Globalization is a project, says Hannah Appel
UCLA anthropologist Hannah Appel. (Photo provided by subject.)

Globalization is a project, says Hannah Appel

Appel, who joined UCLA last fall, is teaching in the Global Studies Program of the UCLA International Institute.

“People are actually out there working... to make it seem as if economic life, capitalist relations, are in fact disembedded from the wider sociocultural, political context in which they happen. Which of course they're not.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 11, 2016 — Hannah Appel is one of the newest faculty members in the Global Studies Program of the UCLA International Institute. An economic anthropologist, she uses ethnographic research to shed new light on capitalism. Although Appel has spent most of her career studying Africa, she has diverse research interests. She immersed herself in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York in 2011–12, for example, and continues to engage with the Alternative Banking Group and the Debt Collective to which it gave rise.

Whether it’s Equatorial Guinea or Wall Street, Appel’s focus is the same: she uses the lens of anthropology to understand how people make (and make sense of) their economic lives. “It’s a much more holistic way of thinking about it,” she says. “How do you get the resources you need to live? How do you put food on the table? How do you provide for your family? How do you relate to the corporation or the state, to public or private provision of goods?” And anthropology, she points out, asks us to think about economic life as intertwined with questions of race, gender, class, religion and even kinship. 

Appel joined the UCLA faculty in fall 2015, with a joint appointment in the International Institute and the Department of Anthropology. After completing a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Stanford University in 2011, she went on to do two post-doctoral fellowships. One of those fellowships was at the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Jointly chaired by sociologist Saskia Sassen and economist Joseph E. Stiglitz — both major figures in the study of globalization — the Committee brings together a wide range of scholars in different disciplines to address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Technically, Appel was in residence at the Institute of African Studies and working with Sénégalese historian Mamadou Diouf while at Columbia. In reality, she spent all her time on Wall Street, documenting, studying and participating in the Occupy movement. The movement’s ascension coincided with her arrival in New York, and she soon joined a number of activist scholars who were participating in it, including anthropologist David Graeber (London School of Economics) and political economist Souresh Naidu (Columbia University). Notes Appel, “I was then able to present to the Committee on Global Thought about what was going on, so I was in the right place at the right time.”

The project of making capitalism look self-contained

Appel’s forthcoming book—"Oil and the Licit Life of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea"—for which she did 14 months of ethnographic field research on site, focuses on the operations of U.S. oil companies working in the country’s offshore waters. While she is looking forward to seeing the manuscript in print, it will first be the subject of a Junior Faculty Manuscript Workshop in which a team of University of California professors will review the text in an exercise designed to improve the final publication — courtesy of a grant from the University of California Humanities Research Institute.

Unlike journalism, ethnographic research gives researchers intensive, long-term daily interaction with their subjects. In this case, Appel showed up daily in different participant observation positions between U.S.-based oil and gas companies and the Equatoguinean Ministry of Finance and Budgets. She spent time with expatriate managers, Equatoguinean government functionaries and oil workers, sometimes helping with translations, sometimes interviewing, other times just hanging out.

Appel notes, “In my experience, the oil industry generally feels maligned by journalists... and one of the ways that they feel misrepresented is that people don't pay them enough deep attention.” She attributes the openness of the oil companies and their employees to her project precisely to the duration of her fieldwork and her willingness to take their daily life seriously, even if her interpretation of the effects of their work differed from their own hopes and proclamations.

Her forthcoming book explores how oil companies attempt to operate, in her words, “as if they had no local context, as if their work didn’t have local entanglements and effects, as if they weren’t in fact complicit with the Equatoguinean state.

“Major U.S. oil contracts are directly implicated in prohibiting the Equatoguinean government from passing progressive labor laws, from passing more progressive environmental laws,” she explains. “They have fiscal stability clauses in their contract that say if the government wants to pass laws that begin to, let’s say, regulate offshore pollution, and that costs any money — which of course, it will — then the government has to reimburse the corporation.

“So they know full well how deeply entangled they are with Equatoguinean daily life, but it needs to seem as if they're not,” she says. “And capitalism in its own image makes it seem as if they are not: this [business] is regulated by contract, it’s offshore — it's ostensibly so far away from these social entanglements.”

Appel goes on to critique the way in which capitalism has long been theorized in the humanities and social sciences. That theory, she notes, understands the disembedding of economic interactions from social life as a characteristic intrinsic to capitalism.

“And as social scientists, when we characterize capitalism in that way, we're falling for it,” she remarks. “What I’m trying to show in the book project is that capitalism in its own image is a project,” she continues. “People are actually out there working toward it, to make it seem as if economic life, capitalist relations, are in fact disembedded from the wider sociocultural, political context in which they happen. Which of course they're not.”

Teaching globalization as a project

For Appel, the idea of capitalism as a project extends to globalization. Take, for example, the Global Studies senior seminar course that she taught in winter quarter 2016: Global Africa. “We start by thinking critically about what globalization is and what it means —thinking about it not as a world-wrapping phenomenon, but as a set of discrete projects,” she says. “And then we think about the ways that those projects work and have worked for a very long time historically in and around the African continent.”

“The class was really fun for me to teach,” she says. “I want all of my students to have a good time — to be excited about learning whatever it is that we’re learning.” And although 10 weeks may be a short period, Appel and her students covered a lot of ground, looking critically at current narratives of globalization and “Africa Rising;” the history of colonialism and capitalism on the continent; structural adjustment and capital flight; resource extraction; and issues of cosmopolitanism, class and equality in African cities.

One of her major goals for the class is to equip students with the analytical tools needed to think critically about representations of Africa in the wider world. Their mid-term, for example, consisted of team presentations on how Ebola is (and is not) being depicted in transnational media.

In all of her courses, Appel seeks to help her students understand both the power of stories and who has the power to tell which story. Or, in her words, “to try to understand that what we think about as the hard facts of political economic life are, in fact, stories.” Central to that lesson in her Global Africa seminar were discussions of weekly readings, including two thought-provoking pieces by young African writers: “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED talk by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, and “The White Saviour Industrial Complex,” an article by Nigerian writer, art historian and photographer Teju Cole.

This spring, Appel is teaching one of the three required courses of the Global Studies Program, “Globalization: Culture and Society,” as well as a proposal writing course for graduate anthropology students. That means in addition to putting the final touches on her manuscript for the upcoming UC workshop, she’s been developing new courses. “Every course that I’m teaching is brand new — I never taught them before I came here,” she says. “Things are a little crazy right now, but in a great way. I’m really enjoying it.”