Functional Categories

James Griesemer and his collaborators have developed the notion of “scaffolding” as a way to think about complex interactive processes such as embryonic development, evolution, social institutions, or the psychology of learning. A scaffold is anything that facilitates the development of something else by lowering the costs involved for the relevant actors. The typical example is the wooden framework assembled under a stone bridge or arch while the structure is being built.. The frame scaffolds the structure by taking the weight from the stones until the keystone is fitted into the gap between the remaining stones and the structure can support itself.


Image result for stone arch framework under construction


The notion of scaffolds is useful for a number of reasons I won’t get into here— I’ll leave that to Griesemer’s upcoming paper on the topic. But what it got me thinking about was that concepts can be defined functionally, by what they do or have the capacity to do, rather than by their structure, composition, or other attributes. This is not an intuitive notion, but it can be illustrated with examples in world of manufactured parts.

We commonly think of springs as coiled pieces of some flexible material, usually metal. But there are other kinds of springs such as leaf springs which are made from flat sheets rather than coils. The definition of ‘spring’ comes from what they do: hold energy under physical deformation, and then provide that energy back after returning to their previous shape.

Another example: valves; there are many kinds of valves, needle valves, flap valves, gasket vales, and others. These different varieties of valves do not necessarily resemble each other in structure, nor do they need to be made from the same kinds of material. The important part of being a valve is allowing and blocking the flow of a fluid, which can be done through a number of different mechanisms.

So, getting back to scaffolds, entities and organizations as disparate as catalyst enzymes and study groups could be grouped under the same functional category because they make it cheaper, easier, and more likely to successfully carry out an activity that requires some investment of time, energy, or risk.

Illiberal Nationalism

In the light of the Trump administration’s recent decision to revoke tens of thousands of visas, and to block citizens of several Muslim majority countries from entering the US, I’ve been thinking about my research on the history of population growth modeling. I recently wrote an article in Endeavour reviewing biologist Garrett Hardin’s idea of states as “lifeboats” who have a duty to their current occupants not to take on too many passengers, lest they sink and drown everyone. This means that many “swimmers” in the sea must be kept out of the lifeboats of the rich countries, and that if necessary they must die so that the rich may live.

There are lots of things wrong with this picture from a moral and humanitarian point of view, and it’s also probably wrong empirically and thus not a good metaphor for migration and population growth. But what struck me over the last week or two was that it was also both nationalist and illiberal. A notion of nationalism rooted in citizenship has been an important part of both major US political parties for a long time, even when it was honored more in the breach than in the observation. But it’s made me wonder—is this something that is changing? Is there now a mainstream political position that understands nationhood to be based not in citizenship, but in some other categories? Something I need to think more about. Here’s an excerpt from the article, written this fall (Oakes, J., 2016. Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life. Endeavour, 40(4), pp.238-247.

Until quite recently it was quite difficult to place Garrett Hardin on the present American political spectrum of liberal to conservative or Left to Right. Despite the fact that he identified himself as an “eco-conservative,” his support for liberalizing laws against abortion and contraception combined with his advocacy for government protection of the environment made him seem out of place on the contemporary Right. Additionally, his suspicion of free market fundamentalism made him incompatible with the deregulation and laissez faire favored by Republican Party since the neoliberal turn of the Reagan Presidency. But, of course there has always been an illiberal and nativist faction within American conservatism, less concerned with the preservation of markets and property rights than with the danger of encroaching immigrants and the disruption of traditional social hierarchies. This political tendency’s most notably national exemplars until recently was Pat Buchanan, and to a lesser degree David Duke. Now, with Donald J. Trump as the president-elect of the United States, the connection is much easier to make. If Hardin were alive today he would probably view the New York real estate developer’s personal style as an embarrassment. But Hardin would no doubt endorse Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. When one conceives of life as a tragic lifeboat, one needs systems to keep one’s neighbors at arms length.

Economics is For Everyone!

Ha-Joon Chang by way of Barry Ritzholtz and Brad DeLong



Ha-Joon Chang: Economics Is For Everyone!