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Rationale and Culture


In “Theorising Capitalist Transformations through Culture” (EPW, 9 February 2019), which reviewed Manuel Castells’ Another Economy Is Possible: Culture and Economy in a Time of Crisis, Rajan Gurukkal argues that economic practices are shaped by cultural values, and critiques the postulate of rationality of individual behaviour in the mainstream new classical economics.

This is not a new finding and alternate explanations have always been available. In Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo argue that when the poor spend a lot on ceremonies, including marriages and festivals—often going into debt—it could seem like irrational behaviour. However, there exists an underlying rationality to this behaviour. Living with deprivation, they indulge in some extravagant outlay in order to relish an occasion of emotional fulfilment, which is otherwise unattainable.

I would argue that it is also a desire to obtain or retain one’s social status, in order to be well-regarded within the relevant social group, and to maintain one’s esteem. Anyone familiar with Indian cultural practices would understand this proclivity.

Years ago, Leela Gulati in “Profile of a Female Agricultural Labourer” (EPW, 25 March 1978) questioned a poor working woman about wasting her earnings by buying tea from a shop, instead of making it at home. For one thing, perhaps given the cost of fuel, it may not be that cheap. Additionally, it is a small luxury enjoyed by these workers.

I recall my experience in the Mumbai suburban trains when I would travel to work. In the evenings, women employed at the secretariat would buy fruits on the way home and eat them in the train itself. They said this was because when they got home, they would have to share them with others and would either get a small share or no share at all, given the family hierarchy. Hence, the question of what is rational behaviour depends on the context.

Maithreyi Krishnaraj


Updated On : 1st Mar, 2019


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