2019 SEA Annual Meeting

Program chair: Sibel Kusimba, American University. skusimba@american.edu
Local organizer: Ty Matejowsky, University of Central Florida. Ty.Matejowsky@ucf.edu

(Note: We are not yet accepting paper and poster submissions. Registration and submission will occur via the AAA website. Look for an announcement in September, 2018.)

The concept of “wealth in people” encompasses the way that people, persons and?personhood are understood to have value, and how social systems define equivalency between human value and the value of other valuables and commodities, often in ways that are unspoken, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Human value may come from expertise, productive or reproductive abilities or other intrinsic qualities; their reputations around these qualities; their class, rank, or status; family, caste or group membership; or their spiritual or supernatural linkage. Human value may be influenced by hierarchy or inequality based on gender, class, race, identity, or disability, therefore including embodied inequalities. The wealth in people perspective also includes related concepts such as human capital and labor. It explores how people are folded into gift and commodity circulations through debt peonage, clientage, and bridewealth. It includes ways that the value of personhood can be converted and extended into material value, such as grave goods and mortuary practices, icons, media representations, heirlooms, possessions/gifts, and monuments; or into money value such as salary or insurance. The proposed SEA theme will examine the continuing importance, but also the limitations and needed extensions of the concept of “wealth in people” for contemporary social scientists considering how calculations and valuations around persons and personhood shape social life.

Jane Guyer and colleagues, in a series of papers, noted the importance of wealth in people in Central Africa, and how societies assembled persons with diverse qualities such as knowledge and skill (Guyer, 1993, 1995, 1996; Guyer & Belinga, 1995). They also drew attention to the relationship between wealth in people and wealth in things, and how valuation often related to both:

“Interpersonal dependents of all kinds – wives, children, clients and slaves – were valued, sought and paid for at considerable expense in material terms in pre-colonial Africa. In some places they were the pinnacle, and even the unit of measurement, of ultimate value (Guyer & Belinga, 1995:92).”

Twenty years after the papers of Guyer and colleagues, new media and technologies are redefining both personhood and value in a time of inequalities both embodied and material. Some parts of the contemporary economy have shifted emphasis away from production and toward services and experiences, “producing the human being rather than producing things through human beings (Hart 2011:7).” As a result, ideas about personhood and value are questioned. The practices of “wealth in people” increasingly include not only production and labor but also distribution and relationships (Ferguson 2015). Yet people are still commodified, and increasingly circulated as bodies and as media images, and profit is gained from the destruction of bodies. Can the concept of wealth in people inspire critical questions of moral economy for the present day, beyond its initial usage in African ethnography? As Hart, Laville, and Cattani ask (2010), can we (re) create an economy in which human life is the pinnacle of value?

The conference will grapple with longstanding and novel forms, techniques and notions of value, wealth and personhood. The topic is inherently interdisciplinary, and we welcome submissions from cultural anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, geographers, sociologists, historians, human biologists, and applied and practicing social scientists on topics relating to value, wealth, humans, persons, and personhood. We welcome studies that extend the concept of wealth in people, as value is never just material and as persons and personhood is not limited to bodies and individuals. Such studies might include but not be limited to

How and why people are given value, because of their expertise; ability; experience; creativity; nobility, class, rank, or status; family, caste or group membership; spiritual or supernatural connections;

  • Embodied value, embodied inequalities; relational value;
  • Hierarchy or inequality in the value of persons based on gender, class, race, identity, disability, or other subject positions
  • Value of labor and labor theories of value; concepts of human capital; the value of emotional, reproductive and caring labor
  • Commodification of humans: enslavement, slave trade, prostitution
  • Materializing the value of persons through grave goods, mortuary treatment and ritual, monuments, personal possessions and artifacts
  • Human bodies and remains, and the marks they bear of wealth, poverty, and labor though health, stress, and embodied practices
  • Human remains: ownership, transfer, stewardship, desecration
  • Bride wealth, bride price, wealth transfers at rituals of the life cycle
  • Ideas/practices/taboos around love, relationships and money
  • Accountability and liability: compensating for and atoning for the loss of human lives, sacrifice and self-sacrifice
  • Wages, salaries and the value of persons: regimes for valuing CEOs, leaders, engineers and inventors; corporate headhunting; calculating workers’ wages or benefits; pricing the professional athlete, entertainer and celebrity
  • Finance: creditworthiness, relational accounting
  • Life and health insurance: moral and calculative regimes
  • Value of persons, genes, body parts or biological systems under new medical systems
  • Reproductive technologies and values of future/potential people and those not yet born


Works Cited

Ferguson, J. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Duke University Press.

Guyer, J. (1993). Wealth in People and Self-realization in Equatorial Africa. Man N.S., 28(2), 243–265.

Guyer, J. (1995). Wealth in People, Wealth in Things: Introduction. Journal of African History, 36, 83–90.

Guyer, J. (1996). Traditions of Invention in Equatorial Africa. African Studies Review 39(3), 1. https://doi.org/10.2307/524941

Guyer, J., & Belinga, S. (1995). Wealth in people as wealth in knowledge: accumulation and composition in equatorial Africa. Journal of African History, 36(1), 91–120.

Hart, K., Laville, J.-L., & Cattani, A. D. (2010). The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Hart, K. 2011. Building the Human Economy: A Question of Value? Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 36(2): 5-17.