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Problems in Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology

This class is the main graduate seminar in the EE Ph.D. concentration within Anthropology. We rotate both faculty and topic. I am teaching this class in the Fall quarter of 2011-2012 and addressing the question of human rationality in decision-making.

Course Description: 

The question that motivates this year's EcoGroup seminar centers on human decision-making. Do people typically make rational decisions, particularly under uncertainty and risk? How do we define 'rationality'? Are there particular circumstances under which people are more likely to make rational decisions? Are there particular domains in which people make rational decisions? We will focus primarily on subsistence decisions but will consider other domains of decision-making as appropriate. Most of the anthropological work on subsistence related to risk deals with peasants, so we will spend a large proportion of our time focusing on peasant subsistence systems.

There are several challenges to the idea that humans make rational/optimal decisions. Two important challenges from the perspective of ecological and evolutionary anthropology include evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics. The position of orthodox evolutionary psychology is that human decisions in the present can not be adaptive (i.e., evolutionarily 'rational') since the human mind is adapted to the Pleistocene past of nomadic hunting and gathering. The challenge of behavioral economics is less theoretically informed but rests on experimental evidence of the shortcomings of human reasoning capacities. The confrontation of these two critical approaches to human rationality yields a surprising resolution.

We will spend some time thinking about optimality models since these are the foundation of rational-choice models -- and frequently the source of much confusion. There are elements to optimality models to which anthropological research (especially extended participant-observation) lends itself particularly well and where anthropologists can have an enormous impact on understanding decision-making processes.

A special challenge to understanding rational decision-making is the concept of risk. Risk-averse strategies are often contrasted in the literature to so-called 'rational actor' models. We will address the question of how risk averse (or risk seeking) decisions fit into a rational choice paradigm.

Humans live in groups and there is ample opportunity for individual-level rationality to conflict with the rational choices of groups. How do individual risk-management strategies differ from group risk-management? Which matter more? Are there general contexts where methodological individualism outperforms methodological collectivism (or vice-versa) in terms of explanatory or predictive power?

We will consider broad categories of risk management strategies: Physiological buffering, Coping, Migration, Social Exchange, Hedging, 'Culture.'