Quick Questions for Nigel Dodd, author of The Social Life of Money

Nigel Dodd  is a professor in the Sociology Department at the London School of Economics (LSE). Dodd’s  interest in the sociology of money has led him to author The Sociology of Money: Economics, reason, and contemporary society (1994) and Social Theory and Modernity (1999), but it is his new book, The Social Life of Money, that we will discuss today. Besides teaching courses in Classical, Modern, and Contemporary Social Thought at the LSE, Dodd is also editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Sociology, and he has made several appearances on BBC World Service to discuss “various aspects of the 2007-9 financial crisis.”

Referring often to George Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (1907), The Social Life of Money is Dodd’s attempt to better understand and define the rapid and ever changing field of “money.” By reexamining the nature of money in the aftermath of the global economic crisis and by including thinkers such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Hardt and Negri—all of whom  fall outside the field of monetary theory—Dodd lays down the framework for understanding money in a different way.

Now, on to the questions!

Why did you write The Social Life of Money?

In the first instance, I wrote the book because although I could see what a varied and energetic field ‘money’ had become outside of economics, there were too many scholars who were simply not engaging with each other, but limiting their engagements to their own niche within the field. I even found that there were disagreements about terminology – for example, what some scholars claimed was ‘money’, others said was merely ‘currency’, and sorting out a way through this conceptual thicket wasn’t easy. So I wanted to write a book that brought this field together into a more coherent shape – not by synthesizing everything into one basic approach, but by providing a framework in which different approaches can speak to each other, and their relative insights brought to bear on important questions. I would describe myself as a ‘monetary pluralist’ – not wedded to a single theory of money but convinced that different theories work well according to context. So I wanted to write a book that gave expression to this, which was in a way a ‘celebration’ of intellectual multiplicity in monetary scholarship. Then, as I started to write the book as the financial crisis unfolded, I began to see this pluralism in a more practical way – these were not just different ways of theorizing money, but different ways of organizing it too that could make a serious contribution to debates about how our monetary systems could (or should) be changed in response to the crisis. I found that whereas money was being ‘blamed’ for the crisis by many mainstream commentators, it is in fact an important opportunity, a focal point for rethinking its role in society. However, while most debates about this are concerned with finding a single set of solutions, I sense that the best way forward is pluralism – we need not one ‘improved’ monetary system, but rather a range of different monetary forms that can address the many different problems (about financial exclusion, the dominance of big banks, monetary freedom, debt etc.) that the financial crisis exposed. So what started out as conceptual pluralism took on an increasingly practical character.

“I would describe myself as a ‘monetary pluralist’ – not wedded to a single theory of money but convinced that different theories work well according to context.”

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

I learned three key things. First, I learned about an extraordinary range of brilliant work that has been undertaken by scholars from right across the social sciences into the nature of money. Since I first worked in this field in the early 1990s, there has been a tremendous explosion of interest in money as a social, political and cultural – not just an economic – phenomenon. There are some fantastic scholars working on money, and I hope that my book reflects the energy of an ever-changing field. Second, I learned that perhaps the greatest shift in our perception of money has been that it is increasingly being regarded by scholars as a force for positive social transformation. Whereas classical scholars tended to see money as something negative that was likely to disturb societies and communities, contemporary scholars are keen to view money as something that can be organized in such a way as to make a positive contribution to social change. This intellectually challenging as well as empowering. Third, I encountered hugely interesting writing about money in some very unexpected places, which I have tried to bring to the book as much as I can. So while the book covers the ‘usual suspects’ in the monetary field, it also looks to less common sources for its ideas, such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Derrida and Bataille. None of these is a ‘monetary theorist’, but if anything this makes what they say about money even more interesting and worth hearing.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

The book examines a very wide range of theories about the nature and purpose of money, and therefore presents readers with a tremendous variety of ideas about how money can be used and organized. This is hugely important today because the era in which ‘money’ was mainly what was defined and organized by the state is coming to an end. Alternative currencies – from electronic currencies such as Bitcoin to local currencies such as the Bristol and Brixton pound to forms of social lending – are growing at an astonishing rate today, and we need a greater range of conceptual tools in order to understand them. We also need to understand – and the book argues very strongly for this – that there are myriad ways of organizing our money, not just one ‘correct’ way. Money can be organized differently – by small groups and communities, nations or groups of nations, private organizations, and so on – according to what it is needed for. Some forms of money are designed to counter forms of social (and, specifically, financial) exclusion, while others are designed to bring communities together – or, in the case of Bitcoin, to bypass the constraints associated with major institutions such as banks and the states. There isn’t one ‘money’ that can do all of these things. In the future, we will become more and more used to interacting with a variety of different monies.

What is your next project?

I am excited by the idea that money can be used to transform society in a positive way, so I am embarking on a project that looks into the links between money and utopian thought and practice. This builds on the final chapter of The Social Life of Money. Once you start examining different theories of money, it becomes clear that almost all of them have a utopian strain. What I mean by this is that money gets associated with idealized forms of social and economic existence. The Euro was a recent – albeit flawed – example of this, because it was conceived as a means of uniting Europe socially, politically and culturally. There are lots of problems with this, of course: the idea that something like money might be used to bring people closer together, to forge a common identity, is quite problematic. But there is nothing new about this, there is a fascinating history of ways in which money has been used to achieve – or at least try to achieve – political and social ideals. Even Bitcoin could be described as utopian, because it is premised on the ideal of a currency that does not need to be regulated, does not need a sovereign authority in order to be valued, and is not controlled by large banks. The image of society behind Bitcoin, which is broadly libertarian, is troubling for some, inspiring for others. But again, here is an instance where money is being allied to broader ideals about freedom, identity and justice. So that will be my next project, to understand these links between money and utopianism in more depth.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

There were two main challenges. The first challenge was controlling the material, I had a huge amount of literature to go through and it kept on growing. I tried a number of different ways of organizing the chapters, and as a result, the book’s structure took a very long time to stabilize, indeed it didn’t really take its final shape until the last few months of writing. This made the writing process exhausting and stressful, because I was never really sure about how much progress I was making. I’m sure this isn’t unique; many colleagues seem to have had similar experiences. But there were periods when I felt the project would never come together. As it stands, I really like the group of chapters, and the order of chapters, that I came up with. Having a strong theme for each chapter – such as ‘guilt’ and ‘waste’, for example – provides a great focus. The second main challenge was in dealing with a fast-moving world. I started the book just as the financial crisis was in full swing, and this had an effect on the writing process that was both exhilarating and unsettling. I was very easily distracted at first, and found myself framing the book too closely in accordance with themes that were emerging from discussion of the crisis. There was also a vast amount being written about various aspects of the monetary and financial system, so I had to keep up with that literature as I was writing. Finally, there were prevailing uncertainties to deal with: once the Euro crisis was in full swing, I was writing about a currency that many commentators were saying could collapse any time soon. So, money was very much a moving target. I coped with this challenge by taking the arguments back to their theoretical core as much as possible.

What is the most influential book you’ve read?

In the money field it would have to be Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (1907), which is a vast text that is packed with ideas. I first read it in 1988, and have been consulting it regularly ever since and finding new things to think about every time that I do. Simmel’s book plays quite a big role in The Social Life of Money. This is partly because I use his description of money as a ‘claim upon society’ to organize a number of the key arguments of the book. Once we realize that Simmel did not mean ‘society’ in the sense of a nation-state society, but rather had more fluid and flexible understanding of social life in mind – he uses the term ‘sociation’ to describe this – then one starts to see how his arguments can be used to frame the idea that money gains its value not from states and big banks, but rather from the multi-faceted practices of its users. In this sense, Simmel’s book is very much of ‘our’ time, because it resonates with arguments about wresting control of money away from large unwieldy institutions and restoring it to the ‘ownership’ of the people who use it. This explains why I was keen in the book to portray Simmel in a different way. We have become used to thinking of him as a critic of money, as someone who portrayed money as largely damaging to society, because of its cold and anonymous qualities. While such ideas are undoubtedly present in Simmel’s book, there are plenty of other ideas too, where he portrays money as culturally rich. Simmel was also something of a utopian, as I argue in the book’s final chapter. So one of the things I hope people gain from reading The Social Life of Money is a whole new perspective on a book they may have thought they could categorize in just one way.



The Social Life of Money
Nigel Dodd
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  1. […] …electronic currencies such as Bitcoin to local currencies such as the Bristol and Brixton pound to forms … together – or, in the case of Bitcoin, to bypass the constraints associated with major institutions…See all stories on this topic […]

  2. […] Princeton University Press interviewed Nigel Dodd, author of The Social Life of Money. Dodd lays down the framework for a new understanding of money in the aftermath of the financial crisis by studying thinkers such as George Simmel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jacques Derrida. […]