Entries tagged with “anthropology”.


CGD has an interesting short essay up, written by Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta, and Sendhil Mullainathan, entitled “The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not.” The piece aims to dispel a few myths about behavioral economics, while offering a quick summary of what this field is, and what its goals are. I’ve been looking around for a good short primer on BE, and so I had high hopes for this piece…unfortunately, for two reasons the piece did not live up to expectations.

First, the authors tie themselves in a strange knot as they try to argue that behavioral economics is not about controlling behavior. While they note that BE studies and tools could be used to nudge human behavior in particular directions, they argue that “What distinguishes the behavioral toolset [from those of marketers, for example], however, is that so many of the tools are about helping people to make the choices that they themselves want to make.” This claim sidesteps a very important question: how do we know what choices they want to make? What we see as problematic livelihoods outcomes might not, in fact, be all that problematic to those living those outcomes, and indeed might have local rationales that are quite reasonable. While this might seem an obvious point, most BE work that I have seen seems to rest on a near-total lack of understanding of why those under investigation engage in the behaviors that “require explanation”. Therefore, the claim that BE helps people make the choices they want to make is, in fact, rather patriarchal in that the determination of what choices people want to make does not rest with those people, but with the behavioral economist. Sadly, this is a fairly accurate representation of much work done under the heading of BE. It would have been better if the authors had simply pointed out that BE is no more obsessed with incentives than any other part of economics, and if people are worried about behavioral control, they’d best have a look at the US (or their own national) tax code and focus their anxiety there.

Second, the authors argue “Behavioral economics differs from standard economics in that it uses a more realistic (and more complicated) model for people [and their decisions].” Honestly, I have seen no evidence for a coherent model of humans or their behavior in BE. What I have seen is a lot of rigorous data collection, the results of which are then shoehorned into some sort of implicit explanatory framework laden with unexamined assumptions that generally do not hold in the real world. Rigorously identifying when particular stimuli result in different behaviors is not the same thing as explaining how those stimuli bring about those behaviors. BE is rather good at the former, and not very good at all at the latter. The authors are right – we need more realistic and complicated models of human decision-making, and there are some out there (for example, see here and here – email me if you need a copy of either .pdf). BE would do well to actually read something outside of economics if it is serious about this goal. There are a couple of disciplines out there (for example, anthropology, geography, some aspects of sociology and social history) that have long operated with complex framings of human behavior, and have already derived many of the lessons that BE is just now (re)discovering. In this light, then, this short paper does show us what BE isn’t: it isn’t anthropology, geography, or any other social science that has already engaged the same questions as BE, but with more complex framings of human behavior and more rigorous interpretations of observed outcomes. And if it isn’t that, what exactly is the point of this field of inquiry?

Back in April, I participated in a session on the role of geographers (and indeed academics more broadly) in development agencies.  Though many outside of academia do not seem to know this, engagement with development agencies by those of us working in geography, anthropology and sociology tends to provoke both strong feelings and some controversy.  Given geography’s and anthropology’s historical connection to colonialism, many academics fear that engagement with these agencies risks a return to these old relationships, where the work of academics serves to legitimize or even further neocolonial efforts.  I thought the session was outstanding – the discussion was probably the most spirited I’d seen at an AAG, but it never degenerated into name-calling or other unproductive behavior.

Due to the success of and interest in the session, the participants in my panel decided to put together a forum of brief position pieces to be published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, hopefully later this year (screaming fast by academic standards).  In my short piece, I took up the argument that we should be engaging with agencies more (probably not that surprising, considering where I work these days) – a position I supported in a distressingly well-read email exchange on a few big listservs this past fall (see a related blog post here).  Before I submitted it, I had to get it cleared by Legislative and Public Affairs (LPA), which led to several people reading it.  It was cleared without comment, which I believe only serves to support Bill Easterly’s claim (made in the context of the World Bank) that nobody really cares what we write in the academic journals, because they don’t think anyone reads them.

Along the way, though, my office director read it.  Or, more to the point, he read it three times, because, as he put it, it was “impenetrable.”  He did not say this dismissively, but instead to point out that the jargon in which I engaged in the piece (and I fully admit that my piece is very, very jargon-laden) made it nearly impossible to follow for the non-academic.  To his credit, he read it three times to get my point . . . how many people do you know who are willing to do that?

So, in the spirit of his intervention, I offer a translation of my piece, in two parts.  This is part 1.

Engagement with international development is fraught with tension.  On one side lies a belief in improvement that carries with it judgment of the lives of others.  At its worst, this judgment can become a justification for the lifestyles and foreign policy of “the developed” by placing both at the top of a pyramid of human progress to which everyone should aspire.  On the other side is the peril of an extractive intellectual industry.  When academic research and writing on development has no impact on policy and practice, it serves only to further the career of the researcher who gains from those s/he researches.  It is not possible for an academic to engage development and remain unsullied by one, the other, or both.  I see the job of the academic in development as walking between these extremes, balancing the risks of each. Therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to evaluate critically the path we walk between them.

It is very difficult for the contemporary academic to make such a critical evaluation.  Critical development studies are often based upon a surprisingly thin understanding of the object of research.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the development geographers who have worked in a development agency (receiving a contract from a development agency as a consultant or subcontractor does not count, as in that case one is only seeing the end product of a long process of policy building, budgeting, programming and contracting). Yet without an understanding of mundane bureaucratic moments such as budgeting, contracting and monitoring and evaluation it is simply impossible to understand why agencies do what they do, or reliably to identify points of intervention that might change practice in the world.

Though it was a book that brought me to critical development studies, Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine is exemplary of this problem.  Ferguson’s analysis of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Thaba-Tseka project is constrained largely to the reports and field programmes that are the outputs of this complex process.  There is no doubt that he is correct about the ways in which CIDA’s representation of Lesotho and its challenges bore little resemblance to events on the ground.  However, without a link to the institutional practices and structures that are inextricably bound up with these (mis)representations, Ferguson’s explanation for development failure comes to rest on a vague sense that language/representations (largely reflected in documents related to development projects and agencies) shape action.  But this language, and these representations, are produced and reproduced in the often-byzantine interplay of policy, budget, programme and contracting that currently happens outside the scope of analysis for the bulk of academics.  Pointing out the problematic character of CIDA’s representations of Lesotho is not in itself a productive intervention – we must know when this construction was put into play, by whom, and to what end.  This information cannot be inferred from an organizational chart or a history of organizational actions.  Instead, it requires ethnographic attention in its own right.

A very large proportion of critical development studies rests on this sort of incomplete analysis, resulting in critiques and questions that often have limited relevance to the experience of development practice.  The mismatch of the products of such analysis with the experiences of those who occupy positions in development institutions is a source of the widening gulf between academic studies of development and the work of the development agencies we criticize and seek to influence.  This suggests that productive critical interventions require greater direct engagement with development agencies.

Next up, Part 2: Why does this failure of understanding prevent serious engagement?

You know, qualitative social scientists of various stripes have long complained of their marginalization in development.  Examples abound of anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists complaining about the influence of the quantitatively-driven economists (and to a lesser extent, some political scientists) over development theory and policy.  While I am not much for whining, these complaints are often on the mark – quantitative data (of the sort employed by economists, and currently all the rage in political science) tends to carry the day over qualitative data, and the nuanced lessons of ethnographic research are dismissed as unimplementable, ideosyncratic/place-specific, without general value, etc.  This is not to say that I have an issue with quantitative data – I believe we should employ the right tool for the job at hand.  Sadly, most people only have either qualitative or quantitative skills, making the selection of appropriate tools pretty difficult . . .

But what is interesting, of late, is what appears to be a turn toward the lessons of the qualitative social sciences in development . . . only without actually referencing or reading those qualitative literatures.  Indeed, the former quantitative masters of the development universe are now starting to figure out and explore . . . the very things that the qualitative community has known for decades. What is really frustrating and galling is that these “new” studies are being lauded as groundbreaking and getting great play in the development world, despite the fact they are reinventing the qualitative wheel, and without much of the nuance of the current qualitative literature and its several decades of nuance.

What brings me to today’s post is the new piece on hunger in Foreign Policy by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  On one hand, this is great news – good to see development rising to the fore in an outlet like Foreign Policy.  I also largely agree with their conclusions – that the poverty trap/governance debate in development is oversimplified, that food security outcomes are not explicable through a single theory, etc.  On the other hand, from the perspective of a qualitative researcher looking at development, there is nothing new in this article.  Indeed, the implicit premise of the article is galling: When they argue that to address poverty, “In practical terms, that meant we’d have to start understanding how the poor really live their lives,” the implication is that nobody has been doing this.  But what of the tens of thousands of anthropologists, geographers and sociologists (as well as representatives of other cool, hybridized fields like new cultural historians and ethnoarchaeologists).  Hell, what of the Peace Corps?

Whether intentional or not, this article wipes the qualitative research slate clean, allowing the authors to present their work in a methodological and intellectual vacuum.  This is the first of my problems with this article – not so much with its findings, but with its appearance of method.  While I am sure that there is more to their research than presented in the article, the way their piece is structured, the case studies look like evidence/data for a new framing of food security.  They are not – they are illustrations of the larger conceptual points that Banerjee and Duflo are making.  I am sure that Banerjee and Duflo know this, but the reader does not – instead, most readers will think this represents some sort of qualitative research, or a mixed method approach that takes “hard numbers” and mixes it in with the loose suppositions that Banerjee and Duflo offer by way of explanation for the “surprising” outcomes they present.  But loose supposition is not qualitative research – at best, it is journalism. Bad journalism. My work, and the work of many, many colleagues, is based on rigorous methods of observation and analysis that produce validatable data on social phenomena.  The work that led to Delivering Development and many of my refereed publications took nearly two years of on-the-ground observation and interviewing, including follow-ups, focus groups and even the use of archaeology and remotely-sensed data on land use to cross-check and validate both my data and my analyses.

The result of all that work was a deep humility in the face of the challenges that those living in places like Coastal Ghana or Southern Malawi manage on a day-to-day basis . . . and deep humility when addressing the idea of explanation.  This is an experience I share with countless colleagues who have spent a lot of time on the ground in communities, ministries and aid organizations, a coming to grips with the fact that massively generalizable solutions simply don’t exist in the way we want them to, and that singular interventions will never address the challenges facing those living in the Global South.

So, I find it frustrating when Banerjee and Duflo present this observation as in any way unique:

What we’ve found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

For anyone working in food security – that is, anyone who has been reading the literature coming out of anthropology, geography, sociology, and even some areas of ag econ, this is not a revelation – this is standard knowledge.  A few years ago I spent a lot of time and ink on an article in Food Policy that tried to loosely frame a schematic of local decision-making that leads to food security outcomes – an effort to systematize an approach to the highly complex sets of processes and decisions that produce hunger in particular places because there is really no way to get a single, generalized statistic or finding that will explain hunger outcomes everywhere.

In other words: We know.  So what do you have to tell us?

The answer, unfortunately, is not very much . . . because in the end they don’t really dive into the social processes that lead to the sorts of decisions that they see as interesting or counterintuitive.  This is where the heat is in development research – there are a few of us working down at this level, trying to come up with new framings of social process that move us past a reliance solely on the blunt tool of economistic rationality (which can help explain some behaviors and decisions) toward a more nuanced framing of how those rationalities are constructed by, and mobilize, much larger social processes like gender identification.  The theories in which we are dealing are very complex, but they do work (at least I think my work with governmentality is working – but the reviewers at Development and Change might not agree).

And maybe, just maybe, there is an opening to get this sort of work out into the mainstream, to get it applied – we’re going to try to do this at work, pulling together resources and interests across two Bureaus and three offices to see if a reframing of livelihoods around Foucault’s idea of governmentality can, in fact, get us better resolution on livelihoods and food security outcomes than current livelihoods models (which mostly assume that decisionmaking is driven by an effort to maximize material returns on investment and effort). Perhaps I rest too much faith on the idea of evidence, but if we can implement this idea and demonstrate that it works better, perhaps we will have a lever with which to push oversimplified economistic assumptions out of the way, while still doing justice to the complexity of social process and explanation in development.