Questioning the Economy
Anthropologists and sociologists have revealed the technical practices of economists and financial traders that construct the arena of the economy. Yet we still have very little theoretical or ethnographic understanding of how these intersect with social projects of production, reproduction, distribution and consumption. We wish to return to the question of ‘what is the economy?’ with an approach that focuses on the unintended effects and social entanglements of formal models. This is important because it will allow an examination of the relationships between market devices and the political economy of inequality.
We still know far too little about how economic practice is framed and enacted. Behavioural economics provides complex theories and terminologies for explaining how people act within a ‘market-place.’ These models are increasingly applied to non-market consumption situations such as choices in higher education and politics. Our research explores how people from macro-economists to precarious workers conceptualise and act on the productivity of the world. Do they partition the market from ethics, kinship, ritual and politics? If they do separate out the market, does it include some unexpected elements not recognizable in economists’ models of it? We also ask if formal models of the market have popular moral and religious underpinnings. These are important questions because it is popular economies that generate the social forms of capitalism around us.
Intimate and Generative Economies
Anthropology has long forged the analysis of how household and kinship practices relate to capitalism. Building on this we explore intimate and generative economies. Intimate economies are the lived experiences of labour, reproduction and consumption in relation to which individual and household projects are forged. Generative economies are the wider, collective social arrangements that emerge from these intimate economies. In them production, reproduction, procreation and the processes of generation that exist within the natural world intersect. This approach challenges older models of a disembedded market, by starting with the diverse life-worlds of capitalism.
At the centre of our inquiry is an explanation of contemporary inequality. Rather than taking as given accounts of the spread of ‘globalisation’ or ‘neo-liberalism,’ we will examine the precise technical mechanisms, institutional forms and social practices through which unequal accumulation occurs. In particular we will focus on the effects of debt (including sovereign debt), new forms of precarious labour and the structuring of informality. Reflecting our various regional expertise our research will build a new understanding of the political economy of inequality with a global reach.