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.

Science as Religion, Wishful Thinking?

My friend relayed some comedian’s joke to me about how a man meets his wife. The joke was, “I went to a dating site, put in ‘Jewish’ and my zip code.” So much for the mystery of romance! But it got me thinking about how complicated society has become, and whether or not love is so transparent. Durkheim, being concerned with religion’s roots in society, would probably think this to be a novel way for people to connect. After all, religion is the means by which people interpret what is sacred and profane. What else could you ask for in a partner but to have similar feelings about the world around us? http://www.sawyouatsinai.com/jewish-dating-articles-7.htm This unscientific yet thought-provoking article reinforces this point.

Perhaps if you are not religious, you believe that love is not so simple. But if you’re not religious, then aren’t you probably going to look for an atheist or agnostic partner? If you think that society doesn’t need religion, or at least, that YOU don’t need religion, I would think it’d make it hard to stay with somebody who believes that heaven and hell are real and that Jesus is the only path to Truth. When you think about personality traits and preferences, it’s hard to think of a feature more fundamental to the health of a relationship than faith.

As society advances, I believe that religion’s function of condoning or prohibiting certain behaviors will only become more influential. The most educated among us will tap into all the newest knowledge and technology that the 21st century has to offer, while the least educated will be less altered by the wonders of the modern day. Religion will likely continue to exist to help people decide how they should feel about a changing world that they don’t fully understand. I don’t think science will ever replace religion as long as society is growing in complexity.


Dr. Nigel Barber challenges this point by explaining how, historically, religion helped us cope with problems of scarcity and preventable disease. He believes that these sources of anxiety that used to drive humans to look for God are less present now, making religion’s recent decline in popularity a sign of its inevitable demise. But new problems will always be presenting themselves, and I doubt humanity will ever believe itself capable of handling these problems on its own. If a high standard of living eliminates a need for religion, as Nigel Barber claims, why are wealthy and famous still plagued with emotional problems that lead them to cults like Scientology? Even though the scientific data on improving one’s mental health EXISTS, the ability to understand and apply it may not rest in the minds of chronically unhappy people.

Those with religious convictions are sometimes viewed as naive. However, if two people can share faith, they may have an easier time sharing their lives together. The unanswerable questions that religion wrestles with cannot be fully understood by anyone, so to claim superiority over those with faith is much more naïve than having it. As we now understand in this class, even scientific inquiry requires one to make assumptions that we cannot be sure of. To wrap our heads around mysteries like love, death, or human purpose, our mind must abbreviate facts by forming assumptions until those assumptions are proven to be untrue or unhelpful. So, while Durkheim believed that science would one day replace religion, I do not. People don’t even trust themselves to locate a suitable mate on their own without the assistance of a supernatural power, and that is precisely what nature has equipped them to do! I think that is the point of this post: Our minds are not naturally wired to be 100% scientific. To perpetually juggle all the facts of life within the framework of scientific inquiry..perhaps certain minds can achieve this, but I do not believe society ever will.

El Chapo: A Social Order of His Own

In the last week of February, Mexican marines captured Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, international drug lord and, apparently, a local hero. Over 1000 people have protested his imprisonment with signs that read ‘We love Chapo’, ‘We want Chapo free’, and other such slogans. Investigators have deduced, from the testimony of many protesters, that Guzman’s friends and family are almost certainly paying people to take part in this uproar. However, I think it is worth pending your belief of that fact, as it would be in the best interest of these investigators to downplay any actual sympathy for Guzman that exists in the community. They’ve claimed that sums of 700 pesos are being offered to potential protesters, amounting to approximately 50-55 U.S. Dollars. Over 200 of these ‘activists’ have been detained, so it is not a bounty that comes without considerable risk. Perhaps Marx would look directly at poverty and desperation in the community as an explanation for why people were willing to accept these risks, but I feel like Durkheim might have looked less at the reward and more at the social function of the movement, the feeling that people are getting by participating in this event that flies in the face of the Mexican government. Why might people feel a compulsion to support Guzman, beyond the guarantee of cash?

El Chapo grew up poor in a rural community in La Tuna, Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico. He reportedly dropped out of school in 3rd grade to work with his father and was known to be abused at home. As he got older, he was an accessory to his father’s petty crimes and watched him spend most of their earnings on liquor and women. At age 15, he cultivated his own marijuana plants with his distant cousins and at 20, he left his home town and aligned with organized criminals through his uncle’s connections. After unprecedented acceleration in his drug dealing syndicate, he was imprisoned in 1993, to escape in 2001 with the aid of prison guards he had paid off. His ability to rise above the law on countless others occasions has been credited to bribery aimed at government officials in Mexico. 69% of Mexicans believe this billionaire has been propped up by corrupt members of the Mexican government.

A Boston-based company called Jana conducted a survey that said that 44% of Mexicans believe El Chapo should be extradited to America for trial, as he would face drug trafficking charges that would almost certainly stick. So, it can be said that many people in Mexico are fully aware of the fact that a man who is responsible for countless drug-related murders needs to face justice. But there is still an enormous mistrust of the government among the Mexican people because of the effectiveness of Guzman’s bribery. For people to have enough faith in the social order to support the prosecution of criminals, they need to believe that the government is not itself guilty of failing to apprehend individuals simply because they are wealthy and powerful. I think we can agree, too, that this is not only an issue in Mexico.

In this country, many subcultures exist in defiance of the law. This is not simply because of disagreement with the laws that are put forward by the government, but it is often a recognition of the contradictions that exist between the rules that the common rabble are forced to follow and the rules that the ruling class follow, which seem to constantly shift to support their whims. I believe these protests to release El Chaps are as much motivated by money as they are by a dissatisfaction with the current administration.