Questioning Assumptions about Decision-Making in West African Households: Examples from Longitudinal Studies in Benin and Maliedit
In the fields of development and public health, the decisions of the rural poor are often treated as simple, unanimous, and driven by cultural preconceptions and beliefs. This is particularly the case for sub-Saharan Africa, where a dehistoricizing tendency presupposes an ontological link between an African culture and its tendency to interpret the world through the lens of belief. Generally, household activities are not seen as the kinds of modes of objectifying social practice that are the outcome of complex historical struggles over representation, and pre-disposing cultural factors are presumed to be the key determinants of household behavior. The three papers that constitute this alternative-format, article-based dissertation interrogate these assumptions. Although they address diverse subjects (the rise of West African Pentecostalism; the logic of treatment-seeking behavior in Benin; credit and savings strategies in rural Mali), they share a methodological concern with close analysis of the complexity of household decision-making in the moment, study over time, and attention to local concerns in the context of larger social transformations. In both medical and economic contexts, this approach demonstrates not only that behavior is primarily determined by enabling factors, but that the cultural factors that do condition behavior can be understood as creative, rational, and instructive of larger concerns, rather than merely as an impediment to development goals.