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Economic Anthropology 2014; 1: 193–199 DOI:10.1111/sea2.


The Rich Possibilities of Greed

and Excess
Virginia R. Dominguez

Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA

Corresponding author: Virginia R. Dominguez; e-mail:

“Greed” and “excess” carry negative connotations in many of the societies in which we live, even if they are not typical
terms framing a great deal of anthropological work today. My approach here is to suggest that “greed” and “excess” may
be most productive to thinkers and analysts if we use the terms to lead us to topics to which they seem to be potentially
connected—that is, to get us to explore those questions from a reinvigorated or new angle—rather than trying to identify
analytically comparable enough phenomena that we could then call cases of “greed” or “excess” and compare them to each
other. Hence, here, discursive connections between “greed” and moral failing, the invocation of “greed” as an accusation, and
the sense that “greed” refers (somewhat implicitly, implicitly, or more explicitly) to serious inequality, accumulation (material
or symbolic), and differentiation or distinction by being a desire for both are explored. This article also worries about certain
possible unintended consequences of turning “greed” and “excess” into more typical frames of anthropological discussion.

Keywords Accumulation; Accusations; Discourse; Greed; Morality

“Greed” and “excess.” I hear these terms and react to them. They are not really everyday terms in
anthropological analysis, and yet, as this whole issue shows and I strongly want to argue, they offer
anthropologists and other thoughtful observers and analysts rich possibilities for productive thought.
“Greed” and “excess” carry negative connotations in the society in which I live, perhaps especially
in certain social circles within this society. Consider popular discourse, dictionary definitions, and
everyday usage in English, not to mention our own varied but generally condemning responses to
both terms (and especially, I think, to “greed”). Linguistic anthropologists, communication studies
experts, and anthropologists like me (e.g., Dominguez, 1986, 2005, 2013) who track referential and
nonreferential semiotic practices may prefer at times to track the instances of usage of both terms and
analyze their range of variation as objective portrayals of contemporary U.S. thinking about “greed”
and “excess.” I consider that to be a potentially worthwhile project, yet for this publication (with its
interesting twists and turns in many of its meaty essays) my interest is broader. I aim to suggest a
number of ways we could think about those connotations of “greed” and “excess” and how they point
to anthropological work carried out under other rubrics and areas of active anthropological work and
debate that could be enriched by adding “greed” and “excess” to that discussion.
At the SEA’s Plenary Session on March 11, 2011, I explored some of the associations I have with
“greed” and “excess” (and that I presume many of us would have if given the opportunity to explore
them, as I was). Indeed, I “played” with them. I orally pursued the question of whether anthropology
has anything to say about each one of those, and I recall that I concentrated much more on “greed”

© 2014 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved 193

V. R. Dominguez

than on “excess,” although I do not believe the organizers intended the topic to be “greed” and not
“excess.” It seems to me that this inaugural issue of the journal seeks to shed light on both “greed”
and “excess,” including ways to think of them separately and jointly as the editors Rahul Oka and Ian
Kuijt have done by grouping the articles under the useful and thought-provoking sections of (1) History
and Contemporaneity of Greed and Excess, (2) Ambiguities of Surplus: Can Marginalized Peoples Be
Greedy and Excessive? (3) Who Shares the Surplus: “Greedy” Subsistence Producers in Transitioning
Economies, and (4) Entitled to the Surplus: Greed and Excess among the Elites, Non-Elites, and the
Nouveau Riche.
As I will show below, I am convinced that anthropology has much to say and that some of the most
useful ideas may come from the least obvious (or least apparently economic) areas of research—hence,
the inclusion of a number of (perhaps less obvious) essays in this publication, such as the article on
an Ohio food auction by Cohen and Glover or Mark Hauser’s article on Caribbean slavery. Bob Hunt
and Carolyn Nordstrom tackled the topic somewhat differently at the original Plenary Session in March
2011 but in part a continuing issue that arose then—and during much of the later discussion in the
conference—related to our “debate” on whether “greed” was just a folk term (or “emic” concept) in our
society (and some but not all societies) or could also serve analytically as a clear enough referent in
research (for the purposes of conducting explicit comparative research or even as a source of data that
could be used by others in future research as a point of comparison or contrast). That Bob Hunt has
chosen to keep that concern as the central one in his contribution to this inaugural issue of the journal
reinforces the centrality of that topic to the overall analytic potential of what we tackle collectively in
this issue.
My approach here is to suggest that we may find “greed” and “excess” most productive as thinkers and
analysts if we use the terms to lead us to topics to which they seem to be potentially connected—to get
us to explore those questions from a reinvigorated or new angle—rather than try to identify analytically
comparable enough phenomena that we could then call cases of “greed” or “excess” and compare them
to each other. While I do think that some tight comparisons can generate compelling results, like Bob
Hunt I worry about the comparability of phenomena and am, therefore, more interested in opening
lines of research and making connections than in carrying out those tight comparisons. A publication
like this one that shows some explicit comparisons (as in Antrosio and Colloredo-Mansfeld’s article
on the northern Andes) but also far more backgrounded ones (like Rick Wilk’s on “poverty and excess
in a binge economy”) actually shows the advantages and possibilities of both strategies. But I want to
concentrate on the less obvious in this contribution.
Here is why. I find myself making all the following connections to “greed” (and even “excess”) when
I try to think about what we could possibly be referring to or seeking to discuss:
1. that “greed” refers to some type of moral failing (of individuals);
2. that “greed” is not just a word but, rather, entails an accusation (by one or more than one toward
another person or persons);
3. that “greed” is a partly implicit reference to serious inequality;
4. that “greed” is a reference to accumulation (material or symbolic); and
5. that “greed” refers to differentiation or distinction by being a desire for both.
Notice that morality, desire, capital, social injustice, and social stratification all emerge easily as
topics on this list. Equally interesting is that accusation may emerge from this list as simultaneously
the most surprising and the most useful connection, and that in so doing we are making a connection

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The Rich Possibilities of Greed and Excess

to witchcraft, magic, religion, the judicial system, human rights, and the presumption of innocence
(or criminality). If, as anthropologists and fellow travelers, we carry this further and ask if there is
an anthropology of “greed” and “excess,” the answer has to be that there are multiple anthropological
scholarly circles exploring “greed” and “excess”—or at least matters that bear a “family resemblance” to
them, to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s very useful notion.
For example, anthropologists used to be quite comfortable taking on “morality” as a topic of research.
Consider much of Emile Durkheim’s work from Suicide (1951/1897) to Elementary Forms of the Religious
Life (1965/1915) to his explicit essays on morality and moral facts (1953). We seem less comfortable
with the topic these days and talking about “greed” and “excess” here makes me revisit the issue. To
talk about someone’s “moral failings” or even the broader term (“morality”) seems to entail passing
judgment, taking sides, not being a disciplined researcher. Thinking about “greed” and “excess” as a
reference to some people’s “moral failings” leads me to wonder if our caution in recent decades has
been right or if we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we do not pass judgment in most of our
anthropological/scholarly work (when we do, in fact, but just not explicitly) and, therefore, whether
adding “greed” and “excess” to the mix in our work is helpful in keeping us from presuming that we do
not pass judgment.
Discussion of failure has taken place in our scholarly lives and publications, but I find that for
the most part over the past several decades those discussions have focused on systems (e.g., medical
or educational or economic systems) or revolutions—and James Surowiecki’s article here on “System
Failure” is therefore in a way more normative (even if he does not intend it that way). Alternatively,
accusations of failure that imply a more collective moral failing, as in Oscar Lewis’ notion of “culture
of poverty” (e.g., Lewis, 1966) or even Paul Willis’s idea of “learning to labor” (Willis, 1977), have been
received with serious critique or suspicion in many circles. That Oka and Kuijt even dare to title their
joint article “Greed Is Bad, Neutral, and Good” stands out, for it uses terms like bad and good that most
contemporary anthropologists relegate to worlds of morality and judgment, not detached analysis.
I am especially interested then in pursuing the notions of “greed” and “excess” as accusations or, more
precisely, of the words “greed” and “excess” being used as accusations, functioning as rhetorical acts of
criticism, by some people with respect to others. When I draw on anthropological and historical works
on witchcraft (e.g., Evans-Pritchard, 1937; Favret-Saada, 1981; Green & Mesaki, 2005) and remember
that much of it is about witchcraft accusations (rather than the practices some accuse others of engaging
in), I think about what we and others are doing when we say that someone is greedy, that there is greed on
Wall Street, or that people seeking to grow richer, add to their assets and be more lavish and conspicuous
in their consumption are just ruled by an ethic of “excess.” The anthropology of witchcraft leads me to
ask who is accusing whom of “greed” or “excess,” what exactly the accusations are, and what the context
is that enables some to accuse others of “greed.”
Several of the articles in this issue raise this question directly or indirectly, and do so well either
as stand-alone analyses or in contrast to each other. I see this, for example, in the articles Oka and
Kuijt placed in Section 3 of this volume. Who shares the surplus, they ask, adding in the subtitle of
Section 3 “’Greedy’ Subsistence Producers in Transitioning Economies”? Are acquisitive people in Lisu
society (as described here by Durrenberger and Gillogly) greedy by any measure of the term, or do
some participants in Lisu society (e.g., Thai officials) call certain others greedy because they are stepping
outside the stated norms and public discourse of their society? The articles by Murphy and Thampy make
me wonder about rural Mongolia and the Caribbean as well. If I may be provocative here, is there in fact

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something new in the level of surplus production and sharing (or nonsharing) in both settings, or is the
concern we see in those articles more a matter of contemporary accusations by some people of other
people in their own societies whom they see as allowing systemic inequalities to persist when economic
conditions could lead at least part of the time to an idealized reduction in poverty? There are indeed
booms and busts and many other temporal moments in between, but how much is response to changing
economic possibilities and how much of it is almost always there as public or private accusations of
behavior that maintains or exacerbates particular dominance patterns? Might less successful herders in
rural Mongolia, for example, long been seen by more successful ones as “lazy” and more successful ones
there long been seen by the less successful ones as something tantamount to greedy or inconsiderate?
My third, fourth, and fifth points above—the associations of “greed” and “excess” with serious
inequality, accumulation (material or symbolic), differentiation or distinction, and the desire for
both—cover related fields of discourse, as Pierre Bourdieu (1984) might have said. Yet, in naming each
one the way I do, certain questions emerge that I associate with particular communities or debates in past
and present anthropological networks—and that are worth contemplating in light of the major essays
included in this inaugural issue of Economic Anthropology. For example, a great deal of anthropology
has focused on inequality over the years. Some of that work has done so very explicitly while other work
is more implicitly about inequality, and some of the work focuses on inequalities in material access, the
means of production, the social relations of production, and the relative perpetuation of those systemic
inequalities, while other work has stressed less material or economic patterns of inequality. Yet, I ask us
all to consider what we are collectively doing and not doing when we do that analysis and share it with
our readers or listeners.
Praising the rich or the “greedy” is not it. I do not recall ever meeting a single anthropologist who
praised really rich people (even when they have studied them, like Gary McDonogh, Sylvia Yanagisako,
or George Marcus), and I cannot imagine any of us praising people we accuse of being “greedy.”
But anthropologists have studied systems of great inequality for how they “work” (or seem to work),
and they have also studied nonclass systems as rank-differentiated or descent-group differentiated,
and systems with age grades, centralized bureaucracies, and seemingly loose ones. In myriad ways
anthropologists have studied the emergence and maintenance of rigid systems that draw on religious,
scientific, historical, and broadly cultural notions that assign some people to perennially lower positions
in a societal hierarchy than others (and Against Stigma, Paul Greenough and Balmurli Natrajan’s
courageous edited collection is an excellent recent example of this). But does this mean that there
is a long-standing anthropology of “greed” and “excess,” even if not previously named as such? Or
does it mean that there are good reasons to avoid calling anything “greed” and few things cases of
“excess” (perhaps the Kwakiutl potlatch but not much else)? Note, for example, that in this volume Bosco
frames his contribution as “the problem of greed” and that Morehart prefers to frame his discussion of
agricultural production and institutional transformation in the northern basin of Mexico in terms of
“surplus” (its potentiality and consequences) and not really in terms of greed or even excess.
Another way to think about the broader concern is perhaps more provocative, namely, that much
anthropology seems to be fascinated by the topic of (serious) inequality, but not all that much of it is
openly critical of it, except perhaps in our own industrial or postindustrial society. If that is the case, one
useful function of introducing “greed” and “excess” as viable topics of anthropological discussion could
be to raise the question of criticism, indeed to force it unto our plates, that is, to put the uncomfortable
spotlight on it. Alternatively, and perhaps more skeptically, I could ask if we are hereby not really seeking

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to identify “extremes” and choosing not to say much about what is tacitly presumed to be within the
norm (and actually having and perpetuating some sense of “norm” or “the normal” with which we are
willing to live without passing too much judgment).
Thinking of “greed” as accumulation is equally useful in analytic ways, especially if we contemplate
related casual or everyday notions of accumulation and not just scholarly ones. Ironically doing so
forces us to seek more analytic precision. Is our intention limited by those scholarly associations or
genealogies that make us think that “greed” and “excess” necessarily pertain to money or wealth in an
economic sense? Several articles here wonderfully illustrate how limiting such a view would be. After
all, Wilk makes us see family dynamics and romance as well as their relation to specific conditions of
labor, and it is not clear to me that much would be gained by understanding “binge consumption” in
any narrow economic sense. Similarly, Antrosio and Colloredo-Mansfeld address ideas of investment
and risk-taking and emerging markets in certain Andean communities, but it is not clear to me what is
being accumulated, what matters more, what role “wealth” plays, or even how fundamentally different
the behaviors really are in these networks and communities they examine here.
It is helpful to remember other forms of accumulation around us—and in other parts of
the anthropological and related literature. Accumulation could refer to hoarding (and hoarding to the
gathering and caring for numerous dogs, cats, and birds). It can refer to museum collecting (and to the
practices of collecting what used to be called curios and later artifacts or even objets d’art). Accumula-
tion can also refer to the gathering of prestige items or accomplishments (and everything from university
degrees to membership in particular clubs to merit badges in the Boy Scouts). Of course, it can and often
does refer to the amassing of material property and the means to expand it at other people’s expense. Yet,
my question here is, at what point, or in which of these cases, are we comfortable naming the practice
“greed” or even a case of “excess”? If we consider several of the articles published in this inaugural issue
of the journal, the matter becomes palpable as well as intriguing. How many of the authors here actually
name a practice or phenomenon they discuss as a case of “greed” or even a case of “excess” (a term that
appears less blatantly negative than “greed” or at least less presumably permanent or less a part of some
presumed character flaw)? And even when they do so or come close to doing so, might it not be because
the SEA conference in which they first presented their work explicitly named “greed” and “excess” as the
theme of the conference (and this issue of the journal does the same) and perhaps these authors would
not have framed their study in quite the same way had it not been for the 2011 conference at Notre Dame
and this eventual and highly provocative publication?
Perhaps pinpointing the “proper” referent is less important than noting that some forms of accu-
mulation do not automatically evoke anthropological criticism while others do, and the question would
then be whether the naming of something as “greed” rehabilitates “greed” as a potentially positive thing,
characteristic, or phenomenon in certain cases (such as museum collecting), or it automatically taints
all forms of accumulation by association.
There has indeed been much work over the years on museum collecting, museum display, cultural
capital, distinction, and even upward mobility, and not all of it has been negative or critical (e.g., Douglas
Cole’s 1985 Captured Heritage). Because that work has focused on multiple questions, including how
these behaviors, values, and processes work and for whom, I think multiple questions are also warranted
here, perhaps especially about what we gain and lose by introducing “greed” or “excess” into our scholarly
discussion (on “The Social Economies of Greed and Excess”) and thinking with it and through it. As I
look at “greed” and “excess” as referents to differentiation and distinction and the desire for both, and

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I reflect on anthropological work that addresses them, including here, I am compelled to worry a bit
about where this intriguing exercise in thinking about “greed” and “excess” might take us, because the
following seem to be logical extensions of that exercise, at least for some.
Consider the idea that “greed” might be interpreted (as a result of this exploration, by some
anthropologists) as the generative mechanism for the production and reproduction of systems of
differentiation. Does the possibility of reaching that conclusion strengthen or weaken the value of
contemplating “greed” and “excess” as anthropologists? Is the answer different if we contemplate the
likelihood that many anthropologists of “greed” or “excess” would instead come to see “greed” and
“excess” as products of those systems and not as values, behaviors, speech, or practices they prefer
to criticize even in moral terms? And would the answer be different yet again if we considered the
possibility that some anthropologists might conclude that “greed” is a part of “human nature” that we
see manifesting itself in different but ever-present ways everywhere? Arguably, this latter possibility
may appear to be value-neutral, objective, realistic, and even scientific, and those embracing this stance
might see others as just being political, but we should exercise great caution in ever attributing certain
characteristics to “human nature,” whatever the attribution is, because of the apparent permanence of
the attribution and the relegation of spatiotemporal processes and contexts to the status of “surface
structures” alone.
Take, for example, whether naming “greed” and “excess” as worthwhile subjects of study might
encourage—or preclude—study of other explanations for systems of differentiation, the desire for
upward mobility (in terms of class, caste, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender), or even lack of
ambition. Indeed, if we were to contemplate the idea that lack of ambition (for oneself, one’s family, one’s
“group,” or “society”) was, by implication, better than other things that lead to distinction or difference,
would we really want to “go there”? Consider what it would say to people seeking redress for ongoing,
present, or past injustices, or people toward the bottom of hierarchical systems and/or those helping
them out. Indeed, as Section 2 asks, “Can Marginalized Peoples Be Greedy and Excessive?” Or, as I
might rephrase it, is a desire for systemic socioeconomic change enabled—or disabled—by the kind of
name-calling that leads some to call others greedy?
I realize that I am suggesting contemplating directions in which some anthropologists might go (in
studies of “greed” and “excess”) if this were to be picked up by more and more colleagues (and not just
those included in this journal issue), and judging in advance the merits of such work. I realize that this
is not likely to be something with which most of us have experience and some may be uncomfortable
engaging in this act of anticipatory evaluation. Yet, it is well within the range of what the National
Academy of Sciences asks its National Research Council (NRC) Study Groups to do when charging
them with assessing the future merits of potentially large, new areas of research (as I experienced in
the late 1990s as a member of the NRC’s Study Group on the Human Genome Diversity Project). The
possibilities might exceed our current imagination. The question is how far and in what direction.

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