Social Economies of Greed and Excess: Lessons from Recessions, Past and Present

Location: McKenna Hall

This is the 2011 Society for Economic Anthropology Annual Meeting.

Co-chairs: Rahul Oka (University of Notre Dame) and Ian Kuijt (University of Notre Dame)

Greed and excess have been repeatedly blamed for the global recession and near-collapse that marked the years 2008 and 2009. Economic observers from both the left and the right have focused on predatory and excessive behaviors as the driving forces behind the economic downturns. Recent popular narratives, including Jared Diamond’s Collapse also blame excess for the decimation of ancient societies, drawing uncomfortable parallels between contemporary and past social unravelings.

Anthropologists have accumulated ample evidence on greed and excess from historical and archaeological pasts. At the same time, anthropologists have evidence that spectacular outlays of wealth can yield stable, community-affirming rituals. Moreover, long-term cultural heritage often has its roots in literally monumental plays for personal status.

The SEA 2011 conference will bring together scholars from archaeology, history, cultural anthropology, economics, and management to problematize the view of greed and excess as a human universal. The papers will examine how different societies have tolerated greed and excess and/or took measures to control them. Themes include:

  • Do cultures discriminate among acceptable and unacceptable forms of high-cost status consumption?
  • Under what circumstances do societies push a “regulatory” system that ensure protection for and encouragement of such behaviors?
  • In the long term, what cultural or social capacities do apparently excessive economic behaviors engender within communities?
  • What cooperation or collusion takes place across social classes to enable accumulation or status seeking to take on outsized forms?
  • Are there societies that developed checks/balances, restricting excess prior to suffering a crisis?

The SEA meetings provide a rare opportunity for a focused and coherent program of presentations, with time for critical discussion in a convivial intellectual setting.

The keynote speaker for this year’s meeting is James Surowiecki, the business columnist at The New Yorker magazine and the author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

Additionally, the conference will honor Robert Hunt, professor emeritus at Brandeis University’s anthropology department, for his contributions to the field of economic anthropology over the past five decades.

The Meeting will run from March 10, 2011, until March 12, 2011. For registration information, click here

For more information, contact the Department of Anthropology at