2011 Meeting Abstracts

2011 SEA Annual Meetings Paper Abstracts

SESSION 1 (9.00 – 11.45) Friday, March 11




Gay Biery-Hamilton (Rollins College) and Vance Geiger (University of Central Florida)

The economic crisis of 2008-2009, was not a natural event, nor was it the “perfect storm” that some analysts have asserted. This economic crisis was the result of social and economic processes that anthropologists have long understood. In this paper we present anthropological research from all four fields that demonstrate how these processes can be applied to modern societies. For example, one of the persistent behaviors that anthropologists have sought to explain is social inequality. Following Hayden (2001) we argue that the contemporary processes exacerbating social inequality in the United States are much like other cases in prehistory and in non-industrialized societies, in which self-aggrandizing individuals succeed in capturing a surplus through creating debt. We will compare surplus capture in contemporary American with pre-historical “trans-egalitarian” and non-state societies. In the contemporary case we will examine the specifics of how the surplus was captured utilizing the cultural predispositions of Americans. The successful cultural manipulation of the American belief in “meritocratic individualism” and a susceptibility to apocalyptic narratives enabled the acquiescence of Americans to the bailouts that saved the banks.



Christopher T. Morehart (Northwestern University)

Social scientists define surplus as excess, either excess production beyond a physiologically defined threshold or excess labor that can then be routed to “non-productive” means. Methodologically, this model is advantageous and simplifies analysis. Yet this approach can render social minimums as secondary to biological minimums and economic production as distinctive from social production. Subjectively, meeting biological requirements often are secondary to meeting societal obligations. Many producers in past states, for example, had to pay a set tax even in cases of poor yields. Today, paying one’s rent or mortgage can entail sacrificing a healthy diet. Simultaneously, social and economic opportunities also shape surplus production—the ability to enrich relationships, participate in the market, host significant events, and gain prestige. Documenting biological minimums, while allowing us to recognize excess methodologically, sometimes has limited value in understanding surplus subjectively. Surplus represents a potentiality, which can be employed creatively or destructively. Within these extremes lay real people, both the powerful and the powerless, making decisions and inheriting their consequences.

This paper examines the relationship between landscape and these different dimensions of surplus. It explores the connections between the intensification of food production, warfare, and the creation of an intensive, permanent agricultural landscape in the northern Basin of Mexico at the Postclassic (AD 1000-1400) community of Xaltocan. By 13th century AD, Xaltocan was a powerful state. As the polity grew, inhabitants constructed an integrated system of canals and raised fields, a form of agriculture locally known as chinampas. Eventually, however, Xaltocan became embroiled in warfare, a period of regional instability that would eventually lead to the formation of the Aztec empire. By the end of the 14th century, an alliance of neighboring city-states conquered Xaltocan. Its residents fled.

Chinampa agriculture was abandoned, though it remained potentially sustainable ecologically. At its height, Xaltocan’s chinampa farmscape occupied between 1500 and 2000 ha. It was a highly productive system capable of supporting over two times the kingdom’s local population. Such a surplus likely was used to finance political institutions as tribute. The need for excess production increased not only as Xaltocan grew in regional power but also as conflict and warfare became chronic. Simultaneously, however, the landscape became divided into parcels, likely associated with individual families. Farmers probably benefitted to some degree from their unique, rather than communal, strategies and capital investments. The structural properties of the chinampa landscape enabled them to invest more and more labor into production and maintenance. Through this involutionary process, farmers became increasingly chained to their land investments. Furthermore, they became progressively dependent on the social and political relationships necessary to maintain the hydrological integrity of the system. The conquest of Xaltocan reverberated throughout this web and led to the collapse of the otherwise sustainable and productive agricultural landscape. The creative and the destructive potentials of surplus, thus, were closely integrated over time.



Mark W. Hauser (Northwestern University)

When people consider the Caribbean plantation, they often associate surplus with the excesses of the planter class and the reinvestment of industrial capital. However, historians and anthropologists have successfully demonstrated that surplus could be linked to the independent production of the enslaved. Although for the most part slaves lived “near subsistence and next to disaster”, in particularly good times, these provision grounds would also provide the enslaved with surplus and a ready access to cash. This surplus has left a material record that is archaeologically recoverable and within the material record of slavery has a somewhat ambiguous implication. While the provision grounds provided potential agency and sometimes respite from the regimes of plantation life, they also bounded the enslaved to the plantation upon which they labored.

HAROLD K. SCHNEIDER Graduate Essay Award Presentation (1.15 – 2.00 p.m.)


Julie Shepherd-Powell (University of Kentucky)

This paper examines the intersection of capitalist and moral economies in the controversial debate over the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and the construction of a coal-fired power plant in southwest Virginia. Utilizing the concept of moral economy as developed by Stephen Gudeman (2001), Andrew Sayer (2000), Katherine Browne (2009), and Cynthia Werner (2009), I argue that cultural values and norms influence all types of economic ideas, exchanges and interactions, including those in capitalist economies. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted during summer 2009, I specifically examine how coalfield residents understood the economic terms of natural resource extraction and polluting industries in their communities, as well as how the debates over mountaintop removal and the building of a coal-fired power plant were framed in specific economic terms. Many of my informants in southwest Virginia argued that valuing the economic benefits of mountaintop removal and coal over the environment was immoral, while other community members argued that coal extraction was an important part of a larger national economy that upheld the values of freedom and individual choice. For example, many proponents of the coal industry argued that by providing cheap electricity through coal mined by surface mining, residents of the coalfields were making a vital contribution to national energy security. My fieldwork demonstrates how neoliberal “values” create a type of moral economy that carries with it an adherence to capitalist principles and the “American Dream.” However, it becomes evident that in the actual practices of neoliberal economic policies, very few people benefit from the touted values, while the majority of people are further economically marginalized. I maintain that it is important to recognize the moral aspect of capitalist economies because it reveals the ways that certain capitalist industries are able to gain and maintain widespread support for their often controversial practices. Tying into local cultural values and norms, these industries, like the coal industry in Appalachia, create fictitious or distorted representations of its practices that mask their destruction to economies, environments, and whole communities. Lastly, I argue that it is clearly not just power hierarchies or hegemonic discourses that create a favorable climate for coal, but it is also the historical, political, social, and cultural relationships between residents of the region and the coal industry that have created a moral economy that resonates deeply with many residents.

SESSION 2 (2.00 – 4.45), Friday, March 11




Joseph Bosco
Dept. of Anthropology
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

This paper first describes two forms of non-religious restrictions on consumption in China, and then examines how the post 1979 hyper-consumerism has swept aside all traditional restrictions and reservations on conspicuous display.

The paper first discusses the history of sumptuary laws in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) China, in which Confucian notions of hierarchy, modesty and restraint limited the display and spending of the wealthy. Following this, it explores the social pressures that led the masses in Mao’s China to dress virtually alike. Though there were significant, albeit small, variations in clothing among urban residents (especially in nominally leftist and radical Shanghai), the apparent homogeneity in consumption was as much the result of poverty as of political commitment.

Next the paper examines the increases in consumer spending in China since the economic reforms of 1979. The new consumerism has several motivations, from the functional (e.g. physical comfort) to conspicuous display. The paper focuses on field research on the adoption of shampoo since the 1980s. Chinese consumers have taken to foreign brands of shampoo with alacrity. Workers in the early 2000s were willing to buy foreign brands of shampoo that cost up to ten percent of a month’s wages for a 100 ml bottle. Since shampoos are mostly alike, and since one cannot know what brand of shampoo others are using, the success of foreign brands of shampoo in making their products essential is surprising. Using shampoo is viewed as “modern” in Post-Reform China, and consumers who cannot buy a car or other expensive appliance can participate in modernity by using shampoo.

The discourse of greed and excess focuses on individual motivation, as is common in the thinking of individualizing capitalism (and the disciplines of psychology and economics that provide much of its ideological support). The paper argues that the present push to greater consumption, just like the past restrictions on consumption, is based not on individual motivation or personality, but on the cultural logic of the system itself.



Daniel J. Murphy, University of Kentucky

How do we explain excessive wealth in the context of excessive poverty? Recent work in microeconomic theory on poverty thresholds argues that household asset dynamics in the context of asset risk face divergent trajectories: 1) accumulation and 2) decumulation (Carter and Barrett 2003). In short, this work argues that given the threat of asset loss, households or actors under certain thresholds are exposed to a poverty trap and those above the threshold, while they might experience momentary losses, are actually encapsulated in a wealth trap. Yet, such framings of poverty and wealth fundamentally miss the dynamic interaction between resource access, socio-economic inequality, and risk management that more directly determine not only cycles of booms and busts but also who wins and who fails in economies. In this paper, I use contemporary and historical livestock asset data collected from rural pastoralists in Mongolia to demonstrate that asset-tracking and asset dynamics are largely an effect of the unequal distribution of resources and historical processes of dispossession and impoverishment rather than a cause. In doing so, I argue that greed and excess must have an institutional foundation. This paper aims to lay bare that foundation and expose the myth of the ‘self-made man’ so prevalent in Mongolia today.

Data collected during a 15 month period of fieldwork in 2007-2008 clearly demonstrate that the high but stable loss rates during the socialist period have now given way to a dramatic cycle of booms and busts in both national and household herds. Additionally, if we look at herd loss data since 1993 two important trends appear. Since that time, there has been a clear and apparent trend towards increased socio-economic differentiation with a growing gulf between the very wealthy and poorest households. Secondly, in data I present from Uguumur, it is clear that even in one locale some households are experiencing more booms with fewer busts while others more frequent and deeper busts with few to no booms in household herd size. What enables such differentiation and divergences in loss rates? Can asset-only dynamics explain this?

In this article I aim to answer these questions by demonstrating how resource management policies enacted in the wake of post-socialist state collapse combined with increasing integration into livestock product markets opened a space in which kin hierarchies based on differences of age and gender have become the primary framework for rural economic organization. Consequently, it is not surprising that the wealthiest herders in Uguumur are senior males who utilize their positions as patrons to manipulate the conditions of access to their own favor. Moreover, I demonstrate how weather-based events interact with these shifting social conditions to produce disaster and a phenomenon Shipton (1990) calls the ratchet effect. The unequal distribution of resources and resource access are not evident facts but are created out of a dynamic politics of recognition and legitimation. Integral in these politics are how vast differences in wealth are given meaning and how these cultural framings not only describe inequality but work to reproduce it.



Yuson Jung (U of Chicago)

In the highly interconnected global context, consumer behaviors and consumption practices are increasingly on public display. While some people consider them as simply excessive and often unattainable consumption practices applicable only to the highest strata of the society, they nevertheless motivate “emulative” behaviors and moral critiques on the growing inequality in the modern consumer world. In this paper, I focus on the mass-mediated consumption by high-profile elites (mostly politicians) in postsocialist Bulgaria to examine the discourses and social meanings of “stealing” (often expressed in terms of “mafia,” and “thieves”) that are generated through such imageries and consumption practices. After the collapse of state socialism, many Bulgarian consumers became frustrated about growing economic inequality and often attributed their feelings of poverty to the contrasting imageries of luxury such as new western-style houses with modern and expensive-looking interiors, the ownership of multiple cars, and/or brand-name clothings and electronic gadgets that were reported as being consumed by these elites in the popular media. Although communist elites have also enjoyed relatively “luxurious” lifestyles with better access to housing and consumer items, their consumption was not on constant public display. There were endless rumors about them, but few ordinary citizens actually witnessed such economic behaviors that would be deemed as “excessive” in their social world. Consequently, the present day’s visible “excessive” economic behaviors among political elites in Bulgaria engender bitter social commentaries of “stealing,” which ultimately lament the collapse of morality and lack of moral authority. These circumstances, then, speak to the issue of “accountability” for the growing inequality and chronic recessions that started under the socialist regime and continued to the ongoing global economic crisis. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Sofia, Bulgaria between 1999 and 2009, this paper aims at engaging with questions of social accountability and moral responsibility using the lens of consumption, thereby mapping the moral landscape within the context of postsocialist global recession. Given the particularities of the socialist projects during the Cold War in which economic inequality was perceived as being relatively smaller than in the Western capitalist system due to the steadfast control of the socialist state, the postsocialist Bulgarian context illustrates the consequences of the collapse of such a state centered regulatory regime, thereby offering new insights on the social economies of greed and excess in the human world.

SESSION 3 (9.00 – 11.45), Saturday, March 12




E. Paul Durrenberger (Penn State University) and Kathleen Gillogly (University of Wisconsin-Parkside)

Durrenberger did fieldwork with Lisu of Northern Thailand in the late 1960s at the height of their opium economy when the lowland Thai administration hardly reached into the highlands, while Gillogly followed in the early 1990s after the government enacted policy in to interdict opium, restrict migration, and protect watersheds through prevention of swiddening and enclosure of mountain lands. While the earlier Lisu economy relied on income from opium to make up for shortfalls in rice production, now villagers scrambled to find economic strategies to adapt to life in the post-opium economy. In the previous economy, there were checks on over-production to insure relatively equal wealth among households in an egalitarian political system. Households with greater productive capacity held back production while those in less favorable positions hired labor from nearby Karen opium addicts. No Lisu would think of working for wages. Land was used only in usufruct. The post-opium economy included new forms of commodified agriculture such as cattle herding, contractual planting of cash crops, buying of land, and investment in trucks and motorbikes to transport produce to market, as well as participation in wage labor in urban lowland markets.

Detailed economic data for the earlier period showed that there was no hint of economic stratification. While people were jealous of their honor and strove to gain access to prestige goods for display, the race was to stay equal rather than to exceed others. Thai-Lisu interactions were few and marked by culturally based misunderstandings, In post-opium period, Thai officials working in the integrated highland development project that managed this village often castigated the Lisu villagers as “greedy.” But Thai officials’ assessment of the “greed” of Lisu villagers occurred in the context of a Buddhist philosophy of self-sufficiency, a common epistemic move among middle class Thais, who romanticized the rural poor in opposition to their own prestige fueled consumption informed by a hierarchic Buddhist conception of stature. In this worldview, the rural poor are at the bottom of the scale, harmoniously poor, and therefore those who seek more than subsistence are somehow corrupted. As during the opium days, the main focus of these peasant households, however, was how to make a viable livelihood, establish autonomous households, and get their children married. New Year celebration displays and wedding ceremonies had been (and, as much as possible, remained) the main venues for display of wealth and status, of family ‘repute.’ We will examine the relationships among production and Lisu concepts of prestige, reputation, honor and the role of concepts of greed and how these changed with a profound state-drive change in the system of production. We will then discuss some more general questions. Are the people of any society based on cash cropping and commodity markets by definition greedy? Is it greed when accommodation to a new economic system requires people make capital investments in order to survive and maintain their social relations? Or is, perhaps, greed a continuation of long-standing cultural mis-understandings between highlanders and lowlanders?



Gayatri Thampy (Ohio State University)

Over the last two decade the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama has seen the rise of tourism as the dominant and almost exclusive industry. In conjunction with neo-liberal land reforms aimed at privatizing and titling land, tourism has been actively promoted by the Panamanian government to boost the local economy which had plummeted following the decline of the banana industry in the early 20th century. The archipelago has been in the national limelight since 2000 due to the abundance of land conflicts sparked by ‘residential tourism’ and resort development. ‘Residential tourism’ refers to retirees, largely from the US and Europe, who have settled down in homes, condominiums, gated communities, and large estates in Bocas del Toro. The influx of elite retirees promoted by transnational real estate companies and private realtors has resulted in a rush to grab as much land as possible so they can sell it at inflated prices to retirees looking for a cheaper retirement plan.

In response, the Panamanian government has attempted to evolve a regulatory system that fosters economic growth through foreign investment in the region while also appeasing and controlling citizen, expatriate retirees and investor angst due to the burgeoning conflicts. Actors in this situation include the Panamanian legislature, various government officials, NGOs, foreign corporations, foreign real estate agents, expatriate retirees from the United States, and Europe, and local indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, and mestizo Panamanians. At stake for the various actors in this spectacle are land for cultivation and subsistence, access to the beach and the sea, land for experiencing aesthetic beauty, livelihood through wage labour, salvaging invested retirement funds, achieving targeted increases in indicators of economic growth such as GDP and the fulfilment of political ambitions.

This paper examines the motivations of regulatory mechanisms as well as those of the various actors involved by identifying the various loci of greed: expats demanding land at cheap prices and large profits through speculation; indigenous, Afro-Caribbean or mestizo middlemen brokering land with expatriate retirees and investors for commissions; indigenous families deciding to sell their land to make a short term profit without quite understanding the legal and economic implications of their actions; visiting tourists expecting to find a pristine and untouched paradise that is devoid of such worldly matters available for their aesthetic consumption; foreign and national corporations’ endeavours to exact maximum profit for capital invested; the national demand for continuous economic growth in response to international pressures; mestizo perspective on indigenous demands for land rights as a form of indigenous greed for acquiring wealth without the desire to work. In the process, it examines how the regulatory framework is interpreted, ignored or modified by each of these segments of the populations to serve their interests. This paper also discusses how property is viewed differently by investors and the indigenous people, and the implications of this difference in perspectives on common property theory.



Jason Antrosio (Hartwick College) and Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld (University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill)

Thomas Friedman (referencing Harvard economist Lawrence Katz) declared that the economic future for the U.S. meant that “everyone today has to be an artisan” (New York Times, October 23, 2010). But what exactly does it mean to be an artisan in a globalized world? This paper suggests that artisan and peasant economies may involve intolerable levels of risk and excess, frustrating the search for economic justice and more equitable opportunities. Fieldwork with peasant agriculturists in southwestern Colombia and textile artisans in northern Ecuador challenges the stereotypes of conservative, risk-averse peasants or of traditional, low-output artisans. Rather, risk-maximization and excessive behavior is widespread, and may even be vital for maintaining the system. The chance at windfall profits can encourage small-scale production, making it seem worth persevering through adverse conditions. At times when traditional calculations of toil and expenditure make agriculture or artisanry seem like wasted effort, an excessive display of winnings can provide motivation to continue.

This rethinking was prompted by ongoing fieldwork observations. First, when I revisited my original dissertation fieldwork site in the Colombian Andes, I found that the peasant agriculturists had recently been caught up in a financial pyramid scheme. As I thought about how the people who seemed to me to be sober, traditional agriculturists got caught up in such obviously outrageous ventures, it made me re-examine small-scale agriculture, which can also be surprisingly boom-and-bust, from the windfall profits and electronics purchases to times when cabbages rot because they are not worth harvesting. Second has been observing the primarily textile-artisan town of Atuntaqui, Ecuador, which has remade itself as a center of fashion. Where small family firms once employed a handful of workers, scores of businesses have scaled up to produce for national markets, earning pennies a garment and running their operations on lines of credit and post-dated checks. The center of town has been remade in a retail explosion that has redoubled since 2005 into increased speculation on clothing storefronts

The paper locates these observations in a review of the political economy literature of peasant and artisan economies, as well as the recent spate of economic experimental games carried out among small-scale producers. These observations are also connected to current events and commentary that blames the crisis on greed within the financial sector. The Colombian pyramid scheme and the Ecuadorian fashion surge demonstrate how speculation permeates the global economy. In booms and busts in the northern Andes, peasants and artisans have built an infrastructure of excess: overbuilt streetscapes, overcapacity in workshops, lost economic diversity, and production shifted to niche markets. To participate in a global economy, this is the meaning of “everyone today has to be an artisan.”

SESSION 4 (2.00 – 5.45) Saturday, March 12




Jeffrey H. Cohen (Ohio State University) and Susan Glover (Dennison University)

Monthly food auctions in Saint Mary’s, Ohio are events where individuals and their families have the opportunity to purchase a variety of foods at bargain prices. We might assume that the opportunity to fill the pantry while saving money would encourage greed and hoarding. An individual can bid strategically to amass resources (here defined as the supply of food available for consumption or resale) at the expense of others who are not as adept or willing to participate in the auction. We would also assume that the auction’s suppliers and the auction house staff would look upon the event as a chance to earn a large return on an investment.
Yet, the food auctions in Saint Mary’s reveal an event where greed is managed and balanced against reciprocity and cooperation among bidders as well as the suppliers and auction house staff. In our paper we present data that shows first, how bidders compete with each other, hoard purchases and balance bids against what they believe to be good food. Second, how the suppliers and auction house staff manage bids and prices and balance profits for themselves against value for the bidder. Third, we note how the event as a whole works to check greed through community based expectations of the auction and its outcomes. Fourth and finally, we examine what the auction as an event says about the avarice and greed of the food industry and large scale, industrialized agriculture.



Richard Wilk (Indiana University, Bloomington)

The literature on the history of excess has tended to focus on ruling classes, and nouveau-riche groups intent on demonstrating their wealth through public conspicuous consumption. In this paper I draw on historical evidence from working cultures of loggers, fishermen, miners, sailors and manual laborers to show how excessive displays of consumption were embedded in daily rhythms of work, in the cultural construction of gender, and the economic structures of entire industries. I define a ‘binge economy’ which typically emerged in extractive industries, and on the margins of the capitalist world system. Then I question whether or not working-class displays of excessive consumption were self-limiting; did the constant drain of money and resources effectively immobilize the class and keep them from accumulating, or were there other social boundaries which prevented social mobility? Rather than being based on greed, I argue that working class binge consumption was an attempt to build a social order which would allow workers to survive harsh work discipline, extremely dangerous physical labor, and the socially corrosive nature of the money. But rather than being an effective form of resistance or solidarity, excessive consumption created as many problems as it solved, perpetuating servitude in the guise of freedom, and serving the interests of capital, rather than labor. I will also discuss the ambivalent attitudes of employers towards binge consumption, and the different coalitions which eventually suppressed it in most parts of the USA. Nevertheless, the close association of masculinity with excessive forms of social consumption continues to inspire many forms of excess and overconsumption among middle class Americans.



Sidney M. Greenfield (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Could the current economic crisis, precipitated by defaults in sub-prime mortgages, been avoided? The simple answer is yes. The explanation behind the answer is more complicated. There is an aspect of American culture that I call the moral philosophy of “just deserts.” I take the term “just deserts” from the title of Alperovitz and Daly’s (2008) book, Unjust Deserts. To argue for greater equity in the distribution of wealth, the authors return to the 17th century writings of John Locke who helped establish the rules of property ownership that determine who is entitled to get what in the way of material goods. Locke’s writings, infused with Protestant theology, became the basis of Western law and morality. Economic theory, on which the policies that led up to the crash and the responses to it are based, draws heavily on Locke’s thinking. Holders of sub-prime mortgages, like so many throughout the world who have no jobs, according to this thinking that has become intrinsic to our culture, did not deserve to get mortgages and to have homes. Though bailing them out by paying their mortgages could have prevented the crash, it could not be done because it would have given them “unjust deserts.”


Honoree Address


Robert C. Hunt (Brandeis University)

My main objective is to understand Hohokam irrigated agriculture (700 -1400 CE). Part of the evidence comes from events in Southern Arizona between 1700 and 1940 CE. The groups that were engaged with each other include the Pima, Papago, Maricopa, Apache, various Yumans, New Spain, Mexico, Anglos, and the USA. Old crops persist, new crops are added, domesticated animals are added, mining develops, and transport technology changes in major ways. Technologies change in substantial ways. Markets and market demand shift with political jurisdictions and technology changes. Enemies and allies are important for understanding water, land and labor, as well as markets. Population and population densities change in striking ways. A description and analysis of events in the region after 1700 permits an improved ability to retroject accounts of Pima agriculture into Prehistory. The events also encourage an exploration of Jared Diamond’s interpretation of collapse in the Southwest, and of greed.