This little blog is supposed to be an intersection of Anthropology and Economics but too often I treat these as incommensurate worlds that must run like railroad tracks in parallel without hope of intersection.
Very well. Here’s another way to make the difference. Anthropologists trade in indignation. Economists do not.
Trade in indignation? Anthropology is now deeply preoccupied with the production of indignation. To take an undergraduate course in anthropology is to be inducted into the arts and science of indignation. To take a graduate degree is to be made an officer of indignation, appointed by the court of scholarly opinion to hold forth loudly and often in defense of any idea, group or institution that appears to suffer affront. Economists, on the other hand, are dispassionate to be point of being bloodless and entertain, apparently, a glassy indifference to what the world will.
So if you have to choose one, blindly, in that evolutionary way, which is better? The anthropologist’s indignation? Or the economist’s calm? I am shocked (shocked!) you should have to ask such a question. Clearly, unmistakably, calm is better. Because calm does not anticipate itself. It does not require anything to be true. When confronted with reality, it does not prostletize. Glassy as in transparent, the light of the world can actually penetrate this academy.
Anthropology shares its affliction with many people in the humanities and the social sciences. Tom Wolfe, in a recent interview, treats indignation as the great affliction of the intellectual. He says,
An intellectual feeds on indignation and really can’t get by without it. (p. 8)
One of the problems with indignation is that it eventually gives way to self absorption. When one investigates the world in order to be outraged by it, discourse turns inward. Academic deliberation becomes, to steal a term from Gitlin, a kind of identity scholarship. It is not about the world, it is about the investigator. Postmodernism was especially troubled by this tendency. Every book and article, whatever it’s title or topic, ended up being about the plucky little investigator carrying on in the face of epistemological difficulties that would crush an ordinary mortal. Author, author!
Tom Wolfe is good on this theme as well. He says the "psychological novel  is mainly the novel of yourself at home… Your own experience is the only valid experience that you can draw from."
The novel will become a worthy but unpopular pursuit unless the novelists get outside their own lives, depart their comfortable little studies, … and do what writers did in the great period of American literature, which was the first half of the twentieth century. Everybody from Stephen Crane to John Steinbeck quite intentionally went outside of his own experience. (p. 35)
Wolfe says that he is a "chronicler," someone who "keeps tabs on what is happening in society, in the sense of social mores as a well as just "society" with a small s." This is precisely the way an anthropologist or sociologist could make him or herself useful.
Useful? What an antique idea. Social scientists, many of them, are too busy posturing, turning their scholarship into acts of identity construction, to do anything so ordinary, so coarse, so banal as making themselves useful. Good thing, perhaps. I have a very strong feeling that many of them are not fit for the real world, and could not make themselves useful even if they really wanted to. (Finally, this is a evolutionary process of self selection where the incompetent remove themselves from harm’s way, there to nurse wounded self esteem with the septic salve called tenure.)
This should be good news for economists. With anthropologists engaged in amateur dramatics, the field is wide open. Steven Levitt has stepped up and offered novel and illuminating approaches. But generally, economists police their disciplinary limitations every bit as assiduously as anthropologists do, and won’t come out to play.
Opportunity goes neglected. A contemporary world filled with its eddies of innovation and sudden, unapologetic dynamism that makes January 2000 now almost impossible to restore from memory. Imagine. 6 years. Substantial parts of the world are unrecognizable. Who is standing this watch? Who is there to chronicle what is happening to us?
Tell me it’s more than Tom Wolfe. He is a wonder. Our Dickens, our Balzac, our Zola. That much is clear. But he cannot be enough. But as long as the economists continue to ask the wrong questions and anthropologists to supply the wrong answers, Wolfe’s the man.
Cole, Bruce. 2006. A conversation with Tom Wolfe. Humanities. May/June, pp. 6-9, 35-37.
Gitlin, Todd. 1993. The Rise of Identity Politics. Dissent. Spring. pp. 172-177.
McCracken, Grant. 2004. Dr. O’Neill, may I present Dr. Boudreaux? This Blog Sits at… May 31, 2004. here.
Wolfe, Tom. 1998. A Man in Full. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.