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Toward an Ethnography of the National Economy

By Hannah Appel

Cite As:
Appel, Hannah. 2017. “Toward an Ethnography of the National Economy.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2: 294–322.


What is a national economy? What does it measure, value, or represent? What does it do? This article argues for ethnographic attention to national economies as a serial global form, arguably the most privileged epistemological and political object of our unevenly shared modernity. In dialogue with feminist approaches to the study of capitalism, economic anthropology, and the social studies of finance, this article asks how national economies become both intelligible, possessing representational unity or naturalized authority, and compelling—the stuff of fantasy and desire, power and subjugation. Taking a series of national economic conferences in Equatorial Guinea as a point of departure, the article argues for the centrality of the state and questions of geopolitical scale in any approach to the national economy form. Juxtaposing the literature on economic performativity with Equatoguinean political history and the power of U.S. oil companies in the global South highlights the open-endedness of what Michel Callon has called economics “in the wild” and the as-if qualities generated at the crossroads of economic theory and postcolonial inequality. This article thus aims to open up ethnographic possibilities in the face of national economies far beyond Equatorial Guinea’s borders.


national economy; economics; oil; Equatorial Guinea; colonialism