Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The other paths: Cultural economics, comparative economic performance, and the formation of capitalist mentalities in Lima, Peru
by Bird, Matthew D., Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2010, 326; 3408658
Abstract (Summary)

This study seeks to explain, in one part of the world, cultural influences on the formation of what Karl Marx called “capital personified,” what Max Weber later referred to as the “spirit of capitalism,” and what neoclassical economists consider as homo economicus.

It takes as its point of departure the set of insights quoted in the epigraph. Although commodity exchange or market transactions may have existed in some manifestation even in the earliest of societies, it is not a universal form of interaction. However, once market exchange becomes the fundamental means of organizing production and distribution in a society, it transforms the way people think, feel, want, and, ultimately, behave. This is because the practice of market exchange has its own normative logic, described by neoclassical economics and assumed in its model as universal. The repeated act of two people, who seek to increase personal gain by setting a price and agreeing to the trade of goods and associated rights over them, instills particular notions of profit, freedom, equality, property, and self-interest. Although this mental transformation takes time, it has, in the modern era, become inevitable. In the 21st century, the global market system has extended into nearly every community in the world and continues to shape minds.

But this mental transformation does not happen in the same way. Culture matters, though not as posited by schools of thought inspired by Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis, which see values as determinant of economic performance. Rather, the process occurs more as Weber outlined in other sections of his classic essay. The norms of market activity force themselves on economic subjects – creating training, and educating them. Yet the mental transformation is never total, never complete. Herein lies this study’s potential contribution. Market exchange mediates existing cultural practices to forge new varieties of capitalist mentalities. This study offers empirical evidence in support of this thesis through the examination of how increasing market exchange in Peru during the 20th century mediated two distinct sets of cultural practices—Andean and criollo—to generate new varieties of capitalist mentalities.

This framework enables a different interpretation of market transformation in Peru as compared to that offered by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, based as it is on universal behavioral assumptions of homo economicus. When de Soto returned to Peru after a long hiatus abroad, he was struck by the economic dynamism among the Andean migrants. They were not socialist to the core, as the left, especially the Shining Path, believed. They understood profit-seeking and private property and were merely behaving rationally in the face of inefficient law. Empirically, de Soto saw a different world, and politically he needed to argue against theories of the left and right and offer a new account that could inform development policy. But de Soto’s explanation is incomplete. He correctly highlights the historical nature of market transformation, but explains it with a model that makes universal behavioral assumptions. He fails to recognize that actors learned to be more capitalist—and that culture influenced this process. This becomes apparent when Andean migrants are compared to the traditional middle class.

In turn-of-the-century Lima, when both groups began to form, they demonstrated noncapitalist mindsets in the form of rentier and peasant mentalities. The former emerged from a criollo and the latter from Andean practices. This began to change during the country’s export boom, which “proletarianized” both groups, albeit in different ways, and thrust them into new market relations. Between the late 1960s and early 1990s, successive crises forced the two groups to rerationalize their practices. To survive, they had no choice but to adopt more capitalist mindsets, but in different ways. The economic strategies they devised—parasitic or symbiotic in the case of the middle class and splintering or agglutinating in the case of Andean migrants—could succeed and fail, but in different ways. This is seen most clearly in Lima’s roofs.

Andean migrants make roofing decisions based on the practice of ayni or reciprocity and the frame of “el progreso” or progress. The criollo middle class made roofing decisions based on the practice of arribismo or social climbing and the frame of “decency.” The economic strategies of the criollo middle class and Andean migrant groups could succeed and fail but in different ways.

A cultural economics approach explains cultural and historical change in both cases and offers a new framework for understanding cultural influences on economic decisions in the context of market transformation. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Shweder, Richard
Commitee: Borges, Dain, Cole, Jennifer, Luhrmann, Tanya
School: The University of Chicago
Department: Comparative Human Development
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 71/07, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Economics, Latin American Studies, Social structure
Keywords: Capitalist, Cultural economics, Cultural psychology, Economic sociology, Lima, Mentalities, Middle class, New institutional economics, Peru
Publication Number: 3408658
ISBN: 9781124050874