The following is a brief excursus on the social science disciplines which should be of interest to absolutely no one. It should not be confused with the similarly titled article by Emily Sands ’09, who is brilliant.
I’ve already many times registered my frustration with much of the criticism of development coming from the academy. With respect to offering un-constructive criticism, though, anthropology takes the cake. Having now officially completed two terms of my course, I can definitively say that 90% of what modern anthropologists have to say about development seems to fall into one of three categories:
– “[Theory] fails to account for local variation.”
– “I think a correct understanding requires a more nuanced view, somewhere between [actually meaningful position] and [actually meaningful position.]”
– “We need to complicate our discourse about [concept that is already way too complicated].”
These statements don’t bother me because they’re necessarily wrong. In fact, quite the opposite: they annoy me because they are, almost by definition, correct. When someone tells me that a theory “Fails to capture local variation,” I am almost tempted to respond, “Well, duh.” The entire point of a theory is to simplify reality: inevitably, that means leaving something out. You can always chart a middle ground between two theories: it’s the academic version of Zeno’s paradox.
Which brings me to economics. My somewhat rocky relationship with economics started my sophomore year of college, when I signed up for Economics 101 naively thinking it would teach me something about the real world and not just the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I still remember reading in the first chapter of the book, “studies have shown that rich countries are not appreciably happier than poor countries” and wondering why, then, the book spent the next nineteen chapters explaining how we can get richer. It all struck me as somewhat mystical: countries get “richer” because there are more pieces of paper floating around; inflation gets higher because people think it’s going to get higher; and global inequality grows because some guy in London moved around some numbers on a computer screen.
I’m having a better go at economics this time around. Partially, it’s because—thanks to the recent economic downturn—Hayek is out and Keynes is back in, so economics is taught like having high unemployment might actually be a bad thing (even if you have high economic growth!). It also helps that our class teachers are relatively honest about their discipline’s foibles (“All the assumptions in this model are false but, well, suck it up”). There’s also a part of my brain that has missed graphs and numbers, and finds it a welcome respite from reading endless pages of theory.
Deeper than that, though, I’m enjoying economics because it reminds me of why I enjoyed studying social sciences in the first place. Economics is still taught as if social problems can be understood and solved; as if some policy choices are better than others; and as though what we do as researchers might actually matter to people outside our disciplines. They do more than just talk about “discourses,” “problematics,” and Michel Foucault. I don’t agree with most of the conclusions that mainstream economists come to, but I appreciate their aims.
This is not to say that I think the qualitative, more post-modern sciences are valueless. I just think the real intellectual work is done by people advancing broad, bold theories. Chipping away at them and adding nuance is important, but a lot of it strikes me as a cheap way to get tenure.
– – – – –
Jukebox: The Voids – Capitalist