Friday, November 23, 2007

Week 15: Human Macroecology and Historical Dynamics/Course Wrap-up

Greetings All,
This week we are reading a chapter from Peter Turchin's book, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (2006). The chapter, War and Peace and Particles, outlines Turchin's approach to the study of human history. We are not reading this to understand history or how it should be studied, although we will likely discuss this some, but rather to notice any similarities between human macroecology and the perspective on history that Turchin is trying to build and define. Turchin's arguments relate to some of the things we've discussed about laws and emergent phenomena and his approach to the relationship between individual actions and macroscopic patterns provides an excellent frame for some of our past discussions.
The Chapter we are reading is the beginning of part 3 of the book, which has the goal of defining this scientific approach to the study of history that he calls "cliodynamics." The book is written for a general audience and is generally very well written and easy to follow. However, two terms are mentioned briefly in this chapter, metaethnic frontier and asabiya, that are central to Turchin's theory of historical dynamics. I am elaborating on the definition of these terms and including two excerpts from earlier chapters of his book for the sake of clarity and context on how he uses them

Metaethnic frontiers are defined on pages 5 - 6 (of Turchin 2006) and this leads directly to the role of asabiya in historical dynamics.
The concept of metaethnic frontier emphasizes the importance of ethnicity as a marker of boundaries between groups, be they based on language, rituals, or symbols of dress and custom. Ethnicities are usually nested within each other and single empires may dominate multiple ethnicities, which then may or may not come to share a feeling of solidarity for the empire. Turchin further explains his use of the term as follows:
"The broadest groupings of people that unite many nations are usually called civilizations, but I prefer to call such entities metaethnic communities (from the Greek meta, 'beyond,' and ethnos, 'ethnic group' or 'nation'). My definition includes not only the usual civilizations - the Ester, Islamic, and Sinic, - but also such broad cultural groupings as the Celts and Turco-Mongolian steppe nomads. Typically, cultural difference is greatest between people belonging to different metaethnic communities; sometimes this gap is so extreme that people deny the very humanity of those who are on the other side of the metaethnic fault line.
Historical dynamics can be understood as a result of competition and conflict between groups, some of which dominate others. Domination, however, is made possible only because groups are integrated at the micro level by cooperation among their members. Within-group cooperation is the basis of inter-group conflict, including its extreme versions such as war and even genocide.
Different groups have different degrees of cooperation among their members, and therefore different degrees of cohesiveness and solidarity. Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences."

[A metaethnic frontier is a frontier or border between different metaethnic communities.]

The concept of asabiya is "the capacity for social action." The propensity for a group to have asabiya is key to understanding the results of conflicts between empires. It is a central topic in this book and Turchin's earlier monograph on the topic of historical dynamics (Historical dynamics: why states rise and fall). Turchin finds the human potential to cooperate as a crucial social capacity, as it leads to a willingness to make huge sacrifices for the good of some broader social unit.
Asabiya as a concept is thoroughly defined on page 91 as follows:
"The concept of collective solidarity, or asabiya in Arabic, was Ibn Khaldun's most important contribution to our understanding of human history. The theory is described in his monumental The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Asabiya of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate: it allows a group to protect itself against the enemies, and to impose will on others. A group with high asabiya will generally win when pitched against a group of lesser asabiya. Moreover, 'royal authority and general dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through... mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other.' In other words, a state can be organized only around a core group with high asabiya. By acting in a solidary fashion, the members of the core group impose their collective will on other constituents of the state and thus prevent the state from falling apart.
But it is not enough to identify group solidarity as the main factor responsible for the strength of the state. Why do some groups have it in abundance, whereas others do not?"

So there's some background on Turchin's goals and use of these terms. We of course are focusing more on the nature of his perspective than specific understandings of history but both are certainly open for discussion.

Like last week there is no annotation for this week but please post a couple of questions and/or comments about War and Peace and Particles on this blog.

Some course-related details to keep in mind:
The next two class periods are the wrap-up for the content of the course. On Tuesday (11/27/07) we discuss Turchin and use it as a springboard for Thursday (11/29/07) when we define human macroecology, its goals, techniques, future prospects and limitations. On Thursday we will outline a blog entry and wikipedia article on human macroecology.
As a reminder, please also revisit the readings from the very first week. It may be the case that your take on this first assignment has changed a good deal and it will also be useful for discussion.

Next, we have student presentations. These are the last two class periods of the semester (12/04/07 and 12/06/07). These are informal presentations that have to be less than ten minutes each. Each presenter can get a max of 4 slides which must be emailed to us before hand. We'll have the slides ready for the order of the speakers. The order will be determined with a sign-up sheet on Tuesday of this week.

The presentations are of course about the content of your final papers. These are due on the Wednesday of finals week at 12:00 noon (that's 12/12/07 at 12!).

Another item is the final conversation or oral dialog. This is effectively a final exam where we will ask about your impressions of topics during the course as well as test your comprehension of the major themes of the semester and the arguments of the papers. These will be on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of finals week and we'll figure out specific exam times with a sign-up sheet in class.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions.



Wenyun said...

We know that asabiya is the capacity of social action/collective action. What kinds of actions we consider here? Do we count both positive and negative actions? Futhermore, as the force has direction, does asabiya has direciton either?

Wenyun said...

Since asabiya is not a measurement about individual's action in a system but the entire action of the system,it sounds like system's thermodynamic potential. Is asabiya more similar to entropy, enthalpy, free energy or intener energy in a system?

dtinucci said...

Turchin's insightful observations on war brings to mind their effect on the course of history. Tying this to his refutation of the idea that great men write history, I offer that although we have been simplistic in assigning credit for history to personalities; like great men, great wars, and great concepts all together affect the course of history in a relative manner.

Wenyun said...

The author wrote a lot about how combat efficiency is measured, but we should keep in mind these measures are observations to be explained-- what is the reason (or theory) behind German having better combat efficiency?

Fred Whiteman said...

How can we modify Dupuy's equation to apply to zombie attacks? Since zombies are dead, would we find that they lack asabiya?

OK, seriously though. Going off of Wenyun's last comment, can we predict the relative asabiya of two armies before a battle, or is it a quality that is only observable after the battle occurs?

Justin Smith said...

The problem with Turchin's approach is that human beings do not behave either randomly or independently. The fundamental assumptions of statistical mechanics are not met, and appealing to that analogy is misleading at best.

Take Colonel Dupuy's "combat effectiveness," for example. The 81 battles between Axis and Allied forces, 1943-44, are not independent samples, but sequential events in time--the state of each army going into a battle depends on the results of its previous engagements. By the time American soldiers who'd never seen battle were landing on Europe's beaches, Nazi armies were flush with years of successful conquest. Dupuy's results are statistically significant, but also statistically meaningless, the result of running spurious regressions. Also keep in mind that his work has been sheltered from peer review. Yet Turchin doesn't even recognize such weaknesses in the statistical approach, this kind of dependence intuitively understood through concepts like experience.

"Science thrives on numbers," Turchin writes. But numbers do not a science make. The most insightful arguments against this kind of ascientific nonsense, the "mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed," come from the economist Friedrich von Hayek, who pioneered the study of emergence/spontaneous order and complex systems decades before other fields caught on. See particularly his 1974 Nobel Lecture and his 1942 paper, "Scientism and the Study of Society".

Showing "that you can measure [a] quantity by applying standard statistical methods to data" does not constitute a defense if the assumptions required by those methods are not met. If that's the "best rebuttal" Turchin's got, I'll stick with von Hayek.

dodegard said...

Gas molecules have the same mass, so how could the variation in the cultural mass of humans change collective action?

helen elizabeth said...

Turchin suggests that when nations expand and empires rise they have strong asabiya. When their asabiya becomes weak, they fall. I am curious about those subjected to empire (the conquered); are they assuming that these individuals become culturally bound contributors to that empire?

helen elizabeth said...

clearly no individual operates outside of the larger context. no civil war, no lincoln. but the more interesting question, as turchin seems to admit, is that individuals can singularly influence the direction of history (a point he seems to deny & then accept conditionally). obviously the sum of the whole will be greater than a single part, a point that has long been missed by historical interpreters (perhaps the task of interpreting and communicating history was by default reduced to a narrative of a handful of actors since that is probably the level of complexity that our ape minds are conditioned to operate at). now – we appreciate the emergent properties of collective action (asabiya). A recent example is burma (myanmar). Repressive conditions sparked by an unreasonable price hike spurred collective demonstrations - much like the gas molecules in a bottle - highly predictable. but what about the unifiers/leaders of these social movements? we cannot identify situations (if they exist) where the conditions predict a leader but none emerged. we only have the opposite - seemingly great leaders. what forces create these phenotypes? perhaps frequency dependent personality traits. how is this affected by current conditions - are great leaders created w/o the facilitating context?

tlvandeest said...

Turchin suggests that individuals are unpredictable but as a group, action follows a predictable pattern. Would this be true in an even larger setting such as societies within a global context? Would the societies on that level each behaving as an individualistic stochastic manner with patterns and predictions only holding at a higher level or conglomeration of the societies?

tlvandeest said...

Turchin suggests that individuals are unpredictable but as a group, action follows a predictable pattern. Would this be true in an even larger setting such as societies within a global context? Would the societies on that level each behaving as an individualistic stochastic manner with patterns and predictions only holding at a higher level or conglomeration of the societies?

Tracy Brannan said...

I can understand the quantification of war but a Patton or "Hero" can make a differance. I am not sure that i really understand what aasabiya is?

Michael said...

Seems to me we’ve been presented with scaling in a different context. Subatomic particles combine to make atoms, and although their individual behavior is random and sporadic, the overall averaged observation is stable. Along the same lines as tlvandeest, how far can one extrapolate the observed scaling, and are their certain independent and arbitrary points that do not fit the scaling relationship?

Justin Smith said...

I just found an interesting counterpoint to Turchin's take on history from Bill Greene, Professor of Government at Morehead State, in his new book, Common Genius: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense: How Ordinary People Create Prosperous Societies and How Intellectuals Make Them Collapse. Greene starts with Turchin's argument that history and progress are driven by emergent properties of the interactions between individuals in societies. But he argues that intellectuals, and intellectualism, emerge only later in the development of a society due to the prosperity which has been created from the bottom up. Most importantly, Greene hypothesizes that such intellectualism itself acts as a causal factor for a society's decline by imposing top-down structures which contravene the forces that built the society in the first place.

Greene speaks of societies being "empowered" in a similar manner to how Turchin sometimes uses asabiya but seems to offer a more endogenous mechanism for the rise and fall of nations than "collective solidarity."

Instead of looking to the models and methods of the physical sciences, Greene goes the opposite direction, relying on the "case method" from law and business. Anyone familiar with this approach?

It's unfortunate Greene seems unaware of Turchin's work, for a dialog between them would be interesting indeed, especially since Greene would consider Turchin and his asabiya a threat to our free society on par with Marxism. Ponder the character, means, and results of government policy aimed "managing" asabiya, and you'll see his point.

If you're interested, Greene offers a brief summary as well as the preface and other material from the book on his site.

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