▸ anthropology

Read: Sweetness and Power

I do not remember why or how I ended up on https://cs.brown.edu/~sk/Personal/Books/Mintz-Sweetness-Power/ where I read this:

Read this book. The next time you visit a cafe and confront a choice between white sugar (packed, perhaps, at the aptly-named Imperial Sugar Company) and the brown crystals of Sugar-in-the-Raw, the decision will suddenly seem so much more than one of mere taste or calories or purity. A hefty chunk of history, economics and anthropology will bear down upon you. Choose wisely.

I now have read the book. And I can co-sign this recommendation.

Sweetness and Power is an anthropological study of sugar. Or rather, it is a study in economic history that uses sugar, its production, use, and change of production and use to depict changes in (British) society and its economy. It is fascinating how much insight can be linked to just one commodity. It is fascinating seeing how essential it is to consider class – and not just the individual – in economic analysis of the past and therefore the present. Context matters.

Sweetness and Power was not just fun to read and instructive, it served also a very practical purpose because I accidentally could use it, its content, as illustrations in my International Trade course when discussing the issues related to colonization and mercantilism.

The text is sometimes a bit repetitive. On the other hand, this implies the evidence provided is not just anecdotal. There is plenty of support for Mintz' points.

Mintz concludes in the last chapter “Eating and being” with a critique of modern society. The changing role of eating is just a symptom of the changing use of time. A thesis that may be central to the book as the use of (scarce) time may reflect the existence of individual power and freedom, and their absence.

As a result of scarce time, eating has become more individualized, noninteractive, and thus less social. Eating has been deprived of its hedonistic and social quality – just thing about “convenience” food. To make up for this loss, things need to be done simultaneously. Even the things that are supposed to generate pleasure. There is not enough time for consumption. A paradox, as increasing productivity should result in more free time, not less. I wonder whether this is about to change, given the imminent rise of the second machine age, the singularity.

Read: The Selfish Gene

Finally I took the time to read another of the classics, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, on my to-read-bookshelf that waited there already for quite some time. Not being a biologist and having been trained in Game Theory I have to admit, I do not see the controversy this book had caused. Even when he starts to discuss implications for human society and culture, the evolution of ideas and, yes, social norms I do not feel the urge to object. But, it is the 30th anniversary edition. Things were different back in the seventies.

I was a bit surprised, though, to find extensive references – basically a renarration – to Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation in one of the two chapters that were added later to this book. It is certainly instructive and somehow fits the general theme. Yet, this chapter has a different “feel”.

Not surprising was, however, that you cannot fail to notice that Dawkins certainly is not a devout catholic. Other works of his make this more explicit. Yet, the Selfish Gene is already a good indication of his conviction about religion.

My conclusion: The Selfish Gene is still an interesting and instructive text that should (also) be read by social scientist – right before or when they start to learn some Game Theory.

Read: Sway - The irresistible pull of irrational behavior

Recent years have seen a massive surge in popular economics books for the uninitiated masses. The list ranges from books advocating standard economics and its applications to everyday phenomena – like Landsburg‘s The Armchair Economist, Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, and Harford’s The Undercover Economist – to books that tell of unexpected links of standard economics and real world behavior, e.g. Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics, to books that present a blend of economics and psychology, questioning the standard economics’ focus on flawed assumptions on human behavior, stressing the schism between neo-classical normative (standard) economics and positive (behavioral) economics – like Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Thaler & Sunsteins’s Nudge.

The Brafman brother’s Sway belongs to the last category. In contrast to Ariely et al. they do not present there own original research as they are not active researchers in the field of behavioral economics. Thus they follow the current standard recipe of success of other popular economics books authors, they tell a lot of more or less connected anecdotes illustrating behavior that is not conforming to standard economic theory or an intuitive definition of rational behavior.

Sway has two main topics. About two third of the book is dedicated to the sunk cost fallacy, even if the Brafmans use different labels, most notably commitment (to a lost cause). In brief, due to being loss averse people tend to commit to behavior and opinions that are not in their best interest or rational since they already invested some resources and do not want to loose their initial investment. The remaining third is then about the interdependency of social norms and preferences and explicit incentives, the crowding out of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic incentives.

All in all, Sway is rather well written, entertaining and instructive. Indeed, once you start reading you will want to go on. Given the that Sway is just under 200 pages it may well serve as a nice teaser to the field of behavioral economics and other books and maybe academic programs that can provide more depth.

Read: Why We Cooperate

While Michael Tomasello cannot give an ultimate answer to the question on why we cooperate his book is an interesting contribution to the ongoing discussion. And thus his book’s form is also more styled as an discussion. In the first part he presents his own research on primates and young human children and his own conclusions. In the second part some additional prominent scientists from the fields of developmental psychology,
anthropology, and philosophy are allowed to respond with their opposing views on his interpretations based on their own research.

It is clear that the different authors do not agree on the details but there seems to be some overlap. All in all it is a nice cooperative effort. By allowing opposing views to be voiced the whole endeavor becomes more balanced and the reader gains a more comprehensive picture of the research on human cooperative behavior.

Though I was already more or less aware of the various approaches there was something I did not consciously know so far. Tomasello distinguishes three domains of altruism: goods, services, and information that translate to the actions sharing, helping, and informing. As Tomasello points out, these domains entail different costs and benefits. Therefore I am inclined to adopt this categorization for my own research.