anthropology and economics, culture and commerce

The intersection of anthropology and economics is a strange place to be.

For many anthropologists, the notion of a marketplace is at odds with the notion of culture. This is why so many of them take vows of intellectual celibacy when it comes to capitalism. They just won’t go there. They don’t know anything about it; they dont want to know anything about it. (To put this in the language of Robert Johnson and the blues, anthropologists typically believe this intersection is a cross roads where one can expect to meet the devil.)

But I am not one of these anthropologists. My objective is to see how culture and commerce are mutually presupposing in First World societies.

This raises all kinds of intellectual puzzles.

On the anthropological side, there is a question of how the economy works as a cultural operator, how it works as a way of enabling and apportioning cultural meaning. This issue is taken up in the first essay below.

On the economic side, there is the question of how value is created out of meaning, how culture works as a way of enabling and apportioning market value. This is the issue is taken up in the second essay below.

Both these essays have appeared on this blog before, but it was only yesterday that I realized that they work as useful bookends for the blog itself and should appear together.

Essay #1

I was talking to a New Yorker recently about an upcoming trip.

“Where are you staying in the city?” she asked.

“Oh, mid-town”

Actually, this was just a guess. I like to sound like an insider. So I use “upper west side,” “soho,” “tribeca” with nonchalance. But to be honest, I am never exactly certain I have got my terms right.

“But where, exactly.”


“Um, on 49th, near the Plaza.”


Whew! Guessed right.

I put down the phone in a vertiginous moment. These neighborhood labels are a little testing for a rube from Canada. (I am in another classificatory scheme, “bridge, tunnel and border.”) But as a classificatory scheme, these labels are almost nothing at all.

And this is where anthropology meets economics. For the neighborhood labels are, like most cultural schemes, pretty general. There are, and now I’m really guessing, about 12 of them. (Ok, I know this because I just googled the question.) That’s 12 categories to cover an island that contains, um, 8 million people.

And here’s where it gets vertiginous. As I put down the phone, I realized that these 12 cultural categories contain, roughly, 19.5 economic distinctions. This is the number of discrete prices for property in Manhattan. (This assumes that the most expensive property sells for $20 million and there is no property that sells for less than $500,000, and that there is, or could be, a property for sale for every dollar amount.) (I am sure there are places that sell for more than $20 million, but you get the idea.)

Let’s review. Culture gives us 12 distinctions. Economics gives us 19.5 million distinctions.

This is not to mock culture. We are very happy to have a set of 12 categories that somehow manages to map the great, blooming diversity called Manhattan. Without it, many things, including a taxi ride, would be vastly more difficult. It’s always true that we want embracing classificatory schemes and without them would be lost in a welter of detail.

But compare this cultural valuation to economic valuation. With this classicatory scheme, we can make endlessly fine distinctions. We can mark the difference between a Soho condo on the 4th floor and the 5th floor. We can distinquish between a property that has double paned windows and with single panes. We can in other words make impossible fine distinctions. And in the process we can what many things are worth: sides of the building, views, neighborhoods, access to a park. Clearly, only the virtuoso real estate agent is fully conversant in these distinctions. But all of us will defer to these distinctions if and when we buy a place on the island.

But what is really astonishing, and here is where culture must not just tip its hat to economics, but actually remove it in a gesture of abiding deference, the valuation scheme created by economics actually floats. All those monetary distinctions can change 1) over night, 2) without committee oversight, 3) in almost perfect concert.

That’s condo on 5th avenue that is now worth $8.3 million will sometimes fluctuate with stock market as its owners sleep. Oh, the Japanese buy more dollars. Oh, the exchange rate changes. Oh, the markets respond. Oh, the owners wake up a little richer or a little poorer.

It’s nice to think of a city that has digital read-outs attached to every property, the numbers spinning up and down over the course of a day as the real estate market works out what value is and external factors impinge. Oh, someone just bought a place in your building for 1.5 million more than asking. Everyone’s value goes up a little. The market has spoken.

This is the mystery. Not for economists for they take this for granted. But for anthropologists. A classificatory scheme that lets the market “speak,” in very little voices, in the creation of millions of utterances that are prone to second guessing and revision many times a day.

Anthropology meets economics and comes away astonished.

Essay #2

Commerce has a way of making capital colourless. Here’s a corrective. (All names and figures are sheer guesswork and offered for illustrative purposes only. With apologies to Frank Capra.)

Sarah Zupko is a little girl in Red Deer, Alberta. Her Dad took her into town today. It’s January 4 ,1948. Her Dad stops at Woolworth’s for a coffee at the counter. He falls into conversation with his friends, other farmers, there: crops, water tables, combines, silage, almanacs, Indian summers and spring.

Sarah is pretty sure she couldn’t care less. She wanders though the aisles and comes eventually to rest in front of an illuminated glass case. There under glass is a watch, its perfect little numerals marching around the dial, delicate hands now still, and a metal band of cunning silver, a bracelet really. It is $9.60.

Sarah visits the case and the watch on every visit into town and magically on her 9th birthday, in late March, the watch is hers. The birthday party, thunderous with farm children and festivity, falls silent. The watch is hers.

The rest is economics. The Woolworth’s store in Red Deer keeps half of the $9.60 and the Chicago distributor keeps half of what’s left. By the time Mr. and Mrs. Zupko’s $9.60 finds its way into the Woolworth’s fortune, it has become 33 cents.

Value has migrated from a glass case to a large vault. But it does not stay there.

The Woolworths are building a summer home and 7 cents is spent to help hire men to clear the land that runs down to the point. The value Mr. Zupko extracted as winter wheat from prairie soil will actually now return to the ground as Mrs. Hudson, wife of one of the laborers, spends part of it to buy the seed for her summer garden. A dime will go to help pay for Mr. Woolworth’s dues at the Century Club and part of this will be spent on that bee’s wax that is used to give club chairs and tables the glow they give off in the light of the fire that burns all day in the library. Another dime will go to the grand tour that the eldest Woolworth daughter will take to Europe that year, a trip from which she will return with a taste for poetry and men who are a little bit dangerous. A few cents will even go to help pay for the clasp that holds the necklace that Mrs. Woolworth wears to the social event of the season, where it will be eclipsed by the still more magnificent jewelry worn by that jumped up Mrs. Chetwin, a creature who has finally pushed Mrs. Woolworth from her accustomed place of splendor.

The Woolworth’s family are a little like the mouth of the Fraser River, the place from which the tiny purchases made upstream by little girls in obscure places come rushing into the world, released from transit and their colorless state as mere capital, into labor, summer homes, spring vegetables, bee’s wax, grand tours, poetry, necklaces and social failure.

We’ve said nothing of the upward flow, how the value created by Woolworth’s working it’s way into a glass case and a watch…and from there into parental solicitude, and a little girl’s sense of herself. The watch that played the conduit for this flow upwards and downwards now sits in an antique store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, once more in a glass case, waiting for another chance to turn commerce into culture.

3 thoughts on “anthropology and economics, culture and commerce

  1. Roger Sweeny

    Actually, the island of Manhattan (New York County) contains about 1.5 million people. Eight million is the population of the entire City of New York, which also includes Brooklyn (Kings County), Queens (Queens County), the Bronx (Bronx County), and Staten Island (Richmond County).

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  3. luke

    I think Oscar Wilde is credited with the notion that “the cynic knows the market price of everything, but the value of nothing.” I came to New York from upstate, and for the first 10 years, I would around like a Canadian, noting the price of everything with eyebrows wide. This townhouse, that limo, his watch, my shoes… . Living in Manhattan (which does have just $1.5 million finalists out of the 8 or 9 million also rans who come over the bridges and through the tunnels), makes it easy to forget that you really are in the capital of the world. But every once in a blue moon, it reminds you. You might be drinking in a bar, and a wealthy man from Argentina wants to buy you and all your friends a drink and you wonder about him. If you are New York, your mind first asks “what’s his angle?” before that inner Canadian (or upstate New Yorker) kicks in and asks “where did he get that kind of scratch?” But the fact is, he is a diplomat’s son, or he is a traider for one of their cental banks who just buys American Treasury bonds all day, or he manages real estate that captures all of the capital flight from that country. And so it goes for him, and the 170 other countries from where people come to NYC to plant a flag, and shelter their value from the world.
    Your lamenting culture and value and economics and prices for New York Real Estate reminds me of the Australian lawyer who lost his wallet on 14th street at Union Square with 600 dollars in it last year. I found it and gave it all back. He came to my bank carrying Moet to tell my boss what I had done, as if it was an act of god. Very amazing to him that; but just another day in the big village for me. When the supply of something is out stripped by demand for it… well, all bets are off. The Dutch demonstrated that with tulips a long time ago. Eskimos have 12 words for snow. And so, the internet has Manhattan divided into 12 neighborhoods (that real estate deveolpers named and renamed– Soho, leads to Noho; Hells Kitchen became “Clinton” when that Elvis impersonator took office.) Money make the mare go. In one of his big blockbusters, Tom Cruise tell us that his father said that the answer to ninty-nine out of 100 questions is “Money”. Old saws build old bridges and old tunnels. More interesting is the question of how and why markets destroy and create value. How did bankers, brokers, PR people and assorted other bag men make the paper of a company that is famous for its internet browser, I am talking Yahoo now (which you do not even use anymore) worth 1000 years its earnings? How did they extract 1000 years it earnings from the market? What are the stories they told each other to make that happen? How does it continue to trade on such an absurd valuation? Why does the business news quote us the Dow index every hour, but provide no context, or true coverage of events such as this. After all, if a fire breaks out in Chelsea, they are right there interviewing people who are paralized by grief. I am thinking that your a smart guy, you need to dig a little deeper.

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