[URBANTH-L]Re: anthropological responses to current financial meltdown

Nicholas D'Avella njdavella at ucdavis.edu
Fri Oct 24 17:43:34 EDT 2008

Since it might be a little early for academic writing on the topic,  
it could be useful to juxtapose some news media pieces with other  
writings on finance.  One great source that I think is quite  
'ethnographic' in its approach is an episode of This American Life,  
the NPR radio program, which aired back in May.  It's called "The  
Giant Pool of Money" and it seeks to explain how the sub-prime crisis  
happened by interviewing people involved at various parts of the  
chain:  people loosing their houses; the regional mortgage brokers  
who sold mortgages they knew people couldn't repay to satisfy the  
demands of major brokerage firms for those mortgages; people in those  
firms; and the developers of the financial tools that were designed  
to hedge the risk on these (later securitized) mortgages.  The show  
is available at:  http://thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx? 

I think it would work really well with students alongside  
anthropological/sociological work on contemporary finance.  I'm not  
sure what you have on the syllabus, but selections from Fisher and  
Downey's edited volume "Frontiers of Capital:  Ethnographic  
Reflections on the New Economy" would work well I think.  To the  
authors there I'd add Bill Maurer, Karen Ho, Hiro Miyazaki, Knorr  
Cetina and Bruegger, Michel Callon, and Daniel Miller as other  
writers who offer good possible readings for considering what's  
happening.  LiPuma and Lee's book "Financial Derivatives and the  
Globalization of Risk" seems particularly apt.

Carruthers and Stinchcombe's article "The Social Structure of  
Liquidity:  Flexibility, Markets, and States" (1999; Theory and  
Society 28 (3):  353-382.) might be a little technical for your  
purposes, but it has a section on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's role  
in providing liquidity to the mortgage market in the US.  And  
finally, I know of two articles about US banking in the 19th century  
that might provide an interesting contrast for students.  Both are by  
Daniel Wadhwani:  "Protecting Small Savers:  The Political Economy of  
Economic Security" (Journal of Public History 18 (1):  126-145); and  
"Citizen Savers:  Family Economy, Financial Institutions, and Public  
Policy in the Nineteenth-Century" (Enterprise and Society 5 (4):   

Good luck, it would be great to see the syllabus when you're done.

Nicholas D'Avella
Graduate Student
Department of Anthropology
UC Davis

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