In his comment on yesterdays post, Patrick helped me clarify what I was trying to get in the last few posts. Heres my reply to him:
Patrick, I guess I wanted to get at two things: a change in the self and a change in the world. I think this is the place that anthropology and economics do not play well together.
Change in the self:
Heres how Geertz defines our notion of the self.
The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures. (emphasis added)
Now I understand that most of this is “surplus to requirement from an economics point of view. For the economist, it is enough to posit a rational actor using scarce resources in the pursuit of costly choices. But, for anthropological purposes, its important to see how the culture(s) in question define who and what the person is.
In our culture(s), there is an inclination to posit the person as something bounded and integrated, with a center, as a whole. We presume that the person is well organized within and well bounded without.
Change in the world:
This “person now lives in a world of great variety and dynamism. The world changes often and unpredictably. Our basic notions of family, work, politics, entertainment and engagement are under constant reconstruction. It used to be that our grandparents could not imagine the world in which we live. Now it is the person we were 20 years ago who would find this challenging. (This is a nice anthropological experiment: imagine the things you would have to tell the person you were 20 years ago to explain where and what you are now. Usually, this is a long and relatively difficult conversation in which our younger self ends up sounding like Kevin Klein from A Fish Called Wanda a lot of the time: “What’s the middle part, again?”.)
To live in such a world is a problem. It demands of us a new capacity to see what has changed, to think about what has changed, and to respond what has changed. One thing is clear. If we use the old Western concept of person, the one specified by Geertz, we turn the problem into a crisis. If what we try to do is keep the self bounded, integrated, centered and whole, we are sure to make a hash of things. Adaptive advantage goes to people who are newly porous and multiple and messy.
The monk in nous
Most of us are still trying to deal with a newly dynamic world with the old model of the self. And its this, I think, that has occasioned this rash of diagnostic enthusiasm in which we attribute DSM symptoms to normal people. Time to give up the old paradigms and start again. What I like about CAS theory is that it appears to take for granted the very things the old notion of the self finds problematic: multipleness, messiness, vigilance, and the capacity for threshold change. From the old DSM point of view, these do look like symptoms. From the CAS point of view, they are ordinary adaptive responses.
Back to economics. The irony here is that economics, or at least the operation of a world predicated on an invisible hand model, is what makes the world so dynamic. When Hakek talks about a world that emerges for the actor from “a process more complex and extended than he [the actor] could comprehend, he was talking about the world we know. All those actors, with all those intentions, fashion a world that is constantly “on the boil. And in this world, the economic actor must change. Not least, he must learn to skip from one set of assumptions to another with extraordinary CAS agility. (I was recently talking to a woman who says that at the moment she must answer to three bosses: one coming, one going, one competing for the job. She must judge everything she does from 3 completely different sets of assumption. Yes, I thought to myself, you are learning how to be a CAS.)
This is another way of saying economics is very good at assuming (and creating) the dynamism of the world. It is not clear to me that it is so good at assuming and explaining the dynamism that now exists in the actor.
So this is my challenge to the economics reader. What, if anything, happens to the economics point of view when we posit an economic actor who is a CAS, messy, multiple, dynamic and inclined to sudden threshold changes? Or better, what can anthropology, through a better understanding of the new economic actor, bring to the party?
Geertz, Clifford. 1974-1984. “From the native’s point of view” On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. Culture theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. editors Robert Alan LeVine, and Richard A Shweder, 123-36. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.