Posts tagged ‘phenomenology’

Towards a sociology of living death

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

so random

| Gabriel |

Nate Silver at 538 has accused Strategic Vision of fudging their numbers and his argument is simply that few of their estimates end in “0” or “5” and a lot of them end in “7.” The reason this is meaningful is that there’s a big difference between random and the perception of random. A true random number generator will give you nearly equal frequency of trailing digits “0” and “7,” but to a human being a number ending in “7” seems more random than one ending in “0.” Likewise clusters occur in randomness but human beings see clustering as suspicious. A scatterplot of two random variables drawn from a uniform has a lot of dense and sparse patches but people expect it to look like a slightly off-kilter lattice. That is, we intuitively can’t understand that there is a difference between a uniform distribution and a random variable drawn from a uniform distribution.

This reminded me of two passages from literature. One is in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector tells Clarice that the locations of Buffalo Bill’s crime scenes is “desperately random, like the elaborations of a bad liar.” The other is from Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, where a mathematician explains how he broke a theoretically perfect encryption scheme:

That is true in theory, … In practice, this is only true if the letters that make up the one-time pad are chosen perfectly randomly … An English speaker is accustomed to a certain frequency distribution of letters. He expects to see a great many e’s t’s, and a’s, and not so many z’s and q’s and x’s. So if such a person were using some supposedly random algorithm to generate the letters, he would be subconsciously irritated every time a z or an x came up, and, conversely, soothed by the appearance of e or t. Over time, this might skew the frequency distribution.

Going a little bit further afield, in a recent bloggingheads, Knobe and Morewidge discuss the latter’s psych lab research on various issues, including how people tend to ascribe misfortune to malicious agency but fortune to chance. They then note that this is the opposite of how we tend to talk about God, seeing fortune as divine agency and misfortune as random. This is true for Americans, but this has less to do with human nature than with the unusual nature of the Abrahamic religions.*

Ironically, the lab research is pretty consistent with the modal human religious experience — animism organized around a “do ut des” relationship with innumerable spirits that control every aspect of the natural world. Most noteworthy is that much of this worship appears aimed not at some special positive favor but at getting the gods to leave you alone. So the Romans had sacrifices and festivals to appease gods like Robigus, the god of mold, and Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura explains things like how when you clear a grove of trees you need to sacrifice a pig to the fairies who lived in the trees so they don’t haunt the farm. These religious practices seem pretty clearly derived from a human tendency to treat misfortune as the result of agency and to generalize this to supernatural agency, absent cultural traditions to the contrary.


*I generally get pretty frustrated with people who talk about religion and human nature proceeding from the assumption that ethical monotheism and atheism are the basic alternatives. Appreciating that historically and pre-historically most human beings have been animists makes the spandrel theory of hyper-sensitive agency-detection much more plausible than the group-selectionist theory of solidarity and intra-group altruism.

September 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm

To the philosopher equally false

| Gabriel |

Mark Kleiman and Robert Wright posted a bloggingheads diavlog (here’s the mp3 link*). In it Mark describes the UCLA faculty Tanakh discussion group and I can confirm that it’s exactly as he describes it and is really good. Although I haven’t actually attended in a few years I enjoyed it very much when I did and since then I have followed it vicariously through the excellent set of notes that Mark circulates every week.

Since Wright is obsessed with the evolution of cooperation, and his new book is about the social contingencies of religion supporting inter-group cooperation, Wright and Kleiman share a few thoughts on the “intolerant monotheism” thesis. This reminded me of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The thesis of the book is that Rome was destroyed by “immoderate greatness” and “superstition” (read: Christianity). The latter is often interpreted by people who haven’t read the book as meaning that Gibbon is arguing that the Christianized Romans took all that “turn the other cheek” stuff seriously and became a bunch of pussies. Of course, Gibbon wasn’t that stupid and was well aware that, for instance, the (Christian) Byzantine emperors especially weren’t shy about having their rivals murdered or blinded. What he was really arguing was that Christianity is a religion of orthodoxy, which implies conflict with heretics. Indeed, Constantine had scarcely legalized Christianity when bishops started asking him to take sides in various theological disputes. In contrast the concept of “heresy” was absurd to the pagan Roman mind. The pagan Romans acknowledged different versions of myth and ceremony, but they just kind of bracketed them and moved on as being kind of the same thing, kind of different, but who cares, we’ll do it both ways if we have to.

To this day the parishioners at a Catholic mass still recite “Lord Jesus Christ … begotten not made, being of one substance with the father” and “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.” Most of them don’t know that these two clauses are references to extremely violent 4th century church controversies.

The “begotten” phrase is part of the perennially controversial “Christological” question as to what sort of entity exactly was Jesus. The orthodox answer is, as it says in John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Among the many heretical answers are the good and abstract god as compared to the evil and material father (Gnosticism), a single person with the father (Unitarianism), and a subordinate spiritual entity created by the father (Arianism). The last of these in particular caused a lot of trouble as Arianist missionaries got to the various German tribes before the Catholic Church and the fact that the German foederati were heretics created all sorts of headaches for Roman diplomacy for centuries.

The “one baptism” language is mostly a reference to the Donatist controversy. During the Diocletian persecution there were some very famous martyrs but a much larger number of collaborators. After the Edict of Milan the official policy of the church was amnesty, but the followers of the bishop Donatus disagreed and did things like trying to impeach collaborator bishops. Long story short, the legions marched through the province of Africa massacring Donatists but even a century later they were still a problem for Augustine.

Gibbon’s thesis as to Christianity is thus that religion created a source of cleavage within the empire. Of course this can’t be the whole story because even before the birth of Christ, Rome saw plenty of civil wars and succession movements brought on by such fractious figures as: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Quintus Sertorius, Pompey Magnus, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Mark Antony, and Octavian. Likewise in the Kleiman-Wright conversation Wright flat out asserts that “wars of religion aren’t really about religion.” I half agree.

On the one hand, Rome was almost always a fractious place — especially in the century immediately preceding Christianization. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the interjection of accusations of “heresy” was only super-structure or window-dressing. Basically I think that a cognitive toolkit approach is a useful way to approach the issue. Roman civil wars continued to have terrestrial motives, sometimes ethnic/provincial separatism and other times the personal ambitions of usurpers. Nonetheless, the accusation of heresy (or as the heretics themselves might put it, a new conception of orthodoxy) provided an ideological rallying point for fraction. I think it’s telling to compare the accounts of pre-Christian strife in Plutarch with those of Christian strife in Eusebius or Augustine. The civil wars of the (pagan) late Republic and the principate were almost exclusively about the personal ambitions of noblemen with their followers mostly being organized around a mix of patron-client ties and social class interests (I think the easiest way to understand Julius Caesar is to imagine Hugo Chavez in a toga). In contrast, the religious wars of the dominate were less personality-driven and more ideological and ethnic in character, often providing a unifying agenda to revolt of the sort that is very recognizable to us modern people used to ideological wars between, say, fascists and communists or anti-colonial wars of national liberation. Note that Arius himself was an Egyptian and the Germans he converted were across the frontier. The Donatists were mostly Berbers. Thus underlying theological disputes about Christology or reconciliation were essentially political differences. However, this is not to say that the theological disputes did not matter in that these theological disputes provided an ideological tool for framing the struggle in a way that changed their character.

Likewise you see similar issues at play in early modern history. For instance on one level the English civil war was about social class with the emerging middle class opposed to the aristocracy whereas on the other hand it was about Calvinism versus high church Anglicanism. I think it’s fair to say that the roundheads would not have been nearly so tenacious if the war were only about the power of parliament versus that of the king. Calvinism served as an organizing toolkit to impose sense on the underlying class and political issues in a way that changed the character of those issues.


*I love text because I can skim it, and I love audio because it’s conducive to multi-tasking (while driving, etc), but I really don’t get the point of videos where the visual element adds essentially no entertainment or information. I can’t even imagine having so much time (or attention span) that I’d sit in front of my computer staring at a lo-resolution image of a couple of bush-league pundits for an hour. As far as I’m concerned it could be instead of

July 17, 2009 at 11:13 am 1 comment

Why did you do that?

| Gabriel |

In a previous post, I applied diffusion methods to interpret the conversion of the Roman empire, today I’m thinking about the conversion of one particular Roman and what it can teach us about the problem of accounts for action. In Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes his conversion to Christianity and makes important contributions to theology and philosophy. The book is important to the history of Western thought both for its impact on Christian doctrine and (my concern) that it was the first introspective memoir. Augustine tells us much more about how he felt and why he did things than about what he actually did. Most obviously, he frequently laments his lust but doesn’t give us any of the dirt. After an introductory prayer, the book begins by telling us that he’s not completely positive that he remembers it, but he’s pretty sure that he was a sinner as a baby and it goes on like that from there. A typical line about his boyhood goes “For in thy eyes, what was more infamous than I was already, since I displeased even my own kind and deceived, with endless lies, my tutor, my masters and parents–all from a love of play, a craving for frivolous spectacles, a stage-struck restlessness to imitate what I saw in these shows?”

Contrast this with this passage from Gallic Wars, “When Caesar was informed by spies that the Helvetii had already conveyed three parts of their forces across that river, but that the fourth part was left behind on this side of the Saone, he set out from the camp with three legions during the third watch, and came up with that division which had not yet crossed the river.” Caesar’s memoir is an extreme case of all plot, no character, but most other ancient works were similar. Xenophon’s Anabasis is also written in third person and focuses on plot. Xenophon never describes his motives or feelings in the narrator’s voice but only in the dialogue when he answers direct criticisms of his leadership by other soldiers at assembly. (In a few places Xenophon does provide character portraits of other people, most notably a sycophantic obituary for Cyrus and a hilariously nasty obituary for Menon). The closest thing you get to prose emphasizing personality and mental states prior to Augustine are Plutarch’s Lives and 1st and 2nd Samuel but these are biographies not autobiographies and they mostly take a “show, don’t tell” approach.

Anyway, much of Confessions consists of Augustine explaining his actions, which can broadly be categorized as sinning and conversion. His explanation for his sins is primarily concupiscence (i.e., original sin has distorted human nature such that men are depraved) and secondarily social contingencies such that his parents emphasized his social advancement over his moral education or that he was trying to impress other young miscreants. His explanation for his conversion is more complex. On one level he emphasizes social connections to Christianity. His father was a pagan but his mother, Monica, was a Christian and gave him an early education in Christianity which he rejected as a young man encountering the sophistication of pagan philosophy. Later as a young professor of rhetoric in Milan he saw Ambrose preach. Augustine was an intellectual snob who had until then thought of Christianity as embarrassing simple-minded, so to encounter a sophisticated and articulate bishop was very impressive to him and he became close to Ambrose. Meanwhile Monica and some of Augustine’s friends continued to push him to Christianity. It was only after Augustine came under the tutelage of Ambrose and returned to being close to his mother that he heard a voice in the garden saying “Take and read” whereby he opened Paul’s letter to the Romans, read a few sentences, and experienced a religious epiphany after which he consented to be baptized and ordained (dumping both his girlfriend and his fiancee in the process). Although Augustine tells us everything we need to know about the gradual influence exerted by Monica and Ambrose, he emphasizes the incident in the garden as the moment when he was converted.

To me Confessions illustrates both the potential and the problems of methodologies (such as in-depth interviews) that rely on actors giving accounts for the meanings of their actions. Note that Augustine is the best case scenario for accounts of action as he was not your average social science study respondent interviewed over the course of an hour but one of the world’s greatest philosophers who wrote an entire book of profound introspection. Yet even Augustine’s account of his conversion is self-evidently problematic.

Augustine recognizes the influence of his mother and friends. Likewise, he describes the gradual process by which he became intellectually disenchanted with Manichean dualism and interested in Christianity as consistent with neo-Platonist monism. Nonetheless he emphasizes the moment of grace in the garden. I have a feeling that if you put your digital voice recorder on the table and interviewed Augustine he’d give you very different accounts depending on whether you asked “when did you become a Christian,” “how did you become a Christian,” or “why did you become a Christian.” The first question he’d just tell you about the garden, the second question he’d tell you about Monica and Ambrose but still close with the garden, and the third question he’d give an entirely non-biographical answer about neo-Platonism.

One way to interpret Augustine’s emphasis of the garden is that he is following a cultural script. In this interpretation he is trying to make sense of his own religious experience as comparable to the prototypical conversion, Paul hearing a voice on the road to Damascus (which itself echoes such passages from Tanakh as Moses encountering the burning bush). The accepted cultural script of conversion is not to debate religion rationally for decades before finally giving in to it, but to have an epiphany where God’s grace opens your heart. Even if the rational debate was vastly more important to Augustine, that’s not how it’s supposed to go and so he emphasizes the comparatively minor incident in the garden which fits the cultural script much better. In this respect Augustine is like many modern people (especially evangelicals but also other traditions as in Christensen’s testimony affirming his Mormonism) who are raised in their church but nonetheless can construct “conversion” narratives of the point in which they personally affirmed the religion of their upbringing.

Another interpretation (which is compatible with the first) is that Augustine really did have a religious epiphany in the garden but this epiphany was only the final stage of a process overwhelming mundane and gradual. A lot of work on cognition recently has established that, like fortune, insight favors the prepared. We subjectively experience insight as a sudden revelation of an often complex idea with all the parts hanging together fully-formed. However this only comes as the culmination of a long period of rumination. So Augustine had been thinking about Christianity and neo-Platonism for decades before he had an insight that synthesized these thoughts and finally brought him to Jesus. At the moment it probably did feel subjectively to Augustine like his mind had experienced a qualitative shift whereas his previous thinking to that point had been only evolutionary.

The same thing applies to much more mundane insights than the religious epiphany of a saint. I subjectively experience the basic concepts for most of my study designs as conceptual insights rather than things that I develop slowly. For instance, when I was in grad school I experienced a burst of insight of a complete methodology involving (what I later learned already existed and was called) cross-classified fixed-effects model. It subjectively came to me all at once, but this was after I had been thinking fairly intensively about the meaning of fixed-effects for over two years. If I were trained in a theoretical tradition that emphasized cultural scripts of creative genius over the accumulation of knowledge I would probably emphasize the moment of insight when the method came to me and ignore the long period of thinking and tinkering that led up to it.

Anyway, my point is that even someone as brilliant as Augustine is incapable of really completely understanding his own motives, in part because both cultural scripts and the subjective experience of cognition push him to emphasize certain narratives over others. If we can’t take Augustine’s testimony about the most important decision of his life at face value it gets even trickier to interpret transcribed in-depth interviews, let alone closed-form GSS attitude questions that all start out with “do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, …” You can get really cynical about it and adopt a hyper-structural perspective (e.g., early Marxism, exchange theory or networks in sociology, expressed preferences in economics), where the actor’s account of subjective experience drops out almost entirely and all we care about is action. On the other hand even if you are that cynical about the causes of action, the cultural scripts are fascinating objects of study in of themselves. Certainly it’s very interesting that conversion narratives often culminate in an epiphany, even if we think that conversion is actually a process involving influences through social networks and gradual rumination.

April 30, 2009 at 6:15 am 2 comments

The Culture Geeks