How to make (sense of) money

Offer semester
1st semester

Lecture time
Wednesday 12:30 – 14:20

Lecture venue

Course description

It is often said that “money makes the world go around”. But what actually is money? Why do we need it? How is money “created”, both practically and socially?

In a moment when “money” seems to be the answer for everything, understanding the nature and social significance of money is of vital importance for making sense of the contemporary world and how we should act in it.

This course examines money’s characteristics, exchange uses and values. We will investigate money’s origins, and how these inform contemporary attitudes to it. We will explore commonly-encountered economic perspectives on the functions of money for exchange, payment, storing and measuring value. We will complement this with sociological understandings of money as a “memory bank”: a system of relationships, a chain of promises, and a record of people’s transactions with one another.

By adopting a comparative perspective that considers the use of money in different countries, this course will cultivate your ability to navigate the similarities and differences between their own and other cultures. Through a range of research exercises, group discussion and sharing, you will develop a critical understanding of the ways that money impacts upon everyday life.

Course learning outcomes

  • Identify and critically engage with key explanations of the functions of money from across a range of disciplinary perspective.

  • Conduct empirical analysis on monetary forms from a range of different cultural settings in order to understand their social uses and social implications.

  • Critically reflect upon the social issues created by particular monetary forms and monetary practices, and suggest how those might be addressed in the future.

  • Describe, explain and differentiate between various sociological, anthropological, economic and legal theories of money.

  • Work effectively as a group to communicate research findings.


Written report25%
Written reflections25%
In-class quizzes25%

Required reading

  • Dodd N. (2014) The Social Life of Money, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Graeber D. (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
  • Guyer JI. (2004) Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Marx K. (1976 [1867]) Capital: Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin Books.
  • Maurer B. (2015) How Would You Like To Pay?: How Technology is Changing the Future of Money, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Mauss M. (1967) The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Simmel G. (1978 [1900]) The Philosophy of Money, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Wang J. (2018) Inclusion or expulsion: Digital technologies and the new power relations in China’s “Internet finance”. Communication and the Public 3(1): 34-45.

Course co-ordinator and teachers