Regardless of whether you care about the business or finance world or not (maybe you think giant American corporations are so distant from my life), let’s see why you would be interested in reading this essay.
Ho’s book Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009) is not just about the game of bankers played out on business journals every day. Despite the fact that you may be less attuned to industries other than your own, this review uses Liquidated as a springboard to further explore the diversity and commonality of the humanity who interact in a shared space in different cultural spheres. In this book, the corporate culture of Wall Street is where ordinary people holding successful positions make a huge impact on American society and the globalized world. And there are certain similarities that can be drawn from case studies in other parts of the world with economic phenomena less organized or represented than the American corporate finance market, from which the universal and particular economic behaviors are justified in different cultural contexts. Although the maximization of profits is considered a key to explaining economic behavior
, there are different kinds of considerations when making economic decisions (Chibnik, 4), and ethnographies such as Liquidated and Speculative Markets (Peterson, 2014) have demonstrated the alternative possibilities for sustaining economic life in different forms of economy.
In Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009), Karen Ho illustrates the business practices of financial corporations and their decision-makers at the highest level of American capitalism. She argues that there is a “culture of smartness” that determines the business prowess and skills of the participants (40). The series of her participant-observation in the late 1990s was fundamentally based on Bourdieu’s concept of “disposition” and “habitus” to describe how individual components position themselves in and work to sustain the corporate environment (11). Through observing the interplay of individual roles and investment banks, she explores the culture inherent in American capitalist society as projected onto the “particular biographies, experiences, and practices of investment bankers” (42).
Individual actors embody significant qualities and skill sets that enable them to realize self-worth in the process of creating profits which ultimately influence the American corporate culture. One determining factor for why they are the ones chosen to make decisions for high-end financial institutions is their academic background. They must go through a highly competitive recruitment process to prove their potential in creating wealth to the employers (42). This precondition of academic success before entering into the work field has a significant convincing power to make their intelligence acknowledged by employers. The employer’s belief in these high-achievers in the academic realm stems from a profit-making incentive to exploit their ability to create and sustain wealth for the company by creating values through labor (Graeber, 451).
Investment banking and management consulting are the two most popular sectors that top business school graduates strive for, and the life course of the students have been transformed dramatically since their first encounter with the cooperation representatives, as the academic environment is so penetrated by forums of recruitment (45). Satirically, although all the people are ambitious to enter the top tier of the economic world, what is the maximum capacity of this human resource market to incorporate all their needs and of the financial world to guarantee the share for them all? Yet without second thought, everyone seems to enjoy their competition in the way to elitism. This social activity of being engaged in this highly competitive career seeking effort is patterned with a strict set of models for speech, demeanors, and way to expressive themselves. The collective behavior to compete for the chance into giant enterprises follows the promise that anyone who obtains the opportunity would have the access to the wealth and happiness that the firm embodies (50). The environment of recruitment thus cultivates a complex relationship network that requires patterned strategies to make benefits for oneself. Similar to Guanxixue, it is also characterized by a decline in moral care among people who have once studied or worked together as they become competitors and prioritize their own benefits over their reciprocal ties in their established relationships (52).
Guanxi, social relationships, is often marked as a major pushing force for capitalism in China. In May-Fair Yang’s case studies of emerging Chinese capitalism and market economy, she examines a type of Chinese alternative capitalism imbued with traditional rituals and local beliefs (226). In the Confucianism-oriented society, the contemporary complex social network consisting of different motives and practices is first stemmed from the traditional kinship and clan-based interpersonal relationships. When obtaining benefits for themselves, individuals are bound to certain customs which constrain their behavior and designate their responsibilities to one another. In the mature capitalist American society as the case of Wall Street economy, less emphasis is put on human emotions but cunningness in maneuvering access to wealth and power through relationship networking in business settings, identical to the official context of relationship in Guanxixue, which requires money-oriented mindfulness.
In comparison, the Nigerian drug market entails a much more fluid pattern of work engagement. Nigerian drug market is also characterized by Peterson as non-equilibrium due to its fluidity and instability. Historically, Nigeria has undergone heavy impact from foreign powers that led to the failure of a well-organized national regulation (Peterson, 107). Too many indecisive factors pushed drug trade into a contextual market different from the predictable universal economic pattern. The “experimental and speculative practices” are characterized by the derivatives, or the access to underlying assets through the series of business calculation within the risk-laden market of unpredictable profits is marked by culturally-oriented market behavior that places more significance on local belief than on rationality. Because of the uncontrollability of business risks in the unregulated drug market, the small retailers and gangs have to hold their faiths onto the gamble where their fates are thrown upon. In the unpredicative economic world like this, people must be prepared with the wit and instinct to react to changing situations. The labor investment functions more as a move in progress toward returns and is evaluated more as a form of earning stream in the hope of long-term gains (114).
The sense of value in the illegal drug market transactions is heavily tilted toward the demand side in dire need of the products coming from unstable sources. Prices can be easily revised at different stages from the first wholesale process to the eventual recipient in a repayment system (117). Due to the absence of an effective overarching state regulation, an informal market norm of “prestige economy” is thus maintained where credit is a crucial criterion for business success (115). After all, rules are designed by human who fought for a living with different economic considerations.
Carrier, J. (2005). A Handbook of Economic Anthropology . Northampton, MA, USA : Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.
Chibnik, M. (2011). Anthropology, Economics, and Choice. Dalas : University of Texas Press.
Ho, K. (2009 ). Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street . Durham and London : Duke University Press.
Peterson, K. (2014 ). Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative Life in Nigeria . Durham and London : Duke University Press.
Yang, M. (1994). Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China . Ithaca : Cornell University Press.