BY KEIR MARTIN
“IF THEY SEE ME planting too much cocoa, they’ll do things to my land and my family, and they won’t bear fruit; really bad things; puripuri and other witchcraft.”
This was how Peter explained to me why he had only cultivated half of the three-hectare block the PNG government had given him after he was evacuated from his home during a volcanic eruption eight years earlier.
He was also providing a response to an accusation I had often heard levelled at his fellow villagers by government officials and development workers in the course of my anthropological field research: that the people were lazy or stupid because, like Peter, none had planted the whole of their blocks of land.
Such an avoidance of profit maximisation might have appeared economically irrational. But from the perspective of those villagers, putting in extra work just to make oneself a target for the jealousy of one’s neighbours would be highly irrational behaviour.
Critics of untrammelled free markets have long attacked the assumption that markets are rational, driven by rational self-interested economic actors. Yet, field research clearly shows that the actions of individuals vary massively depending on social context.
Living in PNG, one is struck by the resources expended on gigantic ceremonial gift exchanges. The “big men” running such systems did not call in debts to maximise the number of pigs or modern wealth items such as money or trucks in their possession. But academics continued to assume that the aim was to profit over the long term, with the discrepancy between this assumption and the big men’s actual activities being explained as the result of “selective amnesia”.
It was only when the assumption of economic rationality was dropped that it was possible to understand the big men in their own terms. Their aim was to increase the number of those dependent upon them, and so, like a Mafia godfather, their aim was to create debts that would never be repaid.
Like Mafiosi, their actions were neither the result of what one economist described as “an inferior mentality”, or a lack of rationality. They were entirely rational within a context in which building up an army of followers was at times a more pressing demand than stockpiling wealth objects.
Source: Extract from ‘Magic and the myth of the rational market’, Financial Times, UK (registration required for access). Keir Martin is a lecturer in social anthropology at Manchester University