Research

Professor Maurer is currently conducting research on the shifting regulatory landscape in the offshore Caribbean; the cultural implications of new forms of electronic money and payment systems (with Scott Mainwaring, Lana Swartz, and Taylor Nelms, the “Future of Money Research Collaborative“); the emerging regulatory landscape for mobile phone-enabled payment systems, and the bitcoin phenomenon, focusing on the use of distributed ledgers to carry out law-like functions. The latter recently was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation. Professor Maurer’s maintains an active interest in Islamic banking and finance, and has recently published on the religious and rating-agency debate over Islamic bonds (sukuk).

Professor Maurer’s research in the anthropology of finance and money grew from his work on the offshore financial services sector of the Caribbean, specifically the British Virgin Islands (BVI), one of the world’s leading centers for offshore incorporation and today “home” to around one million companies. With the establishment of the Eastern Caribbean Commercial Court in 2009, the BVI has become a jurisdiction where commercial cases can be heard according to the priciples of equity, historically associated with Chancery, much like in the Delaware’s Court of Chancery. In his most recent research in the BVI, Professor Maurer has been exploring the historical trajectories of chancery and equity, their fusion with and separation from the common law in different phases and moments, their (re)instantiation in a British dependent territory, and the complex legacies in equity of slavery, money and property in the offshore. He is also investigating the recent phenomenon of Chinese entrepreneurs using BVI shell companies, and how Chinese corporate structures in the BVI may render moot recent multilateral efforts to crack down on tax haven abuses. Several papers based on his newest BVI research have appeared in print, and he is currently writing a book on the topic of the new offshore through Chinese incorporations in the “Caribbean’s chancery.”

Since 2007, Professor Maurer has been engaged in a series of collaborations with professionals in industry and design who are working on the development of new digital and mobile phone-enabled money transfer and savings systems. To this end, he co-organized an Everyday Digital Money conference, Sept. 18-19, 2008 which brought together scholars, industry professionals, nonprofit and philanthropic agency representatives and activists to discuss digital and alternative currency systems, the confluence between complementary currencies and emerging digital and mobile moneys, and the always-ambiguous potential of such moneys for political empowerment and economic transformation. In a related vein, Professor Maurer served as Special Advisor to the Royal College of Art’s Future of Money project.

Professor Maurer’s work in this domain led to the founding of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion in 2008. The Institute supports original research on cultures of money around the world and serves as a clearing house for research on the emerging mobile money phenomenon, as well as an ethnographic archive of people’s everyday social, ritual and religious practices around money. All of the projects funded by the Institute are original research on monetary pragmatics and repertoires around the world, from Nigeria to the Altay Province of Russia to Indonesia and Mexico, and nearly all are being conducted by scholars from the countries where they are conducting their research. The Institute is thus building a network and a community of inquiry into people’s everyday innovation at the confluence of money and mobile technology. By documenting people’s creative uses of money outside of money’s traditional functions (store of value, means of exchange, method of payment and the like), Professor Maurer hopes provoke deeper reflection on the multiple meanings and pragmatics of money. His most recent book, How Would You Like To Pay? How Technology is Changing the Future of Money, seeks to bring this work to a broader public.

Between 2009 and 2013, Professor Maurer was supported by the National Science Foundation for a project titled, “Mobile Money, Mobile Regulation: What the ‘Savings Challenge’ Means for Mobile Communications and Banking.” (See Project Outcomes Report). In this project, Professor Maurer explored the shifting regulatory debate over mobile money services. When telecommunications companies get into the business of money transfer and banking, there is the potential for a clash of cultures as well as risks to consumers, banks and the financial system itself. Who holds the deposits, how, and what do they do with them while they sit in accounts? If you lose your phone, do your savings go with it? This project relied on interviews with regulatory and industry participants; archival data collection and analysis; and ethnography in industry and regulatory sites to understand the debates and knowledge transfers around emerging regulations for mobile money. Professor Maurer is currently completing a book based on this research.

With Paul Dourish (UC Irvine, Informatics) and Scott Mainwaring (Intel), Maurer founded and co-directed the Intel Science and Technology Center in Social Computing, devoted to using the tools of social science and humanistic inquiry to understand our digital lives. The ISTC-Social is winding down in 2014-15 after a successful 3 years, having supported over 40 faculty and graduate students on 5 campuses (UC Irvine, NYU, Cornell, Indiana University and Georgia Tech). Among other products, it resulted in Maurer’s co-edited book (with Tom Boellstorff), Data, Now Bigger and Better!

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