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Manuel A. Vasquez’s response to: “The Homo Economicus”.

Date:26 March 2013
Manual A. Vasquez
Manual A. Vasquez

In today’s post, prof. Manuel A. Vasquezsuggests an alternative view to the ‘Homo Economicus’ in his response to Ella Sebamalai’s post on transnational religious networks and faith-based organizations. Rather then calculated rationality, Vasquez argues in favor of a form of contextualized rationality that influences the choices of migrants on both individual and communal level.

Ella Sebamalai offers a provocative-yet-plausible argument when she suggests that in many instances transnational migrants and people dislocated by political conflicts or natural disasters behave in the mold of homo economicus in their interactions with FBOs, deploying an instrumental and calculative rationality that may not lead to the formation strong and durable affiliations. The concept of homo economicus has indeed been very useful in the sociology of religion, particularly through the rational choice and religious market approaches of scholars such as Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, and Laurence Iannaccone.  They have shown that, while religion often involves appeal to supernatural forces, effects, and goals, religious actors behave just as rationally any other social actors, say for example politicians, grassroots activists, or buyers in a supermarket.  Just like any individual, religious actors are “utility maximizers,” that is, their primary orientation is toward maximizing those things that they consider beneficial and minimizing costs, including loss of time, pain, discomfort, suffering, and bafflement. 

This view succeeds in breaking with one of the most deleterious and persistent prejudices that secular modernity has of religion: that religion is essentially irrational, based on the appeal to transcendental foundations (i.e., revelation) that fall outside the purview of human rationality, the arbiter of all things in the wake of the Enlightenment. This prejudice is what led the secularization paradigm in its various expressions to posit the eventual disappearance of religion, or at least its relativization, privatization, and/or rationalization, as science progresses.  The enduring public vitality of religion is then understood as a primitivist (or fundamentalist) backlash against the iron cage of modernity, a sort of last gasp of the pre-modern.  In contrast to secularization theories, rational choice and religious market approaches, which are central pillars in what sociologist R. Stephen Warner has termed the “New Paradigm,” do not have a problem explaining the enduring public vitality of religion, even in advanced countries such as the U.S.  Since religious consumers act as utility maximizers, they will search for the products that best address their needs.  This search, in turn, stimulates constant innovation by the religious producers if they are to remain competitive vis-à-vis alternatives that religious consumers encounter in the pluralistic market.  Thus, the breakdown of the sacred canopy, to borrow from Peter Berger, that is, the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly over legitimate religious goods with the Reformation, does not spell the decline of religion, as the modernist secularization theories predicted.  Rather, religious pluralism begets more religious diversity and vitality.

Despite the undeniable strengths of the homo economicus trope in rational choice and religious market approaches, there are significant problems in its use in the study of religion, and, for that matter, of any other social phenomena. It is true, as Sebamalai argues, that approaches that operate with the notion of homo economicus are particularly sensitive to the behaviors of individuals since these approaches assume a methodological individualism that lends itself to construction of sophisticated micro-sociologies. Such a methodological individualism is a helpful corrective to the methodological holism of networks, which if not handled with the appropriate care, may result in functionalism, reducing the logics of individual behaviors to nothing more than the system’s demands for integration and homeostasis.  Nevertheless, the homo economicus trope is often used to characterize individuals in an abstract, de-contextualized, atomistic, and ahistorical way.  Approaches that work with this trope tend to universalize a ceteris paribus (“all things being equal”) rationality in describing the calculations that go into religious choices and affiliations. For example, rational choice and market approaches fail to investigate the origin and evolution of taste among particular individuals, assuming that taste is a purely subjective variable, a sort of black box that cannot be analyzed rigorously and, thus, should not be considered in studying social behavior.

This is where the work of Pierre Bourdieu offers a fruitful critique of homo economicus.  He shows how individual taste, cultural competence, and religious authority are the result of the person’s trajectory and position in asymmetric networks of power within social fields, which inculcate an embodied habitus.  The habitus operates as a structured and structuring cluster of dispositions, competences, and schemes of perception that allow the social actor to engage in “creation within limits,” creatively generating behaviors that are attuned to the environment in which the person is embedded without him/her being necessarily fully conscious of this alignment.  As Bourdieu puts it, most of our daily activities are “reasonable without being the product of a reasoned designed, still less of rational calculation.”  In other words, Bourdieu proposes a bounded, relational, and historically-informed type of rationality that in my view is much more robust, dynamic, and realistic than the one-dimensional, simplistic vision behind homo economicus.

Getting back to Sebamalai’s work on migrants, we can say that when they relate to FBOs, they do so with a particular in-corporated history and with given sets of possibilities and constraints.  These migrants bring to bear their embodied memories, competences, notions of morality, honor, shame, and reciprocity, and visions what constitutes justice, responsibility, and a good life.  It is through their incorporated background conditions, their socialization, that they identify and make sense of their personal, familial, and community needs, the most viable ways to satisfy them, and the role that various FBOs can play in this process.  To be sure, they act as rational beings, but the rationality involved is far from being the fully transparent and instrumental one that the classical concept of homo economicus assumes. 

Sociologist David Smilde’s work among Venezuelan Pentecostals is illustrative here.  He discovered that social dislocation, poverty, and personal crisis, while often triggering causes, are not sufficient to understand why some Venezuelans convert from Catholicism to Pentecostalism.  Smilde found that the process of conversion is mediated by factors like social networks and even topography.  Whether a person converted or not depended on sharing everyday life with other converts in their immediate networks of trust, i.e., other family members and close friends who could not only persuade them to go to a new church but also familiarize them with Pentecostal practices and discourses. In addition, the proximity of Pentecostal churches in the neighborhood and place of work made conversion more likely.

At a more macro-level, the case of Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976, which killed as more than 20,000 and left more than a million homeless, offers, if not a counter-case to Sebamalai’s  example of  the family living in post-conflict Sri Lanka, at least a reason to take a more long-term view.  As it is the case in Haiti today, many evangelical churches, particularly from the U.S., rushed to Guatemala to offer assistance to the survivors who lost their houses and possessions in the form of food and building materials.  If we assume a purely means-ends rationality, we would expect that attendance to Evangelical churches would balloon during the most acute phases of the crisis, only to plummet once reconstruction takes a hold, and people no longer need urgent material (and even spiritual) assistance.  However, most scholars agree that the 1976 quake was key to the explosive growth of Evangelical Protestantism in Guatemala, not only making it one of the most Protestant countries in Latin America, but also giving rise to thriving indigenous churches that are now sending transnational missionaries to convert “godless” America.  In other words, while the calculations that went into surviving the crisis do provide a context where the victims of a traumatic experience may build relations with FBOs, there are other variables that shape the type and durability of those relations, whether it is a temporary affiliation, an on-going loose association that allows periodic contacts with other FBOs in the religious field, religious syncretism, or full conversion in a sectarian mode.  I submit that networks, the configuration of social and religious fields in which the actor is embedded, and ecological dynamics influence the outcome, as does the degree of resonance between the potential convert’s habitus and particular religious practices and worldviews.

Manuel A. Vasquez
Manuel A. Vasquez



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