What the Big 1960s Debate in Anthropology Can Tell Us About Mitt Romney

The idea of transactionalism helps explain why the candidate is having trouble selling his world view.


Nicholas Lemann's new New Yorker profile of Mitt Romney is the portrait of a man for whom life is a series of outcome maximizations:

George Romney was an organization man. Mitt Romney became a transaction man: someone who moves assets around with a speed and force that leaves many of the rest of us bewildered. The insurrection in business has profoundly affected the lives of most people who work, pay taxes, and get government benefits. It's the backdrop of this Presidential election.

And, as Lemann fleshes out Romney, this isn't just about Bain, and it's not just about capital. It's about the Salt Lake City Olympics, the Massachusetts' governorship, his work as an elder in the Mormon church. Lehmann quotes one of the people Romney hired to run his gubernatorial bid: "If he's elected, he'll do an adequate job of dealing with the issues of the day. He's not a vision guy. He's not policy-driven. He thinks he'll do a good job." Process is where Mitt Romney puts his faith, and he's a man who holds up his end of transactions. That means political power should be flowing his way.

Of course, there's a very good chance that 2012 won't end up that way. And Lemann's framing of the issue hints, albeit in a distant way, at why it might not.

The Romney "transaction man" quip echoes the fiery debate over transactionalism kicked off by the 1959 monograph Political Leadership among Swat Pathans by Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth. Anthropology had for decades been dominated by structural functionalism's focus on society's forms and norms. Barth instead focused on the role of the individual's rational self-interest in northern Pakistan's Swat Valley.

If Obama's "You didn't build that" is structural functionalism, Romney's "We built it" is Barthian transactionalism.

The sprawling academic debate that ensued is detailed here, but a sketch of it gives a different perspective on why people might be having trouble relating to Romney, and Romney to people.

Transaction, stated Barth, is "the process which results where the parties in the course of their interactions systematically try to assure that the value gained for them is greater or equal to the value lost." Reflecting back on his work later, Barth explained that "not all social relations are constructed in this way, but many certainly are." Not for nothing was transactionalism also known as "methodological individualism."

Transactionalism has implications for leadership. In places where there's free choice, at least, there's no real reason to stick to your group. The Pathans were more tied to their khan, or caste leader, than one another. "Many of the politically active individuals in Swat clearly recognize the distinction between private and group advantage," wrote Barth, "and when faced with a choice they tend to consider the former rather than the latter."

Boiled down, authority "is built up and maintained through the exercise of a continual series of individual choices." A leader, in other words, has to constantly display his worthiness. From there easily flows the idea that, because everything's a free transaction, power ends up where it belongs.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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