Blinded me with science!

So this post is a bit of a fishing expedition — I’m looking to add materials to a course on weird economies. Not “Freakonomics”: – style – weird, but late capitalist – style – weird. If you’ve read a particularly compelling ethnographic (or even pop) treatment of black markets, strange markets, marginal and/or avant garde markets, well, do send along the refs!

And if you want to share your thoughts on how the logic of Freakonomics totally makes sense if you’ve drunk the economic man koolaid and totally does not make much sense otherwise — hey, you won’t hear any complaints from me.

The working course description of the course in question is:

“Anthropology of Alternative Economies”: a course considering the theory and ethnography of marginal, secret, and even magical economies in the contemporary world.
While in recent decades we have heard much about the emergence of a “new” global economy, many members of the world population have access to neither this “new” nor to the “old” (wage-labor) economy. Instead, they enter informal, paraformal, and/or illicit economies: providing goods and services outside of (and often in spite of) legitimate frameworks. These workers realize that the economic systems in which they live operate according to strange logics, and they sometimes develop surprising cultural theories to explain them. Such processes are generating exciting new theorization in economics and anthropology. They also present special ethical and methodological challenges to researchers. The course will cover theoretical and empirical readings, from globally diverse contexts and interdisciplinary perspectives, on these multiple sets of issues.

22 thoughts on “Blinded me with science!

  1. Pingback: Interprete
  2. I’m not exactly sure what qualifies as an “alternative economy” but let me throw out some half-ideas:

    1) local currencies
    2) the trade in holy relics
    3) women’s circles, e.g. those described by Homa Hoodfar in _From Marriage to Market_ (these are informal “savings accounts” in which several people contribute tiny amounts and at some interval, the group as a whole decides who will get the stockpile)
    4) online barter
    5) offshore banking — not corporate loophole-wrangling, but the whole complex of libertarian/survivalist economics
    6) open-source/free software gift economies
    7) pyramid schemes/Nigerian scams (the Two Comaroof’s have done some work on this)
    8) Chinese Hell Money
    9) the stock market (I figured I had to put at least one explicitly magical economic system on my list…)

  3. Hey — thanks for these! (I especially like # 9…)

    What is Chinese Hell Money?

    About local currencies, a few years ago I heard Keith Hart give a talk about some sort of unit-exchange system that was being tried a few places around the world, a way to keep track of exchanges of services for goods — I can’t remember the details but he was a total true believer, really excited about its potential to displace everybody’s fave fictitious commodity (moolah)

  4. “Chinese Hell Money” is paper money burned to propitiate one’s ancestors so that they will be happ in the afterlife. Iirc it is printed as if it were from the bank of hell, so it can be spent in hell.

    I’m not sure if this is in the ambit of the course, but chinese grave goods more generally might be applicable here — you get miniature jars labeled ‘5 tons of wine’ and so on, in a simulacrum of what the dead would need in the after life. The terra cotta warriors you’ve seen are part of this.

    One long ago I heard James Holston talk about a new religious movement in Brazil with a system of degrees and accreditation that was sort of a take off of bureaucracy.

    Oneman is right — open source and local currencies (for instance, Atkins and Robbins volume on “Money and Modernity” is particularly good).

    Post the syllabus when you have it and then we’ll have a better sense of what you’re looking for.

  5. Kerim’s already answered the Hell Money question, but here’s a link for more info: (with pictures).

    I don’t know how useful it is to think of it as money used to buy favors from one’s ancestors, but that was my initial understanding of it when I first heard of it.

    Wikipedia has a good list of local currencies: In a sense, local currencies have always been around, even after the establishment of centralized national banks (think of the economies that spring up around military actions based on the exchange of military scrip). What’s intriguing (to me, anyway) about many of the recent movements is that they are explicitly aimed at strengthening local communities (and economies, of course) — and often at encouraging a degree of autonomy from overarching national power structures (which something like the exchange of military scrip obviously doesn’t do).

  6. A pity you did not want to get into Freakonomics too deeply. From what I understand of the book (and I have read it), Levitt’s main point is the differences between what the culture believes and what is actually the case. Commonsense vs Statistical Analysis. It doesn’t seem very far off from the content posted here. While Levitt himself is a strong proponent of the birth control/crime rate drop correlation, I think that the other themes of his book are much more important. I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone was to disprove it in true Freakonomics style. While that might seem like the ultimate irony, I think it merely proves just how effective his ideas are. Of course, I could be wrong.

  7. Sorry, I posted that last comment, not Kerim. I was accidentally logged in as him because I was doing some site administration.

    For the record, Cass Sunstein has a review of Freakonomics in The New Republic. It’s not the devastating smackdown that Posner’s review of ‘Blink’ was, but the basic point is intact — in fact ‘Freakonomics’ presents a totally mainstream and orthodox account of how economics can be applied to everyday life, while it is the disciplinary outriders (such as those that Sunstein is interested in) who are slowly but surely realizing the cultural mediation of behavior and utility (and are thus the real ‘freaks’ from the pov of the economics establishment).

  8. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which the birth control/crime rate drop correlation could be “proved” or “disproved”. It’s a titillating assertion, not a falsifiable hypothesis. Think about the kinds of variables for which one would have to control to make a robust claim of causality there.

    But actually that’s not my beef with Freakonomics — hooray for titillating assertions! sez me, now and always. Instead what bothers me is that the book takes what is already the mainspring of contemporary U.S. common sense — rational maximizing self-interested competitive behavior controls everything — winds it extra tight, makes it go sproing, and then claims to have updended the very common sense by which the book is subtended. (ooh, I’m a poet too)

    It’s like the old saw about only true believers being capable of blasphemy, and blasphemy being the safety net of belief. If the book said, herein lies a delightful tickling of what most everyone in its potential audience is predisposed to believe to be true anyway I’d say, well, right on. But instead the book says, watch out, this is gonna blow your mind! It’s just irritating, another unwarranted and baldfaced inversion of who actually shapes the dominant paradigm and who’s a rebel upstart within it.

  9. speaking of freaky, I just cross-posted with Rex and it looks as though we’ve made more or less the same point. his doesn’t have a rhyme in it, though.

  10. An acquaintance of mine was recently looking into the (online) behavior of “credit rating maximizers.” There are apparently all sorts of paid services that allow you to check your rating X times daily, correlate credit profiles from multiple agencies, that sort of thing. The users of these services apparently also coordinate timed letter campaigns, and even have code names for the different types of formula letters they send out. Hours of toil each day, all in the quest of a few elusive points to brandish in one’s signature line.

    I don’t have any substantial references, but the relevant websites and forums might make good ethnography practicums for students.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t have any useful references to offer you.

    But I was wondering, given the tremendously insightful anthropological analysis of race and class that I keep reading about on this blog, how come no one’s written about New Orleans?

    I only mean this half-sarcastically. Surely anthropologists have some insights about the behavior of the police and national guard? About the treatment of poor black residents of New Orleans by their wealthier white neighbors? About any of the dozens of race and class issues raised by Katrina?

  12. I’ll tell you Ragout, I’ve thought about posting something on NOLA here, but in the first flush of outrage over the way things have been handled, anything I wrote would be more of a political rant than an anthropological assessment. I can’t speak for my fellow SM’ers, but I imagine they feel something similar. Now that things have calmed down — thousands of lives are no longer in direct danger, for instance — it might be easier to set aside some of that rantiness and say something anthropoliogically meaningful.

  13. Wimbrel — oh god. I had no idea that was a widespread phenomenon — I’ve totally done that. the angry moral god of the credit score is watching me and must be placated, etc.

    Biella — thanks for passing along your syllabus! looks awesome! that’s what I’m talkin about! 😉

    Ragout — I look forward to checking out the article you sent along. The New Orleans race thing — to be honest, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I think my own absence of commentary is due to an inability to say anything clever about it. I post when I think I have something new to say (often new only to me, but it’s good to find that out….). I’ve read a lot of commentary on the topic on other blogs about which I’ve thought “right on”, and like oneman I’ve felt a fair amount of helpless rage. The thing is, most of what needs to be said (and what is being said, on other sites) about the whole catastrophe is specifically political — not that that’s a bad thing, but this is (self-consciously) not a political blog.

    One specifically anthropological thing I’ve thought about has been in regard to race, class, and rumors: the Guardian has been reporting that much of the terrible “savagery” in which poor black New Orleans residents run amok were reportedly engaging is turning out to be unsubstantiated:,,1563470,00.html

    And as all anthropologists know, you can always tell a lot about a society by looking at what kind of rumors that society considers credible and worth circulating…

    But I don’t want to hijack this thread if people have other things to say about weird economies.

  14. just to clarify — I meant “political” in the elected officials, constitutional government, multiparty system, state and local authorities, administrative procedure, etc. etc. etc. sense — not the broad “related to the practical ethics of social interaction” sense. we are obviously political in the second sense, but are not trying to compete with the many excellent blogs out there dedicated to covering the first sense.

  15. this reminds me about the huge amount of literature in the late 70’s and early 80’s on the ‘informal economy’ . there were tons of studies of economic production that goes unmeasured and undocumented.

  16. Local currencies is one thing that I thought of. The town of Ithaca and a number of towns in the British Midlands in the early 1990s and 1980s had scrips that could be exchanged for labor between residents, I think. I recall that the British government actually wanted to tax these local barter practices.

    The internal economies of virtual worlds like Everquest or World of Warcraft are a fairly heavily studied phenomena; there’s a lot of citations (including one from yours truly) I could send you.

    Informal economies are a huge subject, lots of good literature. Also especially criminal economies: drugs, prostitution, tons of good ethnographic works, some old, some new.

    Janet McGaffey has a couple of great monographs on social networks and transnational smuggling in and out of Central Africa; her recent book Congo/Paris teaches well, I think.

    Gift economies old and new are obviously a major topic under this heading–you could do some readings on potlatch, etc. but interesting contrasts to the writing of some cyberculture scholars on gift economies within the wired world.

    “Burial societies” and other kinds of informal credit unions in southern Africa seem interesting and relevant. Also problems of currency equivalence or articulation between local systems of value (like cattle in southern Africa) and cash economies–Keith Breckenridge had a good article a while back on that in CSSH.

    Pyramid schemes, for sure. I wonder if there’s anything good that’s been written about the major national drama in Albania after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc that involved a huge pyramid scheme.


    One conceptual thought, though: with a lot of the language of “weirdness”, “alternative”, etc., you’re kind of preserving the notion that there are other markets/economies which are normal, standard, mainstream. I’m not so sure a lot of this activity is “weird”, in that sense: I think it’s part of what is mainstream. I think maybe you set up an opposition between your interests here and a book like Freakonomics, like it’s you or them, your way or the highway, homo economicus or homo non-economicus. I suspect that’s an unnecessary opposition that involves something of an exaggeration of the monolithic character of “mainstream” economic thought.

  17. Jeremy & Timothy Burke — thanks for the suggestions of directions in which to look. Timothy B — I wonder if the local currencies you’re thinking of are the same ones Keith Hart was on about; I need to track down the ref. Anyway I’ll look into the whole series of things you suggest — though I’m starting to think it’s going to be one of those syllabi with “main readings” and “suggested readings”; there is so much.

    Weirdness/alternative — yeah, totally. The issue is getting a title that doesn’t promise an old-fashioned economic anthro course (which this is not) while also piquing student interest. I’d started out with “anthro of local economies” but that seemed a bit flat. and although I am a big fan of my way or the highway as a life philosophy, I don’t intend to set that up as the framework for the course — in fact as all the terrif suggestions offered here suggest, there are many “ways” all going on at once in lots of different directions. I do think in this sort of course one has to take on homo economicus (or, now, homo freakonomicus) but more in the spirit of “free your mind” than “kill it like a bug!”. ie, students have to be able to see homo e/f as one possibility among many, not the default option.

  18. Dude, you so have to read Bill Maurer’s recent book Mutal Life Limited which is all about the alternative economies. Also, on Chinese, or Vietnamese in particular, hell money, I recomment talking to Allison Truitt, who is at NYU as far as I know at996 at nyu dot edu.

    You also have to post your syllabus, it sounds like a fantastic class.

  19. HI ckelty — well, as many of you probably already suspect if I *had* the syllabus in ready to go form I’d have put it up here already! 🙂 But I promise I will — it’s got to be ready by the end of the month so the heat is on. Thanks for reminding me about Bill Maurer’s book — it was on my “to read” list over the summer and then fell off of it at some point as things tend to do. I’ll look up Allison Truit, too — thanks for the suggestions!

  20. You might want to include the Russian blat’ economy, which is basically an extensive network of favor-trading (though it’s a bit more complicated than that). An interesting book on blat’ is Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange, by Alena V. Ledeneva.

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