Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Anthropological Observations on the Usefulness of Anthropology

Ted Fisher writes

"Social scientists, and anthropologists in particular, bring what should be a privileged perspective to public policy debates. Taking as our starting point not idealized theory (say, of rational actors) nor (hopefully) partisan moralization, anthropologists look at, and take seriously, what folks actually say and do...

Hampton's follow-up studies show that use of the public spaces in his sample has gone up over the last decades; that there are many more women in those public spaces; and that there is more, not less, social interaction going on despite the ubiquity of cell phones and other technology.

      Anyone with at least a little background probably knows that the relationship between economics and anthropology is generally sceptical at best. This is a shame since the two disciplines could probably learn a lot from each other.

      As Ted says ethnography is a useful tool for bridging the gap between abstract theories and concrete manifestations and economists would benefit from making use of it more. Ethnography, however, should start from a position of healthy scepticism towards how people explain themselves. It is useful to 'look at and take seriously what people say and do.' However, talk is cheap, and in the ultimate what people do should be taken more seriously.

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