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The Saving Lie

Truth and Method in the Social Sciences

By F. G. Bailey

Publication Year: 2011

This book explores the distinction between selflessness and self-interestedness, between acting for one's own advantage and acting, even when disadvantageous, for reasons of duty or conscience. This apparently straightforward contrast (exemplified in the difference between rational-choice models in economics and holistic models in social anthropology) is a source of confusion. This is so, F. G. Bailey argues, because people polarize and essentialize both actors and actions and uphold one or the other side of the contrast as concrete reality, as the truth about how the social world works. The task of The Saving Lie is to show that both versions are convenient fictions, with instrumental rather than ontological significance: they are not about truth but about power. At best they are tools that enable us to make sense of our experience; at the same time they are weapons we deploy to define situations and thus exercise control.

Bailey says that both models fail the test of empiricism: they can be at once immensely elegant and quite remote from anyone's experience in the real world. And since both models are "saving lies," we should accept them as necessities, but only to the extent they are useful, and we should constantly remind ourselves of their limitations. The wrong course, according to Bailey, is to promote one model to the total exclusion of the other. Instead, we should take care to examine systematically the rhetoric used to promote these models not only in intellectual discourse but also in defining situations in everyday life.

The book strongly and directly advocates a point of view that combines skepticism with a determination to anchor abstract argument in evidence. It is argumentative; it invites confrontation; yet it leaves many doors open for further thought.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

Common sense says that the world is an ordered physical reality, a "solid matter of fact," not a fiction or a mess of contradictions. Blake, however, and Richards—despite the words "Life" and "world"—were not talking about physical things but about ideas, which are fabricated. ...

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Introduction: Ideas, Reality, and Saving Lies

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pp. 1-10

In the distinctly hyped paragraph that closes his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, J. M. Keynes wrote, "[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. ...

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Part I: Expediency

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pp. 11-14

In the next three chapters I enter the domain of certain economists and examine their regnant expected-utility model, which presupposes that all actions—including what is done by the seemingly "virtuous and humane"—are motivated by self-interest. That model, for a century and more, has dominated not only our thinking about practical economic and political affairs ...

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Chapter 1. A Very Beautiful Theory

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pp. 15-29

Kenneth Burke, in A Grammar of Motives, wrote, "In any term we can posit a world, in the sense that we can treat the world in terms of it, seeing all as emanations, near or far, of its light" (1969a, 105). He calls them "god-terms," indicating that they are sacred, all-powerful, and supposedly never to be questioned. ...

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Chapter 2. The Coase Recension and Its Lineage

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pp. 30-45

Coase, in the epigraph above, identifies one specific way in which the neoclassical expected-utility scheme failed to confront reality. He proposed a remedy, which is the idea of contract, and out of this grew a branch of economics that was later identified as the New Economics of Organization (NE0).1 ...

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Chapter 3. Gains from Trade

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pp. 46-62

The model examined in this chapter, although still anchored in neoclassical economics, comes closer to reality than those so far discussed. It is designed to explain, among other matters, how economies that are inefficient nevertheless remain—miraculously, the ironic Heller might say—in existence. ...

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Part II: Morality

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pp. 63-66

The antithesis to the economists' positive model is a structural or holistic model. The particular form of structuralism that I will examine was deployed—the episteme is no longer in fashion—in the middle decades of the twentieth century by social anthropologists who called themselves structural functionalists. ...

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Chapter 4. Natural Systems and Moral Systems

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pp. 67-87

Herbert Simon's dry comment on his fellow economists (Chapter l's epigraph) contains a succinct description of their "beautiful theory": "general equilibrium theory, with utility-maximization as a driving mechanism."1 ...

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Chapter 5. Imaginative Constructs and Social Reality

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pp. 88-105

One cannot but admire the elegance of The Nuer. Herbert Simon's word echoes again in the mind; if any monograph in social anthropology deserves to be called beautiful, it is The Nuer. As one reads it, one grasps, so it seems, the very essence of Nuer society, and knows it completely. ...

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Chapter 6. A Piece of the Action

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pp. 106-124

Why does the expected-utility model continue to be so widely deployed when it has manifest limitations? One obvious answer would be expected-utility's own: a model stays in business because enough people, if they ever think about changing it, see no net advantage in doing so. ...

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Part III: Agency and Rhetoric

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pp. 125-130

This book runs at two levels. One is abstract theory—Blake's "generalizing Demonstrations" or Tolstoy's "form"—which are ideas conveyed discursively in propositions about social systems. Ideas of that kind occupy its first two parts. The third part, which is about agency, attends to "minutely organized Particulars" and to Tolstoy's "content." ...

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Chapter 7. Affirming Structure: The Amen Category

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pp. 131-151

Recall how the book began: we use ideas both as tools to make sense of our experiences and as weapons to control people by persuading them to model the world as we want them to model it, which presupposes different ways to see the same world and makes room for choice and debate. ...

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Chapter 8. Contested Structures

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pp. 152-184

In the late sixties in Losa, a community of about eight hundred inhabitants in the Maritime Alps of northern Italy, I heard a brief and apparently simple tale—an anecdote—about a lintel. I will repeat it and use it to model Losa both as a moral community and as an arena in which incompatible structures coexist, are contested, and change. ...

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Conclusion: General Theses and Particular Cases

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pp. 185-200

I cannot imagine that there could ever be a theoretical resolution between the tractable, entirely amoral expected-utility framework and the morality-assuming but wholly intractable paradigm of structural functionalism. Nor do I admire single-minded hierarchy-obsessed visionaries who, as Louis Dumont did, pursue in every situation the prodigiously imagined chimera ...


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pp. 201-206


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pp. 207-213

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pp. 214-215

For their comments on one or more of the several recensions of this book I am grateful to Susan Love Brown, Roy D'Andrade, Dan Doyle, Michael Meeker, Eloise Meneses, and Don Tuzin.

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201185
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812237306

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2011