Frontiers of Capital now in bookstores!
I was really pleased today to finally get a copy of a volume that I put together with Asst. Prof. Melissa S. Fisher of Georgetown University. Duke University Press has put out the volume, entitled Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy [link]. Amazon has it on sale here. [link].The book is the end product of a conference on the New Economy that Dr. Fisher co-organized back when she was a fellow at Emory University. That conference was sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, and I was very happy to be invited to present there, although I had no role in putting the whole thing together. When the dust settled, Melissa and I wound up talking about the papers that were presented, and we really felt that there was a consistency and coherence to the ethnographic pieces that were offered. We decided to pull in a few more authors and put together a substantial volume including various ethnographers working on New Economy-related topics, like computer programmers, on-line commodity traders, changes in global capitalism, new urbanism, media industries, and information economies emerging outside of global capitals.
Check out the volume if you’re interested; there’s chapters by Melissa and I, as well as by Jean and John Comaroff, Douglas Holmes and George Marcus, Siobhán O’Mahony, Aihwa Ong, Annelise Riles, Saskia Sassen, Paul Silverstein, AbdouMaliq Simone, Neil Smith, and Caitlin Zaloom.
People ask me, however, why I got involved in this volume. Most of my research up to this point has been on skill acquisition, sports and dance, masculinity, the physiological effects of bodily training, and human rights. My first book, on the Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, capoeira, seems like an odd lead-in to working on a collection on the New Economy.
The easy answer is that I got involved because I perceived an opportunity; after the conference, Melissa and I both thought that we had a critical mass of contributions that could form the core of a strong volume. I’ve long been interested in economic issues, dating back to a major in economics when I was an undergraduate. And I had been itching to start a course in economic anthropology that I was never able to get off the ground while I was at the University of Notre Dame (I’ll get to teach one here at Macquarie University in the second half of 2007.).
What role do I see for anthropologists and ethnographers in understanding the New Economy? Melissa Fisher has really helped open my eyes to the heavy involvement of anthropologists and culture theory already in the New Economy: as she has pointed out, anthropologists are a resource that many corporations use, not merely to try to deal with the vagaries of cross-cultural marketing, but also in dealing with more tenuous commodities, like branding. Just as traditional market research tools of run out of gas—when was the last time you stayed on the phone line for a market survey?—ethnography seemed to many people to be a more robust research method. From “cool hunters” to “user research,” anthropologists have stepped into a number of roles in corporations, especially in the information-rich industries that are paradigmatically part of the “New Economy.”
But I’m also interested in the cultural and social dimensions of some of the most basic economic phenomena. As I wrote in the introduction to Frontiers of Capital, the convulsive stock market valuation of New Economy firms highlighted just how cultural even the stripped-down “economic” realities, such as stock prices were. They were grounded in things like expectations for the future and community standards for what price-earnings ratios should be. Even scandals like the collapse of Enron demonstrated how cultural standards, like what constituted a separate subsidiary or corporate entity, were at the foundation of very basic economic realities.
Ironically, as the authors in the volume demonstrated, so many of the players at the center of the New Economy—central bankers, stockbrokers, software engineers—seemed to understand how fragile and arbitrary the new economic realities were. I found that dimension of the whole project surprising, and really intriguing. There was a bit of a “Wile E. Coyote Effect”: if we don’t look down, we might just be able to run across the thin air between this rim of the valley and the other.
I’m not going to get a chance to return to this work just yet as I have another book to finish (more on that some other time, but it’s on sports, physiology, and the plasticity of the human body). But I’ll try to keep the CultureMatters blog posted if I see new, good stuff on the anthropology of the New Economy. And thanks to Nigel Thrift for writing a note for the cover of the book: I’m a huge fan of his work, which I think is pretty brilliant as well as being a great read.