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Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (a John Hope Franklin Center Book) Paperback – July 13, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The timely question, What caused the current global financial crisis? provokes answers usually aimed at the level of institutions and the more abstract market logic. Ho's refreshing ethnography of the daily lives of Wall Street investment bankers takes another tack and outlines a web of practices, beliefs and structures that may be vital to understanding what keeps the market system in place despite built-in instabilities. Ho, a former business analyst and now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, unpacks constant downsizing, high risk/high reward job liquidity, shortsighted compensation structures, prestige and the ruse of shareholder value. Her keen eye for the significance of space illuminates workplace narratives, e.g., segregating staff by floor, function and prestige; constant and lavish recruiting events at Princeton and Harvard; and anticlimactically tawdry office space for most workers. The author exposes how elite undergraduates are immersed in a culture promoting finance as the only legitimate job, how educational pedigrees reinforce the financial world's self-image—while the actual jobs remain rigidly hierarchical (stratifying women, people of color and non–Ivy League graduates), highly unstable and isolating, encouraging a culture in which making money is the only value. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

Liquidated is a must-read book for anyone interested in how legions of recruits from Ivy League colleges come to espouse and enact the twisted bundle of class interests and market ideology that constitutes neoliberal capitalism.”
(Kathryn Dudley American Studies)

Liquidated is an interesting description of many of the practices and orientations that exist in large investment banks, one that confirms what the reader may suspect: that these institutions are forcing-grounds for the sort of hubris and invulnerability that goes with the phrase ‘Masters of the Universe’, the incomprehensible money that sales staff receive, and the idea that they are ‘doing God’s work’. It also, however, indicates the reverse of the strength of the social studies of finance. Liquidated may help explain why those in investment banks think and operate in the ways that they do.”
(James G. Carrier Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute)

“[A] unique portrait of the industry that asks pertinent questions about constant change, job insecurity, and the banker’s identity. . . . Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street asks many questions that those who work in the investment field should ask themselves. . . . Although many in the financial industry will not agree with Ho’s hypotheses and conclusions, they will be challenged by the questions she raises and enthralled by the body of fieldwork she presents.”
(Janet J. Mangano Financial Analysts Journal)

“Ho’s refreshing ethnography of the daily lives of Wall Street investment bankers . . . outlines a web of practices, beliefs and structures that may be vital to understanding what keeps the market system in place despite built-in instabilities.”
(Publishers Weekly)

“Ho's study shows the intense competitiveness that is instilled in these primarily Ivy League recruits even before they are finished with their Bachelor's degrees. And she examines the myth that stockowners and companies are best served by maximizing shareholder profits. If anything, this book gives faces to the people who work in that abstract entity called Wall Street that seems to affect our world so much of late. I highly recommend it, especially if you have no idea how the world of high finance operates.”
(James Franco The Huffington Post)

“The book contains many wonderful insights, and is a veritable mine of quotations from Wall Street participants. . . . The book is, moreover, extremely well written throughout . . . . [A]n informed and informative text.”
(Brett Christophers Environment and Planning A)

Liquidated is what many of us have been waiting for: a serious ethnographic consideration of finance capital. Using the best kinds of cultural and social analysis, Karen Ho gets inside Wall Street assumptions, turning them around to upend each other.”
(Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, co-editor of Word in Motion and author of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection)

“We’re pretty familiar with the economic rationale for the regime of cost-cutting and downsizing throughout corporate America in recent decades. But Karen Ho’s research greatly enriches our understanding of how Wall Street’s own peculiar culture of transient relationships and relentless competition has contributed to the shareholder revolution. And, along the way, her interviews and fieldwork offer a very revealing picture of the mind of Wall Street. A fascinating and important book.”
(Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer and author of Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom)

“What could be more timely than this fascinating and highly readable investigation of the culture of Wall Street? With Liquidated, Karen Ho takes us into the workaday world of investment banking before the crisis, showing us the roots of the risk-taking that drew lavish compensation packages and brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse. A significant contribution both to the anthropological and wider social scientific literature on financial markets and globalization, as well as to the urgent public debate over the power of financial institutions in contemporary American society.”
(Bill Maurer, author of Pious Property: Islamic Mortgages in the United States)

“[E]ngaging and hard to put down. . . Karen Ho’s book is a must-read for anyone contemplating joining one of the major global banks. . . . Actually, even faculty of our elite schools are starting to question why so many of their graduates end up in finance. Karen Ho’s book should be required reading for students and faculty at these schools.”
(Ben Lorica Quant Network)

“After several decades when anthropologists at last overcame their inhibitions concerning the study of money, Karen Ho’s book . . . seems to mark a coming of age for the contemporary discipline. . . . The intelligence of its author shines through Liquidated. . . . I found it rewarding to read and reflect on, a landmark in the burgeoning anthropology of money.”
(Keith Hart American Ethnologist)

“Although written for a mostly academic audience, the book becomes easily digestible because of the summaries Ho adds in each section. She connects well the main theme throughout any areas of the book. Ho’s views should not be considered ‘anti-Wall Street’ but viewed as an analysis of Wall Street’s effect on the American community and the financial markets. This book should be read by Wall Street investment bankers and corporate managers to better understand the social values and responsibilities of corporations and the role that they play in the American community.”
(Linda Kee-Koa International Examiner)

“Karen Ho has picked an excellent time to publish her fascinating new study . . . of Wall Street banks. . . . As field-sites go, Wall Street is not classic anthropological territory: ethnographers typically work in remote, third-world societies. . . . Ho nevertheless embarked on her study in classic anthropological manner: by blending into the background, listening intently, in a non-judgmental way – and then trying to join up the dots to get a ‘holistic’ picture of how the culture works. That patient ethnographic analysis has produced a fascinating portrait that will be refreshingly novel to most bankers.”
(Gillian Tett Financial Times)

“Karen Ho is my hero. . . . Her ethnography of investment bankers in the late 1990s, Liquidated, depicts the bravado, callousness, and contradictions that are the hallmarks of investment banking culture.”
(Mitchel Y. Abolafia American Journal of Sociology)

“The book’s great strength lies in Ho’s careful observation of the means by which people succeed or fail on Wall Street, as she punctures many of the assumptions about how markets work.”
(Keir Martin Times Literary Supplement)
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Product Details

  • Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book
  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books; unknown edition (July 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0822345994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0822345992
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #216,609 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Derived from her PhD dissertation, this book seems designed for an academic audience. The Introduction can be painful, as it sets the intellectual context, demonstrates a command of theory, justifies research choices, and makes a case for relevance to the policy world. Subsequent chapters are more accessible and interesting. See the opening paragraph of Chap. 6, pp 249-50, for a clear, succinct statement of her agenda and conclusions.

How could this book - for the public now, no longer a dissertation - have been made more accessible? In the Introduction eliminate jargon and shorten sentences (stop addressing all imagined contingencies in a single sentence); eliminate all but key citations. Shorten the rest of the book by giving less exhaustive detail.

P. 296 summarizes one of her key findings: "Wall Street's rise to dominance - through its smartness, its use of history and shareholder value ideology, its 'own' experiences of downsizing as empowerment - has allowed it to project a local model of employee liquidity and financial instability onto corporate America and the financial markets at large, generating globalizing economic crises." The author develops this "local model" through "analyses of bankers' dispositions and organizational culture," based on research on Wall Street (mostly among low- and some mid-level professionals and managers).

This research is impressive, especially its case examples. Yet projecting that local model "onto corporate America and the financial markets" is harder to assess, and will be challenged: (1) By those who do not accept her purported linkages between (a) micro (employee) behaviors and sub-cultures, and (b) the larger course of economic and financial events.
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Format: Paperback
Karen Z. Ho is an anthropologist who did ethnography on Wall Street in the time leading up to the current financial crisis. She studied the "culture" of high finance in the largest Wall Street firms, while working in one of the largest. She documents in excruciating detail the fact that Wall Street is not just a neutral market place. It has a definite culture, and that culture led to the financial meltdown in 2008-2009. Among other points she makes is that American high finance placed an extreme priority on liquidity--that everything tangible had to be turned into liquid assets--sliced, diced and homogenized into negotiable commodities. It is thus that mortgages got turned into credit swap defaults and other esoteric commercial paper. Once that had been done, not only could the resulting products be bought and sold, they could be sold two and three times, and shorted. This book is penetrating, fascinating reading from a trained observer who understands both finance and the culture of those promulgating it. For anyone wanting to know the truth about the current financial crisis, this book is absolutely essential reading.
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Karen Ho's fascinating study is provocative on so many levels, beginning with her courageous project to "study up" and analyze the culture of some of the most powerful men (and a few hardy women) in the world. On some level, I think everyone with a 401K buys the myth that The Market is an abstract force, rather like a moody Judeo-Christian god, rewarding and punishing us at His whim, but hopefully proving merciful in the end. By questioning this "natural" force and exposing the everyday practices of Wall Street, Ho provides convincing evidence that financial markets are in fact created and manipulated by very fallible human beings.

Ho's description of the recruitment and indoctrination of future masters of the universe is perhaps the most poignant part of the book. Targeting young people from elite Ivy League schools (I'm a Princeton grad and witnessed my own classmates' enchantment with the allure of investment banking as an uber-Princeton of the best and smartest), then forcing them to work hellish hours in a cutthroat environment that can only impair judgment, sounds rather chillingly like an initiation into a cult. But even those who survive the hazing face constant job insecurity and pressures to perform for immediate profit. Ho argues persuasively that Wall Street projects these dysfunctional values onto corporate America, to the detriment of millions of workers, shareholders and their families.

An earlier reviewer expressed the wish that this book could be made more accessible, and I agree that the message of this book would benefit a wide audience. However, this non-specialist reader found Ho's explanation of the history of financial markets and cycles to be very clear--I feel I "got" what really happens on Wall Street.
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Liquidated by Karen Ho was an interesting but somewhat difficult read. I would recommend this book to someone with an anthropological view of economics and capitalism, as well as those with an interest in Wall Street. For those who are not normally interested in this type of book there is still a lot of information that is enlightening to what is happening on Wall Street, but that material will be a lot more difficult to get through. It also is somewhat dated, as her research was done before the economic crash in 2008, but as it is not a book about stocks rising and crashing and more about the actual culture of Wall Street I still feel like the information presented is applicable and enlightening.

Throughout the book Ho explains the processes of Wall Street, and liquidated becomes a play on words that concerns not only the liquidity of the money and stocks, but specifically the people and Wall Street's view of corporate America. She begins by explaining the recruitment process and how only the "brightest and elite" are handpicked for Wall Street from the best schools in America, specifically Harvard and Princeton. There is a pervasive culture on Wall Street of elitism and overall "smartness" that they truly are the best and the brightest, that they are the hardest workers in America, and therefore are the only people truly capable of these jobs. It was fascinating to me to learn more about how actual offices run in Wall Street, and that those recruited for these jobs are based more on pedigree and schooling than the actual degree. But what was most interesting was that these "greatest and brightest" were seen as highly disposable.
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