An Ethnography of Wall Street

By | October 4, 2009

Financial Times’ Gillian Tett reviews Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street:

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street
By Karen Ho
Duke Press £16.99, 392 pages

When I first started covering finance for the FT, I used to get embarrassed when asked about my academic past. Before I became a journalist, I did a PhD in social anthropology, a branch of social science that endeavours to understand the cultural dynamics of societies based on grass-roots analysis.

Back in the pre-credit crisis days, bankers tended to consider degrees in anthropology to be rather “hippy”. As one banker told me; the only qualifications that really commanded status were those linked to economics, maths, physics and other “hard” sciences – or, at a pinch, an MBA.

Not anymore. As the financial disasters of the past two years have unfolded, it has become painfully clear that bankers placed far too much faith on their quasi-scientific models. It has also been evident that a grasp of cultural dynamics is critical in understanding how modern finance works – or doesn’t. Consequently, the idea of using the social sciences to understand money is becoming fashionable in some quarters.

Given all that, Karen Ho has picked an excellent time to publish her fascinating new study – or “ethnography” – of Wall Street banks. Ho is currently a professor of social anthropology at the University of Minnesota. A decade ago, however, she was an employee of Bankers Trust, formerly a powerful Wall Street banking giant, and carried out research among a number of banks.

As field-sites go, Wall Street is not classic anthropological territory: ethnographers typically work in remote, third-world societies. Ho admits that studying banking tribes was hard: “The very notion of pitching a tent at the Rockefellers’ yard, in the lobby of JP Morgan or on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange is not only implausible but also might be limiting and ill-suited to a study of the ‘power elite’,” she writes. Continue reading…

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