An ethnography of economics

Sorting through the articles I’m reading for my comparative politics exam, I rediscovered an old favorite – Mike McGovern’s 2011 review of Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and War, Guns and Votes. It’s a wide-ranging critique of quantitative studies of civil war which is quite broadly applicable beyond these two books.  I agree with a number of his points, but wanted to highlight here one that’s not made often enough: that the sharply drawn divide between quantitative and qualitative methods collapses when looked at more closely.

As McGovern puts it,

What is striking to me as an anthropologist, however, is that much of the fundamental intellectual work in Collier’s analyses is, in fact, ethnographic. Because it is not done very self-consciously and takes place within a larger econometric rhetoric in which such forms of knowledge are dismissed as ‘subjective’ …  it is often ethnography of a low quality. (p. 346)

He goes on to read both books in this light, looking for the places where Collier imputes his respondents’ motivations or understandings of the world in order to interpret his quantitative results.

At one point, while summarizing Jeremy Weinstein’s work on rebel group recruitment in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, he lapses into an imaginary account of would-be rebels’ states of mind:

‘Others will be attracted by the prospects of power and riches, however unlikely; if the reality of daily existence is otherwise awful, the chances of success do not have to be very high to be alluring. Even a small chance of the good life as a successful rebel becomes worth taking, despite the high risk of death, because the prospect of death is not so much worse than the prospect of life in poverty.’ (BB: 29)

How do we know these things to be true? They must either come from conversations with the fighters themselves, a type of source that is usually excluded from Collier’s account … or from the author’s own imagination. There are many aspects left unexplored, and no justification given for privileging one explanation over another. [Based on McGovern’s own work, he knows that in] Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire, some young men joined ‘prophylactically,’ trying to protect their home communities from attack. Others joined one militia group to avenge the deaths of loved ones at the hands of that group’s enemies. Others, including some women, joined by their own accounts partly for the fun and adventure of being fighters. (p. 349)

After the de rigeur swipe at taxi cab anthropology, he concludes with a very strong call to restore the role of ethnography in policy-making:

Ethnographic nuance is neither a luxury nor the result of a kind of methodological altruism to be extended by the soft-hearted. It is, in purely positivist terms, the epistemological due diligence work required before one can talk meaningfully about other people’s intentions, motivations, or desires. The risk in foregoing it is not simply that one might miss some of the local color of individual ‘cases.’ It is one of misrecognition. Analysis based on such misrecognition may mistake symptoms for causes, or two formally similar situations as being comparable despite their different etiologies. To extend the medical metaphor one step further, misdiagnosis is unfortunate, but a flawed prescription based on such a misrecognition can be deadly. Policy interventions are already risky in the best circumstances. (p. 353)

If you need me I’ll be memorizing this quote in its entirety for the obligatory large-N vs small-N question on my upcoming exam.

(Update: Ed Carr also makes a good point about how establishing causality is not the same thing as understanding causal mechanisms.  Qualitative research is well-suited to the latter task.)