After being scolded by the baristas for doing a crappy job, the Manager dug up her emails to recover the yet-to-be-posted article submitted by one of our favorite guest hosts, Roby. You see, Roby complained that his submission about “toilets and culture” was never posted here on the Café with nary an acknowledgment from the management, which shows just constipated (sorry, can’t help it) our “review” process is (hint: it involves email forwarding and little else).Why Culture Matters
The Manager finally found the said submission, originally received by the Café in December 2007. The only problem is, instead of “toilets and culture” the post was more about “table manners and culture”. There may be confusion between things that are going in one end and going out the other end, that’s understandable (happens to the Manager all the time). In any case, the post is indeed very relevant to A.P.’s toilet contribution. So here it is, without further ado, an excellent rejoinder.
- Kate, the remorseful Manager
It is common to put culture and the concept of economic man in a diametrical term. Taking the risk of oversimplification, the debate can be summarized as follow. The cultural argument argues that people behaviors are largely determined by cultural scripts, not by rational cost-benefit calculations. On the other hand, economic argument insists that individual decisions are independent of cultural factors.
Here I would like to argue that the picture of economic men is still plausible in cultural analysis and culture is a necessary prerequisite for rational calculations.
The key here is to see culture as a toolbox. That is as a set of tools that are accessible for solving problems. People face problems in their daily lives and use whatever they have in their toolboxes to solve the problems. Once they have picked a tool, they can use it in a highly rational way. This rational calculation, however, is only possible when a person has chosen a tool.
For example, imagine a group of people who use their hands when they are eating and another group who use utensils. Now because of health concern, we want to make those who use their hands to switch to use spoons and forks. Economists tend to jump to the conclusion that the whole problem can be solved by finding the right incentive. As they soon found out, however, the former group did not switch even though they completely understood the health benefit of using spoons and forks.
The problem here is that the first group does not consider spoons and forks as eating tools. For them, eating using spoons and forks is as absurd as, say, eating bugs. They just don't do that - despite the fact that bugs have nutritional values. Therefore, persuasion, bargaining, socialization and inspiration can be as much useful as incentive.
If we see culture as tools, then the rational calculation only applicable to available tools. We cannot perform cost-benefit analysis on the tools that are not part of ones' toolbox. Therefore rationality is local instead of global. It is in this sense culture matters for economic analysis. On the other hand, cultural analysis would benefit by applying rational choice to understand behavior in a given context.