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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 1011-1015
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Rationality or Reasoning?
Comment on Heath Pearson’s “Homo Economicus Goes Native, 1859–1945”
Jane I. Guyer
Heath Pearson’s claim that a growing indifference developed between economics and anthropology after the mid-century is a provocative one, since it predates by about ten years the rise of the subdiscipline that defines itself as economic anthropology and that produced a great wave of new studies of old topics such as the Kula ring and of new topics such as peasants, markets, and the course of economic change. This new economic anthropology has indeed related to economics, albeit on certain restricted issues: household economics, collective property regimes, and economic development, among others. Yet I do not disagree with Pearson’s claim that “primitive economics” and economics lost relevance for each other with respect to basic issues. In a paper published in a predominantly economics collection (Guyer 1997), I noted that most of the relevant anthropological literature on the topic I was addressing—the constitution and management of wealth—had been written without any recourse whatsoever to economic theory or the writings of economists.
I think, however, that a fuller account of the parting of the ways would benefit economic anthropology. There is a utility to the idea that all good history begins at the end: not just where we are now but where we could be going. Pearson’s claim that in the postwar years “economics was being recast as a pure science of choice, from which empirical quibbles should [End Page 1011] be ruled out of bounds” covers too complex a shift to be summarized so briefly. Various other allusions in the paper could profitably be filled out because the separation leaves both disciplines with fundamental problems: the differentiation of the world for economists and the place of reason for anthropologists. Pearson’s story is triumphantly in favor of Homo economicus as the species characterized by “pure choice.” In fact, Homo economicus continued to evolve. During the revival of economic anthropology, Percy Cohen (1967, 99) warned anthropologists that “one of the reasons why it is so difficult to assess arguments for and against the wider applicability of economic analysis lies in the fact that the term is used to mean three, or even more, different things.” Some of the roots of those shifts must start earlier, and they make it difficult to be satisfied with depicting economic man as a singular being.
Several powerfully related intellectual and institutional moves are entailed in the changing focus of economics: a turn from an analytical to a normative orientation, a channeling of all questions through the increasingly powerful mesh of statistics and mathematics, and the formation of links to various bodies whose main purpose is not to understand the present and the past for theoretical and comparative purposes but to build the future. As Anthony Giddens ( 1993, 13) points out, “Institutional reflexivity is… central to modernity”; it “becomes particularly pervasive with the maturation of the modern social order.” Economics became the language of institutional reflexivity in the corporate and governmental worlds that shape the future, with probability theory and other mathematical and computing innovations providing its visionary landmarks. Through the predictive modeling that mathematization allows, an unprecedented complexity of institutional behaviors can be coordinated, monitored, and redesigned over ever-expanding domains.
There is a cost, however. Homo economicus evolves a specialized rationality, at the expense of reason. The conjectural construction of an abstract rationality serves institution creation and coordination better than trying to come to grips with the messy realities of actual reasoning. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in about 1950, “Knowledge in mathematics: Here one has to keep on reminding oneself of the unimportance of the ‘inner process’ or ‘state’ and ask: ‘Why should it be important? What does it matter to me?’ What is interesting is how we use mathematical propositions” (quoted in Anscombe and Wright 1969, 7e).
Pearson does not take his analysis back as far as the eighteenth century, but I think this...