Archive for July, 2013

What Whitley and Sociology of Knowledge have to say about Methods annd CUmulative knowledge

I’m at ECPR summer method’s course. The recent popularity of quants (up to 90% of all article in top 12 journals) is explained by its attractive simplification of reality, its uncomplicated model and its straightforward non tough thinking which anyone can do quality. It is also argued that it is the only way to produce cumulative knowledge and to test claims.


I was intrigued by the cumulative knowledge claim. As we know Kuhn talks about normal periods of science where this is possible. I was intrigued by what Whitley would say on this. Rather than looking at the essence of the method itself as producing consensus and cumulativeness, he would look at the organization of the scholars, access to resources … (See blog post on Whitley). In any case I was struck that the average European scale survey cost anywhere around 100 to 300 thousand euros. An insane amount. When you introduce this much resource requirements for knowledge production Whitley would predict that this will have a narrowing effect making a few key members gate-keepers on resources and therefore knowledge. This isn’t like physics where expensive material have physical presence somewhere, the data becomes widely available, but still access to such high amounts of funding will impact the field towards greater uniformity and control and therefore to greater knowledge cumulation.

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Locke’s original question travelling through the ages

Well, not Locke per se, but this is an old question that I have seen subtly hidden in many texts produced today. Especially Political Economy texts, and even texts on the nature of knowledge and human society (I’m think Berger and Luckman, social construction of reality)

As Locke put it: If God made all men equal, then what explains the huge variations in wealth and power that we see today. Pretty much the basic causes of inequality question. Although Locke goes on to answer it in his own way, basing it on property and labor, to my mind there is no other answer today than established arrangements historically produced. There is no legitimate reason why one person should have more than another (aside from domination which is not legitimate). This is especially clear if one believes that god created all men to be equal (not women ofcourse).  Liberals may justify it by focusing on hard work and labor or creativity, but that concept has loopholes and historical counterexamples big enough to drive a continent through (or three).

The economist solution is elegant, ignore it, assume that people start with given endowments and they give for what they desire. This erases the question of the original sin of primitive accumulation. Actually Smith, Marx and Weber all recognize the origins of property in exploitation and expropriation. Each takes a different position on this though.

Maybe one answer is that god did not make all humans equal. Still any answer that base it on property rights or any right cannot be taken seriously.

Categories: Quote/Snapshot

Knowledge production questions: More lessons from Feminism and Post-co

I often like to say that when reading any text one must always ask: under what conditions did it arrive to me, and under what conditions was it written?

After the overview of the contributions of feminism to scholarship, especially strong objectivity I would add 3 more questions to ask of any text.

Who is this written by? Who is this written for? And who is this written about?

The first is the easiest one, locating the author, his position in society, relations to power structures, his world-view and structures of privilege that he is embedded in. The second one is more difficult, this is not just about the audience of the text, but the body that has commissioned or funded the text. Or even indirectly about the social questions that this text seeks to relate to. Answering the question of why states go to war for example is written for states, for heads of state in particular with a conception of power as domination and security as state boundaries. The second question, who is this for, is the most important one I think. It gives a lot of insight into the choices that a scholar makes to represent the world. Finally who is this about. This question is also more nuanced than simply saying it is about one country or a group of people. This is from post-co, when colonial scholars write about the colonized they are not writing neutrally, they are writing for a certain purpose (based on what they think is important) but also about a certain subject. The terrorist, the native, the savage. This is to say that the subject is not a neutral objective category existing in real life, rather it is the referent to which the author is pointing to which is far less multidimensional than the real thing. The Egyptian peasant for example as a subject is not a person, but a class of actor seen as a particular representation of something the author has in mind, In this case it might be poor, backward, superstitious, stagnant … This is particularly true when we write about the decontextualized subject.

So back to the first two points, Under what conditions did this arrive to me. This is particularly important when reading classics like Hobbes, Thucydides, or lets take Weber in this case. Weber was introduced by Parsons as a counter to Marx, thereby emphasizing the culture/ non-material parts of his work. How did the text I am reading now come to reach my hands, who kept it safe, who translated it, why did they do this. What was the publishing house, what role did the editors play, what language was it in, what format does it come in… This and a whole number of other questions are important to know before starting to read any text. Who is introducing it into the present and for what purpose. What role do they hope that this scholarship has to play. What are the structures and social conditions that allow this scholarship to emerge as it is when it gets to me. This is related to post-colonialism as a label and definition. It should not however be taken as an excuse not to look at the content but rather to supplement our understanding of it.

The second point of under what conditions was this written, I now find has parallels with the Cambridge school of history, a text is never an absolute statement, when it is written it is written for a particular interlocutor, for particular problem spaces, and in relation to existing texts and conditions at the time which it is responding to. Hobbes was writing in the English civil war, Marx under sharp industrialization and the beginning of capitalism. This holds true for contemporary writers as well.  The first part of this point is to look at the context under which the scholar was writing, what political and social issues were important, was the author under duress, in poverty, in wealth … The second part as per the Cambridge school is to focus on the meaning of terms used at the time, who is the author directing his work towards, what questions seem to be important, even pressing a response. Has he been embarrassed by a colleague or is he in heated debate. Is the author in a political party or a government position.

To sum up: Of any piece of produced knowledge we must ask the following: Who is this for, who is this by, who is this about, under what conditions did it reach me, under what conditions was it written.

Coverage of Spain Train crash, 90killed

Speaking of representations, it is interesting to look at CNN images of the train crash showing bereaved families, individuals distraught, and multiple pictures of two people hugging. Compared to pictures of train crashes in India, which would show angry people, carnage and debris, and large crowds. Less directly, images of terrorist attacks also show a lot of carnage, blood and destruction. It really is amazing how few shots of the actual destruction are shown and how much focus is given to individual and couple mourners. I can definitely see how different reactions are required from these different representations of similar events.

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Note on Theorists

Foucault think genealogy. Derrida think deconstruction.

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Functional Requirements of Levantine Polities

If we start from the assumption that the western Nation-State ideal type as model, is the cause of current political dysfunctionalities, (Such as suicide bombing, Sectarian tensions, economic failures, paranoia, cultural irresponsibility, authoritarianism, domestic repression) or at least has not been functional in producing desired outcomes, what foundations would best service the functional requirements that we desire?

It is true that the ideal type of the state is not the only problem, the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, domination, economic structural subordination, and all sorts of external interventions have a large, perhaps the largest role to play in dysfunctions. But it is also true that the Sykes-Picot division of the region and the ideal of the strong state have also contributed. This is true for both Muslim and Secular activists and their imaginings of the ideal strong central state.

Now one we put this to one side and take it as given, what functions must a new political arrangement meet?

If we begin with the assumption that political units are meant to provide security, a shallow reading of Hobbes we will get one outcome.

Building on Locke we will focus on the maintenance of property rights.

A deeper reading of Hobbes however, will see that the Leviathan is not simply there to dominate and secure, but the central purpose of the Leviathan is the provision of Justice. The rule of law, the equitable treatment of all subjects based on clear criteria. That is the reduction of uncertainty. So security may be incidental to this, but in my opinion it is the ideal of justice that the Leviathan must meet as a functional requirement. Justice here for Hobbes meaning equitable treatment of all (except the sovereign) under a clear law.

Putting aside such things as freedom and liberty, in my opinion these are the functions that a succesful state must fulfil.

At base: Security from external direct invasion and indirect intervension. The creation of an inside and outside and the successful maintenance of this border. True that globalization makes this economically untenable, but this is an ideal function of self-determination, and to the extent that it increases self-determination it is more functional.

Security on the inside from the state itself. This is crucial and often forgotten, any state or political unit must ensure that those inside the state are themselves not subject to arbitrary action  by the state. And it is in this second dimension that Arab states have failed, even while succeeding at the first. This is perhaps a result of the historical primacy of colonialism as defining the political purpose of states.

Third: Providing the possibility  for development, if you like defined in terms of infant mortality, health, employment, education. This is a controversial one. Are these part of the functions of the state? Does a state need to provide these as well? Perhaps not, after all these are related more to levels of economic development than security.

Fourth: Establishing the non-arbitrary rule of law. This is crucial because it also links to security not just from the state, but from other citizens as well.  Maybe the rule of law will not be the form that a state takes, perhaps it is better to redefine this as the protection from other citizens, and it is this that Hobbes had foremost in his mind when he wrote of the Leviathan.

Arab states have successfully met the first and third of these requirements but failed at the second and had variable performance at the fourth. Any alternative to the nation-state model must meet these four functional requirements. Perhaps one can envision a non-territorial, non- mutually exclusive polity that can fulfill these requirements. It would be quite a thing to behold.

On the state as Justice provider: Ibn Khaldun defined Government as: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself” Pretty good.

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Uncertainty effects, causes, and living with

Writing about uncertainty for PE, I am struck by the lack of articles on the psychological impact of uncertainty, the causes of uncertainty and strategies to cope with uncertainty. The literature that does exist is about computer modeling, and the definition of uncertainty generally tends to be seen as risk, or as unknown outcomes. Rather what I have in mind is a complete chaos, the lack of predictability and the inability to plan for the future, or to know what reactions you actions will lead to. This comes from a personal motivation to examine the consequences of political uncertainty and disempowerment in the MENA region and how people cope with such an environment. No one knows what is going on or why, and what they can do to make it better.

I remember Simon Abou Maliq mentioned that in such situations, residents of African cities resort to explaining the sudden inflow of wealth to a person using magic, superstition, or conspiracy. I’m not sure but I would think it explain the high levels of general anxiety and paranoia which I have heard from my psych friends exist in the region. As to causes of uncertainty, I do not really know the political reasons behind it. Perhaps uncertainty itself is a strategy of being in such a violent and disempowered world. Or it could be a strategy of disempowerment. The fact remains you cannot know who is telling the truth, whose account of history is more accurate, who is lying about their motives and about what happened, why things happen around you, and what the future will be like.

Maybe I am just not looking in the right places for literature on this, but it seems to me that it is understudied.



Categories: Quote/Snapshot