Susan Ellison

Grant Type

Post PhD Research Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Wellesley College, MA

Grant number

Gr. 9659

Approve Date

April 18, 2018

Project Title

Ellison, Dr. Susan H., Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA - To aid research on 'Betrayed: Politics, Pyramid Schemes, and Bolivian Vernaculars of Fraud'

Preliminary abstract: ‘Betrayed’ pivots around the moral economies and governance politics of estafa (fraud) in the city of El Alto, Bolivia. Questions of fraud sit at the intersection of donor-backed development projects and dubious pyramid schemes, transnational judicial reform efforts, and everyday livelihood strategies in places like Bolivia, as foreign donors and national governments alike emphasize entrepreneurship as the means to alleviate poverty and seek to promote the rule of law. Accusations of estafa have become ubiquitous in Bolivia. Wounded ex-lovers plaster city walls with photographs of people they accuse of defrauding their hearts–or bank accounts. Consumer protection agencies debate whether to regulate shamans operating out of tin shacks. Aggrieved citizens accuse political leaders of fraudulent performances of indigeneity. In El Alto, such accusations have concentrated around irregular land sales and criminalized pyramid schemes as residents navigate the ambiguous distinctions between legal multilevel marketing sales and Ponzi investments, pursue delinquent debtors, and grapple with forged land titles. ‘Betrayed’ will examine the ways state agencies and ordinary citizens police proper versus transgressive sources of wealth and how people re-build trust in the wake of perceived duplicities through sustained ethnographic research with irregular land vendors, pyramid scheme participants, shopkeepers, and salespeople in Bolivia’s many multilevel marketing companies, as well as with state regulators and members of the criminal justice system. Through a close study of the intersecting moral, political, and legal valences of estafa, this project will illuminate the shifting relationship between desire, private property ownership, virtuous citizenship, and the criminalization of insolvent subjects in El Alto–with implications for understanding fraud’s significance well beyond the Bolivian context.