Embedded in the Street: Studying Up, Studying Down

American Quarterly
Volume 63, Issue 4, December 2011

Review Essay


Books reviewed: 

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. By Karen Ho. 
Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. By Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. 

Income inequality—the gap between rich and poor—grows apace in the United States, as it has since the 1970s. If the worrisome fact of this widening chasm is widely accepted, its proximate causes are as widely debated. Asked to illustrate the far edges of the widening income gap, a casual observer might well draw, on one end, Wall Street investment bankers and, on the other, poor, black residents of a neighborhood like Bronzeville on Chicago's South Side. Few, however, would expect to find similarities in the everyday lives of these groups, which are apt to be considered as far apart culturally as they are economically. Yet in the two ethnographic accounts under review, each group's social practices share remarkably similar senses and expressions of temporality.

In Karen Ho's work, as in Sudhir Venkatesh's, binary divisions between an idealized market and imperfectly rational responses to it crumble, replaced by the premises that all choices and all actors are embedded in institutions, in cultures, in history, and that actors' practices must proceed in and through these to create "the market." Thus the explanations bankers offer to Ho about the market's power and their responses to it must be read as cultural values and aspirations, not actual diagnoses. This theory of embeddedness suggests that the most adequate analysis of the power of individuals' ways of being in the world, rather than focusing on the blunt power of capital or the state, is a type of methodological embedding, a low-flying social science of observation. Ho writes that she chose to investigate Wall Street because "investment bankers are highly visible in terms of their own self-representations and claims to truth and authority, yet culturally invisible in terms of their everyday practices and assumptions" (31). Bronzeville, the site of Venkatesh's ethnography, could be considered the exact inverse: cultural representations of the everyday practices of the urban black poor people are extensive in the United States, yet the self-understandings of these actors, and indeed the incompatibility of these understandings with mainstream narratives of them, rarely enter popular or policy-oriented conversations. Each author independently finds that these groups, facing a racial divide, who would surely imagine the other to be at opposite poles of hegemonic power relationships, both engage in what Ho calls "short-termism" or "the strategy of no strategy." This financialized temporality comprises a set of practices and predispositions oriented around attempts to achieve and lengthen periods of stability in a system of increasingly debt-encumbered, foreshortened futurity.

Ho and Venkatesh, however, shy away from attributing much analytic weight to broad changes in the structure of capitalism. Rather, in Ho's phrase, their informants' "worldviews-in-action" explain these structures of feeling. Yet in both cases, these are characteristic, in scholarly analyses, of the shift away from Fordism, and its cognate Keynesian economic thinking, toward a new period of "financialization." This historical shift, as such analysts as David Harvey, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Fredric Jameson, Aihwa Ong, and Randy Martin have shown, entails a sustained, if uneven, movement away from state-directed provisioning for social welfare; long-term job security, unionization, and rising wages; and staid financial practices geared primarily toward increasing levels of consumption of mass-produced goods.

Financialization, as a socioeconomic concept, gathers together many of the causes and unintended consequences of this shift. On the consumption side, it refers to results of the decreasing stability of employment. Real wages have been flat or declining since the late 1960s, and workers have been forced to go into debt to make ends meet. Household debt jumped from approximately 40 percent of GDP in 1960 to 100 percent in 2007. In turn, this debt, transformed into profitable financial commodities in new ways thanks to technological innovations, led to a shift in the source of profits for the whole economy of the United States, the production-side meaning of the term. In the 1950s, 10-15 percent of total profits derived from the financial sector. Before the recent crisis, the figure was over 40 percent. Rather than augur a transformation of this state of affairs, Washington's responses to the crisis were oriented around its maintenance and...

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