Gypsy Economy: The Promise and Limitations of Ethnography – Part 3

by Keith Hart

Why Study Gypsy Economy?

Looking at the contributions to this volume, I would pick out four themes: the first is money transfers (begging, credit, loans, state grants); the second is economic strategies — a more dynamic and proactive look at what people are up to in market situations; the third focus is on performance, examining closely how people interact with each other; and the last concerns wealth and value in its different forms. So it is the case that this collection adds up to quite a lot as a set. It is always important, if you want to know what someone thinks, to pay attention to the content of their writing rather than the headlines. Thus Max Weber says he wishes to promote a subjective sociology, but 90% of Economy and Society (Weber 1978) is a structural historical analysis with no people in it. This is because his sources were records written by the administrative classes and people as such didn’t appear in these documents. So his material evidence did not support a Verstehendesoziologie. It’s one thing to set out to do something, but you also need to analyse what you did.

To recapitulate, how should ethnographers take account of our moment in history and of theoretical strands relevant to Gypsy economy? Somehow you must make a link to neoliberalism. One obvious precedent for this is the Comaroffs, Theory from the South (2012), when they claim that South Africa reveals a form of neoliberalism towards which the global North is evolving. This is a stimulating thought experiment, but we shouldn’t get carried away by it. Neoliberalism is an ideal type and the Southern African economy is more than that (Ferguson 2015). For example, 25% of the population receives state grants; so that however you want to characterize South Africa’s political economy, the ANC’s hand-out system is an enormous part of it. For many anthropologists, not the Comaroffs, “neoliberalism” has become a convenient tag like Homo economicus for an earlier generation, an excuse for not thinking. There are some things that we all think we know about neoliberalism, but they are often just slogans taken in isolation. Many of us thought that the financial crisis would deal a death blow to neoliberalism, but, as Philip Mirowski (2013) has shown brilliantly, the neoliberal project has been strengthened by the crisis.

For our purposes the most important aspect of neoliberalism is its promotion of the free market as a form of statelessness, the dream of money without politics which is shared by the techno-utopian movement that generates currencies like Bitcoin. This plays into an old and good standby of anthropology. How did anthropology get going? Because people in the nineteenth century wanted to know how permanent and universal western industrial capitalism was, what alternatives there were – liberal, anarchist, communist or socialist. We went out to study people who were not part of the capitalist system in order to throw critical light on what we had left behind. Why did we study societies without the state?

Because we wanted to show that the assumptions of state-made societies could be challenged on grounds of human difference. The theme of statelessness is absolutely central to the study of Gypsy societies everywhere. We no longer pretend that we are studying stateless peoples, but we are studying people with a history of statelessness and interaction with states, global capitalism and the rest.

One theme is neoliberal governance and it was most clearly evident in a workshop paper on Italian begging that unfortunately did not make it to this volume. Why suddenly is begging a problem? Why do they start giving the police bogus administrative instruments with which to harass Gypsy beggars? Because they infringe the dominant narrative of responsibility and autonomy; they provide a bad symbol of the free-market society that they wish to present as being inevitable. Other themes associated with neoliberalism are privatization — the dismantling of the public sphere — and precarity. The western middle classes, including most anthropology students, now discover that they are indebted and with precarious employment. If you are interested in precarity, try being an Inuit, waiting for the whales to turn up. In fact, the hit movie in the year Argonauts was published (1922) was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, a celebration of the resilience of an Inuit individual faced with almost insurmountable difficulties. And whatever neoliberalism is supposed to be, state transfers are very important. The neoliberal state is a very coercive one. It readily throws people into jail in large numbers.

Even if its demise has been too readily assumed by its opponents, neoliberalism has been facing for years now a huge legitimation crisis. Especially in the years of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, anthropologists were making direct reference to the growing level of insurgency, agitation and revolt. These would seem to be the inevitable political consequence of the demons that have been released. For all these reasons, it seems to me that a collection of studies of Gypsy economy offers an opportunity to investigate questions that have tremendous resonance in this historical moment.

Finally, more exciting in some ways than pointing out the parallels with the neoliberal crisis, anthropologists have an opportunity to use and play with some of the bodies of theory that address the more performative and interactive aspects of our ethnographies and of the social situations in which we live. It is a great might-have-been of intellectual history that anthropologists generally missed the chance to learn from and draw on the achievements of social psychology. You may not know that Erving Goffman was seconded (1949-1951) as a Chicago doctoral student to the new Department of Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, which was his base for fieldwork in a Shetland Islands hotel and that he published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) through Edinburgh’s Social Science Research Centre in 1956. Social psychology (which could pass itself off as either anthropology or sociology) was the greatest contribution of the United States to modern thought, stemming from the work of G. H. Mead, the founder of symbolic interactionism.

This was because the massive migration from Europe to the United States in the decades before the First World War threw strangers together in huge cities like New York and Chicago, speaking different languages and given the task of building society from scratch. That is what generated not only the Chicago school of sociology, but the social psychologists also. They were compelled to ask how it was that people who don’t know each other and are thrown together in large numbers can make society together.

This was Kant’s question in The Perpetual Peace (1795), based partly on fieldwork down in the docks, where he would ask Portuguese and Dutch sailors how they made society on the open seas, well beyond the reach of states. We all know about states that organize societies within territorial boundaries and apply laws, punishments and the rest of it; but what happens outside those boundaries? People tend to think Kant wasn’t funny, but he took his title from a Dutch pub sign that offered amnesia in this life (rather than after death) based on getting blasted with gin. This pub sign was a metaphor for a world society that exists beyond states. Gypsies are another striking example of the same thing. Most of the contributors to this volume are discussing boundary crossing, the refusal of nomads to be pinned down and the rest of it.

The crisis of our times is the contradiction between life on the move and institutions that tie us to the ground. More specifically, politics is still based mainly on nation-states, but the money circuit has gone global. Unless we can find, hopefully short of world war, the means of making a global society that is more effective than the framework erected after the Second World War (the Bretton Woods institutions, United Nations etc.) which is now clearly decadent, there won’t be a twenty-second century. So anthropology, which once used ethnography to raise questions about the legitimacy and permanence of western industrial society, could reinvent itself as the study of how people make society beyond the boundaries of existing states. This is a question that goes beyond mere critique of free markets and neoliberal dismantling of public provision, deregulation and all the rest. Far from going away, it is more pertinent than ever today to ask how we can organize society without states. Gypsy ethnography and the comparative history of Gypsies offer rich opportunities to explore those questions.

Is ethnography concerned only with what is particular about the Gypsies? It is not. The objective can’t possibly be to document the Gypsies for their own sake and then move on. Clearly, we are studying a sophisticated set of interactions at many levels that all the chapters assembled here are already addressing in one way or another.

In conclusion, anthropologists have to be more self-aware about what we bring to the table in the form of ethnographic method. We cannot afford to rely on our theoretical premises emerging piecemeal from ethnographic descriptions. There has to be another level somehow. The present volume is a valuable exercise pointing in that direction and I have been glad to be part of it.


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