Is cultural evolution “neoliberal”?

I have been involved, over the weekend, in a small twitter debate on the old question of whether anthropology should use qualitative or quantitative methodologies. The debate was not particularly interesting by itself (I had many, probably too many, similar conversations starting when I was an undergraduate student) and the readers of this blog know, or suspect, my position, so I am not dwelling on it. There is, however, a marginal aspect that made me think a bit: I have the feeling that, when it is all said and done, the negative attitudes toward quantifications are linked to the idea that quantifying human culture is politically “neoliberal”, if not altogether “right-wing”.

I am sure that no critic of quantification in anthropology will accept this as their own position and they will express more cogent (at least from their point of view) arguments. It does not matter: I am happy to explore a straw man here. (A tweet that was stating it explicitly appeared at some point over the weekend, and it was “liked” by one of the persons involved in the debate, but that is just a side-note, a “like” on Twitter does not need to mean anything.)

Whereas I can grasp why some evolutionary approaches can be considered as supporting neoliberal social policies – even though I think the question is more nuanced and complicated – how can quantification by itself be? Is studying how movies influence the popularity of dog breeds neoliberal? Is it counting how many different folktales there are in different populations? Is cultural evolution, intended as a general project of applying scientific and quantitative methods to the study of culture, neoliberal?

Enough with rhetorical questions, but I would be interested if anybody knows any scholarly reference or developed argument that support this position (again, I know, it is a straw man). The only reason I can think of is that, in the last decades, researchers working on quantitative approaches to culture have been less active in political matters than researchers working on qualitative approaches, even though my impression is that the formers are politically leaning left as much as the rest of social scientists (at least the people that refer to the “cultural evolution” label).

I am really not interested in starting a debate, but perhaps there are reasons for considering quantification as such, and I’d be happy to exploit collective intelligence to know more (as said, possibly in the form of scholarly publications, etc.). Ok, I am going back to my R codes now.

7 thoughts on “Is cultural evolution “neoliberal”?

  1. Not sure if it’s really a ‘straw man’ at all! I remember attending an anthropology conference in Norway several years ago where this position vis-a-vis quantification was the topic for one working group. It was based on this project: https://www.ntnu.edu/sosant/cuff/the-project. Might find some scholarly references there.

  2. Depends what you mean by neoliberal, I suppose.

    Woodruff D Smith wrote a book (‘Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840-1920’) which effectively argued that the cultural sciences of the 1850s – 1900s were best interpreted as neoliberal or as supporting neoliberal politics. But his understanding of neoliberalism is tied to the generic notion of liberalism–one structured around freedom, human rights, the dignity of private property, etc.

    1. Hi Andrew, thank you for your comment. You are right, of course, the topic is complicated and depends on how you define both “neoliberalism” (which I would not know) or “cultural evolution” (either, but I am in a better position). However, my question is slightly more specific, i.e. it is not about cultural evolution in general, but about quantification. The link provided in the comment above by Marius is a good example of a research program with the explicit idea that quantification, by itself, is linked to specific political views. Perhaps there is something about that also in the reference you suggest?

  3. Having muddled through eight years in an anthropology department largely hostile to quantification — and certainly hostile to evolution — I learned a few things about this topic. Quantification, particularly the quantification of human populations, human actions, or human well-being, is seen as a “technology of power” in the Foucauldian sense. The state — and, increasingly, non-state neoliberal actors like the World Bank, IMF and the like, or corporations — has an interest in in measuring its subjects (clients, consumers) in order to efficiently maintain control, ensure conformity, maximize sales, etc. So any cultural anthropologist with a hint of Foucault (effectively all of them with a PhD after about 1985) will have at least a trace of skepticism toward quantification.

    Regarding political leanings, I don’t think there is a simple right-left issue here. There is a clear contrast between scholars with Marxian vs. Foucauldian theoretical underpinnings. Both groups are broadly leftist, but they have dramatically different sensibilities. For the historical materialist, the material conditions of life matter, so there is a natural predisposition to quantification, even if many Marxian theorists are barely numerate. Power for the Foucauldian is much more nebulous and lies buried in discourse. This, along with the explicit marking of quantitative fields in the social sciences as tools of the broader project of governmentality, makes Foucauldians anywhere from skeptical to downright hostile toward quantitative scholars.

    1. Hi James,
      Thank you very much for your comment. You are right, Foucault is certainly a big influence here. Interestingly, having done myself a PhD in mainstream socio-cultural anthropology at some point I read “The Birth of the Clinic” and I remember I found it quite convincing! (not enough interesting to read more Foucault though…). I do not have big problems to agree that in some cases quantification can be used, perhaps not with an explicit intention, as a “technology of power”, if we want to use these terms. My impression is that readings like Foucault (and, perhaps better, some philosophy of science) are good to go beyond an overly naive view of science/quantification as “pure” truth and completely objective. After that, however, a next step should be done, to consider how we can develop good quantitative mehtods. To me, it looks like many anthropologists are stuck in the previous step.

  4. The author asks”: Is cultural evolution, intended as a general project of applying scientific and quantitative methods to the study of culture, neoliberal?

    And follows with:

    The only reason I can think of is that, in the last decades, researchers working on quantitative approaches to culture have been less active in political matters than researchers working on qualitative approaches, even though my impression is that the formers are politically leaning left as much as the rest of social scientists (at least the people that refer to the “cultural evolution” label).

    I am not an anthropologist, but a chemical engineer nearing retirement with a long-time interest in social science which I wish to pursue in retirement. My entry into this area was learning about financial cycles as part of learning how to invest after we paid off our mortgage and inherited money. Seeking the cause/mechanism for financial cycles led to economic cycles, which led to political and social cycles and in 2014 to a dead end. I need another approach and that led me to cliodynamics and that led to cultural evolution. Hence my interest in this. It has been a 20 year journey (part time as a hobby).

    I can give an answer to these questions. (1) Cultural evolution is not neoliberal. I have a paper coming out in which I use the guided variation cultural evolution model from Boyd and Richerson (1985) to explain cycles in economic inequality over the past century in five nations. It proposes that the current level of inequality (and associated issues with that like stock buybacks) is the result of tax cuts creating an environment in which “shareholder capitalism” is adaptive. This is hardly a neoliberal viewpoint.

    (2) Scholars working in quantitative approaches produce testable hypotheses. Take the long-cycle research I studied for 15 years. The qualitative workers would assert a cycle and then go from there (Schlesinger did this with his political cycle). Trying to establish that such a cycle actually existed empirically was much more difficult and eventually my entire effort to do so collapsed in failure in 2014. So while a qualitative scholar like Schlesinger could say all sorts of things, I never could say anything with confidence (nor would predictions come true more often than random chance). Quantitative workers are always going to have this disadvantage. Trying to acquire knowledge using the scientific method is always going to be more difficult that asserting knowledge. So we haven’t learned enough to have confidence to speak.

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