I’ve been thinking lately of a sort of “positive anthropology.”
The notion takes off from the current fashion for positive psychology, a booming field that ranges from scientific studies of happiness to a flurry of popularizing books. In principle, it is a compelling idea. Psychology, especially the clinical variety, is, after all, meant to improve people’s lives. Yet, the field is also ripe for being misconstrued and co-opted into the sort of self-help genre that speaks to notions of spiritual poverty in the face of material wealth
Those concerns notwithstanding, it seems that there is a place for a constructive sort of positive anthropology. We anthropologists are very much driven by critique and exceptionalism. And we do critique very well, serving a useful disruptive, counter-hegemonic function (when we talk outside of our own circles, at least), making sure that cultural constructions are not misconstrued as being natural or predetermined.
A positive anthropology would offer a complementary approach, documenting and interpreting best practices around the world. The data are already out there in abundance, but a positive anthropology would require a shift of tone and framing—looking cultural norms and social structures that seem to work well and from which lessons could be extrapolated (and sometimes forms even more or less directly adopted). This could be something as concrete as a technique to induce more polite driving (as has worked in Bogota) or something as ethereally cultural as attitudes toward “fairness.”
Such an approach brings up the question of what “better” is, but a positive anthropology could be essentially ecumenical (what folks involved in a particular practice consider better, and this might be more or less transferable to other practices and contexts). It may also be the case that we could make claims about what a “better” for our own contexts and society could be. In this light, a neo-Aristotelian perspective offers a useful direction. Aristotle’s “good life” or “meaningful life” (eudaimonia) need not be wed to his provisional list of Greco-centric virtues (arete) but rather more broadly to the idea and ideal of virtues.
There is already a form of positive economics in development studies, particularly the influential work of Amartya Sen. Sen argues that development should be done in a way that promotes a meaningful life. And, for Sen, at heart always the economist, if one with a fondness for philosophy, that comes down to empowering people (ensuring that they have the “capability” to make decisions and carry out desires in a way that is meaningful). Sen stresses, and rightly so, the importance of capabilities. In material terms, a person fasting may be in the same condition as a person starving; but in this scenario, the capability to choose makes all the difference in the world.
The work of Sabina Alkire and James Foster at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative is breaking new ground in measuring capabilities such as physical safety, the ability to live without shame, and subjective wellbeing. They integrate these “missing dimensions” into a multidimensional poverty measurement compatible with the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. Alkire has advised Bhutan on its Gross National Happiness index, and countries from France to Chile are seeking to measure more holistic wellbeing rather than just GNP as a measure of progress.
This marks a major shift, not just a bit of statistical tinkering, in the ways we measure how well-off folks are. And has such it has huge foreign policy as well as domestic implications. If a government’s role is to promote overall wellbeing and not just economic prosperity and physical security, the required policy shifts. It might well be that obligatory European style vacations increase an overall wellbeing index while hurting GNP and productivity figures, for example.
A positive anthropology would contribute to this effort, documenting cultural norms, social structures, and institutional arrangements that seem to promote wellbeing in their specific contexts. These could form a vast social toolkit, not unlike the Chicago Boys’ more parsimonious market liberalization techniques for spurring economic growth. Critique would continue to be central to the enterprise, but complemented by attention to positive alternatives as well.