Rationality as a social construction: what does individual behavior have to say about development in an Amazon community?

Author:Gramajo, Andres Marroquin

My first exposure to the psychological assumptions of economics was in a report that Bruno Frey wrote on that subject in the early 1970's. Its first or second sentence stated that the agent of economic theory is rational and selfish, and that his tastes do not change. I found this list quite startling, because I had been professionally trained as a psychologist not to believe a word of it. The gap between the assumptions of our disciplines appeared very large indeed.

Kahneman (2003), Nobel Prize winner

In the West, too, there has been a long-term shift from community to market that is often described as modernization, progress, and the triumph of rationality.

Gudeman (2001).

What sets of rational manifestations toward material wealth prevail among communities in rural settings? Do individuals inside these societies share the same rational manifestations? Since rational behavior is one of the factors that explains individual preferences toward time allocation and income generation, the answers to these questions are important in order to understand how individuals perceive and pursue material wealth. Theoretically, the assessment of human rationality differs even within specific disciplines such as economics (Cowen 2004; Kahneman 2003), psychology (Sloman 1996), and anthropology (Ensminger 1996; Gudeman 2001). The concept of rationality not only varies across disciplines but also within a discipline across time (Gigerenzer and Selten 2001).

I define rationality as the relationship between means that humans use to reach certain ends, ends which themselves become means to reach other ends. (1) Economists associate rationality with transitivity and with the idea that given certain conditions, "more is better than less." Neoclassical economists use this idea as the main assumption in their microeconomic models where agents are provided with convex utility functions, agents are supposed to choose levels of consumption or accumulation that maximize such utility function (Becker 1981). For example, while certain conditions remain constant, such as time constraints or budget constraints, economists usually assume that individuals will reach the highest possible level of wealth or material well being.

Some social scientists from other disciplines support a different theory. From a sociological stand point, Weber does not talk about a unique type of rationality, he distinguishes between substantive and formal rationality; substantive rationality, on the one hand, designates material behavior shaped by political, religious, or ethical standards; on the other hand, formal rationality refers to action based on calculation and means-to-ends reasoning. Weber suggests that there is a long term transition from one type of rationality to the other. (2) The sociologist and historian Karl Polanyi also suggests two different types of rational behavior toward wealth accumulation; dependent upon the degree in which the market is embedded (or instituted) in society (1968a; 1968b; 2001). He claims that in pre-modern economies (where the economy is less embedded in social relations) individuals tend to accumulate less material wealth than individuals do in modern economies (where the market is highly embedded). As we will see below, the degree in which the economy is imbedded in a social environment determines rationality and the attitude toward the accumulation of material wealth. Polanyi's categorization, so to speak, resembles Weber's, and it is the source of the substantivist-formalist dichotomy that characterizes the debate in a vast body of anthropological literature.

This article describes the different manifestation of rationality in the social context of the community of Arara in the Colombian Amazon; it is based on my observations during my field work in 2006. Based on the case of Arara, I claim that rationality, as it is related with material accumulation, is socially constructed, which depends on the degree in which the market economy is embedded in the social life of the community, and on the geographic location, among others. More specifically, the higher the degree at which the market is embedded in a society, the more men will tend to accumulate material wealth, following Polanyi's reasoning. I call the group that behaves according to this type of rationality: modern-men. Contrarily, the lower the degree in which the market is embedded, the more men tend to satisfy only the most basic needs. I call the group that behaves according to this type of rationality: pre-modern men. (3) The case study in this article shows that as the market penetrates social structures it also changes the type of rationality of human beings, which confirms Polanyi's idea of the economy as an instituted process. In certain contexts the market does not advance rapidly conquering pre-modern societies. This is the case in Arara. The market penetrates the community of Arara slowly, as if individuals in the community execute some sort of resistance; as a consequence, rationality among certain individuals of the community, also changes slowly. In Arara, the different transformations that the market creates in terms of rationality also have an effect on economic development initiatives. The community of Arara is relatively isolated in the Amazon jungle; (4) although I do not pretend to generalize my observations in Arara to a larger sample, I do think that the advancement of the market in rural, and sometimes, urban settings, gradually transforms the rationality of human beings, in general, every society has gone through the stage I observed in Arara, or is going through this stage now.

The Ticuna Of Arara

The Ticuna is the most numerous indigenous group in the Colombian Amazon. "Ticuna" means "men painted in black" and refers to their custom of painting themselves with a black dye (huito) during traditional festivities. The economic interests of outsiders have influenced the history of the Ticuna in recent centuries. As a consequence of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests, other indigenous groups disappeared, leaving large unoccupied extensions of land by the river. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ticuna took advantage of this opened space and migrated from the interior of the jungle (the high lands) to the depopulated territories by the river (low lands).

In the mid-nineteenth century, due to the rubber boom (1850-1930), industrial demand for rubber increased significantly. Some companies such as Casa Arana set up in the region and took Ticuna people as slaves for the extraction of rubber. Property disputes over the natives and the rubber territories began a conflict between Colombia and Peru in 1932. Several indigenous settlements were relocated, and some Ticuna were forced to fight in the war. In the late twentieth century, between 1975 and 1985, the boom of cocaine also affected the region. Part of the Colombian Amazon became a suitable place to build clandestine airstrips and laboratories for the transportation and processing of the coca leaf; several Ticuna found temporary jobs in that industry. (5)

Today, the Ticuna are spread out among several communities in a 10,000 [km.sup.2] area called the Amazon Trapezoid in southeast Colombia (located between the Amazon and the Putumayo rivers), although there are also Ticuna in the neighboring territories of Brazil and Peru. In fact, there is high mobility among those who have relatives and friends in the other countries. In total, the Ticuna number approximately 47,000: 34,000 of them are in Brazil, 8,000 in Colombia, and 5,000 in Peru (Martinez 2005). There are 889 people in the village of Arara, (6) which is considered the cultural capital of the Colombian Ticuna territory (Medina 1979). The Colombian intellectual G. Medina describes the Ticuna as:

[p]erhaps the most representative of all the indigenous groups of the Amazon, with their picturesque capital Arara and important ceremonial rites such as the Pelazon which constitutes a major element of social integration (60). In Arara, ninety-five percent of the population is Ticuna, and almost all Ararans are Catholic. Social organization is based on hyper-totemic exogamous clans (Levi-Strauss 1962), but recently their significance has diminished in some communities (Oyuela and Vieco 1999).

Arara occupies an area of approximately three square kilometers and is located approximately five kilometers north of the Amazon River. The community is linked to the river through the Arara tributary. The climate is tropical humid. The jungle surrounds Arara and the most efficient means of transportation is by boat through the great river and its tributaries. It takes half an hour to get to Nazareth, the nearest Ticuna village, and it takes almost three hours to get to Leticia, the capital of the department of Amazonas. Arara was founded in 1966 when ten Ticuna families decided to build their houses together to facilitate the education of their children. Since the outset, the community has been peaceful and has had rapid population growth; there are now approximately 200 families. There is an elementary and middle school, a public health center, several mini-soccer facilities, and one public telephone. After electricity was introduced in 1997, villagers started to buy electric appliances. Today, thirty families have TVs and refrigerators, five have DVD players, and several have stereos, small radios, and electric irons. (7)

Ararans perform several roles simultaneously: they are artisans, fishermen, and peasants. They practice agriculture and fishing for self-consumption, but also sell some of their products (including crafts) in Leticia, the nearest urban market.

Arara is a relatively homogenous community, without substantial differences in living conditions, housing, monetary and non-monetary income, or other socioeconomic characteristics across households. To put it simply, most of the families do pretty much the same activities, allocate their...

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