Teaching Storytelling and Financial Crisis

Reverse image of colorful Australian five dollar currency note ground into rocky pavement with image of Queen Elizabeth the II looking over her right shoulder toward viewer.
Photo by unknown. CC0.

This post builds on the Openings and Retrospectives collection “After 2008,” which was published in the November 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.


Each author in the Openings and Retrospectives collection, "After 2008," published in the November 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology tells a particular story about the 2008 financial crisis. For this Teaching Tools post, we offer tools, texts, activities, and films to help students examine the relationship between story and economy. Following the authors of the Openings and Retrospectives essays, we center stories of crisis, debt, and finance. In each story, our authors make claims about the central problems, actors, themes, and potential solutions to the ongoing financial crises since 2008.

The activities and resources below will help students unpack the terms, frames, and multiple experiences represented in the pieces while situating them within the larger debates in economic anthropology, the anthropology of capitalism, and related studies of management, dispossession, power, and equivalence. As Daromir Rudnyckyj reminds us in his Openings and Retrospectives essay, “although, crisis narratives are always representation, these representations have material and technical effects.”

To this end, we offer approaches to teaching the 2008 financial crisis that situate our authors’ registers of crisis, debt, and finance within contemporary debates in queer, black, native and indigenous, multi-species, feminist, and trans anthropologies (among others). In so doing, we respond to the call of the Gens Collective to “understand capitalism to be formed through the relational performance of productive powers that exceed formal economic models, practices, boundaries, and market devices” (Bear et al. 2015).


Advanced undergraduate or graduate students. Especially suitable for courses focused on the relationship between economy and culture and anthropological theory and methods.

Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with changing disciplinary trends in the anthropological study of economy, finance, and capitalism
  • Understand and evaluate the use of crisis, debt, and finance as concepts and frames in economic anthropology
  • Understand and evaluate the relationship between the anthropology of capitalism and other, often marginalized, perspectives in the discipline
  • Critically analyze how bringing new anthropological perspectives, methods, and forms of knowledge into the field of economic anthropology might contribute more broadly to the discipline of anthropology

For this Teaching Tools post, we offer tools, texts, activities, and films to help students examine the relationship between story and economy.

Suggested Readings

We recommend assigning all three essays in this Openings and Retrospectives collection. For introductory courses, Chris Hann and Keith Hart (2011), J.K. Gibson-Graham (2006), and the “Generating Capitalism” series edited by Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako (2015) can be used as a basic roadmap. To plan a more extended unit, consider supplementing the collection with some of the readings listed below by theme. They include a variety of perspectives engaged by susbstantivist, feminist, queer, indigenous, dis(ability), and trans anthropologies, including post and settler colonial studies, queer of color critique, and human/nonhuman studies.

Studying Economy Culturally and Historically

Bear, Laura, Karen Ho, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 2015. "Generating Capitalism." Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, March 30.

Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Ho, Karen. 2005. “Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks.” Cultural Anthropology 20, no. 1: 68–96.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Queer and Trans Ethnography

Aizura, Aren Z. 2018. Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Manalansan, Martin F. 2003. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rofel, Lisa. 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Stout, Noelle M. 2014. After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

(Settler) Colonialism, Slavery, and Racial Capitalism

Byrd, Jodi A., Alyosha Goldstein, Jodi Melamed, and Chandan Reddy. 2018. “Predatory Value: Economies of Dispossession and Disturbed Relationalities.” Social Text 36, no. 2 (135): 1–18.

Melamed, Jodi. 2015. “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1: 76–85.

Morgensen, Scott L. 2016. “Encountering Indeterminacy: Colonial Contexts and Queer Imagining.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 4: 607–16.

Robinson, Cedric J. 2019. An Anthropology of Marxism. Second edition. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Human/Non-Human and Multispecies Ethnography

Kirksey, Eben. 2018. “Queer Love, Gender Bending Bacteria, and Life after the Anthropocene.” Theory, Culture and Society.

Livingston, Julie, and Jasbir K. Puar. 2011. “Interspecies.” Social Text 29, no. 1 (106): 3–14.

Palsson, Gisli, and Heather Anne Swanson. 2016. “Down to Earth: Geosocialities and Geopolitics.Environmental Humanities 8, no. 2: 149–71.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

For more on stories and the environment, globalization, landscape/place, and economy as ecology, we recommend consulting the Teaching Tools post, "Citation Matters: An Updated Reading List for a Progressive Environmental Anthropology" by Bridget Guarasci, Amelia Moore, and Sarah Vaughn (2018).

Suggested Discussion Questions

For advanced undergraduate students, we recommend assigning more readings from the suggested reading list above with the Openings and Retrospectives essays to engage the following questions:

  • What does it mean to call a financial crisis in North America and Europe a crisis of “the” global economy?
  • What might it mean to think about the 2008 collapse of banking and financial institutions in the United States, Europe, and North Atlantic through the lens of those who were already marginalized at the time and for whom the term crisis has a differentially punctuated mode and affect?
  • How do contemporary social movements in their counter-historicizing, coalition-building, and rejection of white institutional culture reject a normative order of debt in favor of desires, new critical empiricisms, cruel optimism, refusal, dis-identification, or assemblage?
  • How can we think finance, securitization, and liquidity in terms of life projects rather than a priori forms?

Suggested In-Class Exercises

Below are two exercises designed to elicit students’ own understandings of the 2008 financial crisis and mobilize them in a critical way.

A close up of a dry-erase board in a classroom with the word "economy" written in English in big letters on the top with a list of words in various handwriting that includes "the flow of material goods," "structure," "financial system impacting and impacted by politics, culture, etc.," "financial theory," and "exchange and transfer." Photo by Jen K. Hughes

The Multiple Meanings of Economy

Part I: Defining Terms

The goals of this exercise are to: a) show that there are multiple ways of understanding the term economy, b) foreground how these understandings frequently overlap, and c) open a discussion about the political, disciplinary, and ethnographic implications of using the term economy in the context of the 2008 financial crisis. This activity is inspired by the Teaching Tools post Teaching Queer Anthropology, and we recommend applying the resources Jara Carrington presents there to the study of the 2008 financial crises as well.

To start, ask students to list all of the meanings that they can generate for the word economy and write them down so that they are visible to the class. As a class, group the meanings into four categories: practice, politics, theory, and method.

The aim of this exercise is to generate discussion about the multiple places, acts, and political positions that emerge from the term so answers will vary. Some example meanings are as follows:

  • Global or local market (practice)
  • Production and consumption of goods and services (practice; method)
  • Efficiency (method)
  • Financial crises (practice; theory)
  • Trade in a particular place (practice)
  • Household management (practice; theory)
  • How to measure debt, wealth, or poverty of a place or people (practice; politics; theory; method)
  • Free markets (politics; theory)
  • Financial industry (practice; theory)
  • Exchange (practice; method)

Next, draw on these various meanings to help parse out and make connections between the concepts described in the Openings and Retrospectives essays, including:

  • Neoliberalization, finance, globalization, and the state (Hart)
  • Debt, crisis discourse, futures, and activism (Zaloom)
  • Markets, faith, interest, equity, share(ing), representation, and morality (Rudnyckyj)

Part II: Situating Representations and Experience

Select a film, exhibit, podcast, or some other form of media that can be played in class. Consider, for instance, Kara Walker’s art exhibition “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the Planet Money podcast’s T-Shirt Project, or Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris is Burning.

After engaging with the work in question, ask students to free-write about the relationship between the selected piece and the themes of crisis, debt, and finance from the Openings and Retrospectives essays. Encourage them to think through and elaborate on how students and media creators are using terms such as economy, capitalism, and the market, particularly given the articles by Hart, Rudnyckyj, and Zaloom. Then, invite students to share their thoughts. In the ensuing discussion, encourage students to reflect on how story-driven analysis affords new perspectives on the themes in question. Ask students to consider the following:

  • Who tells the story about the economy, capitalism, and markets?
  • How are lives mediated by stories of crisis, debt, and finance?
  • What are the uneven effects?
  • Who is left out of the calculus?
  • Who pays debts and what debts are unacknowledged?
  • Where is the market?
  • When do you a know that a crisis is over?

Unit: Storytelling Financial Crisis

Hart, Rudnyckyj, and Zaloom present situated understandings of the ongoing impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Their assessments invite analysis of normalizing narratives, practices, and structures in the study of capitalism that may require a deeper engagement. Thus, we recommend teaching the Openings and Retrospectives essays as an introduction to a larger unit on storytelling and financial crisis. The lessons we offer below encourage students to gain new tools for studying capitalism, and particularly financialization, through the “dis-” and “re-” orienting frames of queerness and transness and their intersections with disability studies, indigenous studies, and critical race studies.

In the first class of the unit, begin with a discussion of how people use stories about financial crisis to fashion dominant narratives about subjects. In three columns on the whiteboard or chalkboard, write “Economy,” “Capitalism,” and “The Market” at the top with room for comments below. Invite students to come up and write what these terms mean to them. As a group, ask students to explain their contributions. Then, using the terms and students’ explanations, discuss how each contribution tells a particular story:

  • Who are the actors?
  • What do they do?
  • What are the problems encountered?
  • What does it mean to succeed or fail in this narrative?

In the second class, ask students to free-write about dominant narratives regarding race, class, sex, gender, and sexuality in their own milieu. Discuss the relationship between dominant narratives and normativity using texts from the suggested reading section above, such as Rofel, Manalansan, or Stout. Ask students to comment on how normativity structures their experiences of the world and that of others around them. Invite them to discuss normative narratives that the Openings and Retrospectives authors critique, activate, or engage.

For the third and final class of this unit, screen a film in class that presents popular representations of the economy, markets, and crisis in the United States. You may consider the Cold War–era cartoon It’s Everybody’s Business, the Oscar-winning documentary about the financial crisis Inside Job, or Frontline and Bill Moyers’ Two American Families.

Have students get into groups of three to four and discuss the filmmakers’ main arguments and the frames and perspectives that are both present and absent. Ask what the authors of the Openings and Retrospectives essays and other assigned materials would say about the narratives presented. Then, have students get into small groups of two to three and analyze the narratives in each film through the lens of normativity in feminist LGBT, queer, black, indigenous, (dis)ability, and trans anthropologies (depending on the supplemental texts assigned). As a group, come together to discuss how narratives such as the American dream, model minority, invisible hand, and economic man are produced and performed in particular arrangements of gender, sex, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, nation, religion, dis(ability), and other assemblages and intersectional identities and experiences.

For example, students may summarize each piece in their own words and then tell the story to one another in small groups. You may ask:

  • How does each of the authors in the collection explain their use of the word capitalism?
  • How do these different understandings overlap and/or conflict with one another?


In this Teaching Tools post, we have offered interdisciplinary readings, in-class exercises, discussion questions, and ideas for teaching a unit on the financial crisis through anthropology as well as other modes of storytelling. We hope that you find the tools and resources within helpful, and we encourage you to use them or other resources to consider financial crises as ongoing manifestations and assemblages that may be just as much about cracks (Hart), narratives (Rudnyckyj), and debts (Zaloom) as accumulation.


Bear, Laura, Karen Ho, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 2015. "Generating Capitalism." Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, March 30.