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03/13/2002 08:00:00

At Caltech: Jean Ensminger New Chair of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences

PASADENA - She has traveled alone in a war-torn area of Africa and listened to lions pad around her tent at night, but now Jean Ensminger, a professor of anthropology at the California Institute of Technology, takes on a different challenge, as the new chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In making the announcement, Caltech provost Steve Koonin commented, "Jean brings a distinguished record of teaching and research, fine judgment, and demonstrated management skills to an important position of academic leadership within the Institute. We are very fortunate that someone of her talents is willing to take on this important responsibility."

Ensminger will be the first woman to serve as division chair at Caltech, and will take the helm on June 15, 2002, replacing John Ledyard, a professor of economics and social science, who will be returning, he says, to "the best position in the world: full professor at Caltech." He will redirect his energies to his research in market and organization design, or focus on a new, unrelated area, or "go sailing," he says, "if my boat is still afloat."

For her part, Ensminger is enthusiastic about the prospects for the division, and hopes to build on its successes over the last two decades. "The division has transformed the study of political science and political economy in ways now emulated and dominant in virtually every major university in America," she says, "and is currently incubating several areas of expertise that have the same potential for transforming disciplines as we know them today."

Specifically, she notes that the absence of disciplinary boundaries at Caltech is spawning research that will "reshape the philosophy of mind, behavioral economics, and the frontier between neuroscience, psychology, and economics, while the division's uniquely seamless boundary between literature and history, together with proximity to the Huntington Library, affords us another opportunity to blossom in the humanities."

Ensminger is an uncommon anthropologist: Her line of research is in an area known as experimental economics, a field, she notes, that the division has played a pivotal role in shaping. As an experimental economist, Ensminger is interested in how people make economic decisions. It involves running experiments—described to the participants as games—that use real money in order to learn something about real behavior. Unlike most experimental economists, however, Ensminger takes the method out of the university laboratory to African and other small-scale communities.

The simplest game she uses plays for fairly high stakes, usually a day's wages, whether the game is played in Hamilton, Missouri, or Wayu, Kenya, two places where she has conducted her research. Ensminger will bring a group of people together to play in pairs. Player one is told he or she has, say, $50 to divide with the other person; both will remain anonymous to one another, and player one can give player two any amount or nothing. How is the money divided? More fairly than one might guess, often as high as a 50-50 split.

Even more counterintuitive to conventional economic theorizing, says Ensminger, is that the more involved a society is in a market economy—that is, working for wages, or raising something (crops or cattle) and selling it in order to live—the fairer people tend to be. Across 16 small-scale societies studied around the world, the U.S. is the most fair-minded reported to date, while hunter-gatherers are the least.

For almost 25 years, Ensminger has traveled to Africa, living and studying with the Orma tribe, partially nomadic cattle herders in northeastern Kenya, near the Somali border, where she will return this summer for five weeks. In the beginning, she would live in a tent (on the grounds of a local school), in a place that was frequented by roaming lions at night. Now she stays in the compound of the local chief, but there is a greater danger—banditry.

"My field site became very dangerous in the 1990s because of the collapse of the Somali state," says Ensminger. "There is an ethnic conflict between the Orma and the Somali, who want to take over Orma territory. A phenomenal number of people I know have either been shot or killed by the bandits. It's not a war; it's like the Wild West with armed bandits on the loose."

As a woman traveling alone, carrying cash, and in one of the few cars in the area, she is obviously a target for bandits. And while she feels safe in the Orma villages, she admits to being "unabashedly terrified whenever I go on the roads in and out of that area." Still, that is where 20 years of her research is, and she is not willing to give it up.

It is that kind of perseverance she intends to bring to working with her colleagues as division chair. "I'm honored and delighted to have the opportunity to work with faculty of the extraordinary quality found here, and I look forward to the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead."