Many years ago I was an Economist and had worked in the public and private sectors. After a while, I decided that looking at the world through a purely formalist economic framework was too limited for my liking. So I studied Anthropology and Social Theory at Melbourne Uni.

In 2009 I was trying to come up with an idea that I could use to do post-graduate research in Anthropology. That idea came in August when I ordered a drink at a bar in Melbourne. The barmaid asked if I was going to tip her. I wasn’t and told her as such, but she wasn’t too happy about that. She really wanted to let me know how much she deserves tips and how people like me are screwing her over.

I had never thought too much about tipping before. I suppose I thought it was an ‘American’ thing, although I had never been there. By the end of the barmaid’s complaining I wasn’t convinced to tip her, but she still managed to make me feel like I had done something terribly wrong. So my first question was, how was it that this barmaid made me feel so guilty about something like tipping? That led to my second question, which was, why do people tip anyway?

This was to be the question of my Anthropology post-grad research. I discovered that this question has already had some serious attention, mostly by economists (ironically) and psychologists.

Some economists say that people tip strategically. That is, people tip because they want better service next time. That’s fine, but what about people who have no plans to return to the place where they tipped, like tourists? There’s plenty of statistical evidence that suggests people’s tips are not affected by repeat custom (or even by quality of service for that matter).

Psychologists seem to suggest that people tip because tipping is a social norm and it pains us psychologically to deviate from social norms. This may be true, but it doesn’t help us understand how the social norm of tipping evolved in the first place.

So we are left with a giant gap in the understanding of ourselves. Attempts to fill this gap have fallen short and this brings me to Anthropology, which can be thought of as the study of humanity and culture. The tipping example shows there are shortcomings in the dominant modes of thinking, like Economics, and this is where disciplines like Anthropology have a lot to offer.

Economists cannot explain something as everyday as tipping because they assume away the human aspect of existence. Human Beings are a product of evolution, but each human being is largely a product of their culture. Either way, no one comes to this world fully formed, determined only to maximise their ‘utility’, despite what Economists tell you.

Tipping is a case in point. It involves giving money away, often for nothing in return. Its a behaviour that has developed culturally and focussing only on the ‘Economic Man’ will never give you the whole answer as to why it happens.

These issues are discussed in greater detail in this blog, but what does this story about tipping tell you about me? Everything… well, a lot. I am an inter-disciplinary researcher because I think to confine oneself to one discipline, or one mode of thinking, is absurd. Whether its Economics, Anthropology, Psychology, or so on; they all have something to contribute, but on their own each are misleading because they can only give part of the story. But when understood together wonderful insights into what it is to be human, and why we do what we do, can be achieved.

This is my goal.


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