Anthropology and all that jazz

It’s a salutary experience to read a book in a different discipline, even a neighbouring one, because it’s a reminder of how specialized we become, and how hard it is to communicate across the boundaries. Reading Gregory Bateson’s┬áSteps to an Ecology of Mind – hailed as a classic of anthroplogy and psychology – was hard work. This was partly because of the unknown technical language, and partly because the methodology is so very different to how we economists do economics. In addition, there are areas of detail that are just not all that interesting to me, such as Balinese religious customs, say.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology

Still, I’ve taken a couple of useful overarching thoughts from the book, mainly about epistemology and methodology in the social sciences. One is that in social science, the game is to discover the rules of the game. Economics, I think, misses this point altogether. To make matters even more difficult, the game is like Alice’s game of croquet with the Red Queen – with mallets that are flamingos and balls that are hedgehogs, or in other words, it consists of wholly unpredictable components.

I liked also his emphasis, citing Margaret Mead, on avoiding the dualism of means and ends, and the instrumentalism that is used to justify. Bateson insists that not only do ends never justify means, but means are in fact ends in themselves. Echoes here of Sen’s theory of justice. There is a rejection of dualism threaded through the book, for example the dualism of ‘man’ and ‘nature’ or generally of the living creature and its environment; these co-evolve, Bateson argues. “If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure.” This is similar to the message of a book I greatly admire,┬áMourning Becomes The Law: Philosophy and Representation by the late Gillian Rose.

Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation

The other interesting area is of course his application of cybernetic theory to anthropology and psychology. I found this very hard to follow, however. It seems to concern the well-known warning about reductionism and absence of systems-thinking: Korzybski’s ‘the map is not the territory’. Bateson warns that many problems stem from ignoring the systemic nature of the world in favour of ‘common sense’. John Kay’s Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly is an accessible riff on this theme, a warning against social engineering by trying to intervene directly to fix things. Beyond this, I find it hard to summarize Bateson’s final section, although I now have his phrase in my head: “Information is a transform of difference”.

One day, I’ll do more than dabble in the other social sciences, and learn some of it properly. For now, back to economics.

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