Karen Ho. Reflections on Ethnographies of Finance and Financialization

Monday, March 31, 2014 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Ethnographies of finance has engaged broadly with the social dynamic of financialization, as well as the importance and centrality of financial markets, institutions, values, practices, in the global social economy and everyday life. Given the pervasive influence of finance in our world, coupled with the production of highly specialized knowledge among financial actors and networks, ethnographies of finance has made important contributions toward a deeper understanding of the products, practices, ideologies, and socio-economic consequences of finance and financialization. In particular, what anthropology has brought to the study of finance are its fine-grained ehtnographic methods of participant observation, long-term immersion, and engagement with natives’ points of view, practices, and everyday lives. These approaches are especially useful given that finance as an ethnographic site is not only characterized by inaccessibility to outsiders, specialized knowledge, and continual change and innovation, but is also framed by our larger culture as both mystifying and a-cultural. While certainly all sites of ethnographic investigation are shown to be nuanced and complex, finance has maintained and perpetuated its rarified air through “inside” and “outside” congruence on and representation of its opacity.  Social scientific studies of finance, thus, have a larger burden and responsibility – to use its toolkit to unpack the mechanisms, relations, and effects of finance and financialization in a way that resists conflation with their broader cultural assumptions.

Karen Ho is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.  Her research centers on the problematic of understanding and representing financial markets, sites that are resistant to cultural analysis and often disavow various attempts to locate or particularize them.  Her domain of interest is the anthropology of economy, broadly conceived, with specific foci on finance capital, capitalism, globalization, corporations, and inequality.  Her ethnography, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009), based on three years of fieldwork among investment bankers and major financial institutions, has won two Honorable Mentions from the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for the Anthropology of North America.  Recent publications include “Disciplining Investment Bankers, Disciplining the Economy” (American Anthropology, 2009) and “Finance and Morality" (A Companion to Moral Anthropology.  Fassin, Didier, ed., 2012). Her latest book project attempts to excavate an alternative cultural history of financial risk through the ethno-historic investigation of three central sites – corporations, investment practices, and investment funds – from the mid-twentieth century until the present moment.