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Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences (Wildavsky Forum Series)
Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences (Wildavsky Forum Series)
Mary Douglas
University of California Press, 1998
237 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 ...

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