Ethnographic field studies of peasants, hunter gatherers, farmers, powerful village men, etc. are common. Field studies of rich American families are less so. Off hand, I can only think of George Marcus’s studies of rich Texas families in Houston and Galveston, which was nevertheless full of insights. Marcus uses a term that the muckrakers used – dynastic wealth. His view of wealth is still wedded, however, to the notion of the family, especially in terms of male heirs.
Myself, I think that we should look at modern wealth from the perspective of the “house”. This is akin to the dynastic perspective – we think of the “house” of Windsor, meaning, vaguely, parts of the extended family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. A house his, on the one hand, a concrete building, and, on the other hand, a synecdoche for the entirety of the property. “Members” of the house can include servants, as well as the less endowed cousins, aunts, uncles and others who have some claim on the property.
In Marcus’s work on the rich, the invisibility of wealth is one of the great structuring themes. It is mostly the case with the non-wealthy that their visible environment, from car to apartment to house, is their real wealth. The asset of most Americans is a house – although many have a few stocks, the vast majority of stocks and other financial instruments is owned by the wealthy. These things are wealth, too, but they can’t be seen the way chattels can. Marcus proposes a parallel with the Kauli, a people in New Guinea:
“In talking about the people of the other world, the Kaluli use the term mama, which means shadow or reflection. When asked what the people of the unseen look like, Kaluli will point to a reflection in a pool or a mirror and say, “They are not like you or me. They are like that.” In the same way, our human appearance stands as a reflection to them. This is not a “supernatural” world, for to the Kaluli, it is perfectly natural. Neither is it a “sacred world,” for it is virtually coextensive with and exactly like the world the Kaluli inhabit, subject to the same forces of mortality …. In the unseen world, every man has a reflection in the form of a wild pig . . . that roams invisibly on the slopes of Mt. Bosavi. The man and his wild pig reflection live separate existences, but if something should happen to the wild pig, the man is also affected. If it is caught in a trap, he is disabled; if it is killed by hunters of the unseen, he dies.”
The Kaluli reference is not a mere affectation, but a way of making something intelligible that is beyond “inherited” wealth. I have to quote Marcus at length, here:
The dynastic fortunes that I have studied in Texas over the past few years are complex creations of various kinds of experts and of lineages of descendants two to four generations away from founding entrepreneurial ancestors. A dynasty is commonsensically a family, but after much experience with this form of social organization, I find that it is primarily a fortune instead. Concentrations of old wealth, however, have no one particular locus or materialization; in short, they have no presence. Rather, a fortune has multiple, simultaneous manifestations within a variety of interconnected but isolated social contexts that encompass the long-term fates and daily lives of literally hundreds of people. In initiating my research, I followed common sense and took the family-literal flesh-and-blood descendants, and particularly those who seemed to be leaders or in positions of authority-for the dynasty. I soon discovered in their here and now lives the profound influence of the equivalent of the unseen world among the Kaluli-the complex world of highly spec- ialized expertise that through an elaborate division of labor, not only structured the wealth but, also, created doppelganger facsimiles of the descendants-roughly similar to the Mt. Bosavi wild pig reflections of Kaluli persons-variously constituted as clients, beneficiaries of trusts, wealth shares in computerized strategies of investment, and accountants’ files. While the unseen world is richly registered through sound and imagery in the here and now of the Kaluli, it distinctly is not among the descendants within dynastic families.”
These houses, I propose, are what is at play, anthropologically, in the ownership of corporations. The idea of the stock market as a way of transferring ownership to more efficient managers is not born out by anything in our real economic experience. But these complex transfers of ownership as the politics of various houses – this makes much more sense. The great houses in medieval and early modern Europe were founded, above all, on a warrior ethos – they were seized in wars, they warred with each other, and they warred outside of Europe in crusades and, eventually, in the massive war against the indigenous peoples and culture of Africa, the Americas, and Asia.