Mobilizing concepts across disciplines: An economic analysis

There are many lenses through which we can think about mobility. There is no one correct lens to use; in fact, adopting different lenses at different moments can help us spot things that we may have otherwise missed.

Many anthropologists do fieldwork in places where we are strangers. One one of the major advantages of this is that it allows us to notice things that we would likely take for granted if we we insiders to the community that we were trying to study.

Boats in Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Boats in Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

In a certain sense, coming from a particular disciplinary perspective makes us outsiders to any group we study – unless we are doing an ethnography of other anthropologists. But there are also times in which we risk taking our own epistemological tools for granted, and so this exercise we have done today can be useful to help us to take a step back.

In this article I adopt the lens of economics to shed light on the social mechanisms and effects of mobility. Economics is a very unpopular discipline, but it has been used for a long time, and with good reason, for studying migration and mobility, particularly in the Caribbean where I have done most of my fieldwork. But the main reason why I use economics is because it was brought to my attention by the people who I was trying to understand.

Lay economics on the Haiti – Dominican Republic border

From 2010-2012 I carried out fieldwork on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti with Heather Horst.. We were interested in how the characteristics of the national border, and the mobility of people, objects, and money across it, shaped relations between Dominicans and Haitians, both in the border zone and across the island (Horst and Taylor 2014).

In my previous work in Santo Domingo, I had collected stories from Haitians and their descendants that were more or less in concert with the main body of literature written by anthropologists on the experiences of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic (Taylor 2013). Much of this vast scholarship focuses on the long history of racism against Haitians and highlights their exploitation (Ferguson 2003; Martínez 1995, 1999; Martin, Midgley and Teitelbaum 2002).

But Santo Domingo is one place; the border is another. In Santo Domingo, Haitians are very much a minority living far away from their country of origin. On the southern border, where I did my fieldwork, the Dominican town of Pedernales and the Haitian town of Anse-à-Pitres are right next door to each other, have relatively equal populations, and Haitians continue to have access to their own national space, culture, and institutions. How would these differences affect relations between Haitians and Dominicans?

I went to the border with the expectation that many different factors would play into relations – and I found them. Social and cultural differences include language, religion, dance, dress, national identity, and knowledge of national politics and history. Institutional differences include regimes of citizenship, the policing of the national border, provision of social services such as health care, education, and differences in policing.

Economic differences were starkly visible, given a wide gulf in development between the two towns. Pedernales, while in the poorest part of the Dominican Republic, is far wealthier than Anse-à-Pitres. It has well-developed infrastructure including constant electricity and water, and more industry.

Clearly there were an enormous number of variables that could shape cross-border relations and the experiences of Haitians. But when I asked people to comment on relations, virtually everyone – Dominicans and Haitians – told me that relations between Dominicans and Haitians were fundamentally structured by economic factors. I was quite surprised by the unanimity with which people responded; I was effectively being told, "It's the economy, stupid" - something that I did not quite expect to hear.

Now, what Dominican and Haitians said about the economy was not the same thing. Dominicans tended to insist that relations between Haitians and Dominicans are very good, and that this is the case because the two sides have trade with each other for over a hundred years. They said that this cross-border economic dependency has resulted in cultural intermixing, intermarriage, and a kind of brotherhood.

Haitians told a different story. They also emphasized the role of the economy, but were less optimistic about it producing harmony. They agreed with the Dominicans that the two sides depended upon each other, and many had friends across the border, lived on the Dominican side of the border, or had married Dominicans.

But they also told me that they were in a subordinate position relative to the Dominicans and complained of abuses and racism by the authorities as they crossed the border. However, they explained to me that that "if the economies became equal overnight, the abuses would disappear."

In other words, while their experiences differed, both Haitians and Dominicans agreed that economics was at the basis of their social relations. In fact, at the risk of over-simplifying, it was as though Dominicans were pointing towards how microeconomics created good social relations, Haitians pointed towards how macroeconomic conditions shaped their subordination.

I decided that I should take this lay economics seriously. I approached it here in two ways. The first is empirical: I look at how people interact in economic transactions. The second is analytical: I structure the material using terms from formal economics, such as macroeconomics, microeconomics, supply and demand.

To understand this particular problem – why Dominicans and Haitians both emphasize different aspects of economy – these economic terms seem to be a better fit than a more standard anthropological set, such as of class, race and gender, although these do continue to be relevant.

Economic interactions

The first thing to note about Pedernales and Anse-à-Pitres is that they reflect national economic differences. Haiti is a far poorer country than the Dominican Republic, and this is why it has long been a "sending" country for migrants. Many of you will be familiar with the ill-treatment of Haitians on Dominican sugar plantations and the recent changes to the Dominican constitution that strip citizenship from the descendants of Haitian migrants.

As my Haitian interviewees pointed out, these macroeconomic differences impact their experiences crossing the border. They directly blamed abuses on the fact that Haiti is poorer than the Dominican Republic. This macroeconomic difference means that Haitians cross the border daily to sell their labour in Pedernales or conduct trade.

In contrast, there are few Dominicans who have reason to cross the border. We met Dominicans who hadn't undertaken the one-kilometre trek across the border for decades. In contrast, it would be difficult to find an adult Haitian who had not crossed for more than a few days.

This fluidity across the border means that while this macroeconomic structure is ever-present, and Haitians are aware of them, everyday relations between Haitians and Dominicans are experienced more in terms of microeconomic transactions, although the macroeconomics is always present. I break these down into labour and trade. I look at each in terms of supply and demand to identify agency in the interactions.


In the main, Haitians supply labour, and Dominicans demand it. Every day, a stream of Haitians cross the border on foot to walk to their jobs in Pedernales, where they are primarily employed as domestic servants and construction workers.

Macroeconomic factors mean that wages in Haiti are much lower than in the Dominican Republic, and this crosses over the border. For example, a Haitian construction worker in the Dominican Republic earns around 5,000-8,000 pesos per month, compared to 8,000-12,000 for a Dominican. Similarly, whereas a Dominican working as a domestic servant will earn around 5,000 per month, a Haitian will be paid 1,500 to 2,000 pesos.

Labour relations often take on a patron-client aspect, especially due to the low wages. We found many people whose wages were effectively supplemented by gifts or loans from employees. There is a long history of patron-client relations on both sides of the island, and this permeated through labour relations on the border.

Whether patron-client relationships between Haitians and Dominicans are essentially between equals, or whether there is a power differential, depends in large part upon access to economic resources. Wage labourers in particular may be significantly dependent upon their patron for their basic needs, and are often realized through material possessions. They can take the form of a boarding servant, the giving of old or unwanted clothes or other items to employees, paying for employees' children’s education or buying them gifts at Christmas, loans, or direct gifts of cash or items such as mobile phones.

Because they tend to incorporate sentiments of friendship, power differentials can become hidden. As with microfinance and mobile phones, inclusion does not necessarily generate greater inequality: in fact, the social affection of patron-client relations can obfuscate power differentials.

The most striking case of employer-employee patronage we found concerned a woman called Variola. Now in her thirties, Variola is from Thiotte, a town located in Haiti, approximately forty minutes' drive up the mountain from Anse-à-Pitres. When she was eleven years old, Variola’s father had a stomach illness. She wanted to make money to help pay for his health care, so she ran away from home with a thirteen-year-old friend. The two girls spent an entire day walking down the mountain to Anse-à-Pitres, where they were accepted into the home of the older girl's aunt.

After a few months, Variola found work and residence in the home of a Dominican woman in Pedernales. This woman–we'll call her Maria–taught Variola to clean and, when she was old enough, to cook as well. Their relationship became so strongly cemented that neighborus refer to Variola as "Maria's daughter."

Variola is now an adult and lives across the border in Anse-à-Pitres with her husband and their four children, but she continues to work for Maria six days per week, earning a monthly salary of 2000 pesos (US$46), just 40% of what a Dominican would earn for the same job. Variola's husband had a serious motorbike accident a few years ago and cannot work, leaving Variola as the only breadwinner. However, despite the fact that she does not earn enough to support her family, she does not want to ask for a raise because "Maria gives me everything, I am ashamed to ask her for more."

Every day Variola takes food home for her children, and Maria buys her many of the things she needs, including her children's clothes at Christmas time. Variola's life consists of going to work in Pedernales, going home and looking after her children, and attending church on Sunday mornings. She has only ever left the border region once. Variola does have other dreams, and is contemplating the possibility of leaving her children with relatives in Thiotte in order to migrate to Santo Domingo to work as a domestic servant.

There is no reason to doubt Maria's affection for Variola. However, in some ways, Variola's situation is rather like that of a child. Instead of paying a higher wage, Maria decides Variola’s consumption choices for her. The macroeconomic differences that subordinate Haitians thereby also structure Variola's microeconomic transactions.


Trade presents somewhat different opportunities for Haitians living in the border region. The border at Pedernales and Anse-à-Pitres is on an important cross-island trade route. The Dominican Today (2013) reports that annual trade across the entire border amounts to approximately $1.1 billion in formal transactions, and $900 million in informal transactions. Goods travel in both directions: coconuts, plantains, and imported foodstuffs move from the Dominican Republic to Haiti; in turn, Haitians sell Dominicans herbs, a variety of vegetables, and smallgoods from China (see also Taylor 2014).

These products move due to both differences in price and taste. For example, Dominicans rarely use coconuts in their cooking, but in the last decade they began to enjoy certain "Haitian" foods such as maize porridge. Rice moves in both directions as Haitians have a surplus of USAID-supplied grain, but generally prefer the rice grown on Hispaniola.

In Haiti, women run the domestic market system, and they view it as a point of pride. Many of the women of Anse-a-Pitres depend upon the Pedernales economy for trade. Twice per week they sell their goods (mostly agricultural produce, clothes, and other small items) in the Mercado Binacional, which is located in the Dominican Republic, right on the Haitian border next to the border crossing.

Haitians view marketing as a valuable profession. They place a high value on the independence it gives them and on the skill they need to undertake it. Indeed, Variola said that some of her neighbours in Anse-à-Pitres despise her for selling her labour across the border as a domestic servant. They remarked to her that she was forced to "wash the panties of Dominicans" because she "didn't know how to do anything else." This is an insult given the taboos associated with washing and handling undergarments given their close association with menstruation and the female body in the Caribbean (see, for example, Sobo 1993).

Haitians don't just trade as sellers; they also trade as buyers. While many Haitians work as traders, their activity as consumers is equally important to their macroeconomic experiences on the border. Haitians cross the border into the Dominican Republic to go shopping for everyday necessities, personal items, and to consume for entertainment. Anse-a-Pitres is relatively isolated from the rest of Haiti, and Pedernales tends to have a greater range of consumer goods for sale, so shopping across the border expands Haitians' choices. They also travel beyond the border as tourists, a fact that is often overlooked, as Haitians are more commonly thought of as economic migrants.

Trade, as both buying and selling, is a sphere of relative autonomy when compared to labour. From the point of view of Haitians living in Anse-à-Pitres, the major threat to the economic and social autonomy they gain through trade as buyers and sellers is border politics. On non-market days Haitians are required to pay bribes to the guards. A bigger threat, however, is that authorities will close either the border, which happened during the cholera scare in 2011, or alternatively the market, which occurred for some time last year.

It is in these moments that the precarity of cross-border dependence becomes clear. The border may be generally relatively free and open–as we have called it, borrowing from Sidney Mintz, it is a "living fence"–but it can be shut down without warning, as happened in 2010 during the cholera epidemic. The ultimate power therefore lies in the hands of Dominican authorities.

This is not fundamentally an economic event; it is a political one, but it is felt by Haitians as economic because it directly impacts their ability to earn a livelihood. Given the low incomes of Haitians and the lack of other income-earning opportunities within Haiti, it is unsurprising that people place so much emphasis on economy as the major factor structuring their relations with Dominicans.


There are good reasons why Dominicans and Haitians emphasize economics. It is a major factor in how both nationalities experience life on the border. And even in cases where factors other than economics affect cross-border activity, there are often economic effects that are felt strongly by Haitians living on the border.

Focusing on the interplay of macroeconomic and microeconomic factors can illustrate the levels at which stratification and autonomy play out. Looking at supply and demand allows us to take a closer look at these mechanisms and how the mobility of people, goods, and money is shaped by control over different kinds of resources.

While these concepts have clear limits in enabling us to draw a holistic picture of border life, they nevertheless illustrate certain empirical realities that are flagged as important by the people at the centre of the study.


This paper was originally presented at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington D.C. on Friday 5 December, 2014. The research was funded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) at the University of California Irvine along with Heather Horst.


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