Tag Archives: Graeber

On violence, reality, and the parameters of social existence: A comment on Graeber’s essay.




I’ve been reading David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy lately. Slowly I should say – I’ve been reading it slowly. I’ve only just finished the second essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination,’ which I found particularly ‘great for thought’. The ideas in the essay are great to ‘think through other thoughts with,’ if that makes sense. I guess that’s theory, huh. Anyway, this is a comment on one of the key theoretical contrasts that Graeber draws between the political ontology of the right and the political ontology of the left vis-à-vis’ reality and the parameters of social existence. I want to cast a gender[ed] light on it. Continue reading


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On value: Revisiting D’Andrade and Graeber





I re-re-read Roy D’Andrade on value yesterday and was reminded just how interesting his findings. First, however, to give an overview on his overview, D’Andrade sets out five different definitions of value:

1) As in the phrase, ‘the value of x in this formula,’ value refers to some amount or quantity. This sense is generally found only in mathematical or linguistic discourse. There is no ‘goodness’ component in this sense of the term;

2) A notion of value that refers a preference for something, measured by the preference for that thing over another. Economists use the term ‘utility’ for this sense of value’;

3) Value as in the phrase ‘the value of IBM stock has risen 10 percent,’ which refers to price. He notes here that while utility and preference are connected to price, they are not the same thing: ‘Water, for example, has great utility for humans. But because the supply of water is normally large, one does not need to pay greatly for it (although this is changing). Price is affected by supply and demand, and so is not intrinsic to the object in the way that utility is. Value as price has a long history of debate in the social sciences, primarily focused on where the price comes from. Early economists, such as Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, thought that the price of objects came from the labor by which they are produced and that is why diamonds have more value than water. The labor theory of value was demolished by Turgot and the economists of the Austrian School who developed the marginal theory of value, although some Marxist-oriented social scientists still use varieties of the labor theory (e.g., Graeber 2001).’

I’m not sure Graeber would agree with this characterisation of his position, but anyhow . . .

4) The default or ‘unmarked’ meaning of value, which involves a sense of worth – the goodness of something. The term ‘value’ as used here refers to ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ Whether something is good or bad appears to be one of the most frequent and salient assessments that humans make. People ‘rate’ things in a way that foregrounds the factor of ‘evaluation’ – the ‘good or bad’ property of things – with a broad sample of adjectives such as ‘’beautiful versus ugly, useful vs not useful.’ In the common sense of the word values are more than just ‘goodness’; for something to be a value it should not only be good, it should also be something that is ‘weighty and important – it should be worth something.’

5) Value as in phrases such as ‘he has no values,’ which refers to a moral subset of values. A person with no moral values is someone who is immoral. ‘Such a person knows that other people feel it is good to help others and bad to steal and cheat, but does not feel this himself. But such a person may have many nonmoral things they feel are good, like money and leisure. This is a specialized or marked sense of the term value, referring to a subset of values regarding moral issues.’ Expressed as a noun, ‘goodness’ seems to be in the thing or event.’ Expressed as a verb as in ‘he values social approval’ – goodness is not in the thing but rather, in the person’s response to the thing.’

At this point D’Andrade notes that a question remains as to whether values are just thoughts or whether they include some kind of feeling: ‘As a matter of ordinary talk, people say the experience of goodness is more than just cognition. Obviously, one can know about a value but not hold it. Somebody may know it is considered good to give to charity and even think abstractly that charity is good, yet feel nothing really about charity. The internal sense of its goodness is missing. We speak of value as internalized when a person believes some object or event is good, when the person experiences a strong sense of its goodness and responds with the feelings and motivations that are appropriate to such an appraisal (Spiro 1987). Values vary greatly in the degree that they are internalized. Much of the research on values involves trying to measure the degree of internalisation.’


After his introductory overview D’Andrade eventually settles on a definition of value defined as ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ While the body of the text is admittedly a little touch dry, his findings are both surprising and really very really interesting. Two things! Two things:


First thing. The first interesting point of note in his study is D’Andrade’s emphasis on the fact that value dimensions are contrasts, not opposites: ‘Individualism versus collectivism and altruism versus self-interest are not formed by contradictory opposites such as up and down,’ he explains, ‘but . . . this does not mean that they are not dimensions. As dimensions they are formed by the correlational structure of semantic contraries (things opposed in nature or tendency) rather than contradictories (whatever is true of one is logically false about the other).’

This is coupled with his general hypothesis is that ‘values are always a compromise in a tension between opposing tendencies’ and a further hypothesis, that ‘value standards in many domains are a negotiated adjustment to a conflict’ (see the discussion on pp. 136-137). This is a lot of food for thought and a really interesting cluster of hypotheses, I think.

Second thing. The second thing I found particularly interesting is his finding that large differences in personal values across cultures do not exist but there DOES appear to be large differences in what-counts-as-what. This. is. an. incredibly. important. and. interesting. point. I think. – and one that had me wondering how one might go about studying eliciting scenarios for values, just as one might for emotions. To give more of a sense of this finding in the context of his study:

D’Andrade’s project began with the hypothesis that ‘values are organized into empirically isolatable clusters and dimensions and that some value dimensions are common to most societies. It was also hypothesized that most societies would display culturally unique value dimensions’ (p. 12). He concludes quite differently, however, and it’s worth quoting him at length here:


‘The ideas with which this book finishes are different from the ideas that it started with. It now seems large differences in personal values across societies do not exist. There are some differences in personal values between societies, but there is close to overwhelming evidence that these differences are small. The variation within a society is many times larger than the variation between societies in personal values. This does not mean that societies are all the same. First, as has been pointed out a number of times, there are large differences between societies in what-counts-as-what. The same value can be instantiated in very different ways. The canonical example is that the practices thought to give toddlers independence in a Japanese pre-school are different from the practices thought to give toddlers independence in an American preschool.


There also are, it is clear, great differences in institutionalized values. The largest value differences seem to be between roles within a society, but to the degree that the same institutionalized values are found in a variety of institutions, whole societies can vary greatly with respect to institutionalized values, as exemplified by the value of purity in India. . . .


Perhaps the fact that cultures do not vary much in personal values will be taken by social scientists to indicate that there is little sense in bothering to study personal values on the group level. This conclusion would be a mistake because life satisfactions and physical health are affected by the fit between personal values and institutionalized values in important life-world institutions such as work and family (Rohan 2000, Meglino and Ravlin 1998, cited earlier). Also, differences between personal values and institutionalized values can give rise to social conflict. Of course, given sufficient external power applied to keep the social standards in place, as in slavery or in totalitarian regimes, the distress caused by lack of fit can be ignored. That is, until the day comes when it cannot be ignored.’


You can imagine how much I was smiling at this point. And! but! anyway! – the part of the conclusion particularly relevant to my own research and the idea of moral misrecognition:


‘Were I to begin the study of values now, I would focus on these questions about the degree of fit between institutionalized values and personal values. It would also be helpful to find some way of systematically surveying what-counts-as-what. Techniques to do this could be helpful in resolving cross-cultural misunderstandings. Unless one knows what-counts-as-what, one cannot understand much of political conflict. It is easy to describe the conflicts but more difficult to dis-cover the nature of the linkages between values and the practices. What is needed is a general theory that can be used to conceptualize the psychological and cultural processes involved.’


This had me thinking about ALL KINDS of wonderful things! Final thing. One final thing. While D’Andrade and Graeber (2001) appear to be talking past one another in many respects in their respective texts, their conclusions in fact nicely parallel or reflect or echo one another. Consider, for example, dhuwala:


‘We are back, then, to a “politics of value”; but one very different from Appadurai’s neoliberal version. The ultimate stakes of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is (Turner 1978; 1979c; see Myers and Brenne is 1991:4–5). Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively or individually) what it is that makes life worth living. In the end, then, politics is about the meaning of life. Any such project of constructing meanings necessarily involves imagining totalities (since this is the stuff of meaning), even if no such project can ever be completely translated into reality—reality being, by definition, that which is always more complicated than any construction we can put on it’ (Graeber 2001, p. 88).


AND THAT IS ALL MY STORY! There are a lot of colons in this post and erratic grammar. Goodbye.





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Moral work and Social order: A note from Chapter 7

Apologies for the relative silence of late, I have been working day and night on Chapter revisions. Anyhow, dhuwala ŋayi brief note from Chapter 7.







* yes, the last line is a nod to Graeber.

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David Graeber, Debt, Monogamy, Property, Theft and Airstrips: a slightly far flung network of neurological association



I have been enjoying following all the non-anthropological commentary and discussion about Graeber’s new book ‘Debt: the first 5000 years‘ over the last few weeks. It’s amazing to see the technique of defamiliarisation through anthropological description and analysis have such an effect on such a scale.

Anyhow, I was reading through some such commentary this morning about debt and indebtedness and I was reminded of the artwork or graffiti featured above.

I came across this picture quite a while ago and it made me laugh. It still makes me laugh. It is, of course, a neat play on Proudhon’s ‘property is theft.’ I’m not sure that Proudhon would find it so funny, which only makes it all the more so. Or perhaps he would. Or perhaps we can imagine.

When I first came across this picture I humoured myself for almost an hour, substituting ‘property’ for ‘monogamy’ in Proudhon’s ‘What is Property?‘ as, for example,

‘If I were asked to answer the following question: WHAT IS SLAVERY? and I should answer in one word, IT IS MURDER, my meaning would be understood at once.


No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him.


Why, then, to this other question: WHAT IS  PROPERTY  MONOGAMY? may I not likewise answer, IT IS ROBBERY, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?’ Continue reading

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