Last week we convened another meeting of our working group of economists, anthropologists, lawyers, psychologists and policy makers interested in how our disciplines could work together in new ways to solve market problems. It is a very smart, high-powered group of creative people who truly have the best interest of the national and global economy at heart. And the policy makers are brilliant, dedicated individuals who know how things work on the inside, and who think broadly about the issues. Once again, our meeting was supported by the Tobin Project, as well as by the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at Cornell Law School.
The theme this time was health care insurance reform and we did some hard thinking about what our disciplines could say, practically, about what kind of insurance exchanges might help different kinds of consumers make the best choices possible for them.
But there is another running conversation at these meetings about how the disciplines can be reconfigured to work better together in the future. The disciplinary truce worked out in the early twentieth century was a kind of cold war-like division of the territory: anthropologists study exotic others, sociologists study deviant groups at home, psychologists study individuals, economists study markets, and so on. Thank goodness that along the way we learned that all these elements are inter-related and that each of these disciplines has much to say about every aspect of life. So how else could they work together?
One model that is emerging from our meetings is a kind of production model, beginning with original insights and moving all the way to the incorporation of ideas into policy. Eric Johnson, a distinguished psychologist teaching at the Columbia Business School, suggested that anthropologists could provide the insight (based on ethnographic research), economists could provide the models, and psychologists could provide the data (based on experiments)–and that we need data and numbers to convince policy makers.
Another model seems to be a model of internal change within fields. Peter Spiegler, an economist at U Mass Boston and one of the most truly original scholars I have ever encountered, suggested that economics needs to start incorporating ethnography into its own method of research, rather than just taking insights (about trust, or reciprocity or whatever) from anthropology and modeling them in the traditional way. I argued that anthropologists, conversely, need to learn to value simplicity as well as complexity, and to communicate openly and clearly and generously with people in government and in other fields, as economists and psychologists have learned to do.
There are a lot of things that infuriate me about anthropology and anthropologists. But at the end of the day, some of our most basic insights are sorely lacking in the policy world and could make an enormous contribution to market reform. Here are just a few obvious ones:
-Asking about the givens: noticing what is so important that it is just taken for granted by everyone, including perhaps even the researcher. For example, at our meeting, we were deep into how to structure consumer choices about insurance and one anthropologist asked “why do we value choice so much in the first place?”
-thinking about the global dimensions of even the most domestic policy problems, and thinking comparatively about policy problems. For example, what could we learn about health reform from Japan, or Singapore, or South Africa?
-thinking about the range of actors and interests involved in law reform. For exaple once a law like the health care act is passed the story is not over–it has to be implemented by armies of regulators, interpreted in practice by physicians, drug companies and insurers, used by consumers…how do all these people come together in practice?
-reflexivity–realizing that academics are part of the picture and bear some responsibility for what we advocate for, and its consequences, intended and unintended.
Insight rather than data–ultimately ethnography gives you a picture, and a story, and helps you to to become aware of the aspects of a problem you may have ignored altogether in constructing your model or your policy proposal. Private companies have grasped the value of this kind of insight and are employing ethnographers in large numbers to do market research and study organizational culture within their companies but we have a ways to go before it is adopted as broadly in policy circles.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline in thinking about market reform? How do you think fields like economics, anthropology and law could better work together to address market reform?