Archive for the ‘Individual and Self’ Category

The Burden of Language: An Informal Experiment, Part 1

April 16, 2007

Last Sunday, my girlfriend Falyn and I were sitting at a Barnes & Noble bookstore drinking coffee and having one of those really good conversations that reaffirm your decision to date your significant other.  The topic was language, and especially the English language, which surpasses all others in sheer quantity of words.  I suggested that we look at language as a schematism between individual human beings (I use the individual as a unity of analysis simply as a heuristic for my purposes).  In that case, language is an imperfect tool that humans use to represent individuated realites to one another.  We take the various accounts and combine them in our minds to further enhance and hybridize those individuated realites.  The tool is imperfect because each perspective is unique, but obviously we share many similar frames of reference, and those frames adapt to our particular situations (the reason, for instance, economists can understand one another – they share a particular paradigm and set of problems and methods and educational backgrounds; the same is true not just for other professions, but subcultures, families, and other groups). 

Still, it is imperfect because it takes time to communicate something, and if, say, I am an economist and you are an anthropologist (a real-life situation in my research), the lack of a terminology and similar vantage point makes communication exceptionally difficult.  To counter this (and for many many other reasons), I suggested to Falyn, is the reason the English language has become so enormous.  Increasing specialization, the need to subsume several ideas under a more general and abstract term, are one source of the increasing size.  Another, I continued, could be that language size literally feeds off of itself.  The bigger the language the larger and more cumbersome it gets – the more we need new words to say just what we mean.  This could also be the result of such an extreme individuality – and a certain level of self-importance – that we think our life-experiences require a broader and broader vocabularly in order to attain complete expression (going back to my above hypothesis of language as schematism).

Of course, by this point I was doing no more than speculating.  But Falyn proposed the following experiment:  Let’s just not talk to each other from now until… we decide to start talking again.  I thought it was a cool idea, and I agreed.  Before starting, we decided to go to Ruby Tuesday’s across the street.  We left the bookstore in silence, walked to Ruby Tuesday’s, and spoke only when being seated and waited on.  We both got the salad bar and a beer, and sat in silence.  After about 40 minutes of silence, we finally decided to end our experiment. 

Most profound to me was an event that occurred the moment we walked out of the bookstore.  It was chilly out and I was about to comment on that fact, but of course I couldn’t.  I just looked over at Falyn and continued walking.  After that even I admit I was consumed by the following question:

Why did I feel so compelled to mention the weather to Falyn?

First answer:  Social nicety. 

I rejected this option.  Too shallow. 

Second answer:  Concern for Falyn.

Rejected.  She had a jacket, she was fine, it was a short walk.

Third answer:  Desire to share my discomfort.

Rejected also, but getting warmer.

Fourth answer: Need to affirm that Falyn is experiencing what I am experiencing.

Now we’re getting somewhere!!!

To be continued….


The Self and Othering

April 12, 2007

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.