The Saving Lie

9780812237306: Hardback
Release Date: 23rd July 2003

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 232

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

The Saving Lie

Truth and Method in the Social Sciences

Hardback / £54.00

This book explores the distinction between selflessness and self-interestedness, between acting for one's own advantage and acting, even when disadvantageous, for reasons of duty or conscience. This apparently straightforward contrast (exemplified in the difference between rational-choice models in economics and holistic models in social anthropology) is a source of confusion. This is so, F. G. Bailey argues, because people polarize and essentialize both actors and actions and uphold one or the other side of the contrast as concrete reality, as the truth about how the social world works. The task of The Saving Lie is to show that both versions are convenient fictions, with instrumental rather than ontological significance: they are not about truth but about power. At best they are tools that enable us to make sense of our experience; at the same time they are weapons we deploy to define situations and thus exercise control.

Bailey says that both models fail the test of empiricism: they can be at once immensely elegant and quite remote from anyone's experience in the real world. And since both models are "saving lies," we should accept them as necessities, but only to the extent they are useful, and we should constantly remind ourselves of their limitations. The wrong course, according to Bailey, is to promote one model to the total exclusion of the other. Instead, we should take care to examine systematically the rhetoric used to promote these models not only in intellectual discourse but also in defining situations in everyday life.

The book strongly and directly advocates a point of view that combines skepticism with a determination to anchor abstract argument in evidence. It is argumentative; it invites confrontation; yet it leaves many doors open for further thought.


Introduction: Ideas, Reality, and Saving Lies
Things as They Are...Articulated and Unarticulated Knowledge...Expediency and Morality

Chapter 1. A Very Beautiful Theory
Organizations and Markets...Unrealistic Assumptions and Positive Science

Chapter 2. The Coase Recension and Its Lineage
The New Economics of Organization...Holes in the Fence: Contract...Holes in the Fence: Principals...How Holes Are Plugged...Giving Ground

Chapter 3. Gains from Trade
The New Institutional Economics...Gains from Trade...Individual Choice and Imagined Entities...At War 'Twixt Will and Will Not

Chapter 4. Natural Systems and Moral Systems
General Equilibrium Theory…Structural Functionalism...African Political Systems and The Nuer...A Pattern of Ideas...The Road to Interpretivism

Chapter 5. Imaginative Constructs and Social Reality
Structure in The Nuer...Essences and Wholes...Structure and Environment...A Plurality of Structures

Chapter 6. A Piece of the Action
The Unexamined Life...Political Agendas: Neoclassical Economics...Political Agendas: Structural Functionalism...Change the Question

Chapter 7. Affirming Structure: The Amen Category
Somewhere to Stand...Defining the Situation: Exchanges...Morality as a Weapon...Inclusion and Exclusion

Chapter 8. Contested Structures
The Lintel...Structures in Losa...Motives and Tactics...Unfolding and Compressing...Combative Irony...Humor...Cross-talk…Assertion and Suggestion...Conceptualizing Structure...Agency Models

Conclusion: General Theses and Particular Cases
The Itch for Totality...General Theses and Particular Cases…Knowledge and Know-How...Knowledge and Power...Global and Local Knowledge


F. G. Bailey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego, and author of many books, most recently The Civility of Indifference, The Need for Enemies, and Treasons, Stratagems and Spoils.

"Ambitious, erudite, well worth a read."—Journal of Anthropological Research