Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’

The world economy today is facing deep uncertainty and a structural impasse. On the one hand, the climate crisis, rampant inequalities, and growing social conflicts call for radical change. On the other hand, systemic transformations – comparable to the New Deal and the post-World War II era – seem unlikely, even after such major shocks as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2019-2022 pandemic. What can economic anthropology offer at this historic juncture?

Established in September 2021, the Department of Anthropology of Economic Experimentation seeks to develop an approach to inquiry that engages with public understandings of economic life, and thereby supports bottom-up experimentation for alternatives. Public perceptions about everyday questions such as what makes for a good life, and what “convenience” means, are crucial parts of the world economy. Without engaging with such public understandings, we cannot address pressing contemporary issues, ranging from energy transition to population ageing. At the same time, thanks to the rapid increase in educational levels and advances in communications technologies, a public of unprecedented size is ready to engage in critical reflection together with scholars.

Public outreach as a mere add-on to conventional research is no longer enough. We need new ways of doing research as a social praxis. Our department will experiment with an approach that identifies research questions not according to gaps in academic knowledge, but through understanding the concerns people are grappling with in their everyday lives – concerns that reflect their subjective experience of objective social contradictions. We will examine these daily practices as forms of experimentation: how do people explore multiple possibilities, reflect on reality, and envision alternatives. In so doing, we are calling for a 21st century “ethnographic imagination” to complement the 20th century’s “sociological imagination”. This sociological imagination links personal troubles to public problems, while an ethnographic imagination breaks the abstract down into the concrete and the actionable.

We are developing such an ethnographic imagination through a wide range of case studies. These cover both classical and cutting-edge topics in economic anthropology including family, property, trade, digital platforms, and logistics. Based on case studies, our collaborative research is organised along the following lines:

(1)    Common concerns: We probe common concerns often related to the overarching but hidden contradictions which shape people’s perceptions and experiences.
(2)    Social repair: We follow ordinary citizens’ experimental efforts to repair their social relations in daily life.
(3)    Mobility: We examine mobility as a key means through which socioeconomic relations are rearranged.
(4)    Repositioning global thinking: We redefine global questions by drawing on social concerns and experimentation in the Global South as intellectual resources.


For more information about how the Department developed its research agendas, see the interview of Biao Xiang by Cargo: Journal for Cultural and Social Anthropology.

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