by Silvia Irina Berástegui
In October of 2011, The Economist published an article called “More Anthropologists on Wall Street Please” in which the author, one ‘M.S.’, responded to a declaration by the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, that funding for liberal-arts disciplines in American state universities should be reduced and given instead to the sciences. Governor Scott’s dislike for anthropology—which he considered useless and as offering poor job prospects—made the author of the article reflect upon this discipline, outlining the multiple benefits of anthropology and its critical, analytical methods to understanding economics and politics.
What does it mean for anthropologists to become involved in economic and financial areas? Such a union, as contradictory as it may seem, could position anthropology at the forefront of the fight to tackle and resolve social issues around the world. The financial crisis of 2007/08 provides a clear example of how much economics and business is in need of a more humane and social perspective; not only because a better understanding of the economic systems precludes insight into the social networks and cultural patters they are based on, but also because the severe repercussions of financial crises affect livelihoods and lives across the globe. Would opportunities for the creation of a more ethical economy, where marginalised people have a voice and feature in business agendas, be more attainable if anthropologists work from within organizations, imparting their knowledge onto the economic and financial systems that rule the world as we know it today?
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As a discipline, anthropology reflects on its own participation in the events that shape the modern world, with extensive self-analyses of the role it should play. As Barbara Rylko‐Bauer et al. pose the question “whether one should work as an outside critic or inside ameliorator within arenas of policy and power remain a fundamental dilemma in anthropology,” with some authors inclined to argue that non-participation is ultimately the most ethical position to adopt (ibid, p. 182). Indeed, questions of ethical integrity arise as soon as anthropologists involve themselves in disciplines such as economics, business or politics; but should we not also conduct an extensive analysis of this dilemma too in order to deepen our understanding of what exactly this kind of participation can bring?
Historically, anthropology was linked to the study of ‘primitive societies’, with its field of study focused on the social, cultural, and political patterns that those distant communities forged and maintained over the years. In recent years, however, anthropologists have started to turn their attention a little closer to home, realising that western societies also provide fruitful subjects to the field of anthropology. Karen Ho is one such anthropologist, with her 2009 ethnography of Wall Street proving particularly insightful. She studied the hidden cultures behind Wall Street’s insurmountable walls and argued that its daily liquid practices, which sees employees move from firm to firm over incredible short intervals, combined with its high reward, short-term bonus systems underlay much of the global economy’s catastrophic system of bursts and booms that have ruined countless people’s lives around the world. She even mentioned in a 2009 interview for Time magazine that our savings and pension funds are all strongly tied up in Wall Street doing well a fact which is commonly overlooked. We are all interconnected, so for the system to change, we all have to change.
The work of the economic anthropologist, Keith Hart is another example of an anthropologist working outside of conventional study areas. His work not only includes an exhaustive analysis of money and the central role it plays in shaping our modern communities and societies, but also endeavours to uncover solutions to economic inequalities by analysing existing links between cultural patterns and capitalist networks. Like Ho, his unconventional understanding of how culture and money are tied together is a useful tool with which to understand the interconnections that influence economic practices and perhaps even determine the unequal power structures of the modern world.
These are only some of the examples that prove how insightful it can be for anthropologists to turn their attention to modern societies and western economic practices. Enquiries and analyses of this kind will only help further the discipline’s purpose of understanding the world we live in today and may even go some way to helping establish solutions to the ethical crises and social problems we are currently facing.
To illustrate how much potential there is for anthropologists to become involved in economic issues, I would like to turn our attention to the case of the 2007/08 global financial crisis. In today’s society, the majority of citizens across the globe are dependent upon the health of the world’s most powerful economy, that of the US. This is because Wall Street practices and values have so infiltrated ordinary people’s livesthat everyone is affected by its recurrent crises, as was the case in 2007/08. Over those 2 years, the collapse of the credit and mortgage boom had devastating social consequences. Banks went into insolvency, requiring enormous governmental bailouts; people lost lifetimes of savings and investments and many even lost their homes and businesses. Across the world, countries recoiled at their enormous losses, impacting particularly on social policies and investments, leaving society’s most vulnerable even more exposedto poverty and exclusion. While the financial crisis affected ‘rich’ countries first, it had far wider ramifications on investments and monetary creation throughout other parts of the world, especially in emerging countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
One of the aspects worth noting in regard to this crisis is that neither economists nor business analysists, both specialists in the field of finance, saw it coming, while journalists such as Gillian Tett did. What is interesting here is that Tett stresses the importance of her anthropological background (she has a PhD in Anthropology) in helping her predict what was to happen in 2007/08. In 2005, she had started to report on how collateralised debt obligations and credit-default swaps were likely to lead to a major financial crash. But what exactly was it about her anthropology background that helped her perceive what other financial and economic experts failed to even glimpse? The answer to this is given in her 2014 article ‘Anthropology and Power to the People?,’ in which she states that the skills and methods of enquiry that she gained during her PhD proffered her not only with unique perspectives, but also with a holistic view of the world that her business and economist counterparts do not typically possess.
Firstly, she mentions what is called the participant observation method. In itself, this is a highly analytical method that allows anthropologists to look first-hand into the situations and problems their subjects face. As a method, therefore, it is one in which you ‘get your feet dirty’, as it relies heavily on fieldwork. Malcolm Chapman, a senior lecturer at Leeds University Business School who has received social anthropology training too, also describes how the participant observation method could be advantageous to business. He points out how participant observation involves talking directly with people in order to obtain valuable information from them. This is in contrast to business professionals and economists who tend to make decisions based on complicated models which are based entirely on assumptions about the world and which lack the input of any real factual information (p.22). Both Tett and Chapman suggest, therefore, that the participant observation method could in fact furnish abstract economic models with real experiences and evidences and so generate new perspectives and approaches from which businesses could work.
Secondly, Tett explains how participant observation allows anthropologists to experience real-world problems for themselves, enabling a view from the bottom up. This view could prove a valuable for economists and to embed the voices and perspectives of disadvantaged and marginalised communities in corporate goals and agendas. This could, in turn, help ensure such groups are not socially left behind; a reality which anthropologists would very much like to see materialise. In fact, in 2009, just after the financial crisis had burst, a group of anthropologists met in Chicago at the ‘5th Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference’ (EPIC) to develop strategies ‘to utilize ethnography to lower risk, drive innovation, and maximize return on investments through business models that are sensitive to peoples and cultures.’
Thirdly, Tett outlines what is known as the holistic view of the anthropologist, in which interconnectedness itself is analysed, meaning that single details and aspects surrounding an object of study are considered vital to understanding how the object as a whole is understood. Applied to economics, this perspective allows us to see how money is an integral part of society, rather than something separate from it. Through the holistic view we are better positioned to see the part it plays in the world and how that part manifests in its systems. It is, therefore, as prudent to investigate the financial corporations that move money as it is to analyse the patterns of behaviour that are followed by the people who entrust their money to them. The financial crisis of 2007/08 proves how important it is to analyse and observe details reserved for anthropologists, since without analysing Wall Street’s liquid culture and the social patterns in which the mortgage debt systems were placed, it would be impossible to fully understand the causes of that crisis. Without such insight, prevention of future collapses will likewise be impossible.
Other areas of study that anthropologists are eager to explore include assessing the significance of issues commonly dismissed by groups as meaningless, as well as to uncover ‘silences’ – that which is not even being mentioned. Investigating these ‘silences’ can reveal long-hidden realities and insights that could improve the status quo. This leads us to uncover and analyse global power structures, which perhaps could help create a more balanced interconnected market, opening the door for reconstructing power structures in a more transparent and just way from within financial organizations themselves.
Lastly, Tett mentions how anthropology makes use of comparative analysis. In order to better understand what is happening in one area of the world, anthropologists often compare it to other places and cultures, since cultures and behaviours can be grasped from the outside by accounting for their differences. This kind of analysis offers up another valuable instrument for the financial world, one which provides a rich, multicultural body of knowledge far more representative of the actual globalized world than business models can account for. Comparative analysis could also help safeguard against unwanted outcomes stemming from oversimplified models of human behaviour and also allow us to better learn from previous mistakes.
Looking, therefore, at the advantages that anthropological methods can bring to economy and business, we might be forgiven for concluding that most of the mistakes made before and during the financial crisis could have been avoided – or at least predicted and mitigated – and its social outcomes palliated, had anthropologists been involved in Wall Street. The question is, then, how can we establish a common ground between anthropology and economics?
Even when the collapse of global financial markets provides anthropologists with an opportunity ‘to link their engagement with people’s lives to anthropology’s original mission to understand humanity as a whole,’ moral questions are raised. The first question we encounter is the ethical dilemma of determining who will actually benefit from the incorporation of anthropological knowledge into economics and business. This is because we face the prospect of seeing anthropology contribute to a system so as to improve it, only to see it replicate the same structures of hegemony and power it was fighting to break in the first place. While this is a legitimate fear, and great attention must be paid in order to avoid this kind of outcome, we must not forget that anthropologists have a duty to, as Keri Vacanti Brondo says, ‘rally behind the wakeup call that our planet and its peoples cannot afford to continue along the path we have so far paved.’ After years of financial and environmental crises, anthropology’s fervour to ensure that the voices of marginalized peoples and cultures be heard has been revitalized, with more and more people now aware that global power structures will not change if they remain unchallenged and that the greatest defiance to them will be to engage with the very systems that have shaped them.
Another consideration is that economics and anthropology possess very different views of the world. Anthropology has undergone several stages of self-reflection, renouncing its positivist epistemology a long time ago. Economics, however, still remains both positivist and modernist, as Peter Buckley and Malcolm Chapman remind us. Anthropology’s ability to adapt through self-criticism and self-analysis is conceivably what the field of economics needs if it is to reform its agendas and begin paying attention to the social and cultural terrains in which it is embedded. Perhaps anthropology could offer its expertise and experience in this matter to the economic world.
However, the differences between anthropology and economics are not only methodological. The very language that anthropologists use is not readily understood by economists and business managers meaning that mutual comprehension would be problematic. Anthropologists’ holistic and humane language is likely to be at odds with economists more accustomed to working with numerical data and describing social processes in terms of profits, markets and losses, as if these were themselves autonomous entities and not the product of human endeavours. It is therefore often the case that economists overlook the networks of social systems and connections that sustain, affect, and are affected by their monetary systems, despite the fact that paying them greater attention could bring significant benefits to their own agendas.
The final obstacle I would like to outline is one that Gillian Tett (2014) mentions, and concerns how anthropologists have a tendency to unveil realities and truths that most people do not want to acknowledge. In her own words:
‘the beauty of being an anthropologist in the business world today is that anthropologists can speak truth to power… Power – in the form of business leaders, policy makers or other executives – may not always wants to hear that truth, far less to pay for consultants who offer such advice’ (Tett, 2014, p.135)
As intimidating as this may sound, it is worth remembering Brondo’s words (2010) that we face an urgent need to change the path that humanity has so far forged for itself since the planet, its resources and people cannot continue to endure the treatment and commodification they suffer today. Possibilities for a more ethical world will multiply if we only work together to create bridges out of the collaboration and dialogue of disciplines as different and potentially complimentary as those mentioned in this essay.
While the study of business and economics is not what anthropologists may immediately consider when determining what the discipline should be about, there are many reasons for becoming involved in unifying these fields. Primarily, engaging with the corporate world can provide anthropologists with opportunities to bring their anthropological view and critical perspectives to wider fields. Secondly, this new role could create job opportunities for those graduates interested in working towards the resolution of social problems in the world today. Lastly, anthropology could provide a moral compass that facilitates the reformation of economic and business practices. Gillian Tett also points out that even where the goals and intentions of anthropology and business diverge, anthropologists possess the abilities and resources to find ways to navigate these hurdles. I would also add that increased anthropological involvement in the economy could help predict future economic crashes, helping to ameliorate the disastrous social outcomes such as those observed in the recent financial crisis.
In conclusion, I have attempted to justify why the involvement of anthropologists in economics would be beneficial to reducing the impact of financial crises. The fall of markets not only affects high street profits and agendas, it also destroys the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, subjecting communities and developing countries to the risk of bankruptcy and affecting the lives of countless millions. The rigorous holistic and critical methods that anthropology possesses could help bring the voices of the most disadvantaged to the fore of economic and business agendas, reforming the way in which these influential domains work to shape our world. The world of finance is not an immutable force with autonomous power; it is the manifestation of ideas and institutions created by mankind and so it can and, as Hart and Ortiz say, should be changed through human action. It is my contention that anthropology could contribute to this change by becoming the moral compass that would guide businesses toward the path of ethical practices and alter their final goals so as to include social and cultural contributions. In view of the ethical challenges the world today faces, we should come to reflect on the transformations needed if we are to resolve the issues of inequality and power imbalance. Examples of unsuccessful ventures between anthropology and business, or any other field, should therefore be viewed as lessons to be learnt in the challenge to unify the two disciplines instead of as arguments to support the non-involvement of anthropology in helping resolve the social issues facing the world of today.
Silvia Irina Berástegui is a student on the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex. She blogs at Respectfully Beautiful.