“The 21st Century Will be a Century of Ethics or It Will Not Be”

In a recent post on Black, White and Gray, Wheaton sociology professor Amy Reynolds asked “What Makes a Development Expert?” Pondering who should be the next president of the World Bank, and what approach he or she should take to development, Reynolds argued that the end of development is the human person–or human development. She further argued that the next president of the World Bank should not only be a “technical” expert, but someone who understands how culture influences development.

My students’ final assignment for the semester was to read Reynolds’s post and the links about the different candidates, and then use our assigned class readings from Amartya Sen, William Easterly, and Carruthers and Babb to vote for the new World Bank President. In my class, Nigeria’s Ngozi won 20 votes, Kim won 8, and Ocampo won 3. My students cited Ngozi’s technical expertise in economics and her experience as finance minster as her most important qualifications. Those who voted for Kim liked that he had proven results that a piecemeal approach to development–tackling one main issue (HIV/AIDS) through community-based centers–could work.

We know now that the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, the former President of Dartmouth College,  co-founder of Partners In Health, and former director of World Health Organization’s Department of HIV/AIDS, was elected President of the World Bank. The Economist mused whether Kim, whose approach to development has been grassroots, can bring effective change to an agency most known for its big-push approach to development.

I have  a great interest in varying approaches to economic development. After graduating from Yale in 1995, I worked for three years at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, founded by Nobel Peace laureate and two-time President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias. During my time there, I traveled throughout Central America and visited communities of former soldiers and guerillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. I went to graduate school at Princeton to study international development from a sociological perspective.  Although my interests took a different route, I still follow debates in economic development. The more I read, the more I realize that development does not just mean expanding markets,  generating greater macro-economic growth, or increasing personal incomes, but rather development requires both economic growth and a focus on promoting human dignity.

But do such discussions about human dignity occur in the large development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? Yes, they do. In 2007, I was invited to a seminar on Faith and Economics by Princeton economic historian  Professor Harold James at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. When James introduced the public session of the Study Group on Faith and Economics, he remarked how the modern world seems to be marked by both the globalization of markets and the resurgence of religious activity in many parts of the world. Are these two trends connected? How does religion influence economic development? As the President of the European University Institute, Yves Meny, said what does it mean to talk about faith and economics when for many, economics is the religion of the times?

Each of the four leading figures present at this conference–Michel Camdessus, Anwar Ibrahim, Emma Rothschild, and Amartya Sen,  agreed on the basic point that economic growth in and of itself must be connected to promoting human dignity and they each made unique contributions to how this can be accomplished. For example, as the eminent economic historian from Harvard Emma Rothschild pointed out, the market does not create equity, yet classical authors like Hume and Montesquieu were concerned about the perverse effects that gross inequality could have on a democracy.

Although much contemporary writings on economics have separated the ethical and the technical, the study group participants pointed out how religious ideas and religious people contribute to generating an ethic to guide the distribution of wealth and the proper use of the fruits of wealth. For example, the Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked how most religions contain a missionary element that leads humans to encounter other humans and consider them in an ethical light. Although neither Professor Sen nor Professor Rothschild profess or practice a particular religion, they recognized how religious faith as a transcendental approach to life—or what Professor Rothschild called “an imaginative transposition”—leads one to put himself in the position of other human beings and consider how we should treat them.

The other two conference participants, Michel Camdessus, the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, are both religious believers. They became friends while working with the IMF and began to share their faith, finding many commonalities despite coming from different traditions (Catholicism and Islam). When he was Managing Director of the IMF, Mr. Camdessus (who is from France) worked hard to bring discussions of values and ethics to his work. He also met regularly with religious leaders and lay leaders of different religious faiths. In both the private and public sessions of the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus recounted conversations he had with Pope John Paul II that led him to ponder a question the Pope put to him. After the fall of communism and the spread of market economies across the globe, the Pope asked him, “Upon what values are you going to build this new global society?”

During the rest of his time at the IMF, Mr. Camdessus reflected on this very question and he also took advantage of his many opportunities to meet with political and religious leaders to ask them the same question. The answers he came up with represent the beginning of a platform that people of various religious faiths or no particular faith could agree to. During the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus argued that we need a global economic system that promotes human dignity. He outlined three values that he thinks world leaders and world citizens can agree to: 1) a sense of global responsibility to all countries; 2) solidarity to alleviate poverty; 3) a new sense of global citizenship to back a new global governance.

Mr. Ibrahim recounted how he has encountered many stereotypes against religious believers, in particular Muslims, in his work in international economics and development. For too many people, secularism has come to mean not just separation of church and state but also being anti-religious. He argued that faith can help bring back an ethical approach to economics. Rather than thinking of man as homos economicus, we should think of man as a universalist humanist. As Mr. Ibrahim pointed out, arguing that the theory and practice of economic development should include faith and religion does not mean that non-believers now become the excluded.

All the participants agreed that people can reach an agreement on values and ethics even if they start from different religious faiths or no faith at all. Professor Sen made a passionate call for greater dialogue about economics and ethics. Michel Camdessus’s closing words of advice or perhaps caution were: “The 21st century will be a century of ethics or it will not be.” In other words, the 21st century has shown us that technical progress in economic production, biology or science can enrich or endanger human life, making it crucial to ponder the values upon which we use our technical and economic powers.

Is There an Academic Bias against Religion? Appears so, at Least against Conservative Christians.

By George Yancey

The question of academic bias has been one many people have argued about for decades. Some have pointed out that people in the sciences are more likely to be politically liberal and irreligious and that this overrepresentation is proof of this bias. Others argued that this political and religious disparity is due to the fact that political conservatives and the highly religious are less interested in a scientific occupation. While there may be a different level of scientific interest between progressives and conservatives this does not mean that scientific bias is a myth. Indeed, some of my recent work confirms that it is not a myth.

In my book Compromising Scholarship I surveyed scientists in several disciplines (Political Science, Anthropology, History, Physics, Chemistry, Experimental Biology, English Language, Non-English Language, Philosophy and Sociology). I asked them whether it would affect their hiring decision if they found out that an applicant was of a given political or religious orientation. I found some evidence that being a Republican would negatively affect a scientist’s willingness to hire someone. For physic scholars, only 10 percent were less likely to hire someone if they found out that the applicant is a Republican, but for anthropologists this percentage was 32.3. It was even worse for conservative Christians. A range of 21.8 percent (of experimental biologists) to 58.8 percent (of anthropologists) were less willing to hire someone if they found out that he or she is an evangelical. For fundamentalists the range was 36.4 percent (of experimental biologists) to 71.4 percent (of English professors) being were less willing to hire a fundamentalist.

As a scholar it is disturbing that so many fellow academics prejudge a possible scientist based on their political or religious beliefs. In reality those qualities should not matter as it concerns a person’s scientific abilities. We have to wonder how it shapes our scientific endeavors when such political and religious barriers exist. Even those who are not Republicans or conservative Christians should be dismayed at the ideas that may not be explored or the talent that may be wasted.

It is probably asking for the impossible to expect academics to leave their political and religious biases behind when they do their work. But if there is bias in who professors will hire then it is also quite possible that there is bias in other aspects in how scholars do their work. Too often those who argue that academic bias is a myth forget that all humans have biases. They are not doing scholars a favor when they make assertions that bias does not exists in academia. Ignoring the evidence of academic bias robs scholars of the ability to deal with their biases. It is reasonable to ask scientists to remember that they have biases and that they need to be careful about how their biases affect their judgment. Such caution can only improve the social atmosphere that academics operate in.

I am “in a relationship”

Culture is, among other things, the power of legitimate naming. Or so says James Hunter, sociologist of culture at the University of Virginia. Makes sense to me. In his book To Change the World, he notes that culture change is most enduring when it penetrates the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of discussion, and our perceptions of everyday reality.

This became evident to me the other day when, while on Facebook, I noticed that a kid (age 10 or so, I think) whom I once knew was a Facebook “friend” of a “friend” of mine. I don’t think I have “friends” that are kids, and so the sociologist in me quickly wondered what kids do and say on Facebook, and how is it different from what adults do and say. So I took a look. The first thing I noticed was that another friend of this child was someone I had also once known (as their basketball coach). I took a look at his profile and wall. It was noted there that he had recently changed his status from “in a relationship” to “single.”

That struck me as odd, and rather adult-like. Which of course it is, because Facebook apparently doesn’t use old-fashioned kid terms like “going with” to describe childhood romances. (Never mind the “going where” questions…). And it hammered home to me the reality that, as children uptake Facebook, that the latter will have a great deal of say over the terms—and more importantly, the ideas and norms and expectations behind the terms—in which youth describe lots of things.

Facebook has—via our active participation and ample passivity—done exactly that in the domain of relationships. But I don’t really think of a 12-year-old as “single.” (Do you?) I have historically thought of singles as unmarried persons. Now apparently singles are persons who are not “in a relationship.” I am in a relationship, for the record. At least Facebook allows me to say that I’m married. Imagine the hullaballoo if FB were to drop the married status and simply use “in a relationship.” But imagine if they stuck to their guns about it. FB has real power in cultural naming, and with it legitimation. Far too much, to be sure.

I am not actually problematizing the relationship play of kids. Been there done that, didn’t come away from it warped or traumatized. But when you imprint adult-like statuses on children, the latter come to seem and act more like the former (and arguably vice versa). But with Facebook, one size fits all.

Except that it doesn’t.


Sa-I-Gu: the Los Angeles Riots 20 Years Later

Some Koreans, especially those who are culturally engaged and fluent in the language know the day as “Sa-I-Gu” or “4-2-9” – April 29th, 1992, the start of the infamous Los Angeles Riots. That was 20 years ago. Back then, I was a stressed out 2nd year student at Mr. Jefferson’s University, especially since it was near the end of the semester and finals were looming and assignments needed turning in. On the other side of the country, four Los Angeles police officers, (three of whom were white and one Hispanic) who beat motorist Rodney King (an African American), a year earlier were acquitted. King, who had been on parole, was excessively speeding and subsequently caught by police.

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In the days before cell phone video cameras one ordinary citizen took his VHS video recorder and taped 10 minutes of the incident and it went viral – this was before there was a commercial internet. The media ran with this story a good long time but it was the acquittal of those law enforcement officers in 1992 that most attribute to the rampant social disorder that spanned a large quarter of south central Los Angeles. All told, over 50 people were killed, up to $1 billion in property and business losses. The massive social unrest included eyewitness accounts of law enforcement fleeing, bystanders pulled out of vehicles, and the need to establish a curfew and bring in the National Guard to re-establish order. Keep in mind, most residents in this area stayed home and didn’t venture the streets, so while this is a big event, the majority of people in the area took no part in the chaos. [Read more...]

Green is Go(o)d

Let’s start with an admission: I’m a fan of new urbanism. And old urbanism, for that matter. It sort of makes sense as a sociologist and someone who is invested in long-term strategies for growing families and cities while retaining permeable cover for farmland, etc. I’m always impressed with old stories about big families in small houses. Ergo, I live in an overpriced townhouse in a high-density neighborhood not far from the middle of Austin. And I generally like it, if mostly for lazy reasons: no yard to mow; low maintenance; feeding off my neighbors’ energy usage—via shared walls—to reduce the cost of my own. (Some) decent kids nearby for the young’uns to play with. Good stuff.

But the green movement which thrives in this new urbanist community is, from my angle, not just another interest group. It bears characteristics of what sociologists of religion would call a “new religious movement,” a subject of longstanding interest to scholars I used to hang out with. To be sure, the green movement is not a religion in the way we typically understand the term, and doesn’t have worship services per se. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t worship going on.

Borrowing from Christian Smith and others whom I cannot immediately recall, think about the ways in which the environmental movement fits this definition of religion: it’s a group phenomenon; concerned with the sacred; has a body of beliefs; has a set of practices; and it includes moral prescriptions. We do things for the things we worship, which technically is a term that means to “affirm the worth of.” We pay them a lot of attention. We offer up time and talents to them.

So when my neighbors hold an annual “hug the lake” event, outdo each other to (ironically drive long distances in order to) buy up the available Chevy Volts, serve as ground zero for Earth Day in Austin, and exhibit sustained one-upmanship about their personal environmental efforts, I start to feel like I’m a bad environmentalist and that I need to confess my sins–a full trash can, no bicycle, two cars, no solar panels–and return to affirming the beliefs and practicing the rituals, no matter the cost. (But I draw the line well short of a compost toilet.) Can’t I just be a new urbanist? Not really, because that is settled simply by living there (that is, by being in the same “congregation” of sorts). To be truly devout, I would need to set myself apart from my fellow congregants by exhibiting greater sacrifices. I need to be part of the 20 percent of the congregation that does 80 percent of the work. Free riding, after all, is a classic problem in religious organizations.

It all sounds like religion to me. Which is not surprising, given the claim I just made about what religion is and does. It need not be about the supernatural. It’s about the super-empirical: humans treat many things in life as sacred that are immanent, that have nothing to do with unseen beings.

We all worship something. It’s in the design.