Understanding Microbreweries - The Next Great Frontier
I've noticed that David Brooks' latest column, All Cultures are Not Equal, has remained at or near the top of the NYT's most emailed articles and is making the rounds of notable links pages. I can only assume people are anxious to share the latest weak, ridiculous irrelevancy with which Brooks has favored us. After his last column attempting to identify a relationship between two trends he doesn't even conceptually or empirically distinguish from one another, this one offers a series of non sequiturs. The funniest part is that they're wrapped up in a truly hilarious call to service.
That call is for the "18-year-old kid with a really big brain" who will master cultural geography and "understand the forces that will be shaping history for decades to come." I'll return to this later on when I explain the title of this post.
Brooks argues that multiculturalism has prohibited discussion of "national traits" and the relationships between enduring cultural traits and development of various sorts. Suddenly, I felt like I was back in high school, hearing about the evils of cultural equivalence promulgated by pointy-headed academics. As I entered academia, I kept expecting to run into this and other such "gospels" and never have. Maybe if I were in an English department.
I assume Brooks didn't notice the "social capital" explosion in the social sciences and public sphere over the last ten years launched by Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" article in the Journal of Democracy and subsequent book. Putnam's concept is subject to some slippage, but his early work on the development of democratic institutions in Italy is clearly about the persistence and influence of cultural traits. Putnam's work and the responses of other scholars like Theda Skocpol, who stresses civic engagement in large-scale groups instead of the community organizations that Putnam focuses on, has drawn a great deal of attention to these issues.
Returning from 80s episodes of Firing Line to the present, Brooks discusses the increased clustering of people into like-minded communities. Notice that in the middle of this he asserts that back when "many people worked on farms or in factories" they had more in common with one another. Likewise, you'd expect, a lot of those people lived in fairly homogeneous communities, but that doesn't follow for Brooks. Also, the rise of specialization, which you would think would mean that people now work with more people who have different backgrounds and training, is seen as a sign of our divergence from one another.
Now, there is something to the troubling capacity of people to technologically shelter themselves from differing opinions, but I'd be more worried about geographic, neighborhood clustering if I actually knew any of my neighbors. Like a lot of people in urban and suburban America, I know people primarily through work and shared activities, where I meet people of many political, social and cultural persuasions.
A brief trip around the world in which religious radicalism is presented as the core direction of world citizens and we get to the point he's been dancing around: "some nations with certain cultural traits prosper and others with other traits don't." This is reflected in his list of important scholars: Weber, Banfield, Huntington, Harrison, and Sowell. It isn't just about cultures diverging, it's about distinguishing winner cultures from losers. I can recommend some of those scholars (Sowell) more than others (Banfield) while some are interesting (Huntington) and others banal (Harrison). What they share are contentious, sometimes dubious, arguments about the preeminence of successful cultures over failed ones.
Ironically, recent scholar-phenom Jared Diamond has demonstrated that a lot of the things attributed to culture by these types of scholars are actually due to environmental factors. I think Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is sometimes reductive and could have done a better job of showing how path dependence and often-epiphenomenal cultural developments reinforce environmental differences, but all in all it's a successful rejoinder.
Brooks returns to his pitch for cultural geography, despite the fact that none of the scholars he cites as examples are cultural geographers. I remembered hearing of cultural geography before, unfavorably, so I searched online and discovered that the Journal of Cultural Geography was founded by the creators of Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green, in an attempt at rebranding. Recent articles in the journal include "Globalization Reconsidered: The Historical Geography of Modern Western Male Attire" and "Microbreweries as Tools of Local Identity". Yeah, teenaged genius, please get cracking on that.
More promising is the field of economic sociology, profiled recently by Virginia Postrel. I read guiding light Mark Granovetter in grad school and have subsequently sampled a good deal of the social network analysis that has resulted. Granovetter's demonstration of the "strength of weak ties", the value of having loose connections with many people, suggests that the breakdown of tight organized connections that Putnam was so worried about might be beneficial individually.
In the meantime, we can hope that Brooks' wunderkind will solve the mystery of globalization and men's clothes.