Ethnography of Finance

Research and Methods on a New Subject

Convenors: Davide Caselli (University of Milan Bicocca) & Valentina Moisio (University of Turin). Contacts: davide.caselli@unito.it, valentina.moisio@unito.it.

The financialization of global capitalism, defined as a new accumulation regime, as the ascendency of the “shareholder value” orientation or as the financialization of everyday life (Van der Zwan 2014), is a key phenomenon of our times and a major concern for economic and social sciences.

Focusing especially on the third definition, a well-established group of scholars, in particular from Europe, has analysed the use of financial products through close empirical descriptions of social practices. In doing so, they focused on technical devices, norms and obligations, social ties and relationships involved in it, showing not only different uses of financial instruments, but also different ways of calculating and understanding what finance is and what it is for.

It is an interesting perspective in order to study a lot of issues at different levels of analysis, taking into account institutional settings and public policies as well as familiar practices, organisational aspects as well as norms and values. At micro level, searching for the consequences – relevant and in some cases dramatic – that the so-called financialisation of economies produces on the daily life of families, we have the chance to explore how financial instruments are embedded in family dynamics, how their use is shaped by know-how, representations and norms of “inexperienced” individuals. Namely, how they are domesticized, as the studies of a new generation of international scholars have pointed out (cfr. Ossandón, Deville, Lazarus and Luzzi 2016, 2017; Pellandini-Simányi, Hammer and Vargha, 2015).

Close empirical descriptions – though organizational ethnographies for example – are also very explanatory when applied to the studies of experts’ activities, such as banking or stock market operators: it emerges how they perform exchanges of sophisticated financial products, showing a behavior far from the homo oeconomicus and bringing out the role of communities of practices, representations, emotions.

Very fruitful analyses can originate from the close observation of contact points the
interactions between expert and non-expert actors, for example in the case of face-to-face relationship between customers and bank advisors to decide on investments or access to credit, or in case of public situations such as shareholders' meetings of banks and companies. In these cases, it is a matter of power, sharing of information, moral judgment, differing expected behaviours. The close analysis of “relational work”, using the Viviana Zelizer definition of the performance of those involved in monetary interactions, allows us to highlight hidden aspects of these interactions.

Qualitative research on financialization can also shed light on important trends towards the penetration of finance in citizens’ daily life via the growing role of financial actors in public action and public policy, especially in the social and environmental fields (Chiapello 2015). In such cases, the construction of new narratives, metrics and technical devices in order to enact public policy determines important and controversial transformation in the relation between the State, financial industry and citizens and in the very conception of citizenship (Chiapello, Knoll 2020). The socio-anthropological qualitative take on the different processes and tools through which such processes occur can crucially contribute to shed light on these phenomena.

Open questions

The session invites papers exposing research in the many possible fields where the financialization of daily life and public action can be observed, answering to open questions such as (but not limited to) the following:

  • Specific difficulties in accessing to the field and negotiating the research design with the actors of the field (as diverse as bankers, traders, social services beneficiaries, financial consultants, mortgage holders and social workers – to name but a few) and following them in their daily practices and negotiations;
  • What kind of bottom up experiences in monetary and financial transaction are currently active or under study in Italy, what is their potential in terms of social innovation, what type of social problems they are willing to face?
  • How cultural and material dimensions of financialization impact on existing institutional arrangements and social identities? What forms of accommodation, conflicts and resistance do they determine?
  • How financialization determines new processes of subjugation and/or new subjectivities?
  • How financial culture is adopted and adapted into specific policy sectors? How does it interact with existing values and practices?
  • How do financialization relate to neoliberalism both in terms of values and practices?
  • How the Italian traditions of social studies can contribute to a development of knowledge on how finance works, taking into account both analytical traditions and institutional contests?

Keywords

Domestic finance, Financialisation, Financial devices, Financial sector, Money circuits, Performativity, Social Impact Investing, Policy Ethnography, Subjectivity, Expertise, Welfare State, Public Action.

Sub-disciplines of cross-disciplinary areas of concern

Sociology of finance, Economic sociology, Political sciences, Studies on consumption practices, Methodological studies, Critical Discourse Analysis, Anthropology of finance, Sociology of expertise; Social Studies of Finance; Critical accounting.

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