Jane Austen and Women’s Shared Strategic Culture

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This episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast seemed worth sharing for a couple of reasons. The first is Jane Austen, who is just obvious clickbait all by herself, and who political scientist Michael Chwe is studying through the lens of game theory. Austen, he argues, with her precise studies of how women navigate complex social networks and work them to their advantage. Furthermore, given the author’s engagement with eighteenth century intellectual culture, including Adam Smith, looking at Austen as a kind of proto-economist interested in very specific kinds of markets is provocative and somehow not completely anachronistic.

But it’s an even more interesting idea because of the way, midway through, Stephen Dubner probes the relationship between gender and the kind of strategic thinking that game theory entails. Women, argues Chwe, tend to be better at strategic maneuvering than men in the way that all disempowered groups tend to be relative to the majority. If the status quo is working in your favor, then there is no need to manipulate in order to get some kind of advantage. But in making that connection, the episode also puts a new spin on two types of behavior that are stereotypically and stigmatically coded as female: empathy and manipulation.

Game theory requires one to be able to intuit the response of another person to one’s actions. In other words, it requires a deep knowledge of people as people and as individuals, the kind of sensitivity to the nuances of human behavior and relationships that we so often think of as feminine. Likewise, the successful player must be able to use that knowledge in some kind of strategic way in order to get what they want. Therefore what’s often labeled as passive aggression or manipulation are re-contextualized as rational, adaptive behaviors that have to be honed and deployed in intelligent ways in order to yield positive results. The economist argues that we see this kind of adaptation permeating the largely homosocial, female-centered culture of Austen’s novels, where the exchange of information (which we usually call gossip) is part of women’s “shared strategic culture,” honed and perfected over time.

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2 thoughts on “Jane Austen and Women’s Shared Strategic Culture

  1. I am so very glad to see you back blogging, though I am obviously late to the party!

    Thank you for this post, I hope you don’t mind if I link it in the Shakesville Blogaround comments.

    Fascinating stuff, although I do have a significant problem with Chwe’s P&P comments. Mrs. Bennet’s first manipulation is NOT Jane’s horseback ride, it’s right on the opening page. She wants Mr. B to visit Bingley FIRST, because then Bingley will be obliged to return that visit of ceremony FIRST, and so will meet HER children, before anyone else’s.

    Which of course, only adds more weight to Chwe’s thesis. She’s giving us strategic thinking right out of the gate, along with insights into how effective the various Bennet family members are at strategic thinking. Mrs. B would have considerable skills, but she has shallow motives and goals, and so is a poor judge of motive and reaction outside of a certain sphere. Mr. B also has considerable skills, as is shown by his subsequent joke of pretending he hasn’t made the visit, and knowing exactly how it will play out with his wife. His limitations are that, as the Master of the house, and most important gentry in the town, he doesn’t *have to* engage, and therefore has the luxury to disdain of interactions with his family and community beyond what civility and duty require – and he is prone to misjudgment there.

    Austen approves of neither focus, so of course Elizabeth is set up, via her father’s comments, to be the happy medium of appropriately engaged, and able to expand her own horizons.

    1. You are so right! It’s been too long since I’ve read any Austen.

      Thanks for the comment and the Shakesville link. I’m glad to be back (and am still back but am too mired in the details of international moving to come up with anything interesting to say).

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