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Dilemmas in decision making : a methodological test case in economic anthropology Prattis, James Ian

Abstract

The problem addressed here is the examination of the dilemmas of decision making in different substantive contexts. The contexts include peasant farmers deciding whether or not to accept an agricultural innovation, sophomore students gambling, and fishermen on British Columbia's West coast making up their minds where they intend to fish. The major conclusion is that the structure of decision making is a constant cross-cultural variable. This implies that socio-cultural factors can most profitably be viewed as a framework within which a similar structure of decision making occurs. From this consideration it follows that decision making is a basic building block for the study of social behavior. Identification of the basic structure of decision making is in terms of a theory of risk taking which relates the type of decision strategy used in any situation to considerations of the resources, information and utilities that particular individuals possess with regard to the event the decision is about. From an initial substantive concern with Third World farmers deciding to adopt or reject agricultural innovations I generalise to a number of statements about individuals and risk. Risk taking refers to behavior in situations where there is a desirable goal and a lack of certainty that it can be achieved with attendant possibilities of loss. Three main sources are used to test the assertions about risk taking — first a laboratory experiment, then fieldwork and finally secondary sources. The argument made to justify this procedure is that these situations constitute particular empirical settings in which the propositions about risk taking could legitimately be tested. The argument rests on the assumption that the same scope conditions are met in each substantive setting. The scope conditions considered here place an individual decision maker within parameters of resources and subjective utility with regard to some outcome, information and incentive conditions for any risk. The propositions predict the type of decision strategies that would be employed for given values of the above parameters. This level of abstraction, which is not tied to situational boundaries is, I submit, a necessary prerequisite for effective cross-cultural analysis. Thus my thesis is not about peasant farmers, or fishermen or gambling, the work attempted here is concerned with individuals and risk. The tools used draw upon a tradition of model building extant in economics with reference to decision theory. Thus the work attempted here is part of the growing formal tradition in economic anthropology. The model built was not a perfect fit with data but adequate enough to give one confidence in the set of methodological assumptions which were fundamental to its construction. Also the testing procedure employed has implications for the manner in which anthropologists may conduct enquiry, as it establishes that laboratory contexts are as legitimate a source of verification as field contexts. It is from these two considerations that I offer a test case for methodology in economic anthropology.

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