Points of Comparison in Time: Methods in the Anthropology of Finance

by Aneil Tripathy

As a fellow anthropologist of finance, I especially enjoyed this month’s Recall this Book conversation with Dan Souleles.  His trajectory—from studying monks to private equity mavens!–proves anthropologists can help us make sense of the inequality that the world of finance produces. Building on comparisons with other powerful groups in the anthropological record, such as Inka accountants, Dan’s eye-opening book, Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss, and his subsequent research, emphasizes the diversity of groups within finance. He explores the particularities of private equity investors as well as theorizes on how to compare accounting across the anthropological record, from the present day to that of the Inka.

This analysis of diversity in finance is integral to my own research as an anthropologist of finance in the world of climate finance, a sector of financial markets promoted as financing/refinancing projects that have climate and environmental benefits. In my research, I study different forms of expertise and work amongst climate-finance practitioners: among them bankers, accountants, and policymakers.  Climate change itself is defined by the time horizons of our new Anthropocene era. Some may seem distant (when will the last amphibian vanish?) while others (2 degrees Celsius rise, anyone?) now loom terrifyingly near. In climate finance, geological climate time interacts with the profit-and-loss time horizons familiar from accountancy and Wall Street quarterly reports.  Understanding what type of time climate-finance practitioners focus on  turns out to be crucial to unpacking their assumptions—and their actions.

Distinctions in Finance: Actuaries and Indiana Jones

Professions are defined by time and their work is a result of the time constraints around it. For example, time creates distinctions between types of bookkeepers and analysts in finance. Accountants’ and actuaries’ professions are defined by the time period of the financial transactions that they audit. Accountants analyze financial transactions retrospectively, while actuaries make calculations based on prospective future financial activity in contexts of uncertainty and risk. While most folks outside of finance do not know about this distinction, it was made clear to me by an actuary working on climate change on a significant point in time: June 24, 2016 – the day after the UK Brexit vote.

After work that day, many climate finance practitioners had left their offices to go around the corner to a local pub. After hours at the pub, a climate-finance colleague and I found ourselves  discussing the work we were doing in climate finance while waiting for a London Underground Jubilee-line train. I told him that I was an anthropologist looking at the social dynamics of climate finance. He told me that he was an actuary working on insurance modeling for climate change risk. To this, I nonchalantly stated “So you are an accountant, no?” He semi-offendedly exclaimed quickly to me, “Calling me an accountant is like me calling you Indiana Jones!”

Indiana Jones doing fieldwork (Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Me doing fieldwork (photograph by Andrew Whiley)

His point was that actuaries focus on the future and the “science” of managing its risks, while accountants account for past activity in the present. Both professions use a similar degree of interpretation and forms of bookkeeping in terms of investment cost and return. However, the focus of accountants on the past and actuaries on the future defines each profession in contrast to the other. This is similar to the division of expertise in anthropology between myself as a sociocultural anthropologist focused on the present and archaeologists, who analyze the past (though usually and hopefully in ways very different than Indy!).

Much of my fieldwork involved categorizing and mapping out particular types of finance professionals that I ran into in climate finance, along the axis of time as well as other points of comparison. Making sense of where different groups of people and institutions sit in finance, allows anthropologists to discern worldviews and motivations that exist amongst finance folk and consider the limits they have to change. The limits of these worldviews, whether by time or other constraints, define finance’s response to climate change. The span of time over which climate change occurs pressures climate finance practitioners in the financial industry to reframe existing temporal considerations in investment decision-making. Can we possibly reposition the timescales that financial professions act on so that an industry accustomed to operating on milliseconds for financial return instead begins accounting for climate change’s geological timescales when reviewing the material impact of its investments?  This repositioning has begun to produce new categories, assets, and people within the financial industry as climate finance; but the effectiveness of these to respond to climate change remains highly uncertain. Emissions continue to rise from global economic activity, despite the growth of projects bearing the label “climate financed.”

We are currently in a moment when society is reckoning with whether we can have faith in our institutions to get us out of ever-growing social and environmental catastrophes that are also produced by our dominant social institutions such as finance. I write this from Scotland, where I have spent the last week at the 26th United Nations’ Conference of the Parties, where the world’s nations have come together to reach consensus on global action on climate change. In those discussion,  I consistently heard financial capital politically deferred to. Key players, among them  leading US climate negotiator John Kerry, treated financial capital as the primary means of dealing with climate change caused by excessive material consumption tied to an unequal financial system. Government representatives discussed climate change as being merely a market-signal issue: the assumption seemed to be that if signals and incentives could be tweaked the finance experts could work their magic and simply change climate back again.

Must we respond to our current social and climate crises by relying on potentially change-resistant forms of financial expertise, from private equity to accounting? One way to figure this out is to understand the contexts in which different forms of financial expertise operate and the limitations of their worldviews. Anthropologists like Dan Souleles are doing this work, tracing the forms of comparison and framing points such as time that define finance work and the people in this industry.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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