Exploring Bill Maurer’s ‘The Anthropology of Money’

Words: Courtney Boag
Images: Chris Briggs

29 January, 2022

“money has no essence. It's not ‘really’ anything; therefore, its nature has always been and presumably always will be a matter of political conten­tion.”

David Graeber

Notions of value and the dynamics of trade have always been to some degree abstract. In fact, it has been argued that “money is always representationally flawed” (Foster 1999: 231), but that, despite its representational and material flaws, “money works because of its failures” (Maurer 2006: 30 italics added). In Maurer’s (2006:27) widely cited article ‘The Anthropology of Money’ he discusses how money's materiality has been a “constant source of fascination for those both using and studying it”. Maurer (2006) states that the two viewpoints put forward by Aristotle and Locke who believed that money had to possess certain ‘substantive qualities’ and Plato’s contention that money is but a mere ‘token’ has formed the history of the development of modern money. He argues that money has always signified the uneasy relationship “between sign and substance, thought and matter, abstract value and its instantiation in physical and mental labours and products” (Maurer 2006: 27: see also Shell 1982). He considers how in these instances where the link between “the representation and reality of money and finance are realised; the monetary order and notions of value are brought into question” (Maurer 2006: 28).

Indeed, systems of exchange and the materiality of money have diverged in many directions and have taken on a plethora of socially embedded meanings and uses over time. Consequently, scholarship to date has been challenged to provide any comprehensive and momentarily stable accounts of the subject.  Maurer (2006) identifies the difficulty of establishing rubrics for understanding the nature of money, notions of value and systems of exchange as they are continually changing. However, it is precisely because of the inherent complexity of money which makes anthropology the ideal discipline for examining it. As Maurer states, both reviews of money and anthropology aim to “make the strange familiar” (Maurer 2006:17). Anthropology's tools of ethnography and its ability to ‘prod' rather than necessarily ‘solve' complex phenomena make it ideal to unpack the social layers and complexities of money and exchange.

Conversely, Maurer (2006) also sees in anthropology a tendency to rely too heavily on theories of meaning and symbol and this reliance makes it susceptible to compounding un-pragmatic monetary metaphors. He argues that the anthropology of money has too often retold Polanyi’s (1944) notion of the ‘Great Transformation’; a narrative he describes as a “compendium of exotica coupled with a morality tale about the world we have lost” (Maurer 2006:17). He suggests that this is perhaps a result of anthropology’s remarkable attachment to the ‘ethnographic record’– its “unique contribution to knowledge”- and its emphasis on the ‘Other’ (Maurer 2006: 18). In offering an alternative analysis to current debates, Maurer (2006) adopts a structural approach to emphasise the pragmatics of money in its different modalities of exchange and circulation.

Ironically, like Maurer’s paper, scholarship to date on this topic has also existed in an ‘awkward relationship’ with money. In attempting to garner comprehensive insights about money and the notion of value, scholarship simultaneously reveals the paradoxes inherent in the account itself. In Gilbert’s (2005:361 emphasis in original) review she argues for “drawing out the paradoxes of money as always, a symbolic referent, a social system, and a material practice” and asserts that these characteristics exist in a symbolic relationship. She draws on anthropology in her review, but similarly to Maurer, critiques its predictive narrative in reinforcing the conventional and linear trajectory of transitions from barter societies to ‘special’ purpose and socially embedded societies, to societies now supposedly dependent on 'general' purpose money's and a socially dis-embedded economy (descriptions for ‘special’ and ‘general’ purpose money’s is given below) (Gilbert 2005; Weatherford: 1998). Despite this, Gilbert (2005) still recognises the potential for anthropology to contribute ethnographic rigour to studies of monetary practices on the ground and for exploring and adding methodological recommendations for understanding the current social embeddedness of modern money’s. Appadurai’s (1986) work is also relevant to this discussion as it reminds us that anthropology has often discussed the homogenising impacts of modern money in traditional societies, while seldom recognising or appreciating the moral and socially embeddedness of modern monies in Western societies (see also; Guyer 1995; Parry and Bloch 1989; Granovetter 1985).

Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’

While Maurer is critical of Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’, the evolution from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (Keister 2002:40); the disembedding of the market economy from society which initiated the ‘great transformation’, is nevertheless necessary to acknowledge. Karl Polanyi published his account; ‘The Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation’ in 1944. Polanyi (1944) argued that the modern market economy and the development of the modern state need to be seen as ‘inseparable’ rather than distinct developments in human history. These two independent yet symbiotic human inventions were what Polanyi termed the ‘market society’. Polanyi (1944) believed that essential to this transformation from a premodern economy to a market economy was the transformation of human economic mentalities. He argued that the profound change from market transactions, grounded in local social relationships and institutions, into modern transactions idealised as ‘rational’ and ‘separate’ from any original social context, fundamentally unsettled pre-existing social structures (Polanyi 1944).  While previously, the market played a limited role in society, Polanyi (1944) viewed the marriage of the modern market and state as amplifying a ‘competitive capitalist economy’ which he believed would inevitably break down fundamental social structures.

In drawing from an analysis of Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’, Maurer (2006) identifies Bohananan’s (1959) notions of ‘general-purpose’ and ‘special purpose’ money. General-purpose money serves many functions, such as: ‘means of exchange, method of payment, standard of value (and store of wealth, and unit of account)’ (Maurer 2006:20). Conversely, special-purpose money serves only one or two of these functions, and, often only occurs within particular ‘spheres’ of exchange. Special purpose money, in this way, is often associated with bartering; it’s both a means of exchange and payment but occurs in specific spheres of exchange. Whereas, general purpose money's are associated with modern money and can serve numerous functions and be exchanged in a number of contexts such as: in online payments; person to person exchange; in religious ceremonies, and in cultural contexts such as the exchange of bridewealth. Maurer (2006) considers how the introduction of Western, general-purpose money was seen to redefine access to, and circulation of, wealth by overlapping economic spheres and allowing people from lower classes to exchange goods and services with those in more prestigious spheres. Consequently, ‘those with access to general-purpose money could thwart the older distinctions of rank’ (Maurer 2006:20).

Dalton (1965:61) points out that, regarding non-commercial payments such as bridewealth, the introduction of Western money's resulted in a ‘structural link…between spheres of exchange’ with ‘inevitable repercussions on traditional social organization and practice’. Maurer (2006:21) also highlights how in some cases introduced moneys became symbolic of the ‘foreign' and ‘exploitation through unequal wage labour and trade’. However, Maurer (2006) also argues that contrary to the great transformation narrative, there have also been numerous cases documenting how modern money has been met with little more than a ‘shrug' and have been welcomed simply because it represents modernity.  In light of this, Maurer (2006) argues that contrary to predominant arguments put forward by Marx, Simmel and Weber, money does not always ‘flatten social relations’ but can recreate new ones which are equally complex. Indeed, Brison (1999:153) has argued that in traditional ‘societies where individuals are preadapted to wanting to expand their material base in order to gain influence’ these imposing capitalist orientations have mainly been welcomed. Foster (1999) has explored how in these cases, ‘it is not the medium of exchange which warrants concern but rather any factors impeding the blockage and flow of value’. The ‘fuzzy boundaries' between ‘traditional' and ‘modern' money and the social embeddedness of money is becoming more apparent with recent studies (Maurer 2006).

Monetary Developments in the Post Bretton Woods Era

Maurer (2006) highlights how new attention has been given to money over the past three decades, and with the advent of what Gregory (1997) termed ‘savage money’; money which is detached from political oversight and control as well as the ‘material goods and labour supposedly providing its backing’ (Maurer 2006:18). He discusses how the international monetary regime transformed in the 1970’s as a result of the termination of the Bretton Woods agreements, which consequently closed the ‘gold window’ thus ‘halting the U.S. dollar’s fixed relationship to that precious metal and ushering in an era of flexible exchange rates’ (Maurer 2006:18). He further explains how these events led to deregulation in banking and finance which ‘permitted an explosion of new financial products and relationships’. The nature of these new social and economic dynamics was largely based on ‘flexible production strategies’ which ‘required speedy movements of capital and new extensions of credit and debt to the point at which credit, exchange, and circulation displaced production, at least in the social imaginary’ (Maurer 2006:18; see also Cohen 1998; Tickell 2003; Corbridge and Thrift 1994). Interestingly, Maurer (2006: 18) suggests that the rise and fall of Bretton Woods sparked anthropologists interest in studying money again, as they perceived it to be the ‘new exotic’; largely because the end of the Bretton Woods era called on academics to ‘enterprise up’ and ‘demonstrate the value-added of anthropological research to the corporatizing university’ (see also Poovey 2001; Strathern 2004).

However, our persistent tendency to view money as the ‘most quantifiable expression of the commodity’ and greatest ‘measure of commensurability’ (LiPuma 1999:198) has consequently led to new issues in contemporary society. Maurer (2006:29) draws on Buenza and Muniesa’s (2005:633) work by arguing that the visual representation of money and its constant subjection to mathematical abstractions have contributed to the ‘staging [of] one of the more ferocious crises of representation since Shakespearian times: that of what things are worth’. Indeed, the commensuration and abstraction of money is the result of money’s mathematics- the calculations it shapes and is shaped by. Maurer (2006: 23) acknowledges certain anxieties which are inherent in money's abstract mathematics. He considers how often when ‘we see numbers and math we see something that counts, calculates, equates, desacralizes and rationalises’ (Maurer 2002:23). However, he also argues that numbers, like money, are ‘representationally complex’ and do not always represent the innumerable objects of life, but also ‘signify the divine, the transcendent, and the effable’. In light of this, he considers the instances where numbers and money can resacralise exchanges and conversions and offers examples, such as the ‘burning of ghost money's in China and Vietnam; in prosperity cults; in rotating credit associations, and within religious offerings’ (Maurer 2006: 24).  Interesting, while the rise of ‘general' purpose money's in the new market have enabled people to redefine their status and circumstances in society, he also acknowledges the paradoxes of money and numbers in that, while ‘money has freed people’ in many ways, it has also ‘left them with nothing but money itself’.

The Materiality of Money

These points lead us to consider Maurer’s final topics; money's materiality and visual representation. Interestingly, Maurer (2006) highlights how traders’ and analysts’ visual representations of financial markets have become the product of increasingly complex mathematical abstractions which are seldom supported by the actual value which it assumes. An example of this is that while we may ‘see' figures in our bank statements or on spreadsheets, what we are actually seeing is a value created and reinforced by financial actors and institutions. Subsequently, Maurer (2006) turns our attention to the inherently ‘flawed’ nature of money. He argues that money and moreover our notions of value have always been, to some degree, abstract. However, he argues that this ‘representational flaw does not mean representational failure, either for money or anthropological accounts of money’ but that money actually ‘works because of its failures’ (Maurer 2006:30).

Numerous empirical accounts of where money has demonstrated its inherently paradoxical nature help to reinforce Maurer's analysis. Empirical rigor is provided to his analysis by comprehensive accounts which explore issues of: modern money's impacts on non-commercial payments and cultural traditions such as bridewealth (Dalton 1965; Strathern 2005); the social and cultural aspects of shell exchange in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (Dalton 1999; Akin 1999); ethnographies of ‘cultural currencies’ and ‘performative expenditures’ (not money per se) which are implemented in the service of sentiment (Arno 2005); market relations in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico (Crump 1978);  how modern money has conflicted with Brazilian indigenous groups traditional systems of measuring and evaluating money (Ferreira 1997); how money’s commensuration of value has flattened social relationships while also reinforcing deeper meaning into personal possessions with the Nuer (Hutchinson 1992); the bodily practices and affective relationships London traders have developed with numbers through their work in trading platforms (Zaloom 2003), and interestingly, how Japanese arbitrageurs are fabricating their self-perceptions around mathematical models of economics and finance by even drafting their life trajectories on numerical spreadsheets (Miyazaki 2005).

In light of the complexity of the issue, Maurer (2006:18) encourages current scholarship to depart from certain forms of ‘empiricism [which] encourages scepticism’ and moreover, a retelling of the ‘great transformation’ narrative, which he considers unhelpful in exploring the nuances of the anthropology of money. Hart’s (1986) Malinowski lecture has become influential in anthropology’s studies of money. In his lecture, Hart (1986) introduces his concept that money has ‘two sides’; heads being the creation of value based on governments fiat systems, and tails, the communication of value to the public through the market. Maurer (2006:18) argues that ‘the world today seems ever more determined by markets outside the control of any state or, indeed, any human agents at all’. Indeed, where anthropology has historically explored ‘special’ and ‘general’ purpose money in traditional societies, it is now turning to contemporary contexts where notions of abstract finance are ‘circulating over their heads’ (Maurer 2006: 19) – this is evident in the stock exchange.

The Blockchain and Future of Finance; Moving away from the ‘Two-Sided’ Coin

Maurer’s recent work has emphasised the role of new technologies such as the blockchain in reshaping our perceptions of money, value and exchange and the underlying political nature of finance. Bitcoin is perhaps one of the most commonly known digital currencies available on the blockchain. Bitcoin, as well as the blockchain technology, was developed in 2008 and released in 2009 by a person who identifies by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto published an article titled ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’ in 2009 in which he expressed his frustrations around the financial excesses which were building up in the economy prior to the global financial crisis as a result of unproductive bureaucratic systems (Nicholson 2017). He expressed dissatisfaction with how the global economy was set up and subsequently established the blockchain platform as an alternative to the current economy. Other critics have argued that even now, post the global financial crisis, rents, fees, and revenue collected through patents and licenses have characterised the economy more than industrial productivity (Maurer 2016: 89).

Maurer (2016) argues that ‘finance industry interest in the blockchain reanimates dreams of what finance can do with accounting’ and is currently exploring how finance professionals, whose careers were affected by the global financial crisis, are looking to the blockchain to create new ways of generating revenue. Bitcoin is just one of thousands of digital currencies and ‘tokens’ that are available on the blockchain. These digital, or ‘crypto-currencies’, do not rely on traditional centralised monetary systems like fiat currencies but are rather based on a ‘peer to peer’ exchange and ‘cryptographic proof’ whereby all transactions are recorded in a publicly available ledger (Kshetri 2017). This ledger records the relationships between transactions to create a ‘block'. The more transactions recorded results in more blocks added to the blockchain. All transactions which form a block are verified by ‘miners' (people who ‘crack' the algorism or ‘crypto code' through a Proof of Work system) and once this occurs the algorithm changes to increase the difficulty of the code to ensure greater security of the blockchain (Nicholson 2017). According to Lo and Wang (2014:2) the goal of Bitcoin ‘is to serve as an alternative to the existing payment systems and to enable transactions across national borders and currency denominations without the interference of sovereign entities or central banks, and without the alleged exploitation by traditional financial intermediaries such as banks’.

In many ways, the blockchain may present a second ‘great transformation’ or a third side to Harts coin. While the first transformation saw the initial marriage of the modern market with the state, the blockchain presents opportunities to begin to separate the market from the state. In particular, it presents an alternative to current conditions where online payments have to pass through companies like PayPal, and where government agencies can surveil one’s commercial dealings and potentially impede transactions they deem objectionable (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013). Furthermore, it claims to provide consumers with security as increasingly consumer activity is becoming a source of valuable, even monetizable, data (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013). New studies are even exploring the role that blockchain technology can play in alleviating poverty in the global south. According to recent surveys over 2.5 billion adults globally do not have bank accounts, while 1.5 billion people lack any proof of identity (Kshetri 2017). These factors present significant barriers for people wanting to enter the economy, secure employment, buy or rent a house or car, or apply for government welfare.

Empirical studies have been conducted to examine how new blockchain technologies can help to alleviate some of these issues. Startup companies such as Humaniq, OneName, ShoCard and BitNation are currently releasing digital identity programs which will create and verify the identity of people (Kshetri 2017). While startup company Bankymoon has implemented blockchain-enabled smart meters in Africa which has enabled donors to send money directly to public schools. Additionally, ‘smart contracts' created by Bitland are guaranteeing property rights in Ghana and are reducing the likelihood of corrupt governments altering land titles in order to reclaim properties for themselves (Kshetri 2017b).

Blockchain technology and the trading of digital currencies are gaining momentum. People are becoming particularly interested in these new technologies due to their ability to reduce the sort of corruption characteristic of traditional fiat currency systems (Nicholson 2017; Kshetri 2017b). Traditionally governments have been able to print money, which has inevitably resulted in higher inflation and the depreciation of the nation's currency. However, this is not possible with Bitcoin or similar technologies (Nicholson 2017). In fact, given the capped number of available Bitcoins and other digital currencies, many people are ‘finding in Bitcoin parallels to the gold standard’ of the pre-Bretton Woods era which has reinforced their trust in the technology (Maurer, Nelms and Swartz 2013: 262). According to the World Economic Forum, by 2027 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) will be held by the blockchain as opposed to 0.025% recorded in 2016 (Kshetri 2017b). As infrastructure develops around these new payments and trading platforms, so too will our understandings need to develop around the ways these new technologies and the worlds ‘digital divide’ will impact the social and cultural lives of people around the world. At this point, there are many directions this new technology can take and Maurer urges anthropology to explore the social embeddedness of these new advancements and their potential as a new global and local trading network.


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