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January 13, 2004

Typological confusions: The New York Effect and scaling subjectivity with facts

Regular readers know I like to prattle on & on about "typologies," the ways people classify and systematize classes. In the realm of politics I've occasionally banally pointed out that "ah, another consequence of political perspective X being 'several steps' away from the referent," and so forth. But I didn't have a cute little name for it. I thought of one (and people can tell me if others have used the term, it seems so natural), The New York Effect.

Remember the famous map where all of the United States to the west of the Hudson is just an amorphous mass? This is obviouslly overstating it, but I think it is no reach to assert that New Yorkers tend to find the obvious and great differences between Iowans and Nebraskans trival from their perspective perched on top of the cultural world. It seems a crass generalization to assert that New Yorkers might think that the difference between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side is more consequential than the difference between the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes States, but in their everyday life, this is a fine assumption, because precision and granularity are necessary in the case of the former and not in the latter.

You can rescale this easily to to nation-states, Americans used to (we hope) confuse Iran & Iraq, based on syllabic similarities. The United States is the New York of the world. But the New York Effect is not limited to the heights, when I moved to eastern Imbler as a teenager, my friends simply clustered my previous locales, upstate New York and western Pennsylvannia, together. They were both "back east," end of story. Of course, the area of upstate New York that I lived in was a part of greater New England, while in western Pennsylvania I was palpably on the eastern edge of the industrial Midwest, so to me the distinction was important. But what did it matter to hicks in the sticks?

So, imagine a "social space," which correlates closely, but not exactly, to physical space (it is three dimensional insofar as obviously one location on the map is made up of a layer cake of ethnicities, classes and religions, and actually is more than 3-dimensional, but it makes analogies harder if I take it that far). From the perspective of any given individual in this social space, precision and clarity of typological distinctions is greatest among neighbors, and drops off sharply in proportion to distance.

Yes, I know that this is a trivial and banal assertion, but this needs to be re-stated today, because this banality has been neglected in our modern age and I believe that it is partly the cause of the monster that is Post-Modern solipsism: the obvious fact that subjectivity exists is conflated into its ontological necessity and primacy in all areas of intellectual discourse.

So perspective matters, and how you classify people can distort your conception of the issues, and lead to fallacious propositions based on the "truths" that you hold. Not too complicated.

But I think people also need to "decompose" the vectors or variables (use whatever analogy is easy for you, you'll see what I'm getting at) that synthesize themselves in each individual to shift, color and set ones position in social space. How do you get into someone's head, how do you anticipate what decisions they'll make? Well, you have to know their values.

There are some "values" that are pretty universal. Love of self, love of family, kith, kin, etc. etc. The problem though I think is that people project the reality in their own social place all over the place, so they assume the same weightings for other people. Let me explicate with a specific example.

Take an American, and to simplify, let me assume that this individual makes decisions based on the following variables:

individual + family + faith + neighborbood + city + nation + ethnic group

I didn't put them in any particular order aside from shifting from the smallest atomic unit toward larger ones, but there is obvious overlap here, and the higher levels of organization don't always nest inside each other (faith can be transnational, national, regional, etc.). Additionally, the decisions implied by one variable (individual) might conflict with another (family). Finally, the weights are crucial. They differ from person to person.

In some individuals, many variables are basically null. Someone who lives on an isolated farm has little city affiliation, since they don't live in a city. Of course, they could have been born in a city, or they could have relatives in the city. This illustrates that I'm obviously simplifying, but I think that it works to first aproximation. Additionally, the variables may interact in peculiar ways, some conflicting, others co-varying, others have causal implications.

Let us imagine someone living in the city of Kabul. Let's imagine their variables....

individual + family + faith + neighborbood + city + nation + ethnic group

Now, here is where the problem comes in. I think that many Americans simply transfer weights and make decisions based on this. Additionally, as I noted, there are already issues of typological precision when you shift far away from your point in social space. From instance, while for an American the "tribal clan" is a null variable, not something we really consider, for the Afghan it is crucial. The relative weightings of individual, family and faith are probably shifted. As for "neighborhood" or "community," that is a sketchier concept in the context of nomads.

Finally, when it comes to race or ethnic group, I think Americans have convinced themselves that the rest of the world has their rational-explicit typology in mind, and have slotted the same weights and values to "Pashtun," "Tajik," "Hazara" and "Uzbek," as they normally do to "black," "white," etc. But the weights are very different, and my reading suggests that ethnicity really isn't important as a stand alone concept to Afghans. Rather, ethnicity in this context is an emergent property of several factors, including birth, but also religious confession, lifestyle and what not.

You can transfer some of the same conundrums to Iraq. Subconsciously, I believe that Americans are decomposing values and making judgements of Iraqis based on simply transfer of the same equation they implicitly use in their own life. Shia and Sunni are two explicit groups-forget that inter-religious marriage is rife and that most of the Shia probably converted to that religion in the 19th century when they switched lifestyle from nomadism to agriculture!

The New York Effect, and the transferrance of decision making equations is important, since the United States of America is now a de factor imperial power. The long arm of our military is moving very far out into the sea of social space, and making decisions based values and judgements formed in very different waters where the variables are set in a far different context (and sometimes x is assigned a totally different value, but we still keep the same variable label, confusing us further).

Solutions?

Re-introduce an understanding of cultural scale!

Americans can read maps. We know the difference between feet and meters, we know that Moscow is about twice as far as London, etc. We have the spatial issues under control, they're easy to pin down. This is what most Americans think of when it comes to geography. But there's more there.

People are not a spot on a map, but a bundle of values, set in the context of history (temporal space) and physical locale. We need a sense of cultural scale. Right now, I don't think many Americans have it.

When I was in high school, my social studies teacher noted that geography and its sister disciplines were being rolled back due to budget cuts. A friend of mine, who was an avid humanist, quipped, "they're just facts about distant places!" Exactly! They give one a sense of cultural scale, on top of the obvious spatial differences.

Why do people read literature? Because it makes a comment on the human condition. Because it lets us be someone else, see the world from their perspective, synthesize viewpoints, enriching your understanding of how people interact with the world around them.

Why read geography, history, etc.? Because it makes a comment on the human condition. While literature puts you in the mind of individuals and plots that differ from your own, geography and history gives you a sense of cultural & temporal scale. It reminds you that people are both different and the same. It allows you to implicitly decompose values in your head, reconsider weightings, and try and map out other reigons of social space. Caesar Augustus was a sickly insecure small-town hick who believed in household spirits (numina)-but he also ruled an empire from Normandy to Syria! That is an understanding of scale on multiple levels.

Much of social science has no theory. We need facts to construct internal models. The mental equations are rough & ready, and ultimately we never really spell them out, but to calibrate them we need data points to give us some function to work with.

In today's educational system, I'm afraid that the rise of theory and contempt for mere facts has resulted in the confusions we see today. The irony of sensitive feminists making broad brush generalizations about the human condition, no matter mere facts, is very ironic, but definitely enabled by the cuts in the fact-based cirriculum on the level of secondary school. I suspect that kids who enter college would be less enthralled by factless Post-Modernist theories if they had facts to make sense of the world in the first place! The reality of subjectivity would be less likely to lead into a headlong rush into solipsism if students had tools to re-orient their viewpoint in an objective way, actually see the world from the perspective of others, informed by their values and their concerns.

And the irony of it all is the rush into solipsism hasn't led to a respect of different perspectives/"realities." Let me give an explicit example: I have been accused to "self-hatred." How exactly does that work? I'm not thinking about considering suicide in the near future!

Here is how it works, look at the values I listed above:

individual + family + faith + neighborbood + city + nation + ethnic group

I have a tendency to diss on faith and ethnic group. So obviously I hate myself, right? As you probably guessed by now, I think a problem here is the weightings. I don't weight much as far as religion or race go, simply don't identify much with Islam or South Asians. My weightings are shifted toward the individual. As I've noted before, values can conflict, and what is rational from the perspective of the individual might not be when it comes for higher levels of identification. If you reduce (or conflate) me to my natal religion (which I reject) or genetic code (which I take as a parameter that fashions who I am, but has no transcendent importance to me), sure, I'm "self-hating." But religion us basically a null variable for me, and when it comes to decision making, "what's good for my race," doesn't really play a part in my thinking. I'm kind of narcissistic.

When people accuse of me "self-hatred," actually they're trying to say that I don't put enough value on group identity variables as opposed to individual values. Funny, huh? This from people who often put "objective" in quotes and like to "deconstruct" "universal" "paradigms."

Posted by razib at 07:30 PM