Wed 27 Apr 2011
Just a quick thought, given the interest in my last two posts. I have (obviously) been driven a bit crazy by the RCT/behavioral economics folks who suddenly seem to be coming around to either qualitative methods to explain their results . . . which are generally results that qualitative researchers have known about for a long time. In other words, it seems to me that there is a real danger here that a sort of waving at qualitative methods (i.e. the “bad journalism” approach, where you just do a bunch of interviews without considering who to interview, how to interview them, why interviews vs. focus groups vs. whatever, etc.) might become yet another way to prolong the hegemony of economics over development thinking.
I’m worried about this because while I think economic approaches and theory have purchase on explanation to varying degrees depending on the subject at hand and the scale of analysis, in the end any effort to explain the emergence of and means of addressing a development issue or challenge at a scale that might have meaningful impact that relies on the economic alone will not result in a particularly complete explanation for observed events, nor will it help us understand likely outcome pathways in future similar situations. Put another way, only sometimes can economics get us to a “good enough” solution that enables really productive development work.
What if I told you that I had really good, concrete empirical data from a really tiny dataset (two villages in Ghana, but the entire population of those two villages, so no sampling issues) that clearly demonstrated that any effort to explain livelihoods decision-making in these villages cannot be productively explained by economic approaches – whether crude (i.e. assumptions about maximizing behavior) or complex (game theoretic approaches)? Instead, the data makes it remarkably clear that the economic, while a component of decision-making, is just one component of a project of household governance – it is a clearly external (etic, for you anthro types out there) heuristic that improperly parses the social processes that lead to livelihoods decisions. In short, I can show where the explanatory power of “the economic” stops, and where meaningful explanation requires a re-embedding of the economic in larger social processes that cannot be reduced to the economic (and, at the same time, which demonstrates that the economic cannot be reduced to any of these other processes).
Basically, I’m starting to walk you through my retheorization of livelihoods as what Foucault called governmentality . . . but I could also work this up as a means of discrediting the RCT and behavioral economics turn toward the qualitative by arguing that these efforts are tails wagging the dog . . .