Review Essay: Bordering (and) the Political Economies of (talking about) Risk

Bordering (and) the Political Economies of (talking about) Risk

As an epistemology and as a language of argumentation, political economy in anthropology has always had a more-than-filial relation with Marx himself and with philosophers, political scientists, economists and sociologists in his tradition (for an exhaustive and classic state of affairs see Roseberry 1988). It is in itself a singularly fertile grammar for inter-discipline socialization, versatile enough to handle practices and relations of production, consumption and distribution, as well as in recent years matters of representation and the politics of knowledge production, where its reflexive propensity grants anthropology the upper hand. The distribution of concerns in a problem within a political anthropology approach, in particular, and the general rules of motion it allows for, in general, afford political economy an intuitive aptness, a kind of affinity with subjectivities seasoned in Western heuristics – even when we try to challenge them, to write about those who challenge them or the grounds on which they challenge them.

Consistently, the notion of risk in anthropology is enmeshed in the constitutive elements of the political economy approach in terms of what we look for, what there is to be seen, and in the terms in which we talk about either. In a most immediate sense, this is because at the cornerstone of studies of the relations between states and their citizens Foucault’s lectures on security, territory and population at the Collège de France (2009) remain central to the political economic, where risk as contingency and danger is understood simultaneously as something both intrinsic to the nature of phenomena of modern social life and as something quantifiable and therefore technically manageable, containable and describable. This is the discreet jump of enlightened modernity, argues Foucault, the axis on which liberal governmentalities rest. During the 1990s sociologists expanded on Foucault’s ideas, producing a canonical body of work not only integrating risk in the modern ideas of self, contingency and responsibility, but arguing risk is the tool for modernity’s expansion into the future (Giddens 1990; 1999; Beck 1992).

Anthropology itself is integral to that enlightened modernity both in its temporal trajectory and as an increasingly reflexive reflexion on what it is to be human that replicates the epistemologies of abstraction, of detachment and framing of flows that Foucault characterizes as modern thought. As such, the same abstractions that constitute risk are codified in the ways we talk about not only biopolitics and the rule of law, but in the general economies of relations we establish between our categories and ultimately in our reflections of them. If to speak of modernity is to speak of risk, delineating a political economy of the anthropology of risk is to try to subtract oneself from a mirror reflecting its own reflection.

In a second sense, risk is enmeshed in the political economy approach because that mode of government has deepened, diversified and intensified its reach and its logics across the world. We see this both in the fact that many of the economies celebrated for “good governance,” that elusive accolade that talks about politics whilst being mostly about governmentality of and through economics, are outside the traditional centre of “Western” governance like Panama, Chile, South Korea, and Singapore; and in the fact that across societies the proliferation of data and information framing, abstraction, reconstruction, and mobilisation, most visible in derivatives (Maurer 2002), algorithms (Lash 2007, Beer 2017), insurance policies (Bähre 2012) and health indicators (Adams 2016) has marketized risk and contingency and abstractions of them and inserted them into the general processes of a geographically expanding liberal economic life. As such, risk is codified in more and more relations bringing together ever more varied phenomena and in the resulting outcomes.

If risk is therefore integral to the economies we live in and mirrors the kinds of reflections our tools of knowledge production build on, how can we talk about risk without replicating ipso facto the very assumptions that we are trying to explain? Nail’s Theory of the Border (2016), a philosophical quest for a historical theory of what borders are and how they (are made to) work might seem an odd companion for such a task; I will take his philosophical examination of the very idea of the border as a verb, as an active practice and process of doing, to analyze the possibilities of escaping the persuasion of economic rhetoric when understanding how the category of risk is mobilized.

Mobilized is a suitable verb, for Nail lays out his analysis of borders as a study of kinopolitics – the politics of borders are to be best studied through that which they are designed to control, motion (Nail 2016: 24). He lays out his fundamental philosophical tenets in Part 1: Theory of the Border, which will resonate with any anthropologist familiar with the many “turns” in recent years: everything is a flow, flows are in motion, flows can be bifurcated, joined, slowed down, accelerated but never stopped. Borders are “always circulating movement in multiple ways at once” (ibid.: 42), in an ontology where “nothing is done once and for all: a flow is only on its way to something else” (ibid.: 26). The rest of the book is organized around four technologies organizing these flows, in order of historical appearance: the fence, the wall, the cell and the checkpoint. To each of these four technologies corresponds what Nail refers to as a regime, broadly speaking a trope, a meta-aspect of social life, in respective order: territorial, political, juridical, and economic. They are all defined with respect to their possibilities to border, to contain flows, organize them into properties and life, and lastly, at the checkpoint, subdividing life into collections of data (ibid.: 110). Nail understands these technologies as incremental and superimposed at the same time; they all exist simultaneously and come together in the economic regime, the checkpoint, where different flows are bordered with respect to each other and redirected to produce the kinds of mobilities that form social life. Part II analyses them through a carefully curated selection of historical instances and logico-deductive reconstructions, and the third and last part analyses them in their concrete superimposition along the most famous border in the world in existence today, from Tijuana-San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico. Underpinned by, and coherent with its, universalizing ontology, anything can be a border: tombs (ibid.: 41), letters (ibid.: 93), photographs (ibid.: 158), bricks (ibid.: 69), walls made of bricks (ibid.: 72), other walls (ibid.: 64-87), time in the anthropological sense of temporality (ibid.: 104), time in the anthropological sense of hours and schedules (ibid), temples (ibid.: 51), the discipline of geodesy (ibid.: 71), citadels (ibid.: 76), monasteries (ibid.: 99), asylums (ibid.: 104), hospitals (ibid.: 103), private property (ibid.: 141), and both the administrative embodiments and the abstract concept of nation (ibid.: 143). Also they are all flows.

Nail is a philosopher: it is in his profession to deal in ontologies, in an approach that combines in essence Deleuzian spaces and assemblages with Latourian networkings, and where proponents of the affective and phenomenological turns would also find interesting grounds. At a first glance it shares with all of them the potential for the most radical depoliticization of movement, as flows of practices, that Massey (1991), has warned against. Consistent with this ontological orientation, his assertion that “kinopolitics has no contradictions: only bifurcations and vectors” (ibid.: 176) would further beg the question of what kinds of political analysis, of tensions between that what is and should be, and competing views of the general order of things, can be carried out through a not falsifiable heuristics. The question is appropriate. Yet, aside from the ominously obvious political logics of an international border crossing, what adds the –politics suffix to the otherwise flatly universal kino-, is Nail’s constant emphasis on praxis, the doing and the potential these technologies have to reorient flows, and how they activate economic, political, legal, and juridical processes (all of them political if politics is defined sufficiently broadly as anthropologists do). This is an ontology where bordering is a practice, where borders themselves are practices too, which can shed light on the processes that define and bifurcate flows, rather than on the flows themselves. Although anthropologists have long argued for and studied the continuous, arduous work of framing, sorting, and organizing (Callon 1998, Garcia 1986, Tsing 2013), that goes into organizing and mobilizing that which is and that which is not (that is, bordering), Nail’s philosophical perspective mobilizes simultaneously the practices of bordering and the practices delineating those practices of bordering: a political economy of two levels at once. As such, it is no surprise that the economic checkpoint, the most complex form of bordering practice according to Nail, is situated at the heart of contemporary bordering practices. This is because he understands the economic checkpoint as the sum of the territorial, political, and juridical, which categorizes and polices flows since the emergence of contemporary governance (Nail 2016: 118-122). In essence, Nail sees Foucault through borders, bordering himself the processes that bring risk into existence, that delineate risk from non-risk, and that construct the ways to even think of that delineation.

Delineating risk seems in principle accessorial to the very contemporary Austin Zeiderman’s Endangered City (2016) and Dillon Mahoney’s The Art of Connection (2017); it is their subtitles, The politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá and Risk, Mobility and the Crafting of Transparency in Coastal Kenya, respectively, that situate risk in the political economies of both their intellectual output and their ethnographic subjects.

Zeiderman’s book is an ethnography in the most classical sense of the term of the emergence in Bogotá of a kind of urban governance-cum-political rationality oriented towards the management of a perpetual state of endangerment. It is rich in detail at the right levels and peppered with archival research. Whereas to Zeiderman, danger itself is imminent and immediate, endangerment as a unit of analysis sheds light into how danger, trauma, and violence outlast their specific instances and shape subjectivities and relations extending into the domains of urban governance, the relationship between the state and its citizens, and the political imperatives of a community (2016: 27). In other words, how the idea of risk comes to be imagined. Through historical and archival research into recent disasters, in particular the 1985 tragedy of Armero, he traces the conditions of emergence of Bogotanos’ contemporary discourses of safety and risk in the first chapter. Since those days, from the perspective of state and state-sponsored agencies, risk is the instrument and the technique, the object of quantification and management that organizes the governance of citizens and social relations from the municipal to the national level, explored throughout chapters 2 and 3. In these chapters Zeiderman’s argument reaches its full force about the active, ongoing bordering of that which constitutes risk and the gradations of it, subject to complex economies of knowledge production that include citizens’ input and pressures as well as state-endorsed projects to reorganize public space. Here he also explores how residents of areas designated as high-risk zones (zonas de alto riesgo) live and negotiate their exit from these areas, as instances along a trajectory of displacements both forced and not and of increasingly articulated demands on the Colombian state. Chapter 4 analyzes through strikes and protests in public spaces how citizens articulate their demands to the state in a language of risk, amid accusations of indolence and lack of response vis-à-vis danger, and how they mobilize the grammar of risk to include or exclude themselves from that delineation for specific possibilities. The fifth and last chapter explores fully the future as a site of aspirations and dangers both through the potentialities of disasters that have not yet arrived and the promises of relocations. Of particular interest here is the analysis of the future in materialities and material futures, and how risk comes to be shaped in conjunction with those futures.

To Zeiderman risk is the organizing principle of this particular form of urban governance, and he traces the processes that constitute it as a security mechanism at the heart of a political rationality persuasively. Less persuasive is perhaps his claim of transcending the literatures of urban political economy, in the tradition of David Harvey, and those of neoliberal governmentality, in the tradition of Foucault. The first he rejects for he argues it is unclear to see who profits form the resettlement of populations at risk, whilst throughout the book referencing the kind of attention, in awards and tourist dollars, that Colombia as a country and as a brand was receiving as an example of “good governance.” It is also difficult to discard the possibility that politicians or urban managers toying with political aspirations will profit, in terms of political support, from being seen handling risk appropriately by relocating people in danger, even garnering support from those people “at risk,” more below, in the form of political affiliation or loyalty, a formalized and celebrated version of the same trope that underpins clientelism. Political loyalties are also a form of profit. As for neoliberal governmentality, Zeiderman argues it cannot fully explain the construction of risk as a variable of urban governance because “the target of intervention was no longer a social class, such as workers, or society as a whole, but individual households belonging to a narrowly delimited “at risk population” (ibid.: 23). This is a new, emerging rationale of rule, he argues, a line of thinking which he expands into an exorcism of the political economy of writing about politics in the “Global South,” “used as an esoteric alternative to highlight blind spots in the theory or used to create more divides and new theories altogether” (ibid.: 21).

This explicit aim requires that risk as he conceives it — following his informants’ tribulations — be irreducible to the variables intrinsic to Global North governances as problematized by the approaches of both urban political economists and neoliberal governmentality, but the ethnographic evidence he provides seems to point in different directions. First, whereas the author explores in impressive, convincing detail how risk comes to be constructed as the variable that matters, in an exchange with some officials in charge of formally codifying individuals at risk and organizing their resettlement, they come frustratingly close to using the category “at risk” as nothing other than a new, good-governance term for “poor” (ibid.: 107). Secondly, as Zeiderman himself mentions repeatedly, not only is risk itself at the heart of Foucault’s problematizing of modern thought and governmentality, but the political and economic processes in which he locates risk, however defined among his informants, seem to follow very closely the laws of motion of neoliberal governmentality. As mentioned earlier, the Bogotá administration is not constructing risk as a unit of measure and a mechanisms of execution for the whole population of the city; yet, taking on the task of crafting (poor) residents into reflexive, informed selves through information campaigns and sensibilización – awareness-raising processes (ibid.: 115), and that of creating new homes and spaces for them to live and socialize in according to principles of hygiene, infrastructure, and contemporary urbanism is still aiming at that poor population. It is in fact, in the terms of neoliberal govermentality, a particularly efficient way of delineating a population to be cared for: because it zooms in on a population where the gap between current circumstances and desired, normalized objectives is the widest, the improvement — the returns of the investment — will be higher, in terms of biopolitics, image, social peace, and possibly more awards and surely increased political capital. Especially in the last two chapters, Zeiderman shows that as the state created several points of intervention in the lives, spaces and trajectories of residents categorized as at risk, their only alternative was to relocate – oxymoron intended: “the Caja…produce[d] the conditions in which certain predetermined transformations could take place” (ibid.: 118). The only difference is that the unit constructed to measure and execute is risk, but neoliberal governmentalities were never short of newer abstractions to construct interventions – that is exactly what they have always done. In a sense, then, this is an insightful study into the rebranding of governmentalities as risk with an iron-cast developmentalist mould.

A fundamental consideration related to Zeiderman’s discussion of at risk communities in the content of modern urban governance pertains to the political economy of the discursive creation of risk, and the meanings that construct it — beyond the processes that support it. Although Zeiderman’s account is robustly balanced, the sense throughout the book is that risk has become in Colombia a political rationality and a sociological, broad emic category, where most of the processes of production of risk as a variable remain in the power of technocratic or political elites, news producers and mass movements, even when they include the input of everyday citizens. Analyses of newspapers and other forms of media also further this impression of an “at risk-ness” out there, but it is hard to locate at the level of the micro or individual. Even when the author shows how residents protest and interpellate the state through a grammar of risk and its lexical field – unpreparedness, lack of response – around disasters that had not yet taken place (ibid.: 187), we are shown in essence how citizens take the state to task within the terms of contention that have been set – those of risk. They can leverage it as a category but aside from disasters, they seem to remain fenced off from the production of risk as a category. Whilst it completes the exploration of the political economies of risk as they are set, they further refer us to the processes that border the politics of representation and their relations with other forms of power and capital. Those who have, name; those who don’t, do not.

Zeiderman succeeds greatly, though, in his goal of challenging the compulsive bandying about of certain categories in certain regions, like violence for Colombia, and Latin America more generally, and shows convincingly how anthropological knowledge can challenge its own processes of production and its internal political economies of meanings. His use of terms like “Global South,” however, seems to suggest that his book in fact goes further than he may have intended to. If, as I argue here, what is happening in Bogotá according to Zeiderman’s ethnography could be said to be a singularly new and effective case of modern “Western” governmentalities; and if risk is the ultimate marker of modernity as a political economic order and as a form of social thought; could it simply be the case that first, Bogotá is perhaps not so fundamentally distinct from Western capitals, and second, that it is in fact beating other, bigger, “more Western” capitals at their own game? Could it be that either Bogotá, together with large swathes of Latin America outside of the specific and highly diverse world of Amazonia, were never really such a different world from the “Global North” in terms of techniques of governance, or that they are not so different now? If this is the case it could be time to think about the kind of intellectual borders “Global South”-like terms are creating and what we need them for when thinking about certain exchanges on a world scale.

These world exchanges are central to Dillon Mahoney’s understand of risk in The Art of Connection and to his informants’ possibilities in life. Mahoney’s ethnography is based on fifteen years of fieldwork, spent charting the lived experiences of risk and insecurity among craft and curio makers along coastal Kenya. These craftspeople subsist on the trade of artwork and tourist-souvenirs aimed at visitors and foreign buyers. The region around Mombasa has been a trading area for centuries, lubricating the circulation by land and sea of raw materials, internal migrants, and, more recently, developmentally-minded tourists and NGO officials. Risk and insecurity are to Mahoney enmeshed with the introduction of mobile phones and internet, but also with decade-old ethnic, political, and labor conflicts among tradesmen and with recessionary trends in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, the biggest sources of tourists and markets for merchandise shipments. The elusive skill of managing all these risks and insecurities, which in these discourses often double as opportunities in the midst of intermittently formal infrastructures and political spaces, is what the author refers to as the “art of connection,” actively crafted from hunches, ethnic and political relations, internet access, and ever-actualising trade networks.

Across six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, Mahoney elaborates support for the art of connection as an ethnographic variable mostly through its corollaries: he is healthily critical of the “dual emergence of the mobility hype and the digital hype” (2017: 130), showing very convincingly that there is no obvious, necessary or even incidental correlation between technology, mobility, and the political and economic trajectories of people whose lives are affected by quite complex distributions of capital and clout. Rather, technologies, whether digital or more explicitly infrastructural, tend to reproduce pre-existing inequalities, and just like capital, become increasingly sensitive to differential possibilities among places. The trajectories of these craft and curio makers are increasingly sensitive to small variations in chance (ibid.: 129), ethnic support, and disjointed modernisation projects of urban space cleaning (ibid.: 93). Without compulsively repeating “global” and “local,” Mahoney’s ethnography shows particularly well how the connections and integrations that the internet made possible increase the complexity of the links between individual traders and individual buyers, local cooperatives, well-meaning foreign tourists and Fair Trade organisations based in the United States, creating (in this case mostly economic) risks that no one other than the craftspeople are expected to take responsibility for (ibid.: 147). Yes, the availability of the internet allowed some traders to try faraway buyers through their own websites and to escape the dangers of the streets by working from home. Yet, internet provision was choppy and intermittent and selling abroad on their own made them individually dependent on an unreliable postal service: all of these new mobilities and technologies are still dependent on complex, often material but often not, infrastructures – wires, stamps, antennae, relations with the postal carrier, and more. Those who had access to other forms of capital, whether technological literacy, math, or English skills (ibid.: 127), or who had a solid, pre-existing, sufficiently diverse portfolio of clients, could both take more risks, be better prepared for the worse, and best profit from the opportunities internet and mobile phones afforded. Risk is not as risky to everyone involved.

In this analysis risk takes on a less clinically defined, more adverbial quality. Instead of analysing the flows that construct risk and who mobilizes and guards those flows in the ways of Zeiderman’s analysis, risk in Mahoney’s analysis qualifies, appends, and inscribes actions and relations of production and circulation of artifacts and wealth. This is both closer to the pedestrian meaning of risk and to the abstracted sense of governing the self, and governing others – irrespective of whether national authorities or depersonalized markets are doing the governing. This risk is made of desires, projections, chance or lack thereof, but also of entrepreneurial impulses and self-discipline: in a sense abstract-able as per the norms of what Foucault understood to be the watermark of modern thought, and in a sense inextricably entwined with the vagaries of (political and economic) life. To call this an Art, and one of Connection, points pertinently to the fact that they cannot necessarily be separated, the flows that abstract and the flows that do not. Mahoney’s informants are complex economic agents who mobilize ethnic and political affiliations to establish economic transactions that minimize dependency on technological structures, and who tap into anxieties about transparency and ethics through cunning Fair Trade branding (chapter 7) to carve a place for themselves under the ruthless market sun. Risk is irreducible; something they seek to tame, diffuse, or live with.

The production of this kind of risk, from the perspective of Mahoney, required a certain kind of emphasis on the conditions in which it exists – the entire processes it qualifies. Mahoney approached these conditions from an eminently historical perspective, one informed by a decade and a half spent with his informants and by notoriously precise archival research including journals, official documents, and other historical sources. Insofar as risk is fundamental to his thesis, and what puts the Art into the “art of connection,” the question is whether the reportage-cum-logbook detail of historical description that dominates every chapter except the ethnographically strong last one, “From Ethnic Brands to Fair Trade Labels,” best serves the purpose of reproducing those flows for the sake of the point being made. My impression is it does not. The past thus treated, through the file, the document, the fixed, appears as too carefully curated, the more so the greater the detail, to account for things which are otherwise approached as fundamentally elusive to the kinds of abstractions these techniques of capture allow for. As the chronicle displaces the running commentary, the very term that gives the book its name is crowded out of the book: except for a fleeting cameo in an average-length sentence on page 119, “the art of connection” goes entirely unmentioned for over 150 pages.

Mahoney is more comfortable than Zeiderman with the modernist connotations of their informants’ problematizations of risk and the connotations written in the way we fence off risk as an analytical category to say something about it. In terms of the knowledge they produce, both books are working within the Foucauldian conditions of thinking about risk and writing about how our informants work with it, the conditions that Nail argues shape our contemporary understanding of managing through bordering what belongs where – a fundamentally political problem. Whether emphasizing the governmentalities built around risk in geographies that continue to be characterized as fundamentally different to the modernist project built on those forms of risk, or emphasizing the cunning entrepreneur managing her or his insertion as a single self in relations of production that link her or him to distant markets, the question remains: are there alternative ways of problematizing risk that do not hinge on the geo-historical bordering of emic categories? As I lay out the problem here, this amounts to asking where the borders of the logical ontologies that inform our thought, our informants’ lived experiences, and the neoclassical model are located and what they are doing. If we accept that risk is an inherently modern category, both in the sense of modern abstractions of flows among our informants and in the sense of the categories that anthropology as a discipline is capable of mobilizing to think about risk, the heuristic line is pushed to the frontier of who is, or not, modern, in terms of developing new ways of thinking about risk. These two ethnographies from areas that anthropological production considers in some ways as fundamentally external to that modernity — where the kinds of fencing that constitute risk happen — both challenge and verify our own fencing off of categories. As far as risk is concerned either we have indeed never been modern, and risk predates the definition and genealogy given it by Foucault; or else we have never been not modern, or at least not for a while now, and the borderings of thinking about risk are set as deep in the relations of production of crafts and curios in Kenya as in the production of citizens in metropolitan Bogotá, and ultimately, as in our own tools of producing flows into things we know and things we do not. In any case, both ethnographies show on several levels the complex political economies of anthropological intellectual production around the issue of risk, intrinsically entwined with the politics of representation of a discipline anxious as ever about the lines it draws and the borders that it makes.

Juan Manuel del Nido, University of Manchester

Reviewed in this Essay:

Mahoney, Dillon. 2017. The Art of Connection: Risk, Mobility and the Crafting of Transparency in Coastal Kenya. Oakland , CA: University of California Press.

Nail, Thomas. 2016. Theory of the Border. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zeiderman, Austin. 2016. Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.



Adams, Vincanne. Metrics: What Counts in Global Health. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Bähre, Erik. “The Janus Face of Insurance in South Africa: From Costs to Risk, from Networks to Bureaucracies”. Africa, 82, no. 1 (2012): 150-167.

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage, 1992.

Beer, David. “The Social Power of Algorithms”. Information, Communication & Society, 20, no. 1 (2017): 1-13.

Callon, Michel. “Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in Economics”. The Sociological Review 46, (1998): 1–57.

Carrier, James. “Introduction”. In Meanings of the Market: The Free Market in Western Culture, edited by James Carrier, 1-68. Oxford: Berg, 1997.

-“Simplicity in Economic Anthropology: Persuasion, Form and Substance”. In Economic Persuasions, edited by Stephen Gudeman, 15-30. New York: Berghahn, 2012.

Garcia, Marie-France. “La Construction Sociale d’un Marché Parfait: Le Marché au Cadran de Fontaines-en-Sologne”, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 65, (1986):2-13.

Giddens, Anthony. Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.

– “Risk and Responsibility”. Modern Law Review 62, no. 1 (1999): 1-10.

Lash, Scott. “Power after Hegemony: Cultural Studies in Mutation”, Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (2007): 55–78.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense Of Place”. Marxism Today (1991): 24-29.

Tsing, Anna. “Sorting Out Commodities: How Capitalist Value Is Made Through Gifts”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 1 (2013): 21–43.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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