Monday, July 27, 2015

209. Identity and altruism in networks

There are two reasons why it may be useful to employ concepts from network theory. One is to further analyse the notions of bonding and bridging capital mentioned in the preceding item in this blog. A second is that it may be useful to consider identity in terms of networks, as I suggested earlier (in item 10 of this blog).

Personal identity is then associated with positions in networks, and cultural identity with the structure of networks. 

A central feature of position is centrality. There are different types. One is degree centrality, defined as the number of direct ties one has. This yields power of influence. It yields preferential attachment: the more  direct connections one has the more attractive one is as a contact, and the more new connections one gets. This is a Matthew effect: the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. That is one form of the winner takes all phenomenon that I discussed in item 203.

Betweenness centrality is the extent that one sits on an intersection of paths between distant points (nodes) in the network. This yields power of intermediation or brokerage.

The strength of a tie has several dimensions: duration, dependence (which can be one-sided), investment in the tie, trust, and the number of activities involved in the tie

A central feature of network structure is of course the number of nodes. A second feature is the density of the network: the number of direct ties between nodes. If density is complete, every node has a direct tie to every other node. Then all nodes have equal, maximum degree centrality.

Now what would one prefer: dense, strong ties, or sparse, weak ones? Perhaps one’s intuition favours the first. And indeed: many direct ties yield access to many resources, and strong mutual dependence and trust yield stability.

However, there is the famous claim (proposed by Mark Granovetter) of the strength of weak ties: high density of the network, high centrality of position, and strong ties also carry disadvantages. They may tie one down, burdening capacity to deal with ties and limiting flexibility. 

Communities with dense and strong internal ties, and few ties with other communities, would most exhibit the parochial altruism discussed in preceding items. Personal identity then is also strongly tied to group identity.

Economically, this yields a danger of stagnation, due to a lack of variety. Over time, with strong ties cognitive distance will become small, and members have little novelty to share. For novelty, there should be newcomers to the community, or there should be outside ties. That requires a limitation of the parochiality of altruism. 

Structural holes are gaps in network structure: batches of nodes that are internally but not mutually connected. A special case is the small worlds structure, clusters with high density of strong internal ties and only few and weak ties between them. Ties between these batches require and stimulate altruism going beyond the parish. The internal ties yield bonding capital and the external ties yield bridging capital.

Those structures are ideal, both politically and economically. They yield internal cohesion of a community, with a large degree of trust, allowing for limited contracts, yielding low costs of contact and room for informality and improvisation. At the same time, economically, external ties yield impulses of variety to create novelty, and the diffusion and hence utilization of novelty. Politically, the internal ties allow for communal democracy, and the external ties yield a basis for the political scale advantages of integration discussed in item 207.

Perhaps this should be the model for the EU.

Monday, July 20, 2015

208. Parochialism and integration

In their studies of European integration, Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks[i] argued that political integration is no longer only a functionalist matter of advantages in efficiency from integration, and distribution of costs and income, but now also a matter of feelings of national or regional identity, with corresponding emotions and their political mobilization by populist political parties.

In particular, there is an opposition between the scale advantages of integration, discussed in the preceding item in this blog, and the phenomenon of parochial altruism discussed in item 205. The latter contributes to resistance against erosion of national identities and independence. 

This appears to have been part of the Greek crisis.

In parochial altruism, people have an urge to favour members of their in-group, to the detriment of outsiders. I add that this appears to be instinctive, and hence largely automatic, unreflected, as an outcome of evolution.

In addition to this, Hooghe and Marks note, there is the condition that individual identity is shaped by group identity. For a discussion of individual and cultural identity, and the relation between the two, see items 8 and 9 of this blog.

In other words, there is a double effect: in-group altruism between individuals, and in-group formation of individual identity.

But wait. What in-group are we talking about? People belong to a variety of groups: of family, friends, profession, work, sports, community, province, nation, language, and international contacts. Earlier I claimed that identity is not in the nature of some essence that an individual harbours, but more a matter of positions in overlapping networks.

So, if in time people are involved in a greater variety of networks, developing multiple facets of identity, then the obstacle to integration should weaken. The problem, however, is that there is an increasing polarization between well-educated, well employed, cosmopolitan elites, which have both more affinity and a better insight into the functional advantages of integration, and profit more from them, than lesser employed, lower educated classes of people.

The former have more varied sources of identity, less locked up in local or national identities, than the latter, and it is the latter who are mobilized by populist parties.

Hooghe and Marks also note that there is asymmetry in effects on integration. To the extent that decision making concerning integration is consensual or majoritarian, one needs only one vote against, or a minority, to block further integration, and a consensus or large majority to promote it.

Perhaps it is useful here to also make a connection with Robert Putnam’s[ii] notions of bonding vs. bridging social capital (capital in the form of positions in networks). Bonding capital increases in-group bias and bridging capital reduces it. But not only is the difference increasing between elites and lower classes, connections between them are decreasing rather than increasing, in increased segregation in jobs, schools, recreation, and sports.

Do the Internet and social media produce bridging or bonding (or both)?

In my discussion of cognitive distance, in this blog I argued that the ability to understand people who think differently depends on absorptive capacity, ability to understand and identify with others, and rhetorical ability to help others in doing so, and that these abilities grow with experience in dealing with others who think differently.

Hopefully, this will grow in Europe. Cultural and economic diversity are not necessarily fatal for integration under a single currency. In India, for example, cultural diversity is larger and mobility between regions is less than in the EU, and yet it has a successful single currency.

[i] Liesbet Hooghe & Gary Marks, 2008, ‘A postfunctionalist theory of European Integration: From permissive consensus to constraining dissensus’, British Journal of Political Science, 39, p. 1-23.
[ii] Putnam is well known for his 1995 article ‘Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital’.

Monday, July 13, 2015

207. Scale advantages of political integration

 Gary Marks[i] identified two contrary factors affecting political integration. Scale advantages favour integration, but parochial altruism, discussed in item 205 of this blog, works against it. I will consider this opposition in the following item in this blog. Here I analyse scale advantage. In that, one can make use of insights from economics.

Scale effects entail that efficiency is greater at higher volumes of activity. The following types have been identified[ii]

First, specialization. This goes back to Adam Smith. Larger volumes of production allow for division of labour, and the resulting specialization in component activities increases efficiency. In political integration this means that there can be specialization within bureaucracy, public services and government departments.

Second, the periphery/surface effect. For a circle the ratio between circumference and surface is 2/r, where r is the radius of the circle. In politics, the periphery carries costs of frontier policing and defence, while the surface yields resources available in the country. Thus the ratio between costs and resources declines with size.

Third, spread of risk. In a larger territory the incidence of calamities, such as earth quakes, floods, hurricanes, etc. is spread over a larger territory, yielding more remedial resources per incidence.

Fourth, incidence of excellence. At a given chance of excellence occurring anywhere, the chance that it occurs in a larger population is larger than in a small one.

Fifth, Threshold effects. Many services carry the ‘threshold cost’ of the minimum capacity needed for the service to function. An example is a service desk, with the minimum of one attendant. At a low volume of use the cost per user then is higher than with a large volume of users. This applies to all manner of government services. Also to foreign diplomatic representation and negotiation, for example. Also to other basic, minimal capacities, for basic research, security and surveillance, communication, elections, … Mostly, the cost of those carries a fixed, minimal component and a component related to the volume of use. The efficiency of size lies in the first. In some cases, such as law making, the fixed, minimum costs far outweigh costs in relation to size.  

How about an air force? One needs a lager one for a larger surface of the territory, so that it does not fall under the periphery/surface effect, but there are threshold costs in setting up and maintaining an air force of any size.

Sixth, as noted by Gary Marks, public goods are non-rival, i.e. use by one citizen does not reduce the availability to others. For example, a law does not diminish in its application. However, with an increasing population the costs of administering the law do increase.

Seventh, variety. The variety of larger territories is larger, in culture, knowledge, experience, conditions, and greater variety yields a greater fund for the ‘novel combinations’ of innovation.

However, this is a double-edged sword, since greater variety also makes cooperation and unification more difficult.

Earlier in this blog I discussed the notion of ‘cognitive distance’. The larger it is the more potential there is for learning and novelty, but the more difficult it also is to bridge that distance in order to utilize the potential.

And there is the problem of parochial altruism. I discuss that in the next item.

[i] Gary Marks, 2012, ‘Europe and its empires: From Rome to the European Union’, JCMS annual lecture, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50(1), p. 1-20.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, 2007, ‘Service value chains and effects of scale’, Service Business, 1: 119-139.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

206. Ideology and language games in the Greek crisis

 The Greek crisis merits an extra item in this blog. Here it is.

What would Foucault have made of the Greek crisis? An important feature of his work is the claim that systems of knowledge are entangled in wider systems of power and authority, forming an ideology. Such systems produce knowledge, but new knowledge, once established, spawns its own institutions, vested with power and authority. Issues of truth become issues of morality. Neo-liberal market ideology is an example.

Wittgenstein proposed the notion of language games. According to his view of meaning as use, meaning is not given outside action but is formed and legitimized in it, in a context that constitutes a form of life.  Having been brought up in that, one takes the rules of the language game for granted, as elf-evident. Non-adherence to the rules is cause of rejection and retribution, and severe punishment when persevered in.

The Greeks and the EU are playing different language games, in different forms of life.
With the EU it is the game of mainstream economics, with the Greeks it is a game of social justice.  

The problem is worsened by the fact that the different language games are played in different national settings and cultures (Germany, Netherlands, … versus Greece), so that parochial altruism also kicks in (see the preceding item in this blog), with internal Greek solidarity and outside suspicion increasing together.

As I have argued elsewhere in this blog (item 180), mainstream economics is not value free, as it claims. It is rooted in a utilitarian ethic, adopted form the English philosophers J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. It looks only at outcomes of utility/prosperity, not at the quality of motives or at processes, and assumes that different dimensions of value can be brought together under a single, joint measure (utility). It appeals to liberals because it does not meddle in processes and intentions.

This stands in contrast with a virtue ethic, going back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which looks at outcomes but also intentions and processes, and recognizes multiple dimensions of value, which are not necessarily measurable and commensurable. That requires debate beyond measurement. Could it be that this is the perspective of the Greeks, going back to their own philosopher?

Is some compromise or unification possible?

In my work (see items 31, 35 in this blog) I have developed a theory (if it can be called that) of how invention arises, in a cycle of moving away from established, institutionalized knowledge, into novel contexts of application, adapting it to new demands and opportunities there, adopting elements from the novel context, experimenting with hybrids, to arrive at a more fundamental re-orientation of structures or logics with novel and old elements.

When mainstream economic thought moves into Greece, could it transform itself along such lines? The assumption in the logic is that in order to survive in the new context, the incoming perspective has to meet and accept its limitations or failures there, to be forced to adapt and absorb local elements, as a step towards transformation. But if its power is so large that it can impose the full force of its views, and need not adapt, that will not happen, and learning and discovery will not take place. That is what seems to be happening. Even the resounding ‘no’ from the Greek plebiscite could not sway that power.

Earlier in this blog (item 180), and in a recent book[i], I pleaded for a shift from utilitarian ethics to virtue ethics as the basis for a new economics. But even the Greek crisis appears not to be able to force that issue. Perhaps that will require a revolution.

[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar.

Monday, July 6, 2015

205. Parochial altruism

Empirically, altruism has clearly been shown to exist, in people and animals, especially certain primates. In particular the Bonobo ape, as Frans de Waal has shown.[i] It appears to be present naturally, instinctively.

De Waal makes the point that if altruism were against human nature, had nothing to build on there, the task of morality to impose it would be impossible.

In item 46 of this blog I considered the puzzle of how altruism could have survived evolution as an instinct, i.e. as ‘something in our genes’, next to an instinct for self-interest and survival. I offered an argument for the hypothesis that it could have survived only when accompanied with some protection of an altruistic group against invasion of opportunistic outsiders that derive advantage from preying on altruists and competing them away in evolutionary selection.

In other words, by hypothesis altruism is accompanied by an instinctive discrimination of outsiders. Perhaps that explains current xenophobia, in Europe, against non-western immigrants. I also suggested that by cultural means altruism concerning members of the group one identifies with may be extended, moulded, to include outsiders. Ethics may then build on a genetic potential for empathy.

I did not offer empirical evidence, and here I proceed to do so.

In a mountain of literature, in psychology and sociology, the proposition is known as parochial altruism, and it has been extensively confirmed empirically, but with an important qualification.[ii] There is more weight on in-group love and preferential treatment than on out-group hatred. This may make raise some hope against xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, in-group preferential treatment is stronger to the extent that collaboration is more important, reputation effects are stronger, and inter-group competition is stronger. More surprisingly, perhaps, it has also been found to be stronger for more other-oriented or ‘pro-social’ individuals. One might have expected that they would be more benevolent towards outsiders, but that appears not to be the case. In other words, a stronger other-orientation does not reduce but intensifies out-group discrimination.

Carsten de Dreu et al.[iii] investigated the effect of the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone Oxytocin. Here also one might have expected it to reduce out-group discrimination, but the opposite appears to be the case: it intensifies in-group favouritism, between-group rivalry and discrimination.

In his studies of apes, de Waal also found empathy within the group accompanied by distrust of any outsiders.

However, while Chimpanzees are indeed mistrustful and aggressive to outsiders, Bonobos are not. Instead of war they make abundant sexual love with outsiders, as they do within the group, thus avoiding tensions and conflict between in-group and out-group.

De Waal also argues that humans have traits in common with both Chimpanzees and Bonobos, related to our having a common ancestor to them. Perhaps in our stance towards immigrants we should cultivate the Bonobo in us. Perhaps culture could do that.

[i] Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates, 2013.
[ii] See e.g. Carsten K.W. de Dreu, Daniel Balliet & Nir Halevy, Parochial cooperation in humans: Forms and functions of self-sacrifice in intergroup conflict, Advances in Motivation Science, 1(2014), p. 1-47.
[iii] Carsten K.W. de Dreu, Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi & Michael J.J. Handgraaf, Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism, 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 108, p. 1262-1266.