Anthropology of Capital

Downey and Fisher try to construct a paradigm of research on a bubble that had burst in early 2000s, namely, the New Economy. This is not a pointless exercise, as the authors argue, because the New Economy and its subsequent burst is not purely a material and economic process, but involves social relations, trusts, emotions and cultural innovations. A major theme of this introductory piece is the inseparability of technology and culture, and the unpredictable ways they interact.
Downey and Fisher first recount the phenomenal rise and sudden burst of the New Economy, as dramatized by the plummeting of NASDAQ, and the failure of star corporations like WorldCom, Enron and LTCM. The author also debunk the view that the New Economy was “much ado about nothing”, or it was business as usual. They argue that under the New Economy, the uneven spread of innovative forms of value and symbols, the unstable alchemy of new technology and local social relations, quite simply produced radically  different phenomena in different locations. The Transient and ephemeral character of teh New Economy may just prove that technology and social change mutually constitute each other (Downey and Fisher 4).
Downey and Fisher elaborate on the close relationship between technology and social change, arguing against leaving technology out of analysis of culture. Citing research result of others, the authors illustrate how actors withing the New Economy heavily depend on “reading the market’s mood from the physical presence of crowds, other traders’ facial expressions, and the volume of shouted bids”, instead of rational calculations (Downey and Fisher 6).
To extend their thesis of New Economy being both a technological and social innovation, Downey and Fisher try to find a “cultural foundation” for the “economic”. They argue that economic “values” are a social achievement, contingent on cultural as well as material processes. The cultural foundations underscore the prominent intangible elements of the New Economy, such as “risk”, “innovation”, and the “future”. For the authors, knowledge production was transformed within the New Economy; and values were created when new activities resulted in the renegotiation of cultural consensus on economic fundamentals. This was especially true with the so-called “fast capitalism”, in which the values of financial derivatives were grounded in cultural assumptions about social realities. Thus, the New Economy is governed not by an objective, unbending economic law, but rather, by mob psychology, social relations and networking, institutional innovations, and cultural symbols. The authors cites examples of Japanese legal fiction and managerial subjectivity in Shanghai to support their case.
Social relations, far from being made obsolete in the New Economy, but rather become more important. Players as diverse as Wall Street women and open source programming communities all use traditional networking and organization methods in the new settings.
A significant development in is the ascending role and importance of anthropologists and their ethnographic work in the New Economy business. The anthropologist, who has a deeper understanding of the fantasies, dreams and hopes of the consumers, has become the managerial subject of the New Economy.
The authors propose that under the New Economy, the production of a kind of economic self-knowledge by key players in the New Economy actually resembles the knowledge producing practices of ethnographers. The so-called corporate anthropologists turn their gaze to unveil and unfamiliarize the cultural principles of marketing brands. Their ethnographic labor has come to be seen as a technique to quickly acquire consumer knowledge. A consequence of this development is the disappearance of the “curial distance”. For anthropologists, the academic models are increasingly part of the self-conscious subjective construction of the actors they study.
Downey and Fisher underlines the importance of ethnography by taking note of the differences between ethnology and ethnography. The former examines a single domain of human activity across diverse contexts and cultures, while the latter engages in intensive study of a single site in order to get a more complex, holistic portrait of interrelations among different domains of human activities. An ethnographic approach to the New Economy may result in a greater appreciation of the many factors that may or may not affect the sites of the New Economy.



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