Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’

The world economy today is facing deep uncertainty and a structural impasse. The climate crisis, rampant inequalities, and growing social conflicts call for radical change, yet even after such major shocks as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2019-2022 pandemic systemic transformation comparable to the New Deal and the post-World War II era seems unlikely.

What can economic anthropology offer at this historic juncture?

Established in September 2021, the Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’ seeks to develop an approach to research 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 the energy transition to population ageing. At the same time, thanks to the rapid increase in educational levels and advances in communications technology, 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 twenty-first-century “ethnographic imagination” to complement the twentieth century’s “sociological imagination”. 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 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.

Department Members are working on a range of common concern issues:

Christoph Brumann (common and private spaces in Asian urban development)

Kirsten W. Endres (infrastructural violence in colonial Vietnam)

Wanjing Chen (brutality among Chinese entrepreneurial migrants to Laos)

Jeremy Rayner (collective commitment in Ecuador and Costa Rica)

Mario Schmidt (pressure and masculinity in contemporary Kenya)

Jagat Sohail (drive and sacrifice in Indian emigration)

Iain Walker (social identity and political processes in small islands)

Biao Xiang (ambition and powerlessness in urban China)

The department co-sponsors the research team Constructing Urban Futures in Asia led by Christoph Brumann, the Max Planck Fellowship project Just Migration led by Anuscheh Farahat, and The Cambridge-Max-Planck Exchange for Economic Life (CaMP). The department welcomes Guest researchers whose interests align with the departmental research agenda.

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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