Materiality, Symbol, and Complexity in the Anthropology of Money

  • Taylor C. NelmsEmail author
  • Bill Maurer


The invitation to review anthropological studies of money offers an opportunity not only to revisit the history of anthropologists’ investigations into money’s objects, meanings, and uses but also to reflect on the intersections of such work with recent psychological research. In this review essay, we survey the primary findings of the anthropology of money and the central challenges anthropological work has posed to assumptions about money’s power to abstract, commensurate, dissolve social ties, and erase difference. We summarize anthropologists’ historical concern with cultural difference and recent work on money’s materialities, meanings, and complex uses. We emphasize the pragmatics of money—from earmarking practices and the use of multiple moneys to the politics of liquidity and fungibility. In the final section of the paper, we find inspiration in recent psychological studies of money to indicate new trajectories for inquiry. Specifically, we point to three potentially fruitful areas for research: money use as a tool and infrastructure; the politics of revealing and concealing money; and money’s origins and futures as a memory device. We end with a brief reflection on ongoing monetary experiments and innovations.


Islamic Finance Fractional Reserve Banking Ethnographic Record Monetary Form Anthropological Work 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank Jane Guyer, Smoki Musaraj, and Ivan Small for their comments, and Erik Bijleveld and Henk Aarts for their invitation to contribute to this volume and for their enthusiasm, support, and careful reading of earlier drafts of this essay.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Money, Technology and Financial InclusionUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA

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