From cultures to markets

In sum:

In a couple of places here I have doubted the intersection of anthropology and economics. And the question becomes “if it’s so hard, why bother?” From the anthropological side, the answer is clear. Much of the order of contemporary, First World, societies comes not from culture but from the marketplace.

In total:

The great preoccupation of anthropology is the idea of “culture.” The power of this idea was, in part and for some, that it allowed the specification of the shared ideas and rules that made the coordination of social life possible. Anthropologists liked the idea of culture so much they made it their intellectual accomplishment and chief export. (This was before they ran into post-modernism.)

But there was a problem with the notion of culture. It encouraged anthropologists to suppose that order is, as it were, grammatical, that it comes from a shared code of ideas and rules. And we know that very little of the order of First World cultures happens this way. Most of this order comes from the interactions of parties who are multiple, various, competitive, and sometimes contentious…parties, that is to say, who have very little in common and almost never a shared code. Merely by agreeing to a few, simple ideas (and nothing so sophisticated or embedded as a code), these parties can engage with one another. This order is, as we say, emergent. It is not code or culture based. Parties can interact without much sharedness and that they come away with their differences intact.

This means two things: first, that the anthropologist’s great theoretical mainstay will not serve them in the First World as it does in traditional societies, and, second, they must visit the disciplines that understand order that obeys an “invisible hand.” This means economics and complexity theory, for starters. What anthropologists cannot do is what they usually do: first, to insist the contemporary First World cultures are not cultures so there is nothing to study, and, second, that in the absence of culture, they are entitled to take the ball and go home. Anthropologists have found many ways to make themselves provincial and to absent themselves from the urgent questions of the day. They will try this here as well. But what would Durkheim say? I mean, really, get a grip.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for his kind words here.

3 thoughts on “From cultures to markets

  1. froth


    Game theory is your savior. You’re right that complexity is the root, both of the challenge to understanding these interactions and of the emergent qualities that provide so much benefit. Culture of any complexity emerges from rules.

    James Buchanan (econ. Nobel 1986) on game theory: “The core insight, it seems to me, is that people choose among strategies and out of that emerges outcomes that are not part of anyone’s choice set. It is a different way of looking at economics and it gets us to focus on fundamental issues of economic coordination that have been neglected. This, I think, is the direction that formal economic theory ought to take.”

    Economic coordination taking place at the animal and plant level also benefits from exactly this game-theoretical analysis. The late John Maynard Smith furthered this analysis nicely with regard to Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (explicated nicely by Dawkins in, e.g., The Extended Phenotype) among social insects. First World economic systems and cultures are not qualitatively more complex than ecosystems.

    Come to think of it, semantics emerges from the grammatical (syntax, morphology, etc.), too, so long as the relatively few, simple rules allow expressiveness. Any human language, first-order logic with contexts, and economic systems all are expressive enough to handle anything. The order of First World cultures can emerge from “grammatical” rules as easily as any Third World culture.

  2. grant

    Froth, I am with you till para. 3. I think that first world economic systems and cultures must be more complex than ecosystems. But I will check out these references. Thanks. Grant

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