The moral economy

Sometimes, you look at why people do things and you think “why on earth are they doing this?”.

The answer is less to do with earth and more to do with economies – specifically, moral economies.

A “moral economy” is something of a fuzzy term – in my field, the history of science, a moral economy refers to the norms and customs that keep a scientific lab running. I’m expanding this so that the moral economy refers to the norms and customs that keep any kind of social structure running: the ones that underpin hierarchies, credit, and incentives to behave in socially accepted ways – as well as what those socially accepted ways to behave actually are.

One of the reasons that the term “moral economy” came into being is that sometimes people act in ways that seem strange or counterproductive. Seen through the lens of the moral economy, those behaviours make sense again; they’re part of a wider context of producing and adhering to social norms and customs. They’re not counterproductive – they’re integral to keeping a social structure functioning. If people stopped doing the seemingly counterproductive behaviours, the whole social structure would change. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but it would be a scary one.

If you want people to stop behaving in structurally bizarre ways, think about the moral economy and the incentives they have.

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