The Financial Crisis and the Great Recession


Panoramic view urban cityscape singapore with investment theme background

James G. Carrier analyses the ways that people think about what the economy is, how it operates, how it should operate.

The financial crisis and the Great Recession changed the ways that people think about what the economy is, how it operates, how it should operate. This has affected economic anthropology, as more people have seen it as a way to address those questions.

One result has been the fading of an important distinction between the sub-discipline and academic economics, which studies systems dominated by capitalist markets. Economic anthropology was built on the study of other sorts of systems, but as those in the sub-discipline wrestled with the Great Recession, more and more found themselves studying the same sorts of systems as economists. And as they had found economists’ models to be of little use in their studies of other sorts of systems, economic anthropologists found that those models continued to be of little pertinence, except perhaps as cultural elements of the new settings they were studying.

It has been more than a decade since the crisis, and there has been enough new work in economic anthropology that it is worth beginning to think about where we are going, where we ought to be going and what questions and ideas have been neglected and ought to be pursued. A research agenda for economic anthropology is a part of that thinking.

As economic anthropology has increased its focus on the societies that are home to most academics, it is no surprise that one part of that thinking reflects the desire to make the familiar seem strange. So, several contributors to the volume carry out a sort of intellectual house-cleaning. They do so by pointing out different ways that common approaches in economic anthropology reflect conventional, taken-for-granted assumptions about the ways that the market-capitalist world works and the ways that people within it think about it.

In that world people commonly assume that state and market are radically different. In our scholarly work do we really want to separate them that much? Might we not benefit by looking for points of similarity in their practices and organisation? In that world people also commonly see corporations as monolithic entities guided by market logic. Might we not benefit by seeing them as purposive associations of people in relationship with each other and pursuing a variety of ends?

Another sort of house-cleaning is beginning to think more carefully about the assumptions that many economic anthropologists make and that can hinder our ability to understand the world that we study. Are we really wise to accept, seemingly without thinking much about it, the view of management epitomised by the comic strip Dilbert, where managers have power and authority and seemingly do nothing worthwhile? Equally, it may turn out to be wrong-headed to assume that all people everywhere value equality, a core value of much common thought in Europe and North America. Rather, it may be that people do not object to inequality per se, but rather object to the wrong kind of inequality. If we truly rejected inequality we would not tolerate bosses; instead, what we seem to dislike is bad bosses.

Closer to home, ought we not question our own reluctance to investigate people whom we find distasteful? In the United States that distaste denigrated people who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. We did not pay attention to them and so were shocked and disheartened when he ended up in the White House. In Europe that meant that we do not study those on the radical Right, buttressed by the desire not to ‘give voice’ to them. The result is an ignorance of what those people think and do. For scholars opposed to the radical Right this seems like a failure to heed Sun Tzu’s dictum, ‘Know thy enemy’. For a discipline that prides itself on studying the whole of human diversity, this seems unfortunate at least.

And, of course, the more that economic anthropologists have studied capitalist-market systems, the more they have come up with new questions and new ways of approaching old questions. Some of those are linked clearly to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, such as debt. Trained to focus on ordinary social life, we have tended to see debt in those terms, even though it is linked to large-scale political structures and forces. Concerned with the dire effects of the Great Recession, it is understandable that we study social movements that have the goal of ameliorating those effects. However, we need as well to attend to the nuts and bolts of movement organisations and their operations, for these can shape not only the likelihood that they will attract and retain members and will achieve their goals, but even what their goals actually are. And while we think that people need to have more resources so that they can live reasonable lives, it may be that we should pay more attention to the very idea of resources and what brings them into being.

The financial crisis and its aftermath have had different effects on different sets of people, and economic anthropologists have been interested in those effects. The contributors to this volume show some of the effects on one set of people, those in the sub-discipline, as they consider what we might want to study and how we might want to study it.

Carrier Economic
James G. Carrier
, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany and Indiana University, Bloomington, US

A Research Agenda for Economic Anthropology is available now.

Read Chapter 1: Collective economic actors free on Elgaronline.


, , , , , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: