Sunday, July 10, 2011

Economists discover "No Man Is An Island"!

This is one of NPR's "Most E-Mailed Stories" of a few days ago.
The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors
by Shankar Vedantam
“The problem isn't that experts are dumb. It's that communities are not the sum of their roads, schools and malls. They are the sum of their relationships.
The Japanese government seems to get this. The government there actually funds block parties to bring communities together.”

Those "experts" are economists and political scientists, not anthropologists. This is not new for anthropologists. Notice how the story quotes economists (who begin their theorizing assuming a “rational economic man”) and political scientists (whose work has also been dominated by the rational actor approach) and it becomes “news” that they’ve discovered the importance of relationships. Well, duh!!  This is what anthropologists and sociologists have been saying since Durkheim (1858-1917)! Yan Yunxiang argued in the 1990s that the victims of the Great Leap Forward (1959-61) were those who had no social network (guanxi), many of them cadres who had cut gift-giving ties with relatives in their belief in the universalism and openness of the Party. They had not one to turn to and so starved. That this story is "news" and "most e-mailed" shows how after being thoroughly dominated by models that focus on the individual, economics and maybe the general public are ready to re-discover a more sociological perspective (similar to what David Brooks has done in The Social Animal.)

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