Ethnographies of Neoliberalism

Ethnographies of Neoliberalism

Ethnographies of Neoliberalism

Ethnographies of Neoliberalism


Since 2008, the global economic crisis has exposed and deepened the tensions between austerity and social security--not just as competing paradigms of recovery but also as fundamentally different visions of governmental and personal responsibility. In this sense, the core premise of neoliberalism--the dominant approach to government around the world since the 1980s--may by now have reached a certain political limit. Based on the premise that markets are more efficient than government, neoliberal reforms were pushed by powerful national and transnational organizations as conditions of investment, lending, and trade, often in the name of freedom. In the same spirit, governments increasingly turned to the private sector for what were formerly state functions. While it has become a commonplace to observe that neoliberalism refashioned citizenship around consumption, the essays in this volume demonstrate the incompleteness of that image--as the social limits of neoliberalism are inherent in its very practice.

Ethnographies of Neoliberalism collects original ethnographic case studies of the effects of neoliberal reform on the conditions of social participation, such as new understandings of community, family, and gender roles, the commodification of learning, new forms of protest against corporate power, and the restructuring of local political institutions. Carol J. Greenhouse has brought together scholars in anthropology, communications, education, English, music, political science, religion, and sociology to focus on the emergent conditions of political agency under neoliberal regimes. This is the first volume to address the effects of neoliberal reform on people's self-understandings as social and political actors. The essayists consider both the positive and negative unintended results of neoliberal reform, and the theoretical contradictions within neoliberalism, as illuminated by circumstances on the ground in Africa, Europe, South America, Japan, Russia, and the United States. With an emphasis on the value of ethnographic methods for understanding neoliberalism's effects around the world in our own times, Ethnographies of Neoliberalism uncovers how people realize for themselves the limits of the market and act accordingly from their own understandings of partnership and solidarity.


Carol J. Greenhouse

“During the second half of the twentieth century,” Timothy Mitchell writes, “economics established its claim to be the true political science” (Mitchell 2002: 272). Neoliberalism—the prevailing approach (for now) to government that supplants regulation by law with market forces, and government functions (especially in the service sector) by private enterprise—brings economics and politics together in even more encompassing terms. in its ideological coherence around the primacy of the private sector, the release of organizations and industries from government regulation, the creation of powerful nonstate transnational institutions and global market regimes, and the assurance of the market’s self-regulating character, neoliberalism might seem to offer classic social theory its smoothest mirror. in theory, that mirror gives back a vision of “society” as the cumulative product of free individuals, loose of all but the most necessary constraint by the state—capital unfettered except to their interests and tastes, invested in ways that yield maximum value for shareholders, and through them, for everyone who inhabits this world of ideas and things.

In practice, there are also other fi gures in the mirror: along with structural adjustment and soaring capital accumulation among the newly wealthy come permanent impoverishment and divided communities; privatization is accompanied by social fragmentation and democracy defi cit; market values do not consistently sustain public services; outsourcing contributes to the destructuring of local economies and displacement of workers; liberty may take the form of abandonment; deregulation permits loss of accountability; unemployment and routinization of work allow the development of novel forms of alienation; the marketization of institutions creates improvised forms of empowerment and social reconstruction; national investments in global capitalism facilitate new regionalisms and—for citizens—new subalterities and risks of marginalization and insecurity. the social effects of neoliberalism are by no means wholly negative, but understanding them calls into question taken-for-granted ideas about consent and dissent (Cahn 2008) and, more broadly, social life— for ordinary people and social scientists alike.

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