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The Anthropology of Economic Processes in a Europe in Crisis

P  E  S  : 22
S  E, S   F
P on E
S 
V 
I 
e Anthropology of Economic
Processes in a Europe in Crisis
Susana Narotzky, Universitat de Barcelona*
Social anthropology has a long tradion
of looking at life-sustaining processes in
dierent parts of the world. Inially, its main
focus was on non-Western sociees (meaning
sociees not fully dependent on capitalist
market relaons for their social reproducon).
This had the advantage of somewhat detaching
observaon and analysis from preconcepons
of what counted as ‘economic’ in those
sociees. Although an important debate
on this precise issue arose between the so-
called formalist and the so-called substanvist
*The author may be reached at:
C for
P  E  S  : 23
S  E, S   F
perspecves in economic anthropology, the fact
that it emerged as a methodological problem and
as an epistemological issue was in itself a mark
of the innovave insights that empirical research
in dierent social contexts could provide. The
awareness of dierence and of the connecons
exisng among various groups, polies, and
systems has remained one of the central aspects
of the anthropological approach cung across
diverse theorecal orientaons.
Aer the mid-1950s, anthropologists
started turning toward the study of Western
sociees, oen merging with colleagues from
other social sciences and humanies. Obviously
the main reason for this turn was the realizaon
– highlighted by world-system and dependency
theorists that making a living all over the world
is increasingly dependent on capitalist relaons of
producon and circulaon, albeit not exclusively.
It is also increasingly connected worldwide. More
recently, in the wake of the nancial bubble and
subsequent crisis, anthropologists have turned their
aenon to nancial markets and instruments and
to the pragmacs of people’s entanglement with
various economic devices. This interest in studying
the making of economic meaning in nance has
simultaneously underlined the performave power
of models and other accounng and regulatory
arfacts that permeate everyday life. It has also
distracted aenon from areas of inquiry, such
as the workplace or the household, producon
and consumpon relaons, and transfers of
goods and services supported by non-contractual
obligaons. In the context of the present economic
crisis, however, these ordinary livelihood pracces
become crucial sites of macroeconomic logics and
express the tensions that arise when diverse value
frameworks are interacng in the valuaon of
things, people, and relaons. I want here to address
three areas of classical anthropological enquiry
that have become central to the understanding of
European residents’ (both cizens’ and migrants’)
ability to make a living and to be respected.
The rst area addresses relaons between
generaons as an expression of social reproducon.
Generaons are linked at two analycally
dierent levels. One level is that of immediate
specic personal relaons (in the household, the
neighborhood, the workplace). The other level is
that of instuonally mediated general age-class
relaons (acve and passive classes, working
age and rered, independent and dependent
individuals). Social reproducon can be dened as
a form of connuity linking successive generaons
around micro-projects of making a living and
enhancing future opportunies, and macro-
projects of social conguraons of power and asset
distribuon. The current crisis creates new realies
and understandings of ‘generaons’, reaching
beyond individual household reproducon and
inmate social groups to the reproducon crisis
of society as a whole (e.g., the ‘lost generaon’ of
unemployable youth in southern Europe). Diverse
forms of support provisioning oen glossed over as
‘care’ and straddling the market/non-market divide
are increasingly crucial to the social reproducon
both of the households and of the larger society.
In this context, moral economy is coming
back strongly into the lives of people as they try
to redene responsibilies within the household
but also within the wider polical arena. An
example of this can be seen in the connuous
demonstraons of outrage that ordinary people
in Greece, Portugal, and Spain publicly address
to polical and nancial agents on subjects such
as unemployment and housing evicons. A moral
indictment of those in power (corrupon, fraud,
abandonment, abuse), rather than a polical
economic analysis of structural inequalies, makes
this crique powerful. Likewise, in the conceptual
arena, the stress on moral values, pracces and
emoonal involvement in economic and polical
behavior is becoming ubiquitous. Moral values in
pracce, however, oen serve to dene categories
of deserving and undeserving people, in a context
of scarce resources.
Crises, or the inability to realize or conceive
connuity, dene a new eld of opportunies and
potenalies for some people, but also produce
deep anxiees of an insecure future for many
others. For those trying to recongure their lives
in these conjunctures of breakdown of the ‘usual
P  E  S  : 24
S  E, S   F
expectaons’, the future oen does not appear as
a predictable extension of the present. Rather, the
future becomes a permanent menace, impinging
on present resources, leading to defensive
strategies – oen violent and xenophobic in
the aempt to fend o the certainty of loss. In
present-day southern Europe, the elderly, the
young and the middle classes are sliding into an
economically precarious posion that endangers
their livelihood and the social connuity or upward
mobility between generaons. As a result, internal
conict and mistrust in
polical and economic
instuons expands.
The need to think
the economy as the
entanglement of
‘care’, ‘responsibility’
and ‘interest’ pracces
that e generaons
together opens
the way for beer
understanding of
the commitments that exist between dierently
situated social actors. This understanding, in
turn, could provide the basis for ‘equitable’ and
‘sustainable’ policies.
The second area of anthropological interest
addresses provisioning processes and processes of
dierenaon. Provisioning for goods and services
can take dierent forms. Oen, provisioning takes
place through the market, but in many cases the
market is involved only parally, or not at all.
Generally, in any society there are several possible
paths for the provision of similar goods or services,
as when medical care is available from the state,
private praconers, private corporaons or a
doctor friend. This situaon might be read as
providing a wider choice for the consumer, or it
might express social dierenaon and limited
access regarding a basic good such as health care.
As the crisis deepens in Europe, the dierenaon
aspect of these mulple provisioning processes
emerges more clearly. Innovaon in producon
and distribuon is a direct consequence of the
creavity of people in mes of duress. Such is
the case, for example, with the spread of Local
Exchange Trading Systems and local currencies in
many parts of the world under crisis. In other cases,
these alternave forms of producing and circulang
goods and services are reconguraons of exisng
ways (tradional mutual help, self-provisioning,
cooperave projects) and are related to ideological
and polical projects. Organic farming, slow food
movements, fair trade commodity chains and
worker cooperaves are all dierent expressions
of various forms of organizing producon and
distribuon that
coexist in the present.
Moreover, while some
of these processes
are regulated by state
authories, others
escape this regulaon
totally or parally.
This does not mean
that these processes
are not regulated, but
that they are regulated
otherwise, through frameworks of obligaon
that appeal to dierent moral virtues (including
friendship, kinship or religious responsibilies). As
the instuonal frameworks that had guaranteed
a landscape of rights and dues for labor and
capital in the postwar, neo-corporave agreements
of liberal democracies are being eroded, these
mulple realies of making a living become more
In southern Europe, where ocial stascs
show that unemployment rates are oen greater
than one quarter of the acve populaon, experts
inform us that a large part of this populaon is in
fact working in the informal economy, therefore
implying that ‘real’ unemployment is not as dramac
and that many unemployed are in fact cheaters.
Those of us who have worked in manufacturing
regions and sectors with large unregulated acvity
can bear witness to the fact that most workers in
this situaon are not in it out of choice. Rather, they
have been forced underground for lack of regular
employment, tapping into other channels of
income-provisioning opportunies. Many are also
In southern Europe, where ocial stas-
cs show that unemployment rates are
oen greater than one quarter of the
acve populaon, experts inform us that
a large part of this populaon is in fact
working in the informal economy...
P  E  S  : 25
S  E, S   F
not stascally part of the ‘acve’ populaon, and
therefore do not ocially ‘count’ as unemployed.
The polical, social, and cultural environments
that ordinary people have to juggle with in making
a living are extremely varied and need to be taken
into account.
Increased liberalizaon of the labor market
and reduced protecon through labor law result
in the use of ethnic, gender, and age categories of
dierenaon, as well as personalized patronage
links to access and retain gainful employment. And
this is predicated in social networks and culturally
ascribed values and denions of the good. The
realies of precarious employment, unregulated
gainful acvies, formal jobs, unemployment, and
inacvity are intertwined in the everyday lives of
people and result from the complex interacon of
dierent spaces of opportunity, both within and
without the law. Likewise, these mulple situaons
are expressed in many ways in the power relaons
between workers and employers in the workplace.
They also aect income availability, provisioning
channels and consumpon pracces, and therefore
are inmately bound with the dierenal well-
being of ordinary people.
Provisioning is a complex process where
producon, distribuon, appropriaon and
consumpon relaons all have to be taken into
account, and where history denes parcular
available paths for obtaining goods and services.
Provisioning is also a useful way to understand
social dierenaon, the construcon of parcular
meanings and idenes and the reproducon of
the social and economic system as a whole. The
provisioning perspecve in its present form stems
from the perceived need to link the consumpon
and producon ends of economic life in order to
address vital issues such as food security, housing,
health care, educaon and, more generally, public
or collecve consumpon.
The third area of anthropological enquiry
refers to the producon of meaning and the
struggles around dening the boundaries of the
common good. This entails conicts, fricons, and
negoaons about the proper meaning of personal
and social responsibilies and about the proper
funcon of instuons that sustain a legimate
polical economy. Mainstream models of how the
economy and individual raonal actors operate
have become and remain hegemonic even in the
wake of the crisis, but these models were never
absolute and all-encompassing. Ordinary people
in their everyday lives have to juggle dierent
models that frame reasonable economic acon
in contrasng ways. The ongoing economic world
crisis has pointed to a problem of mainstream
economic models: the lack of aenon to what
people on the ground understand, know, feel, and
decide regarding their capacity to enhance their
well-being through their engagement in economic
processes. For most people, moral issues of family
well-being, social mobility for the next generaon,
gender identy, personal and community presge,
and religious or ideological callings are central
movaons for their parcipaon in the economy.
These moral obligaons and cultural raonales
are oen instuonalized in concrete polical,
economic, and religious structures that are the
result of localized historical developments, but
this is not always the case, as tacit obligaons and
informal responsibilies also guide social acon.
More generally, parcular concepts and meanings
both folk and expert become key to people’s
understandings, projects, and acons, at all levels of
society’s decision-making processes. The queson
of what categories and conceptual mappings guide
the fragile middle classes and the working poor
in southern Europe in their everyday livelihood
pracces becomes pressing. This is sll a neglected
aspect of economic behavior that anthropology
can contribute to clarify. Moral values, however,
are not shared across regions, age, gender, or
religious or ethnic groups, and a crucial aspect
of elicing their importance will be to show how
value conicts develop in pracce and how they
produce tangible eects in the economy.
In the context of the present crisis, it is
becoming obvious that mainstream economics
is increasingly unable to account for the extreme
polarizaon of wealth in a system that fails to deliver
the redistribuve benets of capitalist markets for
the larger public. The chaoc management of the
P  E  S  : 26
S  E, S   F
crisis seems to prove the as yet unacknowledged
failure of the dominant ‘economic’ paradigm.
The me seems ripe for a new methodology and
a dierent theorecal framework altogether. It
is me for ‘economic’ knowledge to address an
enre realm of economic behavior that is central
to how people deal with their material needs and
expectaons. Anthropologists are parcularly well
situated to undertake this transformaon because
they have a strong tradion of not taking things for
granted. Going back to the origins of anthropological
approaches to economic pracces, we need to
observe and listen; we need to hear what people
are saying with their acons and arguments about
their acons. At the same me, we also need to
arculate these pracces and understandings
with other scales of acon and meaning, with
other logics. Then, we would be in a posion to
understand economic reality from a more complex
perspecve that might provide a beer theorecal
framework for preparing the future and providing
hope for the coming generaons.
... This article presents original research about the still substantial amount of unreported work carried out by women in family firms. Our study of 396 women working in small and medium-sized family firms in southern Europe shows, in the first place, that the unregistered and many times unpaid work of women in family businesses is a key issue in the gender order of our economies, not only in developing economies but also in developed ones, such as the southern European regions, which compared to other welfare regimes (Karamessini 2008;Moreno 2010) are still characterized by a larger informal economy due to lack of regular employment, and a higher level of familialism which gives access to other channels of income-provisioning opportunities (Narotzky 2013). ...
Full-text available
Women have historically played an important hidden role in family firms, and a great deal of research is now shedding light on this role. In spite of the more formal nature of female work at the present day, still a considerable volume of women’s contributions in family firms is unregistered and unpaid, even in developed regions. A questionnaire was administered to 396 women working in small and medium-sized family firms located in Andalucia, a southern European region, characterized by familialism and an important informal economy. Our results confirm the persistence of subordinate forms of unpaid family collaboration due to the neutrality assigned to female contributions under the traditional gendered division of work. But also this study shows how some of the women voluntarily embrace subordinate roles as a temporary way to gain professional experience, useful for their future work inside or outside the family firm.
Full-text available
A whole generation of Europeans that came to adult life in the 2000s, in particular those born in the peripheral countries of the Eurozone, have had to construct their adult lives within a recessive financial regime that is now widely known as ‘austerity’ . In relation to earlier generations, they have been subjected to a high rate of permanent unemployment, to recurrent situations of working poverty, to a significant reduction in citizenship rights, and ultimately to the tragic fate of having to emigrate to perform underpaid jobs in richer European countries. This paper is based on fieldwork carried out in Southern Portugal among the members of the millennial generation who stayed behind. The paper proposes that persons are intrinsically familial since personhood is an emergent property that develops within dwelling environments where more than one familial history is normally present.
Italy has been on the frontlines of the European Union's “migration crisis,” intercepting hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers at sea and on its shores. Yet it has lacked adequate resources to ensure humane reception, as other forms of welfare state provisioning have also been rolled back through recent and ongoing austerity measures enforced by the EU and the IMF. While Italians face fewer employment opportunities, lower pensions, and higher taxes, migrants of precarious legal status and asylum-seekers struggle to navigate the weakened bureaucratic apparatus of the Italian state, including the health system. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Italian provinces of Lazio and Sicily in early 2014 and 2016, this article documents the imbricated economic and health struggles of Italian citizens and noncitizens, and alludes to lived experiences of and community responses to economic austerity characterizing much of the Mediterranean borderlands. I argue that marginalization by the state of both citizens and noncitizens in this setting undergirds some of the local and community responses to economic austerity. Moreover, I suggest that contemporary struggles in this geopolitical context intersect in important ways with the repercussions of austerity legacies that have contributed to widespread displacement in neighboring regions and subsequent migration into the EU.
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