Session 2B: Cultural understandings of risk and misfortune

Session 2B: Cultural understandings of risk and misfortune, Tate Hall, room 137. Chair: Alyson Young.

1:30-1:50         John Millhauser, Debt as risk, debt as resilience: A historical view from Nahua Mexico

Debt is one of the oldest and most widespread ways by which humans redistribute risk. As David Graeber has exhaustively shown (2011), it has also been one of the most pernicious—especially when quantified and monetized. His comparative and historical study emphasizes the ancient civilizations of the Old World, leaving open the question of whether similar practices and attitudes emerged independently in the markets, cities, and states of the Americas. This paper expands on Graeber’s work by reconstructing the practices, institutions, and morality of debt in Nahua society at the time of the Aztec Empire. When Europeans arrived in central Mexico in 1519 CE, markets, taxation, media of exchange, and property were all established parts of the Nahua economy. In this non-Western and pre-capitalist context, we can ask: How did the Nahua use debt to redistribute risk? How quantified and impersonal were these practices? And what, if any, were the moral implications of lending, borrowing, and living in debt?

To answer these questions, I critically investigate sixteenth-century documentary sources, such as Nahuatl-Spanish dictionaries, chronicles of the conquest and its aftermath, compendia of Nahua history and culture and other literary and archival materials. Although many sources limit us to a normative view, records of individual obligations tell us about how debt worked in practice. Across these independent sources, I find that debt, credit, and loans were all parts of the Nahua economy and that many of these ideas and practices were likely to have existed prior to the conquest. The Nahua accepted debt as a part of life and a way to defray risk. Causes of debt ranged from the environment (e.g. drought) to social obligations (e.g. marriage). Solutions ranged from informal kin-based loans to a form of slavery which involved temporary servitude that one could assume to pay debts to individuals or institutions.

Nahua attitudes toward debt—and toward related social practices and institutions—are presented in pragmatic terms more often than moralistic ones. This may reflect Nahua cosmological beliefs and religious practices that emphasized the fulfillment of cyclically renewed debts and obligations to celestial powers through sacrifice. In other words, debts were woven into the fabric of the universe. That being said, the Nahua recognized the worldly danger that debts could become overwhelming and linked some kinds of debt to individual failings (e.g. gambling losses) and antisocial behavior (e.g. unscrupulous merchants). Moral judgment appears to have been reserved for people, such as beggars and thieves, who had fallen out of the reciprocal relationships by which the institutions of debt were reproduced. In a sense, then, to live in debt was to maintain a resilient presence in social networks and a legitimate place in economic processes—moral sanction was reserved for those who bucked the system. The Nahua case thus reinforces the cross-cultural and historical roots of debt as a solution to the problem of risk and a paradoxical mechanism of resilience in the way that it defers rather than resolves risk.

1:50-2:10         Discussion

2:10-2:30         Bonnie Kaiser, Explaining misfortune via the natural and supernatural world in Haiti

A current question in economic anthropology regards how cultural groups draw upon natural and supernatural causal models to make sense of the world. Included in this research agenda is the question of how forces within the natural and supernatural realms are thought to interact (or not) in shaping risk and misfortune. This paper explores the ways that people in rural Haiti draw upon natural and supernatural causal models in tandem in order to make sense of misfortune, as well as exploring potential implications of drawing on these different causal models. From January – December 2013, I conducted a mixed-methods study in Haiti’s Central Plateau exploring mental health and resilience. Included in this research was ethnographic investigation of how the natural and supernatural world are thought to shape experiences of fortune and misfortune. In this paper, I examine narratives that I collected regarding fortune and misfortune, in order to elucidate the types of causal models that participants used to make sense of the world. I focus in particular on a subtype of narrative that uses “sent spirits” as a means of explaining misfortune. These narratives describe how individuals believe they or someone close to them have been the victim of someone who used the spirit world to inflict harm: by sending illness, business failure, or even death. These narratives contrast with narratives that remain rooted in the natural world, explaining misfortune as due to direct harm from other people (as opposed to via the spirit world), natural forces like wind, or personal mistakes.

The way that individuals differentially draw on these cultural models for making sense of misfortune might reflect experiences in one’s social world, and in some ways actively shape it. “Sent spirit” narratives are rife with jealousy, inequality, and forms of social control, born in the material world, yet enacted via the spirit world. Drawing on such patterns, I argue that “sent spirit” narratives are fundamentally social narratives, reflecting links among structural forces, socioeconomic status, and restricted social mobility. In drawing on the spirit world as a means of explaining misfortune, “sent spirit” narratives potentially function to displace blame from impoverished, disempowered individuals. In contrast, narratives that are told in the natural world more often blame individuals for their own suffering or place blame on broader structural inequalities. Noting how “sent spirit” narratives place blame on other individuals – rather than the social inequalities and forms of structural violence that are at the root of much misfortune – I ask whether such cultural models might be harmful for social relations. Ultimately, however, I conceptualize “sent spirit” narratives as protective of solidarity and social cohesion. In particular, I argue that the perceived very real threat of “sent spirits” can serve as a means of preventing people from “moving up” too much in society, a behavior that is itself seen as particularly threatening to solidarity.

2:30-2:50         Discussion

2:50-3:10         S. Hun Seog, Financial ritual

Finance theories are criticized for failing to capture the reality in terms of their outcomes and foundation. Nevertheless, we witness the phenomenon that financial theories are being taught and admired in business schools and actively utilized in the finance circle including financial industries, regulators and academia. The resolution of this irony requires consideration of the theories’ deeper foundation. Finance theories are built on the premise that what is good for the financial side is good for society. Propositions and findings are stated from the perspectives of investors, prices, and capital markets, not from those of the society. Finance theories consider the financial side only, while virtually ignoring the real side. For example, financial theories may support that managers sack employees to increase the firm value. This presumption leads to the failure of finance theories at the level of their foundation. While this approach, in some sense, is inevitable when studying financial markets, it contributes to the disparity between theories and reality. Despite the fact that finance theories fail to capture the reality in outcome and foundation, they are used and applied in practice, affecting many people. This practicality eventually amplifies the discontent. Why then do people utilize and worship finance theories despite their failure? Finance theories are being taught and admired in business schools and are actively utilized in the finance circle, including financial industries, regulators, and academia. Let us call such a phenomenon the “finance phenomenon” throughout this paper. This paper attempts to provide a ritual interpretation to understand the finance phenomenon. Ritual theories have been developed in anthropology in diverse contexts. We apply the diverse perspectives of ritual theories to the finance phenomenon. Among ritual theories, we borrow from the perspectives of functionalism, structuralism, and practice theory. We argue that as a ritual does, finance theories disseminate ideology and beliefs and have an effect on society (especially the finance circle). The effect is determined collectively and is not necessarily as intended by individual financial researchers and practitioners. Finance academia is viewed as an agent to officiate the rite of passage, which helps to reaffirm and recreate the unity of society and finance circle. Finance academia and the finance industry are viewed as a hierarchical structure. Finance theories can survive, as a ritual does, even if they lose their connection with reality.

3:10-3:30         Discussion

3:30-3:45         Break

3:45-4:05         Peter Wogan, A dream economy: Latino strategies to foretell business outcomes

Extending Arjun Appadurai’s focus on uncertainty and magic in modern financial capitalism, this paper directly addresses a question posed in the program description: “How do different cultures learn to forecast future economic…outcomes?” Based on nearly 10 years of participant-observation, I focus on a Latino owner of a corner grocery store who in 2007 had to decide whether taking a $200,000 loan to buy bakery equipment would pay off with future profits, or lead to crushing debt, maybe even bankruptcy and the loss of his life savings. Given the many unknown factors in the economy, the owner’s careful, Weberian-style bookkeeping could not tell him for certain whether the bakery would succeed or fail, so he turned to dream prognostication, carefully analyzing his dreams every morning in search of clues to his future, both that day’s events and his long-term financial and personal condition. He based his analysis on the dream-interpretation principles he had learned as a child growing up in a rural Mexican village, the same principles uncovered by George Foster in his classic study of Tzintzuntzan, located less than 50 miles away. Yet the owner was skeptical and conflicted about this dream system, having dismissed it during his middle age as a “superstition” at odds with the modern principles of science and business he had enthusiastically embraced during his previous two decades in the U.S. Consequently, he only used selected aspects of the traditional dream-prediction system that he confirmed worked in practice; otherwise, he created his own original theories, based on his careful study of correlations between his nightly dreams and waking world. Though making progress, he often found confusing, contradictory messages in his dreams right up until his final decision about whether or not to buy the bakery equipment. To take one striking example, over several months he struggled with multiple interpretations of a dream in which he was riding in a garbage truck on the Mexico-U.S. border. He couldn’t decide whether this dream was a positive omen of future success, according to the traditional dream principle of opposites, or whether it meant he would end up homeless, or whether it had something to do with recycling and rebirth, two of his favorite images for the surprising vicissitudes of economic value in the U.S.

This case study extends Appadurai’s model of calculation, uncertainty, and magic in modern “high finance” (e.g. derivatives traders) by showing how it plays out not only in the context of a small business, but also the cultural and personal realm of dreams. In doing so, this study provides insight into the “dream economies” highlighted by David Graeber: the bursts of enormous creativity that occur during major cultural transformations, especially incorporation into a global market economy.

4:05-4:25         Discussion

4:25-4:45         Robert Johnson, Live like no one else: Seeking an extra-ordinary financial future through faith-based financial planning

In the United States, there are over 280 million outstanding, long-term loans.  Despite this, less than 35% of households have organized any budget or financial planning strategy in the last 15 years.  This is striking, particularly due to the social and physiological anxiety caused by the late 2000’s housing and global financial crises.  As a response to these conditions, the financial planning industry expanded into what some analysts call a “golden age” of financial planning.   In order to explain all of this, conventional economists provide general stochastic information on financial markets and spending trends.  However, the monitoring of quantitative data alone cannot explain the continued rise in household debt in the midst of financial planning’s golden age.  Little is known, for example, of the direct impact of personal social networks in household financial decision-making.  Further, little is known of the direct impact that localized, moral economies have among highly indebted consumers.  This study asks what ideological orientations guide highly indebted households and how those orientations are influenced by localized social networks.  More precisely, this study seeks to understand the impact of localized religious ideology on household consumer spending.  This study was conducted during a 9-week session of Financial Peace University among members of a rural, Midwestern church.  The principal researcher participated in class activities and conducted both structured and follow-up interviews among six participants.  Data was analyzed using a combination of Zelizer’s concept of social earmarking; Douglas’ concept of agonistic consumption; and Froese and Bader’s typologies of beliefs in God.  The study reveals two key findings.  First, participants found success in household debt reduction through a strategy of agonistic consumption.  Second, spending ideologies – along with spending habits – tend to change or adjust with particular life cycle patterns.  Central to these changes are one’s perceptions of the personal stake they have in household family responsibility.  The results of this study suggest that the moral imagination of the household and the life course are significant indications of success or failure of debt reduction schemes.  Further, the study suggests that spending or consumption ideologies are as important as rationalized spending priorities in coping with financial distress.

4:45-5:05         Discussion