Monday, January 20, 2014

Positive Anthropology and Public Planning

Social scientists, and anthropologists in particular, bring what should be a privileged perspective to public policy debates. Taking as our starting point not idealized theory (say, of rational actors) nor (hopefully) partisan moralization, anthropologists look at, and take seriously, what folks actually say and do.  This deceptively simple methodology-cum-epistemology can produce policy insights that respond to actual conditions and the hopes and aspirations that fill our lives. Oppenheimer, in a recent NY Times Magazine piece, discusses the ethnography of public spaces conducted by sociologist William H. Whyte in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently picked up again in recent years by Keith Hampton. By actually watching people in places like NYC's Bryant Park and talking to them about what they valued, Oppenheirmer writes that Whyte and others realized that is we knew how "the placement of benches, or a plaza's orientation to the sun, affected people's enjoyment of a public space, then we could go beyond mere observation into the realm of smarter policy. We could make people happier."

Interestingly, Hampton's follow-up studies show that use of the public spaces in his sample has gone up over the last decades; that there are many more women in those public spaces; and that there is more, not less, social interaction going on despite the ubiquity of cell phones and other technology.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wellbeing and Wages

Inequality has a huge impact on wellbeing, more so than even absolute income levels. A lot of what we feel about how we are doing, depends on how those around us are doing and our relative standing.
President Obama has been turning attention to inequality lately, and development measures have long taken it into account in terms of general economic wellbeing. And a number of recent studies from psychology, behavioral economics, and management not only help explain this, but point the way toward more optimal solutions:

Mat Richtel reports on recent research that suggests "a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy" and that higher income levels may promote "mindless accumulation." In an experimental setting (and uses pieces of Dove chocolate as pay), researchers found that higher earners would work harder to accumulate more chocolate than they would be able to eat (during a limited period after the round of play), while low earners were content to work at a more relaxed pace. The pull of endless accumulation, it seems, can be so powerful as to overwhelm choices that might result in greater overall wellbeing.

Adam Davidson, in his excellent column in the NY Times Magazine argues that "paying [workers] and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and--surprisingly--larger corporate profits." Citing research by Marshall Fisher (Wharton School) and Zeynep Ton (M.I.T.), he shows that good paying jobs are not only better for workers but also in many ways for the bottom line, to less turnover to more engagement.