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Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp.


The Price of Beans:

Teaching the Cultural Context of "Rational" Economic Decisions in
Introductory Anthropology
Matthew D. Whittle
Department of Anthropology, University of California Santa Barbara

A key learning outcome of introductory cultural anthropology classes is for students to develop an understanding
that the world we live in, the way we interpret it, and the decisions we make are culturally constructed. I discuss
the difficulties of achieving this learning outcome when teaching economic anthropology, I review how
introductory anthropology textbooks handle the topic, and I share an ethnographic example that has been very
useful to demonstrate to students that economic motives and rationalities are culturally constructed.

I teach a large introductory cultural anthropology class to undergraduate students, primarily freshman. There are
many lessons that I hope to teach my students through the class, but certainly the main thing I hope they come
out of the class with is a new perspective on the power and diversity of culture. The key learning outcome that I
have defined as my goal for the class is that students come to realize that the world we live in, the way we
interpret it, and the decisions that we make are culturally constructed.
Many cultural anthropology classes and textbooks are geared towards achieving this learning outcome. In the
beginning of his textbook, "Mirror for Humanity," for example, Conrad Kottak (2010:vi) provides the following
quote from Clyde Kluckhohn:
Ordinarily we are unaware of the special lens through which we look at life. It would hardly be fish who discovered
the existence of water. Students who had not yet gone beyond the horizon of their own society could not be
expected to perceive custom which was the stuff of their own thinking. (Kluckhohn 1944:16)

In introductory classes we strive to make students aware of that "special lens." The lens is the cultural structure,
the systems of meanings and relationships, through which agents interpret the world. To make students aware of
the power of cultural lenses, it is critical that we show different cultural structures as well as the ways that
individual agents interpret the world through those structures and make decisions.
When we tell our students that we see the world through the lens of culture, we can be sure that many will
dutifully write it down and be prepared to recite it on an exam. However, simple regurgitation of theory is not
the learning outcome we strive to achieve. We want students to understand, not just to memorize. To
accomplish this pedagogical goal in cultural anthropology classes we rely on ethnographic examples. We explain
the theory of culture, but to contextualize the theoretical points it is important to take students "beyond the
horizon of their own society" through ethnographic examples. Rather than just telling students the theoretical
points we try to teach, we use ethnographic examples to show them. Good ethnographic examples do more than
just illustrate the theoretical points, they provide an opportunity for students to apply the theory. They may
provide students with a different perspective on themselves or allow students to see, however blurrily, through
the lenses of others. Students recognize their own cultural conditioning by seeing others who are conditioned

Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp. 17-31

differently. Students come to recognize the structure of culture as well as the logic of individual agents who
interpret their worlds through that structure.
There are many ways that ethnographic examples can be successfully and unsuccessfully used as pedagogical
tools. I argue ethnographic examples accomplish the most when the students can relate to them by either
comparing or contrasting the example to their own experience. Examples that compare and those that contrast
are distinct types, each with its own pedagogical uses and value. I call the two types compare examples and
contrast examples.
Compare examples take a concept or an aspect of culture that seems foreign to students and compare it to an
aspect of their own culture. We use compare examples to help students relate to and understand many different
aspects of culture. For example, in my class I assign George Gmelch's article "Baseball Magic" (2003 [1978])
which is full of ethnographic examples that compare Trobriand Islanders' magic to the rituals, fetishes, and
taboos of American baseball players. Gmelch argues that in both cases people use magic when important
outcomes are not entirely under their control. Compare examples like Gmelch's provide an opportunity to apply
a theory about culture and allow students to relate to cultural beliefs and practices they would otherwise consider
foreign, exotic, or even primitive. Compare examples are very effective for teaching theoretical points and for
demystifying the "exotic" because they provide an opportunity for students to see their own behavior from an
etic perspective.
Contrast examples function in the opposite way, they provide an opportunity for students to see the behavior of
others from an emic perspective. Contrast examples take a situation that students can understand and show
people behaving very differently than how the students themselves would behave in that situation. The behavior
of the people in the examples that strikes students as odd, rude, unappealing, or irrational highlights the different
cultural systems and the different ways that people interpret their worlds and make decisions. Contrast examples
at first confound students because the behavior does not make sense to them. As teachers we then help students
approach the situation from a different perspective. To understand the behavior in contrast examples, students
have to learn to see the situation through a different cultural lens. An excellent contrast example, which has
become a staple of many introductory cultural anthropology classes, is Richard Lee's "Eating Christmas in the
Kalahari" (Lee 1969). Lee explains that he bought an ox as a gift for the !Kung people with whom he did
fieldwork. Rather than thanking him for his generosity the people mocked and belittled his ox. This is an
excellent contrast example because students can relate to the situation of receiving a gift, but they would have
behaved differently in that situation. At the time, Lee was discouraged, confused, and hurt by the reaction to his
gift. To understand why the people reacted that way to his gift, Lee had to learn about the social impacts of
giving gifts. An informant explained to him that a successful hunter may come to think of himself as better than
the rest, "so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle" (Lee
1969). Most students, initially interpret the !Kung reaction to Lee's gift as being rude and ungrateful. However,
once they are able to see the situation from a !Kung perspective, they recognize how giving can impact social
relations and the social function of belittling the gift. The pedagogical power of this example comes exactly from
the fact that it conflicts with what students expect and consider natural. The example forces them to recognize
the social impacts of giving gifts and to understand that the way we respond to gifts is culturally constructed.
Contrast examples like Lee's exchange with the !Kung really help students to learn to see the world from a
different perspective and in the process realize that the way they normally perceive the world is culturally
Helping students to understand that the world we live in, the way we interpret it, and the decisions that we make
are culturally constructed, is far easier with some topics than it is with others. In my experience teaching cultural
anthropology, it is easiest to accomplish this learning outcome with topics like kinship, family, marriage, religion,
gender, and race. Some of these topics certainly require sensitivity and may arouse strong feelings and reactions,
but we have many wonderful ethnographic examples in our pedagogical toolkit to illustrate how different
cultures give different meanings to these topics, and how individuals interpret things differently within those

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other cultures. It is harder to achieve the key learning outcome when teaching politics because our examples
often lose sight of the individual and focus solely on structures. The most common strategy to teach politics in
introductory anthropology textbooks is a political typology (band, tribe, chiefdom, state) that has little potential
to achieve the learning outcome and may even send students the wrong (unilinear evolution) message. The
examples of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states are idealized prototypes. These examples do not show structure
and agency and as a result it is hard to achieve the learning outcome. While it is tough to achieve the learning
outcome when teaching politics, it is even harder when teaching economics.
There are several reasons why it is difficult to teach that the economic world we live in, the way we interpret it,
and the economic decisions that we make are culturally constructed. As with most topics, the learning outcome
depends on students realizing that what they thought was common sense is actually culturally constructed. In
economics as in other aspects of culture, the rational decision depends on the cultural context. However, with
many other topics we teach, students come into the class passively accepting their cultural norms. With
economics, they have been actively trained to think that there are rational and irrational choices. In fact, many
economists would contend that the learning outcome we strive for in anthropology is not valid when it comes to
understanding economic choices. They would argue that cultural context is irrelevant, interpretations and
decisions are either rational or irrational. Economists are able to judge the rationality of a decision because they
make a huge assumption, that all people are (or should be) motivated to maximize their profits. To most
economists, and to many students, maximizing profits is the only "rational" decision.
To Max Weber, the drive to maximize profit or income was a key element of the "the spirit of capitalism." He
provided evidence and examples showing that it was far from universal. Weber explains that "A man does not
'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as
much as is necessary for that purpose"(Weber 1930). Weber provides the example of wage incentives where
"raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time,
because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of work" (Weber
1930). Weber argues that treating the accumulation of money as an end in itself is a peculiarity of modern
capitalism. He argues that, "such an attitude is by no means a product of natureit can only be the product of a
long and arduous process of education" (Weber 1930). While conventional economic theory assumes that
maximizing profit is the only rational decision, Weber explains that the spirit of capitalism is actually irrational
from the view-point of personal happiness because in it, "man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the
reverse" (Weber 1930).
Economists' claims that the profit motive is universal and that pursuing profit is the only rational economic
strategy are obviously ethnocentric and as anthropologists we are right to object to them. Anthropologists know
that there are other rational pursuits and that the profit motive is not universal. As Weber argued, it is a peculiar
ethic that must be learned. However, the vast majority of our students have learned it and internalized it to the
point of accepting it as common sense. They see it throughout their experience. For many students making as
much money as possible is an organizing principle of their lives. For us to teach students that the economic
world we live in, the way we interpret it, and the economic decisions that we make are culturally constructed
requires that we unseat this deeply held belief.
The cultural construction of economic rationality is a hugely important topic and anthropology can make a
significant contribution. The misunderstanding of economic rationality, and the assumption of a universal profit
motive have perpetuated huge problems with economic policies and development programs. This is an
important area to which anthropological knowledge can be applied. The economy is a huge part of every culture,
but rather than tackling the topic many anthropologists have cultivated a bias against economics, and prefer to
avoid or ignore it.
Some anthropologists may be hesitant to approach the topic for fear of rekindling the formalist-substantivist
debate that fizzled out decades ago. However, that debate was not primarily about the universality of the profit

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motive. Rather, it hinged on whether formal economic theory was universally applicable. The debate had no
winners because the two sides were talking past each other. Nearly all economic anthropologists would now
agree with parts of each side. People make rational economic decisions based on costs, benefits, and risks, but
how people interpret and define costs and benefits and what risks they are willing to take is cultural and personal.
To the extent that formal economic theory assumes a profit motive and depends on quantifiable costs and
benefits, it is not universally applicable. However, to the extent that it can accommodate different goals and
definitions of qualitative and quantitative costs, benefits, and risks, it is.
Our students are enculturated to believe that maximizing profit is the only rational goal, just as they are
enculturated to think that other aspects of their culture are "natural". For example, that the nuclear family is the
natural family organization, or that there are only two natural genders. The learning outcomes for which we aim
are not for students to be able to repeat that anthropologists consider these aspects to be cultural constructions.
Rather, we aim to break them free from their native cultural frameworks so that they can see the lenses that they
normally see through. This can be tough, but an introductory cultural anthropology class is perfectly suited to
achieve this key learning outcome. Combining theory with ethnographic examples that compare and contrast
other cultures to their own we can show students the lenses through which they and others have been taught to
see the world.
My main goals for this paper are to address how we teach economic rationality in introductory cultural
anthropology classes and to share an ethnographic contrast example from my fieldwork which I have used to
show students that pursuing profit is not the only rational economic decision. A secondary goal is to discuss the
use and pedagogical benefits of classroom response systems (clickers) in cultural anthropology classes. I begin
with a review of how some of the most popular introduction to cultural anthropology textbooks teach
economics. I then share my lesson for teaching that economic rationality is culturally constructed.

What Are We Teaching? A Textbook Review

To begin, I want to review how economics is being taught in introductory cultural anthropology classes. Because
a thorough review of different professors' classes is not practical I use an imperfect proxy, introductory cultural
anthropology textbooks. I review eight of the most popular introductory cultural anthropology textbooks. They
present the material on economic exchange very well. They combine theory with clear relatable examples, which
facilitates achieving the learning outcome. However, I argue that the way they present the material on economic
production and how people make decisions about making a living could be improved. In most of the textbooks,
neither the theory nor the examples about production and livelihood are clear or relatable.
I conducted a review of eight of the most popular textbooks: "Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective"
8e (Ferraro and Andreatta 2010); "Culture" (Gezon and Kottak 2012); "Cultural Anthropology: The Human
Challenge" 11e (Haviland, Prins et al. 2005); "Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity" 12e (Kottak
2008); "Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology" 7e (Kottak 2010); "Cultural
Anthropology" 6e (Miller 2011); "Cultural Anthropology" 10e (Nanda and Warms 2011); and "Culture Counts: A
Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology" 2e (Nanda and Warms 2011). These eight textbook have five
distinct sets of authors and approaches and represent three of the largest publishers in the anthropology
textbook market: Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and McGraw Hill. All eight textbooks define an
economy as a system of production, exchange, and consumption, however, only Miller devotes significant
attention to consumption. All the textbooks focus predominantly on production and exchange, which they
approach primarily through the use of typologies.
The typology for exchange is based on the three types of exchange described by Karl Polanyi (1968), market
principle, redistribution, and reciprocity. Following the work of Elman Service (1966) and Marshal Sahlins
(1972), reciprocity is further divided into three types, generalized, balanced, and negative. Ignoring the extremely
inconsistent definitions and examples of negative reciprocity, the textbooks, in general, do a good job of

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explaining the anthropological theories of economic exchange. Furthermore, they all provide ethnographic
examples of individuals engaging in different styles of exchange so that students can see how the theory is
applied and come to truly understand the theory, rather than just memorize it. The textbooks provide
ethnographic examples of actual people making actual exchange decisions in specific cultural systems for
specific, often personal, goals.
Because all of the different styles of exchange have corollaries in American culture the textbooks rely primarily
on compare examples. Internet shopping is used as an example of market exchange (Miller 2011). Taxation is
used as an example of redistribution by all of the authors except Miller. Parents providing for their children is
used as an example of generalized reciprocity (Kottak 2010). And buying a round of drinks is used as an example
of balanced reciprocity (Haviland, Prins et al. 2005; Nanda and Warms 2011). Most of the texts prefer to focus
on examples from other cultures. For example, Kottak (2008) spends four lines on taxation and over two pages
on potlatching as examples of redistribution. However, including the more familiar examples allows students to
better understand the concept and relate to the examples from other cultures.
Although they do well in providing compare examples, the textbooks do not include contrast examples that
demonstrate aspects of economic exchange that are culturally distinct, like the rules for giving and receiving gifts.
Ethnographic contrast examples like Lee provides in "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" (Lee 1969), could be
included to reinforce the point that economic exchanges are culturally conditioned and to give students the
opportunity to see exchanges from a different cultural perspective. Regardless of these shortcomings, the
examples provided by the textbooks regarding economic exchanges are relatable and illustrate the theoretical
Unfortunately, the textbooks do not present economic production the same way. Whereas with the types of
exchange, the textbooks present both the structures and individual agents, with the types of production they
focus almost exclusively on the structure. Seven of the eight books have a chapter titled "Making a living", yet
the question "how do people make decisions about making a living?" receives very little attention. The theory
that is presented on economic rationality is weak and inconsistent, and the ethnographic examples applied to the
theory suffer from numerous problems that limit their pedagogical value.
For economic production, all eight textbooks spend the bulk of their time outlining an idealized economic
typology borrowed from Yehudi Cohen (1968). Students learn about societies based on foraging, horticulture,
agriculture, pastoralism, and industrialism. There is a lot of discussion of systems and structures, but little
discussion of individuals making decisions. To the extent that individuals are included they are presented as
actors rather than as agents. The examples that are given are all at the structure or society level and the individual
people just play their part. For example, to illustrate foraging as an "adaptive" or "subsistence" strategy the
textbooks provide examples of different prototypical foraging groups: the Ju/'hoansi and the Hare Indians of
Northern Canada (Miller 2011), the Basarwa San (Gezon and Kottak 2012), and Native Australians and the Inuit
(Nanda and Warms 2011). Similar group level examples are provided for the other types: horticulture,
agriculture, and pastoralism. Significantly, all the textbooks choose to discuss industrialism separately, in a later
chapter, if at all.
These group level examples that fail to show individual agency combined with separating the industrial system of
production creates the impression that there are two distinct types of economic arrangements: Traditional smallscale societies based on food production where people act within structures, and industrial economies where
individuals exercise agency. The students can recognize that those other systems are different, but they cannot
relate to them as individuals, because they are not presented with many individuals. This is the pitfall of the
typology approach to teach economic production, it essentializes and it deals only with structures. To be fair,
many of the authors seem to recognize that their treatment may lead to a shallow understanding and try to
caution against the essentializing that their method implicitly promotes. For example, Barbara Miller provides
students with the following statement, which calls the whole typology approach into question:

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In a given society, some people will be involved in the prevailing productive activity, and others will not. A
particular individual may be involved in more than one way of making a living. For example, a person could be a
farmer and a herder. Another point to keep in mind is that the five modes of livelihood, in reality, blend with and
overlap each other. Therefore, some cultures do not fit well within any one mode. Real life is always more
complicated than the categories researchers create. (Miller 2011:82)

Somewhat paradoxically, she then proceeds to explore the idealized production typology complete with
prototypical examples of societies that represent each type. What is more disappointing is that she does not
pursue her point about individual strategies within different cultural structures. How do people decide whether
to be involved in one activity or another? What are their goals, their opportunities, their limitations? How do
they weigh the costs and benefits? Since she does not address these questions, I imagine that most students
assume that the people make the decisions the same way they would, based on profit. Miller tells us about
different behaviors, but she misses the opportunity to show us different motives, goals, and meanings.
It is important to understand the predominate subsistence strategy used in a society. However, few
contemporary practicing anthropologists use Cohen's typology to understand a specific society. Categorizing a
society by subsistence strategy does not tell us very much about the specifics of that society's economy or about
the decisions of individuals within it. As Miller's quote attests, anthropology textbook authors recognize this, but
yet they continue using the typology approach. The main benefit of the typology approach is that it allows the
textbook to present a series of examples of very different societies, which highlight the diversity of ways different
cultural groups have adapted to their environment. Showing diversity at the level of society is useful, but as
Miller rightly points out, it is not all that needs to be understood. In fact, treating the subsistence strategies as
"types" rather than as "strategies" may actually detract from students' understanding the economic structures and
individual options in other societies. Economic production chapters are usually titled "Making A Living",
however, they are presented more like a tour of exotic cultures. There needs to be greater attention paid to how
individual agents make decisions about making a living.
Corad Kottak gives the clearest explanation of what economic anthropologists actually do. In the process, he
stresses the importance of both systems and individuals. He explains that economic anthropology is focused on
two main questions:
1. How are production, distribution, and consumption organized in different societies? This question focuses on
systems of human behavior and their organization.
2. What motivates people in different cultures to produce, distribute or exchange, and consume? Here the focus is
not on systems of behavior but on the motives of the individuals who participate in those systems. (Kottak 2008:369
italics in the original)

With regard to production, all of the textbooks address the first point in essentially the same way, the production
typology. However, there is some lingering hesitancy to address the second point. Undoubtedly, this hesitancy
has its roots in the formalist substantivist debate. As Ferraro and Andreatta (2010:178) acknowledge, "the
relationship between the formal science of economics and the subspecialty of economic anthropology has not
always been a harmonious one". This is an important point, because the "formal science of economics" makes an
explicit assumption regarding the answer to Kottak's second question. According to formal economic theory,
rational economic agents are motivated to maximize their profit. However, as Kottak points out,
"anthropologists know that the profit motive is not universal"(2008:370). The fact that people in different
cultural contexts have different economic motivations is one of the key insights of economic anthropology. This
is not to reopen the formalist substantivist debate, and it is certainly not to take the substantivist side in that
debate. Formal economic theory has a contribution to make, however, the assumption of a universal profit
motive does not fit with the ethnographic data. The factors that motivate economic behavior are in some ways
universal, in some ways cultural, and in some ways personal. This is a critical point that must be established in an
introductory anthropology class (or textbook) to achieve the key learning outcome that the world we live in, the
way we interpret it, and the decisions that we make are culturally constructed.

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Of the textbooks that I reviewed, Kottak, Gezon and Kottak, Ferraro and Andreatta, and Nanda and Warms
address the fact that profit motive is not universal most directly. Miller does not address the issue of profit
motive, though she does offer a rough comparison between economic anthropology and the discipline of
economics which suggests that she would agree that the profit motive is not universal (Miller 2011:82). Haviland
et al. also do not directly address profit motive, but suggest that the approach of standard economics is
ethnocentric (Haviland, Prins et al. 2005:178). Though they come at the topic in different ways, all of the
textbooks make the same point, that if we hope to understand the factors that motivate individual economic
decisions we need to avoid assuming that all people everywhere are interested primarily in maximizing profit.
This is a key insight from economic anthropology, but it is a tough sell to students who have been trained to
think that profit maximization is the only rational decision.
Kottak explains the theory more directly than the other authors, stating that, "depending on the society and the
situation, people may try to maximize profit, wealth, prestige, pleasure, comfort, or social harmony" (2008:3701). This is the type of theoretical point that calls out for an ethnographic contrast example. However, he does
not give a clear example of people in different societies who make decisions based on those alternative
motivations. Instead, he tries to sell students on this point with two separate examples neither of which directly
address profit motive. First, Kottak abstracts from profit motive to economizing, "the rational allocation of
scarce means to alternative ends" (2008:370). Then, he addresses the issue of scarcity and the issue of alternative
ends with separate examples. To show that scarcity is not a universal concept, Kottak provides an example from
his own fieldwork among the Betsileo people of Madagascar. He suggests that the Betsileo people did not
operate in a framework of scarcity. Rather, they "actually believed they had all they needed" (2008:370 italics in the
original). However, he suggests that with the encroachment of a cash economy the idea of scarcity is becoming a
reality. It is an interesting ethnographic example that speaks to Marshal Sahlin's concept of "the original affluent
society" (Sahlins 1972), but it does not show an alternative economic motive. Kottak provides a separate
example to illustrate alternative ends. He presents the idea from Eric Wolf (1966) of investing resources to build
different funds. Kottak borrows the example of peasants who have a subsistence fund, a replacement fund, a
social fund, a ceremonial fund, and a rent fund. The example culminates with Kottak explaining that "the
demands of paying rent may divert resources from subsistence, replacement, social, and ceremonial funds"
(2008:372). This example illustrates alternative ends, but does not address the profit motive. Taken separately or
taken together the examples he provides do not demonstrate his point that "people may try to maximize profit,
wealth, prestige, pleasure, comfort, or social harmony".
The examples offered by Ferraro and Andreatta and Nanda and Warms more directly address the profit motive.
Both sets of authors begin their effort to dislodge the notion of a universal profit motive by offering examples
that the students will be able to relate to and understand. However, unfortunately, the examples they provide do
not demonstrate the point that the factors that motivate economic behavior are in some ways universal, in some
ways cultural, and in some ways personal. Nanda and Warms use a compare example. They begin by asking the
students about their own plans for the evening and how they will allocate their time between studying (the path
to financial reward) and socializing (2011:146). Students can relate to this, and, to the extent that students really
believe the premise that studying harder will lead to bigger paydays, it shows that people don't always follow the
profit motive. However, it is a compare example where the learning outcome requires a contrast example. The
example doesn't show different people following different economic motives. Students don't see an alternative
perspective. In fact, the example is likely to reinforce their belief that everybody makes decisions in the same way
they do, which certainly does not achieve the learning outcome that the way we interpret the world and make
decisions is culturally constructed. Ferraro and Andreatta use an example from American politics. They suggest
that "a growing number of Americans have voted consistently against their own economic interests". They argue
that these people are more interested in "cultural values, such as opposing abortions [and] gay marriage" than in
economic issues like wages and social security (2010:178). This is a contrast example because it implicitly
contrasts values voters with so-called pocketbook voters. However, it fails as an example to demonstrate that
maximizing profit is not the only rational strategy. In fact, Ferraro and Andreatta seem to suggest that people
who vote for cultural values rather than economic interests are not being rational!

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Both Ferraro and Andreatta and Nanda and Warms move on to other examples to try and sell the point that
maximizing profit is not the only rational strategy. They both use the example of the Hadza of Tanzania,
originally reported by James Woodburn (1968) and later used by Marshall Sahlins(1972) to make much the same
point. According to Woodburn and the various authors who borrow his example, the Hadza are a foraging
group who know about farming, but do not take it up because of the effort it would entail. Certainly, in the
description, the Hadza do not appear to be especially motivated by profit, but a student is likely to just consider
them to be lazy, which is clearly not the learning outcome for which we are aiming.
Convincing students that there are other fully rational strategies besides maximizing profit: that the factors that
motivate economic behavior are in some ways universal, in some ways cultural, and in some ways personal,
requires a better example. Without a convincing example, students may be able to repeat that the profit motive is
not universal on an exam, but they have not changed the way that they think. They have not learned to apply the
concept to examples and to see economic decisions from a different cultural perspective. As a result, many
students simply are not buying what we are trying to sell them. To make this sale we need a contrast example
that directly confronts students' assumptions about profit maximization in much the way that the !Kung people's
reaction to Richard Lee's Christmas gift confronts their assumptions about the appropriate way to respond to
gifts. We need a concrete example of an individual making an economic decision that at first appears to students
as irrational, but becomes obviously rational once they learn to see it from a different perspective. I was
fortunate to record such an example during my fieldwork. I want to share this example and my strategy for
incorporating it in my lecture.

My Lesson: Economic Rationality is Culturally Constructed

To teach the lesson that economic rationality is culturally constructed, I go through three steps: theory, example,
and perspective. In the theory step, the main point that I try to highlight is that maximizing profit is not the only
rational strategy. Different people pursue different goals, all of which are rational. I present the theory in a fairly
traditional lecture format. I have information on PowerPoint slides, which students dutifully copy down, and I
try to concisely and directly explain the theoretical points. Information is transferred during this stage, but
students are not fully learning.
Second, I share an ethnographic example from my fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico to demonstrate the theoretical
point. The ethnographic example is the story of a bean farmer, Cornelio. During my fieldwork, the price of
beans was changing and I share how the price changes affected his decisions to sell his beans. The example
demonstrates the theoretical point because Cornelio was clearly not motivated to maximize his profit.
During the example I solicit student interaction with a classroom response system (clickers). In smaller classes
student interaction and discussion is a natural and vital part of the learning process. However, I teach
introductory cultural anthropology classes with up to 500 students, which means too little discussion and too
much lecture. As Eric Mazur explains, "the traditional [lecture] approach to teaching reduces education to a
transfer of information" (Mazur 2009). Students may memorize the material, but they often don't really
understand it. Mazur developed a teaching technique in his physics classes that was based on conceptual
questions and student interaction with clickers rather than traditional lecturing. I have been working to adapt
similar techniques to teaching cultural anthropology. The subject matter is very different, but in both cases, our
pedagogical goal is the same. We want students to grasp concepts that they can apply, not just memorize facts
that they can repeat.
In the example of Cornelio's Beans, I use clickers to make students think about what they would do and then
contrast their answers with Cornelio's behavior. Clickers have many benefits. In a large class, they enable
participation that otherwise would be impossible. However, even in a smaller class where discussion and
participation are possible, clickers offer several pedagogical advantages. First, they are universal: every student
must participate, not just the loquacious. Students are forced to commit to an answer which makes them think

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about the situation and later they can see how their thinking has changed. Second, grading is flexible. I assign
participation credit for using the clickers, but in an exercise like this I give credit for any response. Students don't
have to worry about getting the "correct" response to get the credit. Third, they are anonymous. Although we all
can see the vote totals, students don't publically reveal their individual responses as they would during a "show of
hands". As a result, peer pressure is largely removed from the equation and students are able to choose what they
really think without the risk of social repercussions.
The story of Cornelio's beans is an ethnographic contrast example. His decisions about when to sell his beans are
different from what most students would do. In fact, students tend to be shocked by how he responded to
changing prices. At the end of the story I give students a straight forward opportunity to apply the theory they
have just been taught. I ask them if they think Cornelio's decisions were rational. Most students vote "no". The
students know that I think the "correct" answer is "yes", but at this point they aren't buying it and the anonymity
of the clickers allows them to tell me that.
In the third step of my lesson I tackle perspective and application. Students are intrigued by Cornelio's decisions,
which are incongruous and in need of explanation. I explain that the reason his decision seems irrational is that
they are seeing his decision through the lens of their own culture rather than through his. I challenge them to try
to discard their own cultural lenses and see things from his perspective. To enable that, I give them information
about Cornelio's experience, goals, and family. I pick up the theoretical points that we had discussed before the
example and apply them to Cornelio's case. As they come to see the example from Cornelio's perspective, his
decision suddenly seems rational. I can see the expressions on the students' faces change as they "get it".
Below, I share the theory, example, and perspective steps much as I present them in my class.
Step 1: Theory
People have economic decisions to make. Regardless of the dominant subsistence strategy or the specific mode
of production in a society, it is individual agents who determine how to produce and how much to produce.
Different economic systems constrain and privilege different people, but in every system people have some
economic decisions to make either to invest in production for themselves or to agree to sell their labor to
someone else.
Economic anthropologists analyze these decisions differently than economists. Economists typically assume that
the only rational decision is to maximize income or profit. If you are a worker, you are supposed to seek out the
highest wage. If you control the means of production, you are supposed to determine how to deploy them to
maximize profits. However, anthropologists know that people in different societies make economic decisions in
surprisingly different ways. So either the economists assumptions about economic behavior are wrong, or many
people are often irrational. The position of most economists is that there is only one rational strategy, but lots of
irrational people.
Anthropologists consider that position to be ethnocentric. In contrast, we try to understand the decisions that
people make from the perspective of cultural relativism. Anthropologists assume that people usually make
decisions which are rational in their cultural context. We assume that people make rational decisions based on
their knowledge of the costs and benefits. They only do things when they think the benefits are greater than the
costs. However, what people consider to be costs and benefits and how they measure and compare them is
cultural and personal. The costs and benefits that people take in to consideration are usually not all reducible to
monetary value. To understand their rationality we need to understand what they value and how they weigh the
costs and benefits. People are rational, but strategies depend on cultural values and personal goals.
A fundamental question that we need to consider is what are people's economic goals. In our capitalist society, a
lot of people are motivated to accumulate wealth. We work so that we have more and nicer things. The goal of
accumulating wealth, or earning money, or maximizing profits may seem fundamental to us, but it is far from
universal. In fact, even in our capitalist system many people are often motivated by different goals like leisure,
prestige, or family and social connections. In the moka system in New Guinea and the potlatch system of the
Pacific Northwest people are not motivated to accumulate wealth, but rather they are motivated to give it away.

Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp. 17-31

By giving wealth away they can gain prestige. Prestige may motivate people in American society as well, but the
path to prestige is often through accumulating wealth.
Maximizing profit is not the only rational goal to pursue when making economic decisions. Depending on the
cultural context and the personal goals of the individual there are several rational goals that economic agents may
seek. They may seek to maximize profit, wealth, prestige, security, pleasure, or harmony. Alternatively, they may
seek to minimize work, boredom, or drudgery. Many people may not want to maximize or minimize any one
thing, their goal may be to balance many competing goals. For example, you may decide to take a job that pays
less because you enjoy the work or because it allows you to live in the city you prefer, or both. Often people
without many resources strike a balance between the drudgery of work and the security of their family. They may
have to work for very little in return to ensure the level of income that is required to maintain their family. These
are all very rational goals given a particular cultural context and personal agenda, but they result in dramatically
different decisions about how to act.
Step 2: Ethnographic Example, The Story of Cornelio's Beans
To demonstrate the point that maximizing profit is not the only rational goal, I am going to share a story. I did
fieldwork with small-scale farmers in San Pablo Coatln, in the southern mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. This
story is about one of my favorite farmers in San Pablo. His name is Cornelio, and he was growing beans both for
his family and to sell at the market.
Part of my research required an economic analysis of the farmers' production. To understand the economics of
Cornelio's production, I tried to record his investments of time and money as well as the size of his harvest and
the market prices. I knew that it would be difficult to account for the various costs and benefits, especially since
he did most of the work himself and much of his harvest would be consumed by his household. However, I
wasn't prepared for how different his economic decisions would be from mine since he had different economic
goals and hence a different economic rationality.
I worked with Cornelio throughout the growing season. He was happy to have me come to work with him and
always interested in talking about beans. He is a fastidious farmer and very interested in reducing his costs. I
observed how careful he was to save money however he could. For example, I visited him in his field one day as
he was applying fertilizer. He was carefully applying ammonia phosphate fertilizer by hand to each little bean


Figure 1: Cornelio saves money by carefully applying fertilizer to each bean plant by hand

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plant in his field (see figure 1). He explained that the fertilizer was the most expensive part of farming, and he
was very careful not to waste it. It would have been much faster to apply the fertilizer with a spreader or even by
tossing it out by hand, but he was not interested in saving time, he was interested in saving fertilizer and money.
He agreed to let me help fertilize his field, but only after he made sure I understood how to prudently apply it.
Cornelio had a very successful harvest, which resulted in more beans than he had expected. I went to see him
and record some final data about his harvest. He showed me the beans he had harvested, which were all dried
and cleaned and ready for sale or use (see figure 2). He explained that since he had harvested more beans than he
expected he would have more beans available to sell in the market. He had harvested a total of about 750
kilograms. He planned to keep 100 kilograms for use by his family and indicated that he planned to sell about
650 kilograms in the market.

Figure 2: Cornelio inspects his harvested beans. He had already set aside two 50kg bags for his family. He
designated these thirteen 50 kg bags for sale in the market.
Normally, beans sold for fifteen pesos per kilogram in the regional market. However, I had just been to the
market and knew that the price had gone up to eighteen pesos per kilogram. I mentioned the current price to
Cornelio. Since the price of beans was a favorite topic of conversation in San Pablo, I was not surprised that he
already knew it was eighteen. He agreed that it was a good price.
I knew from previously talking to Cornelio and other farmers that typically they would not sell their beans all at
once. Rather, they only sold their beans bit by bit as they needed money. Since the dried beans have a long shelf
life it normally makes little difference when they sell them. However, since the price was higher than normal I
was curious about whether he would decide to sell all of the beans he had designated for the market at once or
whether he would stick to the pattern of selling them bit by bit as he needed money. As he showed me his

Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp. 17-31

harvest and explained how many of the beans he intended to sell, I asked him if he planned to sell them all at the
market that week to take advantage of the good price.
At this point of the story, I pause and ask my students what they would do. I present a PowerPoint slide with the
following and ask them to vote with their clickers.
Normal price = 15 pesos/kg
Current price = 18 pesos/kg
What would you do?
A. I wouldn't sell any
B. I would sell only as many as I needed to
C. I would sell all the beans I had to sell.
A slight majority of students vote for option C. Because of all the set up, students expect Cornelio will only sell
as many as he needs for the week. I think that option B attracts a lot of votes because students assume that it is
the "correct answer". If I hadn't influenced them, I would expect a greater majority to vote C. After voting, I
resume the story.
When I asked Cornelio if he planned to sell all of his "for sale beans" at the market that week, he gave me a look
that let me know he thought my question was foolish. I was, by then, fairly accustomed to receiving this
particular look. Cornelio replied simply that he didn't need that much money right then and only planned to sell
about twenty kilograms. Even though I would have made a different decision, I accepted and recorded his
However, the story does not end there. For a variety of reasons the price of beans continued to rise. In fact, the
price of beans shot up and less than two months after that initial conversation with Cornelio, the price had
reached thirty pesos per kilogram. That is twice the normal price, and it was an even more predominant topic of
conversation in San Pablo. I thought to myself, that rascal Cornelio knew what he was doing. I figured that he
must have known that the price was only going to go up and that he had actually been pretty savvy to hold on to
most of his beans. I went back down to his house to ask him what he planned to do at that point.
Again, at this point, I pause the story and get the students to vote for what they would do now that the price of
beans is thirty pesos per kilogram. I provide the same choices as before, however, a student in one class shouted
out "I would sell my family's beans too". As a result, I have added that as option D. More than three quarters of
the students vote for choices C. "I would sell all the beans I had to sell" or D. "I would sell all of my beans
including those reserved for my family".
When I tell them Cornelio's actual response, they are as surprised as I was at the time. At thirty pesos per
kilogram, Cornelio was no longer willing to sell any beans! I pause to let that sink in. Then I ask the students if
they think Cornelio's decision is rational. The overwhelming majority vote "No". They vote "No" despite the
fact that they know the "correct" answer according to me is "Yes". Ten minutes earlier when I said "maximizing
profit is not the only rational decision" students wrote it down and they would be able to recall it on an exam,
but they have not learned how to apply it, indeed at this point many students simply don't "buy it". They have
not yet learned how to stop seeing Cornelio's decisions from their cultural perspective, and from their cultural
perspective his decision is irrational.
Step 3: Perspective
To complete the lesson, students have to learn to understand the rationality of Cornelio's decision. This requires
that they learn to see things from his perspective rather than from their own. One of the great pedagogical
benefits of ethnographic contrast examples is that they grab students' attention and peak their curiosity. Using
the clickers has further increased their engagement with the example. At this point of the lesson, students are
intrigued and they want to understand his decisions.

Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp. 17-31

I start the process of shifting perspectives by explaining that, at the time, I too was surprised by Cornelio's
decision. I had been prepared for Cornelio to say that he would continue selling his beans bit by bit as he needed
money, but I certainly did not expect him to stop selling beans altogether. I too have been enculturated to
believe that maximizing profit is the only rational goal, so I was tempted to assume that his decision was
irrational. However, as an anthropologist, I forced myself to assume that he was rational. I challenge my students
to assume that his decision makes sense.
To understand the rationality of Cornelio's decision, it is necessary to realize that he is not motivated by
maximizing his monetary profit. Instead, Cornelio was primarily interested in maximizing his family's security.
We live in an economy based on money and think of the economy in terms of money, but Cornelio is a bean
farmer and in a very real way he thinks of the economy in terms of beans. Cornelio does not grow beans to
accumulate money. He grows beans so his family will have beans to eat. Cornelio lives with his wife, two
daughters, and three grandchildren. Beans are a staple of his family's diet and all of the beans that they eat come
from his field. Providing beans for his family is a responsibility that he takes very seriously. He needs money to
supplement his family's consumption and to buy fertilizer and other farming inputs. However, to Cornelio
money is a means to an end, not the end itself. The fact that we treat money as the end goal is what is really
weird! To us wealth is money, to Cornelio wealth is beans.
Because we are used to basing our economic decisions on money, when the price of beans goes from fifteen to
thirty pesos per kilogram we see a rapid escalation in the value of beans. But that is nonsense to Cornelio, he
knew for a fact that the true value of a bean had not changed. A bean still provided just as much sustenance as it
always had. Rather, he interpreted the rapid rise in the price of beans as a rapid decline in the value of a peso. To
us, the value of beans was going up. To Cornelio, the value of pesos was going down.
Unlike those of us who have never experienced rapid inflation because of a plummeting currency, Cornelio has
seen massive fluctuations in the value of pesos over the years. And, in fact, the peso at that time was losing value.
In the previous six months the peso had fallen from ten pesos to a dollar to fifteen pesos to a dollar. This
currency crisis led to inflation, which was one of the main factors in the rise of bean prices. The other factor that
had led to the spike in bean prices was a nationwide drought which had resulted in a shortage of beans. Beans
were scarce and pesos were losing value. So why would Cornelio trade his beans that his family depended on for
pesos that were rapidly losing value? He wouldn't!
Cornelio was not motivated by just having as many pesos as possible, he wanted to ensure that his family was
secure. In an uncertain economy, beans are more secure than pesos. He would rather have a room full of beans
whose value he could count on, than a pocket full of pesos whose value was uncertain. If he sold all his beans for
pesos one week, he might go back to the market the next week with pesos that were worth even less. Given the
economic context and his goal of securing his family's food supply, his decision to not sell his beans is very
As I explain the economic context, Cornelio's goals, and his perspective on beans and money, I can see the
student's expressions change. Suddenly they can see an economic decision that seemed irrational from a new
perspective. I ask my teaching assistants to follow up with the example in their weekly discussion sections and
they always report back that the students are able to explain Cornelio's decision in their own words. They haven't
just memorized words for a test, they understand and are able to apply the concept.

A pedagogical goal that I share with most anthropology teachers is to teach in a way that helps my students truly
understand rather than just memorize material for a test. The learning outcome that I hope to achieve in my
introductory cultural anthropology class is that students come to realize that the world we live in, the way we
interpret it, and the decisions that we make are culturally constructed. I hope they come away from class with a

Teaching Anthropology 2013, Vol.3, No.1, pp. 17-31

new perspective. I am much less concerned with whether they memorize specific facts. Too often a lecture,
especially in a very large class, turns into a one-way transmission of facts.
Fortunately, in cultural anthropology, the material, by its very nature is relatable to the students. We have a
wealth of ethnographic examples for most topics that we can use to illustrate concepts, and more importantly, to
demonstrate how the concepts are applied. Whether we teaching about kinship, marriage, race, gender, systems
of belief, politics, economics, or any other cultural topic, the students can relate through ethnographic examples
that compare or contrast to their own experience. We can use ethnographic compare examples to teach
theoretical concepts and to demystify the exotic. We can use ethnographic contrast examples to help students see
from a different perspective.
While textbooks and teachers have many pedagogically useful examples for most of the topics that I cover in my
introductory anthropology class, I have not come across effective examples to help teach that economic
rationality is culturally relative. There is wide agreement among anthropologists that the profit motive is not
universal. As Weber pointed out, the desire to earn more and more money is not natural, it must be taught
(Weber 1930). People in different cultures are motivated by different economic goals. However, our students
have been trained, by their culture and by economists, to believe that the rational economic decision is to
maximize profit or income. To unseat this often deeply held belief we need to use an ethnographic contrast
example that helps students to see economic rationality from a different perspective. Students may memorize
that anthropologists say that maximizing profit is not the only rational economic decision, but without an
effective contrast example, it is very difficult to achieve the key learning outcome of having students truly
understand that the economic world we live in, the way we interpret it, and the economic decisions that we make
are culturally constructed.
The ethnographic example of Cornelio's beans has been a useful pedagogical tool to help me achieve that
learning outcome. The power of the example comes from the fact that when interpreted through the students'
native frameworks Cornelio's decision appears to be irrational. However, when they are able to start to see the
situation from Cornelio's perspective, his rationality becomes clear. It is a simple example to which students can
easily relate. An additional benefit of the example is that Cornelio's decision to forgo making money cannot be
misinterpreted as laziness. With the examples of workers who work less when wages are raised (Weber 1930) or
the Hadza who opt not to engage in farming (Woodburn 1968), students may think that the people are just being
lazy. This is a misconception that I think we should be careful to avoid perpetuating. With Cornelio's decision,
laziness is not a possible alternative explanation, because the work had already been done. Finally, the example is
well suited for student interaction through in-class discussion or a classroom response system. Students get to
interpret the situation using their own framework and motives and when Cornelio makes a decision that goes so
clearly in the opposite direction from what they consider rational, it grabs their attention.
The fact that the vast majority of students initially consider Cornelio's decision to be irrational indicates that they
believe that rational economic decisions are about maximizing profit. Even though they have heard the theory
presented in lecture, when they are given a specific case they interpret it through the frameworks of analysis in
which they have been enculturated. However, once the economic context, Cornelio's goals, and his perspective
on beans and money are explained, students can see Cornelio's decision from a new perspective. They recognize
that his goals, although different from theirs, are rational. They realize that his decision is rational even though
he passed on the opportunity for a large payday.
The process of recognizing that there are other rational ways to see the world breaks students free from their
native cultural framework. They are able to see from a different perspective, and in the process recognize the
"special lens" through which they normally interpret the world. It is through this process that students come to
realize that the world we live in, the way we interpret it, and the decisions that we make are culturally

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