Is cultural evolution “neoliberal”?

Why applying quantitative methods to the study of human culture is considered neo-liberal?

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. jpg

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Alberto Acerbi

Cultural Evolution / Cognitive Anthropology / Individual-based modelling / Computational Social Science

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