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“Everyone is fundamentally alike”

Alex Tabarrok links to this interview with Emily Oster, an economist who is studying ways of mitigating Aids in Africa. This is an area I know nothing about, but the following paragraphs caught my eye:

anthropologists, sociologists, and public-health officials . . . believe that cultural differences—differences in how entire groups of people think and act—account for broader social and regional trends. AIDS became a disaster in Africa, the thinking goes, because Africans didn’t know how to deal with it.

Economists like me [Oster] don’t trust that argument. We assume everyone is fundamentally alike; we believe circumstances, not culture, drive people’s decisions, including decisions about sex and disease.

My quick comment on this is that everyone may be fundamentally alike, but apparently the culture of anthropology, etc., is associated with different attitudes than the culture of economics. (One could make a selection argument, of course, that people with attitudes like Oster’s drift toward economics, and that people with the other attitudes drift toward anthropology, etc.–but that wouldn’t fit with the assumption that “everyone is fundamentally alike.” And I think it would be extreme and implausible cynicism to think that anthropoligists etc. and economists have different attitudes simply because of different incentive structures in their fields.)

A more measured response might be to say that political scientists accept that people sometimes have fundamentally different attitudes and interests (i.e., are not “fundamentally alike” in many social settings) and that social and political institutions can affect how they interact.

Circumstances and culture: are they like weather and climate?

This is not to say that I disagree with Oster on the substance of her argument. The key distinction, using her terminology, seems to be “circumstances” vs. “culture”–and at some level, “culture” is just a series of circumstances (or, conversely, the “circumstances” you see are affected by your culture). Political scientists would throw in the word “institutions” in here somewhere too, but it’s the same general point.

Just to be clear: I’m not trying to be critical of Oster here–what I’m trying to do is understand the different attitudes in different social sciences, and the effects these have on research claims. In economics, as in many fields, I think that having a strong methodological preference can be helpful in focusing one’s research. (That’s the attitude I’ve always taken about Bayesian methods: if you work hard at constructing a good model, and you check it against data, you can learn a lot. But it helps to have that commitment to pushing the Bayesian approach hard and being willing to work with it.) Similarly, I expect that Oster’s strong assumptions about individual behavior and strong affiliation with “economism” (an analogy to “Bayeisanism”?) can help her make progress by clarifying her thinking and giving her the fortitude to work out the full implications of her ideas.

How does this play out in practice? You can take a look at the following two articles:

On Explaining Asia’s “Missing Women”: Comment on Das Gupta by Emily Oster. Paper here.

Cultural versus Biological Factors in Explaining Asia’s “Missing Women” by Monica Das Gupta. Paper here.

I have not tried to evaluate the competing arguments (hey, I’m busy too!), just to give these as a possible example of different approaches taken by economists and public-health researchers. I think the quote about people being fundamentally alike doesn’t really come into play here, but perhaps these papers do illustrate different ways of studying a social phenomenon.