Annelise Riles’s (Professor of Law in Far East Legal Studies and Professor of Anthropology at Cornell) work is characterized by an intense and productive dialogue between law and anthropology. This results in a form of research which, simultaneously, brings legal reasoning to the center of the ethnographer’s concern (as an object of social scientific investigation) and makes this same reasoning a productive tool for anthropological inquiry. In this conversation carried out right after the workshop ‘Markets for Collective Concerns?’ held last December at Copenhagen Business School, Riles discusses her latest book on her long-term ethnographic work with financial regulators and lawyers in Japan, Collateral Knowledge, and her more recent articles on collaborative research. The interview was conducted by José Ossandón and Gustavo Onto helped elaborate the questions.
Q1. Your latest book is titled Collateral Knowledge. The word ‘collateral’ implies different meanings; let’s exploit its polysemy to initiate our conversation. Unlike most recent social studies of finance (SSF)- where attention has been directed to trading, traders, or financial analysts- your financial studies focus on lawyers. And, law is certainly not economics, the type of expertise that has attracted most of the attention after Michel Callon’s performativity thesis. Legal reasoning, we could say, is collateral to trading, or, your fieldwork has been conducted on a site that is collateral to most of the existing SSF. The first question, therefore, is about the particular perspective you gain by studying lawyers. In other words, what do you see when you approach financial markets through the eyes of legal reasoning?
A1. [6.37 mins.]
Q2. In your book you distinguish between two types of legal expertise in financial markets in Japan: ‘technocratic’ and ‘technical’ knowledge. They represent two modes of making law when working in markets, the first more relevant in regulation, the latter in private practice. But, also, the book unfolds an historical argument. Regulators’ approach to financial markets shifted in the period you studied. Previously, financial regulators remained quite close to, almost like amateur ethnographers (for instance, constantly meeting or even having lunch), the regulated practitioners. But, after a combination of corruption scandals and the increasing influence of Hayek’s doctrine, regulators became both more distant and less confident in their ability to manage markets from within. This situation however, as you reported in one of your articles published after the book (Riles 2013), changed yet one more time, and after the financial crisis, financial regulators in Japan do not see themselves like this anymore. They are neither Keynesian nor Hayekian. How does the technique/technocratic distinction hold now? And what do post-Hayek financial regulators in Japan look like?
A2. [7.54 mins.]
Q3. Something you also report in the paper mentioned in the last question is that in post- Fukushima context you have also found a new space for collaboration. In the paper you narrate a failed collaborative experiment that you productively use to reflect about new modes in which anthropologists can relate to their sites. In your talk today, and drawing on the feminist notion of an epistemic partner, you talked about yet another collaborative experiment. All this is very interesting. Especially when, as you said before, the trick of performativity (namely, showing that economic knowledge does not represent but perform markets) doesn’t work when informants already know that. But, it also opens the question about what this type of research could add. So, how feasible and potentially productive do you see collaboration as a mode of ethnographic work in your anthropological work of financial regulators?
A3. [5.36 mins.]
Q4. During the Q&A after your talk today, someone mentioned Boltanski & Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism. Their point in that book is that firms in the late 90s resembled some of the features that were present in the artistic critique (flexibility, innovation, project-based) of capitalism from the 60s. Similarly, you mentioned in your talk that collaboration is not only an issue that interests critical social scientists, but also a very common trope in current businesses (i.e. co-creating value, collaborative entrepreneurship and so on)… Do you see a tension between the hype of collaboration in today’s capitalism and an anthropological work that becomes increasingly collaborative?
A4. [1.28 mins.]
Q5. Let’s me come back to ‘collateral’. Collateral is not only a metaphor for the position of legal experts in finance. It is also a metaphor for the construction of a very particular type of market object. Collateral is what is set aside to guarantee financial transactions. One of my own (Ossandón 2014) empirical interests is consumer credit. Consumer credit is a type of non-secure loan, i.e you don’t set aside collateral. But my main interest is in the ways in which lenders find modes of creating alternative forms of collateral in non-secure lending, for instance through credit scoring (reputation) or in the case of Micro-credits via social ties.
This also links to an increasing interest in anthropology to study debt, for instance Graeber’s (2011) book or Clara Han’s (2012) very nice Life in Debt. But something I haven’t seen theorized yet in this context is collateral itself. Do you think your work on “collateral transactions” can also be seen as a way of thinking about the place of collateral in debt more generally?
A5. [2.58 mins.]
Q6. To close, you have said that recent social studies of finance with their emphasis on performativity might be stating what is actually obvious for market participants or regulators. They somehow anticipate what the analysis is trying to uncover. This, by the way, is precisely what is happening in Gustavo Onto’s ethnographic work (2014). Gustavo studies anti-trust regulators in Brazil and has found that people not only know that markets are crafted and performed but they even mention Callon’s work. Could you elaborate on the limitations you see in thinking about markets in terms of performativity and how the ‘native/ethnographic’ conceptualizations of markets can contribute to our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of financial or other forms of market regulation?
A6. [6.33 mins.]
Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (2005). The New Spirit of Capitalism. Verso.
Graeber, D, (2011), Debt. The First 5000 years. Melville House.
Han, C. (2012). Life in debt: Times of care and violence in neoliberal Chile. Univ of California Press.
Onto, G. (2014) The market as lived experience. Vibrant, 11 (1).
Ossandón, J. (2014) “My Story Has No Strings Attached”: Credit Cards, Market Devices, and a Stone Guest, Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion, UC-Irvine, Working Paper Series, 2014-3.
Riles, A. (2011). Collateral knowledge: Legal reasoning in the global financial markets. University of Chicago Press.
Riles, A. (2013). Market collaboration: Finance, culture, and ethnography after neoliberalism. American Anthropologist, 115(4), 555-569.