the bounded game is a good metaphor for understanding these dynamics and dialectics that have been floating about in this room just now. The game needs boundaries to be constituted, but it is also constituted by the spectators—and these, in a game like cricket, span from the West Indies to New Zealand. Keith’s oeuvre points in that direction: not “no boundaries to thinking,” but “beyond a boundary.”

In Keith’s autobiography, he writes about his time in Northern Ghana. He comes to a remote village and meets the chief. In Keith’s view the man is attached to the land in that West African village. They start talking about the Vietnam War, which was then in its early stages and nobody predicted then that the Americans would lose. The chief tells Keith that the Americans stand no chance. This is how Keith’s eyes were opened to what happened later and it didn’t come from the Guardian, but from this hidebound individual in a Frafra village. How did the chief know? He had been drafted into the British imperial war machine that beat the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in Burma. They beat the Japanese by drawing them into the jungle where they didn’t know how to operate. “Look, the Viet Cong are bringing the Americans into the jungle where they stand no chance.”

Gabriel Gbadamosi: It looks like the thing between the cosmopolitans and the Hungarian peasants was unresolved. The bodies aren’t buried. So what I have to say is about the unburied bodies. There’s this guy in the First World War trenches and he’s looking at a rat eating the bodies of German and British soldiers without distinguishing between them. He tells it, “They would shoot you, droll rat, if they knew your cosmopolitan sympathies” [loud laughter].

Huon Wardle: Well, that is a very good point on which to pause our conversation.


This Afterword was written by Ato Quayson, who was unable to join the conversation but was kind enough to provide an afterword for it. Ato Quayson is a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2019 was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He is Professor of English at Stanford.

I cannot in my mind separate Keith Hart from C.L.R. James, whose work Keith introduced me to when I was working on my PhD at Cambridge in the early 1990s. James provided us with opportunities for many animated conversations on a range of topics, but it was only much later that I realized that Keith’s thinking actually shared a number of key features with James's. The first and most important was their shared dialectical instincts. As with James, Keith’s key impulse was to see the entailment of each phenomenon in the next, even if on first view there did not seem to be much in common between them. This instinct is what lies behind his well-known reflections on the informal economy, on money, and on much else that he has worked on since his fieldwork in Accra in the 1970s. But there is something else that Keith shares with James that is only made evident when you think about them together and all at once, and that is that they both were of the firm belief that you cannot understand human society properly without taking an interest in its most banal and ephemeral features. In other words, in everything. It is this interest in apparent ephemera that makes them both devour literature, another thing that Keith and I talked incessantly about. With Keith, as with James, you are liable to meet Sophocles, Dickens, and Charlie Chaplin as much as you will encounter Marx, Mauss, and Hegel. That the two of them both avidly devoured all forms of popular culture is not entirely accidental either since it is from that domain that they were able to make observations about the relations between subjectivity, society, and global processes.

To say that Keith Hart was like C.L.R. James (at least to me) is, however, to assert something else about their shared beliefs and impulses. And that is that ultimately the explanatory power of any critical humanism stripped of any illusions of grandeur derives precisely from its primary organizing interest, that is, in men and women as they pursue their hopes, fears, and vague ideas sometimes in consonance with bureaucratic apparatuses but often in spite of or against them. But all that matters is that we start with the human because, in the end, this premise serves to obliterate the claustrophobic imposition of narrow boundaries, whether these are racial, religious, national, and even disciplinary. This I think is what we ought to take from Keith Hart's fertile life and work.


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