What do money and language have in common? If money is nothing more than “a promise to pay,” as David Graeber puts it, then is it really just a part of language, and not a separate thing? After all, like language, money is expressed in symbols, such as dollar signs and numbers. It can be sent digitally, just like any textual information.
Look into the average traveller’s pockets today and you will find evidence of multiple means of payment. Debit cards, credit cards, traveller’s checks, several currencies, cryptocurrencies, and payment apps are now so common that it seems impossible to run out of ways to pay. Wherever we buy things—on the street, in shops, restaurants, at ticket machines—we have a way to pay.
Or so it would seem. In fact, as many travellers can attest, it is still possible to run out of ways to pay.
Central banks, economic theory, and financial behavior are not topics that we normally associate with anthropology. Of course, many of you will have read best-sellers like David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold. But there are dozens, if not hundreds, more anthropologists putting a human face to current economic and financial issues.
Here are ten of the most innovative ones.
On 1 June, 2012, I arrived at the British Museum to attend the opening of its newly renovated Citi Money Gallery. This was an exciting moment for me: inside was a display of money-related objects and images from Haiti that I collected with Heather Horst and Espelencia Baptiste for a research project. I couldn’t wait to see how our coins, phones, cards, and underwear with secret pockets for hiding cash would look inside this venerated institution.
It was a huge success. People were spending far more time in the new gallery, lingering over the displays. Why, all of a sudden, was money so much more gripping?
The answer, said curator Katie Eagleton, was the social aspect. Whereas traditional money galleries usually focus on coins, promissory notes, and other traditional forms of money, the new gallery includes a range of displays that focus on the social history and current practices of money. Not just for coin-collecting enthusiasts, the money gallery had something of interest for everybody.
By putting money-related objects in social context, the Citi Money Gallery challenges many of our assumptions about how people relate to money. Our approaches to researching money and finance need to change as well. What can we learn from ethnography