Sunday, July 26, 2009

Performativity

I have been reading a lot lately about a concept called performativity. Its the idea that our theories about how things work or what exists can be more than simply descriptions of the world. They also have the potential power to create the world, at least as we see it. This does not mean that if I believe in pink flying elephants hard enough then they really exist. Not all theories are potentially performative, but some are. For example Mackenzie et. al.(2006) have shown that certain financial models used to predict financial market movements are performative. Retrospective research has shown that initially these models were quite inaccurate. But because their inaccuracy was not recognized at the time, and in any case there were no other models by which to interpret financial market movements, these financial models were used widely by financial analysts and in fact are still used to this very day. What is interesting here is that if you look at the data these models are much more accurate now at predicting financial market movements then they were in the past. One might say that they have simply been improved upon, except that this is simply untrue. The equations upon which these models are built have not significantly, or even marginally, changed for the past 30 years or so. To those who who can't believe that modern financial analysts could still be wedded to such "old" models, I simply direct you to the aforementioned book or remind you that the basic equation by which the size of our recent stimulus bill was arrived at was developed my John Maynard Keynes over 60 years ago. What has changed over the past 30 years, if you take a look at the data, is the behavior of the financial markets themselves. And significantly that change has been towards a behavioral pattern that the financial models have been predicting all along. Therefore what seems to be occurring is that the models, and the theories that they are based upon, have "tamed" the markets. Somehow these once inaccurate models, through consistent application, have been able to bend market reality to their "will." Or in other words they have created market reality.

A variation on this theme has been around for a long time in the social and anthropological sciences and there has been labeled "reflexivity." As ethnographers attempted to document, and more problematically understand, the various social and cultural practices of native peoples across the globe they began to realize how their own cultural and social "baggage" frustrated their ability to write an objective or unbiased account. To make matters worse these ethnographers also realized that their very presence in a society disturbed the natural or usual "order of things" there. Ethnographers inevitably pollute the very thing they wish to discover. Consequently documenting the pristine social and cultural practices of a society is impossible. Another way of saying this is that the theories ethnographers develop regarding a society are potentially performative. For the very actions that an ethnographer must take in order to describe a society will change that society's beliefs in ways that the ethnographer is unaware of and therefore will erroneously document as natural. This act of documentation will "set in stone" a false theory concerning some aspect of that society. At this point we can say that this false theory is analogous to the aforementioned financial model before it was widely used by financial analysts. What determines the performativity of this false theory, is if it is widely accepted and applied by other people or if, on the other hand, it is simply ignored. An example of where a false anthropological theory became performative, with dire consequences, was when early anthropologists classified most Africans living in what we now call Rwanda as either Hutu or Tutsi. With this done the Belgian colonial administration, for a number of rather superficial reasons, began giving preferential treatment to those whom they perceived to be Tutsi over those who they perceived to be Hutu and after 30 odd years the African's themselves started to believe in this distinction to the extent that these two artificial groupings were real enough to engage in mutual attempts at genocide in the early 1990s.

Maybe pink flying elephants can exist.
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Minding My Manners

Encoded in the Korean language is a hierarchy of respect. Even the simple matter of saying "Hello" requires you to be cognizant of your social status vis-a-vis the person that you are greeting. Addressing someone with the "wrong" level of formality is deeply offensive. I have inadvertently committed this offense on several occasions and can personally attest to the strong disapproval with which it is met. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that culturally specific ways of representing the world that are embedded in languages affect the way in which their speakers understand their world, both in its natural and social aspects. This hypothesis has been tested several times with very mixed results however I am inclined to give it some basic credence even if it needs heavy qualification. In Korea, at the very least, I am inclined to believe that the hierarchic view of the world that the Korean language demands of speakers does contribute to the perpetuation of a normatively hierarchic conceptualization of society.


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Sunday, July 5, 2009

My new home

Here are a couple of images of Heuksan Island and its adjacent geography. I will be moving there in September.
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My current interest

I am currently reading about how different groups of people manage themselves in order to achieve a particular objective. Its quite interesting. So, for example, given an objective to accomplish, how would a group of Koreans or Americans, French or Indian people, go about organizing themselves in order to accomplish that objective? It turns out (read anything by Geert Hofstede, or Harry Triandis) that each of these groups, left to their own devices, and assuming that they really desire to achieve the stated objective, will go about doing it in quite different ways. Hofstede says that a great deal of this variance (perhaps 50% of it) is a product of the differing cultures of the groups. This rather intuitive finding can have some pretty radical consequences if we take it seriously. It may mean that Western management princples have limited applicability in non-Western nations if those nations, and we (the West), are committed to preserving, or at least protecting from overwhelming outside influence, their own particular cultures.
Unfortunately few Westerners have taken this implication seriously. Hofstede made his findings almost 20 years ago, but not much has changed. We in the West are still, by and large, utterly convinced of the universality of our own culturally-derived values which in turn permeate the management and governmental systems that we promote around the world.
Which is why the successful Asian economies are of such interest to me. For not only do they demonstrate quite clearly what Hofstede said 20 years ago, that different cultures go about accomplishing the same goals in different ways, but also that the success of those Asian economies have proven that those "different ways" (see anything by Misumi on "PM theory") are just as capable as "Western ways" of producing what today we generically call a modern society.
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The First Post

After five years of being the road I figure it is time to start talking about my journey a little, sharing my thoughts and, hopefully, hearing the thoughts of others. This will be my way of having a conversation with my family, friends, and anyone else who has the urge to respond to something I have written here. For everyone out there who has ever wanted to unobtrusively keep tabs on me, stopping by this blog is the way to do it. And for those of you who have hit upon this site more randomly through a web search, I hope you find what you were looking for, or at least something mildly interesting.
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