Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: With inequalities in wealth soaring as returns on investment outpace productivity-based income (Piketty 2013), it is time to turn our ethnographic attention to practices of accumulation and returns on capital. These occur beyond the sphere of production and lead us to rents and dividends. Focussing on investment and savings helps us to focus on how people plan for the future, and the climates or conditions under which they seek to mitigate uncertainty, or take calculated risks. Ethnographic insights will allow us to see not only the strategies of wealthy elites using equity to grow their assets, but also new middle-class cultures and practices of saving; it will also give us insights into the struggles of the ‘unbanked’ poor and more generally into alternatives to debt-financed and indebted lives (Rudnyckyj, 2019).
Moreover, expenditure characterized as unproductive ‘consumption’ from the point of view of an economist may be seen from the standpoint of householders and community members as forms of investment in social relations (‘wealth-in-people’), or contributing to one’s social standing or moral worth. Indeed, as Guyer (2004: 99) proposed, an alternative to classifying almost everything individuals or households do as ‘consumption’ would be to see it as forms of investments in the broad sense: ‘performative conversions’ directed toward hopes for prosperous futures, and not only with the expectation of profit-margins. Indeed, from a householder’s perspective transactions such as buying a house, contributing towards a wedding, or meeting children’s school fees can often be deemed forms of ‘investment’. And, as anthropologists (e.g. Bloch and Parry 1989) have long pointed out, forms of expenditure may look more ‘moral’ if not ‘rational’ when compatible with a long-term social order, or religious objectives (e.g. salvation of the soul), which new ethnographies of investment and saving are ideally suited to explore.
Drawing on ethnography from different geographies, economic contexts and scales this panel explores the role of ‘investing’ and ‘saving’ at different historical, economic, political, even religious contexts and (dis)junctures. We are especially interested to tease out how practices of investment and saving bridge ethical and economic decision-making. New ethnographies of investment and saving can illuminate debates and life projects organised not just around ‘value’ and ‘equity’ in the sense of profit and net worth, but also a diverse and plural set of values (Robbins 2013; Graeber 2018), including equality, fairness, justice, and grace. On the other hand, we also encourage attention to the kind of negative moral evaluations and sentiments that may pertain to practices of investment and saving, including greed, the occult, jealousy, complicity, and contempt.
By illuminating the plurality of values and sentiments that give shape to particular cultures and practices of investment and saving, this panel seeks to unearth alternative approaches to the study of economic action in constantly shifting political, economic, and ethical climates. We invite ethnography across diverse sets of actors and field-sites, including economists and bankers, workplaces, associations, households, and religious communities that provide novel insights on how people qualify particular transactions and transfers as ‘consumption’, ‘saving’ and ‘investment’.