Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Legal Ant Binding: Time, Change and Long-Term Transactions

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Legal Ant Binding: Time, Change and Long-Term Transactions

Article excerpt

This article explores the question of how long-term transactional agreements endure when the environment in which they exist is necessarily subject to change. Different models of connection are examined, including the classical model of freedom of contract. It appears that contracts in practice do not substantiate ideas of free choice and equal bargaining power. Instead, the symbolic power of contracts, as a means of conjoining parties and opening an arena of negotiation, inheres in many supporting structures (trust, the ritualization of legal language) but particularly in the materiality of the document itself.

The sugar beet contract? Well, it's really just the first brick in the wall, but the rest of the house is built through us knowing the farmers, and them knowing and trusting us. (Director of Erzurum Turkish Sugar Factory 1996)

It is fashionable now to lambaste the fixity of the Cartesian subject, and to account instead for performative flux and change, for contained multitudes, for intersubjectivity. But for all that, a question remains perhaps, of how daily life continues to jog along amidst such a flurry of instability. More specifically, for present purposes, the question is how agreements are made and prosecuted, how bonds are honoured and observed, when change is wrought by the passing of time in the agreement's environment, let alone in the agents so conjoined. What is it, then, that ensures these 'islands of predictability', in Arendt's (1998 [1958]: 244) phrase, amidst 'the basic unreliability of men who can never guarantee today who they will be tomorrow'? The temptation is to reify the rules that structure and shape interactions but, as my case-studies show, more than one, often contradictory, model may be drawn into play by different actors at various points. Apparently explicit rules do not necessarily lead to an unpro blematic enactment of a transaction.

In the European tradition, the breaking of a bond resonates with the mythopoeic, with catastrophic consequences. However restricted comprehension may be at the point of making or breaking a covenant, it is the pledge that none the less takes moral precedence over human limitations of imperfect knowledge and bounded rationality (cf. Hosseni 1990; Simon 1982). [1] Ignorance is still small defence in the eyes of the law, where objective interpretations of agreements stand fast. As Buchan (1998) suggests, money has come to be a means of sealing the moral wound caused by the violation of a bond (a point to which I return). None the less, the struggle continues to find a basis for continuing relations in the face of mutability. The means of keeping chaos at bay was also of fundamental concern to Durkheim, in his exploration of the incorporative power of ritual (1957), which Rappaport also unravels in the richness of all its many guises (1999: 17-18, 165-6, 199). Trust is also key to successful transactions that ha ve been voluntarily entered into. Here, though, after describing the effects of time on the enactment of two written agreements, I suggest a further way of understanding the efficacy of long-term transactional pledges, which yet leans on the notion of ritual's binding properties.

These themes of stasis and movement, of belonging and obligation, and of the authority imputed to the bond, are central to the case-studies presented here. One is set in Britain between a government agency and a software developer, the other in Turkey between the state sugar corporation and sugar-beet farmers (less space is devoted to the Turkish case because it is explored at length elsewhere; Alexander in press).[2] In both cases, there was no one clear route through the course of the transaction, which all participants explicitly followed. For example, as the epigraph suggests, many Turkish factory engineers and directors took a firmly pragmatic view of the contract as a means of initiating a relationship and creating an arena in which it could develop. …

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