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Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

Do Ideas Matter?

If you go to the Boston Review Web site, you’ll find the slogan “Ideas Matter” gracing the top of the homepage. Since I write a column for the magazine—and even wear a BR T-shirt announcing the slogan—I am not unsympathetic to the spirit of the claim. But in the social sciences, the idea that ideas matter has always been controversial. How much do ideas really matter? Do they affect individuals and societies more or less than do material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments one way or the other often address broad historical issues, such as the economic rise of the West. Does the credit go to the Protestant ethic (Max Weber) or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)? Do differences between Asian and European societies result from Confucianism versus Greek thought, collectivism versus individualism, late versus early industrialization—or something else? Disputes over individual differences in behavior are similarly polarized…. (See the rest of this post at the Boston Review site here.)

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“Ideas Matter” is the slogan of the Boston Review. This is a controversial claim in the social sciences. (Disclosure: I write a column for BR; I wear a tee-shirt of theirs that says “Ideas Matter.”) Do ideas really matter? How much do they shape individual behavior or society compared to material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments about how much ideas matter have addressed broad historical issues, such as explaining the economic rise of the West – was it the “Protestant Ethic” (Max Weber), or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)?  – and differences between Asian and European societies – are they about Confucianism vs Greek thought, collectivism vs individualism, the timing of industrialization, or something else? Arguments over individual differences in behavior similarly polarize around the issue of whether they are to be explained by what people think or by people’s circumstances, as in the debates over the “culture of poverty.” Ideas matter, across these sorts of debates, to the extent to which they shape how people understand the world, value their options, and are guided by social norms.

This post however, is about a different way that ideas can matter: by re-shaping the “reality” to match the idea. Ideas can become, in the phrase developed by the great sociologist Robert K. Merton “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Ideas about the world, although initially false, can become true – and consequential – because people believe them to be true. Consider a few examples from psychology and economics.

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