Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’

Wonderful article from Colin McSwiggen [ht:eb] which I can totally justify posting on this blog too thanks to class politics:

If chairs are such a dumb idea, how did we get stuck with them? Why does our culture demand that we spend most of every day sitting on objects that hurt us? What the hell happened?

It should be no surprise to readers of Jacobin that the answer lies in class politics. Chairs are about status, power, and control. That’s why we like them. Ask any furniture historian about the origins of the chair and they’ll gleefully tell you that it all started with the throne.

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The blog Sleepykid posts an essay from a 2007 issue of Harper’s, by David Graeber, an anthropologist. I found the following section striking:


First of all, I should make clear that I do not believe that either egoism or altruism is somehow inherent in human nature. Human motives are rarely that simple. Rather, egoism and altruism are ideas we have about human nature. Historically, one has tended to arise in response to the other…

Even today, when we operate outside the domain of the market or of religion, very few of our actions could be said to be motivated by anything so simple as untrammeled greed or utterly selfless generosity. When we are dealing not with strangers but with friends, relatives, or enemies, a much more complicated set of motivations will generally come into play: envy, solidarity, pride, self-destructive grief, loyalty, romantic obsession, resentment, spite, shame, conviviality, the anticipation of shared enjoyment, the desire to show up a rival, and so on, These are the motivations impelling the major dramas of our lives that great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky immortalize but that social theorists, for some reason, tend to ignore, if one travels to parts of the world where money and markets do not exist–say, to certain parts of New Guinea or Amazonia–such complicated webs of motivation are precisely what one still finds. In societies based around small communities, where almost everyone is either a friend, a relative, or an enemy of everyone else, the languages spoken tend even to lack words that correspond to “self-interest” or “altruism” but include very subtle vocabularies for describing envy, solidarity, pride, and the like. Their economic dealings with one another likewise tend to he based on much more subtle principles. Anthropologists have created a vast literature to try to fathom the dynamics of these apparently exotic “gift economies,” but if it seems odd to us to see, for instance, important men conniving with their cousins to finagle vast wealth, which they then present as gifts to bitter enemies in order to publicly humiliate them, it is because we are so used to operating inside impersonal markets that it never occurs to us to think how we would act if we had an economic system in which we treated people based on how we actually felt about them.

The sentence in bold particularly resonates with me. I feel like I’ve written this same thing before, but no matter. I think a lot of neoclassical economists have a creation story that starts, “in the beginning there were markets and market-oriented people.” This attitude has become the norm, and thus any activity that deviates from it is considered extra-normal. Behaviors that are altruistic or charitable are considered to be less economic in character. But what is an economy, if not a confluence of decisions on how to allocate resources, and the social substrate that binds these decisions together? If alternative economies arise, one would naturally expect behavior to change, because we are not simply hard-wired to behave as we do in a market economy.

It’s good to keep these alternative interpretations in mind as we think about what our economy is and what it could be.

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Go read Sean’s post at Economies in Cultural Perspectives. I meant to post on this article today (and I apologize for the ultra-lite blogging- I’m transitioning to a new city). Sean seems to hit on the main points and possible concern that I would raise.

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I just read Michael Pollan’s cover story for NYT magazine, expecting a light and enjoyable read (and it is), given that it started with a discussion of Julia Child. However, he snuck a fair amount of the political economy of food in there:

Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force…The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake. Over the years, the food scientists have gotten better and better at simulating real food, keeping it looking attractive and seemingly fresh, and the rapid acceptance of microwave ovens — which went from being in only 8 percent of American households in 1978 to 90 percent today — opened up vast new horizons of home-meal replacement.

Harry Balzer’s research suggests that the corporate project of redefining what it means to cook and serve a meal has succeeded beyond the industry’s wildest expectations. People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunchboxes. (Now how much of a timesaver can that be?) “We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” Balzer told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.” Already today, 80 percent of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing. Balzer is unsentimental about this development: “Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don’t think so.”

So, what are the important implications of this shift?

For [anthropologist Claude] Lévi-Strauss, cooking is a metaphor for the human transformation of nature into culture, but in the years since “The Raw and the Cooked,” other anthropologists have begun to take quite literally the idea that cooking is the key to our humanity…

If cooking is as central to human identity and culture as [Harvard anthropologist] Wrangham believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life…

And indeed, cooking has become more of a spectator sport, as the rest of the article goes to lengths to show. However, there is a more insidious side effect:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them…

Cutler and his colleagues demonstrate that as the “time cost” of food preparation has fallen, calorie consumption has gone up, particularly consumption of the sort of snack and convenience foods that are typically cooked outside the home. They found that when we don’t have to cook meals, we eat more of them…

When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day.

Can we go back? Harry Balzer, a food industry marketer quoted earlier, has a negative view:

“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

Sort of depressing.

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This is actually not a shameless self-plug. Instead, knowing that Sean (smallin) will not own up to it himself, I’ll make you aware of his new blog (in his own words, which were taken from an email without his permission):

From now on, I’m going to be posting on a new blog I’ve made (http://culturaleconomies.wordpress.com/) in addition to the Open Economics blog.  I’m using the new one for more of my own commentary/research/rambling, while my posts on Open Economics will remain the same as they’ve been.

Fair enough. I’ve added the above link to our blogroll as well.

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Daniel Little has a post about Karl Polanyi and his view of economic and social behavior. Read the whole thing. In case you won’t, I’ll quote the key points (but not the Polanyi itself, so again, go read it):

Polanyi maintains that the concept of economic rationality is a very specific historical construct that applies chiefly to the forms of market society that emerged in Western Europe in the early modern period…

Thus Polanyi maintains that it is socially motivated behavior — behavior motivated toward the interests of one’s family, clan, or village” — rather than self-interested behavior that is “natural” for human beings; rational self-interest is rather a feature of a highly specific society: market society…

In place of economic rationality and the market mechanism providing the basis for organization of the premarket economy, Polanyi argues that communitarian patterns of organization are to be found in a range of traditional societies…

Finally, Polanyi identifies the same element of materialist rationality in common among neoclassical political economists and Marx. Polanyi argues that Marxism analyzes the historical process in terms of individual self-interest, conceived largely in terms of material well-being…

What kind of theory is this? And how should it be evaluated?

First, it is a hypothesis in historical sociology about institutions. Polanyi is asserting that history and ethnography provide a wealth of variety of fundamental economic and social institutions. Market institutions are historically specific…[and] themselves show substantial variation across time and place. That said — trade, artisanship, commodities, and production for the market appear to be activities that have very ancient roots in human societies. These kinds of economic exchanges are well documented in ancient China, Europe, and the Americas, and we can understand very well how they would emerge again and again out of ordinary human activity and interaction. So markets are surely not the nearly unique historical creation that Polanyi maintains them to be. Moreover, we can distinguish among “market” institutions (as Marx and Weber both do) according to whether they are organized around use or around accumulation; consumption or profit. (A neo-Polanyian might put forward a more limited claim: a market system aimed at accumulation is a historically recent institution.)…

Second is a hypothesis about “human nature”. Polanyi takes issue with a vulgar economism, according to which the most fundamental human motivation is rational self-interest. On the contrary, Polanyi maintains, this social psychology of “possessive individualism”…is itself a very specific historical product — not a permanent feature of human nature. In fact, Polanyi goes a step further and argues that the “social motivations” are more fundamental than rational self-interest. But here again, it seems likely that Polanyi puts his case much more absolutely than is justified…

How should Polanyi’s theory be assessed? […] So Polanyi’s black-and-white distinction between the past — communitarian and social — and the present — egoistic and market-driven — is too stark.

But at the same time, Polanyi’s guiding intuition seems correct: human social behavior is influenced by more than simple self-interest, and human institutions are more varied than the vocabulary of the market would suggest. Human deliberativeness and purposiveness goes beyond maximizing rationality; it includes a broad range of “social” motivations and emotions. And a more adequate social psychology requires that we arrive at a better understanding of the motives that underlie cooperation and reciprocity.

Obviously Little is writing from the point of view of a sociologist, not an economist. However, I still think one would be remiss to leave that last sentence I quote- about the “better understanding”- and not tie it back to Polanyi’s key idea, that of market embeddedness. For political economists, that is the key takeaway from Polanyi, that the market is embedded in society. Thus, any attempts to remove it from society (think neoloberalism) are utopian and bound for failure. While sociologists and anthropologists and others will undoubtedly find use in Little’s takeaway from Polanyi, as they should, policy makers and economists would be well served to take heed of the embeddedness concept.

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Costas Douzinas has a lengthy (understatement) article in the Monthly Review that provides another take on humanitarianism and human rights. Weaving together moral philosophy, geopolitics, and much more, Douzinas offers a critique that would make Bono weep. I don’t feel nearly erudite enough to comment much more; you need to take 30 minutes out of your day to read it for yourself. Here are a couple key quotes:

The westerner used to carry the white man’s burden, the obligation to spread civilisation, reason, religion and law to the barbaric part of the world.  If the colonial prototypes were the missionary and the colonial administrator, the post-colonial are the human rights campaigner and the NGO operative. Humanity has replaced civilisation.  ‘The humanitarian empire is the new face of an old figure’ one of its supporters admits.  ‘It is held together by common elements of rhetoric and self-belief: the idea, if not the practice, of democracy; the idea, if not the practice, of human rights; the idea, if not the practice, of equality before the law.’ The postmodern philanthropist, on the other hand, does not need to go to far-flung places to build clinics and missions.  Globalisation has ensured that he can do that from his front room, watching TV images of desolation and atrocity and paying with his credit card.  As Upendra Baxi puts it, ‘human rights movements organise themselves in the image of markets’ turning ‘human suffering and human rights’ into commodities.

The stakes of humanitarian campaigns are high.  Positing the victim and/or savage other of humanitarianism we create humanity.  The perpetrator/victim is a reminder and revenant from our disavowed past.  He is the West’s imaginary double, someone who carries our own characteristics and fears albeit in a reversed impoverished sense.  Once the moral universe revolves around the recognition of evil, every project to combine people in the name of the good is itself condemned as evil.  Willing and pursuing the good inevitably turns into the nightmare of totalitarianism.  This is the reason why the price of human rights politics is conservatism.  The moralist conception both makes impossible and bars positive political visions and possibilities.  Human rights ethics legitimises what the West already possesses; evil is what we do not possess or enjoy.  But as Alain Badiou puts it, while the human is partly inhuman, she is also more than human. […]

We should reverse our ethical approach: it is not suffering and evil which define the good as the defence humanity puts up against its bad part.  It is our positive ability to do good, our welcoming of the potential to act and change the world that comes first and must denounce evil as the toleration or promotion of the existent, not the other way around.  In this sense, human rights are not what protects from suffering and inhumanity.  Radical humanitarianism aims to confront the existent with a transcendence found in history, to make the human, constantly told that suffering is humanity’s inescapable destiny, more than human.  We may need to sidestep rights in favour of right.

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