The Editors of Focaal asked me to comment on the recent award of a so-called Nobel Prize in economic sciences to Oliver Williamson, a founder of New Institutional Economics (NIE), and Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who is best known for her work on “common property regimes” and “public entrepreneurs.” The committee of the Bank of Sweden commended the two of them for their work on “economic governance,” which has reshaped how economists think about the nature of the firm and the boundaries between private and public institutions.
Why Veblen beats the Nobel Laureates
As I began writing this piece, a blog post in the Guardian (18 May 2010) asked if “the markets” are our new religion, likening them to a “bloodthirsty god” in primitive religion. Financial markets are the outcome of thousands of independent decisions, but the media oft en speak of them as a single all-knowing entity. Almost a decade earlier, Thomas Frank (2001) published One Market under God and many others have made a similar connection. The editors of this journal approached me to comment on the possible interest the financial crisis might hold for anthropologists of religion. That begs the question of what religion is and what money has to do with it. In what follows I stick to a Durkheimian line on the affinity between money and religion. Its relevance to the current economic crisis must wait for another occasion.
Distributional Models between National and World Society
Statistical patterns can be found in nature and society. Their distribution may conform to mathematical models. Thus, if two unbiased dice are rolled a thousand times, the number seven will occur with six times the frequency of two or twelve. The resulting histogram will be symmetrical with one peak where the mean, median and mode coincide. Or take a large sample of adult human beings and measure their height. Most cases will fall between five and six feet with very few less than four or more than seven feet. Because this is a continuous variable, the results can be plotted on a graph to which a curve may be fitted. It too will have a single peak with fantails on the high and low ends. We call this the ‘normal’ distribution or popularly the ‘bell curve.’ For more than a century, statistical inference has largely been based on this curve with its parameters of mean and standard deviation.
A Participant Observer’s View
I dwell here on my own experience of working at Cambridge University for methodological reasons. Anthropologists could make more of the humanities tradition of going deeply into particular personalities, places, events and relations in search of wider truths. Ethnography exemplifies this, but the discipline’s assimilation into the social sciences and academic bureaucracy counteract this impulse. I draw selectively on my anthropological education and academic work to interrogate the political relationship between western societies and their former colonies. Cambridge University is reactionary for sure, but its decentralized organization makes room for a minority sometimes to change the world. The historical example of the abolition movement illustrates this. Anthropology ought to be a way of rethinking the world, and I conclude with how and why I introduced students to the anti-colonial intellectuals who did just that when they led the liberation (not ‘decolonization’) movements that overthrew European empires.
This note revisits Weber (especially his General Economic History) and Knight on risk and calculation, while adding commentary based on some other authors, notably Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Some recent ethnographies of finance are considered, as well as popular literature on making money. The future is unknowable, but modern societies train their members to expect to pin down future time. Precise calculation of future outcomes is a chimera, one of the principal causes of the recent financial collapse. Reasoning works best backwards as rationalization and this is scientific method. Extrapolation from the past to the future is where it all breaks down.
Keith Hart, Florence Weber, Nathan Schlanger, Gavin Flood, and Mike Gane
Marcel Mauss, Manual of Ethnography, edited by N. J. Allen, translated by D. Lussier, Oxford and New York: Durkheim Press/Berghahn Press, 2007, pp. 212.
Marcel Mauss, Techniques, Technology and Civilisation, edited and introduced by Nathan Schlanger, New York and Oxford, Durkheim Press/ Berghahn Books, 2006, pp. 178.
Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, introduction de Florence Weber, Paris: Quadrige/ Presses Universitaires de France,  2007.
Louise Child, Tantric Buddhism and Altered States of Consciousness: Durkheim, Emotional Energy and Visions of the Consort, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. vii, 197.
James Dingley, Nationalism, Social Theory and Durkheim, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 221.
Some Critical Perspectives
Bruce Kapferer, Marshall Sahlins, Keith Hart, Jonathan Friedman, Allen Feldman, Michael Humphrey, Ibrahim Aoude, Michael Rowlands, John Gledhill, and Leif Manger
The World Trade Center disaster is an event of such significance that it exhausts interpretation. This is not because of the enormity of the event itself. Numerous humanly caused destructed of just the last hundred years dwarf it in scale, and the attention now addressed to it may over the next year appear disproportionate. But events are never significant in the imagination of human beings independently of the way they are socially constructed into significance in the context of the social, political and cultural forces that somehow are articulated through a particular event, and thrown into relief by its occurrence. Undoubtedly, much of the significance that attaches to the World Trade Center catastrophe relates to the character of the conflict it defines, and the several paradoxes the event gathers up in its prism: of the strong against the weak, the powerful as victims, the cycle of revenge, the generalization of suffering, the vulnerability of technological potency, and so on.
Ien Ang, George Baca, Rohan Bastin, Jacob Copeman, Thomas Ernst, Jonathan Friedman, Kingsley Garbett, Diana Glazebrook, Greg Gow, Keith Hart, André Iteanu, Roger Just, Bruce Kapferer, Judith Kapferer, Khalid Koser, Neil Maclean, Jukka Siikala, Amy Stambach, Christopher C. Taylor, Pnina Werbner, and Amanda Wise
Notes on Contributors
Ibrahim G. Aoude, Sandra Bamford, Mark T. Berger, Doug Dalton, Allen Feldman, Jonathan Friedman, John Gledhill, Richard Handler, Keith Hart, Michael Humphrey, Dan Jorgensen, Bruce Kapferer, Clive Kessler, Leif Manger, David A. B. Murray, Joel Robbins, Michael Rowlands, Marshall Sahlins, Elizabeth Stassinos, Marilyn Strathern, Karen Sykes, and Souchou Yao
Notes on contributors