Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Culture Matters

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).

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

Why Culture Matters

by Roby

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.


  1. this toolbox problem is often exacerbated by local belief systems.

    i remember reading that many little kids in ghana catch dysentery because they drink dirty water. simply telling their moms to clean the water by boiling it is useless because ghanaian moms happen to believe that the cause of dysentery is not unseen bacteria, but evil spirits.

    apparently the solution is to say that boiling water send evil spirits away, as evidenced by the steam. and so it works.

  2. oops sorry. it's not about toilets.

    now i remember that this post was inspired by a discussion with arya about the toilet problem where he was still in the world bank. and since i didn't know much about the toilet problem so i used table mannerism as an illustration.

    and to manager, thanks for posting this up, eventually.

  3. i laughed out loud on the prologue and failed to finish the whole piece. will be back later to read in full.