“Weird” is how we describe things that don’t make sense to us—from Donald Trump’s presidential victory to modern-day witch trials in Ghana to Kim Jong-un’s haircut. Contemporary life is overflowing with weirdness. And yet historical life is weirder still. Consider human sacrifice among the Aztecs, self-immolation in eighteenth-century India, love magic in ancient Greece, cargo cults in midcentury Melanesia. On and on it goes.1 It’s easy to get the feeling that life might be an unwitting tour of one big odditorium, that “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” is everywhere you turn.
Confronted with life’s weirdness, curious people wonder, “Why?” I developed the tour on which you’re about to embark for just such people. “Don’t you mean book?” you’re wondering. No, I mean tour. You’re sitting in a museum lobby, and I’m your guide. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, let me speak to why we’re gathered here.
To honor the grandest museum of oddities, our world, I decided some years ago that I wanted to showcase the weirdest practices that human history has to offer. What better way to share my exhibits than through an interactive tour? And thus began the construction of my museum of social oddities, bound up in the pages of this “book” but also reaching back into the depths of time and unfolding before you as you read.
The tour has eight stops. Just beyond the velvet rope, a few pages from here, is the first. That one isn’t an exhibit; actually it’s more of a preparatory station: you’re going to encounter some strange shit in this museum, so I want to make sure that you have the tools to handle it. The other stops are par for the museum course.
First, we’ll look at trial by fire and water in medieval Europe. Next, wife selling in Industrial Revolution England. At the following stop, Gypsy superstitions. Then a brief intermission about cursing monks in eleventh-century Francia. We’ll look at oracular divination in twentieth-century Africa. Then on to the prosecution of insects and rodents in Renaissance France, Italy, and Switzerland. At our final stop, you’ll hear about judicial combat in Norman England. Now please squeeze together and make room for the incoming patrons. I hope you weren’t expecting a private tour (that would be much more expensive). You look like a lively bunch.
Turning to me, your guide: I’m an economist by training but a collector of curiosa by, well, curiosity. Upon encountering a weird social practice I wonder, “Why?” But behind my wonder lies an openness to the possibility—a presumption, even—that there’s a good reason for whatever it is; there’s sense in the seemingly senseless, I believe. And so I’ve found it to be in the decade I’ve been studying the specimens you’re about to encounter—and so many more.
I’ve found that people—all of them, regardless of time or place, religion or culture, wealth, poverty, or anything else—are rational. To be rational, as I see it, means simply to pursue your goals as best you can given your limitations and the limitations of your environment. In this form at least, the claim that people are rational isn’t one that most will find hard to accept. Yet the immediate and certain implication is that people don’t do senseless things.
One of this tour’s purposes is to show you that what seems like senseless behavior actually makes sense, and thus what seems like irrationality is actually rational. Weird social institutions strike you as weird because you’re unfamiliar with the constraints that the people who developed them confront. But once you step into those people’s shoes and look at their worlds through their eyes, it’s easy to see that very unconventional practices reflect the canny pursuit of very conventional goals—ones with which perfectly rational folks like yourself can commune.
If people are rational and rational people don’t do senseless things, it’s not a step much further to conclude that the weird social practices people engage in are often good for their societies; they make them better off. Practices that make people worse off aren’t likely to survive. Which brings me to this tour’s second purpose: to show you how even seemingly senseless social practices can be, and often are, socially productive.
A particular approach to analyzing human behavior—the economic approach, or what’s sometimes called rational choice theory—is the perfect tool for accomplishing these goals because it starts, as I do, from the presumption that people are rational. After we leave the lobby, I won’t explicitly discuss rational choice theory again apart from brief mentions at the tour’s first and last stops. I suspect most of you, quite reasonably, don’t care about this theory per se. What you care about is finding compelling answers to the whys that accost your mind when you encounter weird behavior. Why can’t you get full service at a gas station anywhere—except New Jersey and Oregon, where you’re forced to get it? Why is it harder to find good oranges at a grocery store in Florida than in Michigan? Why do you have to take out a second mortgage on your house if you want to shave with a halfway decent razor? And that brings me to this tour’s final purpose: to help you learn how to apply rational choice theory in your everyday life.
It can help you answer all of the questions I’ve just posed—and many more. In fact, if that theory were a physical device, it might be called the Incredible Answering Machine—not because it fields missed phone calls but because it can answer any “Why?” question about human behavior that life might throw at you. If rational choice theory were a physical device, it probably would’ve been hailed as one of humanity’s greatest inventions—right along with your iPhone.
I stand before you a man transformed. I started my own journey into the world of social oddities wondering why it is that for centuries, criminal justice systems decided defendants’ guilt or innocence by asking them to plunge their arms into boiling water. I ended it concluding that shaking a poisoned chicken to decide how to behave toward your neighbors can be very wise. I have the answers. So if you’re wondering “Why?” follow me. If you’re not, check your pulse.
1. For a discussion of weird markets in particular, in historical Japan, see Ramseyer, J. Mark. 2008. Odd Markets in Japanese History: Law and Economic Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Regarding people’s tendency to find the commodification of certain things revolting (hence, to react to the suggestion that they be commodified with a “WTF?!”) and why that tendency may be counterproductive, see Block, Walter. 1976. Defending the Undefendable: The Pimp, Prostitute, Scab, Slumlord, Libeler, Moneylender, and Other Scapegoats in the Rogue’s Gallery of American Society. New York: Fleet Press; and Brennan, Jason, and Peter M. Jaworski. 2015. Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. New York: Routledge. See also Miller, William Ian. 1997. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Nussbaum, Martha C. 2003. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Rossman, Gabriel. 2014. “Obfuscatory Relational Work and Disreputable Exchange.” Sociological Theory 32:43–69.