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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Divinatory Economics—Introduction

[a] Calculation RF
O.k., now you have gone too far (I hear you cry). Div...what...onomics? What?

Let's try it in German (where I gave my first talk on the rather odd—and distinctly phrased—concept, just this week): Göttlichen Berechnung. If you read a little German, it is hard not to come away with the "feel" for the topic that I intend. Still, the phrase above sounds a bit too much like "Godly Calculations," which (now that I ponder it) still works pretty well. Nonetheless, how do we resolve godliness, cleanliness (I hear that they are next to each other), sacrality, devotion, ritual, and religious effusion...with calculation or even counting? In even writing these phrases, my inner Protestant feels that I have betrayed the hometown crowd. Calculation? Und Religionen? Et tu...?

[b] Tally's Corner RF
Calculated religiosity? Keeping a balance sheet for the sacred? How could that even be?

Welcome to Round and Square's series of posts on what I choose to call Divinatory Economics. Yes, SpellCheck® keeps reminding me that "divinatory" is problematisch. On the other hand, it can't seem to understand that even "SpellCheck" is problematic, so we are going to barrel through the problems and start to consider ritual (and divination) alongside the calculations of microeconomic decision-making. 

The what of what? Do you want your "hundred or so readers" (a nice little handful, and I love you all like my very own kin) to dwindle down only to those who enjoy math?

Well, yes and (mostly) no. Math is fun, and microeconomics is funner (as we...are said to...say back home). Who knew that a squishy, subjective, reflexive, and interpretive ethnographer might find a home in the realm of number-crunching economic theorists—and the weirdest, most theoretical ones, at that? You see, I am not particularly interested in questions of nation-states and GDPs—the big (macro) stuff. No, I am interested in how particular individuals work within and beyond their cultural frameworks. I am interested in microeconomic calculations, and the more theoretical the besser (Germany again).

Ever since I was in college, when I took a course from a superb anthropologist named Stephen Gudeman, I have been riveted by microeconomic theory. Why do people make the particular choices they do? How does gross family income become "spread out," as it were, into a rich array of spending (or saving) choices? And why do people give anything from fragments (chance payments here and there) to highly organized contractions of their personal wealth (tithing, pilgrimage, and weekly offerings) in the name of something unseen?

[c] Ritual RF
That's our question.

Stick with this thread on Round and Square. We will start with China's sacred mountains (the "cosmological" or "Daoist" ones), but will move quickly to Christian (Protestant and Catholic) tithing, circulations of the Kaaba (and trips to Mecca), Friday prayers, Saturday supplications, and Sunday offerings. We'll look at anything that might even remotely be called divination (a term that I am using—in spite of its possible misunderstanding in narrow interpretations—to keep the playing field broad with these posts). A wide net will be useful, with the potential to it haul in new ways of looking at personal, family, and governmental (local, regional, or national) finances.

We will study, in short, the way in which people pay for their religiosity. That there has been too little study of such a subject should be obvious. If readers are offended, I simply ask them (you?) to reflect. Are you devout? Do you spend?

Well, of course I know the answer. Let's take a look at what it implies, fully embracing the rich contexts of belief and seriousness of purpose. If you are a person of faith, bear with me. I am not being critical. On the other hand, I will not let significant issues of society and culture go unstudied just because they deal with the sacred. Nope. The fact is that whole hordes of people get out of church on Sunday morning...and go to restaurants afterwards...that's significant in itself, and it drives some local economies. Whole bunches of restaurants know this, and time their Sunday morning specials to meet the needs of worshippers.

Too crass? Sorry, the world is complicated. If you have ever eaten an Ole Roll or blueberry pancakes after morning services, you don't have a protesting leg to stand on (your religiosity is combined with your spending, and that does nothing to lessen the depth of your faith). You worship; you get hungry. Food costs money. This really isn't very complicated. The same goes for meals when the sun goes down during Ramadan, lunch after Friday prayers, or Saturday activities in Tel Aviv (and around the world). Religiosity and spending (microeconomic choice) are linked. Let's take a look, and maybe we can learn something...without losing the faith.

Faith and food. The analytical world is richly diverse, and we will study it from here on...on Round and Square.

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