Sunday, 15 May 2005

Blogging At O'Hare

So the conference is over. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster[*]. To the casual observer it might look like just a bunch of poli sci wonks in a room at a conference centre, but it was my first proper conference and my first “proper”
presentation. (No offence to my Essex friends who came to my PhD
colloquium.) Like a debutante's coming-out ball.

Self-evaluation of my presentation
  1. My presentation was good

  1. But my paper wasn't

Anyway, people were extremely nice – nice enough to lift me out of the gloom of not having anything interesting to tell people after two years (or 29, depending on your POV). Big shout out to the Columbia students, all those who came out
and got drunk last night, and all the older people who were kind enough to chat to. Also a big shout out to Tiffany, my brother's friend who is in MSU & the army and who helpfully drove me away from the conference centre so I could vomit my unwisely eaten breakfast into a municipal rubbish bin, rather than, say, in full view of my academic peers. Tiffany apparently wants to be in the CIA
and also an entertainment lawyer, so she can sue people and then kill
them. She also owns a gun, no, several guns and has promised to take
me to the shooting range when I come back to Michigan in August.
Screw “advanced game theory”, I want to learn some really
useful skills: next year the PhD colloquium will have an
excitingly unpredictable element.

I'm going to braindump now. In New York in two hours. Kind of frazzled but not yet ready to let my feet hit the floor.

Everything in America is efficient.
It's kind of scary. It makes me feel rather defensive. This society
is close to mine, but ten or twenty years ahead. (Not always in a
good way, they are fatter for example.)

MSU has 55000 students. Check that out. These universities are vast. I can't comprehend how things get organized on that scale. They have a green fountain there. Green is the MSU colour. I have a T-shirt that says Michigan State and Tiffany laughed when I said in the UK they wouldn't realise it meant MichiganState University.

The work I saw was more professional than mine. I need to raise my game. I've started thinking about what Albert and Hugh think I ought to do, which is write something theoretical. People seemed to like the theoretical bit of my paper...
better than the other bits. I am not sure how well the ideal of direct democracy sits with the idea of democratic leadership. On the other hand, I suspect governors are less weakened by the initiative than legislatures.

Nobody had clever econometric suggestions.

Americans are very good at making presentations. I guess they start them at an early age. They are confident, to the point, and articulate. On the other hand, sometimesit seems a bit workaday.

After listening to these guys, I get the feeling that PoliSci is a huge discipline, about which I basically know next to nothing.

I saw a prom. I've seen tens of proms already of course – in the movies. Everyone in the world gets a guided tour of the American imaginary. It makes the actual society all the more surprising, when you go there. (I've been to LA loads but for obvious reasons that doesn't exactly count in this context.)
The prom was just like the movies, though – except that lots of the guys were wearing pink diamonds, pimp hats... loads of bling.

A lot of the political scientists I talked to were a little snooty about the idea of culture. It's seen as a catch-all category which really just means, stuff we don't know about. That's true of course, but acknowledging that you don't know things is quite important. There are aspects of social reality that we can capture quite easily – is there an initiative process in a given state? - but there are aspects which don't correspond to neat indicators. (Perhaps there might be neat indicators which are proxies for what we want.)

Cultural studies people tend to think of culture as a sea that you swim in, something
you can't escape. I see culture as a set of tools. But they are tools
like money rather than tools like an axe – they rely on other
people, they can't be used on their own. (Co-ordination games.)

If everything is just institutions, then political science has a simple task: find the
best institutions and put them in place across all states, perhaps
with the aid of powerful actors. (Making appropriate allowances for
differences, of course, institutions are not one size fits all.)
There's clearly a lot of mileage in this idea – who wouldn't
want an independent central bank? But what it forgets is that if
peoples don't figure things out for themselves, they won't have

Why do people in the US care so much about democracy? Because it's theirs.

Conservatives tend to loathe and mistrust the rational choice approach to social reality – Kenneth Minogue is on record grumbling about it – and maybe the feeling is mutual. But I suspect there are very clear explications of some conservative arguments in terms of people's interests and motivations – if you delve deep enough.

How do you get status? What counts as behaviour worthy of respect? Within certain
limits, that's a coordination game.

People think of culture as falling into two categories: low culture (eating beetroot
for dinner) and high culture (Cezanne). Low culture is everyday, and
everyone has it equally. High culture is rarefied and eclectic, and
only a few people have (an interest in) it. In fact, “high
culture” almost refers to the same things as “art”.
Perhaps we should think back to the eighteenth century: the ladder of
commerce and the empire des modes. Culture is not possessed
equally by everyone. It's possessed by elites. (A question asked at
the conference: why did Arkansas voters not pay attention to Arkansas
political elites? But is that bunch of local politicians an “elite”?
Is Colchester town council an elite?) But culture is everyday. Or at
least it isn't just about that prestigious hobby, art. Culture is the
way your elites behave: fashion, the French king planting potatoes
under armed guard, the English middle classes trooping to church on
Sunday (observed by Mr Eliot). That can shape a society.

Continuing at this somewhat reckless pace: the most powerful form of globalization goes on inside people's heads.

* so I apologize for what I said about young ambitious people in my previous post. Everyone at Lansing was super nice.