Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University


Can I explain what anthropology involves? Anthropology is the study of human behaviour and human difference in all different areas as a comparative project. So people will study one thing really intensively but they are interested in comparing that with how people might do the same kind of thing somewhere else.

I am a cultural anthropologist, which means I base my method in ethnography, which is really trying to interview people deeply but also to get to know them and even sort of hang out with them. I became really interested in gold and silver through my experience of studying mining, beginning in the 1990s. I did a study of one of the most famous mines in the world and the largest silver producer in the 18th century, called La Valenciana. That kind of led me to think about what it is about the actual physical objects of gold and silver that makes people want it, that makes people want to mine it, and that makes it, in turn, become an important actor in financial markets.

Gold and silver are these really interesting objects. They are not universally valued. For instance, there are places for instance in the Americas where, when the Europeans arrived, people were psyched that the Europeans wanted gold and felt that they were scamming them or ripping them off: ‘You mean we can give them that and we can get all this other cool stuff back?’ But It is true that it is very broad ­- the appeal of gold and silver. Some of that has to do with some of the physical properties of those things: the fact they are so malleable and that they have lustre. That has made gold and silver have this very sort of particular place in financial spaces.

Anthropology can really start to get at those kinds of perceptions and do a comparison of where people in different places, engaged in different walks of life, with different politics and career trajectories, how do they perceive gold or silver as an object. Anthropology gives you the possibility of really talking to people and getting beyond the surface story.

I would say it helps people understand the attraction and the motivation for why gold plays the role that it does.