ABOUT - Creole Economics: Caribbean Cunning Under the French Flag

The practice of debrouillardism (resourcefulness in French) takes on a particularly Caribbean meaning (cunning and illicit activity in French Creole) in the French overseas department of Martinique. Creole Economics reveals how cleverness in the economic realm operates at the expense of the French state without compromising the benefits of French identity. By drawing on studies of French slavery and folklore, literary works by Caribbean authors, archival materials from Martinique, and the author’s own ethnographic fieldwork, Browne shows how a creole logic animates illicit economic activity in Martinique, thus contradicting the common assumption that economic actions are a “culture free” zone of behavior.

Creole Economics  

The argument of Creole Economics extends the understanding of creoleness beyond religion, language, and expressive culture to include ideas about work and everyday economic practices.

Potential audiences include researchers in these areas:
Caribbean Studies
Postcolonial Studies
Francophone Studies
Studies in Black Atlantic History
Diaspora Studies
Feminist Economics
Law and Society Studies

The book is written less for theory-oriented scholars, however, than for undergraduate students who have little or no knowledge of Caribbean peoples. In the process of learning about the ethnographic world of creole economics, students can also learn about some general patterns in Caribbean societies, including:

  1. the context of slave economies (Chapters 2 & 4), such as
    1. early human and commodity flows of globalization
    2. colonial ideas of race that fed the slave system,
    3. types of slave deprivation that led to opportunistic adaptations
    4. status systems that developed to reproduce opportunism and affirm a sense of personal autonomy
    5. types of practices that are seen to nurture autonomy and reward cleverness
    6. the role of folktales in teaching life lessons of survival
  2. the emergence of creole languages and cultures (Chapter 4)
  3. early debates about cultural survivals from Africa (Chapter 4)
  4. continuing scholarship on creole adaptations in areas of religion, language, and expressive arts (Chapter 4)
  5. the debates about the role of culture in shaping economic behavior (Chapter 3)

Overarching goals of book:

  1. To establish how a creole logic animates much of the undeclared economic activity in Martinique, and thereby informs our current understanding of both creoleness and informal economies
    1. Specifically, to show how the concept of creole economics extends the parameters of creoleness beyond religion, language, and expressive culture to include ideas about work and everyday economic practices
    2. And, as a corollary, to offer a lively case study for demonstrating that the commonly assumed “culture free” zone of informal economic practice is saturated with local meaning deriving from Martinique’s social history and cultural values. The combination of embedded local meanings for economic practice, and the fact that people of all class positions participate in it argue against the common boiler plate models in development planning and related universalizing assumptions about the desire of informal operators to work in the legitimate economy alone.
  2. To show how postcolonial tensions between Martinique and France (the strain of the family romance) feed the practice of creole economics as a politics of difference among Martiniquais who can practice creole economics to assert their own “opposition within complicity.”
    1. Martinique’s intimate yet deeply conflicted relation to France is problematic because for islanders to sever their formal political integration to France would cost them the relatively high standard of living they have come to expect.
    2. Because they are politically paralyzed, Martiniquais may practice creole economics as a politics of difference that allows them to assert personal autonomy and gain status without jeopardizing the benefits of remaining French.

Analysis includes multiple ways of viewing creole economics:

  1. as a gendered phenomenon (chapter 7)
  2. as a contested, moral phenomenon (chapter 5)
  3. as a phenomenon practiced differently according to one’s resources, social networks, and personal motivations (chapter 6)


  1. Data collected in Martinique from 1990-2001 (11 years), with a sample drawn from three socioeconomically distinct neighborhoods of Fort-de-France (where the highest proportion of the island’s population lives)—a low and moderate income, middle-income, and upper income area. Only the tiny minority of bekes (descendants of white slaveowners who continue to practice endogamy) are not included (they declined to be interviewed).
  2. Data gathering techniques include participant observation, census interviewing, informal interviews, and semi-structured, in-depth interviews.
  3. Data also drawn from local literary work, government archival records, and from public officials charged to monitor workplace practices and tax violations.

Chapter outline:

  1. Chapter 1 outlines the terms and scope of the book. These include the Martiniquais débrouillard who is generally male, clever, and concerned with exercising autonomy and demonstrating intelligence. He is the central actor of creole economics.
  2. Chapter 2 introduces readers to the social history of the island, how the weight of France has shaped islanders’ sense of identity, and why they chose to fully integrate into the nation of France.
  3. Chapter 3 introduces readers to the debates that separated orthodox economists from economic anthropologists regarding the role of culture in economic practice.
  4. Chapter 4 reviews the social context of creoleness through a look at evolving scholarly approaches from Herskovits to Mintz & Price, to Trouillot and Price and others.
  5. Chapter 5 shows how débrouillardism in the creole sense began on slave plantations as opportunistic acts associated with self-preservation. Although French economic and political structures affecting islanders changed over time, many islanders feel that the relation between France and Martinique remains strained at best.
  6. Chapter 6 takes off from the social context provided by previous chapters to introduce people from different class backgrounds and the kind of illicit economic activity they engage in. There are over 100 distinct types and these generally vary according to a person’s resources, skills, networks, and motivations.j
  7. Chapter 7 focuses on the gendered aspect of creole economics, and shows how Afro-Martinquais women and men have experienced different constraints and opportunities despite their similar oppression during slavery. These differences have led to different priorities and different kinds of creole identities. Creole economics is far more common among men than women as this chapter explains.


Other highlights:

In addition to a series of photographs of the island, there are many pencil illustrations drawn by an accomplished Colorado painter who was willing to help me animate the book and provide some visual guides for imagining Martiniquais people and their environment.

  • The book includes numerous personal stories of fieldwork, and a richly emblematic tale of my encounter with Patrick (introduced in Chapter 3, and continued in Chapter 4).
  • There are also many vignettes that help depict the range of activities people pursue. These vignettes are drawn from personal experiences and interviews.
  • There are numerous discussions of the ideas of local literary figures and intellectuals whose contributions to the Martiniquais sense of identity are vitally important. 
  • There is a glossary.
  • There are substantial endnotes for the serious reader but no in-text cites in order to make the read as unencumbered as possible.
  • There is a comprehensive index.

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