ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Invisible hands: alternate modes of prosperity, wealth and well-being

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 4
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Magnus Marsden (University of Sussex) email
Kostas Retsikas (SOAS) email
Mail All Convenors


In response to A. Smith's privileging of the market for the attainment of prosperity, panellists are encouraged to employ ethnography to bring renewed attention to the diverse ways in which human beings, in various settings, seek to bring about ampleness and plenitude in their lives.

Long Abstract

Adam Smith's modest use of the concept of the 'invisible hand' has effectively been transformed into a powerful catchphrase; it is often evoked by liberals as the transcendental element of economics, acting to promote individual and collective prosperity, and ensure that justice is delivered to all. The panel aims to explore critically the 'imagination' that has given rise to this understanding of affluence and well-being. Panellists are encouraged not merely to repeat those critiques of neoliberalism that have pre-occupied anthropological debates in recent years. Instead, we wish to build on Sahlins' valuable insights and launch an inquiry into modes of conceiving, achieving, and demonstrating abundance and prosperity that do not fit within the narrow horizons of neo-liberalism. Panellists are encouraged to present rich ethnographies of the devices, tools, procedures and strategies that particular societies and cultures have invented and developed for the purpose of achieving alternate modes of affluence. Papers might focus, for instance, on how modes of attaining prosperity long recognised in particular regions, such as through child birth and multiple marriage, have retained or been divested of their significance today, on the ways in which long-lasting travel, rather than mere mobility, is valued not only by hunter-gatherers but also by contemporary traders, or the manner in which specific re-interpretations of religious doctrine are re-casting the meaning of good fortune. The panel is primarily concerned with thinking critically about the presuppositions such devices involve, the values they are informed by, and the modes of sociality they uphold.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


A good life in central Uganda: the search for control over uncertainty and the need for divine luck

Author: Stephen McConnachie (University of Edinburgh)  email


In central Uganda, subsistence farmers wrestle with uncertainty caused by external influences. A good life is one in which a person has the ability to effectively deal with this uncertainty, but in order to reach such a situation one is reliant on luck/blessings distributed by God/gods.

Long Abstract

For subsistence farmers in central Uganda, a good life (embeera ennungi) means mastering uncertainty in order to live a more comfortable life with fewer worries, primarily through a reliable income. Any number of external factors, from unpredictable weather patterns, to jealous neighbours, to the corrupt justice system, mean that poor people do not feel in control of creating their own future. Instead, while hard work remains highly valued, farmers here rely on God's/gods' distribution of emikisa (luck or blessings) to realise their aspirations. This remains the case as one's affluence increases, but one's own ability to overcome uncertainties increases. At the same time, the fact that the achievement of embeera ennungi is so much dependent on external influences engenders an atmosphere of distrust, lack of cooperation, and jealousy which only further hampers people's efforts to achieve what they seek.

Through an exploration of the concepts of work, wants, and needs, and drawing on Appadurai's work on the 'Capacity to Aspire', I argue that the belief in prosperity as being dependent on being given luck serves as a comfort to people faced with genuine obstacles to the pursuit of their dreams, but that the need for this divine luck declines, though never fully disappears, as people's ability to determine their own futures increases.

Multiplication through division: alms, prosperity and securitisation in Indonesia

Author: Kostas Retsikas (SOAS)  email


The paper explores contemporary practices of charity amongst Muslims in Indonesia, paying particular attention to the rise to public prominence of ‘the mathematics of alms giving’.

Long Abstract

The paper explores contemporary practices of charity amongst Muslims in Indonesia, paying particular attention to the rise to public prominence of 'the mathematics of alms giving'. 'The mathematics of alms giving' provides the Muslim faithful with a systematic method of achieving prosperity and overabundance both in this world and the afterlife through encouraging them to divide their property up, spread it around and share it with others. Such practices are held to have the miraculous effect of ensuring the parted property's eventual return in multiplied form and manifold shapes. Much of this effect is mediated by a literalist understanding of the Quran and the rendering of alms as an investment carrying the promise of divine increase. However, rather than simply corresponding to the financialisation of the religious, 'the mathematics of alms giving' presents neo-liberal capitalism with overwhelming challenges the most significant being that of recognising non-human sources of capital growth and of operating in a risk free environment that stock traders' probability models find hard to emulate.

From headhunting to treasure hunting: alternate modes of prosperity among the Bugkalot (Ilongot) of northern Philippines

Author: Shu-Yuan Yang (Academia Sinica)  email


This paper examines the shift in modes of attaining prosperity among the Bugkalot and how they attempt to compensate their inability to succeed in the market with treasure hunting.

Long Abstract

In traditional Bugkalot (Ilongot) culture, headhunting is the most important means of acquiring prosperity, and headhunters typify Bugkalot ideals of potency, productive health, and beauty. However, headhunting as a mode of attaining well-being and prosperity has lost its significance today, as the Bugkalot converted to Christianity en masse in the 1960s and the 1970s and were brought into the orbit of capitalist economy in roughly the same period. The everyday presence of missionaries and the introduction of extractive industry—logging— stimulated their keen interests in wealth, and they entered commercial gardening at the turn of the century in order to obtain pecuniary benefits from the market. However, the vicissitudes of the market have made it difficult for them to succeed in capitalist ventures, and the Bugkalot developed strong obsession in treasure hunting as a new mode for the attainment of prosperity. They believe that abundant treasure was buried in the mountainous areas where they live by the Japanese during World War II, and missionaries and foreigners have access to secret knowledge of decipher treasure signs. Treasure tales must be examined in the light of the religious and economic worldviews. The relationship between Protestantism and the acquisition of wealth will be revisited in this paper.

Time rich: 1960s counterculture and the creation of good society among contemporary US hippies and drop outs in Hawai‘i

Author: Lucy Pickering (The University of Glasgow)  email


This paper explores the temporal orientation of a community of US hippies and drop outs in Hawai‘i, arguing that the visions of good society which they describe and seek to live out are profoundly shaped by conceptions of time as an infinite resource and measure of quality of life.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnography with people who have been ‘dropping out’ of US society by relocating to a rural backwater of Hawai‘i since the late 1960s, I explore in this paper the temporal dimensions of their visions of good society. Relocating to a (conceptually) empty, fertile space has allowed successive generations of drop outs to build a community around shared values of individual autonomy, subsistence agriculture and being in the present moment, to build (at least a vision of) good society. To be ‘affluent’ is not to be materially rich, but time rich.

I argue in this paper that central to this vision of good society is a focus on time as a bountiful resource. To be ‘affluent’ in this community of drop outs, is not to be materially rich, or even necessarily secure, but to have time to stop, to chat to socialise. However, I argue, that it is in fact through this temporal orientation that material resources do flow, as it is by ‘going with the flow’ or ‘being in the moment’ that individuals build social networks through which to hear about work, accommodation and travel opportunities. I argue that their shared focus on the present and on time as a measure of affluence operates as a key space through which this group articulate being ‘counter’ to an American mainstream ‘culture’ which measures affluence in material over temporal terms.

Afghan global commodity traders

Author: Magnus Marsden (University of Sussex)  email


The paper explores contemporary commodity trading practices amongst Afghans who work in a range of contexts the former Soviet Union, and pays paying particular attention to the forms of friendship and trust that are critical to these.

Long Abstract

The paper explores contemporary commodity trading practices amongst Afghans who work in a range of contexts the former Soviet Union, and pays paying particular attention to the forms of friendship and trust that are critical to these. A significant body of work in the social sciences concerns trade's significance to people on the peripheries or margins of the global capitalist economy. Some studies have explored how extra-western trading groups and communities have adapted to the constraints of the global economy; others have focused on how trade is often pursued as a 'survival strategy' by people contending with the transformations in the organisation of economy and society that global capitalism has fulminated. This paper, however, will focus on the capacities, social relations, and skills that traders, who are conventionally held as being peripheral to the global economy, creatively bring to their work, and deploy in the fashioning of flows and circuits of commodities that are of global significance.

The plenitude of presence: techniques and recognitions of value in a Syrian market

Author: Paul Anderson (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper explores conceptions, techniques and ways of recognising plenitude among Syrian traders in Aleppo in 2008-09. It contributes to the ethnographic project of documenting the diverse ways in which people have conceived of, and in the practices of their lives recognised, value.

Long Abstract

This paper explores conceptions and techniques of plenitude among Syrian traders in Aleppo before the current conflict, in 2008-09. Plenitude in Aleppo's markets was conceived of in terms of ongoing moral presence. The moral presence of benevolent persons (God and ancestors) was felt as good (economic) fortune. Conversely, the ultimate value was to produce oneself as an ongoing moral presence, by being remembered well. These conceptions and techniques of plenitude structured social life. I would describe how Syrian traders in Aleppo sought to produce these moral presences, in the course of their commercial practice and broader social life. I would also argue that much of the business of trade involved fashioning social relations - through accounting, display and ritual speech - into arenas of recognition where moral presence and absence could be enacted and acknowledged.

Generating abundance through fish trading in Batang, northern Java

Author: Katharina Schneider  email


The paper explores northern Javanese fish traders’ imaginations and strategies of abundance. It traces out the dynamic interrelations of several traders’ contrasting imaginations, their theories and practices of generating abundance and the ethnographically particular market dynamics that emerge.

Long Abstract

The paper uses ethnographic observations at the fish auction place in Batang, northern Java, and Batang fish traders' descriptions and evaluations of their own and one another's business strategies for uncovering the contrasting but related imaginations and theories of abundance that different traders work with. It details how several traders employ a shared vocabulary of scarcity, the price mechanism and market failure to formulate contrasting accounts of challenges and success, fair and unfair practices, pure and impure incomes. The paper indicates various other sources of inspiration and histories of interpersonal relations in Batang that can help us understand how different imaginations of abundance and theories of achieving it are generated out of experiences, practices and knowledge that are shared to a significant extent. Finally, it aims to suggest how, in the almost daily interactions of the traders with each other and with fishers and buyers at the auction, a 'market' emerges whose dynamics differ significantly from those that the economic vocabulary used by the traders appears to point to. The case of Batang fish traders thus demonstrates a diversity of imaginations and ethnographically particular dynamics of abundance at work in a 'classical' market place, and suggests the need for further anthropological attention to abundance.

The vulture without fear

Author: André Chappatte (ZMO Berlin)  email


Numerous studies stress the neo-liberal interpretation of wealth as sign of blessing that occurs in West Africa. By contrast, this paper explores a mode of minded affluence and moral success existing in contemporary rural Mali which is widely interpreted to be of Mande origin.

Long Abstract

I met Ahmed during my PhD fieldwork in 2009. He was a well-known head of family of a rural commune of southwest Mali. His activities were numerous.

Besides farming, he gardened. Although he dropped out from school in 9rd year, he was the most educated person in his village; he thus acted as a sort of public writer who helped illiterate villagers with bureaucracy. He was also involved in the committees of various local associations (i.e. cotton producers; health care). Thanks to his social ramification into this rural area he greatly eased my research on local history. Besides being hard-working, his popularity was also based on his enjoyable presence and wise audacity.

Ahmed jokingly called himself 'the vulture without fear'; he used to say that 'I do not harm the living; I am just the one who open the feast by eating the eyes of the cadavers!' The youth hailed him 'rasta' due to his dreadlocks and consumption of marijuana. During the weekly market he was an unavoidable figure who played with children, joked with women, respectfully greeted the elders, and warmly welcomed people who came to him for advice. Locals referred to him as a 'noble Muslim' because of his uprightness based on ethics which were interpreted to be of Mande origin.

Rather than stressing the neo-liberal interpretation of wealth as sign of blessing that occurs in West Africa, this paper explores a mode of minded affluence and moral success existing in contemporary rural Mali.

"Life is better here now": gendered wellbeing after war and economic decline in eastern Uganda

Author: Liz Ravalde (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper examines gender differences in conceptualisations of well-being among Kumam people in eastern Uganda, arguing that women while cattle wealth is often central to male notions of well-being, for women well-being centres much more on the moral, spiritual and domestic spheres.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among Kumam people in Kaberamaido District, Uganda, this paper questions the notion that economic decline is necessarily a central feature in people's conceptions of their own well-being. Following sustained cattle raiding from neighbouring peoples, the five year-long Teso Insurgency, and the collapse of the local cotton industry, since the 1980s the Teso region of eastern Uganda has seen a severe decline in economic fortunes. However, I argue that while for Kumam men notions of well-being are often tied to cattle wealth and the social status that comes with this, for many Kumam women economic decline has had little impact on their ability to pursue and achieve a notion of well-being which, firmly embedded in local cosmology and cultural practices, is much more focused on the domestic, spiritual and moral spheres, areas which have been little affected by eastern Uganda's recent economic decline. I thus suggest that as the social and cultural dimensions of well-being come under increasing scrutiny in social anthropology, there is a need not only to focus on alternatives to economic wealth, but, in doing so, we must take into account the gendered differences in the ways in which people seek to pursue and achieve a sense of well-being.

The ambivalence of poverty: political economy and nationalism in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan

Author: Luigi Achilli (Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO))  email


This paper is based on my ethnographic research in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Here, people have diverse understandings of what prosperity entails. I argue that the capacity to negotiate between these different understandings is crucial for the realization of full humanity.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on my ethnographic research among young men living in al-Wihdat - a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.

In the camp, there are strong connections between their economic circumstances and the ways these fed into moral and nationalist registers. What is interesting here is young men's specific understanding of what well-being and prosperity entail. To them, much separates camp dwellers, the unfortunate ones, from the wealthy families living in Jordan. However, whereas the authorities and the international community usually associate camps' material poverty with social and cultural estrangement, the negative connotation of the word 'masakīn' (poor/miserable) acquires a positive dimension within the camps. Here, poverty stands to indicate ethico-political qualities such as steadfastness and humbleness.

It remains, however, a crucial ambiguity with regard to poverty in the thinking of many of my informants. People also recognise poverty as being a condition fraught with deeply ambivalent images and feelings. Rather than universally treating poverty as a source of authenticity, many camp dwellers claim that the condition of being masakīn can lead people to a crooked path. At times, poverty and unemployment are recognized as the main causes of many of the frustrations, anxieties, and conflicts that afflicted camp dwellers. A true Palestinian needs also to provide for his family, rather than merely searching for moral legitimacy in the socio-economic marginality of his condition.

I argue that the capacity to negotiate between these different understandings of prosperity is crucial for the realization of full humanity (insāniyye) in al-Wihdat.

Hospitality and filiality in the interstices of Chinese capitalism

Author: Ellen Judd (University of Manitoba)  email


The Chinese economic miracle, widely interpreted as a market triumph, may be persuasively and ethnographically viewed as arising from wellsprings of caring rooted in but not contained by filial values and familial practices through which the lives of others are nurtured and markets challenged.

Long Abstract

China's turn toward the market since 1979 has been credited with remarkable economic growth and leading hundreds of millions of people from poverty to varying degrees of wealth or modest wellbeing, despite continuing severe disparities. Close ethnographic examination of the structures of the social production of this growth reveal its dependence on pervasive values and practices of intergenerational caring for others through which migrants are provided for market production and in turn provide filial care for familial others . These modes of hospitality have roots in a familial mode of livelihood underlined by Philip C.C. Huang as central to Chinese society and culture and currently distinctive in the nurturing of rural and translocal families and thereby of radiating networks. The interstitial practices enacting the hospitality through which gifts to sustain the lives of others are central in both livelihood and moral being are traced through two sequences of ethnographic investigation. The first explores the sustaining of life in three upland west China rural communities drained of migrants for distant labour markets, 2003-2005. The second explores modes of translocal caring in pursuit of livelihood and health care for members of translocal families bridging west China rural and both near and distant metropolitan centres, 2009-2011. The links between specific cultural formulations in terms of filiality and a gender of care perspective are traced and the contribution of these values and practices to the wellbeing and prosperity of others are identified, with particular attention to the challenges posed to claims of market provision.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.