State of the Art: Decision-Making Probability

Most anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers have explored this relativistic alternative by trying to come as close as possible to achieving what is usually called the emic view. It is the approach of basing descriptions of the decision-making process on locally defined criteria, taking the decision-makers to be the experts, and allowing that the rationality of the agents may be very different from that of the observer.

One can try to systematically adopt the emic view by drawing on ethnographic decision tree modeling (Gladwin, 1989). The textbook example for this theory is not one of foragers but rather of American college students and the question of whether or not they go to have lunch at McDonald’s. The technique is that one tries through interviews to elicit as many criteria as possible that are said to be relevant for this decision to go or not to go (criteria such as whether one likes the food, likes the service, knows where a McDonald’s is). Then the criteria are sorted according to a decision-making tree, which is subsequently tested against the decisions that the college students actually report when being asked where they have lunch. That is, the model should account for most of the decisions observable in real life. Failure to do so would indicate that a criterion is either missing from or misplaced in the decision-making tree. As a product of inductive reasoning, the tree makes predictions on the basis of probability and takes account of local values and decisionmaking criteria. If some of the decision-making tree’s underlying criteria and values are subject to change (e.g., with age), decision-making trees will likely differ from one cultural or subcultural group to the next. One can thereby test and substantiate a relativistic hypothesis through the inductive reasoning of probability.

Again, this model of ethnographic decision trees works well in some instances. It apparently holds in particular for small-scale farmers and their choices of which crop to grow and when. Stated differently, it seems to work in settings of small homogeneous groups with decisions of seasonal regularity. It does not work as nicely with foragers, however, as I found when trying to employ this method with San (“Bushmen”) in Namibia. The individuals there are not homogenous in their responses, and it seems that the decision to move camp is not considered an instance that can be looked at through the lens of probability but rather only in personal terms as it were. The question that I asked in my field research was not about going to McDonald’s (Namibia being one of the world’s few countries without McDonald’s). Instead, I asked what locals thought about attending secondary school, which for them means moving away from home, attending boarding school, or staying with distant family. There was no problem in eliciting an ethnographic decision tree. Everyone agreed that secondary education was important and that children should take this opportunity if they had found someone to pay their fees, buy them a school uniform, and offer them a place to stay. There was also agreement that discrimination by teachers or fellow students, food shortage at the place one was staying, or similar problems should not be permitted to make the children quit school. Despite this consensus, however, individuals constantly, and often for highly idiosyncratic reasons, deviated from the outcome predicted by the model.

It emerged in this research that the social agents concerned refused to see major personal choices (such as moving away from home to attend school) as decisions to be taken from a perspective of nowhere in particular. The agent was not regarded as replaceable by anyone else. There was no notion of “all things being equal,” which would have allowed for a neutral weighing of alternatives. This personalization of decisions applied to the manner in which the agent is perceived, the fact that a decision is seen to be analogue rather than digital, and the degree to which individual decisions are seen as incongruent with those of others. In the following paragraphs I examine these aspects in more detail.

First, the San place a high social premium on allowing individuals to make their own decisions, and this applies to children from an early age. Parents leave it to their children to choose whether or not to go to school. The teachers, who are exclusively from other ethnic groups with a farming background, tend to be outraged about this practice and shake their heads. When they go to see the parents to ask them why a child has run away from school or did not attend, the parents would usually respond, “Go and ask the child. She [He] is sitting right here.” Whereas the teachers feel that the parents have a duty to make their children go to school (and that the children have a duty to obey their parents), San parents and children see it as a matter of personal autonomy for the pupil to decide. Even if one is generally in favor of schooling, this preference is trumped by the self-determination of the individual for his or her own life.

Second, San parents and children alike strongly emphasize the need to be able to revise decisions. Decisions are made as one goes; they are not thought of as on/off switches or inexorable if-then mechanisms. This characteristic, too, clearly surfaces in intercultural contact when understanding breaks down. Employers (and anthropologists for that matter) who think they have struck a medium- or long-term agreement that, for example, obliges local people to produce tools in exchange for money or to attend school for an extended period are constantly frustrated. The local people often decide to abandon the plan or their cooperation halfway through, even if it means that they do not receive the money or diploma they had originally envisioned. This frustration by outsiders has been translated into a stereotype casting San people as unreliable and unstable. From a San perspective, however, it is a consequence of avoiding decisions that cannot be revised in the light of new information and events. They do not wish to make a decision once and for all at the beginning of an action but rather only once the action has been completed.

Third, social agents in the San cultural settings seem to be aware at all stages of the decision-making process that they are living only that one life and that decisions such as splitting up or joining up again are not repetitions of one another, although they may occur frequently. In discussions of past or future decisions, there is a preoccupation with particulars. Even if everyone has agreed in principle on the criteria for a sound decision on schooling, for instance, the underlying assumption is that one small thing can be sufficient to allow the shared hierarchy of criteria to topple. A minor thing of this sort could be, for instance, a brief exchange of words with a teacher or another student, some insult, or some minor problem with food. What seem to be excuses to the outside, such as the fact that one had no soap with which to wash, no shoes to wear, or no decent food that morning, are acceptable contingencies that distinguish one decision from another. Just as personal lives are ultimately unique because they are subject to particular differences, so are individual decisionmaking processes (see, Widlok, 2009b, for a discussion of moral decision-making). Decisions may be faulty with respect to principles but comprehensible and justifiable in terms of the particulars.

Given the high premium on individual autonomy, a stance representing a probabilistic model of reasoning becomes inimical to understanding the personal and situational aspects of the decisions in this ethnographic case. Arguably, the decision to move is felt to be a personal, not a rational, one if the term rational decision is understood to mean a choice arrived at from no particular perspective that allows one to weigh aims and means in a detached manner. By contrast, the default assumption is that the decision to move is made at a particular time by a particular person in a particular evolving setting. I thus realized that there would always be cases unaccounted for by any of these decision-making trees despite a degree of agreement on the criteria for the decision to move from one location to another. In practice the predictive value of these tree models is precarious: Because of everyday life’s imponderabilia, decision-makers in these settings are ready to reconsider their decision at any time. These decisions are seen as uniquely affecting personal lives, so people refuse to judge them aloofly as being instances of a general type. Instead, they highlight the personal, ultimately unique setting. A calculus of probability does not work, for the underlying presupposition of such a calculus is that one such decision is interchangeable with other decisions of the same type and that the two alternatives can be weighed against each another. However, one should be cautious to treat this observation as evidence of the rare or exotic nature of decision-making in this particular group of foragers. In fact, many observations in modern western settings also fit the description of personalized decisions (Fuchs, 2008, p. 342), especially when considering fundamental, irreversible decisions of one’s life that do not comply with ideas of stock-taking (Spaemann, 1996, p. 126).

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