The Social Life of Commercial Trust


The proposed research network intends to raise new questions to explore the social dimensions of commercial practice that has generally been compartmentalised into histories of European power and Asian backwardness in the high noon of imperialism in the 19th century, or of Asian resilience and its subsequent economic miracle in the latter half of the twentieth century. While these frameworks of power and dependency, of centre and periphery have been productive and generated a considerable volume of scholarship, several omissions remain. For instance, we know relatively little about the social life of commercial practice, the rationale behind emerging protocols and processes, or indeed even normative attributes and assertions of rationality and reciprocity.  More recently, we have significant writings on merchant networks and their organisation, their investment in certain discrete practices loosely subsumed under the category of trust, on economies of obligation and service, and also on the close links between religion and commercial practice.

Reconciling the idea of reciprocity with the urge to profit is at the heart of all commercial enterprise, especially when oriented to the idea of gain and value in a market situation. This is however by no mean antithetical to trust and reciprocity even if the modalities appear to be challenging. The question that we can then start off with is how one maintains trust and reciprocity in an exchange between two or more partners where the idea is to benefit by the transaction. Grappling with this question has begun to generate a rich and productive conversation between the disciplines of economic anthropology, history and even institutional economics to try and make sense of how trade worked, flourished amidst strangers, occasionally broke down amidst shared kinship groups and engaged with intrusions of state institution in a variety of ways. Exploring the social life of what recently has been called ‘trusted conjunctions’ is at the heart of this project that hopes to ask new questions that remain relevant at a time the so called opposition between the informal/ anti-modern and formal/rational gets redrawn, when different models of exchange and business practice, of remittance and circulation persist going beyond law and legal sanctions and when non-European business enterprise models warrant sociological explanations. The idea is to invite ideas and develop them in the form of seminars/workshops on commercial practices and their specific technologies of accounting and book keeping, of subsequent business and management histories in the context of international protocols and processes, all of which would ideally serve as a launching pad for generating further question, or for identifying co-collaborators to develop a research project and or to come up with a joint paper. The network is not intended to come up with predictable or conventional results - if in fact it is able to contest received wisdom and suggest a new and fresh paradigm it will consider its work done.

In very broad terms, the network wishes to think innovatively not merely about the idea and languages of trust but also about concrete tools and devices that operated in the societies that we will review and where there were established traditions and mercantile and commercial practices that facilitated models and relations of reciprocity. These features however, do not figure in standard understanding of business and enterprise, partly because of the ways in which colonial knowledge reconstructed and reconstituted non-European mercantile behaviour as treacherous, unreliable and dishonest and partly because of the eclipse of Asian enterprise in the so called formal sector. And yet given that the informal sector in so many parts of the world not only worked and operated in the high-noon of imperialism, controlled and operated the intermediate market or the bazaar and represented themselves in terms of trust, credit worthiness and reputation, and continue to bolster world trade and remittance amidst asymmetries of power and benefit, it would seem somewhat incongruous to overlook those principles and dynamics that informed earlier commercial and business operations that hinged on vital practices of  accounts keeping that were complicated with more than one aspect, risk sharing and commercial mediation.  For instance, there were in many cases, two facets to accounting; accounting or counting ,,  registering transactions, credits and debts as a guide and reference tool for one’s own use, and the other as accountancy, i.e. rendering accounts to partners: commercial partners (buyers, sellers), risk sharing partners and capital providers etc. Studying this on a cross-cultural and comparative perspective could yield important insights both into the emergence of modern accountancy as an academic discipline yoked to governmentality and also into the workings of the sector that remained outside the formal trading sector.  The network intends to focus on practices of reciprocity and calculative rationality through a historical lens from the early modern period between the early seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, the period of formal colonial rule and that of decolonization, when the so called informal sector in several societies accounts for a vast proportion of commercial and manufacturing activity.