Cross posted from the Mandarin.
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.
Adam Smith, 1759
Arteries and capillaries
In a book that’s very interesting and impressive, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the stellar opinion its authors have of it, Adrian Bejan and Peder Zane focus on ‘vascularisation’ or the ‘dendritic’ – tree-like – structures from which so much of our world is built. From trunks grow many branches on each of which grow twigs, then down to leaves whereapon the same structures grow within each leaf. This is very common. With this post already having adverted to four such systems – the two illustrated in the graphic above, trees and the circulatory system.
In this essay I outline the many respects in which human culture embodies a similar architecture and some of the implications thereof. The head quote above by the founder of modern social psychology and economics, Adam Smith, is intended to set the tone, with my argument being this: In thrall to the status rewards of social and economic importance the ‘arteries’ of human culture have come to dominate the capillaries in such a way that ultimately degrades the health of both – for they are organically interdependent – and the health of the larger organism of which they are a part.
Human culture at different scales
Political structures have an inevitable hierarchy to them if the object of politics is to solve the e pluribus unum problem – to fashion a singular policy for the community to pursue despite the diversity within it. Something similar can be said of all organisations. An organisation is unitary – capable of pursuing some singular goal. In this sense it is governed as a state is.
But there are also hierarchies in our organisation of knowledge. First, there is the distinction between theory and practice. In science and social science, there’s theory and there’s empirical work. In the professions like engineering, law or medicine, you learn a systematic body of knowledge at uni and ‘apply’ it in the workplace. In government we have policy and delivery and in organisations there’s policy-cum-strategy and there’s execution or delivery.
In the case of governments, whether they’re of nations or of organisations, the unitary nature of these entities’ ‘will’ is embodied at the top of the hierarchy (or, to change the metaphor, the organisation’s ‘centre’). The policy, the strategy is unitary – singular. However it may be executed in multiple sites, possibly in different ways. This hierarchy is similar within professional and scientific knowledge between theory and practice. Theory may not be unitary, but it ‘scales’ against practice – it is general whereas practice is particular.
This is also true of the status the activity enjoys. Just as those at the centre of organisations win the status rewards, so ‘theory’ is closer to the centre or the ‘commanding heights’ of a discipline than practical or empirical work. Nobel Prizes tend to be awarded for ‘theoretical’ advances, or for knowledge with ‘scales’.
Scale, power and prestige within the bureaucracy