Musings on Anthropology/Economics Crossbreeding

I have taken the (I believe risky) step of going ahead with my decision to attempt an interdisciplinary thesis project with a friend of mine in the anthropology department.  She is a highly intelligent woman for whom I have an enormous amount of respect.  Yet having spent but a single week in an anthropology class with her, I am becoming painfully aware of just how different our two fields are.

Economics, for reasons I will speculate on in just a moment, is a social science whose practitioners are able to actively seek to implement their discoveries in the form of policy.  The field itself retains a highly priveleged position amongst the rich and powerful.  Some economists would argue that this is due to its explanatory power, but I would argue that, in addition and by no means inconsequentially, the undergirding assumptions of mainstream economics tend to paint the powerful in a most beautifying light.  Surely, regardless of their wisdom, the king’s advisors would think twice about commenting on the transparency of the emperor’s new clothes?  More coarsely, economics gets as much sway with the politicians for kissing ass as it does for making sense of social phenomena. 

Cultural anthropologists on the other hand, lepers of the social sciences, seem to have long accepted (or at least long convinced themselves of) the fact that politicians will never listen to them.  Contrary to the economist, the anthropologists I know are, it seems, fierce defenders of the irreducibilty of social actions and/or cultures to a set of general principles.  This is, of course, highly impractical stuff if you are a politician facing a deadline:  you need straight answers, predictions, forecasts, a means of translating the ideas to your constituents.  The muck of anthropology, a field that seems unable to pick and settle even on a method of analysis, is characterized by a paralyzing fear of ethnocentricity.

Clearly, economists and cultural anthropologists judge success in their fields by very different standards.  By no means do economists celebrate Milton Friedman for his searing insight into homo economicus.  He didn’t care whether or not humans ACTUALLY made decisions in a certain way, so long as they acted “as if” they made decisions in a certain way.  Contrarily, the pure cultural anthropologist, it seems, could not be more opposed to reducing their subjects’ activities to a set of certain principles; that would require an imposition of ethnocentric values of the mos egregious sort.

My thesis advisor, Shawn Humphrey, suggested that I take what I find in the anthropological literature and fit it into a mold that will work with my economics tool kit.  I would rather not do that.  I would like this to be a meeting of the minds.  I would like her to say “Ok I’m wiling to give here if you’re willing to give there.” 

I worry that this will not, perhaps even can not, happen. 


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