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2017 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (3): 261–279


The real in the real economy

Federico Neiburg, Museu Nacional, Universidade
Federal do Rio de Janeiro
Jane I. Guyer, Johns Hopkins University

Over the last few decades, and especially following the 2008 crisis and the current period
of turbulence and uncertainty, “the real economy” has been transformed into one of the
most critical concepts shaping public debates on the present and future of our collective
existence. In this special section of Hau, we propose an ethnographic theory of the “real
economy” by questioning how assemblages of vernacular and scientific realizations and
enactments of the real economy are linked to ideas of truth and moral values; how these
multiple and shifting realities become present, and entangle with historically and socially
situated lives; and how the formal realizations of the real in the governance of economies
engage with the experiential life of ordinary people. In this cooperative exploration of a
concept that holds varied and shifting places across different disciplines, and is applied
under varying conditions in the world, what comes to the fore is the huge potential of
the ethnographic method. The special section, the outcome of a Wenner-Gren Foundation
workshop held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2016, will be published in two parts.
Keywords: economy, reality, realization, ethnographic theory, economic lives, global

Introduction: The shifting meanings of real

“Economic reality ignores political expectations,” writes one of the Brazil’s main
newspapers on the ongoing national crisis.1 “All will depend on the behavior of the
real economy,” claimed an expert on CNN, talking about the future of the United
States after Donald Trump’s election.2 “Evidence is mounting that the real economy

1. “Realidade econômica ignora a retórica política.” Folha de São Paulo, July 17, 2016.
2. “Money.” CNN, May 14, 2016.

 his work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Federico Neiburg and
Jane I. Guyer
ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.3.015
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