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In fast-moving world of money and payments, anthropology finds a niche

By Jonathan Miller, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies

Bill Maurer with payment methods
Bill Maurer with cash, cards, and a new payment app.

Apple Pay, Venmo, Square – few aspects of modern life are changing more quickly than systems for moving money.

Ethnography, participant observation, domain analysis – few academic fields require as much time and patience as anthropology.

Yet the anthropology of finance is more relevant than ever, said Bill Maurer, dean of social sciences at the University of California Irvine, during a recent visit to Cornell.

“It’s been amazing to me how much people in IT, folks in the payment industry, really want to hear from us,” he said. “Whether they call it anthropology, or the end-user perspective, or computer-human interaction, they want to know what people are really doing on the ground.”

Maurer, author of How Would You Like to Pay? How Technology is Changing the Future of Money, was at Cornell to help kick off the Institute for African Development’s symposium “Mobile Money, Financial Inclusion, and Development in Africa.”

His talk, “The Problems of Cash and the Perils of Cashlessness: Researching Mobile Money and Payment Infrastructure after M-Pesa,” looked at the “Cambrian explosion” in payment systems after the African telecommunications giant Safaricom launched M-Pesa, its cell-phone-based service, in Kenya in 2007.

Global Finance Initiative

The Einaudi Center’s Global Finance Initiative is composed of faculty and graduate students from several disciplines who are driven by the conviction that the growing complexity of global financial markets can best be understood through a collaborative and comparative lens.

Led by center director Hiro Miyazaki, an anthropologist, the GFI has invited scholars to Cornell to share their views on issues ranging from “risk culture” in global financial institutions to the ethics of financial regulation.

Members are currently working on an e-book about the politics of central banking, which draws on a series of online and in-person discussions and a 2016 conference on the topic.

That explosion has brought millions of people into the financial system, making everyday payments easier while providing access to credit and other services. That can make a huge difference for people who need money for seeds, farming equipment, or other modest but crucial investments.

“That said, there are some pretty big risks in the extension of credit to people who haven’t had it before,” Maurer said in an interview.

“Often such people do have their own systems of credit, through patrons and family and kin, or through livestock or access to land,” he said. “When they are given a credit card or access to a formal line of credit it can be difficult at first to figure out how that is meant to interoperate with those other, older forms.”

He cites the case of South Africa, where workers began receiving their paychecks by direct deposit at the same time that banks got the power to reclaim debts directly from their clients’ accounts.

Mobile money grew out of the trade in phone card airtime as a substitute for cash in Africa. This retail stand is in Uganda.  

“Anthropologist Deborah James showed how folks went into a financial tailspin because they found they couldn’t negotiate with the bank the way they could negotiate with their relatives. With the bank, if you didn’t pay when it was due, they just took it,” he said.

In societies where loans, gifts, and other forms of exchange are central to social cohesion, the “financialization” of transactions can damage more than just the solvency of an individual borrower. 

“So there is this big downside, but there’s tremendous upside” in developing new forms of payment, Maurer said. “It’s just that getting to that upside is going to involve doing some work that some of these service providers have not really been willing to do in the past – to really get to know their customers, to really understand what their needs are, what kinds of informal credit arrangements they’re already using, and really actively trying to educate their potential users on how this new service can work together with those things.”

That is where anthropologists come in.

“If you were trained in a business school, you’re going to miss things like familial relations as involving exchanges that are themselves forms of credit,” Maurer said. “You’re going to miss things that happen on timescales that you’re unfamiliar with.”

Maurer’s three takeaways

Bill Maurer says he has three main messages for financial institutions and technology developers.

1. “Pay attention to what people actually do. People are not models, they’re complicated and messy and inconsistent and they engage in behaviors and practices that are way more complicated than we usually take account of.”

2. “Pretty much everything is risky. Any kind of new money, payment, or financial product is going to involve a certain degree of risk, both for the individuals who are using it for the first time and also potentially for the whole system.”

3. “There is a role for the state. The state is seen by people in finance and IT as an impediment, as something that’s too slow or non-tech-savvy to understand what’s going on. But the state serves vital protective functions. And nothing else that happens in finance, money, or banking could happen without the platform provided by the state."

With his colleagues at UC Irvine, Maurer founded the Institute for Money Technology and Financial Inclusion to bring together social scientists, technology developers, and financial system practitioners from around the world, particularly from developing countries. The institute has set up a regional center in Pakistan and is planning to establish others in Mexico and Senegal. That is because the technology and culture of finance can vary dramatically from place to place.

“We have a researcher who worked on the Russian side of the Mongolian border with former nomadic herders who had only been settled into villages in the past generation,” he said. “They sit at the crossroads of all kinds of physical cash, some of which they don’t know what to do with. So they throw it into the river as an offering to the river god.”

Cultural issues can arise much closer to home. Maurer recently gave a talk to bankruptcy judges in Orange County, California, near where he teaches. They told him about recent Southeast Asian immigrants whose ideas of communal or familial property can put them at odds with a legal system that sees ownership as an individual responsibility.

“I had one judge tell me that she had a back-and-forth with a guy facing bankruptcy where she was saying, ‘You don’t understand, this is how American law works’ and he was saying, ‘No, no, you don’t understand, this is how gifts work,’” he said.

Maurer sees meeting with practitioners as an important part of his work. “I think that we have a fundamental duty to be willing to speak to people about what we’re doing and the insights that we have to offer,” he said. “Too often I think, especially in anthropology, we adopt this role of cultural critic, which means we come with a holier-than-thou perspective on everything. When we deal with people outside academia, doing work that touches on our own, we either get judgmental toward them or we think of them as data.

“But there’s a hunger out there for the kind of insights we have to offer, especially for people in the trenches who are really seeing what’s going on.”

Bill Maurer’s visit to Cornell was sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.