Anthropology, Economics, and Choice
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In the midst of global recession, angry citizens and media pundits often offer simplistic theories about how bad decisions lead to crises. Many economists, however, base their analyses on rational choice theory, which assumes that decisions are made by well-informed, intelligent people who weigh risks, costs, and benefits. Taking a more realistic approach, the field of anthropology carefully looks at the underlying causes of choices at different times and places.
Using case studies of choices by farmers, artisans, and bureaucrats drawn from Michael Chibnik's research in Mexico, Peru, Belize, and the United States, Anthropology, Economics, and Choice presents a clear-eyed perspective on human actions and their economic consequences. Five key issues are explored in-depth: choices between paid and unpaid work; ways people deal with risk and uncertainty; how individuals decide whether to cooperate; the extent to which households can be regarded as decision-making units; and the "tragedy of the commons," the theory that social chaos may result from unrestricted access to commonly owned property.
Both an accessible primer and an innovative exploration of economic anthropology, this interdisciplinary work brings fresh insight to a timely topic.
causes international financial crises, and why some nations grow rapidly while others stagnate. (Samuelson and Nordhaus 2005:5) A macroeconomist might study the effects of borrowing by the federal government, the changes over time in the economy’s rate of unemployment, or alternative policies to raise growth in national living standards. (Mankiw 2005:27–28) Economists recognize that microeconomics and macroeconomics are related. Much of the aggregate data studied by macroeconomists is the result
economists, biologists, and psychologists, her ideas have been controversial even among those scholars sympathetic to her theoretical approach. In several publications (Douglas 1990, 1992; Douglas and Wildavsky 1982), Douglas and her colleagues argue that certain cultural values have led many people in western societies to overestimate the dangers of particular environmental and health risks. This has led Douglas and colleagues to take political positions at odds with those of many scholars
psychologists’ experiments. There is, however, no substitute for ethnographically rich descriptions of the complexities of decision making in particular risky and uncertain situations. This is the work of anthropologists. Through their detailed ethnography, anthropologists have made an invaluable, though often neglected, contribution to our knowledge of such choices. CHAPTER 4 Experimental Games and Choices about Cooperation Sociocultural anthropologists, unlike their colleagues in
choices. In subsequent chapters I discuss in detail some recent and not-so-recent critiques of this assumption. In order to give readers a feeling for the flavor of these critiques, I briefly present here three ideas offered by economists who question strict versions of rational choice theory. The “herd mentality” (Scharfstein and Stein 1990) refers to the tendency of economic decision makers such as investors to imitate the often risky choices of others even when their own inclinations and
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