Hidden gems: 10 Groundbreaking books that uncover the human faces of economics

by Erin B. Taylor and Fabio Mattioli July 5, 2017

Central banks, economic theory, and financial behavior are not topics that we normally associate with anthropology. Of course, many of you will have read best-sellers like David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold. But there are dozens, if not hundreds, more anthropologists putting a human face to current economic and financial issues.

Here are ten of the most innovative ones.

Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks by Douglas Holmes (2014, University of Chicago Press)
How do central banks enact monetary policy? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just by setting the discount rate. Using data from his research in Germany, the United States and New Zealand, Holmes describes how convincing the public what the future will hold affects monetary outcomes.

Anthropology, Economics and Choice by Michael Chibnik (2011, University of Texas Press)
Are we free to choose following our best interest, or are our deliberations determined by other structures such as culture or institutions? Well, it depends, argues Chibnik — not only upon the circumstances you’re in, but also upon which academic discipline you follow. The book is a fascinating tour-de-force that will deconstruct what you know about rationality, economics, and choice.

El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town by David Stoll (2014, Rowman & Littlefield)
An astonishing story about how Mayans in a small Guatemalan town created a transnational bubble of debt. Stoll spent years uncovering how a web of financial intrigue spun by individuals, profiteers, and companies led an entire community into crisis.

Wall Street Women by Melissa S. Fisher (2012, Duke University Press)
How did women get a foothold in Wall Street in the sixties and seventies? Fisher explores how women broke into testosterone-filled finance, the measures they took to further their careers, and recent obstacles they have faced. The picture she paints is a far cry from how we see Wall Street depicted in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City by Allison J. Truitt (2014, University of Washington Press)
Many of us take currency stability for granted. What happens when multiple currencies are used daily, and people have strong memories of rampant inflation? Truitt explains how history and culture affect our financial behaviours.

Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor (2004, University of California Press)
For some people a fish market is just that — a place for selling fish. Bestor takes us behind the scenes of Tsukiji, one of the world’s busiest fish Markets, to show us the intricate global flows, interests, and communities that come together every day to populate our tables.

Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa by Deborah James (2015, Stanford University Press)
Making money out of nothing is not only the art of financial traders, it is also the lived reality of many citizens in developing countries. But what happens when these two worlds come together? James shows us how South Africans navigate the subtle edge between dreams of financial independence and nightmares of crushing debt.

The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing by Edward F. Fischer (2014, Stanford University Press)
German shoppers and Guatemalan planters have more in common that you’d think: they both want a “good life”, not just money. The book is a marvelous account of the kind of things that give spice, and meaning, to work and life — and money.

Global Outlaws: Crime, Money and Power in the Contemporary World by Caroline Nordstrom (2007, University of California Press)
This book shatters our assumptions about how illegal trade operates. Nordstrom shows how the smuggling of contraband goods depends upon legal trade, exposes serious security flaws in our biggest global ports, and paints the smuggling community as one built on trust.

Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor by Elizabeth C. Dunn (2004, Cornell University Press)
Imagine to wake up, one day, and find that all what you know about economy, work, and even food has become irrelevant. Dunn’s account takes you through the shock of the transition, as experienced by factory workers in a Food Production facility in Poland. By the end of the book, you’ll see (post)socialism in a different light.

Far from leaving economics to the economists, anthropologists are covering all areas, from personal money management to high finance. This list is just the beginning. Other books covering economic culture include Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009), Caitlin Zaloom’s Out of the PIts: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (2006), or Ellen Hertz’s The Trading Crowd: An Ethnography of the Shanghai Stock Market (1998). Gems like these won’t stay hidden for long.