Arjun Appadurai / Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication / New York University
The Futures of Finance Conference planned for April 13-15, 2012 is a collaboration between the Bruce Initiative, based at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the Cultures of Finance Group, based at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. It is envisaged to move forward on four fronts: 1. To further develop a way of thinking about contemporary capitalism which resists the recent trend to focus on the internal mechanism, tools, and protocols of the financial system without much attention to broader historical and ethical questions; 2. To develop a critical framework for such studies that restores to public debate the somewhat forgotten ideas on the economy of such thinkers as Max Weber, Frank Knight, Joseph Schumpeter, and Clifford Geertz who were the first to examine the emerging epistemologies behind modern capitalism; 3. To establish a forum that allows scholars from a variety of social science fields to interact with actors from the world of finance and public policy who admit to shared puzzlement over the deep causes of the recent financial meltdown; and 4. To create a vehicle for serious dialogue among younger scholars and Ph.D. candidates who are doing some of the most interesting empirical work in this space. This is an ambitious vision and it justifies collaboration across the U.S. and beyond.
We are mindful of the fact that we are among a variety of groups in the United States, England, and Europe, as well as in other countries, to address some of these questions. We have therefore taken some time to establish that our approach is primarily cultural, rather than sociological or technological. This is not a result of any special loyalty to anthropology as a discipline. Rather, it is based on the recognition that mainstream economics (as well as its sister fields in the study of finance in business schools) is ridden with exclusions, silences, and extra-explanatory provisions, all of which conspire to make many of the current models self-fulfilling. The models are self-fulfilling in the sense that they often tend to provide ex post facto ideas about the motivations of financial actors that come close enough to the empirical surface of these behaviors to serve as serviceable insights for the refinement of such behavior, thus creating an uncomfortable and misleading fit between outsider predictions and subsequent insider actions.
There are two broad approaches to what might be termed a “cultural” approach to the study of contemporary financialization. The first is primarily ethnographic. Here anthropologists such as Karen Ho, Bill Maurer, Caitlin Zaloom, and a handful of others have made important contributions by looking closely at the meaningful worlds of actors in such site-specific settings as the trading floor, the stock exchange, and the Islamic banking world. These approaches are cultural in the sense that they regard new technologies and strategies as animated by specific organizational and cultural settings in which shared purposes are driven not simply by simple maximization motives but also by a series of localized cultures of work, profit, and compensation.
Our interest in developing a cultural approach is highly compatible with this first, ethnographic one, but it is more broadly systemic, comparative, and thus historical in the sense favored by thinkers in the Weberian tradition I mentioned above. For this group of thinkers, inspired to one or another extent by Weber, the problem of meaning in social life cannot be separated from the emergence of large-scale changes in ethos and ethics. Indeed, the Weberian sense of these two key words is itself distinctive and brings together problems of religion and economy in a special manner. Weber’s account of the role of the Calvinist ethic in inspiring Puritan economic behavior is thus not primarily a historical debate with Marx and later Marxists (who saw capitalism primarily as an inexorable set of techno-economic changes) but a methodological debate about the role of moral change in the process of social change. Weber has often been seen as a systematizer and social theorist concerned with broad structural processes. This is what leads to the Parsonian redaction of Weber that so influenced American sociology. But Weber was primarily concerned with historical specificities, and in particular with identifying the specific conditions of emergence of what he saw as the distinctively Occidental mode of entrepreneurial spirit and ethos. We could even say that the entire edifice of Weber’s theories about the nature of meaning, power, authority, law, and economy in social life, as well as his numerous historical explorations of India, China, ancient Judaism, the Islamic world, and earlier periods in the history of Europe, were a vast series of tool-building efforts to help him with his obsessive interest in the question of the emergence of modern capitalism.
One aim of the group of scholars and thinkers who helped to organize this conference is to develop a deep historical account, Weberian in spirit, of the emergence of the special ethical, technical, and social features of global finance after approximately 1970. We recognize that this cannot be done by replicating Weber’s strategy or by relying on Weber alone. Hence our members are engaged in a series of intellectual explorations including: specific conditions of the recent crisis such as the emergence of proprietary trading; the roots of recent financial models in earlier game-theoretic ideas; and the relationship between accounting and accountability in the global crisis. Such issues require cultural frames to be mobilized to account for large-scale changes in compliance and the way risk is envisaged. In sympathy with the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, this conference is based on the idea that any such effort must have a deep scholarly and critical dimension, so that the social sciences can re-occupy spaces left too long to the economists and the financial modelers, undisturbed by considerations of culture, society, and history.