We’re Not Ants..Are We?

As a student of Economics, I am eating up the Barth/Bourdieu discussion about agents basing their actions on rational economic calculation. When discussing culture, one should generally avoids reducing every social interaction as an exchange of some sort. It makes humans appear base, and what’s more, I imagine some would argue that society is not as simple as that. But Economics has a concept of utility to the individual, (which it will usually try to value in dollars using statistics or an analogy) and however imprecise the numbers may be, the economic theories will explain people’s reasons for sacrificing their precious resources, including time. To Bourdieu, who likens social interaction to a game rather than a market, I would ask, “What is a market, but a game?” The difference in belief lies in the particular definitions of words. Is a friend a commodity? Well, while you can’t offer your friend up to a market for cash, you can introduce him/her to other people you deem worthy. You can reward your other friends with this person’s presence. You can invest more time in the friendship, and because of unspoken societal rules, you can expect a return on that investment (with some risk involved). What I’m saying is that, if you can ignore the bad taste in your mouth, you can call a friend a commodity because friendship has a price tag and it grants benefits. They just tend not to be monetary.

Here’s where I think that my vantage point is better than Barth’s: He overstates the market’s ability to resolve inequalities through politics. His theory of transactionalism does not merely reduce societal behavior to transactions, it basically encourages people to ignore inequalities because the theory assumes that the shape of society was chosen based on innumerable fair exchanges of political allegiance and political freedoms. I think his theory is better left for conceptualizing people’s every decision, not for justifying the shape of politics. I think it is useful for attempting to put relative values on things like feeling safe, being well-liked by your peers, or perhaps escaping criticism, because it leads you to see why people make the sacrifices that they do.

Perhaps some people would say that altruism affords the altruist no utility, derailing transactionalist theory. But doesn’t a ‘thankless task’ in the name of someone else’s wellbeing afford us a feeling of joy? Is nature chemically rewarding our brain for following one of our “prime directives”? Is an effort and a feeling NOT an exchange?

We marvel at nature’s strength and beauty. We wonder how the spider knows to make its web. People’s differences in opinion boil down to the definition of instinct. Saying that it is instinct explains nothing, so we keep thinking. Does it know it eats bugs before it ever sees one? It is physically equipped for the task of web-making by virtue of having hatched. Survival consists of impulses experienced by the spider’s senses, expressed with its body. Our senses and faculties, despite their unfathomable depth, are expressions of survivalist impulses. This world was not made for us alone to thrive in. I mean to say that, if you are insulted by the reduction of human culture to transactions, compare yourself to the other animals in the kingdom. Animals do incredible things in the name of survival, sometimes through symbiosis and sometimes by fighting for supremacy. To take our impulse for symbiosis and believe that it is divine simply because of how it feels, or to say that social interaction is more than an exchange for something that furthers our survival, is an arrogant notion that drives a wedge between us and the system of life that we live in. It may not be flattering, but it is the nature of our experience.

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