Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Stafford: Economic Life in the Real World

"Economic Life in the Real World: Logic, Emotion and Ethics" by LSE's Charles Stafford will be of interest to several readers of this blog (description below). The book examines economic decision-making over seven main chapters, beginning with an overview of the approach, bringing together anthropology, psychology, and economics, and progressing through a series of chapters on substantive areas such as an outline of how to study decisions, life-plans and learning, and the politics of cognition. The book is underpinned by a number of ethnographic studies in a range of contexts, in particular drawing from long-running research projects conducted by the author in China and Taiwan. It is particularly interesting to read a formally-trained anthropologist reflect on the utilitarian roots of economic psychology and integrate the work of scholars such as Kahneman and Tversky into an account of economic decision making. The phrase "behavioural science" has tended to be used in some of the literatures of interest to this blog as a phrase for work at the intersection of various streams of economics and psychology. This book will be useful for anyone within those types of literature who want to understand more about how anthropological and ethnographic research intersects with their area. The ongoing critiques of the over-reliance of behavioural science on student samples in wealthy countries are obviously of relevance. The book contains references throughout to literature on economic anthropology texts that are rarely studied by students in economics and psychology. I can easily imagine many of the students I have taught in classes on behavioural economics and economic psychology finding these references a treasure trove of interest and connection to other areas they are studying. It will also be of interest, I think (but without much experience), for people trained in anthropology looking for a bridge to a number of topics that are being debated in economics and psychology.
This clearly written and engaging book brings together anthropology, psychology and economics to show how these three human science disciplines address fundamental questions related to the psychology of economic life in human societies - questions that matter for people from every society and every background. Based around vivid examples drawn from field research in China and Taiwan, the author encourages anthropologists to take the psychological dimensions of economic life more seriously, but also invites psychologists and economists to pay much more attention than they currently do to cultural and historical variables. In the end, this intrinsically radical book challenges us to step away from disciplinary assumptions and to reflect more deeply on what really matters to us in our collective social and economic life.

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