Economic Anthropology Seminar

I’ve always been interested in economic anthropology, and think it’s a field unjustly neglected by economists.  The Nobel Committee’s recognition of Elinor Ostrom, whose work is based significantly on ethnographic field-work, will hopefully get more economists interested.

I also think the field also has a lot to offer libertarians. Capitalism is frequently charged with creating inauthentic desires within people. We tend to deny this by saying that expensive luxury goods really do improve the consumer’s material well-being. I think a better answer is to point to the ubiquity of material production and exchange aimed at social, rather than material material ends, across human societies. You say crass consumerism; I say culture.

Anyway, that’s all a preface to passing this along, which came in my email today:

Research Seminar

(Anthropology – Job Applicant)

2:00pm – 3:00pm WEDNESDAY 21 October 2009

A4 Lecture Theatre, University of Canterbury

All those attending this seminar are invited to morning tea and discussion after the seminar in the Sociology and Anthropology Common Room, Level 3 Link Block, University of Canterbury.

Creating art, linking culture: social relations and material culture in Samoa

Tobias Sperlich (University of Regina)

The importance that objects play in the creation and maintenance of social relations in Samoa has long been recognized in the ethnology of Samoa and, in fact, all of Polynesia and much of the Pacific. However, many of these studies have focused on the use and exchange of objects among few individuals and relatively small, geographically close groups (seen on such occasions as funerals or marriages). The use and exchange of objects between larger and geographically more remote groups can, however, create similar social and political ramifications, as the work of scholars such as Tapsell has shown. The concept of objects as ‘ambassadors’ has also gained currency among museum specialists dealing with issues of repatriation and the proper care for objects from the Pacific. In this paper, I will discuss how, from a Samoan perspective, objects are seen as essential in the formation and preservation of social ties between individuals, groups and entire countries. Using examples from my past research and from ongoing projects, I will illustrate how objects mediate the distance created between people by geography and history.

All those attending this seminar are invited to morning tea and discussion after the seminar in the Sociology and Anthropology Common Room, Level 3 Link Block, University of Canterbury.

Selling Weed on Twitter

It is state-sanctioned medical weed, though (Hat tip: @goodiemonster):

California won’t let the gays marry but it does let people micro-blog (medical) drug deals. Meet former Northwestern J-school student Dann Halem, who is building an online business selling weed on Twitter. How is this possible you ask? (…)

The @artistscollctve Twitter account went up last week and, in the vein of a more #420 friendly Kogi BBQ, the medical marijuana delivery service also boasts “On-Time GPS” and the availability of “green crack.” Artists for Access is a “creative non-profit” operating under something called a 501 3c non-profit license, “as far as the law is concerned, we’re good.”

Technically legal in California, Halem’s dicey business model is legit from a state standpoint, but not federally. You can’t just call up an get a bag, but knowing the multitudes of dodgy loopholes that exist in the CA medical marijuana policy (i.e. insomnia counts) it’s probably not that hard to score a prescription. Line up your doctor’s notes ASAP! Because this opportunity may not (probably won’t) last.

I’ve heard of a few people buying non-medical weed via forums, but not nearly as many as I’d prefer. The internets could drastically reduce the (currently very high) transaction costs of purchasing the poison of your choice. The problem, of course, is the lack of security and trust needed to organize transactions online secretly.

Arto Bendiken has developed a couple of Drupal modules which could help with this. Agora provides the infrastructure for a market, while Lockdown provides security in case the narcs come calling. They both look ridiculously awesome, and I just wish my geek-fu was strong enough to fully understand all the technical details.

Systems like this could go a long way in making black markets more efficient, but I think the problem of trust remains. I suspect it would be useful for anyone trying to develop this sort of thing to look at how meatspace black markets have always worked – considering the ways in which initiation rituals serve as a costly signal and the incentive-aligning effects of vouching, for example.

Crass Consumerism = Culture

Roger Koppl at ThinkMarkets says:

Some of us do think that designer labels will save our souls. That’s bad. But it’s a whole lot better than thinking that, say, the Führer will save your soul, or a crusade against the infidels, or nationalism, or a host of other collective salvations. When the inevitable disappointment from consumerism comes, it’s a private tragedy.  When the inevitable disappointment from a collective salvation comes, it’s a national crisis inviting some new, possibly worse, collective salvation. Until humans learn the wisdom of angels, I will remain a great supporter of crass consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

I think there’s probably a lot of truth to Roger’s claim, but my take is slightly different. We buy many things not for the functional purposes they serve, but for the meaning attached to them. A fair bit of this meaning today comes from the effort of marketers, but the symbolic importance of goods is not something foisted upon us by contemporary capitalism and Madison Avenue. Production and trade have always served social as well as material ends. Economic activity is not a separate sphere hermetically sealed from the rest of social life, but one aspect intermingled with others that economists find useful to treat abstractly. Humans have always produced and traded goods which serve no practical, material purpose. This is an incredibly important and universal part of human life; it’s called ‘culture.’

There are striking examples in preindustrial societies of economic activity entirely divorced from any material needs. The Kula trade of Papua New Guinea is a particularly striking example. Malinowski describes the Kula trade in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, but since I’m too lazy to find a good description from there, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The Kula ring spans 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals. Participants travel at times hundreds of miles by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables which consist of red shell-disc necklaces (veigun or soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and white shell armbands (mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling anti-clockwise). If the opening gift was an armshell, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa. The terms of participation vary from region to region. Whereas on the Trobriand Islands the exchange is monopolised by the chiefs, in Dobu all men can participate.

All Kula valuables are non-use items traded purely for purposes of enhancing one’s social status and prestige. Carefully prescribed customs and traditions surround the ceremonies that accompany the exchanges which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties (karayta’u, “partners”). The act of giving, as Mauss wrote, is a display of the greatness of the giver, accompanied by shows of exaggerated modesty in which the value of what is given is actively played down. Such a partnership involves strong mutual obligations such as hospitality, protection and assistance. According to the Muyuw, a good Kula relationship should be “like a marriage”. Similarly, the saying around Papua is: “once in Kula, always in Kula” (Damon, 1980: 282).

The reason material goods have this sort of symbolic value is an interesting question. This paper by Sunstein and Margalit provides at least part of the answer. The abstract:

Contrary to a common picture of relationships in a market economy, people often express communal and membership-seeking impulses via consumption choices, purchasinggoods and services because other people are doing so as well. Shared identities are maintained and created in this way. Solidarity goods are goods whose value increases as the number of people enjoying them increases. Exclusivity goods are goods whose value decreases as the number of people enjoying them increases. Distinctions can be drawn among diverse value functions, capturing diverse relationships between the value of goods and the value of shared or unshared consumption. Though markets spontaneously produce solidarity goods, individuals sometimes have difficulty in producing such goods on their own, or in coordinating on choosing them. Here law has a potential role. There are implications for trend setting, clubs, partnerships, national events, social cascades, and compliance without enforcement.

I’m sure Virginia Postrel’s most recent book The Substance of Style, which I haven’t read, will also shed some light on the issue. The blurb:

From airport terminals decorated like Starbucks to the popularity of hair dye among teenage boys, one thing is clear: we have entered the Age of Aesthetics. Sensory appeals are everywhere, and they are intensifying, radically changing how Americans live and work.

We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations, and a nail salon for manicures on demand. Every startup, product, or public space calls for an aesthetic touch, which gives us more choices, and more responsibility. By now, we all rely on style to express identity. And aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetes.

In this penetrating, keenly observed book, Virginia Postrel shows that the “look and feel” of people, places, and things are more important than we think. Aesthetic pleasure taps deep human instincts and is essential for creativity and growth. Drawing from fields as diverse as fashion, real estate, politics, design, and economics, Postrel deftly chronicles our culture’s aesthetic imperative and argues persuasively that it is a vital component of a healthy, forward-looking society.

Intelligent, incisive, and thought-provoking, The Substance of Style is a groundbreaking portrait of the democratization of taste and a brilliant examination of the way we live now.

Humans are extremely social animals and, especially in developed nations, meeting material needs and satisfying material wants is a minor concern relative to our desire for social status, community, and other social goods. You may or may not like this fact, but it is in no way the result of capitalism. It is human nature.