Specialization and Synthesis — More on Adam Smith

I’m only 10 pages into it and I can see the profound influence this idea of a division of labor has, not only on understanding economic development, but understanding social/power relations. For Adam Smith, specialization is the unique characteristic that differentiates the enlightened West from its “savage” neighbors. The “peasant” in places where there is a pronounced division of labor is made better off the by accumulation of “things” he/she is able to acquire through being able to sell the labor that is made valuable through his/her own specialization. He even extends this to philosophers and scientists, but that’s for another day….

The extent to which specialization is employed to reinforce superiority along cultural lines is startling, but not unexpected for the times. This is a particularly instructive passage:

It may be true perhaps that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages (117)

Because the “industrious” and “frugal” peasant trades his specialized labor for “things,” he is better accommodated than the leader of “ten thousand naked savages.” What an dismissal of the synthetic knowledge those “naked savages” had and have about how to organize a meaningful and rewarding life. This is the great crime (and perhaps virtue?) of colonialism — the arrogance to employ a specific frame about how the world should be upon those who did not seek it. Applying this logic to today, you wonder how societies can be integrative (e.g. having the ability to specialize in ways Smith discusses while having the ability to cultivate more integrated ways of knowing necessary for the development of full human beings). Can we specialize and synthesize at the same time?

Virtual Brown Bag Series: Mobilizing Inclusion by Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson

The following announcement is from my colleague Jessica Feezell:

On Tuesday, March 5th at 1:00 PST, the Western Political Science Association will launch their new bi-monthly “Virtual Brown Bag” series where we will discuss a new book written by authors affiliated with the WPSA. This Virtual Brown Bag will be hosted on a social video platform, Spreecast, where you can submit questions to the authors, “chat” with others in the audience, go on camera to engage “face to face” in the discussion, or simply sit back and watch.
The first Virtual Brown Bag discussion will feature Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla & Dr. Melissa R. Michelson, authors of Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns. You can find out more about their new book here.

On March 5th, please join us! Better yet, if you are one of the first 10 people to RSVP to the Virtual Brown Bag and “follow” the WPSA on Spreecast, the WPSA Social Media Task Force will send you a free copy of their new book compliments of the publisher. To RSVP, simply go to the event page, establish a free account and click “RSVP.”

This initiative has emerged from a task force on social media convened by our regional association in Political Science. For us it is an exciting experiment in the possibilities of creating scholarly conversation using new media tools. We strongly encourage you to be part of the conversation!

Adam Smith thinks I’m Indolent and Lazy

So because I sometime blog from home and sometimes blog from my office, I decided to start a second book while I’m at home. So lucky for me, the first book on the top left corner of my shelf was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation (a book I never read in its entirety in grad school). So here I go.

Smith dives right in arguing about the productivity benefits to the division of labor, an argument so worked through in recent history that it almost bears ignoring, but does strike me as interesting the extent to which Smith attaches specialization to progress, claiming that:

in every improved society, the farmer is nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer.

He goes on to argue that productivity increases come from unique aspects connected to the division of labor:

1) increased skill/dexterity
2) time saving by not having to swtitch tasks (which apparently makes one indolent and lazy)
3) mechanization

I’ll read more, but initially I’m struck by how anachronistic this would seem to most students graduating from American colleges today. The idea that productivity would come from doing one thing for very long periods of time would strike many as drudgery. Most of use who are knowledge workers would probably fall into the category of task switchers. I’m no productivity expert but I wonder what the research literature says about whether actually leads to more productivity. Interestingly, Yahoo has recently mandated that it’s workers work at the office, presumably because the ability to “switch tasks” at home makes their workers “indolent and lazy.” I have to say, I’m apparently a bit of an advocate of indolence since I’d rather fill my day with a range of diverse tasks that need to be completed. I’m a big believer in the “write 20 minutes a day” philosophy.

Preparing for the American Decline?

As promied I’m reading the first book I plucked from my shelf, Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial and The World and the West, published in 1948 by Oxford University Press. In the early pages, the historial offers this proposition regarding how civilizations fail:

Briefly stated, the regular pattern of social disintegration is a schism of the disintegrating society into a recalcitrant proletariat and a less and less effectively dominant minority (23)

This seems almost tautological as it goes and doesn’t seem to offer much. What is more interesting is the presentation of history as inherently progressive towards a divine end. Rather than see civilization decline as inevitable circularity, he sides with the linear-progressive view of history.

When civilizations rise and fall and in falling give rise to others, some purposeful enterprise, higher than theirs, may all the time be making headway and in a divine plan the learning that comes through the suffering caused by the failures of civilizations may be the sovereign means of progress.

Rather than take issue with this assumption, I’d prefer to use it as a thought experiment. What learning can come from the suffering present in US civilization? Perhaps the lesson learned, if the US experiment fails, is to provide enough avenues for the dominated to become the dominant. We may have a system resilient enough to fend off decline. If the proletariat and the dominant minority interchange enough, then maybe you have no need for decline.

It gets me to thinking about race and class. If you can transition formerly marginalized groups into positions of power (e.g. racial and ethnic minorities, GLBTQ, and women) does that serve to fend off inevitable decline. Can you maintain class-based oppression/domination or do they become the recalcitrant proletariat?

Blogging my Books

Blogs are funny things. Many of us have a nagging sense that we should have one, but are unsure how to populate it. After all, the fact of ownership of a blog contains a bit of hubris. Why are my thoughts important? As we with Ph.D.’s already know, letters make us very knowledgeable in one subject but not necessarily able to synthesize across oceans of knowledge. I’ve tried to post about what’s I’m currently working on and while that has it’s merit, it’s not always the most edifying way to maintain this space. So I’m trying a different approach for a while. Starting tomorrow, I will be “blogging my books.”

I have a library full of books that I’ve acquired over the years but as a 43 year old academic 10 years into my career, I’ve slowly stopped reading them in favor of PDF files and blog posts. This progression from paper to screen hasn’t reduced the volume of what I read, but it has diminished it’s breadth. My library reflects the taste of a would-be omnivore, finding what seemed interested at the moment in a bookstore or used library sale and adding to my collection with the hopes of reading it some day. While some of these hopes were realized, many weren’t.

So here are the completely arbitrary rules I’ll go by.

1) I’ll exclude books in which I have absolutely no interest
2) I’ll be completely random, starting with my work library from top left to bottom right
3) I’ll read at least 10 pages a day
4) I’ll force myself to read the book and blog about it for at least a week
5) For now I’ll include non-academic books (e.g. novels, self-help, DIY) and try to put a social sciencey spin on them

I’ll start my own “omnivore’s dilemma” by reading Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial and the World and the West.

When Civic Apps Push Back

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the subject of civic hacking, specifically when local governments open their data to legions of “hackers” in the hopes of improving city services and enhnacing the connection between government and citizen.

This interesting nugget from Emily Badger shows an example of when civic hacking actually cuts against the interests of the government that has released the data. An app called Spot Agent uses city data on parking tickets to estimate the probability that a user will get a ticket for parking at a specific spot.

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott offers a brilliant thesis about statemaking as a process of reducing “illegibility.” In plain terms, the state gains of foothold on power when it “knows” those whom it aspires to govern. By being able to identify and understand norms, state’s can work to bring them under rational control.

This view of “legibility” as control is one that Internet activist are aware of and fear. On a small scale, this Spotagent app opens up the possibility that the state can become more legible and “known” in ways that allow citizens to elude their overtures at control. While increasing the chances of avoiding a parking ticket isn’t exactly a blockbuster movie plot, it does point to the cat and mouse game that emerges when city government make their data accessible.

Huell Howser and The Gift of Sincerity

I’ve lived in California for 10 years, but I still feel like a stranger. It’s so vast and I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t have the time to drive around exploring it’s recesses. One of my introductions to my new state was a PBS show called California’s Gold with an affable, oddly-excited hulk of a man named Huell Howser who traveled around the state and expressed child like fascination at what seemed to most trivial of things. Here’s Huell expressing wonder and amazement at a dog that eats avocados:

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While my first impression of the show was loaded with mockery, I came to appreciate the complete lack of snark and irony in Howser’s engagement with the world. It’s refreshing to encounter someone who legitimately thought the world was wonderful and engaged with it as such. We so often feel the need to denigrate things to elevate ourselves. In some ways, this is what serves as the great virtue of California. It is a do your own thing culture that while not quite non-judgmental, certainly provides more space for originality and distinctiveness.

It was sad to hear of his recent passing of cancer at the relatively young age of 67. Fortunately, we still have the great wealth of footage Howser created in his time making California’s Gold and other shows. Chapman University has a Huell Houser archive with most if not all of the California Gold archives.

HT: Open Culture

Thought Provoking Stats of the Day

Hispanic children under age 18 are also more likely to have been born in the U.S., with 92% being native-born Americans and 93% being U.S. citizens.


Nearly half (47%) of the U.S. Hispanic population lived in California or Texas


Robbie Rogers and the Changing US Sports Landscape

Those of you who have read this blog with any frquency know that I am a profound US Soccer/MLS fan. I’d blog about this every day if I could, but I do appreciate that the rest of the readership doesn’t share my devotion/bordering on obsession with the “world’s game.” There are a few occasions, however, where politics/society and soccer intersect.

Last week, Robbie Rogers, a soccer player who has played for the US men’s national team, the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer and the storied English club Leeds United, simultaneously retired from soccer at 25 and came out as gay.

This admission in and of itself is not remarkable. A number of former athletes have come out as gay, including a teammate of Rogers, David Testo in 2011. The news recieved almost unanimous support from the US soccer community. Journalists, bloggers, supporters, players. etc. Illustrative of this support is this video made by the Seattle Sounders team:

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But I’m wary of getting too carried away with ebulient praise. Even with this outpouring of support, two MLS players (here and here) were fined by the league for using homophobic language on the field.

What this reflects is a nation still struggling with two competing impulses. On one hand, we are a deeply individualistic and pluralistic society. As such, the message “to each his/her own” resonates strongly. But at the same time, we have a religious/traditionalist strain that upholds sex and gender hierarchies and recoils at secular social change. It’s this tension that allows someone to use a homophibic slur without thinking of it in it’s homophobic context while at the same time being convinced that they are not anti-gay.

Sport is an interesting venue to examine how masculinity plays out in public. In all sports, norms are changing rapidly. As an example, Chris Culliver, a player for the San Francisco 49ers made this statement shortly before the game:

I don’t do the gay guys man… I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do… Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can’t be…in the locker room man. Nah.

If uttered 10 years ago, these remarks would probably go unchallenged. But they were uttered in a cultural context wherein Culliver was under pressure to rescinded these remarks. Contrast Culliver with Brendan Ayanbadejo, a player for the Baltimore Ravens and an outspoken GLBTQ rights advocate.

We in the US are going through a challenging and a reorienting of gender/sex norms. As an example, look at the seismic shift in support for gay marriage in the last decade. Our sports institutions are no different. There may be something about the marginal position of soccer in the US, it’s constant construction as a “sissy sport” that makes its fan-community more empathic towards GLBT issues. Soccer’s growing popularity in the US may refect a change in the culture towards an acceptance of more pluralistic presentations of masculinity… one that allows athletes to be gay and still perform in traditionally “masculine” venues like athletic competition.

Despite this, a major milestone has yet to be crossed. No openly gay player has come oout in a major men’s professional US sports league while still an active players. A number of soccer commentators have speculated that Major League Soccer is ready to be the first. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated made the following observation:

I happen to think MLS, probably more than other U.S. men’s sports leagues, is ready for an openly gay player. The survey response I got above says so. So do the actions of the league, which suspended two players for a total of six games last season for using homophobic slurs on the field. I also happen to think the popular support for an out player would extend to endorsement opportunities. As a friend in the business texted me Friday, “[Rogers'] commercial value just skyrocketed. I hope he comes back to the game.”

I hope so too.

Facebook Defectors

Pew is out with its new survey of social media use and Facebook and it confirms the idea that we might be approaching what Slate’s Farhad Manjoo calls “Peak Facebook” in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans online are Facebook users. This is a slight increase from 2011 when 59% of internet users were on Facebook. But perhaps the most telling data is this:

20% of the online adults who do not currently use Facebook say they once used the site but no longer do so.

8% of online adults who do not currently use Facebook are interested in becoming Facebook users in the future.

What does this all mean? I wrote a book last year that argued that the need to connect with others powerful and Facebook has created an appealing “architecture of disclosure” that draws users into their own semi-intimate networks. The fact that the push out of Facebook seems to be stronger than the pull into Facebook at the present time suggests that Facebook is not the be all and end all of disclosure and connection. It would be interesting to know more about “Facebook defectors” and why they left. Pew has some data on this:

(21%) said that their “Facebook vacation” was a result of being too busy with other demands or not having time to spend on the site. Others pointed toward a general lack of interest in the site itself (10% mentioned this in one way or another), an absence of compelling content (10%), excessive gossip or “drama” from their friends (9%), or concerns that they were spending too much time on the site and needed to take a break (8%)

Other factors seemed to be at play here. It may be that there are two competing interests at play: a need to disclose and connnect versus a need to create distinct individual identities that are constantly exposed to novelty. The 10% who cited a “general lack of interest” might be at a place where they seek more novelty from their networks than they are getting. We should think of Facebook as part of this continuum. For those who are prone to or craving connection, Facebook is attractive. For those craving differentiation and novelty, less so.

HT: Xeni Jardin (Boing Boing)