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Between Romantic and Barbarian Orientalism

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

This post generally deals with the difficulty of making value judgments that are balanced and accurate. Particularly considering communities and groups one does not belong to.

I want to recognize that the situation for women in most of the Arab world is objectively oppressive and is vastly unequal in relation to men. At the same time I want to recognize that descriptions of the region as backwards can be Orientalist and themselves unhelpful and degrading to those who live in it. There is a balance between romanticizing and demonizing the other that is important to trace. So while Arab countries have laws that discriminate against women, to say that Islam or Arab culture is the problem is to go to the end of demonization. On the other hand to ignore that this is the case at present is to go to the romanticization end. It seems that demonization and romanticization both lie in generalization. But not all generalization falls into either end. It is tricky to try to formulate a method by which to avoid both extremes without saying that we should judge on a case by case basis. One good way is to play with scale. To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply takes the observation of Muslim groups in democratic countries and democratic groups in Muslim countries to debunk.

But what about value claims. Something like “wearing the veil is wrong”. The referent is Western values in this case and applies to others, that is the forcing of others to take action as directed by external edict. This is true regardless of whether the actor is oppressing another. So to tell Saddam or the Turks to give more freedom to the Kurds is such an imposition regardless of whether the Kurds themselves are oppressed. The question is whether there is a logical way or a rule to distinguish situations in which these statements may be beneficial or acceptable and others when they are not.

The balance seems to necessarily lie with more description and less generalization. Even though generalization and conceptualization are necessary for theory formation and understanding there are some concepts that correspond to a certain reality better than others. I say certain reality because all concepts find their root in a reality of some sort, but reality is vast and continuous and sense making divides it into parts. So conceptualization, generalization, and simplification are necessary.  The reality of female circumcision coexists with one in which not all Muslims practice it, but the focus of simplification and observation differ.

It just seems that there is no real way to make a general argument of how to judge one statement or another and that such statements must always be taken on a case by case basis.

Open ended…

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Perspective and Reflexivity

October 2, 2012 Leave a comment

When I read a text which states: so and so policy is disadvantageous to the developing world. Or particularly disadvantages the developing world. I automatically assume that the normative statement being made is a critical one. But this does not have to be so, it could be a statement guiding insidious policy. The other point is that someone who doesn’t identify as being from the developing world will not approach the text and its implied normative statements in the same way. If for them the developing world is somewhere else, the statement will not have the same immediacy in the same way as it does for me. But that is being too broad perhaps, because in the developed world there are a lot of perspectives and not just a single one. Still when it comes to a statement like this I think that it would not be controversial to suggest that the main line is between developed and developing as symbolic concepts that are used to understand self identity.

Social performance, accountability and representation

Inspired by: Readings on democracy and effects on inequality, development, economic performance, famines.

I seem to be developing some sort of idea of a general theory of human social behavior. My own theory of everything if you will. It seems that it doesn’t matter what regime type exists, it is not related to particular performances. When regime type is related to certain performances I tend to think there is a conflation of variables and an unclear causal mechanism. So let me put forth what I have as a possible causal mechanism for efficient social performance by elites and leaders. Taking literature on rentierism and authoritarianism, we can apply the principal of interest and accountability to any social formation. If elites base their power on their acceptance by their people, then a translation of the interests of the clients will be made relatively intact to the elites and they will act in order to meet those interests although not necessarily successfully.

In relation to famine, capitalism, colonialism and authoritarianism. Elites whether local or foreign (though easier if foreign) owe their existence to foreign backers, (Mubarak and US) this is also true of older regimes such as the ottoman empire. The local leader was always a foreigner in order to prevent local uprisings and to maintain allegiance. Similarly the Romans has a system of foreigner judges to adjudicate between them. So a leadership in a position in which those he reigns over are not important in the maintenance of his position is prone to abuse. Ofcourse personality types play a role here but the structural conditions under which power abuse is possible are met when the led have no say in who is leading them. In peasant communities (Scott) they had a final veto in terms of violence (women cooking meals in rich people’s houses in times of famine and beating them up). In democracies there is less violence and direct interaction but institutionalized accountability. Accountability doesn’t mean that those in positions of power should be accountable through moral causes, but that the structural set up means the power of the leading depends on the led.

In any case we would expect colonial and other regime types to conduct policies that are not intended to benefit the constituents they rule over, in a sense monarchies were better.

Technology also plays a role here in making the suppression of dissent easier. So even a domestic government that fills its ranks from its own people can ignore popular protest. This requires a disproportionate representation in government or a proportional representation of society in government but once in government socialization imbues them with a specific sense of normative ideals and interests that makes them act as a class or group of their own. This could also lead to unrepresentative policy.

The question of whether unrepresentative policy is bad policy is irrelevant here, but I can see how the case can be made that it is better for society than simple representative pursuit of policies by voting through expertise and such.

Now the elite side of the equation is done (assuming stratification is present), the masses or constituent side also provides interesting insights. in regimes where channels to voice concern are available there is less protest, that is the mechanisms through which constituents can voice demands to elites matter. If they are available and are peaceful then there will be no energy spent on protests, though there will be frequent complaints. Now the french have a lot of protests, but this does not mean there is something about french culture. There is an infrequent feedback between elites and constituents and protests are the final step in times of dissatisfaction to voice their opinion  to their leaders. Actual violence and impeachment is another last resort mechanism of feedback to elites. What emerges is a gradation of resorts to interact with elites that become progressively more violent and infrequent as mechanisms to voice opinions and protests decline and become less frequent in the windows of opportunity allowed to voice opinions. So the Egyptian regime ended with mass demonstrations because of the dissonance between the power relations in society and the approach taken by their leaders.

I should clarify here that one of the assumptions is a model for election i read in Perzeworsky’s article on do institutions matter? The  theory behind why losers go home when they lose an election. According to herodotus Initially all men were equal, if a community disagreed they would fight it out and those larger in number would win. Elections were instituted to determine the results of the battle without actually battling. Men would go on different hills, yell, and the louder yell would win the vote. Thus the losers go home because they know they would lose anyway. This is a nice myth behind elections but it proves a point, if those greater in number are not represented in the institutions of governance, they could under primitive conditions simply kill the minority at the top. Now there are problems of collective action and Montesquieu comes in here and technology can give an advantage and external economic support can insulate leaders, but this can only work for so long. The greater the suppression the larger the explosion that normalizes the relation between social distribution and institutional elite distribution (again egypt, also black swan Taleb hypothesis). I would argue this is inevitable, though the more complicated the suppression the longer the time before dissonance between rulers and ruled explodes.

Now with the assumption that power relation in society eventually filter into rulers in some form we can continue with the elaboration of the masses side of the equation/. This brings us to violent revolution and social unrest and perhaps even suicide bombing. If every venue of social feedback is shut down (ofcourse rulers will try to socialize society in their image, perhaps in north korea this has been successful) if every venue for social feedback is shut down and the leaders behave in ways that are dissonant to the desires of the power relations in society, eventually more violent recourse will be pursued. In terms of suicide bombing the disparity is so great, the rulers so different from society that the structural conditions are met that would encourage certain individuals to kill themselves to send a message to the leaders. That is the language that the rulers speak to the ruled in becomes one of violence, so the ruled can only speak back through violence, that is the only discourse understood between the two partners. Continuous dissonance of the extreme sort as in palestine or in Pakistan, or in Tamil, is so extreme that the only mechanism left for feedback to the ruled is violence of self sacrifice. Ofcourse this is only one aspect i would not discount the role of ideology, interests, and institutions in structurally allowing such outcomes, but a regime in which mechanisms exist for voicing objections and allowing elites to react to them would not allow such violence. Perhaps the extreme oppression would also mean that the electoral function loses its logic, we no longer know which group of men have the loudest voice, so minorities may think they are majorities. That is perhaps what is happening in Iraq. This also does not bode well for the powerless feelings and reality caused by globalization.

So in brief I guess this is my general theory that I think operates in all human societies regardless of time and place. At base are economic interest driven assumptions about human behavior through institutions. THis ignores the role of ideas and socialization to some extent and that is unfortunate but it can take those as assumed without looking into them.

Human is as Human Does

Human beings have at points in time been known to practice human sacrifice. They have been known to cannibalize one another. They have been known to live under despots, monarchies, and authoritarian regimes for most of human existence.

If these behaviors have all been performed by human beings, then surely they cannot be “unnatural”. It is anachronistic to argue that in the past humans thought it morally wrong to live under despots (at least in the same way the contemporary global norms think it wrong).

Is the role of the social scientist then to study human behavior? Or is it to describe ways in which normatively inspired reforms can be implemented.

Maybe if you are part of the community the norms are coming from and will be experiencing the reforms, then it would not be unusual. humans have been known to seek to reform and better their societies, sometimes at the cost of millions of lives. Though modern times have been more destructive these actions too are part of the repertoire of human behavior.

Whether reform is possible at all is another debate, but the role of sociology in society is also important to consider in this context. Obviously modern sciences are not isolated, their ethos of neutrality and objectivity gives them authority. Neutrality may be impossible to achieve but does that mean objectivity should not be pursued. True, it can be quite duplicitous when biased policy is passed as objective, but then can we not take any action that we see as improving our communities. Is this objectivity then one which is completely cut off from policy?

At this point, this seems to be my attitude in research. I act as if I am neutral and objective, and I go to great methodical and methodological lengths to ensure it. Although I know I may never achieve objectivity I still value it and pursue it. That is because even the most theoretical work can translate into policy at some level.

So when I study something like mass killings, or read about the terrible behaviors of authoritarian regimes,  I do not make the link that they ought to be removed. Human beings have been known to be callous and cruel.

This is an unfortunate but necessary measure because although global norms indicate that authoritarian rule is unacceptable, it is hard to define, it is even harder to define democratic rule. So there is always the risk of imposing external norms on a local phenomena. But the world itself is changing and actors who are not objective can intervene. I cannot make normative judgments on that either, but we can observe whether this is in an economic framework and how this may affect local society.

But Remember we act with as if objectivity, as if positivism (or at least I do) because we are often unaware how subjective we can be. Social scientists are notorious for failing to foresee outcomes of policies. Maybe then all we can do is describe and analyze without predicting or judging.