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Posts Tagged ‘social science’

Re-reading Marshall Sahlins’ Apologies to Thucydides yesterday, I was struck by his characterisation of the malign influence of the ancient Greek in a way I hadn’t been before. In my previous reading, perhaps because this was what I was most interested in at the time, Thucydides seemed to be being presented above all as a symbol of and/or cause of the narrow perspective of traditional historiography, excluding cultural and social factors from serious consideration and concentrating on politics, narrowly conceived in nationalistic terms. This is a critique that dates back at least to the late nineteenth century and the reaction against the dominance of the Rankeans, and appears in a less developed form much earlier, most often in the confrontation of Thucydides and Herodotus as different models of historiography, where the latter can be celebrated for his broad ethnographic and geographical interests and inclusive approach. This time, however, I realised how far Sahlins’ critique was not directed solely against historiography, but against an entire climate of thought in the modern West: the ‘neoliberal’ assumption that all human actions are intelligible in terms of crude, instrumentalist motives, driven by a universal ‘human nature’. (more…)

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I’ve been reviewing a book* for an economic history journal that claims to explain, using rational choice theory, how Christianity developed over the first thousand years of its existence into a religious monopoly: in the marketplace of ideas, it undercut and outmanoeuvred its rivals through product development, cartelisation, vertical integration and ruthless price-cutting, so that it became the rational choice for religious consumers seeking to maximise their utility. Given the nature of the journal, my actual review will be short and limited in scope – roughly summarised, ‘the only economic history you’re going to find here is the assertion that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire must have ‘crowded out’ crime and immorality, so reduced enforcement costs and promoted economic growth’ – so I wanted to take the opportunity here to engage with some of the other problems I see with its approach to the history of religion. Where do we start..?

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