Anthropology of Economic Experimentation: Frontiers of Transformation

People I Visiting Fellows I Research Partners

What will our economic life look like in 2050? Will digital technologies and so-called “platform” corporations dictate the world economy? Will societies move away from globalization and return to national-based production and consumption? What will be the new sources of profit, and how will these new profits be made? What will work, care, value, and even life mean?

Prediction is always tricky. Envisioning the future grows more difficult by the day. The post-Cold War economic norm, loosely labelled “neoliberalism”, has lost its legitimacy. The climate crisis, rampant inequalities, and rising social conflict urge us to seek alternatives. Yet even after such major shocks as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2019–2020 pandemic, systemic transformations – comparable to the New Deal and post-World War II era – seem unlikely.

Also gone is the sense that the world economy is shifting in a particular direction, as represented by the discourses about the “rising Asia” and the BRICS (the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the 2000s. The hype about “Chimerica” – the idea that China and the United States have become economically inseparable – is being replaced by the chill of a new Cold War. This is a world without a gravitational centre: changes take place here and there; in different sectors, places, and forms. Logistical developments, e-commerce, gig labour, medical tourism, virtual schools... they follow varied logics and yield contradictory outcomes.  

I refer to these changes as “frontiers” because they open uncharted territories and usher in uncertain social consequences. The changes are often experimentations driven by technological and demographic dynamics – as well as by shocks such as pandemics, recessions, and disasters – rather than guided by thought-out blueprints. The platform economy, for instance, has broadened market access, but also pushed many into even more precarious livelihoods. Platforms can potentially develop means to directly deliver welfare assistance to individuals in need, but they put gig workers and even customers under tight surveillance through algorithms. Rationalizing logistics may save energy, but it also creates environmental stress through more consumption.

In this Department, we explore pressing questions connected with these developments: What are the defining dynamics of these frontiers? What socio-political changes are they inducing, or preventing? How can we link the frontiers together – not through grand strategies from above, but through mutual learning on the ground – into broader fronts for systemic transformations? 

In the initial stage, we focus on three common dynamics that underpin frontiers of experimentation:

(1) the increasing level of population mobility as a basis of economic functioning;

(2) the intensification of mediation in transactions as a process of economic reorganization;

(3) the importance of the activities that maintain life – ranging from education to entertainment – as a new source of value.

In addition, the Department aims to initiate a range of activities to foster global knowledge exchange between the North and South, and between academia and the public.


Big Ideas, Fine Details

The frontiers of transformation cry out for new ethnographic methods and theories. This does not mean that our experiences today are completely new, or that established theories are wrong. Many aspects of the economy remain the same, and human experience can always be reduced to several “fundamental prototypes”. We need new theories because we want to capture the specific ways our economic practices are organized and mediated at this moment. Without discounting historical continuity, our analytical focus is on contradictions, dynamics and potential breaks (including breakdowns). New theories are new ways of problematizing. They raise – instead of precluding – questions. They push us to think, debate, and act.

Big-idea and broad-picture but simultaneously fine-grained ethnographies are what we aim to offer. A big idea is big, not empty, because it accurately captures the meanings of small actions. A big idea is an idea – an empowering thought rather than a sweeping assertion – because it points to contradictions and hopes in life. Just like the frontiers of transformation themselves, our work is experimental. We will bring in technology, nature, archives, big data, and virtual reality in our ethnography. From the stage of research design to dissemination, we will work with artists, journalists, policymakers, and our most important interlocutors: the people whom we study.


Our specific research activities will constantly evolve, led and shaped by the postdoctoral research fellows. Projects at the initial stage may include: 

Mobility has become a grammar of our economy. The entangled mobilities of people, things and data shape our life collectively. Through the lens of mobility, we see in sharp relief how basic economic categories — such as work, value, ownership, currency and access — actually work in practice, and how on-going experimentations and adaptations unfold on the ground. Mobility is not only a subject of governance, but, also, a tool of regulation. COVID-19 has turned the world into a global laboratory of mobility regulation. As the first major initiative of this programme, the MoLab Inventory documents ongoing changes in human mobilities and explores new lines of enquiry about socioeconomic changes. It serves as an open knowledge repository and thought workshop. more
Contrary to predications that technological innovations would remove intermediaries, economic operations in many sectors are more intensively mediated than ever before. The mediators include human agents, physical infrastructure, and technologies, particularly that of algorithms. Intermediation is far from neutral or passive; intermediaries transform our lives by transforming the means of intermediation. more
While livelihoods are sometimes sacrificed in order to save lives, as we have witnessed during COVID-19, life has itself been turned into a source of profit. Education, health care, and entertainment, all of which are about life instead of goods, are among the fastest-growing business sectors. Thus, this “life economy” is built around maintaining, reproducing and enhancing human life itself on a daily basis and across generations. more

As anthropologists, we do not create knowledge. We spend most of our time coming to understand what others already know by heart. Our contribution lies in brokerage: articulating others’ knowledge about life into formats that help to bridge different understandings. And there are many gaps to bridge.

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