21A.01 | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

How Culture Works


Ethnographic Assignment 2: Describe a Transaction

People give each other things. This creates useful material worlds, and it also generates other, less tangible values: social status, friendship, solidarity, perhaps even salvation.

Consider this story:

A man knew he was going to be fired for mismanagement, so he used his last day on the job to alter the ledgers, cutting the amounts debtors owed to his boss, and thus personally obligating them to himself, “so that when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” This probably happens all the time, all over the world. But we know this particular story from Luke, who quotes Jesus Christ telling it. The moral? “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Transactions—whether they involve labor obligations or gasoline, money or eternal salvation—present anthropologists with question of value in time: of how people store up their resources and mobilize them to improve their lot in the future. In our discussions and readings, we have seen that different types of transactions are guaranteed by different bodies and mechanisms (from the FDIC to social shame); that they entail different forms of obligation; that they are possible for different kinds of people; and that they often generate “extras,” like interest rates or material perks.

For this ethnographic project, observe (or, following Peebles, deduce) a transaction. Then, in 3–4 pages, explain its “roots and fruits”: explain the conditions of possibility upon which it draws, and the values that it creates. Some of these “roots and fruits” may be purely material (a canister of fuel exchanged for a bag of potatoes), others may be more difficult to circumscribe (good social standing, solidarity, friendship networks).

Pay particular attention to how relations, social bodies or institutions guarantee the transactions’ success. What types of people may conduct such transactions? How is trust established between the transacting parties? Do they draw upon similar types of resources, similarly guaranteed? Do parasites threaten the resources? Does disruption threaten the transaction?

And pay attention to time. What time frame—or time frames—does the transaction suppose? Do other time frames and other values stand behind the immediate fact of material exchange?

Student Examples

“Eggs” (PDF)

“Venmo Transactions” (PDF)

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples