Archive for the ‘Interdisciplinary’ Category

Proposal Accepted

September 10, 2007

Today, Becca and I had our first meeting with my thesis committee:  Humphrey, Greenlaw, and Hansen.  I admit feeling a bit worried about how it would turn out because I have never had a class with Hansen before, and I had a feeling he would be the person that needed the most convincing.

In a strange twist, Hansen effectively talked us into doing precisely what we proposed to do:  develop a methodology.  Not to say he and the other professors did not help us narrow down the topic a bit more, rendering it more manageable; rather, the qualitative difference between what was proposed and what was decided would be a worthy thesis topic was not very significant. 

The thesis proposal, in its nearly final form, did not spend a great deal of time developing a model because that was never the intended focus of my thesis on political corruption.  The intention was to develop a schematism for translating the heavily descriptive work of anthropologists into the language of, at the very least, political economy, for the purposes of working out the ways in which social networks come into conflict with the state.  Humphrey, my main advisor for the thesis, seemed to think that the basis for desiring to develop this methodology needed more clarity, and so suggested that I spend more time formally developing and critiquing the model that characterizes the mainstream literature. 

It would appear, however, that this distracted unnecesarily from the main point: an alternative model is useless if it can not be tested, and since alternative models of corrution based on social networks appeared to lack an associated methodology, to even talk about testing  is premature.  We were proposing to develop that methodology, but with half the pages of the proposal devoted to developing models, the focus of the thesis was rendered unclear.  It struck Becca and I both as funny that in the end, Greenlaw, and Hansen especially, cared a lot less about models and a lot more about methods, and effectively talked us into focusing on the latter (our original plan), rather than the former.    

I have been warned, as mentioned before, that developing methodology does not provide the fame and fortune that an ambitious economist might seek.  Certainly my economics education these past four years has not explored alternative approaches (not so much a complaint – methods are rightly secondary to concepts in undergraduate work, methinks, and traditional methods are more than adequate for most of the problems that undergrads will take up).  Still, there is something to spending a class period or two to demonstrate that great strides are not always made in the synthesis of new concepts, but also in new approaches to familiar problems.  Stagnation of or dogmatic commitment to either concepts OR methods will doom any quest for knowledge.     

Musings on Anthropology/Economics Crossbreeding

September 2, 2007

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.