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.

Moreover, transactionalism suggests that societies are the most stable and harmonious when groups don't compete to make their livings, instead occupying their own economic niches. It's a construction that sheds light on why Romney's comfortable taking about the poor and middle class as "them." There's nothing wrong with them, necessarily; they're just doing their own thing.

A History of Anthropological Theory explains further: "Social relationships are 'generated,' sustained, and changed as a result of the economic choices made by individuals, each of whom has learned to play and manipulate the 'rules' of a social 'game.'" It also helps explain Romney's disdain for the 47% of Americans who, in his flawed thinking, refuse to play the game. He literally has no way to understand them.

At the height of its influence, transactionalism had its followers, but also its strong critics. Barth would argue that transactions aren't everything. But by reading his work -- and, frankly, listening to him lecture; he was a professor of mine -- they sure seemed to be the key to understanding why societies exist as they do. Barth's critics argued that he was wrongly reducing humans to transaction-executing machines. And that he was doing it because he was mistaking the perspective of a few in Swat Valley for the lives of people writ large.

Anthropologist and former Pakistani administrator Akbar Ahmed, for one, argued that Barth had bought into a "khan's-eye-view of the world," accepting the framing of society that the landowners fed him and seeing in that the whole of Swat Valley. (Barth, who was widely credited as an excellent fieldworker, found that ridiculous.) In Barth's work, "the particular has become the general," Ahmed argued.

Another transactionalism critic was anthropologist Talal Asad, who went after the idea that political power among the Pathans rested in its natural place. Instead, argued Asad, power came from control over land, the valley's most valuable and limited resource, not from winning the favor of the landless. What really happens, wrote Asad, is that the leader "acquires his political authority by virtue of his membership in a politically dominant class, not by persuading freely consenting individuals to become his political followers."

Of course, persuading freely consenting individuals to become his political followers is exactly what Romney has to do now -- and what's giving him some trouble.

The discomfort with Barth is part of the discomfort with Romney. The rejection of transactionalism often seems rooted in the idea that understanding the world that way misses too much of its magic and meaning. It's not crazy to think that whether you see life as the product of give-and-takes or the fruit of society's complexities determines somewhat whether you're a Romney fan or an Obama fan. Barthian thinking has fallen out of favor, to some extent.

It turned out that it makes people uncomfortable to think about the world reduced to a series of transactions.