Dec 10, 2011

The Economist as Shaman

The financial crisis in the US, the fiscal crisis in Europe, etc. have led to discussions on what an economist is, or should be. Codes of ethics for economists are seen like part of the solution to the financial problems. The following is one of the most unusual characterizations of what "an economist" is. Nevertheless, I found it interesting. This is from the article, The Economist as Shaman by Molly Cato.
The purpose of this paper has not been to draw a strict academic parallel between the role of a shaman in a traditional society and that of an economist in a modern society. I would not be equipped to undertake such a comparison, especially in view of the wealth of ethnographic and other studies in the field (DuBois, 2011). Rather I have sought to identify the particular role of the shaman—that of mediation—as one that might usefully be applied to an economist in a sustainable society. In this final section I begin to sketch out how the notion of a shaman might give us a starting-point to consider what the role of an economist might be, taking seriously my suggestion about the necessity of mediation between human communities and the resources of the environments on which they depend suggests one important role for an economist in a sustainable society. 
The first role, I would suggest, would be to acquire and exercise the authority to impose the boundaries to the acquisition of resources. As we saw earlier, in traditional societies this was a role of priestly figures, and is a role which we are in dire need of today, when politicians shy away from attempting to persuade us of the hard truth that we cannot continue to consume resources as we have in the past. Once these boundaries are clearly established and maintained, the economist would be required to act as a mediator between humans and their environment, enabling the process of re-embedding which would support our respectful relationship with the planet and our fellow species. Whatever the appropriate rituals might be in a 21st-century society, I would suggest that the role as described by Abram might provide a template: ‘The traditional or tribal shaman, ensures that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it—not just materially but with prayers, propitiation, and praise.’ (Abram, 1996: 7). 
What would economists who took seriously their role in terms of the transition to a sustainable society be like? Not, I would suggest, the typical young man with expert statistical and econometric skills but little knowledge of life and no interest in human relationships or the exercise of judgement. Rather we might expect our economists to demonstrate a courageous engagement with the environment guided by John Ruskin’s useful motto: ‘there is no wealth but life’. Hence the primary role of an economist in a sustainable society would be changing the relationship with the earth, its resources, and other species from one of exploitation to one of mutual respect and relationship. Far from the computer and the regression model, the training for such an economist would require a direct experience of the wholeness of life, such as that described by Glass- Coffin during her researches into shamanic practices: 
There, beneath a waning gibbous moon on a cool Florida winter night, the scene before me was completely ordinary except that every plant, from the tallest coconut palm to the smallest blade of grass acknowledged and honored my presence. . . I suddenly realized, viscerally, what I had been writing about for many years: that all Life is co-created as willing humans interact in reverence with the very Ground of Being that sustains us. This co- creation is reflected and nourished by the ways in which we interact with one another, by the ways in which we care for the material world that provides for us, and by the ways in which we relate to a firmament which both inspires and humbles us as we journey. (Glass- Coffin, 2010: 210).
Sometimes I think that economists have replaced anthropologist to a certain extent. Some decades ago, in the early and mid 20th century and even before, anthropology was the field that better approached "traditional" / rural societies. Nowadays that the market has widely penetrated societies in different parts of the word, economics seems to be the field that better explains behavior - obviously this is a broad generalization, there are certain spheres where anthropology has a lot to say. One can't have a global understanding of a community or a society without looking at the market interactions taking place. The discussion could get more complicated when we think about the changes in human rationality that have happened as a consequence of the advancement of the market. There was a huge debate on this between formalism and substantivism in anthropologist, which probably still goes on. [This is an article I wrote on the past and future of economic anthropology. There was also an interesting debate between Frank Knight and Melville Herskovits in the 1940s]. 

When it comes to analyzing individual behavior and human rationality, economics has not changed much, rationality, self-interest, and maximizing behavior (which are related concepts) have been part of the body of knowledge that we called microeconomics. Although recently behavioral economics has challenged microeconomics assumptions. 

"The Economists as Shaman" says that if we assume that there is really an environmental problem ahead of us, or if we are facing the problem now,  it is better to think about the economist as a Shaman, a mediator between humans and their environment. To what extent this is true, or to what extent we should think about the economists as a Shaman, I don't know. There is certainly room for that in the profession: like an "environmental-green economist." Economics is such a fragmented field. There are many different positions and they disagree with each other -- probably less so when it comes to individual behavior. But disagreement is a good thing. We need different positions in economics to keep the debate alive. Obviously tolerance must prevail. 

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