How do rural people make ends meet under conditions of high economic risk and continuous social change? I have explored this general question for over 20 years in rural southwestern Madagascar, by studying the livelihoods and economic decisions of Mikea hunter-gatherers, Masikoro farmers, and Vezo fishers.
SW Madagascar is a semi-arid environment with some of the most unpredictable rainfall in the world. Like much of the Global South, it has experienced rapid changes during the past few centuries due to colonialism, globalization, and international development.
My dissertation research (Tucker 2001) explored the ways by which Mikea protect themselves from potential shortfalls in food supply, and how they cope with food insufficiency once it occurs. I learned that although Mikea define themselves as hunters and gatherers, they have always practiced a diversified economy that involves some agriculture, herding, trading, and wage labor. For Mikea, "hunter-gatherer" is symbolic of their ancestors' resistance to the precolonial Andrevola kings, and later, French colonization (Tucker 2003).
(By the way, Mikea, like other hunter-gatherers, are commonly cast as some sort of primitive leftovers from times long past. THIS IS FALSE. Mikea are modern Malagasy people. Their recent ancestors were Masikoro farmers or Vezo fishermen who fled into the forest and became foragers during the past 400 years to escape the abuses of kings, pirates, bandits, and colonizers).
In my post-dissertation work I have increasingly sought to understand the mental and cognitive component of economic choices, including such choices as what crops to plant, what prey to pursue, or what markets to exploit (Tucker 2005, 2012, 2017).
I spent an awfully long time trying to perfect choice experiments for evaluating how people mentally evaluate probability and delay-to-reward. These experiments took the form of a choice among options offering different reward quantities and probabilities of obtaining them (in the risk experiments) or waiting time to obtain them (in the time experiments). This is important because agriculture differs from foraging and fishing by risk and time as well as quality and quantity of production. Agriculture provides a high quantity of low-quality food, at high risk and a long delay to harvest; foraging and fishing provide low quantities of high-quality foods, at low risk and on a daily basis (Tucker et al. 2010).
Recently, I have published an excessively long review of all of my risk and time choice experiments (Tucker 2017), in which I conclude that these experimental economic methods taught me very little. This is because these experiments, and many done by experimental economists, are presented as meaning-neutral quantitative relationships rather than as culturally meaningful causal stories.
Currently, I am conducting a large-scale investigation of how "culture" influences economic choices and strategies among Mikea, Masikoro, and Vezo, funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS 1733917). It is exciting to see many published studies these days relating culture to decision-making, in psychology, economics, evolutionary biology, and anthropology, and yet I have been frustrated by the apparent simplicity of researchers' notions of culture, often as a binary variable (eastern/western, loose/tight), or as unexplained error differentiating populations. My research seeks to study cultural content and meaning (inspired by cognitive anthropology).
In Madagascar I have always worked in collaboration with an amazing team of scholars at the Université de Toliara, especially, Dr. Tsiazonera, Dr. Jaovola Tombo, Patricia Hajasoa, and Soanahary Gerard. Thanks also to Gervais "Veve" Tantely, Théo Ramanovontsoa, and Alhayess Jean-Claude.
What you have just read is one possible narrative for my research trajectory. But I have other interests as well. Although I am basically a cultural anthropologist, I do some evolutionary anthropology and archaeology, and have published in these sub-fields. Other topics that I have contributed to include the notion of "poverty," food insecurity, inequality, applied applications of evolutionary-behavioral research, foraging theory, SW Madagascar oral history and prehistory, cosmology and magic, marketplace exchange, the politics of conservation and development, and cooperation and competition.
PhD, Anthropology, University of North Carolina, 2001
- Anthropology + ecology, economy, evolution, environment
- Human ecology, economic anthropology, human behavioral ecology
- - Cognitive level: Risk, time, value, covariation, causality, culture
- - Household level: Livelihoods, foraging, agriculture, markets, non-market exchange, poverty, inequality
- Cognitive anthropology of risk and misfortune: ecological and cosmological cultural causal models
- Quantitative & qualitative ethnography, behavioral observation, experimental methods
- Madagascar, Africa
Tucker, B., & Nelson, D. R. (2017). What does economic anthropology have to contribute to studies of risk and resilience?. Economic Anthropology, 4(2), 161-172. doi:10.1002/sea2.12085
Tucker, B. (2017). From risk and time preferences to cultural models of causality: On the challenges and possibilities of field experiments, with examples from rural southwestern Madagascar. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 64: 61-114.
Tucker, B., Tsiazonera, Tombo, J., Hajasoa, P., & Nagnisaha, C. (2015). Ecological and cosmological coexistence thinking in a hypervariable environment: Causal models of economic success and failure among farmers, foragers, and fishermen of southwestern Madagascar. Frontiers in Psychology, Cognitive Science 6:1-16.