Tunneling and Economics


Some of us are trying to tunnel into economics. Others are tunneling out.

Ben Ho is an economics graduate student at Stanford. He notes:

There are economic theories of language, love, persuasion, morality, bias, family, discrimination, leadership and more. […] My current research is about apologies. The most daunting part of getting a doctoral degree is that you have to become the world’s expert in some area, however small, of human knowledge. An easy way of accomplishing this is to pick a topic no one else has thought to attempt. The economics of apologies fits the bill, either because I am so creative and clever to come up with it or because no one else has been crazy enough to think it worth studying.

Tunneling is, as Ben notes, high risk and high gain. There’s a good chance that the disciplinary “wardens” will open fire from the watchtower, unleash the dogs, and announce, after a few days, “let the swamps do it!” And that’s the end of you. In Ben’s diagnostic, you’re “crazy” or at least malarial.

Not always. There is a small chance someone will say, “A tunnel! Great. Let’s scram!” In this event, you are considered “creative and clever” for having found a way out. At the very least, you get props for inspiring someone to use the word “scram.”

The “wardens” of anthropology insist that anthropology and economics must keep their distance. (Good fences, blah, blah, blah.) No tunneling! Economics is bad because it insists on methodological individualism and a means-end rationality.

Rational actors making choices? Anthropology isn’t interested in individuals but in communities. It isn’t interested in choices, but in meanings. It resents the fact that Economics gives itself all the things that enable rational choice: meanings, codes, the conventions of the marketplace, the definition of “value,” the content of “interest,” the pragmatics of “advantage.”

The wardens also believe traditional societies embedded their economies in cultural and social context. The arrival of a less embodied marketplace must spell the end of society and culture.

Two small problems with the warden point of view:

1. It turns out that commercial cultures are more generative, more inventive, more, in a sense, cultural (or at least more culture) than non commercial ones. Non commercial cultures may be kinder, gentler, and more reciprocal, but they are, truth be told, a little like provincial theatre: sleepy, repetitive and a little dull. Yes, we look fondly on this aspect the human experience, but something in us wants to call for a play doctor. And what about casting? And can someone do something about those costumes, please?

2. It turns out the marketplace is not the end of culture but a way of doing culture that we are only now beginning to understand. Somehow, markets make culture not by fiat, not by time-out-of-mind tradition, but in something like real time out of the choices of rational individuals, lots and lots of individuals.

Hayek was among the first to call attention to the emergence of large-scale order from individual choices. The phenomenon is ubiquitous, and not just in economic markets: What makes everyone suddenly drive SUVs, name their daughters Madison rather than Ethel or Linda, wear their baseball caps backwards, raise their pitch at the end of a sentence? The process is still poorly understood by social science, with its search for external causes of behavior, but is essential to bridging the largest chasm in intellectual life: that between individual psychology and collective culture. Steven Pinker on Reason-on-line

Back to Ben. Anthropologies are good at thinking about how the tiny interpersonal exchanges of everyday life (glances, gazes, comment, and, yes, apologies) serve to create “large scale” order. They badly need the help of an economist who can help them understand how these exchanges work as economies. Ben Ho has our best wishes. We suggest he also take a flare gun.


Hayek for the 21st Century. Reason on line. January 2005. http://www.reason.com/0501/hayeksidebar.shtml

Ho, Ben. 2005. Consider an economics theory of apologies. The Stanford Daily, January 7, 2005 here

McCracken, Grant. 2004. The Economics of the Gaze. here

McCracken, Grant 2004. More on Gaze economies. here

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Just looking around in Manhattan. here

1 thought on “Tunneling and Economics

  1. Ben Ho

    Wow, how flattering to have my work mentioned.

    I do think that tunneling is a particularly hot idea nowadays. Ron Burt calls them structural holes, and looks for them in organizations, as the wellspring of creativity. Interdisciplinary research is the new new thing it seems in the academic world.

    In fact the last winner of the Clark Medal (more prestigious than the Nobel Prize in economics) is Steven Levitt, an economist known for his friendliness toward ideas from sociology. His most famous recent work has been about Crime, Abortion and Swimming Pools.

    It is still difficult though. Surprisingly, so many faculty at Stanford studying the same topics just in differnet deparmtnets, never talk to each other. I bugged Stanford’s president Hennessey about this, who is spearheading many interdisciplinary programs, but he admittled the onus is on the grad students to build the links.

    Actually, my biggest fear is not the difficulty of my work being accepted, but really, i’m worried about the biggest pitfall of “tunneling” and a very legitimate concern: quality control. It really is hard to say whether I am in fact being creative and clever, or just unorthodox and useless.

    However, I intend to have fun along the way.

    How did you come upon my column btw?


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