For a long time I’ve kind of puzzled over why my intellectual interests seemed so disparate. Part of it is that I truly find a wide variety of areas of study very interesting. It seems logical to me–each of those different areas of study have large numbers of people who are fascinated by them, so it seems empirically demonstrated that each is interesting in its own right. But beyond the mere dilettantish interests, I have a trio of particular fields that envelop me most of my attention: political science, economics and evolutionary theory. For years I have believed that these three fields are very closely related, and have taken comfort in knowing that there is a small core of other folks who agree, but I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on just what the link is.
I have often said political scientists are just ethologists–ethology being the study of animal behavior–and that our particular animal was homo sapiens. Or more directly, I said I studied human behavior. But that always felt near the mark without being quite on the mark, and I remained just a bit mystified about what really defined my interests. A couple of weeks ago–over a decade into my professional academic career–I had one of those delightfully intense (and always irreproducible) blinding flashes of insight: My interest is social organization. It’s a relief. Now I can succinctly define my interest without lots of hemmming and hawing and caveats: How do social animals organize their societies to promote harmony and well-being and minimize conflict?
The reason why “human behavior” didn’t quite satisfy is that it’s not all behavior I’m interested in, nor is it solely humans that interest me, but social organization in and of itself (including, although to a lesser extent, the haplo-diploid insects). And political science and economics, or put more prosaically, government and markets, are differing (but inter-related) ways of structuring social organization (and this also accounts for my interest in the work of Lin Ostrom, who studied “self-governance” systems that fall between purely market-based and purely government-based approaches for organizing groups).
The proximate cause of this insight was a new book I bought, published just last year: Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, a marvelous book about the power of sociality in enabling species to thrive in a wide variety of environments, far exceeding the more solitary species in total numbers of individuals, even though being a minority of species.
I’ve been planning to write this post for a couple of weeks, and so it was particularly good timing that just today I received my copy of Violence and Social Orders, by Doug North (Nobel Prize winning economist), John Wallis (another economist) and Barry Weingast (a political scientist working in public choice theory). The book came out in 2009, and I’ve known of it for a while, but just finally got around to ordering it. And having read only the preface, I realize that this book, too, perfectly encapsulates my interest. Here is their outline, in brief.
This book lays out a set of concepts that show how societies have used the control of political, economic, religious, and educational activities to limit and contain violence over the last ten thousand years…The conceptual framework articulates the internal logic of the two social orders that dominate the modern world and the process by which societies make the transition from one to another (the original society preceding these was the foraging order characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies)…the natural state. Natural states use the political system to regulate economic competition and create economic rents; the rents order social relations, control violence, and establish social cooperation…the open access society…Open access societies regulate economic and political competition in a way that uses the entry and competition to order social relations.
It’s all coming together now. Why I find it so interesting to study the social organization of militaries,* gangs, and co-ops; why I love Frans de Waal’s books about chimpanzee social order; why I’m intrigued by my colleague’s arcane work on ethnic voting patterns in the parliaments of the Austro-Hungarian empire; why the concept of bureaucratic culture as a primary driver of bureaucratic performance in the absence of monetary rewards and punishments captures my attention; why the intro to political science book I’m writing (slowly) begins with the idea of social organization and its gains and risks, before talking about politics or government; and why politics per se doesn’t interest me nearly as much as it does the average political scientist. It even explains why I’m stuck uncomfortably in a moderate libertarianism, valuing markets so highly, but unable to dispense with the idea of government as something distinctly more than a mere night watchman state–I see the value, as well as the risks, in each form of social order, and see the (at least theoretical) possibility of the two being used to control the downsides of the other (while, of course, I also see the more than theoretical possibility of the two being used to control the benefits of the other).
It’s a good moment. I’m enjoying it. And the clear focus is going to make it a lot easier to write the book I’ve started.
* I’m a big fan of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin (Master and Commander) novels, and it’s not just for the action and adventure, but the unfamiliar social world of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era.