Why Does (or Doesn't) Finance Need an Anthropology?

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

In the last thirty years, the financial industry has come to occupy a fundamental role in society, as a global network of exchange where assets from the whole world are created, compared, traded and eliminated. Anthropologists have studied the social organization of banks, investment funds, rating agencies and other such companies. They have also dissected several assumptions included in the procedures and formulas that financial employees tend to take for granted as everyday technicalities, showing how they are linked to theologies and to political and epistemological projects. But besides some contributions to debates concerned with regulation, anthropology has clearly not had an impact on the financial industry. It can be said that the latter visibly does not seem to “need” us, as it resumes business-as-usual after the last “crisis”.

But is the financial industry all there is to “finance”? The concentration on case studies has so far left behind some questions that may point to “finance” being much more than just what happens within this network. Although anthropologists study the effect of World Bank, IMF and other organizations’ “developmental policies” on the poorest regions of the world, there has been less research on the social roles of the financial industry. While more research within these companies is certainly needed, research could also expand in two interrelated directions.

The first concerns the causes and effects of the financial industry in everyday life. When we consider employees producing documents of financial analysis, applying investment models to social activities around the world or barely trading financial derivatives, foreign exchange, stock or any other asset, we could also explore closely where that money comes from, where it goes or does not go, and what happens there. This would imply following the money as it crosses boundaries of social groups, jurisdictions and other organizations. It would also imply understanding these monetary connections in relation to where they do not happen.

The second question concerns the fact that the financial industry, as the last “crisis” has shown, is still in good health, and that its redistributive powers have been steadily increasing for decades and continue to do so, not only in the US and Europe, but also in India, China, Japan, Brazil, and in many other regions of the world. A simple Weberian test of legitimacy would say that there is something at stake in allowing these companies and their employees to occupy such an important role in the global distribution of resources. We could do more research on the social processes whereby middle classes in the rich countries, and other actors such as companies with cash, sovereign funds and foundations, “wish” to entrust their money to this specific network of exchange. We could ask about what “pushes” companies and states around the world to try to tap into it and abide by its conditions, and how is that perceived by those who are excluded from the process.

Although these two sets of questions have been addressed, the ethnographic material concerning them is often thin. If we want to produce more than just a negative critique of financial theory showing what it cannot see, we need to produce more research on these processes. We could ask more questions such as: How do professional financial practices expand in space and time? How are they learned, transformed and what are their effects in other social activities? How are these practices desired, respected, tolerated, rejected, endured and thereby shaped within, but also outside the financial industry?

Thinking about credit relations that stretch in space and time, Marcel Mauss and many others after him have been asking these kinds of questions. Doing this today may imply a close collaboration with other disciplines, questioning the idea that fieldwork is enough. It may also ask for new methods, such as multi-sited research, the study of online interactions or of the creation of new forms of global regulatory frames. Addressing these issues may also ask for new analytic concepts, concerning the kind of “globality” that is created by the financial relations that connect each of us to the rest of the world, and what that says about terms like “society” or “culture”. If the financial industry occupies such an important distributive role in our lives, can we characterize its “legitimacy” to do so as “political”, in a context without clear geographic boundaries, with different histories and institutions encountering each other and without centralized institutions claiming to be able to oversee it all?

If we take “finance” to encompass all these social practices, not only in the offices of financial companies, but also outside of them, we will be addressing issues that concern us directly, i.e. the global relations in which we are all entangled through financial networks, with the hierarchies and conflicts that characterize them. In that case, anthropology could be “needed”, or at least it could make a difference, not just by unsettling some official discourses concerning the financial industry but, well beyond the limits imposed by that debate, by exploring the lives that shape and are shaped by “finance”, and providing the reflexivity that may enhance our capacity to act in its midst.