From Economics to Culture, and Finally Metaphysics

Last week I gave my students a classic think and reflect question: what is the relationship between culture and economics. Three particularly good responses stick in my mind, and I want to share them with

The first student thinks like Mark, likened culture, economics, and politics to a car. The engine is economics, politics is the fuel, and the wheels are culture. The car needs the fuel of politics to keep going. If you have the right fuel the car runs well. If you have the wrong fuel, you can ruin the engine. But irrespective of whether you have a motor or fuel, the car rolls forward, only if the are wheels that are culture are on the car.  Presumably there needs to be some air in the tires too, if they are to grip the road well.

A second student cited an short paper written by, of all people, the anthropologist Franz Boas, and sociologist Talcott Parsons which published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1958, and called “The Concepts of Culture and of Social System.” In other words, they had the same squabble back then about the difference between culture and society, too. Their conclusion is still relevant, though: “As in the famous case of heredity ‘versus’ environment, it is no longer a question of how important each is, but of how each works.” If only the many biological reductionists seeking explanations for culture only in genes and/or competitive advantage would reflect on this quote, the discussion would be more productive.

The third student had perhaps the most straightforward comment about the controversy between economics and culture. His response went something like this: “Which came first, society or economy? About this I won’t speculate; it is a question better left to the metaphysicists.”

The Pontiac Solstice is one of the most intriguing designs I know of

About a year and a half ago I purchased a Pontiac Solstice convertible, silver. Now some would point out this the classic midlife crisis car. However, if this truly was a midlife crisis purchase, I would’ve gotten the one painted in bright red. Now in and of itself the design is very well done, and they essentially fly out of dealer showrooms as fast as they arrive. But it does something else that I find absolutely fascinating. On weekends when I’m driving around its common for me to have people (always men) walk up and ask questions about my car. I even had a fellow with a brand-new Porsche get out and ask me what kind of car it was. Most are very surprised it’s made by Pontiac.

Think about what this means: the design of this car actually prevents buyer remorse. A few times a week, total strangers walk up to me and tell me that I made the right choice. Think of another product that does that. When was the last time that someone, a total stranger leaned out the window at a stoplight to tell you your PC mouse looked really cool?

There are other products that do that, the iPod of course, is the most iconic currently. Maybe one of the signs of good design are the number of people that agree with you.

Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly and…Bronislaw Malinowski???

It is popular today to frame the development debate in the context of two books by economists, the glass half-full story of Jeffrey Sachs The End of Poverty, and the glass half-empty story of William Easterly The White Man’s Burden. Both writers observed the world of foreign development aid for years. Sachs’ conclusion is that given the weak investment in remote third world villages, it is not surprising that development has not occurred. Demonstration villages for his ideas are now being funded in Tanzania and elsewhere, These villages are frequently featured in Sachs’ Scientific American column where he emphasizes that more fertilizer and infrastructure development will substantially increase yields and farmer profits. Easterly concludes the opposite. He notes that despite $2.3 trillion spent on foreign aid in the last fifty years, extreme poverty continues. He asks why if so much aid has already been spent without eliminating poverty, why spend more in the same way? Easterly believes that instead, development requires that African governments free capitalist entrepreneurs from the fetters of government regulation which he believes stunts market development. Irrespective of their disagreements, both economists agree that an absence of market activity is at the heart of the “development problem.”

The problem I see is that having two economists address poverty in subsistence farming societies is like asking fish about how to fly through the air. Economists are excellent at describing what happens when modern globalized markets focused on the buying and selling of goods are already established. In this respect, Easterly is correct to focus on the consequences of having too much government regulation of business—too many permits do stifle entrepreneurial efforts. Likewise Sachs is right to emphasize that market inputs are necessary if yields are to increase. However, neither economist describes how to introduce the culture of markets in a place like rural Tanzania where there never has been the market dominated society modern economics assumes is found everywhere. But the fact of the matter is that the poorest of the poor in Africa live in areas where subsistence ethics, not market ethics, dominate. Subsistence farming means that a family grows what they eat, builds their own houses out of local materials, has little cash, and lives more or less independently from the global marketplace. Loyalties to kin, clan, neighbor, and patron-client relationships, are important in these societies. Whether you eat or not is more dependent on the people you know personally, and not the anonymous invisible hand of Adam Smith’s marketplace.

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski is among the classic writers who described how exchange in such pre-modern subsistence societies goes beyond the cash-based exchange focused on by economists. For example, as is typically described in Introductory Cultural Anthropology classes, Malinowski’s Trobriand Islanders developed elaborate gifting networks in kula necklaces made out of shell. Certainly these necklaces had economic value in a marketplace, as any passing museum collector with a few francs in their pocket soon discovered. But, as Malinowski also found out, kula necklaces symbolized cultural meanings regarding relationships, generosity, and a range of other emotions that the modern utilitarian museum collectors never saw. Most importantly Malinowski noted, gifting the necklaces acknowledged patronage relationships between previous and future owners which could be activated in times of famine, drought, attack, or other catastrophes.

But, what is taught in Introductory Economics classes, by economists like Sachs and Easterly, is that humans have a natural propensity to “truck, trade, and barter” in a fashion which focuses only on the supply and demand for an object in an anonymous marketplace. This assumption works really well if you live in a capitalist market economy, and are trying to decide whether to shop at Nordstrom’s or Wal-Mart. But it does not make much sense if you are trading a kula necklace which carries with it the meaning, sentiments, and responsibilities of previous and future owners.

Nor does the modern marketplace make much sense if you are a Tanzanian subsistence farmer selling a few extra bags of maize you produced with a hoe, into a global market dominated by the efficiency of the Iowa corn farmer. For example, if the hoe wielding subsistence farmer grows an extra 2,000 kg. of maize this season in Tanzania, this can be sold for about $290 in urban Dar Es Salaam, without accounting for the cost of seed, fertilizer, pesticides, transportation, etc. Spread across a family of seven, this $290 provides some extra cash to purchase medicine, pay school fees, and repair the family bicycle, but that is about it. But this is in effect what Sachs program in Tanzania, as well as thousands of other expensive development programs undertaken around the world assume. In other words such programs to encourage surplus maize production by subsistence farmers do not make much economic sense. But, what is often missed by the economists is that such production does make sense in the context of a subsistence economy in which affection for patrons (and even economists) is important. Perhaps what is happening is that the maize produced for Jeffrey Sachs’ new program symbolizes to peasant producers a relationship with a patron named Jeffrey Sachs. After all, he is a potentially powerful patron who can bail them out in the next drought. This is the only context in which the maize produced takes on meaningfulness for the peasant producer, since in monetary terms the value of the extra bags is trivial.

Where markets are significant in Tanzania is in the cities like Dar Es Salaam where differentiated labor markets are emerging. If you want to know more about how vibrant such markets can be, read Pietra Rivoli’s book The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy. Like Easterly and Sachs, Rivoli is an economist who investigated, among other things, how used clothing discarded in the Salvation Army bin in the United States is bought and sold in the robust modern markets of Tanzania’s capital city. She describes a world in which clothing is bought and sold for both its own utility, and to reflect the fashion sense of the new owners. As Rivoli points out, this is a good thing, because it encourages people to become calculating consumers in the global marketplace, and as a result Tanzania is better dressed. In effect Rivoli is doing what economists do best: focusing on how markets permit traders to create a more prosperous society. Sachs and Easterly would be well-advised to also focus on such places. Or when they do involve themselves in rural subsistence societies, they should also bring along an anthropologist who sees the culture beyond the marketplace.

But where does this leave the student assigned to compare and contrast the two more popular views of Easterly and Sachs? My feeling is that such students should borrow from anthropology, and point out that neither economist asks the right question about rural development. As Easterly points out, it is not about how much money you spend, but about whether robust market institutions develop. And as Sachs points out, this does not come cheap, and that expensive government owned infrastructure, especially good roads, are needed to make this happen. Both have a point. But what they both miss is that the markets they describe emerge only in modern settings, particularly cities, where subsistence ethics have dissipated, and impersonal market ethics dominate.

This is not to say that rural people and subsistence peasants should not be helped, as Easterly seemingly implies. They should be. But it is questionable whether encouraging hoe-wielding farmers embedded in subsistence ethics to compete in maize markets with price-setting Iowa agri-business is an effective poverty alleviation strategy. The capitalist Iowa farmer, and the Tanzanian subsistence farmer reflect fundamentally different types of social organization and attitude towards markets. Just ask Malinowski.

Easterly, William (2006). The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific

Rivoli, Pietra (2006). The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy.

Sachs, Jeffrey (2006). The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time

Waters, Tony (2007). The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life beneath the level of the marketkplace.

Inter-disciplinary Teams

            This is the first semester of the Engineering for Peoples and Markets Program at Fresno State. The program consists of two teams. Each team consists of two or three engineer majors (computer and electrical), an entrepreneurship major, and an anthropology major. The purpose of our team is to work together on the creation, design, and marketability of a piece of technology created by the engineers for their senior projects. It has been interesting discovering each of our roles within this project, and the experience of working with people trained in different fields has been valuable.  There have definitely been some learning hurdles for me, and things I’m still working on. Some things that I initially saw as hurdles, I’m beginning to realize might be more common than I thought.

            Our project is very dependent on the curriculum of the engineer majors because this is their senior project and they must create a working prototype by the end of the school year in order to graduate. I originally saw this as an obstacle that would only exist in a college program like this one. Due to the attachment of the project to their pending graduation, I felt like the engineers were very cautious, sometimes only focusing on simply getting a very basic working apparatus, rather than a prototype that was more representative of our team’s research and design recommendations. Everything seemed to be contingent on “if we end up commercializing it”, rather than “let’s give this a try”. Their apprehensions are certainly understandable!

Now, as I think about the situation in a different light, I’m thinking this may be a lot closer to what I may experience in the future when working in consultation with other people or companies. Time and resources are always a major concern. Rather than seeing this as an obstacle needing to be removed, I see it as a learning challenge on my part on how to create a good communicative environment with the team and try to represent my research and recommendations in ways that will also include possible solutions on how to address time sensitivity and limited resources. I certainly do not have an answer to this, but it is a constant learning experience for me.

I tried researching “inter-disciplinary teams” online to find out examples of how other teams are working together, at other colleges and within business and organizations. The only articles I could find were regarding inter-disciplinary teams working together within the medical field. I’m wondering if there are other resources where I can find articles relating to this, and examples of how similar programs are operating at other universities.

Good Company

Well the historic First Dinner of (some of the) bloggers has come and gone, and a good time was indeed had.  Much of the conversation was about (surprise!) anthropology and anthropologists, and during that evening I was reminded of a theory of subfields and personality that I formed early in my graduate career.

It came to me pretty quickly that there were startling contrasts between the anthropologists I hung out with as an undergraduate (gregarious, lots of parties, good people, so nice I married one of them) with the ones I was encountering as a graduate student.  Why were they not throwing parties?  When would we meet for a beer instead of an espresso?  Why aren’t they having more fun with all of this, anyway?

OK, so some of it was that graduate school was hard work.  But some of it was this:

As an undergrad, I was an archaeologist.  As a graduate student, I was throwing my lot in with socio-cultural anthropologists.

Here’s the thing:  archaeologists have to work in groups, with their fellow archaeologists.  They need to find a way to get along with each other because they need each other–there are methodological requirements (excavation, lab analysis, survey, mapping) that cannot be filled by a single person working alone in the field.  Most socio-cultural anthropologists, however, are required to go off on their own.  They must be social and human when during research (participant observation, natch), but there are no requirements for being the same when among their colleagues.  They can if they want to, but it’s not institutionalized into the way we do research, the way it is in archaeology.

And wow does it ever show.  Some of the most poorly socialized people I’ve ever met have been socio-cultural anthropologists.  Now, now, don’t be like that…some of my best friends are also socio-cultural anthropologists.  But my closest friends (including my husband), the ones I turn to for parties and other assorted human comforts, are archaeologists.   Once I started meeting the archaeologists for beers, and organizing parties with them, graduate school was a much kinder, gentler place to be.  I tried to throw parties for the socio-cultural crowd, too.  Maybe they were throwing parties without me.

Anyone else encounter this?  And what about the linguists and biological types?  Where do they fit in?   Do the logistics of their research encourage or discourage certain kinds of social or anti-social behavior?

Maybe it was just me?