Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa / Edition 1

Paperback (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $16.50
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 28%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (14) from $16.50   
  • New (9) from $20.96   
  • Used (5) from $16.50   


In America, almost all the money in circulation passes through financial institutions every day. But in Nigeria's "cash and carry" system, 90 percent of the currency never comes back to a bank after it's issued. What happens when two such radically different economies meet and mingle, as they have for centuries in Atlantic Africa?

The answer is a rich diversity of economic practices responsive to both local and global circumstances. In Marginal Gains, Jane I. Guyer explores and explains these often bewildering practices, including trade with coastal capitalism and across indigenous currency zones, and within the modern popular economy. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Guyer demonstrates that the region shares a coherent, if loosely knit, commercial culture. She shows how that culture actually works in daily practice, addressing both its differing scales of value and the many settings in which it operates, from crisis conditions to ordinary household budgets. The result is a landmark study that reveals not just how popular economic systems work in Africa, but possibly elsewhere in the Third World.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226311166
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2004
  • Series: Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series, #1997
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 1,217,013
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane I. Guyer is a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author, most recently, of An African Niche Economy: Farming to Feed Ibadan and Money Matters: Instability, Values, and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31116-6

Chapter One

Since the advent of civilization, the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, 1877


Our current world is as confusing, over 120 years later, as it was to L. H. Morgan. The two ends of the spectrum of the current world "market economy"-the "center" of the financial world and its "margins"-could seem to the historian almost as different from each other today as they were in Morgan's day, albeit with different critical features. Western currency is now "hard currency" and "fast money"; it is infinitely convertible, and it circulates at a rate whereby the equivalent of the entire U.S. money issue passes through financial monitoring and transaction every day (Passell 1992). Consider the following, by comparison. The Nigerian naira is a "soft currency," usable to purchase hard currencies only on a limited auction basis. And within the country, in January 1997, Newswatch of Nigeria announced the almost complete monetization of Nigerian business transactions: no checks, no credit cards, no automated accounts, just what they termed a "cash and carry" culture (Achema 1997) in which-to give their lead example-a bank transfer of two million naira ($25,000) was mediated in cash, involving the parties carrying it in person and the tellers spending two days counting the bills, because the highest currency denomination of N50 was then worth about sixty cents. In Nigeria there are thousands of such transactions, all the time. And this in a commercial economy: one for which projections suggest that 95 percent of the population will earn their money incomes in the informal sector by the year 2020 (Bangura 1994) and that at least 60 percent of the currency, once issued, never goes back through the banking system again. These two economies-that in which the formal financial institutions monitor the entire money issue every day, and that in which 60 percent of it is never monitored again in its entire life in circulation-coexist, interrelate, and reconstitute one another. These are two extremes, but other places fall on a continuum between them.

Such variations within the world monetary economy have existed from the beginning of European economic expansion, guided under the same rubrics as simultaneously built national economies and which we now refer to as mercantilism. The coexistence of different institutions of money management and the selective linking and de-linking of currencies from full convertibility are as old as world trade, and were cultivated in specific ways under the mercantilist framework. Indeed, the very idea of comparative advantage rests on the assumption of difference among trading partners: different goods, different values placed on them, and different mediating means of exchange, particularly when Europe was conserving its own currencies within national circuits. What this means for an anthropology of transactions is that there is no essential or archetypical commodity transaction, even though it is useful to construct a fictional ideal type for certain analytical purposes and then debate its characteristics (see Gregory 1982; Gell 1992). Commodity exchange, by sale and purchase, takes on historically and geographically specific characteristics in accordance with experience. Within the West, the rapid circulation of money through the state and banking systems, and the omnipresence of orthodox economic persuasion, means that people's repeated market experience is closely and constantly disciplined. We are brought into line with the institutional structures literally all the time. Elsewhere, as in the Nigerian situation in 1997, the formal disciplines of banking and the state are more intermittent, more patchy, and altogether less ideologically coherent. People's exchanges are no less market oriented or money mediated, because commerce is ubiquitous. They are simply disciplined through popular conventions rather than formal regulation, constructed through market experience rather than articulated models.

It is to the monetary disciplines of Atlantic Africa-between the Muslim monetary regimes and bazaar/trading economy of the Sahel and North Africa and the merchant capitalism of the coast-that I turn in these chapters. Atlantic Africa has been within the West's money economy for at least five centuries, deeply shaped by its demands and its indifferences, by force and neglect, by domination in some domains and refusal to engage in others, by open flows of currency and closed doors to convertibility. Neither autonomous nor subjugated, African economies have been "extroverted" or "open economies" (Cooper 2001; Bayart 1999; Seers 1963; Hopkins 1973), subject to extraction of primary resources, "unequal exchange" (Amin 1976), and rapid changes in conditions over which their populations have had very little control. Yet at the same time, commerce grew and extended its geographical range, on the basis of indigenous transactional conventions, from the beginning of the Atlantic trade onward. New foreign crops were integrated into cultivation cycles and divisions of labor (Guyer 1988; Vansina 1990); metallurgy was refined and expanded (Kriger 1999); marketed products became more diversified (Zeleza 1996); trade diasporas developed, such as that of the Arochukwu in Eastern Nigeria for the slave trade (Dike and Ekejiuba 1990) and that of the Senegalese all along the coast for Wshing; and forms of credit developed (Austin 1993). Wider and wider regions were drawn into trade networks, such as the complex interchanges along the Ubangi-Giri-Congo River confluence that I describe in chapter 2. Hogendorn and Johnson suggest that demand for currency goods on a "market for cowries [that] was about as close to world wide as for any other commodity of the sixteenth to eighteenth century and was still extensive in the nineteenth" (1986, 143) was a crucial driver of the steady expansion of the slave trade within Africa (111).

With respect to its money economy, Atlantic Africa has been, in Piot's phrase, "remotely global" (1999) for a very long time. At the same time, internal change has been persistently distinct. It cannot be understood as directly derivative of the interface with Europe, but neither is it understandable in abstraction from the experiences that interface generated. Several recent ethnographers of particular peoples have been making major headway in representing this process, for which Marx's claim remains the most succinct: that people make their own history, albeit not under conditions of their own choosing (Shaw 2002; Ferme 2001; Piot 1999; Geschiere 1997; Barber 2000; Ekeh 1990; Berry 2001). By historicization, these scholars have made real gains in understanding what were once thought to be somehow sui generis components of West African culture: secrecy, witchcraft, kinship, chieftaincy. Some of the most rhetorically powerful recent works have shown how production of items once thought to be iconic of quintessential Africa expanded and changed, perhaps even being invented, in the context of trade. These include fetishes, as a means of securing trust (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988), religions of "affliction" (Janzen 1982), and art works as commodities for sale (Schildkrout and Keim 1990).

Paradoxically, however, even though the most obvious motive for European presence was economic, less theoretical attention has been devoted by anthropologists to conceptualizing the specifically economic dynamics of this interface. There is an enormous economic history literature, many local studies, and theorization of particular sociopolitical dynamics of resource control, but much less theorization of the growth of economic culture and practice among the population. And yet economic practice was clearly not an ad hoc response to circumstance, nor a direct reflection of the interests of elites, nor a simple extrapolation from existing cultural principles. In some domains of life, the conventions and institutions that were developed in a remotely global context are still deeply plausible enough to have "worked" to organize market economies up until the present, even under conditions of confusion such as the Abacha years in Nigeria. Rapidly expanding urban populations have been fed; consumer imports expanded; apprentices trained; new forms of foreign currency exchange and international contract developed (see Guyer, Denzer, and Agbaje 2002). And all this has been achieved despite enormous obstacles. The form of the money has changed several times (Ekejiuba 1995), European wars and depressions have eliminated markets and reduced the amount of currency in circulation, and, most recently, government and international policies have produced petrol shortages, electricity blackouts, infrastructural degradation, and currency devaluation. In these improbable achievements, generations of scholars have seen flexibility, negotiability, resilience, innovation, and entrepreneurship (Hill 1970; Berry 1989) alongside the dangers of extraction and marginality in the global economy (Castells 1996; Arrighi 2002).

The analytical problem for the study of transactions within Africa is profound because key dynamics originate at the interface. Local constructs emanate from experience and not from modular principles, either as these might be conceptualized in the Western model of a formal sector or as they might derive directly from local cultural principles. If the persistent historical conjuncture must take a key role in explanation, then social theory based on systems-"the market" or the autonomous local society-becomes only of partial use in establishing the persistent elements and relationships by which people individually and collectively create economies. The terms of analysis both for commodities under present-day capitalism, thought of as a system, and for transaction types (modalities) in noncapitalist systems, will be inadequate. How inadequate? This is a practical intellectual question, because the conceptual tools and the accumulated knowledge based on systemic assumptions are so important a resource. A great deal of progress has been made by applying neoclassical economic history, neo-Marxist political economy, and anthropological relativism to the West African experience. The sense remains, however, that only a certain modicum of the reality has been satisfactorily explored with conventional systemic approaches. Contradictions and indeterminacies in the literature abound (for which I give examples later). In the social sciences, some residual noncomprehension is to be expected, debated, and usually tolerated. Tolerance of noncomprehension works on a threshold principle: so far, but no farther. By the 1990s, the state of scholarship and the state of the world showed that the popular economies of West Africa had passed that threshold. General and specialist media alike started using apocalyptic terms: "the hopeless continent" (cover of The Economist, Dec. 9-16, 2000); "the systematic logic of the new global economy does not have much of a role for the majority of the African population" (Castells 1996, 135). Analytical assumptions based on foundational invariance, and proceeding by holding variables constant (ceteris paribus), became increasingly implausible. Policy documents came across as casuistry, where only the information that seemed useful for the purposes at hand was, in fact, used (see Castells 1996, 148-50; Hibou 2000). Worse, the methods began to get in the way of understanding. The area of obscurity shadowed the areas apparently illuminated by standard approaches. Let me quote some African scholars on the question.

Economist 'Dotun Phillips (1992) writes of the "nominalization" of the Nigerian economy under pervasive monetization and contradictory official regulation, that is, its retreat from the measurable, the real, and the long term into the named, the performative, and a "tips of the noses" calculative rubric (1992, 4). Historian Achille Mbembe writes of the long lag-time between the instant technologies of global Wnance and the "structural inertia of African economies" (1996, 2) that encourages speculative advantage, predation, distrust, and ultimately violence. Political scientist Claude Ake points to the "disarticulation" (1981, 43) within colonial and postcolonial economies, where the parts or elements relate to one another incoherently, so that a process begun in one context cannot be picked up in another. Bangura points out the incompatibility between the actual "fragmentation and informality" (1994, 812) of the economy and the hopeful expectation of the emergence of coherent impersonal norms and values on the part of the formal-sector experts charged with managing and directing it. There are other skeptics. They all point out metaphorical, temporal, and geographical disjunctures that are quite at odds with the literature on the free flow and continuous scales of measurement that apply in economic analysis. And the air of gravitas in their commentaries is palpable-gravitas about the situation and about our capacity to make sense of it. Reminiscent of Morgan's "last words" in Ancient Society are those of 'Dotun Phillips, making point number 14 of his urgent recommendations to the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria, "God should be brought into the matter!" Analytical dead ends recapitulate confusions on the ground.

Yet people themselves are employing concepts, practices, and expectations that incontrovertibly "work" in some sense. People appear to be somewhat accustomed to turbulence and policy confusion. Rising levels of what a systems scholar would see as disorder may be familiar, may have landmarks and navigational pathways, to those with long familiarity with this kind of condition. We know from the older ethnography that there are powerful principles of "normalization" to market disorder: in recourse to divination for important decisions, in the view of the market as intrinsically unstable, in the coexistence of contradictory proverbs about money morality (see, e.g., Adebayo 1999). The "overflow" or "residuals," after standard analytical frameworks have been applied, may have a shape of their own, not captured by those frameworks. It is worthwhile at this point to look more closely at some characteristic intellectual limits we have run up against in the past: to illustrate both the strengths and the weaknesses of classic approaches, and in the process to introduce African economic history to readers outside of African studies. Although this history is unique as a whole, many of its conditions have counterparts elsewhere, which should make both the specificity of Africa and the broad intellectual issues accessible and relevant beyond the region.

Chief among these conditions is that key commercial relationships were not, in fact, forged under a generalized "capitalist" influence that can be adequately captured by current general theory. Even at the center, there has been debate about whether mercantilism, or merchant capitalism, can be considered a system of propositions and practices with its own logics (Minchinton 1969) as distinct from a concatenation of policies all geared toward the expediencies of economic nationalism. World systems theory is still persuasive (e.g., Arrighi 2002). But it operates at a very high level of abstraction from the experience of the intermittent turbulence and incoherence its theories predict. Something is created out of that experience, but what? Some of the current "bewilderments" I indicate in the following section stem from the difficulty of grappling with the conceptual contradiction of applying existing systems theories from the center in places that the center has always treated as external to itself and where it has often been the source of disorder. Many of the following incoherent conclusions derive from theoretical application, rather than theoretical innovation, in the analysis of capitalism and indigenous Africa.


Excerpted from MARGINAL GAINS by JANE I. GUYER Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Diversity, Bewilderment, and the Multiplicity of African Money
2 Conversations: Asymmetrical Transactions
3 Calculation: Number and Asymmetry
4 Rank: People and Money
5 Quality: Commodities and Price
6 Volatility: A Performance in Modern Nigeria
7 Institutions: Repertoires of Financial Option
8 Balances: Household Budgets in a Ghanaian Study
9 Formalities: Fixing Debt and Delay
10 Bewilderment Revised

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)