DR ROBIN SMITH
Barter in the EU
An Ethnography of Balkan Corporate Financial Practices
POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH FELLOW: JANUARY 2020 – DECEMBER 2020
Robin Smith is an anthropologist of post-socialist Europe. She is interested in questions of rural debt and economic governance: How do rural businessmen make ends meet in times of protracted economic precarity, and how are post-socialist governments contributing to or mitigating the effects of joining the EU for their citizens? Her research integrates anthropology and political economy to shed light on the difficulties of maintaining rural livelihoods in the modern economy, focusing on a community of farmers in northwest Croatia to understand broader issues affecting southeastern Europeans today.
Her ISRF project explores the financial practices of agribusinesses, bringing together literatures on debt, informal economies, barter, and corruption to explain how corporations in post-socialist Europe manipulate markets. An outgrowth of researching the financial lives of rural businessmen, she is working to develop a network of anthropologists studying taxation in society, including a journal special issue and a co-edited book volume on the subject.
Robin additionally has a background in both political science and economics, and has worked and researched in Kosovo, the Republic of Moldova, and Bulgaria, but most extensively in Croatia. From 2017-19, Robin was a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University on an ERC-funded project Food Citizens? investigating alternative urban European food systems and concerned with how communities create localized food procurement networks that sit outside the dominant vertically integrated food industrial complex.
She completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar and did research for a number of years on the wine industry of Croatia. She also earned degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz and University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies and was a Peace Corps volunteer.
My objective is to write an ethnography of corporate financial practices in Croatia from the perspective of their smallest clients, rural family businesses. This research project proposes to examine how informal business practices have transformed from ad hoc coping mechanisms to necessities for the functioning of local markets under the pressure of neoliberal economic reforms. I will explore how large agri-businesses are able to shape markets in a deregulated environment where small farmers lack alternative clients, specifically analyzing how these companies manipulate debt relationships and de facto set the wholesale prices of agri-food products.
Starting with small farmers and working up through the economy, I seek to reveal how large companies control local markets, compounding the economic precarity of family businesses. In so doing, and using a novel methodological approach, this research investigates the deep structural roots of power systems linking government and the economy that make engaging in informality an inevitability of doing business. I will demonstrate through ethnographic examples how the co-evolution of states and corporations in post-socialist Croatia opens new fractures in our understanding of power relations in the economy and how these define Croatia’s post-EU accession economy in unanticipated ways.
As an independent scholar with political, economic, and anthropological backgrounds, as well as almost a decade of experience in post-socialist Europe, I propose to investigate informal and formal financial practices from the vantage point of the smallest links in the food chain. Using my pre-existing research network in Croatia, I will take family farming businesses as a lens through which to research how corporations shape local markets, and how they leverage political and business networks to perpetuate such practices.
I will use ethnographic field methods to advance my expertise as a business anthropologist, and will be hosted at a leading interdisciplinary and post-socialist studies institute. This will facilitate my professional development as an early career scholar undertaking cutting-edge research that impacts EU food markets.
The Research Idea
I will investigate informal and predatory business practices common to the region that are based on barter that I have grouped together conceptually as a system to describe how large corporations in the Balkans manipulate markets. I began to learn of these practices during research for my thesis on the role of trust in informal business relationships in rural Croatia, but their increasing prevalence warrants their own project.
I will investigate how the increasing intensity of these various manipulative financial practices in business shapes the daily lives of family businesses, changes their understanding of the market, and creates new favor relationships that cross business and social networks, approaching what is both an economic and political phenomenon from an anthropological perspective. This will produce an ethnography of financial practices that pervade southeastern Europe, taking the vantage point of farmers to interrogate the practices of key corporate players in the agri-food industry that is central to Croatia’s economy, and particularly to rural and economically marginal communities.
I bring together anthropology, business, and politics in a novel way at a point of rupture in Croatia’s economy where there are protests against corruption and pressure to rectify systemic market issues. Focusing on ‘corruption’ by large insider firms misses the greater, systemic issue of how their financial practices are transforming local economies. This warrants a re-conceptualization their financial practices to highlight their predatory and political nature. These systemic financial practices allow corporations to manage economies in place of the state, as they are in the field of the informal economy where post-socialist states are ill-equipped to intervene.
The important role of large, former state-owned corporations in Croatia reveal the rooted interests of key economic actors that have grown in the decades of transition to define the economy, challenging the assumption in political economy literature that assumes state and corporations are separate domains. Their often predatory financial behavior highlights how their overlapping authorities in the market open new, unanticipated fractures in our understanding of power relations in the economy, fractures my research will make apparent. Past research on barter networks, arrears, and informality by large firms conceptualized them as phenomena that would disappear as transition stabilized. Instead, my research shows how they have become integral to the economy.
Large corporations delay payments to clients to renegotiate with goods, lessening their reliance on bank loans to preserve liquidity while denying clients theirs. Small family businesses are forced to accept products for outstanding debts of tens of thousands of euros — arrears that span into years and cause family businesses to rely on favors, informality, and bank loans to keep afloat. This forces family businesses to become brokers, helping their debtor clients reach new markets, displace pre-existing business relationships, capture markets, and control prices. Other financial practices are more complicated and entail favors, employ social networks within one’s business community, and rely on other sub-optimal resolutions that diverge from traditional barter in fundamental ways.
The result is they keep family businesses in precarity at the margins of the economy as their clients solidify their dominant position. They often rely on friendships within one’s business community to facilitate, creating new favor networks in the process, and allowing their clients to exploit their social networks. Such resolutions are accepted under financial duress, making liquidity a political issue.
The pervasiveness of such pervasive predatory financial practices in business makes me ask:
• How do aggressive informal financial practices reinforce or upset power structures in the economy?
• How are such structures linked to contemporary politics?
• How do subordinate actors express agency in a protracted debt situation?
• How are political connections implicated in debt relations and resolutions?
• What economic and governance values come to light in both its practice and modes of resisting it?
• What social and economic benefits might come from maintaining debt relationships?
• Why is it in the interest of government to allow this practice to continue?
My goal is to map and describe such relationships, beginning with small family farmers and moving through the economy. In so doing, I will learn how these businessmen express agency in business transactions with large, politically connected clients, how they perceive their role in the economy, and how new relationships (favors, new clients) emerge from informal financial debt resolutions.
Through ethnographic methods and interviews with informants from my doctoral research, I will investigate and analyze how these debt resolution practices affect their daily lives in the context of pervasive debts and financial precarity, and unravel how it influences their conceptualizations of the market.
In interviewing and media publications, I will identify the role debt and informal financial practices to resolve them play in politics, and how politics concomitantly influences them.
In elucidating the relationship between insider politics and the informal economy, I will develop a novel approach to the study of informal corporate financial practices. By investigating how corporations treat debt relationships, I will extend the fields of research on debt and finance in anthropology.
My ethnographic study of debt and corporations will make an important theoretical contribution to economic anthropology. The project brings together classic social science theories on barter (Humphrey & Hugh-Jones 1992; Ledeneva 2000; Sneath 2012; Ledeneva & Seabright 2000; Cellarius 2000; Rogers 2005), informal economies in post-socialism (Kornai 2003; Ledeneva 1998; Henig & Makovicky 2016; Mandel & Humphrey 2002), the anthropology of debt (Ho 2009; Graeber 2011; Peebles 2010; Chong 2018), and post-socialist region political economy research (Innes 2013; Schoenman 2005; Staniszkis 1991).
Analyses of the division between formal and informal economies often focus on structural issues, where state tax regimes and enforcement through aggressive inspections by auditors are said to encourage informality (Guano 2010; Hart 1973; Roitman 2005). My research on the prevalence of barter and informal financial resolution practices will illustrate the centrality of insider politics and social connections that facilitate informal debt resolutions, which make such divisions ambiguous. An ethnography of corporate financial practices from the perspective of family businesses with which they do business will allow me to reveal the intersection of economic informality and politics, present new material on economic exchange practices, and illustrate how corruption shapes this new market economy.
During six months of fieldwork in Croatia, beyond participant observation and interviews I will systematically chart out debts between clients through the agri-food chain beginning with rural family businesses and their debts with large agri-business corporations and trace how these debts are resolved through various informal schemes, including favors and other modes of resolution. This methodology diverges from anthropology, drawing on my political science and economics backgrounds.
I will draw on publicly available financial statements of large agri-food corporations and collect media publications on business and corruption now the center of national debate. I will interview agri-politics specialists, professors, and agricultural policy-writing agency employees, as the government has outsourced this due to its own lack of experts and budget.
I will use my extensive experience in conducting multi-sited ethnography to approach political economy issues in an anthropological way.
Fluent in Croatian and having lived in there for years (30 months fieldwork, 3 years writing up and living), I am uniquely prepared to undertake this ambitious research. I will initially draw on my extensive network of informants (including: 40 professionalized agribusiness families; many household-level subsistence producers; employees of major agribusinesses; academics at universities; government officials; police; development agencies) and build my new networks from there.
My fieldwork zone has a high density of family farmers competing in the local market with major agri-food producers that dominate important restaurant and hotel chain contracts.
I will conduct fieldwork for six months, beginning writing from the field to maintain my timeline. I will turn this collected material into a book volume.
As an independent scholar, I propose the Oxford School for Global Studies (OSGA) as host, known for its interdisciplinary research. It has a direct relationship with the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre (RESC) at St Antony’s College, the South East European Studies Centre (SEESOX), and Said Business School (SBS). I will contribute to the Informality Cluster at OSGA, a group of social scientists investigating informal business practices, and I will endeavor to present my work at these related institutions.
I will have access to world-class scholars at these centers and be able to present my work at their ongoing colloquia to gather meaningful feedback as I write up the theoretical portions. I will use these opportunities to build my professional profile as a cutting-edge researcher doing interdisciplinary work who brings together political economy, business, and anthropology in a novel way. This will position me well for an academic job at a leading European university.
My long-term goal is to become an anthropologist at a business school, and thus I will use this position at my host institution to develop my profile as an anthropologist of corporations and corporate financial practices.
I will produce a book manuscript for a British academic press.
I will present at conferences and colloquia at Oxford, using these as opportunities to disseminate the project’s research, broaden my professional network, and gain valuable feedback on developing arguments.
I will organize an interdisciplinary workshop on debt and the linkages between the informal economy and politics with the aim of producing a journal special issue or edited volume.
A website in Croatian and English will be maintained throughout the project’s duration to summarize my research, academic activities, and archive publicly available media and academic research on the financial activities of Croatian corporations as a way to make this project accessible to those outside of academia.
As an independent scholar hosted at a world-class institution, I will network with the centres listed above to launch my academic career. I will position myself as a business anthropologist studying the political economy of post-socialist Europe in a novel and cutting-edge way. This will make me attractive to business schools seeking ethnographers with unique methodological approaches to understand critical issues in Europe’s economy.
My unique background of having lived in the region (Kosovo, the Republic of Moldova, and Croatia) for over a decade gives me the ability to undertake a rigorous project resulting in a nuanced and rich ethnography.