Drug Deaths vs Media Coverage

From the Guardian’s Data Blog comes this neat visualization of poisoning deaths from various drugs and compared to press coverage thereof. The at the comparison for pot in particular.

I think this image, which shows the deaths as a proportion of users is probably more relevant when considering the likely social consequences of media bias.

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.

Moral Monopolies of Church and State

Benito Arruñada has a fascinating post at Organizations and Markets:

Moral codes can be produced and enforced through markets or through organizations. In particular, Catholic theology can be interpreted as a paradigm of the organizational production of morality. In contrast, the dominant moral codes are now produced in something resembling more a market.

The organizational character of Catholicism comes from its centralized production and enforcement of the moral code by theologians and priests and the mediation role played by the Church between God and believers. (…)

Instead of centralized decisions by popes, councils, and theologians, the moral code is now written by millions of human decentralized interactions of all sorts. Now that there are thousands of gods, including the environment, mediation has also been transformed or disappeared. These market features make for lesser specialization. Most morality producers also play many other functions, from teaching to advertising.

Thinking about the production of moral norms in these terms certainly seems like a useful way to approach the problem, but I’m not so sure production is really so decentralized today.

My historical knowledge is weak, but I doubt that the moral authority of the Church was anywhere near complete in even the most ardently Catholic societies. The Church claimed a monopoly on morality, and many people went along with it to a greater or lesser degree. This seems pretty close to what government does today. The state doesn’t simply create laws aimed at resolving the inevitable conflicts among people, but attempts to influence public opinion through various types of propaganda – telling people not to smoke or get drunk and dance, for example.

Of course, government is the emergent (and I would say dysfunctional) product of the decentralized interaction of many individuals, rather than a unitary decision-making entity. I would suggest, though, that this is also true of the Catholic Church. The church claims to derive its authority from God, but the economics of religion teaches us that churches do not survive unless they meet the needs of practitioners. The Catholic Church would not have become so dominant in so many places if it weren’t attuned to the preferences of many people, even if its later market power increased the slack available to the clergy.

Church and state both claim a monopoly over legitimate morality, and have often done so quite successfully. Catholics in Ireland and Italy will almost universally pay lip-service the religious diktat against birth control, for example, and it will affect their behaviour somewhat. The same seems to be true of contemporary government diktats against smoking or getting drunk. The moral scope of the government in Western democracies is probably less than that of the Catholic Church at various times and places, but that scope is endogenous and increasing.

Economists and Sociologists

Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory asks: if sociology sucks, why do economists keep doing it? He cites Weber, Parsons, Becker, Levitt, Akerlof, and Caplan as examples of economists who “regularly dine at our restaraunt,” yet constantly complain about the service. I’d add Douglass North, Timur Kuran, and many of the contemporary Austrian School to the list of economists doing important work on sociological topics.

I’m neither a proper economist nor a proper sociologist, but I have undergraduate majors in both. To me, it seems that while many economists are doing work on traditionally sociological topics, very few are using the insights or methodology of sociologists. Commenter Gordo at the Orgtheory post nails it:

You seem to suggest that sociology is the “restaurant” and the “customers” are economists who enjoy the restaurant’s food. I think the more appropriate metaphor might be that of people sneaking food (economics) into a stadium baseball game (interesting topics) because the food there is so bad (sociology).

That seems to be the general consensus among economists: sociological questions are interesting, but sociologists are not rigorous enough to be of any use in answering them. There doesn’t seem to be any inconsistency in economists sneaking within sociological borders while badmouthing the natives.

I don’t quite agree with that apporach, howver, as I think the work of many sociologists would be useful for economists, particular those studying politics, to consider.

Recent work by Brennan & Lomasky, Caplan, and Kuran demonstrates that we can’t think of political behaviour simply in rational choice terms. This means we need to think about collective behaviour, symbolism, and social conformity – things sociologists have seen studying for a long time and on which they have had many interesting insights.

I think there are huge potential gains from economists taking this body of work seriously, while maintaining a critical stance towards some of the methodological weaknesses in the field. There’s some bad sociology out there, but there’s also a lot of very bad economics.

Why Don’t More People Give to Charity via Facebook?

Facebook Causes seems like it should be a great way of encouraging charitable giving. Since social pressure increases contributions to charity, we might expect that making your donations visible to your friends would prompt more giving.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well.

Only a tiny fraction of the 179,000 nonprofits that have turned to Causes as an inexpensive and green way to seek donations have brought in even $1,000, according to data available on the Causes developers’ site. The application allows Facebook users to list themselves as supporters of a cause on their profile pages. But fewer than 1 percent of those who have joined a cause have actually donated money through that application. (…)

Since it was launched in 2007, Causes on Facebook has become the leader among a growing number of social networks — including Twitter, MySpace and Gather — used by nonprofits, which have been forced to find new ways of developing resources as contributions from wealthy donors and foundations decline during the recession. Causes is free for nonprofits but it costs them staff time to develop and maintain.

Data available from the Causes developers on Facebook show the application’s meteoric rise since its founding. More than 25 million of Facebook’s 200 million worldwide members have signed on as supporters of at least one cause, making it the third-most popular of the more than 52,000 applications on the site.

But just 185,000 members have ever contributed through the site, which sends credit card transactions on Facebook to the Bethesda-based Network for Good to distribute. The median gift through Causes is $25. The majority of Causes’ participants have received no donations through the site.

The median charitable donation through more traditional means is $50, according to the Center on Philanthropy.

My guess is that Causes would prove very successful if it managed to get off the ground, but group dynamics make that unlikely. If you can see all your friends donating to charity, there would indeed be a strong social incentive to make a contribution yourself. At present, though, very few people give through Facebook and the social pressure might run in the opposite direction. People often have a strong drive to conform. Perhaps we have something similar to the bystander effect: the absence of others visibly donating makes it socially risky to do it yourself. People don’t want to seem like they’re trying to show up their friends and are therefore reluctant to be one of the first few visible givers in their network. Since nobody wants to be the one to begin the self-reinforcing norm of open charitable giving, everyone gives in private or not at all.

Both the private-giving and public-giving equilibria seem pretty stable. I’m not too confident that many networks will escape from the private-giving equilibrium anytime soon, but I assume most will eventually (i.e. there is a nonzero chance of escape, which over an infinite length of time produces certainty). There are also ways for individuals to actively try to shift things to a new equilibrium. Taking the leap unilaterally may be too risky, but collusion among a small group of charity-loving friends could reduce the individual risk and increase the likelihood of success.

Quote of the Day: Legitimacy and Domination Edition

Norms become legitimate when the actors view them as right, proper, and appropriate. Temperance norms are legitimate to the members of the Temperance movement. To many nonabstainers they may be illegitimate. Domination rests on the power, prestige, authority of one person, group, or official over another. The content of the norm may be disapproved but, as in the case of the duelers, the nonbeliever recognizes its force. The individual may accept a given authority as legitimate even though a specific norm enunciated by that authority represents domination, that is, is not morally approved of by the subordinate. An institution may be dominated by norms which some group or person does not share. For example, the norms of patriotic commitment are dominant in the school system. Patriotic rites are performed and patriotism is taught as a revered and appropriate set of attitudes. Patriotism is dominant in American schools. The nonpatriot may disapprove of this; he may organize to influence changes; he may even withdraw his child from the school. One thing he cannot sanely do. He cannot act as if his norms were binding in the schools. A system of domination may rest upon legitimacy in some areas of the society but not in others. What is essential to the fact of orderly and recurrent behavior is the recognition in all areas that one set of norms and not its alternative is likely to prevail. It is not a question of whose ox is gored but of who holds the plow.

Joseph Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement, pp. 64-65.

Reminds me of the guy who a few weeks back argued that the US government didn’t have jurisdiction over him, since he was a sovereign nation (can’t find a link, sorry).