Gypsy Economy: The Promise and Limitations of Ethnography – Part 2

by Keith Hart

Heads or tails?

Martin Fotta referred to a lecture of mine on money, “Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin” (Hart 1986) when suggesting a title for the workshop. The lecture is actually a methodological commentary. If you want to write about something important like money, you can’t just sit there and say “The X do it this way”. I claimed that you can’t start with ethnography, you should end with it. The argument has three parts. First, like it or not, we are informed by the history of the moment we are living through. The questions we pose and the way we go about answering them depend heavily on the times we are living in. So we should be quite explicit about how our research is shaped by contemporary social forces. The 1980s were a period when neoliberal economics was beginning to dismantle the Keynesian macroeconomics that had organized the post-war boom. I wanted to talk about how state and market relate to money, but the context was that people who said the state makes money were being overthrown by others who said sound money is based on leaving it to the market.

You don’t have to be a genius or a regular reader of the Financial Times to realise that the questions we are posing about Gypsies here are in some way a reflection of the times we are in. It is always good to make reference to that, otherwise you are an automaton who doesn’t have a clue why you are doing what you do. It is the same Durkheimian notion that we immerse ourselves in society, we internalize social experience, but it takes a lot of work to excavate this existential soup and turn it into analytical objects that we can share with others. This is the first, preliminary step.

The second section of the lecture argued that we can’t talk about a topic like money without addressing at some level what the specialists have written about it. Anthropologists tend to subscribe to weak, oversimplified abstractions from economic thought like Homo economicus, so that they can say “The Trobrianders are not like that, so we don’t need to know any more about economics”. I doubt, in the present case of this workshop and book, that I would say go away and immerse yourselves in the history of political economy. What strikes me is how many different intellectual traditions inside anthropology, but more often outside it, have been referred to at various points in our discussions. I will return to that.

The third part is a reanalysis of Malinowski’s Trobriand ethnography drawing on the first two sections. If Malinowski had taken the trouble to be more aware of the context in which he was writing and had familiarised himself a bit more with some of the theories that were available to him, he would have done a better job of analysing the Trobriand economy than he actually did.

My general line was as follows. Look at a coin, it has two sides, heads and tails. It has two sides for the good reason that both are indispensable. Heads represents political authority, top-down control, the state; tails represents the idea that the coin has an objective value in trade and can purchase commodities. The ruinous aspect of contemporary monetary theory, especially in the Anglophone world, is that policy flips from one extreme to the other, while ignoring their dynamic interrelationship. One major problem is that the state/market pair is not self-sufficient; but that is not the whole story. Both sides privilege impersonal social organization; they each operate by depersonalizing people. In long-

distance trade, money had to be impersonal because the participants don’t know each other; while state bureaucracies are supposed to treat citizens equally. A French economist, Bruno Théret (2008), makes substantial use of that LSE lecture’s argument, but he adds that coins are three-dimensional, they have thickness, an edge. The third dimension of money, he says, is institutional. Between top-down state and bottom up market provision of money, social institutions organize what people really do.

In my later work I acknowledge this point, but approach it somewhat differently. We need impersonal society, the idea that all people should be subject to the same rules, independently of who they are and who they know. The twentieth century was based on impersonal society – state bureaucracy, capitalist markets and scientific expertise (including economics, to which most people had no real access). Yet we also believe that modern societies give all of us a chance to develop a unique personality and that achieving this identity is essential. There is a huge contradiction between this drive for personality and the impersonal conditions of our participation in mainstream society. But I have argued (Hart 2000) that the digital revolution in communications is altering rapidly and profoundly the terms of interaction between the personal and impersonal dimensions of social life, chiefly through a radical cheapening of the cost of transferring information. The circulation of large amounts of data surrounding the participants in long-distance transactions is transforming our experience of economic life. Mobile phones take all this further, since we now carry around miniaturized computers in our pockets, making our interactions with digital worlds even more directly personal. The internet does not have a payment system built into it and relies on archaic and clumsy methods; whereas mobile phones allow us to have directly personalized and objectified relations with the market; and this will make a huge difference to how we encounter markets and money — and state bureaucracies – in future.

Applying some of the lessons of this lecture to the present case of Gypsy economy should not rest with the question of states and markets, which is to define the problem in a way that you are not all that expert. But if what’s missing is the need to repersonalise these impersonal constructions of the economy, an ethnography of Gypsies, who do stand as a remarkable example of personalized economy, could make a major contribution to that project.


Keith Hart Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Goldsmiths College; Honorary Professor of Anthropology, University of Pretoria.