The anthropology of finance has flourished in the last decade or so. The doyen of this field is Bill Maurer who conducts research on law, property, money and finance, particularly new and experimental financial and currency forms and their legal implications. He is the author of Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. One focus of his research is on the shifting regulatory landscape of the offshore Caribbean; and on the cultural implications of new forms of electronic money and payment systems and regulation of mobile phone-enabled payment systems. Maurer has recently been engaged in a series of collaborations with industrial and design professionals who work on the development of new digital and mobile phone-enabled money transfer and savings systems. This led to the founding of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. By exploring people’s creative uses of money beyond its traditional functions, he hopes to provoke deeper reflection on the multiple meanings of money. Maurer recommends a sceptical, pragmatic approach to money and is thus more interested in what people can do with money than what it means to them. Like Jane Guyer (Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa), he believes that anthropologists have bought too easily into the liberal economists’ idea of money as a means of exchange rather than as a means of payment.
It has now become almost commonplace for anthropologists to work in financial centres. Ellen Hertz (The Trading Crowd: An Ethnography of the Shanghai Stock Market ) was prescient in carrying out field research on the Shanghai stock market. Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London) focused on how financial traders adjusted to new information technology. Both of these studies, however, are quite traditional in their focus, being concerned with the traders’ local practices and point of view, even if their business is global at another level. Karen Ho goes further by linking her ethnography to a broader analysis of political economy. Based on interviews with employees of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other great finance houses, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street explicitly engages with larger distributional questions, such as those involved in the system of granting bank employees large bonuses.
Here is a column I wrote shortly after reading karen Ho’s book.