Applying cultural theories to practical problems

by Robert Klitgaard

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Aaron Widavsky wrote papers about how his Cultural Theory could explain scholars' differing reactions to policy analytical concepts, such as the Prisoners' Dilemma. In 1992, he was invited to a World Bank conference on culture and development, where he speculated that a "cultural audit" in Africa would be a baseline from which culture-by-policy interactions might be discovered. If we had a good cultural theory, how could we use it to solve problems better? How could we use this wonderful cultural theory to make decisions? The economist's answer is to maximize utility --allocate resources and choose policies to maximize social utility given cultural conditions. But could taking culture into account cause more harm than good? Six "vexing" questions are examined, and the answers are not obvious. These questions make "taking culture into account" all the more problematic, especially when policies, political processes, and management systems interact with cultural variables.

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Originally published in: Culture Matters: Essays in Honor of Aaron Wildavsky, R.J. Ellis and M. Thompson, eds., Westview Press, 1997, pp. 191-202.

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