research institute for compassionate economics

Structure versus agency… and being human

Written by Dean Spears on March 8th, 2011

Devi Sridhar’s book The Battle Against Hunger bridges several divides. As an anthropologist, she studies food and nutrition – and nutrition policy – through the details of three villages in Tamil Nadu, but also in the halls of the World Bank, studying its decision-makers, too. She combines interviews and telling quotations with statistics. Throughout, she revisits the old debate between structure and agency: are people poor because of their context, or because of what they do?

It’s no longer surprising to learn that, upon closer inspection, a famous development project doesn’t seem to work very well, after all. Yet, it’s sometimes worth a look at the details of each new example. The nutrition program Sridhar considers is apparently predicated on the idea that mothers will learn from time-trend graphs of their children’s height — and do what is necessary to feed their babies more. As Sridhar points out, understanding such graphs can be hard even for college students. It doesn’t turn out to matter that the mothers cannot read the graphs because the clinic functionaries record the required measurements without any idea of why or what to do with them. In any event, it is far from clear that there is more food available to the mothers, even if some sufficiently motivational statistic were available.

I appreciated the ambition of the book, and some of the potentially unexpectedly null findings: for example, in these programs caste does not always make a big difference. A few parts seemed a little too quick or casual. For example, individual people and documents associated with the World Bank are often quoted as “the World Bank,” as though they spoke for a homogenous (and hegemonic) organization. Also, towards the end, men spending food money on alcohol was emphasized as a “circumstance” constraining food for children, rather than a “choice.” While perhaps alcohol consumption is not chosen by mothers, this seems odd, and potentially unhelpful. Village men are people, too. Maybe social science also has something useful to say about why, as she claims, they spend so much money on alcohol and can help redirect it to food.

The case of the alcoholic village fathers – within Sridhar’s book contrasting agency and structure, choice and circumstance – emphasizes that there may be a third way out of this dilemma. Like many who sympathize with the poor, Sridhar emphasizes the constraining role of circumstance. But psychology teaches that we are constrained even when left to our own devices. This is not – as some in Sridhar’s story argue – because we don’t know what is good for us, and need to be taught when our children are hungry. And it is not a special deficiency of the poor. It is because of the mental and behavioral constraints that we all face. Rich and poor people have limits to their ability to think things through, to resist temptation and control themselves, to make and stick to a plan.

There are many types of unfreedom: some come from other people, some come from scarcity of physical resources, and some come from being only human. Understanding these limits – at the intersection of choice and circumstance – might not only help this old debate. As many people have suggested, it might also help find solutions that work better than graphs.