Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?

[Savage Minds is very happy to welcome guest blogger David Graeber.]

About a year ago, I gave my old friend Keith Hart a draft of my new book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, and asked him what he thought of it. “It’s quite remarkable,” he ultimately replied. “I don’t think anyone has written a book like this in a hundred years.”

The reason I’m not embarrassed to recount the incident is because I’m still not sure it was meant as a compliment. If you think of most books of the sort people used to write a hundred years ago but no longer do—Frazer’s Golden Bough, Spengler’s Decline of the West, let alone, say, Gobineau’s Inequality of the Human Races—there’s usually an excellent reason why they don’t.

But in a way, Keith had it exactly right. The aim of the book was, indeed, to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate, but at the same time, without any sacrifice of scholarly rigor. History will judge whether it’s still possible to pull this sort of thing off (let alone whether I’m the person who will be able to do it.) But it struck me that if there was ever a time, the credit crisis —and near collapse of the global economy in 2008—afforded the perfect opportunity. In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” It seemed like it would suddenly be possible to have a real conversation, to start asking not just “what on earth is a credit default swap?” but “What is money, anyway? Debt? Society? The market? Are debts different from other sorts of promises? Why do we treat them as if they were? Are existing economic arrangements really, as we’ve been told for so long, the only possible ones?”

That lasted about three weeks and then governments put a 13-trillion dollar band-aid over the problem and started the usual chant of “move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

Still, it strikes me this is likely to be only a temporary hiatus. Just as the true crisis shows every sign of having been merely postponed, so has the conversation been put on hold. Someone has got to try to start it up again, and who better than anthropologists—those scholars whose appointed role, at least in the past, has been to remind everyone that social possibilities are far more rich and wide-ranging than we normally imagine—to try to kick it off?

Given Savage Minds’ dedication to “increasing the public face of anthropology” I thought this might be an interesting place to discuss the issue—and the editors agreed. They suggested, however, that rather than writing one long screed, I write a series of shorter posts, which are easier to digest and tend to spark more focused discussion.

So I will start by talking about some of the issues I grappled with when trying to put together the debt book, hopefully, to compare notes with others out there who have doing, or thinking about doing, something along the same lines.

In the past, I have mainly written either for academic audiences, political/activist audiences, or occasionally both. This one was to be different. I was writing for a commercial press (Melville House) with a much larger, popular audience, in mind—potentially, given the subject-matter, one including popular economics buffs (a sizeable population in the US) and followers of current political affairs.

So: what was to be the model for a big questions sort of book, and how to write a book that would still be scholarly, but not academic?

This is what I came up with:

Of all the models I considered, the most amenable turned out to be the approach adopted by Marcel Mauss. This might seem odd. especially because Mauss never actually wrote a book; he’s mainly famous for a series of essays. Yet many of these essays—not just the Gift, but his essay on the person, techniques of the body (where he coins the term “habitus”), sacrifice and magic—really have had a profound effect both on all subsequent scholarship, and, to differing degrees, political and social debates ever since. Mauss had an uncanny ability to ask the right questions—often, questions he was the first to pose, and which have become mainstays of theoretical debate ever since. His was also an appealing model because Mauss was both a serious, committed activist (he was especially active in the French cooperative movement), and a scholar of remarkable erudition. His problem—and this, I suspect, is why he never did write a proper book, despite numerous attempts—was that he was also almost unimaginably disorganized, and therefore, terrible at exposition. I suspect if alive today he would have been quickly diagnosed with severe ADD.

Still, this basic organizational structure struck me as still viable. Basically, what Mauss would do would be to first frame his question—“what is it that makes the market seem so morally hollow?” or “how did we end up coming to attach such significance to the individual?”—and then both bring a wide range of ethnographic examples to bear, but also, to frame his question in the grandest possible scale of world history. Obviously, nowadays, one would not frame one’s history in quite the same way. There was always a certain evolutionist strain in Mauss’ writing. But if you read his arguments carefully, evolutionist assumptions are always in tension with an equally powerful insistence that almost all social possibilities—democracy and monarchy, individualism and communism, gifts and money—are simultaneously present in any social context, and always have been, and that all that really varies from age to age is how they come together, and which tend to be seized on and promoted over the others as the truly defining features of society or human nature. It struck me that if one develops this strain, and makes it explicit, the larger structure still works: and this is precisely how I organized the debt book. First I set out the principles that one can assume will always be at play. Examples of these are: the three moral logics that can be appealed to in economic transactions—which I labeled as “communism” (after Mauss), “exchange,” and “hierarchy”—or the dual nature of money (after Keith Hart), as simultaneously commodity and social relation (or more specifically, virtual credit system.) Then I moved from ethnographic comparison to constructing a grand historical narrative, though in my case, demonstrating more that history seems to follow a pattern of alternating cycles dominated by virtual credit money, and bullion money, than that it’s going in any particular overall direction.

But what about the style? How to write the sort of book one wishes Mauss would have written, rather than the sort of difficult, convoluted, frequently disorganized essays he actually did?

At least in the English-speaking world, there have been two dominant approaches taken by scholars trying to reach a broader audience. One might be deemed the Pop Mode, familiar from people who most anthropologists dislike, like say Jared Diamond, or Evolutionary Psychologists, or in the area of money, perhaps Jack Weatherford. In Pop Mode, one affects an accessible and breezy style, much easier to understand than ordinary academic prose, but, rather than seriously challenging one’s audiences’ assumptions, essentially provides them with reasons they never would have thought of to continue to believe what they already assume to be true. (By the way, I didn’t make up this definition of pop scholarship, but now I can’t remember where I got it from.) The alternative is the exact opposite. I’ll dub it the Delphic or Oracular mode (this term I am making up on the spot, but I think it kind of works.) This is the approach of, say, Deleuze or  Baudrillard, or actually, almost any of the trendy French, German, or Italian theorists who gain followers outside of academia, usually in bohemia or among those working in the culture industry. Here the aim is usually to challenge as many common-sense assumptions as possible, but also, to do it in a style even more obscure than ordinary academic writing—so obscure, in fact, that its very obscurity generates a kind of charismatic authority, as devotees spend untold hours of their lives arguing with one another about what their favorite Great Thinker might have actually been on about.

Neither seemed particularly appealing, and anyway, the second isn’t really an option for an Anglophone scholar—we are generally only allowed to be secondary interpreters, or at best, perhaps, like Michael Hardt, Batman-and-Robin-style faithful sidekick, to some Continental oracle. What then the alternative?

Well, the book is my answer. An accessible work, written in plain English, that actually does try to systematically challenge common sense assumptions. The problem is that merely trying to write accessibly isn’t enough. I had to confront any number of other issues both about style and content, and some of the results are worth contemplating – or at least passing on. Here are three things I think I learned:


  • jokes and little stories, often off-set like quotes, are helpful. Zizek pioneered this but I think it works out (though some of his own are getting a bit repetitive at this point). Mainstream editors don’t seem to like Bourdieu-style alternating between different fonts or styles of print, but if they can be prevailed upon, readers actually seem to like it.
  • Mainstream audiences don’t care what other scholar is wrong. This cannot be emphasized enough. The difference between an academic work and a scholarly-but-not-academic work mainly comes down to this. Nobody wants to hear why your approach to the Oedipus myth is better than Levi-Strauss, let alone, what flawed assumptions caused Levi-Strauss to get it so terribly wrong, and how Rene Girard does rather better but is still not as right as me because he overlooked… whatever. No. Resist! Just tell them something interesting and new about Oedipus and why this take might actually be true. Obviously, if you are critiquing things that actually are common wisdom (Adam Smith’s theory of the origin of money, in my case…) that’s different. But if it’s an in-house quarrel, keep it for in-house publications. Or the footnotes.
  • About those footnotes: back up your statements with extensive, detailed references that actually do say what you think they say. Good scholarship is more appreciated by popular audiences than academic ones. This is a bit scandalous but I have found it to be true. I have about 100 pages of notes and bibliography in the book and non-academics commenting on the book rarely fail to note, approvingly, that I don’t ask anyone to take my word for what I say, but back up all my claims with numerous references. Some show signs of actually having checked a few to make sure I was on the level. It’s an interesting comment on academia that we almost never do this. To the contrary: I’ve noticed whole small academic literatures based on footnotes in Mauss where clearly no one ever bothered to look up the cited sources (since they don’t say anything like he claims they did.) I’ve seen two reviews of my own work, published in very prestigious academic journals, where veritably no statement made about the contents of the book was accurate—I mean, with statements that were just over-the-top false, or obviously dishonest, like taking quotes from the book and removing the word “not” from them—and apparently, despite the fact that they were also hatchet jobs, the editor just waved them ahead unchecked. Ironically, no such a review could ever have been published in a magazine like Harpers or The Nation, where there are battalions of fact-checkers who literally test every statement a writer submits for factual accuracy.


So that’s a start: be an even more conscientious scholar, don’t waste time arguing with other academics unless there’s a reason to, and entertaining digressions are okay, especially, if clearly marked as such. Let me leave with that and come back and throw out something about the actual content next week.


David Graeber is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Madagascar, and among
American anarchists, and has written extensively on ritual, debt, exchange, politics, bureaucracy, magic, social movements, and value theory,

27 thoughts on “Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?

  1. Dear David,

    As an archaeologist I really look forward to reading and reviewing your book. There are actually quite a few ‘big question’ archaeology books that have some depth to them, but those are mostly in the Marxist tradition (following Gordon Childe). It will be interesting to compare them with your work.

    Terribly off-topic, I know, but I was wondering how you would relate your Mauss-influenced perspective with the take on art objects in Gell’s Art and agency book? I have the feeling there is an underexplored connection here.

  2. thanks Marcus. Actually I do feel more of a kinship with archeologists than with many cultural anthropologists when discussing some of these issues.

    Ironically, I just had lunch just yesterday with an archeologist friend, David Wengrow, who also wrote a big-questions sort of book that I would strongly recommend: What Makes Civilization? He seemed to rather feel that this sort of thing was no longer really encouraged amongst archeologists. It’s frustrating because there’s huge popular interest, and some discoveries that have not been widely bruited – for instance, the new dating that has found Uruk I to have lasted maybe a thousand years, and that therefore, both in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia there were very long periods of apparently egalitarian urban civilization before the emergence of anything that could be called a state. You’d think that would have enormous implications for how we think about history (I’d really like to stick it to the Primitivists with that one, for example.) But owing to the lack of any current Gordon Childe type, and the fact that no one is really encouraged to become a new one, a lot of things just aren’t out on the table.

    About Gell – well, I find Gell intriguing, but I’m not sure. Please do go on.

  3. @David

    Debt:The First 5,000 Years now resides in the Kindle reader on my iPad. Have only had time to scan the first few pages but the opening….brilliant. Having a woman, a liberal lawyer and supporter of progressive causes say, “Surely one has to pay one’s debts” is superb in both literary and problem-setting senses.

  4. To MTBradley

    Yes, I know. And I’ve recorded like three interviews now with NPR – one was cancelled (“preempted by the debt crisis”!), one has been endlessly suspended after one of the two interviewers, the one who hadn’t read the book, but who had gone to University of Chicago and studied economics and clearly saw me as some sort of evil avatar of Marshall Sahlins, just attacked me for fifteen minutes, and the third (Markeplace) – actually that one was great, especially, since the host, David Brancaccio, greeted me in Malagasy (!), having lived there as a child, and I suspect it will go on eventually, but not before mid-August.

    To John:

    Really kind of you to say! Hope you like the rest, too

    But the silly coins get on immediately.

  5. On Gell, there are two sections in Art and agency where his thesis on art almost directly intersects Mauss’ work on gift-exchange. The first (pp. 106-109) discusses the hau of the mauri fertility stones in a productive exchange nexus between priests, forest and hunters. This is based on the same account of Ranapiri that Mauss used for his work on the gift, but Gell doesn’t address the debates regarding this issue. The other section (pp. 228-232) is concerned with the kula system as a form of cognition mediated by physical indexes.

    So, I was wondering about the connection between art objects and objects exchanged, if they are both part of a common ontology of things.

    I think it’s true we are unlikely to see a new Childe, but comparative work is doing quite well in (parts of) archaeology. The problem rather is that the results of such work are seen as irrelevant, or perhaps that it isn’t encouraged to articulate their relevance.

  6. ah well you know I do my own take on the hau/mauri/Ranapiri text in the value book (pp. 178-83), which heads in a somewhat different direction. I concluded Ranapiri was making a point about strategy: just as one tries to get rid of the gods who fertilize and really own the forest by presenting first-fruits, so when you accept a gift, the donor has a claim over almost anything you have, should he demand it, so by giving him a return present (especially one that similarly came out of the gift) you are essentially making a preemptive strike to cancel out the power they have over you by putting you in their debt. Most previous scholars didn’t pick up on this because they assume that ‘I give you a gift, you give me a return gift,’ is always the norm. But in the Maori case it doesn’t seem to have been. It was more often ‘I give you something, if you agree to accept it, now I have the right to demand pretty much anything I want, from your jade pendant to your daughter’s hand in marriage, in return.’

    I did find Gell helpful in putting together the argument. Also a French scholar named Babdazan who I think Gell might have put me on to.

    The kula argument I don’t know so well. Is he using a variation of the distributed-mind approach? I have indeed become rather interested in that one of late, via Bloch, but haven’t yet developed it in this context, except perhaps tacitly in some of my discussion of “communism.”

  7. David,

    I really appreciate your ideas here about rethinking the ways in which anthropological books are actually written. I definitely think that anthros can and should keep going after those “big question” kinds of books. In fact, the more I see how certain issues are presented (like the economy), the more I think anthros need to get themselves into the game, so to speak.

    Also, I took a lot from your book on value–that has been really useful for rethinking my dissertation research. So I am looking forward to the book on debt as well. I think the anthropological perspective adds a whole layer (or several) to discussions about human behavior and economic interactions that are all but lacking in most public discourse. In many ways, people think about the market that are decidedly lacking in any actual humanity (let alone empirical reality)–and this is something that the anthros can really add. Now we all just need to do it…

  8. Yes, it is a distributed-mind approach, and one in which the agency of kula operators is expanded through his participation in the network. His mind and the material indices are ‘fused’, as the latter are extension of himself and the former has adapted itself to be able to interact within the kula.

    I’m still thinking this through as I’m reading Gell again. The reason I was asking the question in the first place is that I’m looking at the distribution of similar wallpaintings in a number of Mycenaean palaces and other sites. The idea is that these must have been travelling painters somehow dependent on the people running the palaces, as the economy was pre-monetary (but the texts are silent as to how). So there seems to have been some exchange network, which would have included metals and other valuables as well. This brings up the question how art objects are related to what we term commodities. I’m thinking the kind of values in the paintings would enable a kind of macro-regional form of cognition or distributed mind, which then would facilitate the exchange of other things.

  9. “Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?”

    Philip Roth?

    For a Family Business, a Recurring Role in the TV Spotlight

    In 1976, he came to New York with his wife to work as a contractor — sewing for designers like Michael Kors, now a judge on “Project Runway.” He moved quickly into dealing fabric wholesale, and, in the 1980s when domestic manufacturing dropped, selling retail. His wife, Janet, now 57, ran the register.

    Mr. Sauma watched the other stores close while Mood stayed afloat, in part because it relied on student designers — a burgeoning group that, partly because of the show, has only grown.

    Today, he has passed his duties on. “He’s kind of taking it in from the backseat,” Philip Sauma said. Philip runs the business day to day, while his brother, Eric, 29, is the creative, design-minded in-store operator. A daughter, Amy Altunis, 32, lives in London with her two young children. Recently, her nanny learned of the family business. “She screamed,” Ms. Altunis said.

    “To some people it’s a big deal,” Philip Sauma said. “To us it’s work.”

    “It’s not work,” Jack Sauma said. “It’s social.”

    Until academic intellectuals return to the acceptance of the performativity of their own behavior, seeing their professional lives as ruled by the sociality of holders of esoteric knowledge, great “big question” books aren’t going to happen. In the meantime fundamentalist Darwinism has replaced fundamentalist Marxism in the popular imagination of the “bookish”. And the scholarship of leftish theory is hardly better. But culture itself is thriving, as it always does in period of crisis.

    If economic life is in fact an aspect of social life then so is academia. See the recent post on Geoff Dyer and Michael Fried and Kerim’s last post referring to Seeing Like a State. Dyer (again) is a novelist: a craftsman. The idea of “metis” is meaningless absent the practice of it. Novelists have or use metis. Politicians have or use metis. Lawyers use it. Gigolos use it. Philosophers ignore it. The doctrine of the primacy of the theoretical denies the primacy of practice. In democracy practice is primary, theory is secondary.

    I’m not saying anything on way or another about your book. It sounds interesting and it’s high up on my to do list for reading. As you describe your interests, and you’ve done it in the past, they connect to a lot of recent discussion about the relation of intellectuals to the wider world. But what bothers me about most of it, from Scott to Richard Sennett, to Shop Class as Soulcraft is that it’s still the language of philosophy, or of philosophers defending something foreign. It’s still the absurdity of Plato’s claimed relation to rhetoric, now switched from condemnation to approval. Rhetoric, like lawyering and literature, is craft. Socrates and Plato were always rhetoricians, and the language of academics is more than ever a perverse twisted sort of craft. I’m still horrified by Bourdieu’s discussion of Flaubert. Academics claim too often to write as Scalia claims to read. We need a return to the understanding of scholarship as literature. In the end that’s how big question books are remembered, if they are.

  10. We need a return to the understanding of scholarship as literature. In the end that’s how big question books are remembered, if they are.

    Hmph. Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not good literature, but it is a big question book that has been remembered and read for over two millennia, and justly so. Philosophers write big question books all the time: Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry, for instance. I don’t think anyone would call that book ‘literature’, but it is exceptional scholarship. It is a great shame that that and other modern philosophical classics are not more widely known. That might be because they aren’t literature – but being remembered is not the important thing. Writing the best piece of work possible, something that best represents the facts and the truth, is the important thing.

    Trying to write a literary masterpiece entails originality being privileged over clarity and sense. Clarity is not the hallmark of literature. Art-forms and clear exposition are orthogonal.

  11. @seth

    On this one my heart is with you 100%, my mind a bit less. There have been big books, Kant and Hegel, for example, that are painful to read but have been, nonetheless, enormously influential.

  12. Any one who reads Aristotle should read Euripides and Sophocles and Homer. It’s odd to think that Kant and Hegel didn’t write literature. What are the Bible and the Augustine’s Confessions to the godless? Are Hegel’s works more empirically valid than Shakespeare’s?
    More observant? More reasoned?

    We describe ourselves before we describe the world. Writing in the the first person or the third or in technical jargon makes no difference, especially to outsiders, including and especially our grandchildren. If the past is a foreign country, so is the future.

    Philosophy descends from above. Its roots are in theology. It ends in prescription, if these days only the prescription of the schoolmaster. All I can say to Susaan Haack is that she’s never seen a lawyer at the bar, before a judge and jury. The experience is closer to Shakespeare than Quine.

  13. There is a difference between books about big ideas (of which anthropology has not ever lacked) and books about ideas that matter for people in and out of academia. What is the difference? What makes the second type sucessful? Well, the difference is not that the public outside academia book with less jargon but that in order for us to write the kind of book we need to understand how publics are constituted. Yes, there are very complicated books with big followings. The delphic kind of books that will give you a headache. Yet, they are written in a socio-historical and ideological circumstances that place them into certain apetites and make them fit certain textual expectations. Most of the time, being able to read these texts place you, and therefore the author, within a type (the intellectual kind). Greek philosophers, yes they have big followings but it took the Reinassance to bring them back form oblivion and they are read in part because they create distinction (a la Bourdieau). Now Graeber is pointing us to a style of discourse, a genre that he describes as non-Delphic and Non-Pop. I think that is your aim, but I disagree with Hart because there are books like that in anthropology that are much more recent. Remember Margaret Mead, she wrote in the big-idea-for-the-broader-audience style without compromising her scholarship. She was very aware of the kind of book that would be popular. In other words, she was aware of both the genres of written text and the ideological demands of her time and we could follow that. I think you have made a good contribution to that effect with your book.

  14. Remember Margaret Mead, she wrote in the big-idea-for-the-broader-audience style without compromising her scholarship.

    Are you sure that’s true? What about her baseless claim in Sex and Temperament… that the Mundugumor in New Guinea practiced alternating descent? This turned out to be wrong, and her own fieldnotes showed it to be fallacious. She might have made it up in order to produce an exotic portrait of a far-off group for public consumption, or the truth might have been lost in translation, but either way, her scholarship was hardly first rate. She also seldom bothered to learn the local language – she certainly didn’t learn Mundugumor, and when she was conducting salvage fieldwork in Omaha communities with Reo Fortune, she even decisively stated that she didn’t want to learn the Omaha language. She certainly compromised her scholarship, even if Freeman was completely wrong about Samoa.

    She was very aware of the kind of book that would be popular.

    Yeah. Ones with naked people on the cover.

    Btw, it seems my reply to seth edenbaum has been lost in moderation. Length and tone may have had something to do with it, I expect.

  15. @ Al West Ok, good to know that you have problems with Mead’s work. I just wanted to emphasize that experiments on the kind of writing that Graeber proposes have been done in anthropology not long ago. And, as he has also pointed in his blog, they often lead to people actually reviewing things more thoroughly, just like you have done with Mead’s work obviously. So again this process is not so new in anthropology but its use by Graeber is very much welcome and needed.

  16. If this book is even as remotely thought provoking as your essay Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, I do believe I will have to read it.

    On a different note, however, I believe it is imperative that archaeologists especially learn how to do this (big idea for the public without going popsci). I’ve been traveling a lot over the course of the past year, and inevitably I get to talking to the people I’m traveling with. In Greyhound stations, rest stops, airports and towns across the Midwest and the East coast I have talked with people about archaeology (the typical icebreaker in these situations as I’m sure you’re all aware being, ‘where are you going’ and ‘why’?) and I would say about half of the adults and 9 out of 10 of the teenagers I’ve spoken with this summer have absolutely no idea what archaeology is, what archaeologists do or why it is important. For a bit of an extreme example, as I was digging at a site in the middle of a small town in Wisconsin this summer, a resident of the town came up to the site and asked us a few genial questions about what we were looking for and why, before getting really upset and demanding to know who was funding us, and upon discovering that it was taxpayer money proceeded to have a complete fit, questioning the whole point of what we were doing, before we had to ask him to leave.

    So kudos for making some steps in a direction I think archaeologists should be following, because if we are to avoid the above episode on a broader scale and continue to receive funding to do our research, we need to get our ideas out there to the public otherwise we risk becoming completely irrelevant.

  17. You know it’s funny, about your archeology experience – even I have know what it’s like to feel like the indignant tax-payer on at least one occasion. I remember I was talking to a Medieval historian, mentioning an idea I’d got from reading about Medieval concepts of the imagination. She basically became offended that I should write anything on the subject at all, that is, if I had not myself relied on the original (untranslated, Latin) sources – indeed, that doing so was somehow offensive! Basically she seemed to hold the position that secondary works were not really knowledge – in the sense of something anyone not themselves an expert familiar with the primary texts could read and end up knowing something they hadn’t know already.

    I found this odd since, of course, she wrote such books herself. I must confess I did, just for a moment, feel tempted to say “well, why exactly do you expect anyone to pay your salary if you are actively opposed to the idea of anyone other than other Medievalists learning anything from your research?”

    Obviously that’s the opposite extreme. I don’t think all scholars are obliged to speak to the public – but the instinct to actively oppose wider use of one’s work does I think help explain such odd popular attitudes. (Obviously, with archeology in the US, it’s different: in any other country, practically, archeology is seen as nationalist affirmation and widely supported as such; here, it’s about better understanding the people we largely exterminated.)

    Also, in fairness to Keith – I don’t think he meant no one had written an accessible big question book that doesn’t just reaffirm common sense in a century; I think he was more referring to the chutzpah of asking a philosophical question and then trying to answer it through an ethnographic survey of five thousand years of history.

  18. Haven’t big question sort of books always been rare? I would say so… Also, as others have pointed out, this kind of book is still being published today, for example about philosophy, astronomy or evolution. Sure, some are pop science, rather dull as David says; others are a bit better.

    But I think the crux in David’s argument is about a different issue, that is: why aren’t books asking big questions about capitalist society being written more often? In my opinion the last book of this type to be published was Polanyi’s The Great Transformation in 1944 (surely Keith forgot about it…). I have no idea what the sales figures for it were, probably appalling (imagine someone buying a book in 1944, at least in Europe!). It’s interesting because Polanyi was also, like Mauss, a political activist, both in Hungary and England. His writing was clearly informed by this aspect of his life (and there are stacks of unpublished or obscure articles by Polanyi that he intended as contribution to the current events of his time; again, like with Mauss).

    There are probably two reasons for the contemporary lack of big question sort of books about capitalist society, and they’ve mostly already been covered by people above. First: the structure of the academic-publishing complex doesn’t encourage them. Second: not everyone is capable of producing such texts.

    I would have a lot more to ask David and everyone else here. For example:

    – if big question sort of books tend to be predominantly comparative (both synchronically, i.e. ethnographically, and diachronically, i.e. historically), what does this tell us about current anthropology, which is, overall, none of the above?

    – is the lack of public intellectuals the real problem?

    – what’s the ontological nature of the three moral principles of economic transaction: communism, exchange and hierarchy? I mean, are they ‘real’? If so, where do they come from? What explains their presence? (Sure, I’ll read the relevant chapter…)

    As I said, a lot more. But David’s first post was about the meta-level. Isn’t a second post due by now?

  19. Dear professor Graeber,

    I hope you’ll come across this comment.
    I was wondering if you would like to write something here about the method(s) you used for your research, how the different discoveries that you describe in the book came to you, what were the main steps you made on the research path, how you proceeded through the diversity of sources.
    For example, I am wondering whether you already had some ideas about bullion VS credit cycles in history before writing the book, or if that came to you while doing researches for this impressive book, and how it came to you.
    Or how did you go through the litterature ? Did you start with clear themes in mind, exploring the relevant litterature on the first urban civilizations across the globe first and then up to the present (or the converse maybe?), or did you focus on the different regions one after the other, or did you explore the litterature according to the different themes one after the other across history and geography, or none of the above ?

    This is a very inspiring and fascinating book, hence I am very curious about how one come to do terrific things like that.

  20. To Jérémy

    That’s a big question! I did start with the cycles of bullion and credit, this was something to some degree inspired by Keith Hart’s two sides of the coin essay, but taking it in my own idiosyncratuic direction. As for the lit, it’s very hard being based in Goldsmiths, since there’s no open-stacks major research library in London, but I basically used a combination of interlibrary loan and Google books. Google books proved incredibly useful, since it’s searchable. For instance, I remember being in Chapel Hill, which has an excellent research library, and running to the religious shelves to find out about attitudes toward debt in world religions, and use of idioms of debt in theological writings. There were no books specifically on the subject, but I went through literally hundreds of indexes. The result? Five hours and I got nothing – not a single indexer felt that “debt,” or “credit,” were words worthy of putting in the index, and looking up related words like “money” brought up nothing. Google books of course allows you to search for words used on the same page, so in no time, I had all sorts of incredible material. Obviously, a lot of it you’re then not allowed to see – but using the Google books search index in conjunction with a research library is incredibly productive. (Also if you really need something, often you can screenshot each page between Google and Amazon.) All this was before I discovered

    So that was technique. I did start with a series of themes – some of the case studies, like the Tiv, I already knew well, others like the Lele I learned about mainly for this book. Originally the three-part chapter on communism/exchange/hierarchy was chapter 2, and set up terms of analysis applied in the rest. but my editor convinced me to move it back because he thought the challenge to economic categories would draw the non-academic reader in more. I never expected the historical section to be so long – it was just I learned so many fascinating things in researching it I couldn’t help but want to pass it on.

  21. “An accessible work, written in plain English, that actually does try to systematically challenge common sense assumptions.”

    And you succeed. I have come away from all of your works with ideas that have overturned my theoretical presuppositions in one way or another. In part, I suspect, it’s because my background is in sociology, which tends to lack the comparative perspective that anthropology provides, but it’s also no doubt the result of the way you synthesize ideas.

    I know many people dislike having their worldview challenged, but if you are able to do so in an inclusive, non-dogmatic and stimulating way, backed up with substantial evidence and with suggestions for further reading, it gives readers to feel a sense of autonomy and confidence to pursue the argument wherever it may take them.

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