Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Math and Science

The Missing Think

I just discovered Mark Twain’s delightful takedown of anthropocentric teleological understandings of the “purpose” of the world, in his posthumously published “Was the World Made for Man?”. (Hopefully that link will take people to the actual work, rather than to some random place in the anthology…)

Voiced as the response of a “scientist and theologian” to “Alfred Russell Wallace’s revival of the theory that this earth is at the center of the stellar universe”, the piece begins by professing a qualified belief that the world was likely made for man, but argues that patience is required, for all the necessary evidence is not yet in. What evidence is still required? And why must we be “patient” to receive it? The answers come out gradually – and implicitly – as the piece tells the story of how the preparation of the world for man came about.

First the piece deals with the age of the world – evaluating different scientific positions on how long it took to prepare the world for man:

It takes a long time to prepare a world for man, such a thing is not done in a day.

Siding with an estimate on the conservative side, the piece suggests that man has been in the world for 32,000 years, while the world itself is 100 million years old. These figures mean that quite a long run-up was required to prepare for man – which is only to be expected, the author argues:

Very well. According to these figures it took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him. But a large enterprise like this has to be conducted warily, painstakingly, logically.

Then a quick absurdist jump. From logic to… the oyster:

It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster. Therefore the first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster’s ancestor first. This is not done in a day. You must make a vast variety of invertebrates, to start with – belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry, and put them to soak in a primary sea, and wait and see what will happen. Some will be a disappointment – the belemnites and ammonites and such; they will be failures, they will die out and become extinct, in the course of the 19,000,000 years covered by the experiment, but all is not lost, for the amalekites will fetch the home-stake; they will develop gradually into encrinites, and stalactites, and blatherskites, and one thing and another as the mighty ages creep on and the Archaean and the Cambrian Periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed, the Oyster is done.

The oyster was created for man. Over a long period of time – and long before man was on the scene. From the standpoint of the oyster, the author concedes, this whole process might have been thought to have the oyster for its endpoint. But this view was sadly mistaken:

An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen-million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man. And anyway, this one could not know, at that early date, that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme, yet.

And so on the article moves, through a whole absurdist evolutionary process. Many of the passages focus on the exuberantly wasteful nature of the whole process, if the purpose is to prepare a world for man:

The oyster being achieved, the next thing to be arranged for in the preparation of the world for man, was fish. Fish, and coal – to fry it with. So the Old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building Old Red Sandstone mountains 80,000 feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. This latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions – millions of them – and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than keep tally of them in a book.

So the millions of years drag on; and meantime the fish-culture is lazying along and frazzling out in a way to make a person tired. You have developed ten thousand kinds of fishes from the oyster; and come to look, you have raised nothing but fossils, nothing but extinctions. There is nothing left alive and progressive but a ganoid or two and perhaps half a dozen asteroids. Even the cat wouldn’t eat such.

Still, it is no great matter; there is plenty of time, yet, and they will develop into something tasty before man is ready for them. Even a ganoid can be depended on for that, when he is not going to be called on for sixty million years.

At several stages, some creature foolishly believes that it is the endpoint, purpose, and culmination of the whole:

Then the Pterodactyl burst upon the world in all his impressive solemnity and grandeur, and all Nature recognized that the Cainozoic threshold was crossed and a new Period open for business, a new stage begun in the preparation of the globe for man. It may be that the Pterodactyl thought the thirty million years had been intended as a preparation for himself, for there was nothing too foolish for a Pterodactyl to imagine, but he was in error, the preparation was for man.

From this time onward for nearly another thirty million years the preparation moved briskly. From the Pterodactyl was developed the bird; from the bird the kangaroo, from the kangaroo the other marsupials; from these the mastodon, the megatherium, the giant sloth, the Irish elk, and all that crowd that you make useful and instructive fossils out of – then came the first great Ice Sheet, and they all retreated before it and crossed over the bridge at Behring’s strait and wandered around over Europe and Asia and died. All except a few, to carry on the preparation with. Six Glacial Periods with two million years between Periods chased these poor orphans up and down and about the earth, from weather to weather – from tropic swelter at the poles to Arctic frost at the equator and back again and to and fro, they never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next; and if ever they settled down anywhere the whole continent suddenly sank under them without the least notice and they had to trade places with the fishes and scramble off to where the seas had been, and scarcely a dry rag on them; and when there was nothing else doing a volcano would let go and fire them out from wherever they had located. They led this unsettled and irritating life for twenty-five million years, half the time afloat, half the time aground, and always wondering what it was all for, they never suspecting, of course, that it was a preparation for man and had to be done just so or it wouldn’t be any proper and harmonious place for him when he arrived.

And then a final analogy for the perspective that argues that this extravagant process has, as its culminating goal, us:

Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

Dissolutions…

I was looking for a bit of illustrative material for the quant methods course, and ran across a number of illustrations of (purported… ;-P) exam responses – not quite what I was after, but I couldn’t resist reproducing a couple of them here.

Via Evolving Thoughts:

A math problem to die for...

And via fullhyd.com (which offers a number of others I haven’t reproduced here):

X marks the spot.

Lies, Damned Lies, and…

I’m currently waiting to find out whether my research methodology empire will be extended this term, to cover a quantitative research methods course for second-year undergraduates – a teaching stint that would itself be regarded as preparation for assisting with a rethink of our second-year methodology course offerings, which are currently split between one term of “quant” and one term of “qual”. No one likes the split and yet, for various reasons (some programs only want their students to take one or the other course, and some programs are still running their own independent courses, etc.) thinking through whether and how to integrate these courses will be quite complex. While my responsibility for this course is still somewhat hypothetical, the beginning of the term is rapidly approaching, and I’ve begun half-preparing – mainly by soliciting ideas from folks who have taught into the course in the past, or who are interested in teaching into it this coming term.

One of the stories that seems to crop up in relation to past iterations of the course is the difficulty obtaining an interesting dataset on which students can practice the more statistical concepts covered in the course. Past iterations of the course appear generally to have given students some overarching policy problem – drug use in youth culture is a theme that has been mentioned often – and then set them loose on a dataset to test various hypotheses against the data, and to reflect on the policy implications of their results. Apparently, however, we have struggled to obtain relevant Australian data sufficiently robust for whatever exercises the students have been asked to perform. Instead – at least one year – we used a UK dataset, but were still asking students to reflect on Australian policy concerns.

When I heard this, I grimaced a bit, and said, “No – I’d really rather, if the point is to reflect on local problems, we use relevant local datasets. Otherwise it will confuse the students – and convey the wrong message, I think, about the need to look into these problems empirically – we don’t want to give the impression that just any old data will do…”

“Oh, no -” my interlocutor clarified, “the students didn’t know they were using UK data. We went in and edited the dataset – we changed all the names of British counties to the names of Victorian communities. It took forever! So, as far as the students were concerned, they were working with Australian data. They never knew.”

Now let me get this straight: We give students a term-long assessment task, oriented to get them to test their assumptions about an Australian policy issue (I’m not clear whether this was on the drug use topic, or on something else) – but we cook the data!!! Oh sure, the data are true for somewhere – and the same sorts of skills and reasoning would apply, regardless of the dataset – I do understand the reasoning behind the assessment task. But still… I have these images of students coming out of this course, getting into debates with friends and family years from now, and going, “Well, you know, I actually researched this issue at uni, and apparently the trend is…” What will the students do, when they run into conflicting empirical data at some later point? How will they make sense of it all?

Why not just tell students you’re using UK data? Or making the data up? Surely we don’t think our students are so fragile that this would cause them to disinvest completely from the task?

Timelines and Borders of the Interdisciplinary

LMagee and I have had occasional conversations this past year on the ways in which the interdisciplinary transmission of ideas takes place. One recurrent theme in these conversations has been the issue of time lag – how concepts and works from outside one’s core discipline or sub-discipline are so often appropriated in the form they occupied decades ago, with little appreciation for how subsequent specialist discussion might have transformed a tradition – whether enabling a tradition to address pivotal early critiques, or causing a tradition to be rejected in spite of its early promise. Another recurrent theme has been the issue of marginality – how texts and concepts can sometimes come to have interdisciplinary resonance, and even – in the minds of non-specialists – come to signify a discipline, when that discipline’s own practitioners might regard those texts or concepts as dubious, marginal, dated, or mundane statements of the obvious.

The fact that a disciplinary discussion “moves on” – that specialists are no longer so taken (or may never have been taken) by specific works as are those of us looking into the discipline from the outside – is not automatically grounds for rejecting an interdisciplinary appropriation. It may in fact be that a work is simply more valuable for the thoughts it sparks outside its home ground, that specialists have become jaded through familiarity, that the influence of a foundational work has come to be so taken for granted that its novelty and importance are no longer recognised within its own field – or that, as Sinthome has suggested, pressures driving toward novelty in academic production have created a cottage critical industry that, for all its volume and detail, takes nothing away from the overarching brilliance of an earlier text.

Being unaware of these broader specialist debates becomes more of a problem for interdisciplinary work, however, when people succumb to the temptation, not only to be inspired by a work from another discipline, but to steal some of the aura of that discipline to add a kind of nonconceptual force to their re-presentation of a borrowed idea. LM and I have recently been discussing some examples of this in relation to social science appropriations of quantum mechanics and set theory in particular, where occasional authors have quite selectively appropriated very specific interpretations of highly contested issues within a complex specialist discussion, and presented these appropriations to nonspecialists as “discoveries” – as established and firm bits of factual knowledge or analytical technique. These kinds of “auratic” interdisciplinary appropriations often strike me as attempts to raise the prestige of a claim by exoticising it, removing it from the everyday experience of intended readers and interlocutors, and effectively placing the claim within a black box of inherited authority, in which position it is shielded from critique…

As someone quite committed to interdisciplinary work, I always find myself a bit frightened by the risk of “auratic” appropriations: I don’t think such appropriations are always intentional, or are consistently recognised for what they are, and I want very much to avoid falling into this practice. This is why I so often emphasise the metaphoric nature of concepts I appropriate from other fields, and try to remain tentative and agnostic about extrapolating the significance of empirical work from distantly-related disciplines, assuming that, as in those more familiar disciplines closer to home, exotic fields will also have their intractable debates, their unaccountable fads, and their creative interpretive frameworks that are massively underdetermined by the evidence… Like any tourist, the interdisciplinary researcher needs to take special care not to overlook potential dangers whose existence would loom large to a disciplinary native… At the same time, interdisciplinary travels are the only way that certain kinds of questions can be answered – often, in fact, the only way that certain kinds of questions can be perceived. Fear of what might go wrong therefore must not undermine our willingness to undertake interdiscilinary work. The question becomes, not whether to conduct interdisciplinary work, but how to do so at a high level.

All of this is a very long prolegomenon to mentioning that I am currently reading Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History – which Russ suggested to me some time back, and which I really ought to have read long ago, given that it is an attempt, like my own work, to reason through the philosophical implications of historical experience within a materialist framework. DeLanda’s materialism is of the expansive form associated with the Annales School – seeking to embed human history within a much broader and subtler field of material life than most other “materialist” approaches. DeLanda draws on a very wide range of scientific and social scientific disciplines – mined particularly, I gather, for their insights into potentials for spontaneous self-organisation and “emergence” – as inspiration for his philosophical work, which attempts to understand the implications of complex and nonlinear trajectories he regards as characteristic of material systems and of human history.

I’m too early in the text to comment meaningfully, but am fascinated by the ambition and scope of the work – and am also enjoying reading an author who attempts to dig deeply into the relationships between philosophical concepts and historical experience. I am also particularly interested in how the work navigates the interdisciplinary minefield I mentioned above – how it might draw inspiration, while avoiding the risk of aura, when the disciplinary appropriations are themselves so multi-faceted, and the object of analysis so complex and vast. I’m eager to dig into the details… If others who have read DeLanda would like to comment, I’d also be interested in learning what different folks have taken away from DeLanda’s work.

Message in a Klein Bottle

Animated Klein bottle with a möbius strip.Someone emailed to ask what that strange image was in the Hegel post, and why I illustrated the post that way. The image was probably not the clearest I could have found (I was writing a bit under time pressure, and illustrations weren’t my highest priority… ;-P), but is meant to be a picture of a Klein bottle – a figure I’ve occasionally toyed with using in place of the ouroboros as the basis for the site logo…

The animated image in this post – which is from Konrad Polthier’s article “Imaging Maths: Inside the Klein Bottle” in +plus magazine – provides a somewhat clearer sense of what a Klein bottle is. I know several people who lurk here who could explain the concept of a Klein bottle more easily and clearly (and accurately!!!) than I can… Perhaps one of them will step forward and bail me out here… ;-P But let me embarrass myself a bit first, to give them something to correct.

The basic idea is that a Klein bottle, like a möbius strip, is non-orientable – a concept that I won’t outline here (among other things, because this concept is easier to see than to read about): the Polthier article provides a nice illustration. In our everyday three-dimensional space, non-orientable objects appear to have only one side. So, in terms of the animated image in this post, if you were walking along the path mapped by the möbius strip then, at any given point along your journey, it might appear that you are moving across an object that has another “side”. As you continue to move along the surface, however, you will eventually reach what earlier appeared to be that “other” side without having to cross through a surface or clamber over an edge.

While all of this is quite cool to try to visualise, and non-orientable images – particularly möbius strips, but also the occasional Klein bottle – seem to crop up quite regularly as illustrations in social theoretic discussions of immanence, the underlying mathematics has no real implications for the social theoretic discussions about there being no transcendent “outside” from which to view our social experience or history… Nevertheless, there’s a nice aesthetic, metaphoric resonance between the social theoretic and mathematical concepts, which does no harm as long as it’s recognised as such… I tend to like the Klein bottle as a metaphor due to its various strange properties, as described in the Polthier article:

The bottle is a one-sided surface – like the well-known Möbius band – but is even more fascinating, since it is closed and has no border and neither an enclosed interior nor exterior.

And Wikipedia:

Picture a bottle with a hole in the bottom. Now extend the neck. Curve the neck back on itself, insert it through the side of the bottle without touching the surface (an act which is impossible in three-dimensional space), and extend the neck down inside the bottle until it joins the hole in the bottom. A true Klein bottle in four dimensions does not intersect itself where it crosses the side.

Unlike a drinking glass, this object has no “rim” where the surface stops abruptly. Unlike a balloon, a fly can go from the outside to the inside without passing through the surface (so there isn’t really an “outside” and “inside”).

So we have a closed but borderless surface with no inside or outside, which can be embedded only in a four-dimensional space – not a terrible metaphor for the object of an immanent historical theory… ;-P

If anyone is looking for some holiday procrastination opportunities (or do we not have to call it “procrastination”, since it’s the holidays?), Beyond the Third Dimension has some nice animations of Klein bottles, including some interactive ones, as does the Polthier article referenced above.

Anyone needing ideas for belated Christmas presents (or perhaps looking forward to Valentine’s Day…) might consider purchasing a three dimensional immersion of a Klein bottle from Acme Klein Bottles – a company which, I note, also offers “industrial and post-industrial consulting”, boasts about its “finite but unbounded warehouse”, and displays diverse mottos, including “where yesterday’s future is here today!”, “since 1995, imposing on the impossible!”, and – my personal favourite – “where there’s one side to every problem!”

Even if you don’t intend to buy, I’d still recommend browsing the Acme Klein Bottles website – the “Important Information for Idiots” section might be a good starting point (not to imply anything about my readership, mind you… ;-P). It’s also worth checking out Acme’s pioneering lifetime guarantee – something that I suspect you might be able to convince them to extend to you, even if you don’t purchase a Klein bottle.

[Updated to add: my son noticed the animation on my laptop, and came over to have a look. He asked what it was called, and then stared, fascinated, for around fifteen minutes. He finally turned to me, all concern and wrinkled brow, and anxiously asked: “There’s no end to the bottle?! Where’s the end of the bottle??”]

[Note: animated gif @2003 Konrad Polthier from +plus magazine “Imaging maths – Inside the Klein Bottle: Klein Bottle with Möbius Band” September 2003.]

Bleg: Histories of the Concept of “Bias”?

Probably the worst time of the year to post a bleg, but hopefully some folks might still see this when they trickle back from the holidays…

I’m interested in tracking down some useful articles or books on the history of the concept of bias in research methodology (or of related concepts such as the principle of observer neutrality as a normative ideal for research, etc.). I’m particularly interested in works that might track the initial articulations, spread and development of concepts related to the notion that, in order for research results to be robust, the research process must remove subjective and social influences on research outcomes.

I’ve had a sudden realisation – perhaps inspired by the Hamming article – that this information might be particularly useful for some of the problems I’ve been circling around… ;-P

(Oh, and… er… happy Christmas Eve and such… ;-P)

Fragment of a Conversation on Immanence

Yesterday’s conversation is still percolating along at Larval Subjects. I wanted to cross-post here the most recent comment I’ve made (minus its chatty introduction), mainly because these are issues – in a very condensed form – I’ve been meaning to take up here, in part because they gesture toward how I might think about addressing some of the questions Nick has recently raised on this blog.

I’m somewhat hesitant about the duplicated post because it risks a situation where, for example, someone offers a quite fundamental critique over at Larval Subjects (or here) that doesn’t flow through to the cross post (including, perhaps, the points that Discard and Sinthome have already made in the original thread – it may be that my suggestions have, in a sense, already been fundamentally undermined…). I’d strongly suggest that readers interested in the topic consult the original thread, as the position I’m outlining here does not reflect any kind of achieved consensus in the overarching conversation (and the post may make more sense, as well, with the original context in view)…

Note that, because this was written as a comment, and I haven’t edited it for re-posting here, the style is more appropriate for a comment than for a stand-alone post…

[Updated to note that, because this discussion is continuing in some detail, readers actually are much better off, I think, reading the discussion in its original location, where they can assess my comments in light of critiques and questions that Sinthome has posed.]

***

There may be more and less abstract concepts of immanence at work in the broader discussion we’ve been having. In your most recent post, you’re using “immanence” in the way I would generally use “materalism” – as an assertion of the non-necessity of appealing to transcendent explanations. (“Materialism” having been one of those words that has been historically flattened, such that the reflex assumption seems to be for people to gloss it as an assertion about economic caussation, rather than an assertion about secular causation…) I have no problem with the strategic notion of using “immanence” in place of “materialism” or “secularism” as a strategy in discussion – or just as a term perhaps more likely to be understood, because it’s not so freighted with history.

My point has been that there is something specifically and deeply inconsistent with asserting a concept of immanence as a stance. I think the move to materialism/immanence entails an obligation to explain how we have become aware that our world can be conceptualised in this way – that we do not need the hypothesis of transcendence – and also how particular immanent dimensions of our world render it plausible for people to jump to the conclusion that a subject-object divide exists.

If we are also historical materialists – if we believe that the nature of our social world has changed over time, and that some of the concepts we are trying to explain have a historical dimension – then this points in the direction, I think, of explaining how something about the practices and habits of thought constitutive of our social world suggests both the subject-object dualism, and the possibility to arrive at concepts like “historical materialism” or a historically-oriented notion of immanence…

If we don’t believe there is evidence for historical shifts, then we could perhaps explain the concept of immanence, and the perception of a subject-object divide, with reference to more timeless concepts (this is, in fact, a very common move in scientific texts that want to explain, e.g., aspects of ethics or morality – to put forward an argument that something in our makeup as biological creatures causes us to perceive and think about the world in specific ways). If we find evidence of meaningful historical change persuasive, however, this avenue is not open to us.

If we still want to assert the hypothesis of immanence in these circumstances, I think the form of the argument would have the structure of: (1) pointing to some specific dimensions of our historical environment that have suggested to us the possibility of immanence; (2) pointing to some specific dimensions of our world that have suggested the existence of a subject-object divide (a divide that, among other things, makes conceptually available to us the constellation of standards for “objectivity” – e.g., that something be reproducable across history); (3) recognising the historically-generated character of our notions of “objectivity” – such that we recognise the way in which any evaluative standards related to this concept must themselves be understood as standards for us; and (4) examining aspects of our historical environment – including concepts like “immanance” whose historical resonance we have already attempted to explain within our theoretical approach – to see whether we might be able to test the validity of these concepts for the analysis of other historical periods.

It is in this sense, in the discussion with Nick for example, that I have suggested that it might be possible, from within a “historical materialist” framework, still link to more conventional notions of truth claims – reconfigured by our recognition that these are lessons we have taught ourselves, concepts for which we have “primed” ourselves, for specific reasons, at a specific moment in time. But concepts which then become provisionally available for us to wield as hypotheses about other human societies, the natural world, etc.

This same orientation might react back against the sort of the discussion we’ve been having about religion and subjective experience. (Some of what I’ve been trying to do in this particular thread is to experiment with whether and how we can be robust with the assertion you made – and with which I agree – at I Cite: that ultimately we have no means to evaluate someone’s subjective experiences, to assess the authenticity of those experiences, when that person asserts that authenticity…)

So, the historical generation of the concept and practice of a “subject” (an individual subject, in this case, although an analysis of collective subjects can also be carried out) also releases concepts – of authenticity, for example – that can then potentially be applied validly, when reconfigured as historical concepts.

I’ve thought a great deal more, personally, about the ramifications for this approach for bodies of thought like the natural sciences, than I have about this approach for understandings of subjective identity. But I suspect that the resonance of quite important political values – the ideals of respect and non-coercive communication, for example, that you mention in your post – can be historicised in this way.

I suspect – but this isn’t a strong or important point to me, on a personal level – that our historical experience of subjecitivity might also leave a reservoir of something like “non-generalisable, authentic personal experience”, to which people could refer in accounting for, e.g, religious experience, experience of personal relationships, and other meaningful experiences whose generalisability to others cannot be assumed, but whose importance to a given individual can nevertheless be asserted with reference to ideals and normative standards (like Habermas’ notion of authenticity) that are generally understood…

Within this framework, the concept of immanence or “historical materialism” does remain a hypothesis or theory, I think – but in something like the way the theory of evolution remains a theory: not as some kind of expression of scepticism about the limits of what we can possibly know, but as an expression that we have developed the theory through an attempt to interpret our experiences after extended reflection. The theory may become extremely powerful, to the degree that it becomes difficult to conceive how its central tenets would ever be challenged – but there is a value, I think, to retaining an in principle agnosticism and tentative openness to the possibility that an alternative, more powerful theory is always in principle possible. (That, and I don’t personally think anyone has done enough serious and systematic work within this framework that we can afford to treat this as a well-established and foundational theory at the present moment in time…)

I realise this is all very condensed… I’m just trying to give a better sense of why I tend to intervene when you try to assert as a stance something that I think needs to be explained as something we have learned – that represents a hard-won historical insight.

Stat!

There seems be this unusual theory floating around the school of social science that I might be the best person to coordinate our quantitative research methods course – a “common course architecture” course aimed at second-year undergraduates from various programs. I’m finding this theory a bit hard to believe, personally, but others seem not to share my scepticism. Read more of this post

The Order of Things

Just wanted to post a few quick thoughts about my reactions to the Governments and Communities in Partnership conference thus far. The conference is divided between refereed academic papers and practitioner presentations (often combined in the same panel, but still distinct presentation types) and, because I’m using the conference to learn about regional issues that reflect trends at my own field site, I’m generally choosing workshop sessions that tilt heavily toward the practitioner side. I have therefore managed to miss many academic papers that would have interested me – but that I can also easily track down post-conference, when the papers are published… I may comment on some of these papers at a later point…

Still, I’m finding myself reacting to the academic dimensions in the practitioner presentations (which isn’t completely surprising, since many of the practitioners also have a substantial academic background, or are working in tandem with research academics). One striking thing, to me, is how many papers view “theory” as a synonym for a sort of classificatory device – so your “theory” is something that allows you make definitions that then make it possible to draw grids, or sketch points along continua, in order to classify and organise various empirical observations. So, for example, a presentation might offer definitions of a “network” and of a “bureaucracy”, and then report back on which dimensions of particular organisations fit into the “network” box, and which fit into the “bureaucracy” box…

When I say that this is striking, I don’t mean that it’s surprising – theory-as-classification-system is, I suspect, a far more common understanding of sociological theory than, say, the kind of theory that I do. I find it striking, I think, because I often find myself personally confused about what these gridlike classifications systems illuminate, that thick description wouldn’t illuminate more effectively… I have a very similar reaction to social scientific work that takes what are essentially everyday observations and writes them in an “algebraic” style, when there is no actual math taking place: I’m happy for people to use equations to model human behaviour, but I’m not sold on the value of taking something that could just as easily be described in ordinary language, and translating that language into something that “looks mathematical”, but can’t actually be manipulated mathematically. To me, this has all the disadvantages of mathematical modelling (that someone has to learn your specific symbolic system to understand what you’re talking about), with none of the power…

And yet, gridlike classification systems (and, to some audiences at least, “mathlike” renderings of essentially non-mathematical observational data) do have a visible power when they’re presented: people do empirically – you can watch the effect cascade through the room – seem to find it clarifying to be told that government agency x falls closer to the “network” side of the continuum, while private company y falls more toward the “bureaucratic” side… I suspect the power has something to do with the “collective effervescence” of the experience – with the shock of recognition that something that you might have noticed about your own organisation, or other organisations, but had regarded as an essentially private and idiosyncratic interpretation, in actuality connects up with experiences that resonate far more broadly.

This recognition of shared experiences is valuable – although, by itself, I’m not sure it helps us orient ourselves better, so that we can choose better actions… Among other things, I’m concerned that the widespread recognition that, e.g., lots of people are thinking about networks – lots of people share an aesthetic that experiences networks as energetic and flexible and creative and marvelous in all dimensions – without an analysis that helps us understand why this experience is so common now, can contribute to the juggernaut of unreflexive transformation… But, of course, I would think that… ;-P

I am genuinely curious, though, about the “cash value” of this classificatory approach to social science research – which I acknowledge is far more common than the kind of theory I like to do. (I also recognise, of course, that refining definitions and abstraction from thick description is also important for the kind of theory that I do – I’m not trying to claim that my approach to theoretical work shares nothing with more conventional approaches.) I understand the value from a corporate or management perspective: once you’ve decided, for example, that you want to decentralise decision-making, it can be handy to know where decision-making remains highly centralised. But from an academic analytical perspective – from the perspective of grasping a phenomenon, understanding it, making sense of it: are we actually any closer to achieving these goals, when we’ve decided how we want to classify a phenomenon?

But this question is probably asked from a fairly idiosyncratic viewpoint – it could equally be asked whether we’ve really understood something when, as in the kind of theory I prefer, we’ve understood its contingency: how it came into being, and how it is currently being sustained. To me, of course, a knowledge of historical contingency provides a means of orienting ourselves to action – a means of knowing something about the possibilities and constraints open to us at a particular point in time. On the field of historical action, however, grids and definitions – as articulations that help to ossify interpretations of our historical moment – have dramatic practical effect by channeling perceptions of the current moment into deeper and more precisely defined grooves… So maybe the question is more what the “cash value” is of a form of theory that constantly tries to swim upstream against this kind of historical current…

Science and Public Policy

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been asked to put together a very schematic course proposal, for a potential undergraduate elective in Science and Public Policy. The pro forma for the course proposal, which I’ve attached below the fold, didn’t allow for much detail – it basically just provides a brief description of the overarching course concept, and a bit of scaffolding on the structure of the course and assessment activities. I’ve just been told that the course concept has been accepted, and that a detailed course guide will need to be developed by 30 June. This requires much more work – and carries the additional wrinkle that I’m not sure whether I will be the one who actually delivers this course, so I need to design the course so that it doesn’t rely on my idiosyncratic disciplinary background…

So, with this in mind, I need to develop the detailed week-by-week course guide, complete with readings and activities, around the scaffolding provided by the pro forma. This process may require reworking or casting out some of the concepts from the course proposal. I’m personally not all that committed to the specific themes I used for the course proposal, and I’m more actively worried about the assessment tasks – whether there are too many of them, whether they assess the right skills, etc. So there is still a lot of conceptual work to be done, in addition to identifying readings and choosing activities.

As before, all suggestions are very, very welcome (and special thanks to Russ for his suggestions from the last round of discussion, some of which have already been expressed in the proposal pro forma, and still others of which will likely make their way into the more fleshed-out course guide). Read more of this post

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