Academia


Ok, so that title was meant to goad my fellow anthropologists, but before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean. The best anthropology, to quote Marshall Sahlins, “consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition.” This is, of course, not bound by time. Understanding the thought of others, wherever and whenever it occurs, helps to illuminate the human condition. In that sense, ethnographies are forever.

However, in the context of development and climate change, ethnography has potential value beyond this very broad goal. The understandings of human behavior produced through ethnographic research are critical to the achievement of the most noble and progressive goals of development*. As I have argued time and again, we understand far less about what those in the Global South are doing than we think, and I wrote a book highlighting how our assumptions about life in such places are a) mostly incorrect and b) potentially very dangerous to the long-term well-being of everyone on Earth.  To correct this problem, development research, design, and monitoring and evaluation all need much, much more engagement with qualitative research, including ethnographic work. Such work brings a richness to our understanding of other people, and lives in other places, that is invaluable to the design of progressive programs and projects that meet the actual (as opposed to assumed) needs of the global poor now and in the future.

As I see it, the need for ethnographic work in development presents two significant problems. The first, which I have discussed before, is the dearth of such work in the world. Everyone seems to think the world is crawling with anthropologists and human geographers who do this sort of work, but how many books and dissertations are completed each year? A thousand? Less?  Compare that to the two billion (or more) poor people living in low-income countries (and that leaves aside the billion or so very poor that Andy Sumner has identified as living in middle-income countries).  A thousand books for at least two billion people? No problem, it just means that each book or dissertation has to cover the detailed experiences, motivations, and emotions of two million people. I mean, sure, the typical ethnography addresses an N that ranges from a half dozen to communities of a few hundred, but surely we can just adjust the scale…

Er…

Crap.

OK, so there is a huge shortage of this work, and we need much, much more of it. Well, the good new is that people have been doing this sort of work for a long time. Granted, the underlying assumptions about other people have shifted over time (“scientific racism” was pretty much the norm back in the first half of the 20th Century), but surely the observations of human behavior and thought might serve to fill the gaps from which we currently suffer, right. After all, if a thousand people a year knocked out a book or dissertation over the past hundred years, surely our coverage will improve.  Right?

Well, maybe not. Ethnographies describe a place and a time, and most of the Global South is changing very, very rapidly. Indeed, it has been changing for a while, but of late the pace of change seems to be accelerating (again, see Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion). Things change so quickly, and can change so pervasively, that I wonder how long it takes for many of the fundamental observations about life and thought that populate ethnographies to become historical relics that tell us a great deal about a bygone era, but do not reflect present realities.  For example, in my work in Ghana, I drew upon some of the very few ethnographies of the Akan, written during the colonial era. These were useful for the archaeological component of my work, as they helped me to contextualize artifacts I was recovering from the time of those ethnographies. But their descriptions of economic practice, local politics, social roles, and livelihoods really had very little to do with life in Ghana’s Central Region in the late 1990s.  In terms of their utility for interpreting contemporary life among the Akan, they had, for all intents and purposes, expired.

So, the questions I pose here:

1)    How do we know when an ethnography has expired?  Is it expired when any aspect of the ethnography is no longer true, or when a majority of its observations no longer hold?

2)    Whatever standard we might hold them to, how long does it take to reach that standard? Five years? Ten years? Thus far, my work from 2001 in Ghana seems to be holding, but things are wobbling a bit.  It is possible that a permanent shift in livelihoods took place in 2006 (I need to examine this), which would invalidate the utility of my earlier work for project design in this area.

These are questions worth debating. If we are to bring more qualitative, ethnographic work to the table in development, we have to find ways to improve our coverage of the world and our ability to assess the resources from which we might draw.

 

 

*I know some people think that “noble” and “progressive” are terms that cannot be applied to development. I’m not going to take up that debate here.

I’ve just spent nearly three weeks in Senegal, working on the design, monitoring, and evaluation of a CCAFS/ANACIM climate services project in the Kaffrine Region. It was a fantastic time – I spent a good bit of time out in three villages in Kaffrine implementing my livelihoods as governmentality approach (for now called the LAG approach) to gather data that can inform our understanding of what information will impact which behaviors for different members of these communities.

This work also included a week-long team effort to build an approach to monitoring and evaluation for this project that might also yield broader recommendations for M&E of climate services projects in other contexts.  The conversations ranged from fascinating to frustrating, but in the process I learned an enormous amount and, I think, gained some clarity on my own thinking about project design, monitoring, and evaluation. For the purposes of this blog, I want to elaborate on one of my long-standing issues in development – the use of panel surveys, or even broad baseline surveys, to design policies and programs.

At best, people seem to assume that the big survey instrument helps us to identify the interesting things that should be explained through detailed work. At worst, people use these instruments to identify issues to be addressed, without any context through which to interpret the patterns in the data. Neither case is actually all that good. Generally, I often find the data from these surveys to be disaggregated/aggregated in inappropriate manners, aimed at the wrong issues, and rife with assumptions about the meaning of the patterns in the data that have little to do with what is going on in the real world (see, for example, my article on gendered crops, which was inspired by a total misreading of Ghanaian panel survey data in the literature). This should be of little surprise: the vast bulk of these tools are designed in the abstract – without any prior reference to what is happening on the ground.

What I am arguing here is simple: panel surveys, and indeed any sort of baseline survey, are not an objective, inductive data-gathering process. They are informed by assumptions we all carry with us about causes and effects, and the motivations for human behavior. As I have said time and again (and demonstrated in my book Delivering Development), in the world of development these assumptions are more often than not incorrect. As a result, we are designing broad survey instruments that ask the wrong questions of the wrong people. The data from these instruments is then interpreted through often-inappropriate lenses. The outcome is serious misunderstandings and misrepresentations of life on globalization’s shoreline. These misunderstandings, however, carry the hallmarks of (social) scientific rigor even as they produce spectacular misrepresentations of the decisions, events, and processes we must understand if we are to understand, let alone address, the challenges facing the global poor.  And we wonder why so many projects and policies produce “surprise” results contrary to expectations and design? These are only surprising because the assumptions that informed them were spectacularly wrong.

This problem is easily addressed, and we are in the process of demonstrating how to do it in Kaffrine. There are baseline surveys of Kaffrine, as well as ongoing surveys of agricultural production by the Senegalese agricultural staff in the region. But none of these is actually tied to any sort of behavioral model for livelihoods or agricultural decision-making. As a result, we can’t rigorously interpret any patterns we might find in the data.  So what we are doing in Kaffrine (following the approach I used in my previous work in Ghana) is spending a few weeks establishing a basic understanding of the decision-making of the target population for this particular intervention. We will then refine this understanding by the end of August through a full application of the LAG approach, which we will use to build a coherent, complex understanding of livelihoods decision-making that will define potential pathways of project impact. This, in turn, will shape the design of this program in future communities as it scales out, make sense of the patterns in the existing baseline data and the various agricultural services surveys taking places in the region, and enable us to build simple monitoring tools to check on/measure these pathways of impact as the project moves forward. In short, by putting in two months of serious fieldwork up front, we will design a rigorous project based on evidence for behavioral and livelihoods outcomes. While this will not rule out surprise outcomes (African farmers are some pretty innovative people who always seem to find a new way to use information or tools), I believe that five years from now any surprises will be minor ones within the framework of the project, as opposed to shocks that result in project failure.

Incidentally, the agricultural staff in Kaffrine agrees with my reading of the value of their surveys, and is very excited to see what we can add to the interpretation of their data. They are interested enough to provide in-town housing for my graduate student, Tshibangu Kalala, who will be running the LAG approach in Kaffrine until mid-July. Ideally, he’ll break it at its weak points, and by late July or early August we’ll have something implementable, and by the end of September we should have a working understanding of farmer decision-making that will help us make sense of existing data while informing the design of project scale up.

I am in Tromsø, Norway for a workshop on gender and adaptation. The conversation has been very interesting, with a lot of different people bringing different ideas/concerns to the table.  As you might imagine, a lot of it has been fodder for thought. But today a comment by Torjer Andreas Olsen, of the Centre for Sami Studies (SESAM) at the University of Tromsø, really stuck with me. In a conversation about business and innovation, he suggested that we face a challenge in the use of the term “innovation” when we talk about indigenous peoples such as the Sami. Because most business discussions of innovation are focused on technological change, they fail to see the development of new forms of knowledge and information as innovation.  Therefore, while indigenous peoples (and I would extend this argument to most of the global poor) have the capacity to produce important information and knowledge about the world, this often does not come attached to technological change and therefore goes unacknowledged.

I think Torjer is dead right, and I think I can extend his argument a bit here. By failing to acknowledge the production of knowledge and information as itself an innovation, we basically allow ourselves to write off the global poor as lacking innovation. This enables our usual narratives of development – of a helpless global poor waiting for someone to come save them from their routinized ways. This is enhanced by climate change, as this narrative, run to its logical end, suggests that the global poor have pretty much nothing to contribute in their own efforts to adapt, and therefore require massive interventions from the “innovative north”.

This is a major problem for development, especially as major donor start embracing the idea of innovation.  While at USAID, I looked up at the wrong time in a meeting and was tasked with identifying the Agency definition of innovation.  My friend and colleague Mike Hanowski kindly threw himself under the bus and volunteered to help me. What followed was a fairly hilarious afternoon where Mike and I called various people in the Agency to obtain this definition. Every person we called passed us to another person, until we were passed back to the first person we had called.  Really.  So, no formal definition of innovation (maybe this has changed, but I doubt much of the Agency would know if even if it had).

Now, I am a fan of the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) folks at USAID (a group that was started after the aforementioned story). They do promote interesting, relatively edgy ideas within the Agency. But look at what DIV does – every project amounts to the use of a technology to address a “big challenge” for development.  In and of itself, this is fine…but in this focus, DIV (inadvertently) reinforces the trope of the helpless global poor, waiting for the “innovative north” (or ideally an “innovative southerner”, presented as an outlier who can lead the helpless poor in his/her country or community to a brighter future). Even as we find interesting solutions to development challenges, we are reinforcing the idea that such solutions are the Global North’s to give to those in the Global South. As long as this is the case, we will continue to miss the interesting opportunities to address these and other challenges that exist in the minds and practices of the global poor.

Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play.  John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness.  As he notes:

My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on.   That’s simply not true.  Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.

Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).

Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances.  But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do.  Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.

This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it.  Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer.  Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?

Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.

I have a confession. For a long time now I have found myself befuddled by those who claim to have identified the causes behind observed outcomes in social research via the quantitative analysis of (relatively) large datasets (see posts here, here, and here).  For a while, I thought I was seeing the all-to-common confusion of correlation and causation…except that a lot of smart, talented people seemed to be confusing correlation with causation.  This struck me as unlikely.

Then, the other day in seminar (I was covering for a colleague in our department’s “Contemporary Approaches to Geography” graduate seminar, discussing the long history of environmental determinism within and beyond the discipline), I found myself in a similar discussion related to explanation…and I think I figured out what has been going on.  The remote sensing and GIS students in the course, all of whom are extraordinarily well-trained in quantitative methods, got to thinking about how to determine if, in fact, the environment was “causing” a particular behavior*. In the course of this discussion, I realized that what they meant by “cause” was simple (I will now oversimplify): when you can rule out/control for the influence of all other possible factors, you can say that factor X caused event Y to happen.  Indeed, this does establish a causal link.  So, I finally get what everyone was saying when they said that, via well-constructed regressions, etc., one can establish causality.

So it turns out I was wrong…sort of. You see, I wasn’t really worried about causality…I was worried about explanation. My point was that the information you would get from a quantitative exercise designed to establish causal relationships isn’t enough to support rigorous project and program design. Just because you know that the construction of a borehole in a village caused girl-child school attendance to increase in that village doesn’t mean you know HOW the borehole caused this change in school attendance to happen.  If you cannot rigorously explain this relationship, you don’t understand the mechanism by which the borehole caused the change in attendance, and therefore you don’t really understand the relationship. In the “more pure” biophysical sciences**, this isn’t that much of a problem because there are known rules that particles, molecules, compounds, and energy obey, and therefore under controlled conditions one can often infer from the set of possible actors and actions defined by these rules what the causal mechanism is.

But when we study people it is never that simple.  The very act of observing people’s behaviors causes shifts in that behavior, making observation at best a partial account of events. Interview data are limited by the willingness of the interviewee to talk, and the appropriateness of the questions being asked – many times I’ve had to return to an interviewee to ask a question that became evident later, and said “why didn’t you tell me this before?”  (to which they answer, quite rightly, with something to the effect of “you didn’t ask”).  The causes of observed human behavior are staggeringly complex when we get down to the real scales at which decisions are made – the community, household/family, and individual. Decisions may vary by time of the year, or time of day, and by the combination of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and any other social markers that the group/individual chooses to mobilize at that time.  In short, just because we see borehole construction cause increases in girl-child school attendance over and over in several places, or even the same place, doesn’t mean that the explanatory mechanism between the borehole and attendance is the same at all times.

Understanding that X caused Y is lovely, but in development it is only a small fraction of the battle.  Without understanding how access to a new borehole resulted in increased girl-child school attendance, we cannot scale up borehole construction in the context of education programming and expect to see the same results.  Further, if we do such a scale-up, and don’t get the same results, we won’t have any idea why.  So there is causality (X caused Y to happen) and there are causal mechanisms (X caused Y to happen via Z – where Z is likely a complex, locally/temporally specific alignment of factors).

Unfortunately, when I look at much quantitative development research, especially in development economics, I see a lot of causality, but very little work on causal mechanisms that get us to explanation.  There is a lot of story time, “that pivot from the quantitative finding to the speculative explanation.”  In short, we might be programming development and aid dollars based upon evidence, but much of the time that evidence only gets us part of the way to what we really need to know to really inform program and project design.

This problem is avoidable –it does not represent the limits of our ability to understand the world. There is one obvious way to get at those mechanisms – serious, qualitative fieldwork.  We need to be building research and policy teams where ethnographers and other qualitative social scientists learn to respect the methods and findings of their quantitative brethren such that they can target qualitative methods at illuminating the mechanisms driving robust causal relationships. At the same time, the quantitative researchers on these teams will have to accept that they have only partially explained what we need to know when they have established causality through their methods, and that qualitative research can carry their findings into the realm of implementation.

The bad news for everyone…for this to happen, you are going to have to pick your heads up out of your (sub)disciplinary foxholes and start reading across disciplines in your area of interest.  Everyone talks a good game about this, but when you read what keeps getting published, it is clear that cross-reading is not happening.  Seriously, the number of times I have seen people in one field touting their “new discoveries” about human behavior that are already common conversation in other disciplines is embarrassing…or at least it should be to the authors. But right now there is no shame in this sort of thing, because most folks (including peer reviewers) don’t read outside their disciplines, and therefore have no idea how absurd these claims of discovery really are. As a result, development studies gives away its natural interdisciplinary advantage and returns to the problematic structure of academic knowledge and incentives, which not only enable, but indeed promote narrowly disciplinary reading and writing.

Development donors, I need a favor. I need you to put a little research money on the table to learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But when you do, I want you to demand it be published in a multidisciplinary development-focused journal.  In fact, please start doing this for all of your research-related money. People will still pursue your money, as the shrinking pool of research dollars is driving academia into your arms. Administrators like grant and contract money, and so many academics are now being rewarded for bringing in grants and contracts from non-traditional sources (this is your carrot). Because you hold the carrot, you can draw people in and then use “the stick” inherent in the terms of the grant/contract to demand cross-disciplinary publishing that might start to leverage change in academia. You all hold the purse, so you can call the tune…

 

 

 

*Spoiler alert: you can’t.  Well, you probably can if 1) you pin the behavior you want to explain down to something extraordinarily narrow, 2) can limit the environmental effect in question to a single independent biophysical process (good luck with that), and 3) limit your effort to a few people in a single place. But at that point, the whole reason for understanding the environmental determinant of that behavior starts to go out the window, as it would clearly not be generalizable beyond the study. Trust me, geography has been beating its head against this particular wall for a century or more, and we’ve buried the idea.  Learn from our mistakes.

 

**by “more pure” I am thinking about those branches of physics, chemistry, and biology in which lab conditions can control for many factors. As soon as you get into field sciences, or starting asking bigger questions, complexity sets in and things like causality get muddied in the manner I discuss below…just ask an ecologist.

A great deal has been written about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, so much that I considered remaining a reader and observer without offering comment.  But the Swartz case has me thinking again about access to academic research. Not one academic author of those articles was negatively impacted by Swartz’s act (downloading millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR with the intent of posting them online for free) – the more easily accessible the article, the more likely it is to be read and cited…and that is why we write articles.  It seems to me that most people don’t understand the fundamental absurdity of copyright in academic publishing.

I quote from one transfer-of-copyright document I recently had to sign:

In order to ensure both the widest dissemination and protection of material published in our journal, we ask Authors to transfer to [Journal Name] the rights of copyright in the articles they contribute. This enables our publisher, on behalf of [Journal Name] to ensure protection against infringement.

The whole point of publication is to get people to read and use my ideas – the very idea of infringement is pretty vague here.  I do not receive a cent for any academic article I publish, so infringement won’t affect my income. Anyone who plagiarizes me and gets caught will lose his or her career – I don’t need copyright for that. So there is no reason for me to sign this document. But what the document leaves vague is the fact this is not a voluntary transfer – the journal will not publish an article without such an agreement, and without publications the typical academic will have a pretty short career.  In short, the average academic is forced to sign away their rights to their work if they want to have a career (no publications means no tenure).  I don’t care about my rights, honestly, except when my work then ends up behind a paywall, downloadable at $30 a pop, nobody who needs to access it (i.e. colleagues in the Global South, or even colleagues at most development donors) can access it. Somebody is making a lot of money of my work and the work of my colleagues (see this article too), but it isn’t me.

However, there does seem to be an out here, at least for employees of state institutions, or those whose research is funded is funded under a federal contract.  From the same agreement I just quoted:

I hereby assign to [Journal Name] the copyright in the above specified manuscript (government authors not transferring copyright hereby assign a non-exclusive license to publish)… [my emphasis]

While I am sure this is not how it was intended when written (it is a clause to allow federal employees to publish publicly-funded research), I wonder if those of us either employed by a public entity, either directly or under a contract, can invoke that status to shift our copyright transfers into “non-exclusive licenses to publish.”  This would remove the copyright infringement argument used against Swartz, thus making it easier to pull articles from behind paywalls into the public sphere.  In short, we need to stop transferring copyright to for-profit entities any way we can…but this needs to happen in a manner that doesn’t blow up everyone’s careers.  Until the senior faculty in each discipline decide to intervene and shift emphasis to low cost, open-access journals, this could be a useful first step.  And low cost can be done – see Simon Batterbury’s comment about the Journal of Political Ecology on the post in the last hyperlink.

In short, academics need to step up and start resisting an academic publishing machine that makes serious money off of our job requirements, but provides little in return.  If we do so, perhaps we won’t need folks like Aaron Swartz to liberate our work – we can do it ourselves.

I’ve been acutely aware of the rising tide of complaint/whining about rising tuitions at universities over the past few years. As a professor at a research university in a relatively poor state, I am sensitive to this problem. As a father of three small children of my own that I hope to one day put through college, I am personally concerned that the continuation of current absurd rates of tuition increase will make this goal impossible.

I grow tired, however, of continued complaining about this issue that refuses to address the reasons for this trend. Alan Jacobs’ piece on The American Conservative website is just the latest example. The sighing tone of this piece, and it’s total lack of discussion of the causes of tuition increases, damns universities and their employees by implication. This is just a disingenuous version of more overt attacks out there. I am sick and tired of hearing that faculty are overpaid (we must be the only sector of the economy where paying for excellence in the labor force is seen as a vice, not a virtue) and that universities are full of fat that could be cut.

This. Is. Garbage.

You want to know why your children’s tuitions are rising? There are two reasons. For those of you worried about public university tuitions, the math is simple – state appropriations have been cut dramatically over the past decade, and universities have to make the difference up somewhere. In short, those of you who insist on paying less in taxes are the drivers of tuition increases. Considering that personnel costs make up more than 80% of most institution’s budgets, when you cut the state appropriation to a public university by, oh, about half (such as has happened at the University of South Carolina) the result is inevitable: raising tuition to cover the missing revenue, and hiring fewer faculty to replace retirees…so students end up paying more while getting less and less face-to-face with faculty.

This is not because public universities are “fat and lazy.” It’s because higher education, like so many other things in our society, has become a site of “user pays” mentality. Instead of seeing higher education as a societal good (educated workforce that brings/creates better jobs, more informed citizenry, more vibrant arts, etc.), we now see it as something that only the student should pay for. Of course, all of those collateral benefits still exist – the economic multiplier for universities remains pretty impressive – but now society gets those “for free”, as it burdens the creators of the multiplier with staggering debt, weighing them down. Actually, we probably get less of those benefits now than we did, given that crushing debt doesn’t typically engender opportunities for risk taking and innovation. In other words, all of you who think that you shouldn’t have to pay for universities or other forms of higher education because you are not using them, recognize that you are leaching off of those of us who work for those institutions, and the students who go to them – you are reaping the benefits of the university without making any contribution. This hardly strikes me as personal responsibility. If you want to pay for what you get, pay your damn taxes so the innovative class leaving universities can actually spend some time, you know, innovating, creating jobs, broadening the tax base, and enriching the community…instead of paying off crushing debt.

Now, for private universities the story is rather different. I do not claim to know the financial situations of every private university in America, and I know a good number are in serious financial trouble…often because their endowments were crushed by the 2008 economic downturn. But if you want to see what drives a chunk of the increase in the private university realm, read this article by Julia Edwards. Basically, a number of private schools have been raising tuitions because we are suckers…if it more expensive, it must be good. I have no idea what these institutions are spending their money on – though I am sure some of it is salary (if only because average salaries, in most disciplines, are higher at private institutions than public institutions). Whether that extra salary really equates to extra quality…honestly, I have no idea. I can say that in Geography, which has no graduate presence in the Ivy League, and which is dominated by big public institutions, I strongly doubt the cost/quality equation holds – at least on average*. It seems to me, then, that a lot of people are paying a lot of tuition for the illusion of higher quality, but nobody will admit that, because if we don’t go along with the polite fiction then a lot of people would be forced to admit that they incurred a lot of debt for nothing (which, of course, they did). And look at that, we are back to personal responsibility – don’t complain about rising tuitions you helped stoke when you decided that a higher price tag was a good proxy for higher quality education.

The chart in the middle of the Edwards article says it all – you can see the debt of students at private institutions start to take off in the early 2000s, as our ballooned economy enabled more people to behave like suckers and overpay for a product they assumed was superior. At public universities, it shoots up right at the end of the series, in 2009-10. Why? Because this is when the first students to experience the remarkably steep tuition hikes that accompanied the decline of public spending after the 2008 fiscal crisis started to graduate. Two different drivers. Same outcome. And to some extent, the same problem – a total lack of personal responsibility on the part of the citizenry of this country when it comes to higher education. People decided they could free-ride on college students and their families, or chose to make uninformed consumer decisions about higher education. And now people are reaping the consequences, and having the gall to refuse to look at themselves as the cause.

It’s your fault. Deal with it. And then go fix it. Stop paying for prestige’s sake. Stop electing people who tell you that you can have all the benefits of a leading public university for little or no public cost. Start taking responsibility for the things you want. Stop blaming everyone else.

*That said, I know of several faculty at private institutions in my discipline who are flat out amazing, including a significant segment of the department at Syracuse. These folks are worth every dime. But a few exceptional people at private institutions does not invalidate the larger point that most of the time the difference in quality between a public school’s and a private school’s education is less than the difference in the price tag.

While behavioral economics continues to open old questions in development to new scrutiny, I am still having a lot of problems with the very unreflexive approach BE takes toward its own work (see earlier takes on this here and here).  Take, for example, Esther Duflo’s recent lectures discussing mistakes the poor make.  To discuss the mistakes the poor make, we must first understand what the goals of the poor are.  However, I simply don’t see the behavioral economists doing this.  There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives.  This, however, is fundamentally incorrect.  In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, here, here, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations.  If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases.  Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes.  Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.

Let me offer an example from Delivering Development and some of my other work – the constraint of women’s farming by their husbands.  I have really compelling qualitative evidence from two villages in Ghana’s Central Region that demonstrates that men are constraining their wives’ farm production to the detriment of the overall household income.  The chart below shows a plot of the size of a given farm versus its market orientation for the households operating under what I call a “diversified” strategy – where the husband farms for market sale, and the wife for subsistence (a pretty common model in sub-Saharan Africa).  As you move up the Y axis, the farm gets more oriented toward market sale (1 on that scale is “eat everything”, 3 is sell and eat equally, and 5 is sell everything).  Unsurprisingly, since men’s role requires them to produce for market, the size of their farm has little impact on their orientation.  But look at the women’s farms – just a tenth of a hectare produces a marked shift in orientation from subsistence to market production…because women own that surplus beyond subsistence, and sell it.  They take the proceeds of these sales, buy small goods, and engage in petty trading, eventually multiplying that small surplus into significant gains in income, nearly equaling their husbands.  What is not to like?

Well, from the perspective of those in these villages, here is something: among the Akan, being a “good man” means being in control of the household and out-earning your wife.  If you don’t, your fitness as a man gets called into question, which can cost you access to land.  For wives, this is bad because they get their land through their husbands.  So as a result, being in a household where the woman out-earns her husband is not a viable livelihoods outcome (as far as members of these households are concerned).  Even if a man wanted to let his wife earn more money, he would do so at peril of his access to land. So he is not going to do that.  What he is going to do is shrink his wife’s farm the next season to ensure she does not out-earn him (and I have three years of data where this is exactly what happens to wives who earn too much).  There is a “mistake” here – some of these men underestimated their wives’ production, which is pretty easy to do under rain-fed agriculture in a changing climate.  That they are this accurate with regard to land allocation is rather remarkable, really.  But the decision to constrain women’s production is not a mistake, per se: it is a choice.

We can agree or disagree with the premises of these choices, and their outcomes, but labeling them as mistakes creates a false sense of simplicity in addressing problematic outcomes – because people only require “correction” to get to the outcomes we all want and need.  This, in turn, rests on/reproduces a sense of superiority on the part of the researcher – because s/he knows what is best (see a previous post on this point here).  That attitude, applied to the case above, would not result in a productive project design aimed at addressing income or other challenges in these villages.

Yes, people do things against material interest…but there is always a logic behind a decision, and that logic is often deeply entrenched.  We would be better off talking about decisions poor people make (for better or worse), and dedicating our time to understanding why they make these decisions before we start deciding who is mistaken, and what to do about it.

I’ve just burned 15,000 words in Third World Quarterly laying out my argument for how to think about livelihoods as more than material outcomes – and how to make that vision implementable, at least via fieldwork that runs in length from days to months.  I am happy to send a copy of the preprint to anyone who is interested –and I will post a version to my website shortly.

Update: 11/22: So, after seeing Tom Murphy’s Storify of the twitter exchange, it is now clear that Sachs was on fire – the man was engaged in several conversations at once along the lines below…and he seems to have been responding to all of them pretty coherently, and in real time. I admit to being impressed (No, seriously, click on the Storify link there and just scroll. It is boggling). So recognize that what you see below is what I saw in my feed (his other conversations were with people I don’t follow, so I didn’t realize they were ongoing). Still, glad to get geography’s foot back in the door…

So, quite by surprise, I found myself on the end of an extended twitter exchange with Jeff Sachs.  I’ve hassled him via twitter before, and never had a response. So, I was a bit taken aback to see my feed light up about 30 seconds after I tweeted with @JeffDSachs at the front end! To give Sachs credit, he stayed quite engaged and did seem to be taking on some of my points. Granted, 140 characters is hardly enough to really convey the issues at hand, but I did the best I could to represent contemporary human geography. Y’all be the judge – this is the feed, slightly rejiggered to clarify that at times Sachs and I were crossing each other’s messages – he was clearly responding to a previous message sometimes when he tweeted back after one of my tweets. Also, Samuel Danthine was also on the conversation, and I kept him in the timeline as it seems he and I were coming from the same place:

I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention.  They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s.  Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South.  These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon.  Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more.  Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).

But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all.  If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is.  Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.

I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments.  And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it.  Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income).  People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others.  In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think.  Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.

In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it).  Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale.  Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.

The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?

 

 

 

 

*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.

« Previous PageNext Page »