AAA 2015 Preview: Undisciplining Law and Economy

Photo by Gilbert Mercier, New Orleans Post-Katrina Photo by Gilbert Mercier, New Orleans Post-KatrinaCC-BY-NC-ND-icon-88x31

By Sean Mallin and Taylor C. Nelms, panel organizers

When we first sat down to discuss the idea for this panel, we knew we wanted to account for the comingling of legal and economic techniques, technologies, and forms of knowledge in the worlds we study: post-dollarization Ecuador and post-Katrina New Orleans. While scholars often treat economy and law as discrete domains with distinct objects of study, our work on money and property seemed to transcend such neat divisions. The problems of urban blight and redevelopment in New Orleans, for example, brought together discourses about markets and ownership with practices of code enforcement; similarly, the process of adopting the U.S. dollar in Ecuador provoked debates that joined concerns about the value of money with those about the legal and political authority securing that value. We thought of other hybrid objects and techniques, from accounting ledgers and production circuits to market regulations and international trade agreements, and the way they appear in the mundane daily work of bureaucrats and lawyers, planners and development professionals, activists and academics, crisscrossing the analytical boundaries that organize expert and popular imaginations alike. Still, we didn’t want simply to combine economic and legal anthropologies. Instead, we hoped to interrogate the forms of expertise that separate law and economy in the first place, while also making it possible to bring them (back) together. We wanted to ask: What would an ethnography of legal knowledge and practice that sustains, shapes, or unsettles economic forms like money, debt, or the market look like? What about an ethnography of economic knowledge and practice that works in parallel on legal forms like property, contract, or code?

Though economic and legal anthropology are treated as distinct subdisciplines, we knew their genealogies were deeply intertwined. Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi are remembered for their contributions to economic anthropology, though both wrote extensively about law. Bronislaw Malinowski is famous for his discussions of Kula exchange, though less attention is paid to his study of reciprocal obligations in Crime and Custom in Savage Society. Even those who straddle these domains, such as Paul Bohannan, are read for their separate contributions to economic and legal anthropology. Yet these lineages have shared questions as well: While the formalists and substantivists debated the universality of “economic man,” Bohannan and Max Gluckman debated the cross-cultural applicability of Euro-American legal concepts. We found inspiration in other strands of anthropology, too: in feminist work on the co-constitution of legal and economic orders of household and work, kinship and ownership and in studies of property and value in post-socialist contexts. More recently, anthropological studies of both economy and law have turned to the role of experts in formatting—even performing—law and economy, highlighting the material techniques and technologies through which economic and legal practice and expertise appear and are consolidated. This research reflects a shared appreciation of the technical and pragmatic unfoldings of legal and economic worlds.

But our interest in these unfoldings also grew from our fieldwork, in which our interlocutors often moved seamlessly across legal and economic domains. Like our interlocutors, we were forced to move across domains, tying them together in creative ways. In our panel, we will reflect on the disciplining and—even more—the undisciplining of law and economy, and we will pay special attention to the strategies anthropologists use, alongside our interlocutors, to work between and across these realms. In their papers, presenters will work through the domaining of law and economy, destabilizing each while probing their mutual constitution. Christine Folch (Duke University) will present on international legal efforts to manage nature itself through the Itaipú Dam on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. Sean Mallin (University of California, Irvine) will present on urban renewal strategies in post-Katrina New Orleans. Smoki Musaraj (Ohio University) will present on property, law, and speculation in Albania’s recent construction boom. Taylor C. Nelms (University of California, Irvine) will present on experiments with money and sovereignty in dollarized Ecuador. Allison Truitt (Tulane University) will present on debates over classifying gold as commodity and money in Vietnam. Andrea Ballestero (Rice University) will serve as chair and Annelise Riles (Cornell University) will serve as discussant.

Our panel is on Saturday, November 21, from 10:15am-12:00pm. We hope you’ll join us!

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