Category Archives: Anthropology

LES PÊCHEURS D’HOUAT (1983), 2012 reprint

My first book, Les pêcheurs d’Houat, adapted from my anthropology Ph.D. thesis, had been out of print for many many years. Éditions du croquant have been kind enough to offer a reprint. Monique Woodward has translated here my foreword for the 2012 edition.

I have lived on the Isle of Houat from February 1973 to May 1974. I have returned several times in the following years, the last time in 1978. The time after that was in 2010. Water had flowed under the bridges. A lot of seawater had flowed with the rhythm of the tides between Valuec and Le Grand Coin.

I thought often of Houat. I said to myself: “When I next see Jean-Michel, I must tell him this” or “Hey, I must ask Raphael!”  In August 2011, when Brigitte Chevet was making a short film for FR3 about an anthropologist, who returns to the Isle of Houat forty years later, I spent a lot of time in the small cemetery about which Jean-Michel had said in these exact words: “We can squeeze up a bit for you, if necessary”. I said to him and to Raphael what I wanted to say to them. Yes, I know, it does not serve any purpose to talk to the Dead.

There are also the Living. I could place at last, thirty-eight years later, a kiss on the cheek of a young girl with whom I was very much in love. She was beautiful as can be, but she was only fifteen years old. When we next saw each other, I confided in Jo my secret love in the 70’s. Jo could not help but give the confidence way: “You guessed then?” he asked the lady. “Well, yes” she replied: “He sent me some postcards, which were photos of me”.  Damn, I who imagine myself having been very discreet by holding back.

Houat has changed a lot. I would not upset anyone by saying that the isle in 1973 was not very wealthy. No neat gardens like now in front of the period houses: instead, you will find a yard, a work area where they repaired the nets, where above all they made the pots – the traps – for crabs, lobsters, prawns using laths of pine, hazel stems and cotton net. The prawn pots, once made, were dipped in boiling tar, and the whole isle was then scented by it. Nowadays, all that is made in plastic.

More than half of the houses now in Houat belong to tourists. In my day, with one exception, tourists’ houses were not in the village: they had them built overlooking the main beach, or in the hollows of the well-sheltered coves. Today the tourists live in the village. They are pleasant without question, but that means there are practically empty dwellings all year round, fetching “tourist prices” when they are up for sale. So much better for the people of Houat who can sell theirs at that price. Pity the young couples who cannot afford a “house in a picturesque fishing village only 15 km from Auberon”. A home, one of these things we would have to extract from the claws of speculation.

In 1973, the Isle of Houat was a fishery. Jo from the Hotel and I, the two of us cooked 22 tons of prawns that winter. We took to sea at 1h in the morning, came back about 14h and, when the tourists passed us in the streets of the village at the end of the afternoon, they said to themselves: “They don’t work much those chaps!”  One day, at Vas Pell, with a force 9 gale or something like it, between two white-horses which covered the bridge from one side to the other each time, and which tossed us between the reefs on our nut shell, Jean-Michel managed to shout to me: “A tourist who I took in the month of August said to me: “Ah! What a fine job you do!” The sea, outside the month of August, is a hell of a cow. Very few fishing accidents are not fatal, as in the mines, as in the army.

Fishing has changed as well: species on which we counted have gone north due to the sea getting warmer. The price of the catch has become “objective” meaning: “Only the point of view of the buyer matters”.  “To defend one’s fishing” is no longer possible, as we used to.  One does not stop progress. One does not stop the return in force of the law of the jungle, one has to say.

A red flare goes up and lights up in the sky in the distance. A boat in trouble! Who’s coming? “Me, me!” says a young man from the town. I will always remember those three or four faces of true seamen, who turned towards me, those stares fixing me, weighing me up, evaluating me, leaning their heads a little, one eye closed. And after that, which seemed to me a very long silence:  “Go on! That’s good. Let’s go!” Thank you people of Houat, you have given me the most beautiful present one can give: you have help to develop this 25 year-old young man, whom you fondly called: “Philosopher”.



There is a question that neeeds to be answered at all costs; 19th century thinkers have devoted much thought towards its solution. Here it is: when we consider rent obtained by a landowner or by the owner of mineral ore extracted from the ground, interest obtained by the owner of capital also known as capitalist, the profit gained by an industrialist or entrepreneur, and the wages paid to a worker, is one of these incomes unjustified and thereby undeserved?

The only point of agreement reached so far is the following: wage-earners truly deserve their earnings, without a shred of a doubt in any case for that part of those wages needed for mere survival. Workers provide their labour and it goes without saying that they should for their own good turn up at work the following day; they therefore deserve without any dispute wages sufficient to survive until tomorrow. For all other types of earnings unfortunately, the answer to that question remains desperately out of reach.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) took up this question from the same point of view as David Ricardo (1772-1823). He simplified the problem radically by asserting that the only justified income are wages: value is created by work and by work only, therefore any other income allocated to other interested parties, such as land owners, “capitalists” as holders of capital, or industrialists as entrepreneurs is undeserved. Marx calls “spoliation” any payment to participants other than workers.

Other 19th century authors, essentially socialist and anarchist thinkers such as Sismondi (1773-1842) or Proudhon (1809-1865), following on the tracks of 18th century economists such as Richard Cantillon (1680s-1734), François Quesnay (1694-1774), or Adam Smith (1723-1790), were of a different opinion. For them several types of advances participate in the production process and each of them deserves as its reward a part of the newly created wealth (*). Thus income ensuing from property rights was according to some authors a reward for work previously performed – sometimes several centuries prior – by some forefather of the current beneficiary; profit accruing to the entrepreneur was a reward for management and supervision of the production process; lastly, interests and dividends collected by the capitalist were compensation for relinquishing control of the loan amount until later.

A solution to such a baffling conundrum remains far from obvious: newly created wealth obviously results from the combination of a number of elements but how can one assess the true contribution of every one of them? The only sure thing is that lacking an unambiguous answer to this question, throughout the ages and until now only the power balance between parties has determined how much every party ends up getting at the end of the day.

(to be continued…)


(*) See for example what I have to say about the splitting of “parts” in the case of an african dugout canoe used for sea fishing in Le prix 2010 : 145-149

One-Day Conference : Anthropology of the Crisis of Contemporary Capitalism, Paris, May 3d 2011

International Study Day

Anthropology of the Crisis of Contemporary Capitalism

3 mai 2011, 10h-17h, musée du quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris, Cinema Theater

Convened by Jonathan Friedman (IRIS/EHESS) & Laurent Berger (LAS/MQB)


10h-10h15 Jonathan Friedman (IRIS-EHESS) & Laurent Berger (LAS-MQB) « Introduction: Towards an anthropology of the crisis in capitalism »

10h15-11h Paul Jorion                                                                                                                        « How to become the anthropologist of the crisis »

11h-11h30 Discussion

11h30-12h15 Don Kalb (Central European University, Budapest and Utrecht University)

« Financialization and Neo-nationalism in the New Old Europe »

12h15-12h45 Discussion


14h30-15h15 Keith Hart (Goldsmiths University of London)                                                          « The financial crisis and the end of all-purpose money »

15h15-15h45 Discussion

15h45-16h30 David Graeber (Goldsmiths University of London)                                                    « Debt and crisis in historical perspective »

16h30-17h Discussion

And then Paul Jorion created a Theory of Prices

Original Post : And then Paul Jorion created a Theory of Prices.

Translated by Lorna MiskellySee the original article in French
Article also translated in: 

It’s the ‘rentrée littéraire’ in France. Among the 700 books that will be released between now and the end of October -500 of which are written in French- there is one that has grabbed us. “Le Prix” (The Price) written by the economist and blogger Paul Jorion. After having published a essay in 2009 about the invention of truth and reality, he has now formulated his “theory of prices” in this latest opus. Jorion, surprised by the way that prices are determined in the artisinal fishing industry in Brittany and in Africa wanted to get down to the bottom of this problem. Is price established (as we are told) according to the point where supply and demand meet? Or rather a system bringing truth and price together?

My latest book, Le prix (The Price, Éditions du Croquant) has just been released. As was the case for Comment la vérité et la réalité furent inventées (How Truth and Reality Were Invented, Gallimard 2009), this is a book that I have worked on for quite some time. It consists of my observations on price determination over a period of thirty-six years in the Breton fish markets, the makeshift markets on the beaches of Africa and the trading rooms of European and American banks.

It is really an anthropologist’s book. I’m used to saying “I am not an economist”. Now, I have gone beyond this negative perception and I have advanced onto economists’ territory and said to them;“You need a theory of prices: here it is!”

Exactly one year ago, at a conference in Arc et Senans, a rather irritated economist stormed up to the blackboard, drew two curves that crossed and turned back towards the room, saying: “Price determination is really very simple; it is the point where supply and demand meet!”

It is so simple that that is not how it works. I wanted to ask him: “Are you absolutely sure? Have you ever confirmed that with the figures?” I didn’t do so for two reasons.

The first reason was due to the fact that he was the type of economist that would have quite simply taken me for a madman. The second reason was that I already knew the answer; I had tried to verify the above supposition with the figures and the verdict was also very simple, it didn’t work.

To get you salivating, I have included the introduction of The Price below:

Truth and Price
I wrote a book about How Truth and Reality Were Invented (Comment la vérité et la réalité furent inventées, Gallimard 2009). This book falls under the realm of epistemology, or the philosophy of science. The book you are holding comes from a politico-economic or anthropological economics perspective. However, the two books are linked due to the fact that I used the same methods for both of them.

What allowed me to do this is the two phenomena -that of truth and price- exhibit an identical structure; the only difference between the two of them is that truth is expressed with words and price with numbers. If we speak about truth, we are talking about the very fact that something functions like a price and if we speak about price, we are talking about the very fact that something functions as the truth. It could be said that price is the truth of human things expressed in numbers and price that of humans things expressed in words.


A price necessarily involves two people, a buyer and a seller. The truth also calls for two people, the interlocutors, Austin, the philosopher of language wrote one day: “ It takes two to make a truth” (Austin 1970 [1950]:124). In the constitution of truth words are exchanged. If an agreement had been reached about the same sentence, so that each party could separately say “I believe it” and the parties together “we know it” then they would have formed someshared knowledge; and in doing so they would have forged a connection which now means that there is a bit of one person in the other person and vice versa. They could meet several years later without having seen one another since then and would be surprised to realise that in parallel their thoughts had followed the same path over that period, as if they had been continuing to create the truth together. This is what physicists call the principle of non–separability with regards to elementary particles. In the constitution of price, numbers are exchanged and if an agreement is reached on the same number then money is given in exchange for a commodity (material or immaterial), the person who possessed the commodity ends up with money whilst the other person who possessed the money ends up with the commodity. The exchange created a connection between the two parties that decided upon a price and they would be more than willing to do it again.

The system of truth in our culture is called Science while the system of price in our culture is called Economics.
Our modern societies are entirely under the control of the dual action of these two systems. There are very few things in our societies that cannot easily be explained by Science or Economics or by the two in conjunction. The scholar who produces science has replaced what was once the place of the Wise One, the business man who produces prices has replaced the Warrior; as for the place of the Saint, there are not a lot of takers…

Thank you Jan Bruegel for having painted this splendid fish market which gives for a no less splendid book cover. Thank you Alain Oriot for having produced a very beautiful book which you can find here.

What went wrong. An anthropologist’s point of view.

Here is the communication I made on March 3rd to the Socialist members of the European Parliament in Brussels as my contribution to the one-day conference entitled “Closing the casino: building a fairer and stronger real economy”

Modern societies of European origin were historically built according to a tripartite structure composed of warriors-raiders, priests and commoners. By the time the new concept of democracy emerged, the land and the wealth buried in it had already been distributed by the warriors-raiders between themselves. Inheritance of property had contributed at strengthening this pattern. Bourgeois revolutions of the eighteen century condoned the addition of the power of money to that of strength only. From then on cash buttressed the power balance that the sword had first put into place. In the twentieth century, colonialism and paradoxically communism, ensured the full globalization of that order of European origin. Current appeals for “leveling the playing field” ignore the lack of evidence that the field was ever level.

Stock options: the holy alliance between investors and company executives

In an infamous quote that Ben Stein had him concede for the New York Times, investor extraordinaire Warren Buffet stated: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” This statement marked the return in common parlance of an outmoded way of speaking. Indeed, with the rise of the Chicago School, the phrase “class warfare” got tabooed and the words “capitalists” (aka “investors”), “bosses” (aka “company executives”) and “workers” (“employees”, “associates”, “team members”, etc.) removed from the economic literature and replaced by the catch-all notion of “monetary mass” as part of a more general process where “physical forces” replaced “people” in explanations of the economy. That didn’t mean though that class warfare was over or had never taken place. The decisive and final move came in the late 1970s when McKinsey devised “stock options” by which the “interests of investors and company executives would henceforth be aligned.” The plan succeeded beyond both parties’ wildest dreams.

The distribution of wealth: what happened to it

Prior to stock options, wage-earners were part of a triangular power game where investors and executives kept each other at bay. With the introduction of stock options, those days were over: a holy alliance was born to which wage-earners were no match. Predictably, their piece of the pie dwindled down. Any attempt they would make to increase their share would be brutally countered by central banks concerned with monetary masses and raising interest rates – that is: raising unemployment – forcing wage-earners to pipe down.

With lower revenues, wage-earners were led to ever borrow more. Commercial banks graciously obliged. Meanwhile, companies had got in the habit of borrowing rather than reinvesting so that by now any money that anyone needed was borrowed. Interest payments were mushrooming, becoming a burdensome component of every price. “Capital” – being money you don’t have but still need – kept concentrating in fewer and deepening pockets. The more capital is concentrated the less likely it is though that it happens to be where it is actually needed.

Speculation: the ascent of the Speculative Society

What do you do then when you don’t have the money you need and you know that working harder won’t make much of a difference ? You buy a lottery ticket. By the end of the twentieth century everyone had come to that same conclusion and “bubbles” and growth had become synonymous notions.

You buy stock but not for dividends which are boringly your share in the surplus the company has made through the stock you purchased, no: you buy stock for capital gains. To insure that this happens the stock exchange needs to be turned into a casino. The price of Total or BP stock needs to change every five seconds. Not that there is anything in the business of Total or BP justifying that the price of its stock changes every five seconds or for that matter even every five days. But it is needed for the stock market to be run as a casino where huge capital gains may materialize. When the scheme stops working, it crashes, which happens indeed every eighty years or so.

Hunger riots stirred by museums and hospitals

If only people who have wheat to deliver or to take delivery of were trading wheat the price of that cereal would be determined by how much of it gets produced and how much is needed: what is commonly called supply and demand. But this is not how things work nowadays: the price of wheat gets determined by bets made by big institutional investors such as pension funds, university endowments, hospitals and museums. A reasonable social expectation is that they would focus on offering pensioners annuities, teaching pupils, curing patients or displaying art, but they are not: they are heavily busy pushing the price of wheat up or down with the goal of protecting their assets and no concern whether anybody would live or die as a consequence of their speculation.

Spot and futures markets allow those exposed to an actual risk (due to the weather, the economic environment, etc.) to cover their positions, hence reducing overall risk. Speculative “naked” positions on the contrary artificially create risk where there was none. Coverage provides an insurance while “naked” positions are risk-generating bets. Insurance protects the economy while bets kill it and measures should be taken accordingly. The means for banning betting on the fluctuation of prices are simple: they are spelled out in FASB 133, a rule issued by the American Financial Association Standards Board that establishes a fiscal differential treatment for coverage and naked positions. FASB 133 should be upgraded to a badly needed and clear-cut prohibition.


1. Break the unholy alliance between investors and company executives: the social fabric is being damaged as we speak. Ban stock options.

2. Free central bankers from monetarism: societies are not made of monetary masses but of people. Central banks have a more crucial role to play than systematically siding with investors and company executives against wage-earners.

3. Apply urgently appropriate fiscal policy so that the chances increase that capital happens to be where it is actually needed.

4. Close down the casino: stop continuous pricing on the spot and future markets.

5. Bar speculators from commodities’ markets: bar “non-commercials.” Let them focus on what they do best: teach pupils, cure patients and display art for the enjoyment and education of the public.

6. Encourage insurance but ban bets on the fluctuation of prices.

What have anthropologists to tell about the subprime crisis that no one else has said before?

Finance is in shambles. It has remained until now under the close supervision of economic and financial theory. In recent years, due to the overbearing dominance of views developed under the umbrella of the “Chicago School” of economics, finance has been regarded as explainable through the combination of a very simplified version of psychology: that of the “homo oeconomicus“, and of physics. The physics in question is supposed to have risen all-armoured Minerva-like out of the embarrassingly simplified psychology hitherto mentioned. This is the tenet of methodological individualism presiding nowadays over mainstream economics and financial theory.

Human nature, in the guise of the homo oeconomicus displays a number of qualities such as utilitarianism, ultimate rationality and – somewhat paradoxically combined to the two aforementioned – a pervasive herd instinct. Why this particular version of psychology? For no better reason than having been dominant at the end of the nineteenth century when a supposedly “scientific” economics emerged. This is why homo oeconomicus is so conveniently transparent to himself or herself, working out with clockwork precision in all circumstances the most rational approach that the precise quantity of information available allows – that is, unless the herd instinct prevails. Not for him the murky hesitations and self-delusion that unconscious motives convey.

Back in the nineteenth century, physics were stressing how important it was to remove subjectivity from scientific methodology, meaning the uncontrolled interaction of human beings with the subject of their inquiry. The difficulty here for economics is that when you remove from the economy the uncontrolled interaction of human beings, what is left to study is of not much interest. Here an example: price formation which economists explain as the meeting of a curve representing demand with another representing supply. Now tell me: has any anthropologist ever encountered circumstances where the status of buyer and seller is indifferent to the settling of price? Aristotle knew that reciprocal status determines price and this makes him on the contrary the anthropologist’s friend (1).

So, let us say this bluntly: human nature as envisioned by economics holds but a frightfully tenuous relationship with the type of human nature which anthropologists are familiar with.

What are then the traits of human nature which the current crisis has most prominently emphasized?

Continue reading What have anthropologists to tell about the subprime crisis that no one else has said before?

Galactic Report XYZ 00098887


I need to report to you what might be a case of acute poisoning while on mission on planet Terra.

Yesterday, in the course of my duty, I happened to hold very tight for a couple of minutes a human female (from now on HF). Today, as a consequence of this I developed disturbing symptoms. Repeatedly during the day, and for no apparent reason, my train of thought was brought back to holding the HF tight. Each time the memory occurred my body was overwhelmed by a powerful feeling reminiscent of the influence of a toxic substance. The feeling started as a swirling motion in the abdominal region that rapidly spread until it involved the whole body. The sensation is difficult to define as it feels simultaneously as a warmth and a glow and is accompanied by a great weakness of the body, so great sometimes that I felt ready to faint. My description may not convey that despite (or maybe because of?) the great weakness, the feeling is utterly pleasurable. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the inhabitants of Terra have developed an addiction for the experience.

There is a huge database accessible to the inhabitants of this planet, called “Internet”. I sought for an explanation of the phenomenon and found a number of reports with relevant information. The phenomenon is called “love.” Supposedly, it has nothing to do with poisoning. Apparently there is no known explanation, although authors agree that – despite no role being played by substances – it is still a question of “chemistry”. From what I understand, the HF is likely to have gone through the same difficulties as I have encountered today. Her denying that this is the case should be ignored, say the texts, as it is common for HF to claim that “love” has no power on them. The effect may recede rapidly but it has been documented that it can remain just as potent for dozens of years.

Human culture apparently claims that anything done under the influence of “love” is automatically right. I find this very difficult to admit as the phenomenon, as I already said, puts you in a state very close to intoxication, with the body very feeble, and judgment very much obscured.

To be complete, I need to add that during the day, I also felt the sudden urge to build a house for the HF. Such odd effect is not mentioned in the reports I read on “love” and may not be related to the phenomenon described here.

I believed it my duty, Sir, to report on my worrying experience on planet Terra.

Galactic Explorer Joe Ryon

PS: Any letter written under the influence of “love” is supposed to be regarded as a “love letter”. I imagine that this applies therefore to the present one too.

Where this blog stands

Various commitments on papers commissioned in French have kept me away from this blog. Reward is another factor: with an average of around 30 daily hits on the English blog and 2500 on the French one, vanity has been a powerful drive for concentrating on the French one. Dialogue is another one. If you’ve had the opportunity of looking at the French blog you will have noticed that commentators often engage in lively conversations, with me resting comfortably in the meantime in the bleachers.

Why is that so? I believe that my reputation as a writer in English is not up to that as a writer in French, despite the 11 years I’ve spent in the UK and the 11 years I’ve now spent in the US. The reason is no doubt cultural affiliation: even in those days I was teaching at Cambridge University I was very much regarded as a representative of French anthropology. This applies as well to my writings in the philosophy of science: they belong distinctively to a tradition initiated by Poincaré, Meyerson and Duhem. As for my properly philosophical musings, they draw heavily on Kojève’s reading of Hegel and on Hegel himself – definitely not a central philosopher within the Anglo-Saxon world. Lacan, one of my major influences is surely known of English speakers but the truth here is that the Lacan I’m familiar with and have been a student of is an entirely different beast than the one resulting from the amazing transformation Lacan underwent when crossing the Atlantic.

So should my English blog fold? Not quite yet and this for the following reason: I detect (thanks to Google Analytics!) a renewed interest in the papers I wrote last year on the subprime crisis. The reason I imagine is that although they must have looked utterly weird at the time I posted them with such considerations as calls to renationalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they’ve now turned mainstream even though not due to anything of my own making.

This renewed interest may entice me in turn to come up with more, restarting hence the currently stalled dynamics. In addition, further contributions to a Human Complex Systems’ approach to the unfolding financial crisis are still in the making. Watch this space as only time will tell…

The long-term goals of businesses

Businesses don’t seem to have any long–term goals apart from staying in business. They no doubt provide benefits to their shareholders and executives during their lifetime but why they aim at persisting in their existence with little reflection devoted to the “why?” of it is far from obvious. There is a clear analogy here with people and groups of people who – as we know from experience – persist in their endeavors without often much of a justification for why.

An analogy can be drawn here with a particular form of kinship structure which the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explained in a 1961 paper called « The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion » (*). In that paper, Sahlins described the segmentary lineage, a type of kinship structure often encountered in African traditional societies, where the lineage’s head strategy consists in invading the environment with his progeny of which he tries to maximize the number. As the paper’s subtitle made clear, Sahlins labeled the segmentary lineage, “an organization of predatory expansion.” The choice of the term “predatory” was however infelicitous as – although there is no accompanying social organization in these cases – this type of strategy is resorted to by animal populations which the field of “population dynamics” characterizes with the less dramatic and more adequate phrase of “colonizing behavior.”

Colonizing behavior is perfectly adapted to relatively unpopulated environments and it allows in particular a speedy expansion of life-forms. The African environments that Sahlins had in mind – I can testify to this – fitted that description and the label “colonizing” was much more apt therefore than the excessive “predatory” that Sahlins used instead.

Things change radically though once the environment which was the theater of such “colonizing” strategies becomes more densely populated. Just as with segmentary lineages, businesses within the capitalist system have no other long-term aim than their survival for an unlimited period of time. With lineages, the expansion strategy covers an ever increasing part of the environment and the resources it holds. The same with businesses, measuring the success of their strategy in terms of “market share.” With the segmentary lineage, the beneficiaries are its family members, its chiefs in particular. Similarly with businesses: the beneficiaries are their shareholders and even more so, their executives.

Within densely populated environments, the widening influence of a lineage over a territory or of a business over a market share allows that group to crowd out competition and to trend towards the optimal power balance in its view: that of a monopoly situation where the relationship with counterparties knows no constraint and the terms when dealing with them can properly be “dictated.”

A “colonizing” policy as I said allows life-forms to spread in no time within relatively unoccupied environments. However it first grows inadequate then plainly detrimental as the population’s density increases. Indeed, in crowded surroundings, the sole long-term goal shared by both segmentary lineages and businesses of ensuring their unlimited survival in time, end up in an unfettered war of all against all.

Ensuring one’s unlimited survival in time is the typical aim that nature left to its own devices assigns by default to every type of population. In reverse, within a nature which Man has domesticated to render it less harsh to his own fate, such aim needs to be reexamined due to its disposition to end up in disaster in environments which have ceased benefiting from further efforts at colonization. This conclusion applies no doubt to segmentary lineages but even more so to businesses. The time has come for them to assign themselves humanly significant aims to supplant the by now dysfunctional one which nature had assigned it by default.

(*) Sahlins, Marshall D., “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion,” American Anthropologist, April 1961, Vol. 63(2): 322-344.

How wars get started

When in 1975 I became a student at Cambridge University my parents visited me there. It was actually their first stay in England. My mother was enchanted with the country. I wanted to know why and she explained that houses were “normal”, people behaved “normally”, everything in England was so essentially “normal”. I pressed her gently about the source of such “normalcy”: “Well”, she said, “houses look like Dutch houses; people respond to you like they would in Holland; you know…”

Adriana’s father is Romanian and he shares with my mother the same sound sense of normalcy based on the national spirit: in his mind being Romanian is not only the ideal but also plainly the “normal” way to be. My mother passed away five years ago, I could still envision a passionate debate between her and Adriana’s father about the very nature of “normalcy” and I immediately got a sense of how wars get started.

Old-style publishing a paper

Now when you want to publish an article, you write it, you put it on your website and within days hundreds if not thousands of people have read it. Sometimes someone will approach you and ask if they can publish it in the old-fashioned way, in a journal, and you’ll say “Why not?” In the old days, you would write your paper, send it to a journal, wait for six months, then at long last you would receive a letter telling you about hundreds of changes readers who have no clue about what you are writing about expect you to make, and finally, another six months later your article would be published and you could expect that dozens or people would read it over a considerable number of years.

This story is about the old days of the printed article.

In the 1980s I worked for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. I wrote three lengthy reports for the FAO. They published two (*) and turned down one. The story is about the turned down one.

I worked on a fisheries project in Bénin, formerly known as Dahomey, in West Africa. Someone had done a preliminary investigation. He had gone to the beach in remote coastal villages and seen men sitting there. He had asked the first man why he was not fishing and that man had replied that he was not fishing because he was ill. He had gone to the second man, who had told him the same story: that he was ill. Then to the third, and so on. So he wrote in his preliminary report that the beach was littered with slackers and that it would be a smart idea indeed to teach them how to fish. Hence my presence.

When I went to these villages the first thing I did was what I had learned at school: I wrote a questionnaire to be presented to every hut about who was living there, what were the ages and occupations. I had “statisticians” go to beach villages and submit the questionnaire. Once the data collected I started analyzing them. I built what is called “age pyramids”: you put each individual in an age bucket, men on one side and women on the other of a vertical axis. It’s called a pyramid because as you put the kids at the bottom – and there are many – and the old people at the top – and there are very few – it looks very much like a pyramid. But then I was in for a surprise: the women’s side looked like a pyramid all right but the men’s side was hollow: there were no men between the ages of 20 and 40, or I should say, apart from the dozen sitting on the beach.

So I went to the women instead and asked “Where are the boys?” And they replied: “Oh! They’re in Gabon, in Liberia, in the Congo!” “All right, and what are they doing there?” said I. “Well, they’re fishing” said they. – “And why aren’t they fishing here?” – “Because there’s no fish!”

So I said to my bosses in Rome “I need to go see these guys where they really are.” First they sent me to the Congo. On my second day in Pointe-Noire a fisherman approached me: “There’s a woman who wishes to speak to you.” I said fine and she came to see me and she said with much modesty “I think you knew my brother.” And I asked who he was and she gave me his name and I replied “Oh yes, I knew who he was: he drowned, he died in our project in Bénin and I was really mad when that happened.” She added “I know that and that’s why I wanted to see you.” We were several thousands miles away from where the accident had taken place and she had made my day in many more than one way: if anyone would have asked me now “Do you still believe these people migrate?” I knew exactly what to tell.

I went to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo in addition to Bénin. I wrote up my report about fishermen’s migrations in West Africa but the FAO wouldn’t publish it. I said “But you’ve published the other two about the social organization of fishing villages and self-subsistence in fishing communities, why not this one?” – “Because it’s controversial” was the answer. I said “Fine, can I use it the way I see fit?” They said yes, so I had it published in a maritime anthropology journal (**).

But this is not the end of my story. A few years ago I came across a page-length recommended reading list that the fisheries division of the FAO had put together. My two FAO publications were not part of that list but – yes, of course you’ve guessed it – the turned down report was gloriously there!

(*) The Influence of Socio-Economic and Cultural Structures on Small-Scale Coastal Fisheries Development in Bénin, IDAF/WP4, F.A.O., 1985: 42 pp.
Non-Monetary Distribution of Fish as Food in Béninois Small-Scale Fishing Villages and its Importance for Self-Consumption, PMB/WP4, F.A.O., 1985: 26 pp.

(**) “Going out or staying home: Seasonal movements and migration strategies among Xwla and Anlo-Ewe fishermen”. Maritime Anthropological Studies, 1, 2, 1988: 129-155.