Appraisals and Comments

Appraisals and Comments

Studies in Rhetoric and Culture

Stephen Gudeman

Economic Persuasions. A Conference Report


Persuasion in Economic Life, the concluding topic in the International Rhetoric Culture Conferences, drew anthropologists and economists together. They jointly addressed the intersection of rhetoric, epistemology, disciplinary difference and economic life. With thanks to Ivo Strecker and his associates for their guidance, this closing section of the conference series was a great success. Many of us benefited as well by the many preceding presentations on power and politics; for example, its co-organizers, Ralph Cintron and Don Brenneis, respectively offered stimulating thoughts about tropes and social agency, and about face-to-face rhetoric. The final talks on economics also included excellent studies of rhetoric in material life in addition to presentations on the shifting relations between economics and anthropology.

The encounter between anthropologists and economists was both friendly and stimulating, for we found much common ground and located some of our differences. Several contributors employed the trope, “conversations,” to characterize both their disciplinary and transdisciplinary interactions. Focusing on journal citations, Metin Cosgel showed that anthropologists and economists do not converse with each other yet join in many productive discussions with other disciplines. He, like some others, adopted a pragmatic stance and argued that economists usually try to solve the problem of reconciling separate personal “interests,” whereas anthropologists attend to the problem of differing knowledge patterns. Richard Swedberg in turn focused on the shifting meanings of the term, “interest,” as used in economics and sociology (all without referring to “interest rates”). In contrast to Weber's multiple uses of the term interest economists have narrowed and transformed its meaning to the idea of subjective preference. Swedberg suggested that interests are embedded in institutions, which provides them with legitimacy and “rhetorical force” (to use an expression of Cintron's). The concept of interest entered the conversation as well by way of Deidre McCloskey who, in her reconsideration of Adam Smith's rhetoric, pointed to his relatively unrecognized exploration of multiple motives: she underlined the importance of “prudence” as a concept and practice in economy.

Early in this part of the conference, James Carrier reviewed the formalist substantivist debate to show that it reflected deep differences across the entire social sciences. He observed, as did others, that economics usually has called on the rhetorical signposts of clarity, simplicity and consistency to assess contributions, which betrays a Cartesian heritage. Anthropologists assess contributions by a different, often contextualist, epistemology. Arjo Klamer and David Graeber both bid us to reconsider many of the common economic terms we use, especially the concept of consumption. Why, Graeber asked, do we assume that consumption exists? Does the metaphor of food work for all cultures? (Conversely, in her presentation on a rhetoric of motives, McCloskey attacked the idea that the end of economy is production and urged instead that it was consumption!) Extending the trope of conversations, Arjo Klamer observed that a market itself is a conversation, but it does not include all the values that enter material life. Other conversations about values include common goods, such as friendship, which money cannot buy. He concluded that how other value realms, such as art, are financed influences their public reception: in contrast to the “normal” assumption, increasing economic value (or the GNP) does not increase value in other domains.

This writer approached the question of epistemological differences across the disciplines by looking at the rhetoric of several well-known economists to show how they silence local ethnography through their deductive and solipsistic models. William Milberg, however, provided an historical sketch of changing rhetorical strategies in economics. He argued that the older, axiomatic theories in economics – based on the fantasy of the rational agent - have collapsed and been replaced by heterodox approaches, pragmatism and inductive work. This shift opens a space for anthropological contributions.

If these varied contributions to the conversation did not produce agreement, they certainly outlined a terrain for the development of new, persuasive conversations in economics.