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date: 10 April 2021

Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contextsfree

  • Magdalena VillarrealMagdalena VillarrealCIESAS Occidente
  •  and Joshua GreeneJoshua GreeneUniversity of Geneva


Financial practices only partially entail money. People and institutions weave their economic lives intermixing pecuniary but also social, cultural, geographic, moral, and emotional elements. These elements are often knitted together in ways that appear erratic or that only conform to established models in a single dimension, which leaves the analyst ill-informed concerning the workings of finance in everyday life. Fortunately, conceptual tools to go beyond narrow economic perspectives and explore the interaction of the multiple dimensions involved are on the rise.

In this effort, it is critical to explore such dimensions in motion. People act in certain social milieus, push distinct fundamentals, exclude others, do their best to meet specific goals, and prioritize or overlook certain issues. Such actions are framed in what we can call economic exchange “languages” wherein assessments of equivalence are interpreted according to conventional significations. This brings up the notion of currencies, not only those represented in dollars, pesos, or euros, but currencies portraying values in social, symbolic, and cultural terms that embody economic transactions. Currencies flow within specific circuits involving different means of equivalence that entail diverse normative and moral frameworks.

Multiple currencies coexist and interplay in everyday life, and people and institutions are obliged to juggle in order to make do. The allusion to juggling of currencies implies that there are a number of different economic and livelihood circuits that people operate in simultaneously. Some of these circuits involve religion, gender, identity, family, and markets, which operate with distinct criteria. Others involve hard cash or perhaps social and symbolic assets. It is the act of keeping these multiple circuits in motion at the same time that is the juggling of currencies. Juggling currencies is a key to success, however success may be depicted.

Placing the lens on borderlines and transborder crossings is revealing, particularly when the aim is to explore monetary practices and economic lives. It is here that discontinuities, conflicts, and dilemmas become evident. People who are obliged to operate in two or more officially sanctioned monetary currencies, for example, need to be deeply knowledgeable about different normative frameworks and schemes of value equivalences wherein diverse social categories, expectations, and moralities are mobilized. Juggling is the name of the game.

Juggling entails keeping more objects in the air than hands in motion. Skilled jugglers keep several balls in the air but make the motion look smooth. Their hand movements convey stability, going almost unnoticed. Stability is an ideal, while juggling is the norm. Juggling debts is a common financial practice in the management of household economies (see Guerin, Morvant, and Villarreal 2014), and juggling is one of the keys to success in the financial world. Crossing boundaries, moving quickly between institutions, markets, cities, countries, or continents wherein diverse schemes of value equivalences are aligned and repositioned, entails the mobilization of multiple currencies. The dynamics linked to the juggling of currencies is thus of critical relevance to studies concerning economy and finance.

Multiple currencies have been employed in economic transactions around the globe for centuries. In addition to official legal tenders, shells, brass rods, cowries, cacao beans, and letters of credit have been found in different historical periods to assess value in diverse transactions. And new currencies are being created around the world. Some, labeled alternative currencies (see Collin 2014; Maurer 2005; Santana 2008) are generally aimed toward avoiding speculation and other capitalist ailments. Digital currencies propending to cross national frontiers, such as bitcoin, have emerged, and still others are more local in nature, with the purpose of strengthening home-grown economies. Currencies portray elements to gauge comparison and interchangeability, criteria of appraisal concerning recognized calculations of value. They can be visualized as particular exchange “languages” wherein reckonings of equivalence are rated according to accepted significations. Thus, currencies are not only represented in dollars, pesos, or euros, but are also rendered in values of social, symbolic, and cultural terms.

The case of a Mexican anthropology professor can illustrate the everyday life of a range of currencies. The professor carries out territorial development studies for the federal government in Mexico. In the morning he teaches classes and exchanges plans with colleagues. During the day he meets with officials; he lunches with them and shares stories about his family and theirs. They call him whenever they need an official study, as they know he has a good understanding of communities and people on the ground. In the communities he asks questions but he also brings in information about government plans, programs, and other resources available to address the problems they face. He gives his perspective on whatever it is they are struggling with. Throughout the day he takes calls, one from a foundation about a grant they think he should apply for, another from a colleague organizing a conference, and another from his sister-in-law about the marriage of his niece. One of his students recently wanted to continue studying. The professor picks up the phone and calls an old colleague who is now department director at a United Nations program in the Netherlands. After this brief conversation and some assistance accessing a scholarship, the student is later able to carry out his doctorate with a friend of the professor’s friend. The Mexican professor’s students are all over the world, in banks, in foundations, universities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies.

Like many other economic actors today, this professor’s job is to cross boundaries. By working in the political world as well as on the ground in the communities carrying out ethnographic research, he is constantly aware of his presentation of self in different scenarios, including how he will be perceived, the unwritten norms he should follow in his handling of the situation, as well as the concerns these others will have regarding his communication. By walking beyond, between, and around boundaries, he is constantly engaging with comparative norms, customs, behaviors, greetings, dress codes, expectations, and epistemological backgrounds. He is continuously scaling various networks through which he can actually generate material resources, but the currencies that he is juggling with involve an intricate entangling of identity, style, networks, information, friendships, mentorship, generosity, and reputation. He does not have all of the information concerning these issues. Quite a bit of his juggling relies on guesses based on contextual evidence. But then the student manages to go off to study and work for the United Nations. He, in turn, both carries this debt to his old supervisor as well as engages with the pressure to perform and meet the equivalent value of the favor called in.

At the same time, there are bills to pay. His team of investigators needs cash. His university takes a cut of his grants; he fills up his gas tank on his way to a regional planning meeting and saves the receipt—this too is a currency with all of the specifications required. But sometimes he’s in a hurry and doesn’t wait for the receipt; this time the gas will be out of his own pocket—but later he will make it up with a receipt from the gas when he goes to the beach. Not only are currencies multiple and social in nature, involving issues of valuation and incommensurability, but money itself is social. Sometimes the gas money is important, but sometimes the time is more valuable that the receipt. And sometimes the receipt for something else can be a currency for another completely unrelated expense.

Describing the professor’s financial practices only in terms of income and expenses does not help understand how such finances work. The ways in which he manages to juggle different monetary and nonmonetary currencies provide a fuller picture of the dynamics entailed in finance. The professor’s handling of currencies does not differ much from that of a corporation (except, perhaps, that the latter will likely use more technology, resort to a number of staff, etc.) or that of a peasant woman in an isolated village, who also deals with different times, networks, knowledge frames, and a host of resources, the great majority of which are nonmonetary.

A different example of currencies concerns the issue brought up by Noam Yuran (2017, 155) in his article on finance and prostitution. He questions the difference between money that can buy a wife and money that cannot in some societies. Is it not the same money? He explains that there is a different kind of logic in each case, a different kind of price. One can say that what the author labels as a different kind of logic involves a range of social currencies entangled within the circuits concerned, revealing the veins of social life that vibrate within economic calculations.

Still other examples involve black money, which is liable to be rejected or belittled for ethical, social, or legal reasons, or the case of a precious stone, which may be valued for social, historical, and emotional reasons.

These would not likely be identified as different kinds of monies, yet somehow different values of worth and exchangeability are branded in them for one case or the other. They reveal the operation of different social, cultural, and symbolic currencies that intertwine with legal tender or simply enable exchange.

These are social, symbolic, and cultural currencies that are entangled in assessing the worth of a particular good or service. Currencies, monetary or not, are not neutral. They are embedded in the thick fabric of social life and are necessarily conformed by beliefs, ideas, and viewpoints. Capitalism, as many authors have pointed out (including Marx, Polanyi, Giddens, Hart, and Yuran), has needed to dis-embed economic calculations from the flesh of social life, to separate off monetary currencies from the norms, values, and regularities that constitute them. Marx sustained that the economy was an abstraction. There is a plea for processes of re-embedding, reaching an understanding of the corpus that comprises the economy.

The recognition that different value categories involving moral sanctions tend to mark differences in economic transactions within particular domains is not new in anthropology. Bohannan’s (1955) classic model of spheres of exchange has evoked a number of discussions. According to his model, there were three main spheres of circulation in the Tiv economy of northern Nigeria: one was reserved for subsistence or market transactions; another for prestigious items; and another for marriage. The currencies operating in each sphere differed. His ideas have circulated widely in economic anthropology because they speak to how circulation of goods is not unrestricted, but follows certain patterns and limitations. Yet Bohannan’s conceptualization has been criticized for a number of reasons, including the rigidity and unilinearity of his model wherein exchangeability was next to impossible. Others critique the way in which agency is implicitly granted to structures, regimes, spaces, and spheres of circulation while valuation is relegated to a mere effect (Caliskan and Callon 2009). As Jane Guyer (2004, 29) indicates, “History shows that people have responded to novelty with more alacrity, struggles for control more fiercely and attempted varied investment portfolios more imaginatively than Bohannan’s original model could possibly encompass.” And Narotzky (1977) hits the nail on the head when she points out that

rather than positing the circulation of goods as integrated in a unique sphere of exchange determining value, which is assumed to be the case in market economy, anthropologists tried to find a theoretical framework for the complex and multivocal processes of circulation they encountered. (71)

She asks how one can explain the complex processes that may partake of multiple meanings for those involved in them.

The notions of circuits and currencies help address the issue of multiple meanings and values in similar economic transactions, taking agency seriously. Circuits portray the idea that there are flow forms of languages or epistemologies of exchange which have permeable thresholds defining their differences. Currencies rely heavily on economic, financial, social, cultural, and geographic, but also moral and emotional factors. In the financial world, people act in unique social milieus, push certain fundamentals, exclude others, and do their best to meet goals. They also prioritize and overlook specific issues, such as environmental, religious, cultural, or legal implications that are intertwined in the valuation. Social studies of the economy and finance, including economic anthropology, moral economy, social studies of money, and the anthropology of debt, disclose key everyday financial practices that reveal the workings of money, currencies, and in general, economic lives. It would be a mistake to try to formulate a list of different currencies and their schemes of significations, which are in constant processes of change. But it is critical to explore how currencies flow within specific circuits involving different means of equivalence that entail diverse normative and moral frameworks. Thus, even when values are deemed homogenous within a numeric monetary form, their worth can be very different.

In international scenarios, for example, a transaction for a country that needs a particular commodity, such as oil or specialized medical equipment from another, does not only involve money. It is intertwined with a variety of social currencies entailing power, favors, political debts, and legitimacy, among many other elements that form part of the transaction. A similar transaction between two other countries can entail different monetary, social, and symbolic currencies.

The variance of interest rates on public bonds between nations is another example of this. The return to the investor or the price the borrower has to pay can be very different, depending on whether the debt is from Germany or Iraq. The values involved in these transactions are linked to different assessments regarding the reliability of the country’s institutions and predictions with respect to its future. Such calculations are formulated differently within different circuits, wherein they may or may not be recognized as valid.

Similarly, an isolated picturesque farm house deep in the mountains of Mexico has a very different value than the same house deep in the mountains of Switzerland. Again, valuation is a social process in which people are not only weighing up worth in monetary terms, but also in terms of different kinds of currencies that appraise security, future accessibility, liquidity, convertibility, and trust in the country’s legal system.

In other instances, currencies embodied in transactions may involve money, but not as a central element. This is the case of citizenship. Immigrants acquiring citizenship have to pay; but more than that, they have to provide evidence of reliability, trustworthiness, and, if possible, industriousness in exchange for a card that will give them access to work or the right to live in a neighborhood perceived of as secure. In fact, money, in this case, is a symbol to highlight the fact that citizenship is not an easy gift but a valuable reward. This does not mean the country awarding citizenship does not make a profit from it, but it is clear that multiple currencies are involved, including statements concerning sovereignty.

Multiple currencies coexist and interplay in everyday life, and people and institutions are obliged to juggle in order to make do. The allusion to juggling of currencies implies that there are a number of different economic and livelihood circuits that people, institutions, and social clusters operate in.

These circuits will involve market codes, religious beliefs, gender norms, identity, and family, which leads them to work with distinct criteria. Boltanski and Thevenot (2006) identify six orders of worth, or economies of worth, each with coherent principles of evaluation, while Parry and Bloch speak of different sets of exchange relations that forge diverse value classes (1996, 15, 16). These notions voice the recognition of a differential valuation within different circuits wherein they necessarily interact with elements from different settings, forming transient assemblages that configure processes of valuation. Circuits can cut across what Bourdieu (1993) labels fields, wherein services, knowledge, and goods are produced, distributed, and negotiated, but struggles within a field can shape and forge circuits that transverse different spaces of interaction. Circuits can overlap, merge, diversify, assemble, or transform in the process. Struggles for different kinds of capital tend to follow different regimes of value (Appadurai 1986; Villarreal 2014b) and are expressed in different currencies.

Currencies can implicate hard cash and virtual money, but also social and symbolic assets. Juggling currencies is the act of keeping these multiple circuits in motion at the same time, but more than that, it is the conversion of resources between actors, both in the “outside world” in market encounters and within the home. Juggling is not necessarily an innate skill; it can be seen as a practice that involves learning by doing and a long history of dropped catches behind every successful catch. Even old masters are still, of course, allowed a degree of maneuvering, mismanagement, and fiascos as long as these are at least partially obscured to the eyes of particular audiences within specific scenarios. Although there are plenty of blunders and important risks involved (e.g., in the case of juggling debts), in ideal currency juggling, the façade of steadiness must prevail. That is, motions, interactions, and exchanges do not need to be successful, but the identity of the juggler and the rendering of the exchange should appear unwavering. The juggler must appear in control, and onlookers are not expected to notice that juggling is taking place. Jugglers maintain face even when transactions fail or are unequal. When the juggler drops the ball, the relationship should develop in such a way that interpretations can be continuously retranslated and re-evaluated to convey stability. Juggling can be a failure when the actor lacks the ability to read and manage (consciously or unconsciously) a currency when there is a lack of information or the information is false. In these cases, transactions can still take place, but often in unfavorable conditions for the juggler. There is also the common practice of juggling risks with goods that do not yet exist, such as future income or a crop that has not been harvested. Here, velocity and timing are juggled with.

The point to stress now is that, as Knorr, Cetina, and Preda (2007, 116) explain concerning stability in markets: “The specialized lifeworld of flow markets is ‘metastable’ in physicists’ sense: it is stable only long enough to enable transactions to occur and changes with transactions.” Stability, apparent or real, is critical in situations of institutional discontinuity such as borderlines and transborder crossings. It is here that gaps, conflicts, and dilemmas become evident. People who are obliged to operate in two officially sanctioned monetary currencies, for example, need to be deeply knowledgeable with different normative frameworks and schemes of value equivalences wherein diverse social categories, expectations, and moralities are mobilized. Juggling is the name of the game.

Money, Social Commodities, and Currencies

In her book on the social meaning of money, Viviana Zelizer (1994, 1–5) asks why theorists have held on so stubbornly to mistaken views of money. “It is a powerful ideology of our time,” she says, “that money is a single, interchangeable, absolutely impersonal instrument —the very essence of our rationalizing modern civilization. . . . Money’s colorlessness . . . repainted the world into an ‘evenly flat and gray tone.’” She contends that

money is shaped and reshaped by particular networks of social relations and varying systems of meanings . . . Cultural and social structures set inevitable limits to the monetization process by introducing profound controls and restrictions on the flow and liquidity of monies. (1994, 18–19)

In a similar vein, Parry and Bloch (1989, 22–23) explain that “not only does money mean different things in different cultures, but it may mean different things within the same culture.” They add that “what money means is not only situationally defined but also constantly re-negotiated.” Hence, they suggest that researchers should shift their focus “from a consideration of the meanings of money to a consideration of the meanings of whole transactional systems. . . .”

This has serious implications for an understanding of the workings of money and finance at different levels of society. Such workings can hardly be observed through unidimensional economic models. That salary money may not be conceptualized, spent, saved, or transferred in the same way as lottery money, that one kind of debt can be classified as a burden while another one, involving the same monetary value, can be considered an asset, reveal the tip of the iceberg encompassing the mechanisms and processes in operation. The latter include a multiplicity of devices, procedures, and arrangements that conform in diverse ways to a host of established norms and procedures. And, as Maurer (2006) asserts: “Money may render everything calculable, but the systems of calculation and quantification on which it depends are not always as straightforwardly algebraic as one might imagine.” He elucidates how money of whatever sort works as an index of relationships of obligation, rank, clientage social belonging, or state sanction (2015).

Jane Guyer also shows this clearly in her (1977, 66–68) work on value scales in historic Atlantic Africa. “Numbers linked the scales for monetary transactional purposes,” she says,

But any number . . . retained its potential referents across the registers, to words, things, bodily kinetic and spiritual powers. . . . The numerical, monetary scale can be pegged to any other scale of ‘things,’ objects, skills, personal qualities, services, and so on, as far as the cultural imagination can go. (66, 68)

She explains that people maintained parallel scales in monetary valuation. There were multiple registers at play, including the modality of exchange, the social distance of partners to transactions, and diverse ways of assessing quality.

These scales and registers, however, are in constant flow. Ranks and scales can change inasmuch as they are associated to categories that have moral implications. And the entangling between scales and registers will modify recognized values. For analytical purposes, it is convenient to make reference to the interaction of currencies as “languages” that portray elements to gauge comparison and interchangeability, criteria of appraisal concerning recognized calculations of value, in order to highlight movement and processes. It is evident that the value of a particular monetary currency that is awarded high appreciation can depreciate suddenly in the light of a particular temporal event. But currency transactions do not necessarily involve money. They comprise the exchange of social wherewithal, including gifts, information, promises, unpaid labor, assistance, support, care, meals, invitations, planned vacations, favors, status, prestige, social links, credit, debt, and even style, among other resources. Social currencies do not only mediate in monetary currencies to “earmark” particular uses or valuations of fiat money. Some also work in particular payment systems. They perform as languages in processes of valuation in both monetary and nonmonetary exchange of goods and services. They are socially constructed fiat systems embedded in social processes of valuation by the actors involved in an array of interactions. Modes of measurement, comparison, and multiple associations are important, but measurement itself can frequently be taboo. This can include, for example, the cost of rearing children, particular kinds of favors, or a gift to a good friend.

All commodities have a social dimension to them. This is evident, for example, in how quality, demand, social impact, and other attributes are valued and weighed. However, a range of social resources are not generally considered commodities inasmuch as they tend not to be exchangeable into legal tender, although people may invest money in obtaining them. Such is the case of citizenship, power, contacts, and information. The value of resources can be differently gauged in different scenarios. The identity of the resource holder, as well as that of the interested parties, will be of relevance, framed at the interfaces where their interaction involves assessment of possible gains and risks. These values are often manipulated by those involved. Thus, the currencies entailed in attributing value are configured by the very values that have come to be embraced within them at the different interfaces taking place in their trajectories.

The notion of social capital is generally resorted to in an effort to bring such resources into economic and financial equations. The problem is that these efforts necessarily lead to measuring such assets, which can only be carried out under the assumption that they are homogeneous, storable, transferable, and can be included in general accounting. This is hardly ever the case. A number of attempts to measure social capital have been made in different countries as well as in the World Bank. In Mexico, well-intended government officials implemented a study to identify social capital among the poor in an effort to support processes of “empowerment.” The initiative faced serious glitches when the researchers discovered that networks, for example, worked both ways. They certainly supported families in times of need, but they could be an obstacle when trying to escape poverty. Most importantly, the list of items classified as social capital needed to be mobilized in certain directions in order to become useful as capital.

The problem here again is the attempt to separate off certain features as capital, to abstract what we identify as economic features from the dynamic social tissue that comprises them. The different currencies that generate value in such features are simplified into a single dimension, and this is frequently misguided. People’s social assets are necessarily tied in with social relations. They are signified and weighed within concrete situations, and changing circumstances entail fluctuations in terms of value. In this process, the means of equivalence are framed within particular normative and cultural circuits of signification. Most of the time these do not involve explicit calculations comprising rational arguments, but rather draw in shared values and assumptions. The moral norms that are brought into play for certain estimates can be transformed in contexts oriented to obtain status or monetary gain. In addition, their reckonings can involve fear, resentment, or despair. Arithmetic is signified in the light of beliefs, fears, and hopes. It is also signified within frameworks of calculation wherein particular hierarchies are acknowledged and perhaps resisted, and where certain aspects are considered trivial or simply ignored.

Such framing excludes certain conducts, expectations, and dreams as much as it includes others. In financial markets, successful moves can include “framing out” a range of features that may interfere with the possibility of gain. Here, women will find it difficult to access devices that would allow them to transgress particular gender norms (see Villarreal 2009). Frameworks enclose considerations as to what is to be perceived as accessible, what is risky, and what is promising. These are assessed according to specific social and cultural criteria wherein certain rules and regulations make sense. This involves the interaction of a range of—often contradictory—regimes of value (see Villarreal 2014b). Regimes of value are the schemes that provide a degree of coherence to the processes of appraisal following particular beliefs and desires. Although some values converge and intertwine, each party’s calculations will be framed within different understandings, giving numbers diverse meanings. Prescribed norms and conditionings, as well as moral considerations, comprise distinct regimes. Depending on the situation and the context, similar monetary denominations can be valued differently, and dissimilar ones may be judged equivalent. There is an overlap between the notions of regimes of value and social currencies. Yet the first is useful to identify the historically and contextually construed moral interpretation present in the reproduction of values, while the second highlights the dynamic interplay between categorizations and appraisals.

Thus, in working with the notion of social currencies, key analytical issues concern the practices through which equivalences are framed and assessments forged with reference to specific regimes of value. Currencies function differently in different contexts. They are not autonomous languages that spell out value equivalences. Most often they become interdependent, relying as they do on the social and cultural milieu within which they interact. They are brought into play with each other, intertwining in the context of different social relations. Their flows intermingle between what are labeled formal and informal activities, whose boundaries are blurry and inconsistent. Acknowledging the workings of different currencies impacts the ways in which statistics and other unidimensional data may be interpreted.

A clear example concerns household economies. Men, women, and children’s earnings, both monetary and nonmonetary, tend to be used up, shared, and accumulated differently. Men, as documented in a host of ethnographic accounts in different communities around the world, will more easily spend part of their wages on beer, unlike many women, who have been brought up to take care of each penny, to look after each chicken they have raised. In some cases, it is women who lean toward accumulation in the form of buying bricks to build a house, while men may use it up in buying a car. Certain kinds of networks are frequently maintained by women, who may be more willing than men to let go of material assets in solidarity, and it is frequently women who are willing to give up time for their children’s education. The circuits within which such resources flow are forged in dialogue—or perhaps in confrontation—with notions of what is socially or ethically feasible. This often entails a great deal of maneuvering, not only within the household, but also with networks and circuits that in one way or another touch the domains in which they interact outside of the family circle (Villarreal 2004; Zelizer 2011). Values attributed to money are thus differentiated.

A host of nonmonetary resources come into play in order to facilitate survival, social mobility, and self-fulfillment. These include the ability to tap into the unpaid labor of others through sharing, care work, and culturally defined civic and familial obligations. Economics refers to the factors that allow workers to survive when wages are low or erratic as “smoothing consumption.” These informal or less recognized circuits are thus integrated into larger flows by compensating for the periodic misallocations, crisis, and market failures inherent in capitalism. Yet, trying to understand how people earning low wages survive in a commodified world only by studying their monetary income misleads the analyst. Their world, like all worlds, combines flows of community, family, public services, ecological bounty, rights, responsibilities, status, shared knowledge, social protections, and varying degrees of access to rights and representation, among other issues. It would be ideal, says David Harvey (2018, 76), to not bring these spheres into the economic, but rather to expand them as explicitly anti-value spheres where economic rationality is only one of many rationalities. “Anti-value thereby defines an active field of anti-capitalist struggle,” he says. The tendency with the notion of social currencies is in fact to bring social, cultural, emotional, and political issues into the economic equation. It does so in order to point out that they are there, that they are operating within the abstraction we call economy. They make it work. And moreover, people need to maneuver with, alongside, and between them. But Harvey’s point is relevant. Financial and economic reasoning is only one of the rationalities involved, and often it is not even the most important one. The notion of juggling currencies helps to illustrate this.

The intricate workings of currencies within networks also reveals how, in some cases, certain resources are only available to specific groupings. Processes of exclusion are forged and transactions enabled, but also restrained via unspoken norms and understandings. Certain values, such as loyalty, sacrifice, and indebtedness, may be reinforced, embroiled in emotions that can include love, embarrassment, or humiliation. Participants act within socially attributed boundaries. They are not isolated individuals, nor are their actions a mere aggregate of performances. Specific conceptualizations of identity and rights such as ethnic background, age, gender, and nationality are drawn in, patterned in ways that may appear erratic, but that make sense to and may be manipulated by those involved.

People are living multiplex realities, complying with manifold, sometimes contradictory normative frameworks (see also Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). In the process, they not only manage and juggle different currencies, but they need to do so in order to cope.

Boundaries and Transborder Circuits

Border identity is a clear example of this. Identities are forged within particular frames that enable certain aspirations while restricting others, particularly regarding migration and citizenship. People construe significations within socially constructed boundaries, drawing upon social tools in so doing. What people envisage from their migration enterprise has everything to do with their histories, their class and gender constraints, and the knowledge and information available to them, among many other issues. The “fortune” that they aim to bring home is hard to get, and it is quite humiliating to return, as they say, “with empty hands.” These issues contribute to frame their possibilities to carry out certain aspirations and formulate assessments. Such assessments are forged in the overlapping of value frameworks wherein different currencies intersect. Further processes of valuation include the amalgamation of values, but also manipulation, selection, and prioritization by agents who act in accordance with their particular judgments.

And, as explained by Vélez Ibáñez (2010, 128), the only way that many border region inhabitants can take control of their space and their livelihoods is by creating, developing, adjusting, inventing, and innovating certain survival practices that can coincide with prevailing discourses in the locality. In the United States, for example, it is common for immigrants to stress how poor they were “back home” and how they have managed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” In Mexico, returnees will hardly detail the hardships they have endured. They tend to brag about how they were able to buy whatever they wanted and eat at restaurants (Villarreal 2016). Velez argues that people take control of their space “slantwise,” that is, they work in the margins of interstitial spaces where they can find points of connection and spaces that, as argued by Wolf (1956), can be negotiated, manipulated, and crossed.

Borderlines are dividing lines, but they can also be fertile axes of transit, connectivity, and articulation for those who cross them in the management of their financial and economic lives. Flows, exchanges, and transactions contribute to forge transborder spaces, to configure certain categories and attribute particular meanings to the social relations that reproduce within them. Such transactions involve the use of resources as well as monetary and nonmonetary calculations, different types of indebtedness, and forms of reciprocity. These practices, formatted in diverse cultural and normative languages, intertwine in the interstices between different economies, political systems, and lingua franca, as well as kinship and affinity linkages that work with the differences, mix them, and convert them into some sort of fragile unity of dissimilar elements. Focusing on border practices helps understand the processes within which such differences are reproduced and reworked, the new forms of categorization and interpretation that are generated, and the different types of social relations that take place in seeking to match their financial and social livelihoods.

Space dimensions are of critical importance in these processes. Cross-border flows are as common as they are complex. Boundaries between countries appear crosscut, but are in fact not so well defined. Borders are patrolled by human guards who have family, networks, responsibilities, loyalties, and identities that extend well beyond the legal frontiers they enforce. In the case of the Mexico–US borderline, for example, at least 50 percent of US border agents are Hispanic, and many are Mexican American. Mexican children cross the border every day to attend school in the United States, Mexican mothers give birth to American babies, and American companies hire Mexican workers who cross the border on a regular basis. But in enforcing sovereign rule, governing parties must frame out such linkages and firmly demarcate the boundaries. Part of this effort includes endeavors to control flows of money, commodities, and people, imposing rules, tariffs, fines, and penalties. Noncompliers must be categorized as criminals. In the process, power relations are generated and reinforced and monetary gains, via taxes, tolls, and profits, are reaped. Yet, control is never absolute. Currencies interweave in and out of such frames.

More than a few undocumented Mexicans who cross the border in search of the American Dream work in agricultural fields feeling exploited and discriminated against, which influences their views of their host society. This American Dream in its homogenized sense represents material success, created and peddled by the marketing industry, the emblem of which has been the ownership of a vehicle. The image is reproduced by media that represent a “successful American Way of Life” in television shows and advertisements showing people wearing trendy clothes, eating out, buying cars, etc. These mythical representations are conveyed through the 24-hour cable networks that broadcast through the farthest reaches of canyons, farms, and villages in Mexico and beyond. It is in this context that migrants return home and try to show off what they have managed to obtain in the form of material goods to prove that they have not been unsuccessful. It does not take long for them to realize that the American Dream entails exploitation, lack of health care, and discrimination. Yet, it is hard to accept failure, and many migrants stick to their market-induced dream, drinking beer and Coca Colas, eating out in fast-food restaurants, and consuming on credit. It is important to stress material success, but also to bring pride to their families at home.

In this process, they tend to hold strongly to the norms they consider to be part of the “civilized world” they now inhabit, which entails mixed consumption practices, but is best known for its mythologized idealized type model of law and justice, which has been projected by the American film and media industry. Mexico’s notorious drug king pin, El Chapo, who escaped Mexican authorities and even prisons, finally met his match in the United States, for instance. As a migrant woman put it: “crossing the border through the desert is not so much breaking the rules, since we came in search of honest work for honest pay. And we pay our taxes. . . .” In this context, getting ahead is not only a matter of money. There is much more to the American Dream than increasing wages. Some see it as access to a more civilized world (interviewees in case studies frequently mention that every home in the United States has air-conditioning; that labor in Mexico is paid by the day at the same exchange rate as the US worker is paid by the hour; or they reference an idealized version of state power that portrays the United States as a land without corruption, where the police are your friend and where the rivers are clean and all dogs are on leashes) while others see it as a form of temporary wage slavery where they sacrifice several years working double shifts and living in uncomfortable accommodations to amass a small fortune, to build a house at home, or at least to buy a vehicle to take back. What a decent income amounts to is gauged within these framing processes, which have to do with social and cultural aspirations, capacity and desire to consume, and class and gender considerations. The migrant is frequently keeping an eye on the convertibility or the exchange rate of monetary currencies, even when some of the salient values that are produced are pride, honor, and reputation. Prestige, status, and self-satisfaction play important roles, as does a sense of justice, equality, loyalty, and belonging. Such everyday experiences reshape the frames within which they calculate their earnings, revisit their past, visualize their opportunities, appraise their risks, and place their hopes. Their representation of what the American Dream amounts to colors their self-assessments of their present circumstances. It keeps them going and motivates them to get ahead, but often it also supports resentfulness and a critical view of the workings of American society.

Like the Mexico–US border, other national borders produce discontinuities in key features of social reproduction, including the value of labor, the interest paid on credit, and the expectations within families and networks. Journalists, policymakers, and international institutions typically reproduce these as dividing lines between “progressive” and “old-fashioned” societies, between “developed” and “underdeveloped,” basing such portrayals on a representation of limited dimensions. “The other” is “poorer,” “wealthier,” “exploitative,” “unreliable,” or “liable.” Here reductionist and generalized processes of ranking and categorization are based on social differences such as religion, class, race, gender, and generation. Figures representing single-dimensional features are transported to diverse scenarios, depicted as “hard data,” and reinterpreted under the light of relations of power. Such a view obscures the complexity of borderlines and the active circuits of diverse kinds that cross them.

Money, for example, is earned on one side of the border, carried back to the other side, put into a bank or changed into cash, and then stashed in discreet locations and spent on both sides. As Sández, Niño, and García (2009) describe it regarding the US–Mexico crossing, there are large, unmeasured flows of pay and expenditures in the pockets, purses, and backpacks of the thousands of people passing both ways through each border crossing each day. In the earliest hours of the morning, the migrants cross in tidal flows. The region’s brutal heat has led many producers and packers to depend on night labor. Shifts can start at 11 p.m. or even 2 a.m. By 10 a.m., most farmworkers in the fields have to begin to seek shelter and shade. At 2 a.m. in the border town of Calexico, California, workers line the streets, waiting in pockets in front of gas stations and side alleys. Buses haul the workers 2 hours away to fields in Arizona, and workers who already spent 2 to 4 hours crossing the border, in addition to their 8-hour shift and their 2-hour return, will spend another hour crossing the “line” to go back home the next day. One person working in the California agricultural fields reported renting a room close to the border in Mexicali, Mexico in order to just have a crash pad where he can shut his eyes for a few hours. His family, political refugees from the region’s violence, lives hours and hours south in Sinaloa. He sends most of his earnings, the money he earns in the fields in California, to Sinaloa. He earns dollars and transfers dollars to his wife, and she spends them in pesos. He is financing his daughter’s education. But some of the money stays at the border in Mexico to pay his share of the rent. And some of the money that he earned in the United States and took to Mexico comes back to the United States when he crosses the border the next day with a few bills in his pocket for whatever expenses he may encounter during his day: his breakfast and snacks in the United States before his shift, small bets he makes at lunch with his coworkers, a beer, or a tool. In each segment of its trajectory, money will be signified differently, framed within distinct social and cultural currencies.

Most transborder financial transactions are undocumented and, in fact, unknown. Mexican and binational families residing and working on both sides of the Mexican–American border, for example, experience and manage different monetary and social currencies, not only in peso–dollar exchanges, but also in transactions involving different means of equivalence that entail diverse normative and cultural frameworks. Mexicans living in Mexicali can cross the border to Calexico to sell their blood to a number of plasma centers, not because the price of blood is higher in Calexico, but because the sale of blood is forbidden in Mexico. Mexican mothers who have been abandoned by their husbands can apply for child support from US courts if their husband works in the United States. Mexican lawyers who work on the border frequently study US law. Case studies reveal how Mexicans with a US Social Security number lend it to other workers in return for the higher contributions to their Social Security account. Living at the border, it is convenient to manage oneself in English as well as in Spanish to be able to switch quickly between calculations in dollars and in pesos, but also to be up to date on legislation and normative frameworks on both countries. The latter is a difficult task, since it not only entails reading and understanding the small print in contracts and legislation, but also being able to anticipate problems that can arise and having the capacity to juggle with the different currencies involved in their everyday transactions.

Distinct devices are brought into the exchange. This is the case, for example, of coworkers who share the credit resources of person A in Mexico, who will cross the border to purchase items for friend B, who lacks both a visa and transportation. The courtesy is intertwined with mutual understandings of reciprocity, favors, and debts. Friend A uses a credit card linked to a North American bank. She will expect repayment, not of the price of the good on the said day, but the price of the good on the day that the credit card is due and on that day’s exchange rate: in pesos. They will handle all of this electronically. In this case, the money is not only flowing in a number of short- and long-distance circuits, it is moving electronically, from bank account to bank account, and managed on cellphones. These flows are anything but linear or unidirectional. Unlike conventional conceptions concerning money moving across the border as measured by official bank and electronic transfers, these flows are much like a river: they have many measurable and nonmeasurable dimensions that form not only flows, but eddies and back currents.

The notion of flows taking on multiple dimensions is visible under the microscope of close examination. These concepts are important because they represent challenges to the most fundamental factors in economic measurement. People working and living on two sides of the border bring into question such issues as how to count employment, poverty levels, and how to add up and think about remittances. Local economic activity as measured by income within a transborder region lacks the important component of laborers who work on the other side of the border and bring their money home in their pockets, and of employees working in one country who cross to the other to buy a great deal of their household goods. These units of county, city, region, or nation actually penetrate into other units. Border regions are thus interdependent. Labor and social systems are constrained by the boundaries of geographic units at national, state, and local levels as well as at the level of household. But an unknown and potentially significant error in measurement occurs when these units are assumed to be nonporous.

For example, studies fail to document how money flows from, but also to the United States from Mexican immigrants’ families. The issue of reverse remittances (see Villarreal 2014a) has been totally omitted in most literature. Yet, it is a common practice. In addition to the large investments of Mexican elite in North American banks, enterprises, and real estate, at an apparently minuscule yet very widespread level, people in Mexico and Central America send money to the United States when their relatives are in need, including for mortgages, rent, education, money to pay for their return, or bail to get them out of jail when they are caught without documents or after an accumulation of traffic fines. In more than a few cases, cattle, houses, land, and other assets are sold to meet the required sum. Such remittances are difficult to measure, and people tend not to mention them outright. They are unstereotypical and quite unexpected. Yet, they are not at all infrequent.

But most border crossings concern boundaries that are not related to nations or even states and municipalities. Other geopolitical, social, religious, ethnic, class, and gender issues create strict dividing lines, boundaries that need to be crossed in everyday transactions. The gender rift is often visible when measuring income. Women’s earnings tend to be unseen, or at least undervalued. A language of productivity, coined in accordance to manufacturing scenarios, prevails. Ethnic and religious discontinuities are marked by distrust and fear, which shape the measures to be applied in such cross-boundary transactions.

Processes of boundary definition are forged within relations of power, relations that must be continuously enforced if they are to survive. Again, human guards with particular interests, loyalties, and responsibilities conduct their operation. Power is not fixed. It must be constantly negotiated. But in these power struggles, certain assessments are established to the exclusion of others, information is filtered and translated, and ready interpretations are imposed. Predominant—yet not always explicit—sets of undisputed (or hardly contested) standards and valuations provide some kind of form and format to financial transactions, particularly with regard to processes of ranking and categorization. What is to be perceived as risky, what is promising, what can be judged reliable, are assessed—often following elaborate studies—according to specific formulas that, however technical, cannot avoid reliance on social and cultural criteria wherein certain rules and regulations make sense. Here hierarchies are acknowledged, portraying sequences of priorities: what is most important and is to be taken into consideration in a calculation and what is “coincidental noise” and is to be excluded. Unquestioned conventions—including, for example, the mechanisms by which certain social groups are judged untrustworthy—are often borrowed from, and yet influence, other arenas of social life.

In the process, scope for calculation is formatted. In so doing, currencies are brought into play, intertwining in the context of different social relations. Hence, financial practices only partially entail money. These elements are often knitted together in ways that appear erratic or that only conform to the model in a single dimension.

Velocity and Timing

The pace of monetary transactions encouraged by an economy obsessed with growth has come to be viewed as one of the central indicators of health. In this highly debated arena of theory, velocity can be illustrated as the number of times a single unit of currency is circulated in a given time period. In this sense, it is a comparative number, relying on other periods of time or other units of currency to measure up to.

Speed has become one of the key features of money flows. Money, as pointed out by Baig (2019), moves frequently, quickly, and subtly, often without leaving a paper trail behind. This led a Pakistani currency trader he was working with in Karachi to declare: “The gait is too brisk!” In other social circuits that include fiat financial flows as well as relationships between individuals and groups and social units such as states, communities, labor, and households, the ability to move needed resources through these circuits also relies on speed, but here, different time dimensions enter into play. An import broker, working illegally in the United States, is paid by check, which is deposited in her Mexican account, and depends on the childcare provided by her aunt, who must be able to efficiently cross the border and arrive in the early hours before her shift starts. A Mexican agricultural worker, apprehended by border agents on his return trip to his home and job in the United States, needed USD$10,000 bail. He had to go through familial circuits who could wire the cash that night. Information flows about where to work and where to live, where danger lurks, and where safety waits are temporally vulnerable, and well-developed social networks are differentiated in their ability to provide this information when needed. Back home in the sending community or village, where many migrants plan to one day return or retire, residents are no less dependent on timing. When the storm or drought wipes out the harvest, when the father-in-law falls ill or a new baby is born, the ability to call on the migrant, and the migrant’s ability to respond and send help or return, is completely dependent on the mutual understandings of the relationships at play. This is seen clearly in the case of a migrant who dies and the community back home has to call in favors from all directions to cover the expenses of bringing the migrant home—a case where loyalties and concepts of social debts are realized into expenses that in many cases cannot be recovered. Thus, by participating in these flows, which require unanticipated but essentially timed exchanges, migrants and individuals recreate the values that the system draws from. All of the circuits are essentially reproduced through the social bonds of identity, loyalty, beliefs, and constantly renegotiated normative frameworks.

Timing is also crucial in terms of coordination, possibilities of sharing, exchanging, and responding to opportunities. A significant number of people are expert jugglers when it comes to debts. Juggling of debts is in fact an important mode of survival among low-income families (Villarreal 2014a; Villarreal, Guerin, and Santosh Kumar 2017). Here, timing is critical. Debts, or at least an important part of them, must be repaid on time. Skilled debt jugglers must always keep these times in mind. In the performance art of juggling, pairs of jugglers can exchange their objects, but it only becomes natural when their timing is perfect and they share a mutual and coordinated understanding of the present moment. In juggling, this can only be mastered through practice, learning by doing, in coordination with others. When done in rhythm, passing between two persons can appear as easy and natural as juggling alone. In juggling currencies, rhythm entails trust and anticipation regarding the other’s moves, as well as shared knowledge between them. This can take place at a distance. Participants do not need to know each other. As Knorr Cetina and Preda (2007) show, the scopic nature of flows, enabled by technology, make for “markets . . . qua streaming epistemic systems.”

The allusion to juggling further serves to illustrate how these multiple circuits operate when considering some other properties of the act of juggling. First, the act of juggling implies that a number of objects are in motion at the same time. The act of juggling becomes exponentially more difficult as the objects being juggled differ by their ease of manipulation and the risk they pose to themselves and others. For instance, three beanbags are much easier to juggle than a scarf, a beanbag, and a tennis ball, but a machete, a ball, and an egg would be much more difficult. The different characteristics of the elements involved makes this juggling of multiple life realms an art.

In juggling currencies, negotiation between two individuals appears quite easy. A juggler keeps many circuits in motion but exchanges only some with certain partners. However, objects are often in the air: unresolved factors such as climate, credit, liquidity, and changing markets make juggling more complicated. Jugglers are obliged to act using their best guesses. And the intensity of this operation increases as multiple parties, groups, and timing sequences are added to the mix. Trying to negotiate legal status in multiple jurisdictions, exchanging currencies in different languages, navigating socially constructed realities that are context-specific, all the while attempting to earn a living and provide for the family and the needs and desires of all involved, becomes a serious performance.

Last, in order not to reduce this concept to an idea of currencies in motion in a static world, it is important to move away from the notion that the agent is an actor waiting for these flows to materialize. The juggler is constantly in motion, not just engaged in fixed, repetitive actions, but in activity that is in a constant state of change, at once acting on the flows and being acted on by the flows. The flows can create status for the actor, status which is utilized, or not, to change the nature of relationships. Thus, the migrant who is bailed out by a hidden network of alliances and relationships later becomes a legal resident in the United States. This changing identity is integrated back into the flow of resources (including legal tender, but others as well) between other members of the circuit. Thus, the juggling of resources is being performed through a constantly shifting set of relationships by a constantly changing array of individuals and groups.

The concept of juggling currencies suggests a methodological positioning that states that the economies of individuals, households, and regions need to be analyzed through a lens that takes agency into account, acknowledging the multi-nature of flows, identities, and value regimes in economic transactions. Border contexts provide useful windows to visualize diverse strategies concocted by actors operating under such contradictory and polarized normative contexts. In dealing with these different currencies, actors—be they individuals, families, institutions, organizations, or clusters of people or groups that share knowledge and aims for at least a short stretch of time—accommodate, rework, reject, manipulate, and work around normative frameworks. This entails quick responses and competent timing to an ever-changing relationship with the social fabric of their livelihoods. It is the act of juggling and the materialization of a resource that apparently was not in hand but somehow appeared through some action that keeps economic circuits at work. Even when all the actors, networks, circuits, and materials in motion seem to come crashing down, as they frequently do, the only logic keeping the performance together seems to be the mantra “the show must go on.”

Further Reading

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