On a recent edition of the public radio show “The Story” (air date February 21, 2012), the interviewee, Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian Muslim, describes the relationship his family had with a neighbor woman, Petra, a Bosnian Serb. Muslims were being rounded up and placed in concentration camps, and Trebincevic’s family lived in fear. Petra would stop by for a visit, commenting to Trebincevic’s mother, “I like your rug,” or “That’s a pretty dress.” She would then invite the mother over for coffee, all the while talking about how nice the rug would look in her apartment or how good the dress would look on her. Within a context where Petra was known to have betrayed other Muslim residents to patrolling soldiers, Trebincevic says Petra’s message was very clear: “Either agree with what I’m asking you to do, or I’m going to turn you in.” His mother would dutifully fold up her rug or her dress or whatever other possession Petra had tacitly demanded, and give it to her neighbor when she went for coffee. This is an example of a type of relationship David Graeber describes as constitutive of a human economy, an economy “concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings” (p. 130). In this case, Petra is demonstrating that Trebincevic’s mother owes her a debt that can never really be repaid. The mother must continue to make payments, with both parties fully aware that no payment will ever be enough to match the value of the original “gift”, the lives of Trebincevic’s father and older brother. This story also resonates with another of Graeber’s key points, the role of violence in the creation of a system in which human lives can be thought of as objects of exchange.
I begin my comments with this narrative to indicate that Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a good book to think with. Having read it, I now find all around me examples that parallel the stories told by Graeber in his expansive examination of the history of debt. Hearing Trebincevic’s story, I thought immediately of Graeber’s examples of social relationships of indebtedness among the Tiv, the Nuer, the Lele, and the Balinese. Providing accounts of societies from “The Axial Age” to contemporary times and from all over the globe, Graeber successfully pushes us to see the origins of debt as a means of cementing ties and reinforcing interpersonal obligations as opposed to the impersonal, abstract sense of responsibility we tend to associate with debt today. I particularly appreciated the book’s reintroduction of classic ethnographies written by the likes of Audrey Richards, Laura and Paul Bohannan,, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Mary Douglas, all anthropologists writing in the 1950s and 60s when ethnographies were long and densely descriptive.
I find it especially interesting that Graeber relies on these texts and not on the more theory-driven anthropological writing of the 1980s and beyond, because it is precisely to that older style of anthropology that my non-anthropologist colleagues, including economists, have most often turned for examples to use in their social science models. During the peak of post-modern, reflexive approaches in anthropological writing, a political scientist friend advised me that the most useful thing anthropologists could do to advance understanding of human social life was to catalogue in thick detail all the varieties of human sociality we could find, providing data which scholars from other disciplines could then use in their more analytically rigorous work. I bristled at that proposed division of labor at the time, but his comments ring in my ears still as I contemplate the contributions of Graeber’s book. If a reader approaches Graeber’s book hoping that insights drawn from anthropology can help elucidate mechanisms of change and continuity in human social life, she will leave a bit frustrated. I kept waiting for a systematic model that would help me understand how the general processes he described came to be, and how and why they changed. However, Graeber resists the language of models as being part of a constraining economistic way of thinking. Below, I want to highlight a couple of topics for which Graeber might have enlisted fellow anthropologists and even economists for explanations of social phenomena that involve both analytical specificity along with attention to cultural and historical context.
The first example is the work of economist Bina Agarwal, whose comparative research on the dynamics of gender relations in South Asia has greatly influenced academic scholarship and government policies concerning households and families. In her book ,A Field of One’s Own (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Agarwal explores the relationship between women’s well-being and their control of property. Agarwal’s work is of particular relevance where Graeber discusses the connection between the ability to think of humans as objects of exchange and the possibility of ripping a woman from her context, “tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is…” (p. 159). This, he says, ”requires a certain violence.” As I read these passages, and the many throughout the book that address how daughters are treated in marriage exchanges and how wives can be punished and disowned by all parties to a marital agreement should they step out of line, I thought how Agarwal’s analysis would cause us to think about these examples differently. It is not being ripped from their social context that does violence to these women; violence begins in their everyday, normal socially-meaningful existence within families in which they are denied rights to property and in which they are seen primarily as a potential drain on familial resources. Like much of the early ethnography upon which he relies for his examples, Graeber’s focus is predominantly on the ways a man’s honor is affected by his ability to protect and control the women and children in his life. Agarwal’s approach, which puts women at the center, provides us with a different analytic lens through which to interpret earlier ethnographic descriptions. Furthermore, Agarwal’s analysis encourages us to explore what values – not just value – women hold in family structures where they are treated as objects. Do they share the norms of those who hold greater power in society, and thus see themselves as deserving of their low status? Are they fully aware of the injustice of their position, and looking for opportunities to push against their structural constraints? Agarwal cuts across a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, in her search for answers to these questions, and her work can help us think systematically about the conditions under which intrafamilial violence is most likely to happen.
The second body of work that comes to mind when I read Debt is the work of economic anthropologists, particularly those who work in the tradition of Fredrik Barth’s early attempts to apply economic models to his ethnographic data. In two recent articles in Current Anthropology (2005 and 2007), Carolyn Lesorogol explores the mutual gains to be had when experimental economics meets cultural anthropology. Far from simply adopting economically-maximizing self-interest as the explanation for human decision-making, Lesorogol (along with her colleagues who have used the methods of experimental economics across fifteen small-scale societies, published collectively in Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic experiments and ethnographic evidence from fifteen small-scale societies, 2004) has shown the ways that context-specific social norms affect individual decisions to trust, share, and punish exchange partners. These are also the kinds of behaviors Graeber is interested in from his broader vantage point. While experimental approaches in the hands of economists working in labs often produce models of human behavior that bear little resemblance to reality, those same approaches in the hands of cultural anthropologists in fieldwork settings can help us more precisely to identify what factors lead people engaged in exchange to trust strangers, to reward generosity, and, even, in certain contexts, to punish generosity (similar to some of the situations Graeber describes).
To conclude, it is important to emphasize that Graeber is not attempting a detailed micro-analysis of every phenomenon he describes in his book. He is attempting to get us to recognize the ways prevailing models have limited our thinking about debt. While he has achieved that goal, I would also like to have seen him dive a bit more deeply into economics to discuss the work of Bina Agarwal and of those like her in development economics and feminist economics, a body of scholarship that is much harder to dismiss than the average introductory economics textbook. Likewise, I would be interested in an exploration of more contemporary anthropological research that undertakes to test the explanatory depth of economic models.