Reflection – Jane Guyer

The economic anthropology of Jane Guyer, concentrated on Africa’s western and equatorial regions, finds rich expression in this collection of the Lewis Henry Morgan lecture series delivered at the University of Rochester some fifteen years ago. Guyer’s methodological reflexivity brings her implicit and explicit critique to bear on both traditional anthropology and traditional economics, the result of which is a nuanced, multivariate logic of exchange and decision-making that brings close contextualization to the fore of questions that might otherwise veer impossibly into the abstract. Historically grounded and empirically driven, Guyer elucidates the curious interplay between formal and informal markets in Atlantic Africa, particularly the role of circulation of multiple currencies at once.

By the title phrase, “marginal gains,” Guyer complicates liberal economic’s notions of profit. She refers to those benefits accrued by parties to a transaction when they buy, sell, barter or exchange goods and services, of course. Yet the asymmetrical character of these exchanges does not limit margins to quantity or efficiency. Instead, Guyer suggests that asymmetrical exchanges draw upon a whole host of implicit contracts and negotiations including temporary use values of objects, shifting social positions, and even ethical or spiritual conditions. Thus, she connects asymmetrical exchanges’ effects to the trouble with oversimplifying heirarchies such as slavery within the region, adding a spiritual dimension to questions of what slaves engaged in trade can gain. Attending to social and spiritual conditions also allows her to investigate commodities’ oddly mutable values they between owners, drawing on the example of Fang funereal statuary, which becomes Picasso’s inspirational sculpture (or, one might add later, a basis for Robert Farris Thompson’s crude “aesthetics of the cool”). The values of provenance for  art auctioneers, and the quotidian directed conversion of utility and purpose, can here be entered side-by-side day into economic transactions and qualitative measurement.

Both Western (neoclassical and liberal) and preexisting local logics can coexist, guiding the movement of multiple simultaneous currencies and the resulting practices of exchange. One figure that stands out, for example, is the observation that a majority of currency placed into circulation in Nigeria – up to 60% of it -never returns to formal institutions such as banks or monitors. Fracture this disappearance from the formal sector into at least a dozen active currencies in the late twentieth century, let alone ad-hoc media of exchange (and, it might be added, the growing amount of peer-to-peer digital transactions), and the picture that Guyer paints begins to take form. Yet her methods are appropriately flexible and nuanced for such complexity. By carving out a unique research pattern and a distinct vocabulary, her work allows us to frame specific issues, phenomena, and exchanges on the ground in elegant terms of emergence and movement.For instance, the late twentieth-century’s growth of monolithic institutions, such as standardized currency, likely only continues and helps to quantify the practices of  asymmetrical exchange in the region. A particular benefit, then, of Guyer’s economic anthropology is the persistent centrality of logical powers, though it manifests as an analysis of an intensification of local economies, rather than a Whiggish march towards perfectly rational actors in vacuo.

This approach puts issues such as Chinese or American international aid, loans, investments, and bilateral trade agreements into a context that can say more than platitudes about cooperation or corruption.  Since neoliberal interventions in the region have amounted to fragmented, piecemeal implementations of formal processes, several concurrent formalizations take place at once. This is, perhaps, due to far stronger informal financial institutions than formal ones, and their preexistence of attempts to homogenize African markets. Guyer thus favors documentation alongside observation, as against institutional infrastructure, for the archives on which she conducts her research. So two missing pieces that might bridge the macro-level questions of structure and institution with more microcosmic, quotidian practices and performances of daily life in this context are gender’s economic logics and the mutual impacts between economic changes and temporal experiences. Guyer leaves these questions open for future researchers towards the end of her text, and we exit her lectures as a room, on a threshold to further transit.


Reference: Guyer, Jane. Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *