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Monday, March 5, 2012

Divinatory Economics (8)—Sacred Mountain Incense-h

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Cultural Capital RL
The next half-dozen posts center on a research question I have been pondering for some time—the way pilgrims spend their incense on China's southern sacred mountain (南嶽衡山). I gave a lecture on the topic at Erlangen University in November, and then expanded some of that work into an Asian Studies Faculty Research Seminar—an ongoing series in the Beloit College Asian Studies program—in December. Although I will be continuing my research and writing on this subject, I thought that this might be a good time to begin exploring in depth some of the implications of "divinatory economics." If you have not read the introduction to the series, I would recommend it as the place to begin. If you have, settle in for a series of posts that describe the Chinese mountains (the first post, below, re-covers some of the territory from the Longevity Mountain series so that readers without that background are "ready" to spend their incense). I have tried to make these posts reasonably entertaining—even the "theoretical" sections to come next week.  
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Theoretical Implications—1
Pierre Bourdieu—Habitus, Praxis, Fields, and Cultural Capital
This essay has focused on the framing of questions, not results as such. The question of “spending religiosity” grew out of my ethnographic research, long after I returned from my most recent trip to the mountains (I have taken a break for the last eighteen months that has been devoted to writing, but I will return soon for more sustained research). I would like to conclude by examining a number of theoretical perspectives that could be of use in thinking more rigorously (and, indeed, widely) about matters of divinatory economics

I think that there are profound implications for the study of many aspects of social life all over the world. It is not difficult to see that religious life and spending connect on many levels, and not only on sacred mountains (I cannot help but think of brisk Sunday morning breakfast business all over the United States, geared to the “church rush” after services or mass). Saturday nights work in similar fashion, as do Friday afternoons all over the world. Although I am focusing on the “spending” of incense and hell money on one Chinese mountain, the implications—if we frame the questions well—could go far.
[b] Think, ought, do RL

As a reader of microeconomic theory and behavioral psychology, I am struck in quite negative ways by what I regard as the utter inability of many economists and psychologists to think “socially” or to avoid a kind of one-dimensional pseudo-objectivity. I take as my starting point for the study of divinatory calculation a statement that the anthropologist J.H.M. Beattie made over fifty years ago. “Anthropologists…study both what people do and what they think about what they do…[and the latter] are of (at least) two kinds; first, their notions about what they actually do, and, second, their beliefs about what they ought to do...

Nowhere has the range of these matters been better articulated than by Pierre Bourdieu, whose entire theoretical framework grew out of empirical challenges in his own research. Many of these details were of a kind similar to what microeconomics and behavioral psychology considers. Bourdieu’s greatest achievement, from my perspective, was in forever destroying the smug certainty with which thinkers from Aristotle to Claude Lévi-Strauss have spoken of the “rules” of human thought and behavior. To paraphrase Bourdieu, there are no rules. It is not even enough to say that rules are flexible and ever-changing. It might be more accurate to describe them as a kind of grid upon which real life in the present moment of choice “works itself out.”

[c] Early choice RL
There is habitus—the ingrained but still-changing ways of behaving with which we are enculturated. On the mountain, habitus used to take pilgrims through the temple in the cosmologically “correct” order. No more, at least not at the southern mountain temple. It still has the vast majority of pilgrims buying incense and hell money, paying respects (albeit “backwards”) at the base temple, and repeating the process at the Zhurong Temple on the peak. Most people, echoing Beattie, would describe these activities as what one “ought” to do."

Where Bourdieu breaks new ground is in describing the way that people play rules or expectations off of each other, to the point that it really cannot be said that people follow rules at all. They, rather, act in accordance with their individual and social interests in a complex and ever-changing field of operation. For Bourdieu, it is not the individual actor that is the key to analysis (a mistake made by economists and psychologists alike); it is the relations between actors or groups within a system or, as he calls it, a “field.” The analysis of individual action (common in action theory and game theory) independently of the “fields” within which actors operate is meaningless. I would go so far as to say that economists and psychologists give a patina of “objectivity” to their work precisely to the extent that they ignore “fields,” which complicate matters to the point where elegant analyses will no longer fit.

The knowledge that comes from Bourdieu’s approach is textured and, like life, a little messy. I like to describe it this way. There are no “rules,” only habits (habitus). Connected to these are a rather imprecise set of expectations—senses of what one “ought” to do in a particular situation. Add to that the reality of other actors in motion around the individual (sometimes alongside and sometimes competing in various ways) and, finally, the “fact” that the rewards people seek from their investments of time, energy, and capital are never merely economic. Voici, we have the complex amalgam of operations at work on a pilgrimage mountain in China as well as a Sunday morning breakfast rush at the Waffle House®. For Bourdieu, actors are never static (a severe failing found in approaches as diverse as neo-utilitarianism and structuralism). They are always active; they are always acting.
[d] Top choice RL

On Longevity Mountain, this approach works well to provide interpretive solidity to a complex set of movements. Do we enter from the “back” or walk around to the front of the base temple? Do we even know that temples have “directions” in the way that most travelers would have understood five centuries ago? What kind of incense do we use? How much of it? What kind of it (how expensive)? And is anyone looking at my dragon head incense sticks that cost ¥100? The questions continue. Where do we stay? How do we plan to travel? How much does it cost? What is the relevance of the secular features of the mountain (the Martyr’s Shrine to Nationalist heroes during the war with Japan, a famous tea house, and the filming location for China’s most popular television show)? What is the relevance of the temples along the route between base and peak? Within any given temple, is there a sector (殿) that is more worthy of attention than the others? If I “spend” incense at the “acquiring wealth” sector of one temple, is it acceptable, perhaps, to diversify and move to, say, the “gaining children” section of the next? Do particular temples have particularly strong reputations for one or another kind of supplication?

The questions go on and on, and every time that I have tried to graph them, I get an embarrassingly simplistic demand curve that I attribute to my lack of doctoral level study in economics, but suspect still to be a problem with…economics. Here again, Bourdieu is useful. For him, all theoretical perspectives dealing with action are insufficient in isolation. We are far too likely to take on the naïve view of the actor, forgetting the crucial matter of actors’ positions in relation to one another and to the field within which they move. Even on a mountain, numerous structures (and other actors) impose constraints upon actors, many of which they are completely unaware.
[e] So many 殿, so little... RL

And, finally, it is all forever changing. Always. Structures are made and continuously reproduced by actors. At the same time, the continual reproduction is forever changing the structures themselves. Even as, say, sacrificing at base and peak (as we have established) is grounded as a continually replicated and reproduced habitus, the journeys and particular sacrifices etch and re-etch the structure. Reconsider the extremes with which we began. Both the hasty traveler and devout kowtower reproduce the structural expectation of sacrificing at base and peak. Both effect a very different kind of assumption (the “ought”), however. Now imagine thousands of travelers every day replicating, reproducing, and innovating. 

We have the cultural economics of divination on China’s southern sacred mountain.

Finally, Bourdieu writes of “cultural capital.” To be sure, pilgrims spend sizable amounts of money on and around the mountains. Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital is a persistent one, though. A trip to Longevity Mountain most definitely increases this vague but important set of qualities for the traveler. Yet my own travels and research have shown me that, regardless of religious intensity, the utmost maximization of cultural capital comes not from a trip to Longevity Mountain, but rather on a trip (about two hours away) to Mao Zedong’s birthplace. In today’s China, that is the bragging right, so to speak. The southern mountain adds to the luster, but thirty centuries of cosmology is nowhere close to the prestige of a farmhouse from Mao’s boyhood. Ever-changing.  
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Theoretical Implications—2
We'll take a long look at Marshall Sahlins and his perspectives on structure and history tomorrow, as we delve ever-more-deeply into the science of divinatory economics. 
[f] Structure RL

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