Unraveling Spiderweb Capitalism: A Conversation with Kimberly Kay Hoang
Earlier this year, SASE Future Directions in Socio-Economics editor Anna Woźny met with Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang, Associate Professor of Sociology and the College and the Director of Global Studies at the University of Chicago for a conversation about her latest book, Spiderweb Capitalism: How Global Elites Exploit Frontier Markets (Princeton UP, 2022). Spiderweb Capitalism uncovers the invisible web and everyday work of financial professionals who facilitate the illicit movement of money around the world. Drawing on rich interview and ethnographic data, Dr. Hoang examines how the ultra-wealthy use offshore shell corporations to accumulate and conceal their wealth. Her first monograph, Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work (California UP, 2015) was a path-breaking study of how global flows of capital shape – and are shaped by – relationships brokered through sex work in Vietnam. Dr. Hoang’s publications have won over 21 awards from various professional associations, including the 2020 Lewis A. Coser Award for theoretical agenda setting from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sociological Theory.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview conducted by Anna Woźny
Thank you very much for agreeing to this conversation. My first question is, how does your new book connect with your previous research? In many ways, Spiderweb Capitalism showcases the everyday work of wealthy men who frequent hostess bars you studied in Dealing in Desire. But at the same time, you note that the field changed tremendously, that once you undertook new data collection you could no longer rely on the key informants who had previously facilitated your access. Can you tell me about the trajectory of this project and how it grew out of your earlier work?
That’s a great question. I think there are two answers: methodological and conceptual. Methodologically (and I would even say practically) no field is static. And so, even if I wanted to go back to try to interview some of the same people that I
interviewed for the first book years later, those same people evolve and move on, their lives change. That’s especially important in Southeast Asia, because it’s such a dynamic economy that has developed quite rapidly. You have a new prime minister, and all kinds of officials turn over at the local level. You also have new business players – the people that were once in the market have exited.
My first book, Dealing in Desire, engaged primarily with questions of gender and globalization with a serendipitous pivot to economic sociology. So, when I started to make a “hard” pivot to economic sociology, there were a lot of questions that I felt were left unanswered. The first book led to a new set of questions which I ask in Spiderweb Capitalism: how do Western investors and East Asian investors navigate this market differently when they’re constrained by different laws that govern their investments abroad?
I really love projects motivated by big ideas. This is how I feel like I can grow and evolve as a scholar. When I started to dig into the second book project, it opened me up to this whole other world of highly specialized financial professionals who are charged with building out this web. And I think it’s not enough to just lay out the architecture; it was more important for me to try to uncover and understand what the strategies and processes at play are. Most importantly, I asked: Who are the people? How are they making these decisions? How do they traverse these global contexts?
This research also meant that I grew a lot as an ethnographer, and it really forced me to think about what a global ethnography is. A lot of global ethnographies are densely grounded in one place. But to gather this data, I was traveling literally all around the world… As the project unfolded in front of me, it grew into this massive web – no pun intended! It took me a while to unravel, sort out, and think through what was going on. Intellectually it was really fun, but also really challenging.
Right, and this is a great segue into my next question. I couldn’t help but notice how demanding data collection for this project must have been. You frequently changed locations and flew thousands of miles all around the world. There was also what you call the gendered paradox – being one of the very few women of color in the world of wealthy men. I’m curious to hear what stood out to you the most.
That’s a pretty hard question to answer in that it took a lot. I will just be honest, and I would say humble, that when I think about launching another project after this one, it feels very intimidating because I gave everything I had to this book. For me, I had to remember to go back to the bread and butter, and ask, what is it that I’m personally motivated by? For me it is a sense of discovery, of deepening an understanding, and of moving the field. For the second book I wanted to elevate the methods and the framing and really push myself to the bounds of what I could imagine.
For me, the goal has long been to make sociology relevant in broader public debates, and to show the value that sociology can bring to big questions about global finance, our economy – things we don’t often think about – and most importantly to show the importance of ethnography with the depth of data.
I drew a lot of inspiration from Brooke Harrington’s book, Capital Without Borders. While she studied wealth managers – and I build on her work to study other financial executives – it did lay an initial foundation for imagining what’s possible. My hope is that one day somebody will pick up these two books and begin to imagine a new set of ethnographic possibilities, how they might be able to shift our paradigms and contribute to our understandings of their fields in their own way.
My next question is about the title, and the metaphor of spiderweb capitalism. You draw analogy to Anelosimus eximius, a species of social spider that weaves enormous, complex webs. You use this analogy to distinguish between dominant spiders, the ultra-high net worth individuals, and subordinate spiders, that is, those who help them manage their wealth and weave the spiderweb. How did you come up with this metaphor? And why didn’t you keep the earlier title, Playing in the Gray?
I am really motivated by the creative process of theorizing, which is very unpredictable. There are people who like to commit to writing a specific number of words per day or to write for an amount of time a day. But you can never predict what’s going to come out of you, or how you will figure out how to package ideas. That’s the most challenging part, because it’s unpredictable. But also, when you finally crack it, it’s the most fun.
There’s a range of ethnographies out there, all of which I deeply respect. On one end, there’s a group of ethnographies that rely on thick description and storytelling. They play with concepts, but they don’t necessarily theorize from them. In part because of my training at Berkeley, and now my time at University of Chicago (and part of why I’ve stayed at Chicago for so long), I’m motivated to theorize from the story, to do the additional layering.
When working on Spiderweb Capitalism, I explored a lot of research in network theory, and network scholars talk about financial webs all the time. They do the important work of producing very sophisticated network maps with quantitative methods. But what’s missing from those maps is the qualitative content that flows between two nodes of a network. And how totally disparate webs are connected to one another.
One day I was meeting with my writing group; I’ve been in this group with Hana Brown and Jen Jones for eleven years now. One day Hana said, do you know that there are these social spiders? I started going down this rabbit hole of social spiders and kept thinking oh, my gosh! Look at these massive webs! And what does it mean to think about them as communal? And also – this is very sociological. From there, I started to ask, if we think about spiders as communal, who are they?
The earlier title, Playing in the Gray, was something that came up over and over again in my initial interviews. To be successful in this market you have to play in the gray. In this part of the theoretical framework I talk about the meticulous effort that a group of people in this study are involved in, which involves exploiting the gray space between what’s legal and illegal. They’re front-running the law, exploiting conceptions of what occurs in developed economies versus undeveloped economies, what’s clean and corrupt, what we imagine to be democratic states versus crony capitalist or predatory states.
When you realize playing in the gray means operating at that very friction between what’s legal and illegal, you begin to see how crony capitalist states are, in fact, woven into this broader capitalist system of democratic “clean” states.
As a cultural sociologist I am also curious about the spiderweb metaphor because it reminds me of Clifford Geertz’s webs of significance. And indeed, you pay close attention to the cultural and moral understandings that your interviewees assign to their work, to the money passing through their hands, and to illicit market activity. What did you learn about the intersections of culture, morality, and economy through this project?
When I think about sociology of elites, at the forefront of that is economic sociology or cultural sociology. Cultural sociology tends to focus on anxieties of affluence and how people make sense of their wealth, or how people spend their money. But very few look at how elites make their money and protect their reputations along the way. This is partly because it’s hard to do – it’s challenging enough to get people to talk about what they do with their wealth and how they make sense of it. But it’s even harder to get people to talk about how they make that wealth and the ways in which they played in the gray to do this. So, the second half of the book really starts to zoom in on the people.
It took me a long time to publish this book, because I felt like it had no soul. Maybe that’s the point, because capital has no soul. But when you zoom into the people you start to realize that they’re operating within a system that is set up in ways they don’t feel they can change or have the power to change. There are people who have very strong feelings about their own practices of capital accumulation and would like to do it in a cleaner way, but the law is set up for them to do what they wouldn’t call illegal, but morally reprehensible. And this is their language. It’s important to dig deeper and to understand how people make sense of this, what their moral regimes of justification are, and what kinds of limits and boundaries they confront. Not just what they feel or imagine. The book tries to capture that.
Yes, and you show that moral understandings do not just vary between individuals or locations, but the same people can mobilize different justifications depending on the context they operate in. Like the man who split his time between Vancouver and Southeast Asia, embodying a ‘family man’ identity in one location, and a ‘business tycoon’ in the other.
Next, I want to ask about the prey, which, as you write, is the global bottom ninety-nine percent. What are you hoping Spiderweb Capitalism will contribute to conversations about wealth inequality both within academia and in the broader society?
The main takeaway for me is that this is a systemic issue that is not going to be solved easily. Such complex problems really require interdisciplinary and complex solutions. One thing I don’t like about quick policy prescriptions, particularly for questions like this, is that there just isn’t one solution.
When sociology melds with public policy, it’s often in studying down and thinking about solutions to alleviate poverty. I think what we need to do is take a big step back and ask, how are people so impoverished to begin with? And why is it that we live in a world of such wide inequality? If there are legal mechanisms for people to accumulate wealth, why aren’t those legal mechanisms available to everybody? Those who can’t hire top lawyers and fancy accountants to do their work. If tax evasion and tax avoidance are functional equivalents, why is one legal and the other is illegal?
Political officials, particularly under the Trump administration, are showing clear examples of the ways in which the financial sphere, the economic sphere, and the political sphere are so interwoven with one another that it’s hard to imagine what regulation could look like, especially across multiple sovereignties. I hope that there will be bigger academic conferences to raise questions about the solutions. In good social systems, everybody should have the right to live, the right to an education. We all believe that, but we don’t live in a world where that exists. And we live in a world where the billionaires are now subsidizing what should be done, what should be handled by states, by our governments. Why is that? What got us here to begin with?
And these are the difficult questions the field of socio-economics must grapple with! On that note, I’m curious how you see the recent developments in socio-economics and where you see this interdisciplinary field moving in the future?
The answer to your question is in the chapter of my book titled “The Exit.” If you read it closely, you start to see the ways in which local financial elites use similar kinds of guerrilla warfare tactics in an economic space to push back on people who they imagine to be neo-colonialists and former colonists. And they feel like they’re winning those fights. When I think of the case of Damian and George, for example, and the ways in which the state bureaucrats are pushing back – what does it mean to conceptualize state bureaucrats as part of the elite one percent globally, in relation to the poor ninety-nine percent in the United States of America? It really disrupts our understanding of first world/third world and global North/South binaries. We see that there is the global elite, and the global non-elite. And that arrangement rests on this layering of history in post-colonial contexts.
To me, the layering of gender and race and nation and post-colonialism is all there, and it’s part of the book. It’s part of what motivates me as a scholar, and it’s part of what makes it a more complex puzzle to grapple with.
This type of research is still marginal, but I hope to make a small contribution pushing the field in that direction.