Brain food: An anthropologist visits Wall Street

A new ethnographic study by Karen Ho reveals the inner life of American bankers

Anthropologists used to study the alien: pygmies in rainforests with blowdarts and more piercings than a knife-thrower's assistant. Nowadays, however, few societies are more foreign than that found on Wall Street. After all, what could be more outlandish than the tribes of Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and the famously fierce Goldman Sachs – with their obscure tongue (CDOs, CLOs and the rest), their worship of gold and those grisly ritual cullings of staff?

It must have been that question which prompted Karen Ho to produce the world's first anthropological study of Wall Street, in a new book called Liquidated. An ethnographer at the University of Minnesota, she worked for a year in a Manhattan investment bank, then did months of in-depth interviews. Past the gleaming foyers and Bloomberg terminals she found an anthropological gold mine, with kinship networks (new recruits are plucked from Harvard and Princeton and must worm their way into the old boys' club to get in on the juiciest business) and origin myths (shareholder value and the importance of Wall Street as a wise distributor of capital). Occasionally, the academese goes too far. When Ho loses her job in a wave of forced redundancies, she talks of it as a moment "rife with ethnographic significance" – which is a pretty fancy way to describe going stony broke.

The real value of having an anthropologist on the trading floor comes when Ho depicts the inner lives of her subjects. Highly educated, hard-driven people, they cannot count on anything: not their colleagues (who are always hunting for a bigger paypacket) and not their job ("When times are bad, you are gone"). And they can never fall behind their competitors, or take an eye off the market. These aren't Masters of the Universe, to use Tom Wolfe's classic phrase, but twenty- and thirtysomethings kept in well-paid neurosis.

Ho describes these bankers as living "liquid lives". But that's a term that could apply to a growing number of workers, in companies where functions are outsourced and (even before the recession) jobs are less secure. The difference is, your average call-centre worker doesn't have the compensation of a fat bonus.


Aditya Chakrabortty

The GuardianTramp

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