It is not common to find anthropologists working on issues related to banking. At first, it might seem that Wall Street or financial assets, trading, brokers or the famous subprime have nothing to do with the science of Malinowski, Boas or Geertz. However, we must understand that the banking panorama is composed of relational beings. Of people. And that behind the stereotype of Wall Street Wolf and hat of Monopoli survive a whole series of logics, codes, values and dynamics. As the anthropologist Gillian Tett points out, studying Wall Street is not so different from studying marriage rituals in Tajikistan.
In September 2008 we discovered that this small banking subculture had an immense world power, and the consequences of its actions would have a planetary impact. The onset of the financial crisis impoverished the states, generated migratory flows, propelled the rise of ultra-nationalisms, made bigger the social gap and condemned thousands of people to subsist on the peripheries of the system.
Had these guys really been able to cause such catastrophe?
A tribe that manages the savings and investments of millions of people is a tribe that must be taken seriously, almost as much as the Trobriand, the Kapauku or the Kung. Where are the anthropologists when they are needed? Wouldnt it have been appropriate if someone had studied the logics of this group of brokers?
The truth is that although banking has never been one of the favorite topics of anthropology, certain anthropologists have decided to address it. In this article I present two examples: the one of Gillian Tett, an anthropologist and journalist of the Financial Times, and the one of Joris Luyendijk, anthropologist and journalist of The Guardian, “the least known anthropologist”.
Gillian Tett: Participant observation among brokers
In her excellent article “Anthropologist on Wall Street” published in the magazine Cultural Anthropology, the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett recounts her experience at the European Securitization Forum Annual Meeting, of Nice. An event according to her ” intended for that subset of bankers who slice and dice debt into new forms of securities so it can be sold to investors”.
During the event, Gillian was able to observe how these members of the subculture bank behaved, what their fears were, their creeds and their relationships. As the lives of the thousands of savers, investors and pensioners who support this immense mass, dissipated, until absent, from the debates and perceptions of the brokers. How, despite the post-disaster, bankers believed they were doing the right thing and how CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) had become the mantra of the financial sector. Or how the decision to abandon credit risk to scatter its activities throughout the system was a decision widely applauded by financial advisors of the future. The vision that Gillian Tett offers us is that of bureaucratic bankers who have little or nothing to do with “the abominable capitalist swindler”:
“I know it’s very fashionable to think the bankers were trying to hoodwink the world. And yes, there probably were some bankers being greedy—maybe mad or evil too—but I think the vast majority of bankers were not any of these things. They wanted to get on and do their job and they simply didn’t have much incentive to challenge the system “
In her article defends the presence of anthropology in the financial sector. We must be able to incorporate ourselves at those levels to analyze and correct their impending contradictions. The meticulous contribution of anthropology to the financial sector is the holistic view of the phenomena, ie the ability to connect divergent points such as stock structure, capital flows, bank subculture, financial mantras or insights, fears and attitudes of the agents involved. The implication of anthropology in the financial sector could imply a more social vigilance of an increasingly dehumanized economy:
“Wall Street is beginning to notice some of the things that anthropologists have been banging about for years. But the challenge is on both sides. Trying to get anthropologists to engage with finance remains, in many ways, a very difficult task. But speaking from my perch at the Financial Times, I’m personally committed to trying to bridge that gap”
Joris Luyendijk: “the anthropologist who less know about stock exchange”
Maybe by now you’re thinking, “Well, it seems interesting, but the financial world seems to me to be very complex and full of technicalities. Let those who know do it. ” And possibly that is what Joris Luyendijk thought when his newspaper, The Guardian, proposed to him to carry out a experiment of “financial communication”.
It turns out that the newspaper had noticed that, although there was widespread interest in banking issues, their readers ignored the financial pages. They discovered that the main reason was that the banking subculture uses its own jargon, little or hardly accessible to ordinary citizens. To solve this problem, they decided to place a financial illiterate, Boris, as editor of the section. He himself explains it in his article “An anthropologist in the city of London”
“The Guardian chose a different method. He hired someone completely oblivious for this, “and I told him to start interviewing bankers and the bank staff from a position of absolute ignorance. The idea was that knowing as little as my readers would force me to start the interview at the point where the readers were – that is, zero – and ask all the silly questions. Bankers and the bank staff, for their part, would have to use simple terms because otherwise I wouldnt understand them and be able to keep up with the conversation” (own translation).
It seemed a crazy idea. One of the reasons is that in London, banks have the right to fire workers in five minutes and without notice. This is precisely a measure of pressure to prevent workers from gossiping about their companies or worse, talk to the press. Any opinion that a banker wants to publicly express should be mediated by the public relations department. The culture of the secret in the city of London smashes the schizophrenic and is therefore a somewhat hostile environment for participant observation.
But neither short nor lazy, Joris decided to emulate Ruth Benedict’s methodology in the “Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. In the face of the impossibility of ethnographic observation, whether in warlike Japan or in the offices of Wall Street, the in-depth interview is presented as one of the most versatile instruments of ethnographic work.
And Boris conducted interviews. Many interviews:
“So I wrote an article for the digital edition addressed to all readers of the Guardian who worked in finance, asking: if I guarantee anonymity, will you give me free access? […] And then the miracle happened. After a few hours the first volunteers arrived, and over the course of two years I met more than 200. I wrote what they said in monologues of 2,500 words (equivalent to 10 pages of book), inviting them to join the conversation in The comments section. Many did and told me that it was one of the most intense and often liberating experiences that they ever had. Finally the possibility to respond!”
One of the points in which Gillian Tett and Joris Luyendijk match after their research in the financial sector is something Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” after attending the trial of the Nazi Eichmann: “I only followed orders.” Many of the agents in the banking sector were tired of being taken as the bad guy in the film, and they did not feel they had any responsibility for the financial meltdown of 2008. In the end, the bank organizational culture, where profits are encouraged but the failures are omitted (the so-called malus) rewarded and demanded the actions that led to hecatomb. The bankers would act in this case as bureaucrats of a perverse system. It is not that bankers are monsters, but banks are monstrous organizations:
“Give the bankers a bonus to help Greece borrow as much money as they can, and those bankers will do that. Give the bankers a bonus to help Greece hide those debts and, again, those bankers will. Legalize the sale of toxic instruments, give the bankers a bonus when they sell more, and so on and on. “
The importance of an anthropology of banking
The studies of Gillian Tett and Joris Luyendijk share the subject of analysis, but they differ substantially in methodology and baggage. While Gillian approaches the Nice conference from participant observation, Boris opts for the in-depth interview. While the Financial Times reporter has extensive knowledge of the financial sector, The Guardian reporter approaches it from complete estrangement. Both studies have been published and are available on the following links (Amazon):
– Among sharks: a season in the hell of finance, Joris Luyendijk
There is no doubt that there are other examples of the applicability of anthropology to the banking sector. It is necessary that anthropologists understand the enormous impact that their studies can have on this strategic sector and the change that this can assume at the global level. Perhaps if anthropology understood the banking subgroup in the same way as its fetish tribes, the “otherness” that gives it life, we could act, regulate, modify and investigate the vicissitudes of a sector on which millions of lives depend. In addition, the next few years bring about very substantial changes in the financial sector. According to recent reports from the banking sector, technological macro-enterprises such as Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Apple, Amazon are expected to join the trail left by PayPal and absorb the banking sector. And what will happen when the technological, these immense databases, also control our money?
The anthropology of the future will give us the answer.