Anthropology of Risk


One day I asked my friend, a manger at Canadian hedge-fund giant DGAM, if he was aware that anthropology had a whole sub-area devoted to the study of risk and risk management. Of course he did not know that so I was pleased when he invited me to give a talk to his team which oversees over 3 billion bucks (at the time). To prepare for my talk I read Steven Drobny’s book of interviews with hedge fund managers who not only escaped the ravages of the 2008 financial disaster but managed to make money when others were sinking. Two interesting things came from this book. First of all, there was a preface by well-known quasi-anthropologist Jared Diamond who used illustrations from contemporary anthropology to draw parallels to modern finance. The significance of anthropology being at the beginning of this text on money was not lost upon me. The second important thing I got from this book was that it consisted mostly of lightly edited interviews, in other words, ethnographic-type data. I read the entire book in its finest details and distilled the kinds of knowledge essential for proper risk management. I lo0ked up every arcane financial term in the Financial Times online dictionary. This did not impress the hedge fund team. What did was the ethnographic material I covered on risk management among the Inupiat indigenous peoples of Alaska. “That’s exactly what we do!” exclaimed my friend when I discussed the role of exchange between whale hunting and caribou hunting communities. Not that the managers were trucking in meat but the principles were the same. They immediately ordered an obscure text I had mentioned dealing with archaeological models of risk management that spanned centuries – a much wider frame than contemporary money managers are able to take. As the editor of Peeps magazine declares (see previous post on Serbian hip hop) most business people are completely unaware of the power available to them through anthropology. My hedge fund buddy agrees and wants me to speak to his team again. They are investing employee pension funds and have the responsibility of securing and growing peoples’ life savings.  I am looking to take the anthropology of risk show on the road this summer.

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