workshop: Real Economy: Ethnographic Inquiries into the Reality and the Realization of Economic Life. Rio de Janeiro June 16-18

[Hablando de excelentes Workshops…. Del 16 al 18 de Junio en Rio de Janeiro de llevará a cabo “Real Economy: Ethnographic Inquiries into the Reality and the Realization of Economic Life”. Entre otros, el programa incluye a Jane I. Guyer, Benoit de l’Estoile, Alexandre Roig, Fernando Rabossi, Keith Hart, Jeanne Lazarus, Federico Neiburg, Horacio Ortiz y Caitlin Zaloom. Además los ilustres contribuidores de Estudios de la Economía: Gustavo Onto, Mariana Luzzi, Ariel Wilkis y Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra]

A Wenner-Gren workshop: Real Economy: Ethnographic Inquiries into the Reality and the Realization of Economic Life. Rio de Janeiro June 16-18

The workshop will focus on discussing the history and current construction of the ‘real economy,’ a key category in contemporary economic thinking and practices, both in the world of experts and in ordinary life. The real economy and its opposites (the virtual or fictitious economy) have become increasingly central to interpretations of the experiences of globalization, economic crises and financial fluxes, to measurements of poverty and consumption, as well as to analyses of the nature of money or the conceptualization and implementation of monetary policies. The papers to be presented at the workshop (highly diversified in terms of ethnographic settings and institutional affiliations of their authors) will allow for a profound and innovative ethnographic and comparative comprehension of the entanglements and assemblages between native modes of conceptualizing and referring to the ‘reality’ of economy life and modes of turning diverse aspects of ‘the economy’ into an observable, quantifiable and objectified reality.


In the last couple of decades, international debates on the contemporary economy have become dominated by reflections on the virtual, fictive, de-materialized spaces of finance and electronic digital media, which have re-shaped the form and scope of capitalism. Yet notions of the real and reality also have a strong presence in ordinary life, permeating multiple social worlds and realms of experience. Ever-present in both ordinary language and daily life, as well as in the domain of experts (such as economists and policy makers), the category of the ‘real economy’ seems to stand for an ontological dimension. This can be noted, for instance, when the notion is invoked in reference to real prices or real wages, or as something connected to the thresholds of social life, as in the case of debates over real and virtual (financial) economies, or real and fictional currencies. In macro-economic and policy debates, the real economy acquires the contours of a holistic moral economy, ruled by normative ethical and scientific norms, evaluated on the basis of its truth-value and the accuracy of numbers and figures, as in the case of the public statistics and indexes used to measure it: GDP (Gross Domestic Product), inflation, debt ratio, credit and risk ratings, investment, and so on.

The aim of the proposed workshop is to elaborate a theoretical and empirical analytical framework on the emergence and recent enactments of the ‘real economy’ from a comparative ethnographic and historical perspective. The workshop will explore the following central questions: What notions of the real are being elaborated and circulated in macro and micro-economic policies? What are the relations between these expert conceptualizations and the notions of the real and the reality of the economy commonly used in ordinary local economic practices and ideas? How do these uses concur or compete with each other in specific ethnographic and historical settings? And what are the effects that can be described by these different enactments or by their entanglements? This event will provide the opportunity for a first meeting of members of an international network of scholars conducting research in various regions of the world, who have recently been publishing work on these subjects in a sustained manner, while also interacting in smaller groups in different academic settings.

The concept of the ‘real’ is centuries old in economic thought, dating back to the original reflections on the quantity theory of money, put forward by Copernicus, to argue for vigilance over the quality and quantity of currency issued by the governing powers. This would ensure that it always operated in a sufficiently stable way that prices would reflect the real values held by common people in the market place. The concept of the real exchange economy, based on a theory of value (such as the classical labor theory of value), declined in the twentieth century with the rise of marginalist thought, and the concept of the real became specific in its application to the purchasing power of money with respect to goods (real prices) and the corresponding purchasing power of money wages (real wages). Informed by an updated quantity theory of money, and in the current globalized economy, the concept of the ‘real’ also became a measure of inflation, a key variable in commercial contracts, evaluations of loans and debt interests, national social payment policies, international reporting of GDP to International Financial Institutions, and eligibility for international investment. It is worth noting that the two distinct Latin roots of term ‘real’ convey a very particular political epistemology: from realis, res, “something that exists, truly and effectively,” and from regalis, “something that belonged or is related to the king or to royalty.” In this latter sense, ‘real’ also developed as a substantive, associated with the king, and became the name for a small Spanish silver coin. Over time, it also came to denote various coins in different countries under Spanish and Portuguese colonization. Real has also been the denomination used for Brazil’s currency since 1994. In countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the word real is used as a synonym for money.

If in recent economic writing the concept of the Real largely refers to macro-economic measurements (Cochrane 2005), its uses have many other connotations in public and ordinary life. For instance, during the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequently, public debates held in the media addressed the search for terms to define common people’s values and experience with regard to the unsettled sense of reality generated by the crisis. Discussion about terms such as Wall St. versus Main St. reflected an incipient purported opposition between real – industrial, productive – economy and the realm of finance. Some social movements denunciated the dominance of the spurious financial economy, arguing that people were losing the real value of their wages and their currencies.

Continuing recent anthropological inquires into the nature of economy and economic life (for example, Current Anthropology 55(9), 2014, “Crisis, Value, and Hope: Rethinking the Economy”), an ethnographic appreciation of the uses of the real in the economy could stimulate us to think more broadly about other adjectives that have been employed to qualify the economy: such as popular economy or informal economy. What senses do these expressions evoke? Why should the economy be qualified? What are the social and cognitive assemblages that produce different kinds of qualifications, and what are the relationships between them in different contexts through time? How can we describe the entanglements between these different expressions of the real economy and the ethnographic realizations of economic life? What, then, are the processes that generate the ‘self-evidence’ of the real? What practices, materialities and discourses have been used to enact real economies in different ethnographic settings? How do we approach these forms of enactments or realizations ethnographically and historically? Situated in a fluid conversation with critical theory and science and technology studies, yet based on in-depth, long-term field research carried out both in the world of experts and in the world of ordinary economic practices, the proposed workshop aims to contribute to an ethnographic theorization of the enactments of the real-fictive dichotomies that permeate economic life.


This workshop is placed at the heart of a renewed and intense anthropological concern with the conceptualization of the economy, an approach that always taking into account the role that economic theory plays in its construction (Neiburg, Rabossi, Motta & Müller 2014). We consider that the focus on the ‘real economy’ as a subject of ethnographic inquiry allows us to address various dimensions of contemporary economic practices in a new, innovative way that will produce a significant contribution to debates in the field. The workshop will focus on two of these dimensions: (1) the relationships between ordinary and expert conceptualizations of the ‘real economy’; and (2) the entanglement of different scales, temporalities and agencies in social and economic lives that bring to the fore the real economy (and or its opposites).

It can be pointed out that economic anthropology has always dealt with the question of the ‘real economy’ that we are trying to problematize ethnographically. The controversy between formalists and substantivists around the middle of the twentieth century was only the most explicit instantiation of a problem raised by economic theory: How and what do we describe when we consider the ‘economic’ as a given reality? What is this reality composed of? Is it made of behaviors or institutions? Is it an aspect of individuals or societies? We believe that in more recent anthropological studies these questions have begun to be posed from a different angle, one which obviates a preoccupation with – and finally problematize – a previous question: Why and how does the ‘economy’ or the ‘economic’ always appear as something taken for granted, a given and objectified reality that limits and allows for different possibilities for human life?

The anthropology of money is a privileged field in terms of advancing our comprehension of the enactments of the real in economic life. One example is the historical and still present opposition between real versus fictional currencies (Guyer 2012, Neiburg forthcoming 2016). Preoccupations with the ‘real’ in economic life are also found in discussions of performativity (Muniesa 2014, Callon 2007) and also before these in Foucault and Bourdieu’s ideas about ‘truth effects,’ or even in Mitchell’s notion of ‘state effect’ (which creates ‘the economy’ as an entanglement of facts, measures and other agencies). The real is also crucial to the more recent anthropology of markets through the concept of infrastructure (Pardo-Guerra 2010), for example, to the preoccupation with the regulation of markets (Onto 2014, Riles 2011), and to ethnographies of everyday life economies on the margins of the state (as in the debates on informal and illegal economies: Rabossi 2012, Roitman 2005). The participants in this workshop have a deep theoretical and empirical reflection on these domains and will be stimulated to contribute innovatively to the challenges imposed by the problematic of the real economy and the realization of economic life proposed here.

We will address these issues through the discussion of two interrelated sub-sets of themes:

  1. Concepts, Languages and Terminologies

Our current collective conversation sets out from a series of jointly-formulated questions on the conceptual schemes that surround labels applied to the field of the economy: from the ‘real economy’ of economic theory to the ‘popular’ and ‘formal/informal,’ ‘grassroots’ or ‘domestic’ economy and ‘human economy’ used by anthropologists and public policy analysts alike. What semantics do these expressions evoke? What are the social and cognitive assemblages that produce different kinds of qualifications, and how do these change throughout history? What is taken-for-granted today in hegemonic conceptions of the economy and what are the main boundaries that agents acting in the social world identify as the ‘real’ economy? What singularities are ascribed to the real in this field of meanings and practices? How do these concepts circulate in the social world and what limits and possibilities do they generate for the understanding of the economy? At the workshop and in future publications, we will analyze the semantic field of the real (reality, realization, realism) and its opposites (unreal, fictional, virtual, spurious) through both a pragmatic and a historical inquiry. The concept of ‘realization,’ which has been particularly important in recent studies of finance (e.g. Muniesa 2014), will provide an operative link between key contemporary theoretical themes in various disciplines and the empirical subjects with which we will engage in discussing our ethnographic research.

  1. Measures, Numbers and Scales

Experts construct the real economy fundamentally as an object of measurement. The workshop will address the designs and uses of various macro-economic indexes and other statistical instruments and economic devices usually deployed to present the real economy as an objectified entity. We will discuss how our ethnographic works highlight: (a) the cognitive processes implied in ‘realization’; (b) the conceptual macro and micro-economic devices used to apprehend the ‘real’; (c) the infrastructures that permit the conception of the real economy; (d) the forms of regulation which contribute to these processes (through monetary policies, antitrust policies or regulation of the operation of financial markets (Holmes 2014, Neiburg 2010, Onto 2014 and Riles 2011); and (e) the relationship between the ordinary and expert forms of calculating, measuring and conceptualizing numbers and scales (Amato & Fantacci 2014, Weber 2009). In this sense, the workshop proposes an innovative approach, located at the crossroads between the anthropology of the economy and money, social studies of science and technology (mainly through their concern with infrastructures and performativity), the anthropology of law and regulations, and cognitive anthropology.

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