Seminar on Ted Fischer's The Good Life. 24th September onwards.

I am pleased to announce the opening of our seminar on Ted Fischer's OAC working paper The Good Life, Values, Markets and Wellbeing. Prof. Fischer teaches at Vanderbilt where he is the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies.

Ted Fischer's paper takes us directly into a topic of increasing importance in development studies and which should be important to anthropologists too. It seems hard to doubt that in every human community there circulate ideas and images of what a good life means. Notions of the good life clearly vary from society to society, from individual to individual and even from moment to moment. Whatever the good life may consist in situationally we can hardly doubt that it is and has always been an object of sustained human thought and aspiration and that what people imagine about it will affect how they act in the world. For a complex and thought provoking discussion of one community's mythological principles for the good life readers may want to return to our last OAC seminar paper by Joanna Overing.

Based on our ethnographic knowledge anthropologists should all be able to comment on the variety of models for what (might) constitute a good life. So here there can be a meeting point between the ethnographer's engagement with diversity and developmentalist concerns with social change that people would have reason to value. Ted Fischer brings together both the specific and the general here. He looks at the mounting evidence that a purely economistic view grossly distorts basic notions of dignity and equitability that human beings largely share in different forms. His paper contains a striking and helpful critique of the 'cash value' view of morality that tells us that decisions at point of sale - 'revealed preferences' - are the true indicators of human morality. He reinstates social imagination as a crucial aspect of why people act in certain ways - why, for example, they make what economists have referred to as 'irrational' choices.

Welcome to all, then. While we know from experience that many more people will drop in to look at progress on the seminar than will actually leave a comment, please do add your questions and comments since without them there is no seminar.

(seminar discussion is now closed, but those who still wish to offer views can open a new link, or add comments HERE)

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Many thanks Ted for agreeing to take part in this seminar. It is always hard to know in this setting what kinds of questions will encourage or subdue open discussion. Let me try something out, though. You give us elements of a very convincing critique of the hidden morality of standard economic models and explain why we need something else; some way of assessing what would constitute a model of the economy centred on ideas of wellbeing and lived human values. One of the successes of the economistic approach is that it can give a mathematical value to human choices; in effect any choice can be given a number. I notice that there is an attempt afoot to do something like this with happiness, so we have different kinds of happiness index including this one 'happy planet'.

You mention some doubts about the idea of happiness as an index of value taken by itself. Looking at the happy planet list I notice that Jamaica, the country I know best from fieldwork, features nearly at the top even though it has one of the highest murder rates in the Western hemisphere, while Colombia is even 'happier' which many people might find remarkable for the same reason. Curiously, according to this list, almost all top the happiest places are in central america...

So, to narrow this down toward a question, as anthropologists we precisely would not want to reduce human values to a single number and yet this is precisely the kind of approach that is seen as authentic and we can't deny that sometimes there may be something important lurking in this data.

In general terms, how do you think anthropologists can contribute to these emerging debates?

As an admirer of the book of which the paper is a précis, my concerns are with how to extend and enrich the argument, There is one respect in which I find that it shares a weakness with the purely economic analysis it critiques. Both treat relevant factors as givens that affect the actor/agents in question equally. As a marketer, I wrestle constantly with the fact that

  • Agency and Aspiration
  • Opportunity Structures
  • Dignity and Fairness, and
  • Commitment to Larger, Meaningful (Moral) Projects

can vary dramatically with income, gender, age, and life stage, where, at least in OECD countries, life stage is no longer tightly linked with income, gender and age. Thus, for example, a group of women in their late thirties and early forties may now include women who never married, women who have married several times, women with children who are still infants or toddlers, and women whose children are grown up, who may, in fact, be grandmothers. 

As an anthropologist whose specialty was once Chinese popular religion and traditional Chinese society, I am also acutely aware that the good health, wealth, and numerous descendants that constituted the good life for which worshippers prayed to their gods not only were very unevenly distributed. Their achievement, if it occurred, was largely confined to the grandparents of successful and still undivided, multi-generation families. The junior generations were expected to suck it up and work hard, suffering if necessary, to ensure the comfort of both living and dead ancestors. In-marrying daughters-in-law were expected to "eat bitterness" and work harder than anyone else. Only if they bore sons and the sons lived to a prosperous adulthood would they, at the end of their lives enjoy the respect and comforts accorded a grandmother. 

The meaningful moral project  that justified the juniors' suffering was the continuation and flourishing of the family line, ideally the creation of a lineage renowned for scholarship, posts in the imperial bureaucracy, and the wealth and other achievements those posts made possible. It was an accepted fact of life that, while these goals were in principle possible for all, only a few would achieve them. There was also the latent conflict between the stated highest value, service in a bureaucracy whose highest loyalties were supposed to be to the emperor, and the de facto highest value, securing the future of the lineage. Finally, and most uncomfortably from a modern, egalitarian point of view, all of the obligations in question were calibrated to the social distance of the relationships in question: parents first, then siblings, wives, more distant relatives, friends, and strangers, the last conceived as hungry demons. The proverb might say that, "All men within the four seas are brothers"; but, as with the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some brothers were more equal than others.

Add the ups and downs of war and peace, feast and famine, health and sickness, and the demographic accidents that could leave the wealthy with only daughters or no heirs at all and the poor with too many children to support until adulthood—transformations in what counted as dignity and fairness, opportunity, agency, and feasible aspirations were givens in a world seen as being in constant flux.

How does this world fit into the scheme that Fischer develops here? This will be my central question throughout this discussion. 

Thanks, Ted, for providing such an elegant introduction to some of the ways that economists have sought to expand the range of their own models. It is certainy the case that anthropologists interested in contributing to these debates should be aware that there is a lot more going on in economics than the conventional stereotypes allow for. I am attending a conference of the Italian Association for Public Economy in Pavia on "Informal economy, tax evasion and corruption". The other keynote speaker, Professor James Alm of Tulane University reviewed a variety of behavioural approaches (which he prefers to call "cognitive economics") in a lecture designed to show that membership of social groups can be a more important factor than individual preferences in explaining whether people pay their taxes. Moreover, his methods are not just empirical, but also experimental and, while the analytical logic is consistent with the economics tradition, much of it is new. It is not just, as Huon says, putting a number on these things. Professor Alm works a lot with the IRS and they are interested in more than compelling higher rates of tax compliance. They want to know things like whether people are more likely to pay up if they participate somehow in setting the priorities of public expenditure or if the IRS's own services can be improved in various ways and how moral values like cooperation influence public attitudes and behaviour.

I mention this because economics is a lot more dynamic than most anthropologists imagine, they work with institutions like tax bureaucracies and large corporations whose agendas have social change built into them, using methods that evolve all the time and in many cases have become explicitly open to anthropological arguments. So, if we would make a contribution, we need to learn what they are doing and have to say, as you have demonstrated in this rich paper. It is inappropriate for economic anthropologists to address lazy stereotypes based on superficial knowedge of the contemporary practices of economists.

I was struck by your use of the term "opportunity structures" since it reminded me of an earlier "transactionalist" phase of economic anthropology when the logic of individual rational choice was often complemented by ethnographic description of the institutional context for such decision making. This evokes for me Tocqueville's summary of the American democracy as an an attempt to provide a public framework conducive to individual self-expression. Here the emphasis would be on how such a framework should be constructed rather than on what individual citizens might want to do with the freedoms it guaranteed. Much of the discussion of the good life that you provide has to do with the subjective ends of economic behaviour, but here, when you address opportunity structures, you touch on the objective means. I wonder if this distinction might be made a stronger aspect of your case than at present. I also wonder if we still could use the public/private pair in addressing it or would want to replace that contrast with something more subtle and less ethnocentric. In The Hit Man's Dilemma and elsewhere, I have suggested that the impersonal/personal pair might be one such alternative. We need institutions whose constitution and consequences are impersonal, even as they make it possible for us to express our personal preferences. I would be very interested in your response to thsi suggestion, since I believe that we have already reached substantial agreement, but might want to explore the differences.

Keith hones in on the weakness of using subjective individual wellbeing as the sole metric of Justice or even a simple utilitarian greatest-good distribution.  My defense is simply that he is right.  Objective (material, in a broad sense) political-economic structures delimit both what is possible and what is seen as possible (with a nod here to Bourdieu).  While I do work this into my model in later chapters of the longer manuscript, Keith and John focus on what I find most difficult, the perennial problem of how to capture the intensely dialectical and delicate balance between structure and agency.  At a basic decision-making level, it can be pretty straightforward: choices are delimited by structural conditions.  We choose not from an economist’s theoretical almost infinite variety in an efficient market but from the selection of cereals Unilever and Tesco have negotiated, between candidates such as Obama and Romney put forth by powerful party interests.  The market has the virtue of sorting through alternatives but, despite the fervor of some of its partisans, the results are not always optimal and the structures of choice are shot through with power relations.

Amartya Sen points out that having material resources that are underutilized because of a lack of agency is a sort of “unfreedom.”  But income and agency are insufficient themselves: there must be opportunity structures, political-economic venues to realize one’s aspirations.  Indeed, where income and perceived agency exceed opportunity structures is where we find the frustrated freedoms of the Arab Spring.

John, calling in his China example, offers the conundrum of the opposite scenario: accepting a social reality as the natural scheme of things that radical reduces the range of alternatives for, in the case of women, about half of the population.  Huon points to the contradiction of countries such as Jamaica and Colombia scoring high on happiness indices while marked by some of the highest rates of violence in the world.  And, of course, there is the visitor’s amazement at happy peasants (and lament over what we have presumably lost in our own affluence).  How do we square a recognition of such structural exclusion and bias with an appreciation for the agency and intentionality of those we study?

This is to say, as Huon and John and Keith point out, subjective wellbeing is framed by political-economic and social structures, and not always in ways that seem just or true to us.  As Paul Willis showed for English working class kids, we learn what we can be, not just our material resources but our agency and aspirations are conditioned by our place in structural schemes of things.  The difficult question I have long struggled with, is to what extent are folks duped in their exercise of agency?  To what extent are they willing participating in their own exploitation?  I have plenty of examples from fieldwork (and from my childhood in southern Alabama) of folks believing and doing things that seem clearly to me to be counter to both their best interests and the greater good.  And yet.  And yet.  I am also hesitant to discount their perspectives as delusional.  So how do we account for wellbeing?  If folks say there are satisfied with their lives, is it presumptuous for us to say otherwise?  At the same time, how can we account for the material conditions that at least partially define how wellbeing is understood and realized?

Maybe, it is too complicated to work into a single metric, although, as Huon points out, there is applied and policy value in doing so.  Measuring wellbeing is tough, as there are different measures of “happiness” and “life satisfaction.”  The results are interesting of we distinguish between the two.  “Are you happy now?” generally elicits positive responses, a measure of “hedonic” happiness; while asking “if 10 were the best possible life you can imagine and 0 were the worst, where would you place yourself?” tends to get different sorts of answers.  To introduce a bit of data to the discussion, here are some results of different measures (note in the Gallup survey, the US ranks lower than Germany and Guatemala in hedonic happiness):

World Database of Happiness Life Satisfaction Index (2006)

US                                      7.4 (out of 10, rank: 21st)

Germany                             7.1 (24th)

Guatemala                          7.2 (25th) 



Satisfaction With Life Index (2006)

US                                      23rd

Germany                             35th

Guatemala                          43rd 

Adrian White’s (2007) metastudy results available at

Gallup Wellbeing Index (2010)

U.S.                                    Thriving 56%

                                          Struggling 41%

                                          Suffering 3%

                                                   Hedonic happiness index: 71.9

Germany                             Thriving 42%

                                          Struggling 54%

                                          Suffering 5%

                                                  Hedonic happiness index: 77.4

Guatemala                          Thriving 33%

                                          Struggling 49%

                                          Suffering 18%

                                                   Hedonic happiness index: 74.6


I will have to think some more about John’s insights on life cycle.

Ted, thank you for this very gracious and thought-provoking reply. The attached PDF is the last chapter of my book Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers. It contains a good deal of material related to my concerns about changes related to generation and life stage. The book was published in 2000 and the latest research reported in it dates back to 1997, and a lot has happened since. But from my admittedly biased author's perspective, the major trends described appear to be intact. Would love to hear your thoughts on how they might affect the work you are doing.


Yes, many thanks indeed for your careful response, Ted.

On this issue of subjective versus objective measures of wellbeing. You give a very helpful account of some of the meeting points between subjective perception and objective wellbeing in your paper. One entry you give us is the well-founded research showing that the experience of living in in a society that displays extremes of inequality - the U.S. or Britain for example - and where acquiring wealth is repeatedly presented as a virtue; those situations are damaging to the psychological and physical well being of very large numbers of people who see no way of changing their own status vis-a-vis the dominant value system. For people at the bottom of a hierarchy of this kind it is perhaps the worst of all worlds; a society where aspiration is massively vaunted but consistently denied.

I would want to see indicators of subjective wellbeing taken very seriously. Of course it depends very much how we treat all the variables and what kind of quotient we are after. Looking again at the 'happy planet' index I mentioned: the top countries are top because the compilers of the list are using three variables - subjectively experienced wellbeing, life expectancy and 'ecological footprint'. Unlike USanians or Brits or Germans, people in Costa Rica live relatively long lives and on average report high experienced wellbeing and, in the process of living these averagely happy and long lives, they don't use up grossly disproportionate quantities of finite natural resource per capita. This seems a fair point to an extent even if it tells us very very little about what Costa Rica is actually like. It doesn't get to the heart of the more complex issues that John raises about social role distributions and so on, or tell us anything about structure and agency, but it does throw something into the debate.

If we are going to take subjective wellbeing seriously we have to consider some of the questions about what people expect concerning 'happiness' or 'wellbeing' generally. Cultural psychologists point out that Americans tend to expect increasing happiness as a feature of their lives and tend to report high levels of personal happiness - compared to unhappy feelings which they demote. In contrast, Japanese tend to see a necessary balance between happiness and unhappiness and this is reflected in how they talk about their own lives. This is again a gross generalisation but it raises the problem of qualified translation and the frame people may place around happiness/wellbeing. These are important themes in addition to the structure-opportunity dyad. For example, one German, Kant, tells us that achieving happiness is secondary and dependent on doing one's duty by others. This fits rather well with your lady in the ticket office saying she can't maximise her own profit at the expense of spoiling the cultural environment for local children.

Again, I would be very interested to hear what kind of specific anthropological voice could be brought into play in these debates. How should anthropologists frame what they say so that it will be heard as a distinct contribution to this dialogue?

I wasn't trying to assert the priority of objective structures over subjective preferences, but rather pointing out their combination in Ted's analysis and suggesting that the relationship between them could be given more emphasis. The problem with structure vs agency is the idea that collective and individual interests are usually opposed. The formulation I summarized from Tocqueville assumes that they may be combined harmoniously. Anthropologists have many examples of societies where this is so. The issue is therefore not one of anthropology vs economics either. But the pressing question is how to build societies that cater for human interests more effectively than those that dominate the world at present. Surely finding answers to that question matters more than being able to demonstrate that anthropologists have a unique perspective to offer. People will listen to us if we have better answers, not because we are anthropologists. This, it seems to me, is the strength of Ted's approach -- that he has taken the trouble to engage with what is out there, not that he can comfort fellow professionals with assurances of their unique contribution. This is an interdisciplinary matter and anthropologists have to take their chances with the rest.

First, a shout-out to Keith.

People will listen to us if we have better answers, not because we are anthropologists.


Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.


The question is why we don't have better answers. One probable cause, as I see it, is that anthropological analysis tends to assume (1) constancy and (2) simplicity. Consider, for example, how we think about opportunity structures. We are, I suggest, more likely to treat them as givens than to describe a fluid playing field in which windows of opportunity are continually opening and closing. We are also likely to see them as offering a only a limited range of options and downplay the possibility of innovation that expands the range of some options while closing off other possibilities.


Take Ted's German eggs for example. The classification of eggs that frames the analysis has only four categories. The argument then addresses why the distribution of stated preferences for the different types of eggs differs from the distribution of revealed preferences expressed in purchases. The discussion that follows is interesting and persuasive. What I want to point to here, however, is a basic difference in stance between the approach this example exemplifies and the approach of the advertising creatives I study and with whom I have worked for several decades. Presented with these same data, their questions would include, "Why only four types of eggs? Can we imagine a better egg? How would it be different from these?." They would also consider the target, "Who buys the different types of eggs? What is missing in the way we describe them? Can we identify a new type more likely to be receptive to our new egg?" Like test pilots for new aircraft, creatives "push the window." We are constantly looking for the gaps in conventional wisdom and looking for ways to open them wider. 


Frequently, of course, we push too hard, we fall on our faces, our ideas go down in flames. But that's OK, it's part of the game. We pick ourselves up and get back in the game. This recurring experience is why I find Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant's analogy in which social life is a football (soccer) game persuasive, and I think of intellectual life in the same way. Some of our theories are plays that work some of the time. Others don't work very well at all. But the point is the "play." We may score and win a bit of renown. We may fluff the play or be knocked down. But we are always looking ahead to the next game and the next moment in which, if that play or another is better executed, we will carry the day. 

But, getting back to where I started. As I look around at the world of journalists, pundits, politicians and policy makers in which anthropologists must now compete for attention and influence, I wonder if our engrained habit of attempting to discover and describe the constant features of the the societies and cultures we explore isn't a major stumbling block? Should we be looking for a definition of the good life that we hope will be forever? Or should we be looking, instead, at the opportunities that the people whose lives we study perceive and helping them to imagine something different, perhaps even better?

People will listen to us if we have better answers, not because we are anthropologists. This, it seems to me, is the strength of Ted's approach -- that he has taken the trouble to engage with what is out there, not that he can comfort fellow professionals with assurances of their unique contribution. This is an interdisciplinary matter and anthropologists have to take their chances with the rest.


Speaking as a professional, my work for this seminar is done pro bono.

Ted, let's focus on your concluding discussion of moral economies. The good life is a moral issue. I was intrigued by your terse summaries -- lots of bon mots there. If we start from Thompson and Scott, moral economy has been imputed to the victims of economism as a sort of non-market or even anti-market source of common sense. But, as you say, economic individualism has its own morality and Durkheim/Mauss saw morality as indispensible to markets, but often invisible in their functioning. Your use of the phrase, "science of moral sentiments", points directly to Smith and to yet another possible construction of the relationship between morality and economy.

The tension here is between a logic of economizing which permits a measure of reductionism in analyzing certain types of action and an open-ended sense of the good life as whatever people want to become. Given that human aspirations for a better life may be infinite and are highly contextual, might a focus on moral economy allow us to reach some narrower conclusions of general significance without reverting to utilitarianism?

For Kant, the good is culturally defined in many different ways, but he thought that some kind of cross-cultural conversation might develop about the good as a meaningful human category in a more abstract sense. Could this be one of the aims of your project or are the required assumptions implausible?

The last chapter of Marcel Mauss's The Gift offers an extended commentary on morale in the context of economic reform. He has three sections: 1. Conclusions de morale 2. Conclusions de sociologie économique et d’économie politique 3. Conclusion de sociologie générale et de morale. He intends first to consider “moral” questions and then the economy, returning to morality in the context of sociological method more generally. The difficult term for us is morale which in the first instance clearly refers to the science of ethics that Durkheim aimed for in the Division of Labour, but in the latter case it probably means more generally the human aspiration to place relations between person and society on a just footing of shared morality. In the same section, Mauss also uses the term morale as customary morals and in the English sense of high collective spirits.

I offer these reflections in the hope that they build on your detailed arguments and might help to extend them programmatically.

Much appreciated, too.

Huon Wardle said:

People will listen to us if we have better answers, not because we are anthropologists. This, it seems to me, is the strength of Ted's approach -- that he has taken the trouble to engage with what is out there, not that he can comfort fellow professionals with assurances of their unique contribution. This is an interdisciplinary matter and anthropologists have to take their chances with the rest.


Speaking as a professional, my work for this seminar is done pro bono.

I joined the Human Economy Doctoral Programme( HEDP), based in the University of Pretoria, in August this year. And, coming from a history background, this was my first engagement in the field of Anthropology, and I must add, prior to this, like many people, I related to the discipline as a field of "culture and ritual". I was fascinated by the programme's critics to the contemporary global society, which is dominated by neoliberal ethos. We kick started the programme with a course on Social Theory and the Human Economy. The course has been a revelation for me in many ways. We have been dealing with great scholars like Polanyi, Mauss, Marx, Weber and others.

Justifiably, thus far, the approach in the course has been 'macro'. So, as I started to understand and appreciate more the magnitude of our mission in striving for a more humane economy, I started to have more 'micro' concerns, and started looking for 'evidence' of the human economy in the contemporary world - which was, for me, paradoxical in a way because my initial view was that it was difficult to do so because the world we live in is so dominated by neoliberal thinking and practice that many people almost follow it reflexly.

I am narrating this story to make a point that I enjoyed reading Prof Fischer's work a lot, because, for me, it pointed to the 'evidence' of the existence of 'the human economy' in places (and people) I was beginning to somehow reject as hubs and prophets of capitalism, or neoliberalism - the business and the middle classes, respectively. But, Prof Fischer's paper is a demonstration of the 'small' things that we take for granted in our daily lives, but which matter the most, and it shows that economic decisions by individuals are embedded in complex relations, values, considerations and so on - the human economy exist everywhere!

In essence, the paper ironed out certain complex links i was failing to make in moving in between the 'general' and the 'specific' without contradicting myself as a young and aspiring scholar. Thank you very much for this brilliant and inspiring work.



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