Faculty + Staff

Scholar uses lens of anthropology to examine people's economic lives

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Hannah Appel
Peggy McInerny/UCLA

Economic anthropologist Hannah Appel

Whether she’s studying Wall Street or Equatorial Guinea, Hannah Appel uses the lens of anthropology to understand how people create and make sense of their economic lives.

Appel is one of the newest faculty members in the Global Studies Program of the UCLA International Institute. She joined the UCLA faculty last fall with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology. An economic anthropologist, she uses ethnographic research to shed new light on capitalism.

Although Appel has spent most of her career studying Africa, her research interests are diverse. After earning a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Stanford University in 2011, she went on to do two doctoral fellowships, one of them at theCommittee 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.

While technically in residence at the Institute of African Studies and working with Sénégalese historian Mamadou Diouf at Columbia, in reality Appel was immersed in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, documenting, studying and participating in the movement during 2011-12. She continues to engage with the Alternative Banking Group and the Debt Collective to which the Occupy movement gave rise.

Anthropology, she points out, asks us to think about economic life as intertwined with questions of race, gender, class, religion and even kinship.

“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?” 

For a forthcoming book — "Oil and the Licit Life of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea," which focuses on the operations of U.S. oil and gas companies working in the country’s offshore waters — Appel spent14 months doing ethnographic field research on-site.

Ethnographic researchers have intensive, long-term daily interaction with their subjects. Appel, for example, showed up daily to observe and interact with people in these companies and in 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 and other times just hanging out. 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 lives seriously.

Back on UCLA’s campus, Appel teaches a variety of classes in global studies. This past winter quarter she taught a senior seminar on 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.”

Over the course of 10 weeks, 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 was to equip students with the analytical tools needed to think critically about representations of Africa in the wider world. Their midterm, for example, consisted of team presentations on how Ebola is — and is not — being depicted in transnational media. 

In all of her courses, Appel said she seeks to help her students understand both the power of stories and who has the power to tell which story. Or, in her words, students should “try to understand that what we think about as the hard facts of political economic life are, in fact, stories.”

This story was adapted from the original published by the UCLA International Institute.

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