March 2, 2010


After working on projects that relate to international tourism and development for my M.A., and starting background work in the same vein for my PhD, I realized that one discipline, above all others, seemed to be directly opposed to a lot of what I was learning: economics.* The reason is, at heart, fairly basic. It’s a matter of assumptions, and it’s a matter of data collection. Anthropologists and economists start from some fundamentally different methodological and philosophical positions about human nature and behavior (if there are such things). Despite the fact that both sciences study human behavior, their proponents often come to some startlingly different conclusions. This paper is a brief exploration of this critical disjuncture.

As Carrier and Miller state, “For much of the twentieth century the social sciences, including anthropology, have seen themselves engaged in a fight with economics in a fight over the academic representation of social relations” (1999: 24). Anthropology fundamentally clashes with economistic views of human nature that make primordial assumptions about the relationship between individual and group behavior. In neoclassical economics, one of the primary assumptions is that the attainment of individual self-interest will result in the betterment of society as a whole. A whole series of anthropological studies, from Malinowski onward, have challenged this central tenet, often to little avail (Carrier and Miller 1999:25). Carrier and Miller write that anthropology has been fighting a “losing battle” in the rhetorical war about human motivation and behavior. Economists, far more than anthropologists, hold primacy when it comes to defining “what is important in the contemporary world” (Carrier and Miller 1999: 24).

Why is this the case? The short answer: economists actually supply models and results that can be utilized for a variety of purposes (Carrier and Miller 1999: 27). They provide answers that are useful (and I mean this in a kind of Foucaultian sense). This is possible because of the some of the underlying foundations of economic thought. One of the primary assumptions is the idea that all humans are, ultimately, rational actors (Wilk and Cliggett 2007: 73). This is the idea that all humans are rational—read logical—agents who seek to “maximize their utility” or (Wilk and Cliggett 2007: 58-59). Also, economists are able to make general models because of the assumption that larger structures are created out of the cumulative actions of individuals. If individuals are assumed to make rational choices, and if they presumably always seek to get the most satisfaction (utility) possible, then a larger model can be constructed that takes these tendencies into account as constants. This is part of what makes human behavior something that can be predicted and modeled by economists. The diversity of humanity is swept away in a philosophical cloud, allowing for generalizations and larger structural models. The real problem with predicting human behavior is the fact that there are so many variables—cultural, historical, and ideological, among others—that would have to be taken into account. Modern economists sidestep this problem through a methodological sleight of hand that has little empirical basis. But it works, mainly because it’s the only game in town.

Anthropologists critique economists on the grounds that they are “much more willing to posit a microscopic realm than they are to investigate and analyse it” (Carrier and Miller 1999: 39). But we have to offer something more than critique, and we have to offer something a little different than just empirically grounded particularities. Anthropologists—and this is the primary argument of Carrier and Miller—have to find a way to connect the realities of their particularistic studies with the larger structures and systems within which real human societies live (Carrier and Miller 1999: 41). One of the key considerations is finding a way to embed “local” processes in a way that does not turn them into mere “a priori assumptions” (Carrier and Miller 1999: 40). Inspired by Mintz, Carrier and Miller argue for analytical “commodity chains” that follow the thread of goods from the household, to regional markets, to larger global markets (Carrier and Miller 1999: 40). This method does seem to hold considerable potential for demystifying commodities and the social relationships in which they are enmeshed (Carrier and Miller 1999: 41).

Another possibility may lie in the roots of practice theory as explicated by Sherry Ortner (1984, 2006) and others. One of the key components of practice theory is that neither the smaller (individual) or larger (macro-structural) levels are given primacy. Systems are not, according to Ortner, “broken into artificial chunks”, since the whole point is an attempt to explain the system as a whole, integrated process (Ortner 1984: 148). In models produced by economists there is a decided split between the individual and macro levels of analysis. While many economists conceive of human behavior as the sum total of actions of a series of precise and rational actors, such models do not take into account the actual differential relationships of individuals to larger structures. In short, there is little room in economics for individuals to actually affect or shape the realities in which they live. While economists do allow for structural constraint—meaning that larger economic systems constrain human choices and behavior (Carrier and Miller: 27)—they leave little room for the contingencies of human agency.

So what about agency? What does that even mean--choice? The ability to determine one's fate? The kind of agency that Ortner calls for is one that is understood within specific cultural and historical realities (Ortner 2006: 57). This differs dramatically from the homogenized and idealized view of human nature that many economists project onto their mathematized subjects. But ideas about agency still leave a lot of questions unanswered, even if they do challenge certain economistic conceptions about human behavior. If anthropology tells us anything, it tells us that human behavior, while fundamentally linked by certain biological capacities, is equally diverse in its multiform cultural expressions. This means that human behavior is not something that is completely determined by culture OR biology--history, contexts, and situations matter. But how much do these factors matter?

Many economists argue, ultimately, that individual human actions and choices only affect larger realities in the aggregate and uniform sense. Such conceptions fundamentally obscure the fluidity and acute unpredictability of human behavior. The critical goal is finding a way of looking at micro-macro relationships that accounts for both structural constraints and the potentialities of agency without leaning too heavily toward one end of the scale or another. The goal is to avoid simplification at any level, while still allowing for the unexpected. If anthropologists can actively account for local contingencies while still taking larger structures into consideration, maybe that's a start. The goal is to attempt to understand the ways in which the cumulative—and varied—choices, decisions, and actions of individuals coalesce to shape those abstract and seemingly impenetrable larger structures in ways that mathematical modeling could never predict. Maybe prediction is beside the point anyway. Such an understanding might not quite be as pragmatically useful for the goals of certain international development agencies, but maybe, in the end, that's the whole point.

*This is a rough version of some things that I have been looking into of late. Economics, rational actors, decision making--and how anthropology can or cannot tackle these issues. I am more interested in political anthropology than anything--but I have been working to gain a better understanding of the intersections between economics and anthropology for some obvious reasons. Part of this is because the economists are much more vocal, and part of this is because anthropology and econ seem so diametrically opposed. At the same time, I don't want to just pretend that the discipline of economics is completely one-sided, and I don't want to set up a straw-man version of what they are doing in order to argue against it. That may be a little bit of the case above, so I need to spend some more time looking into what modern economists do and how they go about doing it.


Carrier, James G., and Daniel Miller. 1999. “From Private Virtue to Public Vice.” In Anthropological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ortner, Sherry. 2006. Anthropology and Social Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.
---1984 “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties.” Studies in Society and History. Vol 26(1): 126-166.

Wilk, Richard R., and Lisa C. Cliggett. 2007. Economies and Cultures. Boulder: Westview Press.


Zora said...

Do read some behavioral economics. Not all economists believe that the rational actor model describes even microeconomics. The Wikipedia article isn't that bad; you can start there and then follow links and read books in the bibliography.

You can eavesdrop on economists if you read Brad DeLong's blog, Grasping Reality with ... (the termination of this phrase varies, depending on his whim; both hands, all eight tentacles, etc.).

This video, by Gintis, is great. Five principles to unify the social sciences.

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks Zora. I will definitely look more into this. I have read a bit in this area, but not in any real depth--more references to this strain of economics than anything else. I have read about the idea of "bounded rationality," which provides some middle ground, I think, between anthropology and economics.

How does behavioral econ fare overall within the field of economics? Is it an outlier, or fairly well accepted?

This makes me want to go take some seminars in the econ my free time of course.

Thanks again for your comment!

Zora said...

Ah, I see the link to the Gintis talk was removed. Oh well, you can google it.

As for behavioral economics -- it's still controversial in some quarters, but much less so these days. Kahneman got a Nobel prize for his work on the subject.

The recent New Yorker piece on Paul Krugman is an entertaining look at another Nobel laureate economist who has argued against the "freshwater economists" of the Chicago school. "Saltwater economists" (so-called because they tend to cluster in schools on the US coasts) are more interested in what actually happens (messy, unpredictable, shaped as much by passion as by reason) than in building exquisite mathematical models.

Saltwater is in the ascendent these days.

You might find economic math hard slogging ... I do, and I've actually taken calculus and statistics fairly recently. I just keep reading and hope that with extended exposure, something will penetrate.