Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trusting and Bargaining in Africa

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | Category: , , , | Are we Africans different to the rest of the world in our giving, punishing and trusting behaviour? Three remarkable economic anthropology studies try to examine this kind of question with several ethnic groups in four countries: the Pimbwe, Sukuma and Kahama in Tanzania, the Maasai of Kenya and the Ju/'hoan Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. I can't to do any of the papers justice with my short comments, but I thought you might find them interesting nevertheless.

The three papers take quite different approaches in their use of economic experiments. Paciotti and Hadley's paper with the Pimbwe and Sukuma looks at the institutional scope of interactions, that is the extent to which cultural practices and norms may imply differences in the ways people play. They show that the two ethnic groups live differently and respond dramatically differently in the experiments. The Sukuma are agro-pastoralists with pre-existing norms of within and between village cooperation, and justice institutions (sungusungu) that punish individuals for norm infringement. Their play in the ultimatum game was more generous than the Pimbwe, with very few rejections (most likely because the offers were fair or hyper-fair). Contrastingly, the Pimbwe do not have many institutions for between village cooperation, or any third party justice institutions and their grievances are often settled with personal violence. Their results are consequently unsurprising - much lower offers on average, with substantially lower offers to those of another village. The remarkable thing here is that even the Sukuma's offers to residents of another village were higher than the Pimbwe's offers to residents in their own village. Also, the Pimbwe rejected offers (which some call punishment) substantially more than the Sukuma. The authors therefore show that even within small geographical distances, differences in institutional backgrounds alter how people behave.

Lee Cronk's study of the Maasai cultural norm of osotua fascinated me even more. Osotua is an often reciprocal relationship between male Maasai who call each other isotuatin. Osotua bonds isotuatin to each other so that they should provide for each other in times of great need, normally requiring assistance with food or gifts of livestock, or even revenge killing. So Cronk decided to see how Maasai subjects played the trust game in two settings: the first without any cultural frame, and the second where it was framed as 'an osotua game'. As you'd expect they played the game quite differently given the frame. In the control (no frame) and considering all transfers the subjects gave 35.3% vs. 28.2% in the framed condition. Considering player 1 (the 'trustor'), the transfers differ 38% (unframed) and 30.8% (unframed), though not statistically significantly so, and transfers by player 2 (the 'trustee') back to player 1 also differ: 32.5% (unframed) vs 25.5% (framed). But only in the framed condition did a strong correlation existed between the amounts given and the amounts returned show through, indicating the reciprocal nature of the osotua. Also, Cronk proposes, the lower amounts given in the osotua frame probably reflect the sense that osotua gifts are only given to assuage great need, and normally are not great amounts. Cronk argues forcibly that anthropologists and economists need to act carefully when they construct games within specific tribal and ethnographic contexts, investigating the norms that exist within a specific context, and ensuring that they tailor their studies accordingly, being careful of when they encounter norms that may alter the data that they find.

Finally, Polly Wiessner's research into the Ju/'hoan bushmen looked at their behavior in the dictator game and the ultimatum game, after which Wiessner examined their behavior in everyday life to see whether experimental behavior and behavior outside the experiment were consistent. In the dictator game, the average offer was 20%, and in the ultimatum game the average offer was 16% with 4% refusals. These averages are the some of the lowest in the world (see Henrich et al, 2006, Barr et al 2009). Notwithstanding these low within game offers, outside the game the Ju/'hoansi share tobacco, pool food resources, ostracize those who had infringed social norms (those they ostracized possibly stole a goat) and act compassionately towards those who behaved unwisely with the money from the experiments (some went to the town, got drunk the so-called "fault of the beer"). As per experimental protocols, the subjects behavior was anonymous. Wiessner was asked repeatedly during the experiments if she was lying about this because the concept seemed quite foreign to the subjects whose behavior is normally socially embedded. Wiessner's work reinforces how researchers need to align laboratory and experimental protocols with the everyday lives of the people involved; though many of us are involved in anonymous market economies the distances that separate us from those who produce the goods we produce are immense, this is not always the case. Moreover, being able to understand the spillovers of anonymous behavior to social embedded behavior and the converse can enlighten the use of experiments in urban and rural, market-integrated and non-market-integrated societies.

The papers serve as a reminder to economists (though how many economists read anthropology journals I do not know) that their work must take cognisance of cultural and institutional structures, of the frames that they introduce with experiments (think of harambee with Jean Ensminger's work), and of the parallelism between experimental behavior and behavior in parallel situations outside of the experiment. In this way, pairing laboratory experiments with field experiments and good ethnography could provide a better way to do things in future. Or so I hope.

Cronk, Lee. 2007. "The Influence of Cultural Framing on play in the trust game: a Maasai example." Evolution and Human Behavior 28(5):352-358.
Paciotti, Brian & Craig Hadley. 2003. "The Ultimatum Game in Southwestern Tanzania: Ethnic Variation and Institutional Scope." Current Anthropology 44(3):427-432.
Wiessner, P. (2009). Experimental Games and Games of Life among the Ju/’hoan Bushmen Current Anthropology, 50 (1), 133-138 DOI: 10.1086/595622

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