Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Materiality
Secondary Theme: Exchange
Are actual money objects irrelevant to how money works in the contemporary world or do the material forms of money still matter? Inspired by classic works by Simmel, Knapp, Mitchell-Innes, and Keynes, something approaching a consensus has emerged across “unorthodox” economics, economic sociology and the anthropology of money: physical money objects are epiphenomenal to money’s fundamental nature as a system of accounting. This consensus is a useful counterpoint to the metallist myth-making of commodity theories of money still widespread in orthodox economic circles. Nonetheless, its emergence has resulted not in the decline of popular metallist common sense but in the divergence of scholarly and popular understandings of what money really is. While many scholars treat money as a thoroughly social construction, most popular opinion clings to the notion that money is a natural rather than a social fact.
Anthropologists working on other topics have noted that the discovery of a truth does not by itself transform popular practice—Kamala Visweswaran, for example, argues that mid-century American cultural anthropology’s principled refusal of the biological reality of race rendered the discipline unable to address the persistent social reality and political effects of the concept. At present, the anthropology of money risks a similar mistake. Focusing exclusively on the true nature of money as a system of “socially constructed abstract value… measured by its own scale of value,” (Ingham) while neglecting the social lives of particular money objects could render the discipline unable to reckon with either the persistence of socially-constructed concepts of money’s naturalness or the the popular understandings of money’s materiality which inform such concepts.
While some scholars dismiss the popular importance accorded money’s material forms, this roundtable seeks to generate reflection on the continuing social significance of money’s materiality. In so doing, we treat the materiality of money not as a token of false consciousness, a figure of impending obsolescence, or the preoccupation of bad science, but as worthy of analysis on its own terms and as an opportunity to deepen scholarly understandings of what money is and can be. In this spirit, we seek rigorous engagement with the following questions.
1. How do money’s materialities broadly conceived (or, alternately, particular objects or materials) figure in important or unexpected ways in in economic discourses and practices?
2. What role do idioms, images, representations, or practices relating to materiality play in emergent forms of cashlessness and cryptocurrency? To what extent do emergent forms of money reconfigure older notions regarding money’s (im)materiality and to what extent are they reshaped by them?
3. If there is no longer any clear distinction between commodity and fiat money, what role do particular materials or understandings of materiality play in money’s performance of value?
4. How, when and why might the boundary between the material and the immaterial itself become key to regimes of differential valuation, scale creation, arbitrage, and/or marginal gains?
5. What are the implications of the gap between scholarly and popular understandings of what money is for a publicly-engaged anthropology?