Category Archives: Fragments

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.

Problems of coordination create diseconomies of scale for complex systems

PLATT. I should like to mention one aspect of this— the overlapping governmental units involved in big complexes of this sort. Richard Meir has made a study of this. He finds that there are some 465 semi-independent government organizations in the San Francisco Bay area for a population of about four million people. Roughly one governmental unit per 10,000; although, of course, some of them actually cover the whole area. This includes school districts, garbage units, councils of various sorts, economic units. The problem is to get these semi-independent government bodies interrelated so that initiating any new project does not require an almost infinite number of signatures, or so that one of these bodies isn’t doing something that another one is negating. This is a fantastic problem already at the four-million level; to extend this to the 100-million level is going to require new levels of organization and management.

WADDINGTON. At this ratio of governing bodies to people a megalopolis of 100-million would be run by something like 10,000 different agencies. The possibility of an administrative jam-up occurring, so that some essential service just doesn’t operate, would be enormous.

PLATT: The complexity probably goes up as the square of the number of units of organization or management.

WADDINGTON: Is anybody seriously studying this as a problem in organizing a management structure? How far do our universities deal with this? Presumably the legal profession, the management profession, and people of this kind have got to work out how it is to be done. This is going to happen within one generation. There is not much time.

From “Biology and the History of the Future” (an IUBS/UNESCO symposium, 1972)

A contemporary institutionalist view of the old structure-agency problematic

… we take the following as our mantra: In the short run, actors create relations; in the long run, relations create actors. The difference between methodological individualism and social constructivism is not for us a matter of religion; it is a matter of time scale. In the short run, all objects—physical, biological, or social—appear fixed, atomic. But in the long run, all objects evolve, that is, emerge, transform, and disappear. To understand the genesis of objects, we argue, requires a relational and historical turn of mind. On longer time frames, transformational relations come first, and actors congeal out of iterations of such constitutive relations.

“The Problem of Emergence”

In Padgett, John F. and Powell, William W. (2012) The Emergence of Markets and Organizations. Princeton University Press. p. 2. 

Base and Productive Forces:

So we have to say that when we talk of ‘the base’, we are talking of a process and not a state. And we cannot ascribe to that process certain fixed properties for subsequent deduction to the variable processes of the superstructure. Most people who have wanted to make the ordinary proposition more reasonable have concentrated on refining the notion of superstructure. But I would say that each term of the proposition has to be revalued in a particular direction. We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process.

Raymond Williams, Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory. 1973.