4 Lenses on Money, Its Economic, Political, Cultural, and Social History — Recommended Readings

Dodd, Nigel, The Social Life of Money, 2014, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.  See introduction here.

Graeber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Ideas, 2002, New York: Palgrave.  See online here.

Martin, Felix, Money: The Unauthorized Biography, 2013, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  Read an excerpt here.

Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money, 2004, New York: Routledge.  See online here.

In my continuing deep dive into the Ecosynomics of money, I highly recommend these four huge sweeps through the broad and deep literature of money, from the perspective of economists, political philosophers, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists.  They represent four very different, seldom overlapping explorations of millennia of thinking and practice with money across hundreds of groupings of people.  Not a single one of these is a quick read, rather authoritative, deeply mesmerizing journeys through thousands of minds, with clear frameworks, disciplinary perspectives, and excellent writing.

Given the massive sweep, both broad and deep, each author takes in these four tomes, I will not attempt to summarize or synthesize their work here, rather acknowledge the perspective they bring, showing you the invitation they offer you, if you choose to dive into their waters.

In The Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel, a German philosopher and sociologist writing in the late 1800s, takes the philosopher’s stance, specifying what value is, how money is a symbol for value, how this symbol plays out in the consequences of money as a substance in social processes, and its impact on social values, such as individual freedom, and on specific institutions, such as marriage, work, manual labor, and life style.  Very dense and full of extraordinary insights.

Oxford-trained economist Felix Martin takes a historical dive into a wide range of stories in Money, taking the reader into the deeper stories and context in which political-economic innovations played important roles in the evolution of money, from shifts in its form to the expansion of markets, political and economic actors, and levers of monies use, such as interest rates and success metrics.  A very entertaining read, diving into the rich stories along the way of money’s evolution.

David Graeber, a Chicago-trained anthropologist, provides a beautifully articulated exploration of what hundreds of anthropologists have learned about how peoples around the world have evolved their own understanding of and application of systems of value.  Typical to Graeber’s writing, like his book Debt, he shows how the economist’s assumptions about how money evolved out of barter run completely against the hundreds of deep, long-term anthropological studies of the very societies economists claim to represent.  There have been many nuanced perspectives of what people value and how they reflect those values in the currencies they use.  This is a deeper, nuanced read for the more academically inclined.

Sociology professor at the London School of Economics, Nigel Dodd explores the development of many streams of sociological research into money systems, diving into what the original authors meant, contemporary interpretations, and how these various streams have evolved.  This deep literature review covers sociological perspectives that see money as capital, as debt, as guilt,  as waste, as territory, as culture, and as a variety of monetary utopian visions.  If you can’t see the forest through the trees or the terrain through the forests, this broad scholarly journey through dozens of thick journals, shows the patterns of forests, highlighting the dimensions for a synthesis of the sociology of money, as seen from different cultures on the planet and different points in time.

Four perspectives on money and what hundreds of deep-thinking, often very practical, philosophers have observed across the planet for millennia.



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