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Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences (Volume 1) (Wildavsky Forum Series)
Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences (Volume 1) (Wildavsky Forum Series)
Steven Ney; Mary Douglas
University of California Press, 1998
238 pp., 47.95

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David N. Livingstone

The Life and Death of Homo Œconomicus

The social sciences: Where's the humanity?

We live in the age of the acronym. And the social sciences, it seems, have more than their fair share. Just the other day I was reading a piece from the journal German Politics. Here I learned that the GDR's EMSU with the FRG has not eliminated the PDS on account of PUD! When translated this roughly means that the former citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) have not found economic, monetary, and social union (EMSU) with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) all they had hoped it would be; that the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)—the East German post-Communist party—is undergoing revival; and that there is—and this is the key point—growing postunification dissatisfaction (PUD).

While anyone of average intelligence can work their way through this tangle of alphabetical shorthand, it's the propensity to reduce social and political complexity to abbreviated measurables that is of interest here. PUD, it turns out, is a kind of psychosocial pathology that apparently afflicts former East Germans, and what's more it can be computed. You see, they were beneficiaries of the "well-proven institutional system" of the West, including civil and commercial law, social security, collective bargaining, and most of all a market economy. Add to this their receipt of large financial transfers with no obligation of repayment. So— hey!—what's wrong with these people? Given such "institutional guarantees and massive financial aid," why are they dissatisfied? Why is there PUD at all? And having invented it, the writer tells us that its existence "demands a consistent and theoretically sound explanation."

It is precisely this species of social scientific analysis, with its reduction of human worth and happiness to calculable economics, that is the subject of searing critique by Mary Douglas and Steven Ney in Missing Persons. Courtesy of the marriage of convenience between the ideology of the free market and the rugged individualism of the West, social science has persistently traded in the depreciated currency of desocialized human subjects and pseudo-scientific objectivity. The consequence has been an impoverished conception of the person which has not only afflicted academic social science, but has had dire policy implications.

It has meant, for example, that poverty has routinely been seen as a personal experience arising from a dearth of desirable commodities. Social science smitten with such materialist and—crucially—calculable inclinations has persistently turned a blind eye to an abundance of anthropological evidence disclosing people who, without the blessings of modern gadgetry, all the while enjoy short working hours, good company, and stimulating conversations ranging from farce to philosophy. Not bad. And all without the trappings of the material West. As Marshall Sahlins tellingly put it: "We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free." The anthropologists, it seems, have long been confirming that neither man nor, for that matter, woman ever could live by bread alone—even while econometricians were constructing a wants discourse out of patterns of consumption and income distribution.

This, in brief compass, is the impulse behind Missing Persons. But simply reiterating the book's leitmotif is to do scant justice to the subtlety and profundity, not to say—on occasion—the obscurity and complexity, of the argument and illustration. At times the book is intimidatingly cryptic, at others expansive; at times it wears its wisdom on its sleeve, at others its insights are buried beneath novel, even chancy, connections; at times it is crystal clear in its diagnosis, at others infuriatingly oblique. Of course nothing less should be expected of Mary Douglas, one of our greatest living anthropologists, renowned for such classics of the modern anthropological canon as Purity and Danger, Natural Symbols, and more recently Risk and Blame. And it is entirely appropriate that, teaming up with Steven Ney from the Institute for Technology and Society in Vienna, she should present her withering critique of dehumanized human science as the inaugural lecture series established in honor of the late Aaron Wildavsky, who played such a large part in the establishment of the modern study of public policy.

It is impossible to map in any detail the array of sites that Douglas and Ney choose to explore in their foray into the inner regions of psychology, political science, social analysis, and philosophy. Only some hints to the terrain can be conveyed in what follows.

Primarily, the authors devote considerable space to elucidating the circumstances that have led to a modern paradox, namely, why a profoundly nonsocial being is located at the very center of social science. Why is it that the land of economic theory is populated by lonesome individuals occupying vacant, flat, featureless plains? However this irony has come to be, it is clear that the Enlightenment love affair with objectifying just about everything had a big part to play. Indeed there is much to be said for the idea that Homo Œconomicus owes his very existence to the analytical tools that social scientists have devised. The capacity to give him measurable dimensions has, Frankenstein-like, brought him to life.

In the world of public policy, it seems, if it can't be counted, it doesn't count. And this has major implications for the kinds of ills that the makers of Economic Man can diagnose. Because what we might call thing-poverty can be totted up a good deal more easily than people-poverty, that is where diagnostic social science tends to be directed. Not surprisingly, economic theories of poverty are more frequently about market behavior and price margins than about hunger or thirst. In fact our authors, insisting that the person has been erased from social science for the sake of that abstract singularity, "the consumer," go so far as to claim that "economists do not really have a psychological theory at all, or a theory of wants, only a theory of the market." So when we learn that poor people persistently complain less about material lack than about "problems about other people, the absence of certain desired presences, and the too-intrusive official presence of others," it seems that material poverty is all too often social poverty with commodities as its instrument. Which, incidentally, tends to confirm the hard-won wisdom of the Irish, who, reserving space in vernacular grammar for "yous," perpetuate the New Testament's persistent inclination to speak to us in the plural.

Given these predilections, it is understandable that Douglas and Ney should dwell at some length on the nonmaterial needs of social beings. Turning on its head the long-held assumption that ethical and spiritual needs only surface in human experience once animal urges are satisfied, the authors tellingly argue that it is "not nature but culture [that] defines what a full belly is, how full it should be, and what is needed to fill it."

But even those who do seem to recognize the limitations of crasser versions of materialism nevertheless frequently operate with an emaciated conception of the human person that rests complacently content with merely local articulations of human needs. Inescapably this means that routine judgments about the nature of the good life are couched in the thoughtforms of an uncritical liberal humanism. And this too frequently results in treating goods as ends rather than means; commodities are promoted as satisfying in themselves rather than as instruments for achieving worthwhile living. Were this realization to dawn on most of us, it would mean that our consumption would be for others, not for ourselves. But that's not a possibility that's even dimly glimpsed in economics, never mind in most middle-class churches.

What has stood in the way of these richer accounts of poverty, need, and worth has been the absence of what Douglas and Ney call the "Concept of a Whole Person." In its place is lodged a detached individual supposedly obeying the dictates of the rational choice theory so beloved of classical economics. We have, of course, long been acquainted with the ideological biases buried beneath the supposition that decision-makers possess perfect market knowledge, act rationally, are egotistical to the core, and long only to maximize utility. Here, to simply expound is to sweepingly expose. Yet this ideology is alive and well and finds its nadir in the model of the human person as a rational being bereft of emotion. But, as our two authors are well aware, there is here a danger that emotion can too easily become a bogus "explanation" for behavior.

What is needed is a far richer suite of psychological concepts that will not rest content with explaining "major movements, variously called fundamentalism, sectarianism, revivalism, or radical extremism" as simply the manifestation of some collective emotional state—anger, resentment, bitterness, rancor, or some such. What such accounts manifestly lack is a deeper concept of the self as embedded in culture, tradition, and society. Once this is grasped, it is immediately clear that "any collection of people will be teeming with dissension" and that the "quality of personhood depends on the variety of relationships persons are capable of sustaining with others."

Douglas and Ney now proceed to sketch in their own more pluralist conception of persons. The fundamental idea here, as I read it, is that we live in multiple worlds. Any city is a composite entity, a mosaic of the contemporary and a cumulative enregistration of the past. Earlier worlds linger on as palimpsests in the city's later material fabric. So it is with human culture. Of course the range of possibilities here is enormous, but in order to prevent social analysis descending into an atomistic array of fragmentary commentaries, our authors produce a cultural map based on Douglas' well-known "grid/group" scheme and its later permutations.

Visualize four types, four cultural biases, four worlds, four cities—call them what you will. One is composed of those strongly committed to competitive individualism, who have no brief for tradition. Its opposite incorporates hierarchists, who value tradition and order. A third collective is characterized as a closed egalitarian system and is represented as a sectarian enclave. And the final coalition, labeled isolates, is an eclectic group avoiding alignment. These four ideal types, as it were, provide a social grid which is intended to represent the cultural map of modernity. They sketch out four different, but viable, ways of living in society and thus are intended to afford "a flexible way of thinking about the inherently social human person."

In turn this map is meant to throw light on the problems and potentials of policymaking; Douglas and Ney suggest that the four different groups embody different forms of rationality and different articulations of social organization. Thus the individualists are less interested in community than in freeing themselves from social restriction. Hierarchists elaborate a moral framework in which differentiated obligations each have their proper place in complex systems. Sectarians champion communal self-organization and strive to avoid external control. Isolates necessarily cut themselves off from political maneuvering and have little time for policymakers.

The argument here seems to be that only by allowing these differences to surface in open intercultural dialogue is there any hope of escaping the political hegemony that buries and marginalizes difference. To be sure, this means that cultural conflict is bound to arise; but any consensus that is achieved by reducing people to minimal attributes is ultimately repressive. Systemic disagreement over fundamental principles must be permitted to surface and what they call "the adversarial mode" welcomed. And there are implications here for how we should now think about the role of institutions in our world. Rather than being feared as the conduits of repressive power, they can be seen as "a mixture of chance and intelligent opportunism, not deliberately designed, not engineered, but strengthened by habit and convenience."

So far so good. The diagnosis that Douglas and Ney provide is compelling. Yet for all the wit and wisdom that Missing Persons conveys, there are some reservations that, I think, need to be registered. For a start, and on perhaps the most trivial level, it is surprising that in their efforts to grapple with the idea of the self and its social embeddedness, they do not engage with the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. For surely in these writers ready reinforcements are to be found.

MacIntyre, for example, insists that vibrant traditions are typically engaged in dialogue with themselves, and that any tradition is a temporally extended and socially embodied argument about the goods which constitute that tradition. Such a perspective would suit Douglas and Ney's needs rather nicely. And just as serviceable for their purposes is Taylor's insistence that "I define who I am by defining where I speak from, in the family tree, in social space, in the geography of social statuses and functions in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also crucially in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out." Here is a social conception of the self that, at least as I read them, is remarkably consonant with the model of personhood they wish to project.

Here, however, if I speak of sin at all it is the sin of omission rather than commission. Not so with my second quibble. Given the altogether right-headed resistance to the hegemony of scientific authority, it is just a touch bizarre to find our authors resorting to Richard Dawkins' idea of "memes" to account for certain political ideas about the nature of governance and the good society. Memes, it turns out, are cultural bits that, gene-like, replicate themselves with rigorous reliability. And if genes are "selfish," memes are jealous. In Dawkins, of course, this is not to be understood in any merely metaphorical way. It is not just that memes can profitably be thought of as analogous to genes; it is that they really are the cultural equivalent of genes.

I find this species of thinking troublesome, reflecting as it does a naturalistic imperative that obeys a neo-Darwinian call to biologize everything. In this scenario, for instance, it has been suggested that religion is a viral meme programmed into young children by the misguided; such speculations have entirely appropriately been castigated by one recent observer as "proselytizing atheism." Surely too, Thomas Nagel is right when he observes in The Last Word that such unbridled Darwinian imperialism frequently arises from the fear of religion. Himself an atheist, Nagel senses that for many people Darwinian naturalism and traditional religion are the only ballgames in town and that when one is ruled out, the other is pushed with crusading ardor way beyond its sphere of explanatory competence. As he puts it, "one of the tendencies is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief. … This is a somewhat ridiculous situation."

Besides all this, we are left with a nagging self-referential dilemma; in his own terms Dawkins' "idea of a meme" must itself be a meme that replicates with fecundity, not because it is true, of course, but because it is adapted to its cultural niche. Shudder. Now, I have no intention of imputing sentiments of this sort to the authors of Missing Persons. I am simply registering an unease with even a casual resort to Dawkins-style sociobiology.

My final reservation about the proposals advanced by Douglas and Ney gravitates around the quadripartite cultural map they provide. The classification, while undoubtedly suggestive, seems to me to be prosecuted with a little too much vigor. Other social classifications, for example, are too readily refashioned to fit this particular template. And all sorts of groups are forced into the mold of the ideal type. This leads to some strange portrayals. Paramilitary units like the Provisional Irish Republican Army, for example, are pressed into the "enclave" quarter in which hierarchical ranking is rePUDiated. This seems strange, to say the least, about an organization terrifyingly addicted to the slavish following of orders from above. Similarly with fundamentalism, which occupies the same organizational niche.

To be sure, many fundamentalists pay lip service to egalitarianism and the evils of bureaucracy. But beneath the rhetoric we have surely good grounds for suspecting that fundamentalist organizations are actually pretty hierarchical and interested in hereditary succession. The problem here, as I see it, is the compulsion to squeeze groups into the schema. Personally I am always inclined to worry when I hear authors make claims like "if we want to understand fundamentalism we should try to fit it into the general cultural type that the form of organization indicates." It is all too easy, though admittedly alluring, to substitute modular collectives like "the sectarian," "the bureaucrat," "the individualist," and so on, for real flesh and blood persons. "Discourse coalitions" should not be mistaken for people talking with each other.

Latterly I have been dwelling on some of my reservations about Douglas and Ney's proposals. These, of course, are put forward in the spirit of collegial dialogue. For there is much, very much, here to commend. Any effort to retrieve the human agent from economistic subversion and to seek a richer vocabulary in which to speak about and relate to human beings as God's image-bearers is surely to be welcomed. Exactly what kind of social arrangements can be put in place to allow us to delight in the diversity of persons that inhabit the creation, I don't know. Here, I suspect, we might have to become eschatological. But we can make a beginning, and that beginning will have to be a radical rethink of the model of personhood that our society has enshrined and that public policy embraces. Douglas and Ney have certainly shown us just how barren and oppressive that prototype is.

I began with some soporific comments on the reduction of social complexity to the measurable acronym. Unless we engage with the kinds of proposals that Missing Persons advances, we will, I fear, continue to be served an impoverished diet of CRASS: culturally repressed acronymic social science.

David N. Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history at the Queen's University of Belfast. He is the author of several books, including Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and the Culture of American Science, The Geographical Tradition, and Putting Science in Its Place (coming soon from the University of Chicago Press).

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