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Anthropology Faculty

Douglas Holmes  Douglas Holmes

   Professor of Anthropology

   PhD, State University of New York at Stony Brook
   AB. Bennington College
   Science 1, Room 139B

Other Academic Appointments  

2012- Member, Global Financial Initiative of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Cornell University
2011- Senior Fellow, Meridian 180. Cornell University, Law School.
2009- Member of the Tobin Project, Working group on Financial Regulation. Cambridge, MA.


Research Interests

I recently completed the third volume of an ethnographic trilogy that began with the publication of Cultural Disenchantments: Worker Peasantries in Northeast Italy (Princeton, 1989), and was followed by Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (Princeton, 2000). Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks (Chicago, 2014) continues to explore themes introduced in the earlier volumes, but of all these texts this one has taken the most unusual and unexpected turns. Collectively, these books cover an extended journey—spanning three decades—that ultimately brought me to experiments with language pursued by central bankers.

In the early 1980s, I examined the economic dilemmas and cultural predicaments that had for centuries circumscribed the lives of a rural population in northeast Italy. During that work, which was my first major research project, I encountered a question that perplexed my subjects and continues to perplex me. These rural folk, descendants of peasants who had lived for roughly a thousand years under a profoundly cruel and unjust agrarian system—enforced by a brutal regime of numerical accounting—had undergone a change in outlook. They became, in the latter part of the twentieth century, susceptible to a very un-peasant-like sentiment. To their surprise, and to mine, they were experiencing something that might be construed as "hope," if not, "optimism." This hope was predicated upon the totality of promises conferred on Italian citizens in the wake of the Second World War; the promises of welfare and dignity that underwrote the European social model reset expectations. The future no longer loomed merely as a matter of dread and despair; it had become for these people a subject with discernable features that could be reflected and acted upon.

Early in the last decade I began examining how central banks seek to endow the future with discernible features and how these institutions seek to underwrite representations of the future with faith and credit. To this end I have aligned my ethnographic research with a series of communicative experiments initially designed by the Deutsche Bundesbank and refined and formalized as policy by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. These are experiments that seek to influence future sensibilities—not merely sensibilities about the future but also sensibilities in the future—to shape the expectations that impel the most fundamental dynamic of market economies: the evolution of prices. My key insight on these experiments was that the bridge to the ephemera of expectations, to sensibilities in the future, is constructed with language, through the technical modeling of what I refer to as an "economy of words." My research has examined how the personnel of central banks model economic phenomena at the limits of calculation and measurement with intricate narratives—"macroeconomic allegories"—that impart a decisive performative dynamic to the financial and monetary system.

European integration and the Rise of the Extreme-Right

In August 1987 while conducting an interview with the leadership of a small political party, Movimento Friuli, I encountered a remarkable series of political ambitions. The leaders of this tiny party insisted that their politics were rooted in cultural aspiration—specifically fidelity to the language and ethnic traditions of their region—moreover, they rejected the Italian nation-state as the institutional context for their activism, rather they oriented their politics to a European institution, the European Parliament. I found the idea of a "European politics" arresting and I began fieldwork at the European Parliament in 1989, a time when the institution and its operations were, at best, poorly understood.

During the ensuing decade I travelled between Strasbourg and Brussels examining the emergence of a dynamic cultural politics in relation to the institutional project of European integration. I had relatively easy access to all the members of the parliament and I was able to interview many elected members including perhaps the most ardent cultural activist of all, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Simultaneously, I examined the deliberations involved in the drafting of the Maastricht Treaty and was able to speak to a number of the early architects of the European project who were playing a decisive role in the design of what came to be known as the European Union.

The key insight of the research was that activists like Le Pen, who were typically viewed at the time as espousing nostalgic, if not reactionary, right-wing nationalist agendas, were in fact formulating what they believed was a future-oriented politics of Europe. I observed how from the early 1990s onward, in each member state of the EU, movements were emerging that modeled themselves implicitly or explicitly on Le Pen's activism. Though these movements did not achieve, sustainable electoral majorities in national elections, they did define a pivotal and enduring discourse on Europe: an emphatic view of what is at stake in European integration.

They insinuated the notion that integration was about the creation of a vast multiracial and multicultural Europe—enlivened by supranational markets—which they zealously opposed. I had heard this idea initially broached in 1991 and I understood the malevolent possibilities and the incandescent bad faith that could be mobilized by this discourse. I was, however, not satisfied with studying this European phenomenon solely from the political and bureaucratic institutions of the EU and I turned to the East End of London where these issues of a multiracial and multicultural Britain were being played out as a brutal street politics. So my second major project, which started in Italy and moved through Brussels and Strasbourg, ended with an examination of how a group of neo-Nazis drew on an emphatically racist, post-colonial history to justify their violent activism centered, at the time, on the control of public housing on the Isle of Dogs.

Central Banking

My third major project grew out of lingering questions from my prior work. An issue caught my attention during the drafting of the Maastricht Treaty: how central banks manage supranational markets. I was intrigued with how a few paragraphs in the document could establish the legal and constitutional framework for the creation in less than a decade of what was to become one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world, the European Central Bank. An inflation target was explicitly designed into the constitutional mandate of the ECB as one of its "twin pillars" and this issue initiated my interest in what were unfolding experiments with monetary policy (Bernanke et al 1999).

After a preliminary visit to the New York District Branch of the Federal Reserve in 2001, the project shifted to Frankfurt, headquarters of the European Central Bank and the Deutsche Bundesbank. Over the last decade the research expanded to encompass the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Swedish Riksbank, and the Bank of England. In the background of the study is an ongoing assessment of the policies and practices of the United States Federal Reserve. Initially I sought to portray the inflation-targeting experiments from the standpoint of the different traditions and operational imperatives of these major central banks. But, by late 2008 I realized that these experiments were the precursors of and for a new monetary regime, a "public currency."

For the last six years I have sought to describe the emergence of this regime and the imperatives that animate its development. Fundamental to my inquiry is the view that the development of this monetary regime is unfinished and its viability uncertain. The idea that central banking can be aligned overtly with public interests, interests that are not fully or necessary defined by the prerogatives of the financial markets will be repeatedly and, no doubt, severely tested.


George Marcus and I have worked on a variety of projects from the early 1990s to the present, all of which addressed issues of ethnographic practices as more than mere method. Indeed, we have published a series of articles in which we argue for the centrality of collaboration itself in the conduct of ethnographic research. More recently, the legal scholar, David Westbrook, joined the conversation and his participation led to the publication of Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters (Chicago, 2009), in which he writes eloquently about the possibilities of ethnographic experimentation in technocratic settings.

Annelise Riles, Hirokazu Miyazaki, and I have worked together to investigate issues of finance, drawing on a similar set of intellectual commitments and a complementary set of ethnographic sensibilities. Over the last decade, we have begun to develop a shared view of the implications of this kind of work, not merely or necessarily for our discipline, but for other audiences.

I am a member of the Global Financial Initiative of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University (directed by Hiro Miyazaki). The initiative is composed of an interdisciplinary group of scholars in economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. We are currently focusing on the communicative practices of central banks and the potential of their communications to shape broad political and societal agendas. I am also a Senior Fellow of Meridian 180, Cornell Law School (directed by Annelise Riles) and a member of the Tobin Project, Cambridge, MA. These networks—composed of policymakers, regulators, and academics—have critically evaluated fundamental assumptions of monetary policy and financial stability, not as mere technocratic matters, but as abiding human concerns.

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Last Updated: 9/23/13