Small cities

A recent post on the suburbs closed with the observation that there is an important “other” social space in the United States beyond the categories of urban, rural, and suburban.  These are the small cities throughout the United States where a significant number of people come to maturity and develop their families and careers.  I speculated that perhaps there is a distinctive sociology associated with these lesser urban places.  Here I will look into this question a bit more fully.

There are about 275 cities in the US with populations 100,000 or larger (Wikipedia link).  201 of these cities are small, with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.  There are 30.3 million people living in these cities — about 10% of the US population.  A certain number of these cities fall within the metropolitan areas of larger cities, but a significant number are at least 50 miles from a major city.

Here is a map of 200 cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000 (link), and here is a map of 25 cities with population greater than 500,000 (red) and 48 cities with population between 250,000 and 500,000 (green) (link).

Google Maps limits the number of objects that can be placed on a map to 200 items, so it isn’t possible to overlay these maps using Google Maps.  Google Earth does not have this limitation, and all these points are included on the Google Earth version of the map. Here is what the overlay looks like. Small cities are indicated in blue; medium cities are in green; and large cities are in red.

And here is a map of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the US in 1999. Wikipedia provides an up-to-date list of the MSAs in the US (link). (Many of the small cities actually constitute an MSA of their own; so determining whether a small city is “metropolitan” really involves the question of whether the place falls within one of the top 25-50 MSAs by population.)

The group of cities I’m interested in here is a subset of the cities on the first map: those that are more than 50 miles from one of the top 25 cities on the second map.  This still leaves well over 100 cities in the United States with a couple of interesting characteristics: they are relatively small, so they can be expected to lack a number of higher-level functions and industries; and they are relatively isolated from other larger cities, so their populations are extensively dependent on the resources of the city itself for employment, social services, entertainment, consumption, education, etc.

So the takeaway question here is this: what is life like in Billings MT, Topeka KS, Norman OK, Pueblo CO, Springfield IL, Knoxville TN, Cary NC, Green Bay WI, Grand Rapids MI, Allentown PA, Shreveport LA, and Killeen TX?  What is it like to grow up in these places?  Where do young people go for post-secondary education?  What percentage of young people leave these places permanently in the course of their careers?  Where do the elected officials in these places come from? How are these cities doing, from the perspective of unemployment, neighborhood and business district decline, and social problems?

Further, we can ask whether there are any structural features in common that imply that these places are more similar to each other than they are to larger cities or smaller towns.  Are issues of immigration, race relations, drug use, teen pregnancy, or high school dropout rates different in these places?

Finally, we can ask whether growing up in these places gives rise to a specific mentality.  Do those of us who grew up in small cities like these — Peoria, Rock Island, Springfield — have a different set of values, a different way of looking at the world, or perhaps different ways of relating to people in ordinary social life?  Or are regional differences (south, midwest, Pacific Coast) more of a determinant of one’s mentality?

(I’ve placed the lists of cities and MSAs I’ve used here as spreadsheets at Google Docs; linklink. Both lists come from Wikipedia entries on US Cities and Metropolitan Statistical Areas.)

Food and water


It seems likely enough that one of the largest global security issues in the next fifty years will be food and water.  There is a brewing food crisis underway already, with prices for staple grains rising world wide, and poor countries are beginning to experience the consequences.  But a crisis in fresh water seems not too far in the future as well.  Both these necessities depend on inherently scarce resources: arable land and large sources of fresh water.  Along with energy, these goods are crucial to every person and every country in the world; and this in turn suggest the possibility of serious conflict over these resources in the future.

So what makes food and water a global security crisis? How does the possibility of dearth at the family level get transformed into the possibility of international conflict? Rising food prices create social unrest at the national level long before they lead to famine or malnutrition. International grain markets have been unstable over the past decade, with periodic upward spikes in prices. And grain riots have occurred as a consequence in a number of developing countries. This piece from DemocracyNow from 2008 documents demonstrations and riots across a range of African countries (link), with an interview with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  Here are some updates from the Christian Science Monitor (link) and Energy Bulletin (link), including riots in Algeria in 2011.

The bottom line of several of these reports is fairly simple: the international trade system for grains, including especially rice and wheat, periodically undergoes abrupt and prolonged price rises, and these price increases have dire consequences for urban poor and middle class people in the developing world.  When a large population mobilizes in protest against rising food prices, national governments are at risk. And this is where the security risk comes in: when countries like Algeria or Morocco suffer serious instability, this has the potential of leading to international instability in the region as well.

Here is another, more distant cause of international tension that comes from the food crisis.  Governments are interested in taking steps to provide greater food security for their own populations.  And this sometimes involves taking actions that are harmful for other countries or for other populations.  One symptom of the pressures mounting on the world food system is a widespread land grab of agricultural land around the developing world.  Here is a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on this issue (link) and a piece from the Guardian that describes the situation a few years ago (link), and here is a FastCompany story about China’s land purchases (link). The FAO report documents a significant transfer of land ownership from developing countries to middle and upper income countries; this implies serious future constraints on the development possibilities available to those countries.  And it suggests a new form of colonialism — not direct governance, but substantial absentee ownership.  This too has the potential for stimulating international conflict.

So what about water?  Here is a recent report by the Council for Foreign Relations on the interconnected consequences of fresh water shortages in different parts of the world (link).  In this piece the effects of China’s water crisis are traced internationally.  Here is an inventory of resources by GlobalPolicy on international conflicts over water (link); it is a long list of potential conflicts.  Here is the introduction the editors offer:

As demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share transboundary freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water aquifers. The articles and analysis below examine international water disputes, civil disturbances caused by water shortages, and potential regulatory solutions to diffuse water conflict.

Chinese-financed dam projects in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia indicate how high the stakes are. The great rivers of Southeast Asia now face a major of challenges as a result of plans for hydroelectric dams regulating flow to downriver users. Here is a piece from the Irrawaddy on the controversies surrounding the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma; link.  Similar issues arise on the Mekong River and other great rivers in the region; link.  The problems that have arisen with regard to dams in Southeast Asia include displacement of villages and towns, serious environmental damage, and significant lowering of water levels in many of the great rivers of the region.  Here is a background piece in Global Policy Forum on China’s massive expansion of hydropower; link.

These sources of conflict over the most basic necessities of life suggest the need for serious international planning today to arrive at equitable and sustainable regimes for resolving conflicts over resources in the future.

Flood courses of the Mississippi River

This fantastic map of the historical twists and turns of the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois, was drawn in 1944.  It is reproduced in the New York Times today (link).  In an age of digitally produced information displays, it is fascinating to see the density of historical information represented in this hand-drafted map.  It is reminiscent of the maps Edward Tufte highlights in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  Here is Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 map of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that Tufte made famous:

While on the subject of great maps, here is one by George Abel Schreiner in 1924, representing the structure of the world’s telegraph cable system (link).

Here is a contemporary graphic representing global Internet flow:

And here is a graph of global cities connections, produced by R. Wall and B. v.d. Knaap in “Sustainability within a World City Network” (link).

What these images have in common is a very simple point: the power of graphical representation to capture complex sets of inter-related data.

Inequalities and the ascendant right

The playing field seems to keep tilting further against ordinary people in this country — poor people, hourly workers, low-paid service workers, middle-class people with family incomes in the $60-80K range, uninsured people, ….  75% of American households have household incomes below $80,000; the national median was $44,389 in 2005.  Meanwhile the top one percent of Americans receive 17% of total after-tax income.  And the rationale offered by the right to justify these increasing inequalities keeps shifting over time: free enterprise ideology, trickle-down economics, divisive racial politics, and irrelevant social issues, for example.

Here is the trajectory of US income by quintile since 1965 (link); essentially no change in the bottom three quintiles over that 40-year period. Plainly the benefits of growth and productivity change in the national economy have benefited the top 40% of the population, and disproportionately have flowed to the top 5%.

Just consider what has happened to income to the “middle” class versus the top 1% in the US economy. The 40-60% segment of earners have declined from 16.5% to 14.1% of after-tax income, while the top 1% has more than doubled its share, to 17.1%.

And here’s a very graphic demonstration of the rapid increase in the percent of income flowing to the top percent of US income earners since the Reagan revolution (thanks to benmuse):

Meanwhile, the power of extreme wealth in the country seems more or less unlimited and unchallenged.  Corporations can spend as much as they want to further candidates — as “persons” with freedom of speech rights following Citizens’ United v. Federal Election Commission (link). Billionaires like the Koch brothers fund the anti-labor agendas of conservative governors. Right-wing media empires dominate the airwaves. Well-financed conservative politicians use the language of “budget crisis” as a pretext for harshly reducing programs that benefit ordinary people (like Pell grants). Lobbyists for corporations and major economic interests can influence agencies and regulations in the interest of their clients, more or less invisibly.  And billionaire lightweights like Donald Trump continue to make ridiculous statements about President Obama’s birth status.

The political voice of the right, and the economic elite they serve, has never been louder.  And it is becoming more reckless in its attacks on the rest of society.  Immigrants come in for repressive legislation in Arizona and other states.  Racist voices that would never have been tolerated a generation ago are edging towards mainstream acceptability on the right. Self-righteous attempts to reverse health care reform are being trumpeted — threatening one of the few gains that poor and uninsured people have made in decades.  And the now-systematic attack on public sector unions is visibly aimed at silencing one of the very few powerful voices that stand in the political sphere on behalf of ordinary working people.

The big mystery is — why do the majority of Americans accept this shifting equation without protest? And how can progressive political organizations and movements do a better job of communicating the basic social realities of our economy and our democracy to a mass audience?  Social justice isn’t a “special interest” — it is a commitment to the fundamental interests and dignity of the majority of Americans.

Deciphering French society


Louis Maurin recently published a valuable book on contemporary French society, Déchiffrer la société française, which is intended to shed light on the social realities of France in a way that is genuinely accessible to the public.  There are chapters on population, the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, consumption, and social values, among other important topics (link).  The book is intended to capture and encapsulate some of the data that is available through French sources that will make the basic outlines of France more transparent to the public.  (There is a companion website for the book as well.)  Denis Clerc provides the preface for the book — another voice in French society calling for greater transparency about inequalities.

Maurin believes that there is a wide gap between the rhetoric that French elites and journalists use to characterize contemporary French society, and the social realities.  In order for France to successfully address the social problems it faces, it is important for the public to have a better understanding of the background and the current realities.  So the goal of this project is straightforward:

À l’encontre de ce mouvement, ce livre vise à dresser un état de lieux et à expliquer certains mécanismes du fonctionnement de la société française. Il s’agit bien d’abord de «déchiffrer», car l’objectif est, autant que faire se peut, de mesurer et d’analyser des évolutions. Sans fétichisme du chiffre, il devient indispensable de mettre sur la table des données pour sortir de la rhétorique française où chacun se paie de bons mots. Ce qui permet à tout le monde d’avoir raison en même temps, faute de pouvoir être départagé par les faits. Dans la mesure du possible, nous essaierons de présenter des séries sur longue période, pour élargir les perspectives. L’objectif est aussi de « déchiffrer » des phénomènes qui ne sont pas tous immédiatement perceptibles. De dégager des tendances pour mieux comprendre l’évolution de la société dans un monde où l’avenir semble, pour beaucoup, très incertain. Sur la plupart des phénomènes présentés, vécus au quotidien, chacun a sa petite idée, qu’il s’agisse de famille, d’école, d’immigration, de chômage… Toute la difficulté de la démarche et son intérêt consistent à échapper aux expériences personnelles pour analyser le comportement d’un ensemble. (Avant-propos)

[To counter this trend, this book aims to develop a baseline description and to explain some mechanisms of how French society functions.  It is indeed a first effort, because the goal is, as far as possible, to measure and analyze trends.  Without making a fetish of data, it is necessary to provide tables of facts in order to escape the rhetoric to which everyone pays lip service.  Without facts, everyone can claim to be right at the same time.  Wherever possible, we attempt to present a series of data over a long period, to broaden the perspective.  The goal is also to “decipher” phenomena that are not immediately obvious.  We seek to identify trends in order to better understand society in a world where the future for many is very uncertain.  For most of the phenomena presented, each individual has his/her own perspective, whether it concerns the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, …  The challenge is to separate out one’s personal experiences in order to analyze the behavior of the larger group.]

Each topic is a fundamental one — population, nuptiality, family, schooling, immigration, employment, consumption.  And the data that Maurin summarizes are often striking and unexpected.

Here is a striking graph of the absolute number of marriages and divorces since 1960, and a graph of family size changes between 1900 and 1970.  The marriage rate increased sharply in the 1960s into the early 70s; it then went into a steep decline.



Here are several graphs representing economic and social changes in the past thirty years.  The first tracks the percentage of adults in different socio-economic groups: workers, managers, professionals, executives, farmers, and permanently unemployed. The second tracks the fairly steep decline in the number of hours worked annually by a worker, from under 2000 to under 1500.  The third tracks the shifting composition of the workforce, documenting a dramatic decline in industrial labor from 35% to 15%.  And the fourth graph tracks union membership, from a high of 30% in 1949 to a low of 8% in 2005.  This is surprising for Americans who think of the French workforce as being highly unionized.





Here is an indication of how French consumption has evolved over the past sixty years.  Television and washing machines started early; home computers and mobile phones came in the decade of 1990-2000.  (It appears that several labels may be switched on this graph; it’s hard to believe that microwave ovens became common well before refrigerators.  And in fact the 2007 snapshot from INSEE suggests that these two labels have been switched.)

Here is a snapshot from INSEE for household items for 2007:


And what about education?  Maurin draws attention to the progress of the bac over the past 60 years.  The creation of the bac technologique and the bac professionnel in 1968 and 1988 respectively conjoined with growth in the bac general to produce rapid increase from the mid 1980s through 1990s; and the total has remained flat since the 1990s.



Maurin expresses a certain amount of disappointment with the discipline of academic sociology in France for its failure to provide a “public” sociology — an empirical and theoretical research program aimed at shedding light on the most pervasive patterns in French society today. (“Malgré des progrès récents, le monde scientifique — la sociologie, en particulier — ne semble plus vraiment chercher à dresser ce portrait social de la France;” avant-propos.) And here again in the conclusion:

La statistique n’est pas seule en cause : la recherche laisse de côté de très nombreux domaines, pourtant indispensables à la compréhension du monde contemporain, quand bien même les données existent. Les sociologues qui travaillent sur des sujets aussi essentiels que les revenus, la mobilité sociale ou la consommation ne sont qu’une poignée. Dans certains domaines, comme l’exclusion ou l’immigration, ils se comptent par dizaines… Personne ne conteste la nécessité de ces travaux. Il n’en demeure pas moins que, pour partie, la sociologie française s’attache aux «dominés », oubliant que, pour analyser les processus de domination, il faut aussi regarder vers le haut. (Conclusion)

[The data are not the only cause.  Researchers leave to the side many domains that are indispensable to comprehending the contemporary world, even when the data exist. Sociologists who work on such essential subjects as income, social mobility, or consumption are only a handful.  In some domains, such as exclusion or immigration, they are fewer than dozens.  No one can disagree about the necessity of this work.  Instead, the French sociologists prefer to focus on the “dominated”, forgetting that it is necessary to look at the top in order to understand the processes of domination. (Conclusion)]

In short — French society is as complicated as any other, with its own history and current social forces.  And many of the social realities the French currently face are obscure in their causes and their distribution across regions and classes.  So it is particularly important for authors like Maurin to help pull back the curtain from some of these basic social facts.

(Each chapter offers a short list of key internet sources that allow the reader to pursue the data questions of the chapter directly.  A few key resources on population, labor, poverty, family, immigration, and education include —

  • Eurostat (Service statistique de l’Union européenne link)
  • INED (Institut national d’études démographiques link)
  • INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques link)
  • CNAF (Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales link)
  • Ministère de la Justice link
  • Secrétariat d’état à la Famille link
  • Cité nationale de l’immigration link
  • Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés link)
  • Ministère de l’éducation nationale link
  • CEE (Centre d’étude de l’emploi link)
  • Céreq (Centre d’études et de recherches sur les qualifications link)
  • IRES (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales link)
  • Ministère de l’emploi link
  • Observatoire des inégalités link
  • Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l’exclusion sociale link
  • Crédoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie link)
  • Iresco (Institut de recherche sur les sociétés contemporaines link)
  • Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po link)

There is a volume of valuable data available from these sources.)


Ngram anomalies

Now that I’ve played with the Google Ngrams tool a little, I continue to think it’s a powerful window into a lot of interesting questions. But I also see that there are patterns that emerge that are plainly spurious, and surely do not correspond to real changes in language, culture, or collective interest over time. It is easy to find examples of search terms that very plainly indicate that there is some kind of “instrument error”, an observation that emerges because of an artifact of the method rather than a real pattern in the underlying behavior.

Fortunately it is possible to probe these areas of anomaly with the goal of figuring out what they mean. So let’s see what happens when we pick out a set of common words that are not freighted with a lot of culturally specific significance. This will let us see more clearly how the instrument itself works.

Consider the color words red, green, yellow, blue, black. Let’s graph the frequency of these terms in American English from 1800 to 2000. Before looking at the Ngram graph, let’s consider what we would expect ex ante. Color words occur in books to designate — color. Color terms are common words, so we might expect that they would remain fairly constant in frequency over time. So here is the null hypothesis about the frequency of common color terms: without a change in culture about color, we should expect the color words would remain roughly constant in frequency (flat curve). And the usage patterns for each term should be independent from the others. So we should expect a degree of independent random fluctuations in the frequencies of each color word, where “blue” bumps up in frequency in a given year and “red” bumps down.

(Why should we expect a degree of independence in the random fluctuations between “red” and “blue”? Because, fundamentally, there is no common mechanism that would link their behavior.)

Here are some ways in which the actual behavior of color terms might deviate from the null hypothesis.  Some colors may be more in style than others at a time — there may be a cultural preference for red over blue, so the frequency of red may be greater than the frequency of blue. And the frequencies may change as cultural preferences change; so blue may become more frequent than red in a later generation. More generally, literary taste may change by becoming more descriptive overtime — with more frequent use of color terms — or more formal, with less use of color terms. So it would be possible to explain persistent differences in frequency of color terms; shifting frequencies across different color words; and even a longterm rise or decline in the whole family of color words.

So ex ante, for this group of common color words we would expect a graph of flat lines for the five terms, with uncorrelated fluctuations in each line.

Now let’s look at the actual graph of these word frequencies.


Here we can see behavior that flatly contradicts these reasonable ex ante expectations. (Don’t be confused by the fact that the color of the line does not correspond to the color term being represented.) First, there are stretches of time in which the color words covary extremely closely, to the extent that the graphs look identical in shape. This is true, for example, in the neighborhood of 1820. This is impossible to explain as anything else than an artifact of some sort. It is impossible to believe that the frequencies of several color words would fluctuate up and down with this degree of synchrony.

Here is another aspect of the graph that is also suggestive of artifact: the long wave of rise and fall in the frequency of all the color words between 1810 and 1920. It is not impossible that “color” became more important in literary language and then declined; but that seems improbable. So this long wave coordinated behavior of the color words seems to be more likely the effect of a database anomaly than a manifestation of a real trend.

Is there any reliable information in this graph?  Yes.  There is one feature of this graph that appears to have real significance, and that is the change in the behavior of “black” after 1960. Prior to that year the term behaves pretty much like all the other color words. After that year it takes off on a very different trajectory. And this abrupt and accelerating increase in the frequency of “black” seems to have everything to do with a real social and cultural change in the 1960s and forward — the abrupt increase in those decades in the salience of race. There is a similar divergence between the behavior of “black” and all the other color words in 1860; the frequency of the word increases for a few years following the American civil war.

More tantalizingly, it may be significant that “blue” moves up from “yellow” to “green” in frequency over time.  This is one element of the graph where the terms are not correlated with each other; instead, “blue” changes its position relative to other color frequencies. (Again, don’t be confused by the mis-match between line colors and the term represented!)

This example shows that we need to be careful about the inferences we draw from the patterns that appear from Ngram searches. We need to always ask: “Does this pattern really correspond to a fact about underlying collective linguistic behavior, or is it the result of an artifact?” More fundamentally, we need to understand the sources of the artifacts we are able to detect — spurious correlations, inexplicable long-wave changes in frequency, and others still to be discovered. And, finally, we should seek out techniques that can be applied to the results that serve to filter out the artifacts and focus on the real variations the data contain. We need some signal processing here to separate signal from noise. The Ngram tool is powerful, but we need to use it critically and intelligently.


Three years of UnderstandingSociety

Today marks the end of the third year of publication of UnderstandingSociety.  This is the 481st posting, with prior posts covering a range of themes from “social ontology” to “foundations of the social sciences” to “globalization and economic development.”  In beginning this effort in 2007 I had envisioned something different from the kinds of blogs that were in circulation at the time — something more like a dynamic, open-ended book manuscript than a topical series of observations.  And now, approaching 500,000 words, I feel that this is exactly what the blog has become — a dynamic web-based monograph on the philosophy of society.  It is possible to navigate the document in a variety of ways — choosing key words, choosing themes and “chapters”, or chronologically.  And it is also possible to download a full PDF copy of the document up through July, 2010; this will be updated in January 2011.

I find that the discipline of writing the blog has led me into ideas and debates that I would not have encountered otherwise.  For example, the thread of postings on “world sociology” and the epistemologies and content of sociology in China, France, or Mexico opens up a new set of perspectives on the social context of the disciplines of sociology.  Thanks to Gabriel Abend, Marion Fourcade, Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont for a range of stimulating ideas on this subject.  (These discussions can be located under the “disciplines” and “sociology” tags.)

I’ve also been pleased at the way that the social ontology topic has unfolded.  The ideas of plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency as fundamental features of social entities are crucial when we try to understand why social entities and processes are different from natural entities.  They give a basis for understanding that the distinction between natural kinds and social kinds is a crucial one.  And I don’t think I would have come to the particular formulations and found here without the working palette provided by the blog.  (This thread falls under the ontology theme.)

And, of course, I’ve been led into a number of discussion areas that I wouldn’t have anticipated: Michigan’s economic crisis, practical strategies of stimulating regional economic development, analysis of the schooling crisis our major cities face, and current developments in China, for example.

I invite readers to take this opportunity to make suggestions or observations about this experiment in academic writing.  Are there topics you’d like to see addressed in future postings?  Do you have suggestions for how to make the presentation of the content more useable?

Three years of UnderstandingSociety

Today marks the end of the third year of publication of UnderstandingSociety. This is the 481st posting, with prior posts covering a range of themes from “social ontology” to “foundations of the social sciences” to “globalization and economic development.” In beginning this effort in 2007 I had envisioned something different from the kinds of blogs that were in circulation at the time — something more like a dynamic, open-ended book manuscript than a topical series of observations. And now, approaching 500,000 words, I feel that this is exactly what the blog has become — a dynamic web-based monograph on the philosophy of society. It is possible to navigate the document in a variety of ways — following key words, choosing themes and “chapters”, or reading chronologically. And it is also possible to download a full PDF copy of the document up through July, 2010; this will be updated in January 2011.

I find that the discipline of writing the blog has led me into ideas and debates that I would not have encountered otherwise. For example, the thread of postings on “world sociology” and the epistemologies and content of sociology in China, France, or Mexico opens up a new set of perspectives for me on the social context of the disciplines of sociology. Thanks to Gabriel Abend, Marion Fourcade, Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont for a range of stimulating ideas on this subject. (These discussions can be located under the “disciplines” and “sociology” tags.)

I’ve also been pleased at the way that the social ontology topic has unfolded. The ideas of plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency as fundamental features of social entities are crucial when we try to understand why social entities and processes are different from natural entities. They give a basis for understanding that the distinction between natural kinds and social kinds is a crucial one. And I don’t think I would have come to the particular formulations and found here without the working canvas provided by the blog. (This thread falls under the ontology theme.)

And, of course, I’ve been led into a number of discussion areas that I wouldn’t have anticipated: Michigan’s economic crisis, practical strategies of stimulating regional economic development, analysis of the schooling crisis our major cities face, and current developments in China, for example.

The writing process here is quite different from that involved in more traditional academic writing. When a philosopher starts out to write a philosophical essay for publication, he/she plans to spend many days and weeks formulating a line of argument, crafting the prose, and critically revising until it is perfect. Likewise, writing a traditional academic book involves coming up with a “story-line” of topics and key arguments, turning that into a chapter outline, and methodically drafting out the full manuscript. Creative planning, writing, and editing occupy months or years before the ideas come into public view.

Writing an academic blog has a different structure. It is a question of doing serious thinking, one idea at a time. Each post represents its own moment of thought and development, without the immediate need to fit into a larger architecture of argument. Eventually there emerges a kind of continuity and coherence out of a series of posts; but the writing process doesn’t force sequence and cumulativeness. Instead, coherence begins to emerge over time through recurring threads of thinking and writing.

I’ve done each of these other forms of traditional academic writing — dissertation, conference presentation, journal article, book, and book review — and I find this current form particularly valuable and intellectually rewarding. It stimulates creativity, it leads to new insights, it permits rigor in its own way, and it leads to new discoveries within the vast literatures relevant to “understanding society” and the space of questions this domain presents.

Writing the blog is intertwined with the web in several deep ways that are worth calling out. First, of course, is the availability of a venue for publication and the possibility of gaining a world-wide readership. The web and the search engines made this kind of readership possible, and this was a unique new capability entirely absent in the world of print. But equally important for me has been the ubiquitous availability of knowledge and writing on the web, and the ease with which we can access this knowledge through search engines and other web-based tools. This means that the web-based scholar can quickly discover other materials relevant to the current topic, leading to unexpected turns in the argument. It means that the web-based scholar is not locked into the circle of his own study and the literatures that he/she has already mastered; rather, there is an open-ended likelihood of interaction with new and important ideas previously not part of the mix. So the task of writing is no longer that of formulating one’s pre-existing ideas; it is simultaneously an act of inquiry and intellectual discovery. (For me a good example of this is the interest I’ve developed in the theory of assemblage and the writings of Deleuze, Delanda, and Latour. These ideas fall far outside my own analytic philosophy comfort zone, and yet they align well with my own thinking about micro-foundations and social contingency.)

I invite readers to take this opportunity to make suggestions or observations about this experiment in academic writing. Are there topics you’d like to see addressed in future postings? Do you have suggestions for how to make the presentation of the content more useable? Can you see possibilities for this kind of inquiry and writing in your own field?

China’s confidence

Traveling in China for the past two weeks has given me a different perspective on the country.  The most powerful impression I’ve had is one of collective national confidence; the sense that China is on the move, that the country is making rapid progress on many fronts, and that China is setting its own course.  We’ve known for twenty years about the unprecedented rate of economic development and growth in China since the fundamental reforms of the economy in the 1980s.  China’s manufacturing capacity is also well known throughout the world.  But the story is bigger than that.  What is perhaps not so well understood outside the country is the scope and purposiveness of the development plans the country is pursuing.  

One aspect of this is the breadth of forms of capacity building that the country is investing in. The nation is making long-term investments in a range of fundamental areas aimed at providing a foundation for long-term, sustained evolution.  Transportation is one good example.  The extension of the high-speed trains among China’s important cities indicates a good understanding of the future importance of economic integration and mobility for future innovation and growth.  But this high-speed rail system indicates something else as well: China’s readiness to successfully design and build the most sophisticated engineering and technology projects on a large scale.  The high-speed train between Hangzhou and Shanghai opened last week, with a sustained speed in excess of 350 km/hour; this brings the travel time down from 78 minutes to 45 minutes over the distance of 202 kilometers.  Similar service will be completed between Beijing and Shanghai, providing 5-hour service between these key cities.  So China will soon be leading the world in high-speed rail. 

Higher education is another great example.  The universities in and around Shanghai have built whole new campuses in the past ten years, reflecting a local and national commitment to improvement of the high-end talent base in the country.  Universities in Beijing, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Souzhou are making rapid and focused plans to enhance the quality of their faculties and the effectiveness of their curricula — especially in the areas of mathematics, science, and engineering.  My visit to the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou was a great example of this dynamism.  There I saw many bright, talented students from all across China studying the fine arts, design, and multimedia on a beautiful urban campus serving 9,000 students. The student work is very good, and it gives a sense of the creative potential invested in the current generation. 

A more intangible aspect of China’s current confidence comes from a long series of conversations with Chinese faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.  There is a real pride in China’s cultural heritage — new friends in Hangzhou and Souzhou were eager to explain the meaning of ceramics, paintings, and gardens in terms of the Chinese value systems they represent.  And there is a sense of purpose and direction in many of these conversations — as if people in their 60s and people in their 20s alike have absorbed China’s history and its half-century of turbulence, and are now looking forward to consolidation and enhancement of the cultural and economic power of their country. There also appears to be a deep underlying fear of turbulence; the people we met want to see stable, continuous progress. There was sympathy for Liu Xiabo, but not much appetite for radical changes in rights and liberties. “China needs to maintain stability.”

This sense of confidence is accompanied by a lack of “Western envy.”  There is very little sense that any of the people I talked with over these several weeks think that their country should emulate Europe or North America — politically or culturally.  “China can create its own way .”  Some of the students I talked to were very clear in their criticisms of the policies of their own government — from educational access and equality to internet access — but none expressed the notion that China should simply follow the European or North American models in these areas. (I was asked, why do corporations have so much influence on the government in the US?)  And more importantly — many of these young people have the desire to study abroad; but they also express a very specific intention to return to China and have their lives and careers in China. And equally important, I met leading Chinese academics who have chosen to return to China from leading universities in the US. 

So — rapid, sustained economic growth; a broadly shared sense of China’s distinctive values and history; successful incorporation of advanced, largescale technology systems; the world’s fastest super-computer; integrated regional and national plans for the future; and a degree of recognition of the importance of addressing China’s social problems — this is a powerful foundation for a China-centered future for this country and its 1.3 billion citizens.

Where is the place for social criticism in this picture? China faces a number of difficult social problems that will require decades to solve. Consider some of the hardest problems: Dealing with the needs of China’s aging generation; providing quality healthcare to everyone; rapidly increasing incomes to China’s poorest 40%; reining in the steadily rising pressures on air and water quality; reducing the prevalence of guanxi and corruption in business and daily life; and handling the challenges of rapid rural-urban transformation, to name just a few important problems. Many of these problems affect large segments of Chinese society, and their solution will require critical demands by these groups if the government is to take appropriate action. So allowing Chinese people a genuine voice in defining the problems the country needs to tackle is crucial. 

Moreover, many of the policy choices that need to be made will affect different social groups differently.  Expansion of the rail network or the power grid provides large gains for many people, but it imposes important costs on other people. And often the “losers” in these policy areas are poor people with little effective voice in the policy arena. If poor people don’t have open avenues through which they can express their needs and sources of hardship, these needs will not be heard.  So for both these types of reasons, it is crucial that China move in the direction of creating greater space for dissent and the expression of fundamental concerns and interests. 

An important part of this evolution is the development of an institutionally protected investigative press. It is crucial in a modern society that the role of the news-gathering investigator be established and secured against the pressures of government. Investigations of corruption sometimes occur in the Chinese press. But there seem to be fairly clear limits to the depth and subjects that journalists can undertake. Investigators trying to establish culpability for school building collapses during the Sichuan earthquake quickly ran into government controls for going too far. And yet it is only when the spotlight falls on corruption that it can be addressed. 

So the confidence that Chinese people currently have in their future is warranted. And the path will be more direct if the Chinese political system continues to develop more institutionalized ways of allowing citizens and groups to express their concerns, desires, and criticisms. There will be a distinctively Chinese polity in the future. And it needs somehow to solve the problem of facilitating citizen voice and deliberative social problem solving. 

The global talent race

We have a lot of anxiety in the United States about the quality and effectiveness of our educational system, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. And the anxiety is justified. A large percentage of our school-age population lives in high poverty neighborhoods, and they are served by schools that fail to allow them to make expected progress in needed academic skills, including especially reading, writing, and math. And we have high school dropout rates in many cities that exceed 25% — leading to the creation of large cohorts of young adults who lack the basic skills necessary to do productive work in our society. So at a time when personal and social productivity depends on problem-solving, innovation, and invention, many of our young people in the US haven’t developed their talents sufficiently to make these contributions.

How does this problem look from an international perspective? Other countries and regions seem to have taken more seriously the macro-role that education and talent will play in their futures, and are preparing the ground for superior outcomes on a population-wide basis. Here is one example — Hong Kong. Though part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong retains a degree of autonomy in its social policies, and education is one of those areas where Hong Kong government can take special initiatives.

There is a pervasive feeling in Hong Kong that educational success is absolutely crucial. School children are strongly motivated, their families support them fully, and the city is trying to ensure that all children have access to effective schools. And there is a lot of civic focus on the quality and reach of the Hong Kong universities as well.  Business and civic leaders recognize the key role that well-educated Hong Kong graduates will play in the economic vitality of the city in the future. And university leaders are keenly interested in enhancing the quality of the undergraduate and graduate curricula  Here is a valuable survey report by Professor Leslie N.K. Lo, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research at Hong Kong Chinese University ( The report documents the priority placed on quality of education by the authorities, even as it raises concerns about the effective equality of education in the city. Here is a report on the state of education research and reform in HK (  The report raises the possibility that Hong Kong’s educational system is skewed by income and language: low-income families attending Cantonese-speaking schools may not get a comparable education to that provided to middle- and upper-income families in English-speaking schools.  But it isn’t easy to find detailed educational research that would validate this point.

One very interesting data point concerning the equality of access provided by Hong Kong education can be located in the distribution of family incomes among students in Hong Kong’s elite universities.  Basically the data indicate that the Hong Kong universities are reasonably well representative of the full income spectrum of the city.  About half of students in the elite universities in Hong Kong come from families in the lower half of the income distribution (or in other words, the median student’s family income is equal to the median family income of the city).  This compares to a markedly different picture in selective public universities in the United States, where the median student family income is at about the 85th percentile of the US distribution of family income.  In other words, universities in the United States are over-represented by students and families from the higher end of the income distribution; whereas the Hong Kong university student population is relatively evenly distributed over the full Hong Kong income distribution.  (These data are based on a summary report prepared by researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.)  

This statistical fact gives rise to a suggestive implication: that students of all income levels in Hong Kong are roughly as likely to attend Hong Kong’s elite universities.  And this contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States, where attendance in elite universities is sharply skewed by family income (Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Thomas Jefferson Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series)).  

The issue is important, because in the world-wide race for talent cultivation, those countries that do the best job of cultivating the talents of all their citizens are surely going to do the best in the economic competition that is to come.  Countries that waste talent by denying educational opportunities to poor people or national minorities are missing an opportunity for innovation, creativity, and problem-solving that can be crucial for their success in the global environment.  And if Hong Kong, China, and other East Asian countries are actually succeeding in creating educational systems that greatly enhance equality of opportunity across income, this will be a large factor in their future success.

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