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Tazuko van Berkel receives Vidi for research into economics and anthropology in ancient Greece

University lecturer Tazuko van Berkel has obtained a Vidi grant of 800,000 euros. This will enable her to research the image of man that emerges from economic texts from ancient Greece.

‘How does it affect us when we see ourselves as homines economici?’

We tend to interpret phenomena in Classical Antiquity from a contemporary perspective. This also applies to the history of economic thinking. With her research, Van Berkel wants to look at economics in ancient Greece in a different way: 'We often look for modern concepts in ancient times, with a modern gaze: "They didn't understand inflation yet" or "Here we can see a precursor of supply and demand theory". I want to ask different kinds of questions: what are the concepts and principles that Greeks themselves considered "economic"? How do ancient systems of economic thinking work? And how are these ancient concepts different from their modern equivalents? But the real innovation lies in the focus on the different anthropologies and knowledge practices that are at stake in these forms of economic thinking: I want to look at the anthropologies, the implicit theories on human nature, that are contained in such economic theories. What conceptualizations of the body, freedom, rationality, individuality and competition are presupposed? And what kind of knowledge is economic knowledge really?’

‘I think that with this point of view, especially with a focus on anthropologies and types of knowledge, you can offer a more precise and richer analysis of ancient Greece’s economic thinking. I hope that my methodology can change the way of historiography of economic thinking outside of my discipline (and beyond antiquity). Perhaps the most important thing of all is that by asking these questions you will eventually gain a different insight into our present economic thinking. I also want to raise awareness outside of the academic world, for example in economics education and among financial professionals, of the ways in which economic theory shapes our understanding of human nature: how does it affect us when we see ourselves as homines economici, 'economic men', who by definition operate in a world of scarcity according to a stripped-down, instrumental, form of rationality?’

Tazuko van Berkel

Scarce goods in the humanities

The Vidi grant enables Van Berkel to appoint a postdoctoral researcher and a PhD candidate. ‘With this scholarship I can do an extensive project and I'm incredibly excited about that. I think it's going to be fantastic to have a collaborative research project, to organize academic events and to have ongoing discussions within the group. This scholarship gives me the most desired scarce goods in the humanities: time and focus. I am getting five years of research time now, so I can establish the focus to deepen complex subjects.’

‘The PhD candidate will look at forms of economic thinking in the works of Socratic authors Plato and Xenophon. They made extensive use of origin myths, eschatological myths and thought experiments - especially when it comes to economic concepts and ideas. It is interesting to see what kind of economic knowledge was produced with these and what kind of anthropology was implied by them.’

‘The postdoc will focus on economic ideas in the Hellenistic period, a time in which the "economic treatise" increasingly becomes a fixed genre, but in which we also see the rise of utopian literature. What kind of economic thinking, or perhaps even economic critique, is contained in this kind of literature?’

Economic knowledge from fables and proverbs

‘I myself am going to look at the economics of the man on the street: what kind of economic knowledge and norms do we find in fables, anecdotes and proverbs? I will look at the particular understandings of human nature that we find in the world of proverbs where man is not the measure of all things, but where man has to conform to a larger order of things. How does this understanding of human nature relate to the world of fables where the dog always wants a bigger piece of meat, the chicken with the golden eggs is slaughtered, the fisherman takes too big a risk for small profit, and cobblers always deceive you?’

The idea for research into "economic anthropologies" in antiquity had been stuck in Van Berkel’s head for several years. ‘For a number of years I have been engaged in knowledge utilisation activities about economic anthropologies. I had Socratic conversations with bankers and other financial professionals, for example, and guest lectures for secondary school students. These are challenging activities, the discussions are sometimes extremely heated - people feel that something is at stake when talking about human nature - and no conversation is the same. Afterwards I was often exhausted, my mind restless with ideas and scraps of conversations. For me that was a sign that I had to do something with this subject. For me the knowledge utilisation is not an additional chore; rather, it is a stimulating activity from which new questions emerge. Or in this case: an idea for a new project.’

NWO Talent Programme  

Vidi is aimed at researchers who have already conducted several years of research following their PhD. Together with the Veni and Vici grants, the Vidi grant is part of the NWO Talent Programme. Within the talent programme, researchers are free to decide on the topic of their research proposal. Read more on the NWO website.

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