The Self and Othering

In my first post about critical economics, the first paragraph related to the workability or testability of new theories.  Economics as a social science is concerned with reducing observed phenomena to a general, testable theory.  The advantage economists feel they have over other social sciences is that what the propose can be empirically measured, usually in money terms, but over the years other objectively applicable units have been devised.  Case in point are the development of indexes of institutional quality or corruption, which while rife with difficulties, are nonetheless big steps in the right direction. 

In general, however, economic measurements – expressed or implied – are proxies for utility – the amount of happiness that an action or commodity or service supplies to someone.  And in general, we say that choices are made at the margin, where the actor determines the extra (marginal) benefit or cost that attend an action.  If the benefits outweigh the costs, the action is taken.  To complicate matters, new institutionalist economists have brought in the idea of transaction costs, which are the costs that attend actually creating an environment in which a desired choice can be made.

One of the major problems with this type of analysis is not that it uses utility (based on a rather outdated moral system, chosen for its theoretical quantifiability, rather than for its reflection of reality), or even that it assumes people identify and weigh costs and benefits.  At some point, as I said in my post, whether we are the actor or the economist studying the actor, we must stop gathering data and make reasonable hypotheses about the best course of action.  Infinite time spent gathering data is infinitely costly.  No, this is not the problem; rather, it is the source of the explanatory power of economics.

Instead, I believe that the problem is that the actor of economic theory is always the individual.  I think that the individual should taken out of the center of the universe and replaced by the more generalized concept of the self.  The self, as I understand anthropological theory, is defined by a process of “othering.”  We do not define out selves, but rather our selves exist as logical consequence of who we say we are not.  For example, I am not a member of any family but the Knowles family.  I am not Chinese or Bolivian, I am American (recognizing that even that statement is not rife with difficulties).  I am not you, or you over there, I am me.  All these different definitions of who I am – American, Knowles, the “I”, even white, middle class, etc. – enter into my decision calculus.

Allowing that we do weigh costs and benefits, does it not seem that we find ourselves weighing the costs and benefits not only to ourselves as individuals, but also as members of a particular family, or nation, or race or class?  Statistically, we will act in similar ways as the group(s) to which we belong.  So what if the choice one aspect of the self would make runs in contradiction with the choice the other aspect of self would make?  How do we decide which way to go?

In the past 30 years or so, neoclassical microeconomists have devised a number of ways to account for how we act, by developing models of altruism, social capital and opprobrium, and coordination problems.  These solutions can get very complex.  What if, instead of developing a series of post scripts to apologize for using the individual as the unit of analysis, economists were to understand choice calculi as multiple cost/benefit analyses with respect to each definition of self, weighted by the level to which one identifies with the various aspects of selfhood?  This is a first approximation of what I called a Copernican Revolution in economic thought.

But how would you measure this?  More on that as I develop my thoughts.   


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