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Crisis, Value, and Hope: Rethinking the Economy

Symp 146 Participants

Wenner-Gren Symposium #146
September 14-20, 2012
Tivoli Palacio de Seteais
Sintra, Portugal

PUBLICATION: "Crisis, Value, and Hope:  Rethinking the Economy" (Current Anthropology Vol. 55, S9, August 2014)


Leslie C. Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Niko Besnier, organizer (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
Jennifer Cole (University of Chicago, USA)
Benoit de l’Estoile (CNRS-Paris, France)
Vincent Dubois (University of Strasbourg, France)
Katherine Gibson (University of Western Sydney, Australia)
Stephen F. Gudeman (University of Minnesota, USA)
Isabelle Guerin (University Paris, France)
Shenjing He (Sun Yat-Sen University, PRC)
Deborah A. James (London School of Economics, UK)
Stefaan Jansen (University of Manchester, UK)
Susana Narotzky, organizer (University of Barcelona, Spain)
Jaime Palomera, monitor (University of Barcelona, Spain)
Frances Theresa Pine (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK)
Janet L. Roitman (New School for Social Research, USA)
Parker Shipton (Boston University, USA)
Gavin A. Smith (University of Toronto, Canada)
Magdalena Villarreal Martinez (CIESAS Occidente, Mexico)

Organizers' Statement

This symposium sought to re-think the economy from the perspective of contemporary theory in economic and political anthropology, and explore how this re-thinking informs other concerns in cultural anthropology. Specifically, the organizers aimed to explore what counts as economic and how different processes that count as economic interact with one another. Furthermore, they wished to explore what happens when different regimes of value overlap in the same context and what role the economy plays in linking the past and the present to the future. These endeavors begin with an ethnographic investigation of what these questions mean for people on the ground, particularly people for whom crisis is not a state of exception but a normalized condition. Three important categories emerge in this investigation: crisis, value, and hope. We seek to understand how they interact.

The symposium brought together scholars from diverse backgrounds who are all committed to empirically grounded approaches to these questions with the aim of contextualizing but also transcending the “economy of (mainstream) economics.” This endeavor required a re-thinking about how we model the economy, which does not approach forms of concrete and abstract capital as mutually reinforcing but, on the contrary, as potentially disjointed and complementary. It also required sustained attention to parameters of inequality, such as gender, class, race, ethnicity, and age.

What leads us in this re-thinking is the convergence of three interlocking premises:

  1. We seek to contextualize this basic insight in two sets of dynamics: a) prosperity as a historical anomaly in that, even for the relatively privileged segments of the wealthiest societies, the post-WWII years were a moment of exceptional economic stability and predictability; and b) what is commonly portrayed as the current “temporary” crisis as exposing the precarity with which most people contend on a permanent basis.  Normalized crisis is characteristic of the lives of the poor, but of many others as well.  Crisis is also constitutive of downward mobility within both individual lives and across generations.  Crisis is the context for a re-evaluation of value and a re-consideration of the way in which past, present, and future are inter-related in people’s lives.
  2. The economy cuts across a broad range of human activities beyond the purely material and is constituted by different and co-existing regimes of value.  Those for whom economic crisis is norm operate with coping strategies that transcend the search for elusive material resources.  These strategies include relations of trust, networks of reciprocity encompassing both material and ideational resources, economies of affect, “informal” economies, care-giving chains, and so on.  People invest in multiple aspects of existence which also have economic characteristics and consequences.  Among the poor, social relations constitute a much safer “investment” than faith in direct material returns, contrary to, for example, the assumptions that underlie development policies that prioritize micro-entrepreneurship.  Here we challenge the fetishization of the market and more generally of economic activities, a fetishization that, with the turn to neoliberalism in late modernity, has increased rather than decreased.  We seek to demonstrate that the market cannot be divorced (in either analysis or practice) from the rest of life.  Again, while people in situations of serious precarity are most adept at developing complex coping strategies, alternative economic projects also characterize the parsimony of the not-so-wealthy but not poor.
  3. Hope plays a pivotal role in the lives of people.  As the ability to relate the future to the past, hope operates on different scales at once: at one extreme, from morning to evening (“Will my children have enough to eat tonight?”) and, at the other extreme, from one generation to the next (“Will my children be able to support themselves, their children, and their aging parents?”).  As one feature of the imagination, hope constitutes an important resource when material resources are lacking in the present, although the complete lack of resources hampers the possibility of imagining a future.  Imagining a future is the basis for any action oriented to the transformation of the present into a better future for self and others.  In addition to operating on a temporal scale, hope operates across a socio-spatial scale, e.g., from the domestic economy to political action, from local to state-level to global, and across different forms of civil society. However, hope can also be operationalized as an instrument of exploitation.

The symposium explored the convergence of the three themes through ethnographic cases that focused variously on types of persons, types of resources, kinds of projects of the future, strategies and instrumentalities, and structures of emotions.  Participants based their contributions on their empirical materials and theoretical works centralizing one of the three categories of the symposium and addressing the way in which it articulated with the other two.  Topics that symposium participants addressed included: indebtedness and its relationship to crisis and value; micro-credits as instruments of hope; the meaning of value under conditions of hyperinflation; the place of value in the lives of precarious workers and the homeless; divergent expert and vernacular definitions of economic practice; and the role of hope in mobility practices.

The symposium aimed to integrate, transcend, and transform the various theoretical anthropological traditions that inform it, including:

  • Re-appraisals of Mauss and Polanyi and critiques of classical Marxism, focusing on “alter” economies, post-development, or social economies, which, despite their heterogeneous nature, emphasize the importance of non-market values and the articulation of different values in the accumulation dynamics of present-day capitalist economies;
  • Theoretical advances that seek to understand how the diverse forms of circulation of resources and the different frameworks of value attached to them can co-exist, clash, and synergize;
  • Bourdieu’s articulation of different fields of social interaction with the aim of understanding the workings of social reproduction across cultural, symbolic, social, and economic spheres;
  • Feminist debates about the value of women’s housework, socialization, and care work for the social reproduction of the economic and political system;
  • Explorations of hope as a pivot among emotions, social action, temporality, and the structural context of people’s lives across different disciplines.

What guides economic practice in the lives of ordinary people?  How do these dynamics differ from those predicted by mainstream economic models?  Can anthropology bridge the gap between mainstream models and everyday practices?  Can we propose a unified theoretical framework of the economy that integrates these diverse realities?