ISRF Political Economy Fellow 2020
ISRF Political Economy Fellow 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.
Croatia is a major food producing country that is newly an EU member state. The challenges farmers face here are similar to those across the EU, but there are also some unique struggles to daily business life. My project investigates the business practices of large agri-corporations, scrutinizing the local impact of illegal and quasi-legal financial schemes that shape entire sectors. Such corporations control many links in the food chain, including agri-food and drink businesses and supermarket chains. Small family farmers rely on them to buy their produce, and are such a large presence on the market in comparison to local actors that they determine the wholesale prices of almost all agri-food products. This vast disparity in market influence sets up a situation where small producers are coerced into business practices that are to their detriment.
2017 marked a moment of profound change in Croatia’s agricultural and food sector, where foreign bank intervention was brought in to shore up and restructure major companies. This process was fraught, with political resignations and inquiries into the preferential treatment of large corporations in acquiring loans and subsidies spanning decades. Thus, my research proposal on the informal and predatory financial practices that have such profound effects on family farmers is timely, as they are finally coming into the light of public scrutiny.
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 these corporate practices from the vantage point of small family farmers and other agri-food producer clients who sell to them. Using my pre-existing network of research contacts in Croatia, I will take the wine industry as a lens through which to research how these practices shape local livelihoods and markets, and how the corporations leverage their political positions and business networks to perpetuate them. I will use ethnographic field methods to advance my expertise as a business anthropologist, and as an independent scholar will be hosted at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies in Russian and East European Studies. This will facilitate my professional development as an early career scholar undertaking cutting edge research that impacts EU food markets.