Personal to Impersonal Exchange - A Workshop on Social Change

Jun 21, 2002Jun 23, 2002

This conference was designed to explore one of the fundamental puzzles in economic history:  the movement from personal to impersonal exchange; from exchange based on kin to exchange that extends well beyond kin groups.

The late anthropologist Ernest Gellner highlighted this issue by distinguishing between modern “modular man” and his more natural, “non-modular” precursor.  Gellner noted that the normal human condition has been to be part of an interdependent socially pervasive totality that he sometimes calls the “tyranny of cousins”.  The economic consequences of this “non-modular” condition are, in his words, “rigidity, conservatism, stagnation.”  Modern “modular man”, however, "can combine into effective associations and institutions, without these being total, many-stranded, under-written by ritual, and made stable through being linked to a whole set of relationships, all of these then being tied in with each other and so immobilized.  He can combine into specific-purpose, ad hoc, limited associations, without binding himself by some blood ritual.  He can leave an association when he comes to disagree with its policy without being open to the charge of treason.  A properly terminated contract is not an act of treachery, and is not seen as such.  A tenant who gives due notice and pays the recognized rent, acquires no stigma if he move to a new tenancy.  Yet these highly specific, unsanctified, instrumental, revocable links or bonds are effective!  This is civil society: the forging of links which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental.  Society is a structure, it is not atomized, helpless and supine, and yet the structure is readily adjustable and responds to rational criteria of improvement.”  (Gellner, “The Importance of Being Modular” in Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison, ed. John Hall, pp. 41-42).

Keen social analysts, like Gellner, have long noted such distinctions, and many have cataloged the qualitative and formal characteristics of such societies.  But don't such observations and cataloging amount to little more than comparative statics?  If so, we have a very poor understanding of what variables actually account for the change between societies based on personal exchange and those that allow for broad impersonal exchange.

At this conference we worked at uncovering some of these variables through the application of insights from different disciplines: cognitive science,  nero-economics,  psychology and anthropology.


Boyer, Pascal, “Why Do Gods and Spirits Matter?” from, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Chapter 5. 2001. 

Fafchamps, Marcel, “Spontaneous Market Emergence” 2002.

Greif, Avner, “On the History of the Institutional Foundations of Impersonal Exchange: From Communal to Individual Responsibility in Pre-modern Europe.”  2001.

Neal, Larry, “How Individuals Managed Risks During the South Sea Bubble: An Examination of the Stockholders in the Bank of England, 1720 and 1725”  2002.

Neal, Larry, “How It All Began: The Monetary and Financial Architecture of Europe during the First Global Capital Markets: 1648 – 1815” Financial History Review, 7:2 October 2000. pp. 117-140.

Neal, Larry,  “How The First Emerging Market Re-Emerged After Financial Collapse”