Abstracts III


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Eric BERNE, M.D., Games People Play. The Psychology of Human Relationships, 1964.
Penguin Books, 1968. 164 pp + indices.
Whereas most of these abstracts are of books and articles I have recently read for the first time, some of them re-visit, after a re-read, where I suppose I have come from. This is one of those, and while it was a popular book when it came out, to the point that the title was also used for a pop-song that went to the top, the most important aspect of 'games' for me was, I now think, that in a game what happens at the superficial, social level and what happens at the underlying psychological level is different: that is what distinguishes games from procedures, rituals and pastimes. Another important aspect for me was that the approach reveals structure and purpose in what at first sight appear unstructured and unplanned streams of social activity. And another one may have been the critical approach towards every-day normal social intercourse. – In bookshops, Games People Play is often found in the Self-Help section, and one of the book's points is that just as games go beyond pastimes, so we can – and should try to – go beyond games to reach intimacy, which is more fulfilling but can also be more threatening, and which game-playing may be both a socially necessary prelude to, and a means of evading.

The investigation of games is part of 'transactional analysis', which is – or: was? – the study of human interactions in terms of the gains the participants make in them. In the simplest cases, as when two people exchange greetings, the gain for both is simply recognition, which we crave as much as food, and which is measured in units of 'strokes'. But other interactions, especially games, can even serve to support a person's existential position, which may be as negative as: "I am no good," or as righteous as: "They are no good," but may be positive too. Such games are not usually fun, and can be (self-)destructive, and transactional analysis was also a school of therapy, whose aim was for people to recognise, and hence unlearn, games they had acquired as children in the process of socialisation.

When people interact they don't do so in always the same way, rather there are different modes of relating which everyone is capable of, designated as Parent, Adult and Child. These differ as much by bodily attitude and tone of voice as by what is being said, such as, typically: "I told you so" (P,) "I guess I made a mistake" (A,) and: "Why does this always happen to me" (C.) Often problems in a relationship can be seen to be due to crossed interactions; in answer to: "Have you seen my cufflinks?" (A-A,) one person may tend to answer: "Can't you look after your own things?" (P-C,) or someone else: "You always blame me!" (C-P.) On the other hand, two people can continue for a long time, without problem, exchanging moans like: "Young people nowadays ..." (P-P;) and so on. Unlike Freud's id, ego and super-ego, Parent, Adult and Child are just ways of social functioning, [although Freud's agencies have also been re-described (Roy Schafer) as just different ways of mental functioning;] but like the id and the super-ego, Child and Parent are not bad, but contribute positively to a well-adjusted personality.

In the game 'Schlemiel', for example, a guest, White, at a party given by Black repeatedly inflicts damage on the host's property, profusely apologising each time; while the interactions seem to be Adult, the real payoff for White (Child) is not the havoc he wreaks, though that is part of the pleasure, but the forgiveness he is granted, and the payoff for Black (Parent) is the display of patience he can put on. Black could instead play the (Adult) 'antithesis': "You can spill drinks, etc., but please don't apologise," denying White his real payoff; but antitheses are rarely played, as those inclined to play a game tend to spot one another. Many games, once one has seen them described, are clearly recognisable and quite funny, such as 'Why Don't You – Yes But' (YDYB,) or 'See What You Made Me Do' (SWYMD.)

A large part of the book consists of a compendium of games: life-games, such as 'Alcoholic' – apart from its psychological aspects, an individual's addiction also is a many-handed game played between the Alcoholic and various others, in particular a Persecutor; party games, like the ones mentioned above; consulting room games, which therapists are liable to get embroiled in, like 'I Am Only Trying To Help You'; and so on. In each case the game is played for the hidden gains made by the players, which is why on the surface the interactions often appear irrational. Many games, such as the sexual game 'Rapo', can be played more or less hard: in first-degree Rapo, the woman teases the man and then sends him on his way – the apparent payoff being his attention, but the real one the indignation with which she dismisses him; in third-degree rapo, the woman leads the man on, and then shouts for help or accuses him of having raped her.


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Pat CAPLAN (ed.), The Cultural Construction of Sexuality, 1987.
Routledge, 1989. 295 pp + indices.
When people – at least people from Western countries – think about sexuality, they easily assume that it must be experienced in the same way by everyone, wherever they come from: after all, sexuality is a matter of hormones and instincts, and these are the same for everyone, (although most people would presumably allow that men and women, and people of different ages, may experience sexuality differently.) However, it has gradually dawned on me that the experience of sexuality may in fact differ more widely between people, especially if they come from different cultural backgrounds: and that even thinking of sexuality in terms of hormones and instincts, and discussing it as openly as we are wont to do, is a particular trait of our modern Western culture. Our way of thinking of sexuality then brings with it certain attitudes and justifies certain kinds of behaviour that may well seem indecent to others; (conversely, we may dismiss attitudes and kinds of behaviour different from ours as narrow-minded, even dishonest – or, again, call them indecent.)

Arising out of a seminar organised by the Anthropology Department of Goldsmith College, London, in 1984, the editor's introduction and the ten papers in this book investigate, from different angles and drawing on evidence from different parts of the world, ways in which sexuality may thus be culture-dependent. The single most important point, perhaps, common to all the contributions, is that sexuality cannot be separated from the social structure of a society, that it is but one aspect of the symbolic and power-fabric of societies, and can only be understood in those contexts.

It is not necessary for these discussions to take us outside Western culture. Thus, the conceptual distinction (in the Introduction) between a person's (biological) sex, their sexuality (as experienced) and their gender (i.e. the sexual role they are socially assigned,) has become a fairly standard one, at least in feminist writing. Jeffrey Weeks discusses how a person's identity, and in particular their sexual identity, may be constituted: as destiny, through resistance, by choice, or in relationships. Carefully reading the 'evidence' and advice given in sexological literature, Margaret Jackson exposes the naturalist and essentialist assumptions made about heterosexuality, and hence the underlying power-relations that they serve to justify. While drawing inspiration from Foucault's work on madness, Victor J. Seidler argues that Foucault's attempt at historicising the process by which reason has become separated from desire, and rationality has become an essential part of the male identity, fails to help us discover a language of male sexuality that is less instrumental.

In a cross-cultural study, Shirley Ardener juxtaposes Cameroonian and classical Greek traditions of ceremonial exposure of the vagina – the body as sacred object (Goffman) – with artistic work by modern woman artists, such as Judy Chicago, [some of whose paintings struck me as quite similar to some by Georgia O'Keefe]: what is common is the use of the (ordinarily renounced) vagina as a symbolic counterpart to the penis. Carol P. MacCormack and Alizon Draper contribute a fairly standard analysis of the sociology, and of the symbolic significance, of sexual relationships, births, and so on, in the "assertive dynamism" of Jamaica, where women as well as men achieve social status through their own activity. Trying to explain certain employment patterns of women in Naples, Victoria Goddard goes beyond the 'Mediterranean concepts' of honour and shame, by understanding women as boundary markers and carriers of group identity: though ostensibly in need of protection, their power to subvert makes it necessary to control them. And revisiting the Samoan controversy, between the libertarian optimism of Margaret Mead and the cult of virginity found by D. Freeman in the same society, Allen Abramson explains how young women there are in fact both sexually repressed and sexually expressive.

In two studies from Kenya, Nici Nelson draws some preliminary conclusions about Kikuyu notions of sexuality from perceptions of wives and of malaya (women who 'sell (from) their kiosks'): the relatively mild contrast reflects a recognition of sexuality as a healthy part of every person, and is the result less of moral disapproval than of women's social role of reproduction. And Gill Shepherd, presenting detailed material from among Swahili Muslims in Mombasa, is concerned not with psychological 'causes' of homosexuality but with its social acceptability, finding it there related to rank; and concluding that, in general, it might be less acceptable in societies where an individual's sexuality/ fertility are considered the property of others. Finally, Pat Caplan relates Mahatma Ghandi's advocacy of brahmacharya (celibacy) to his espousal of non-violence; in the context of his biography, and of Victorian and Hindu perceptions, it can be seen as a means of freeing women from sexual servitude.


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Erving GOFFMAN, Relations in Public. Microstudies of the Public Order, 1971.
Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1971. 390 pp + index.
It is not surprising perhaps that the author, who is generally considered a sociologist, dedicated this collection of six separate but thematically related essays, plus one more added as an appendix, to the memory of the noted cultural anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, since the approach he takes here is that of an anthropologist, albeit one studying his own culture. Goffman repeatedly points out that the culture his explorations are limited to is that of, roughly, middle-class American society in the 50ies and 60ies; but still I kept being struck, when relating what I was reading to personal experiences, by just how culturally relative many of the examples are, such as the role of holding-hands as a marker, or the sharing of private space with intimates. But that relativity distracts neither from his analysis of those particular aspects of his society, nor from the validity of the approach: in fact, methodological considerations are explicitly addressed in the later essays.

Implicit in my portrayal of the book's approach is a certain rough distinction between sociology and anthropology: that while the former deals mostly with structures and relationships, and their developments, in a large-scale society, the latter is concerned with institutions and interactions in small-scale societies assumed (by the members) to be invariant – and a point Goffman is making throughout could perhaps be summarized by saying that in face-to-face interactions in public situations we are, even if we are strangers, involved as if we were related more closely, which then is the reason that such things as customs, rituals and markers are required in our every-day life, and generally observed, or displayed.

As we tend to take for granted many aspects of the culture we have been socialised into, to the point that they are invisible to us as insiders, it is only when things don't follow the expected lines that we notice that we even had expectations; for Goffman's approach that means that he has to pay closest attention to situations when something has 'gone wrong' – when a person stands too close for comfort, just pretends to be interested in a conversation, tries not to be noticed, wants to hide his motives, either deliberately, perhaps as a joke, or by mistake misunderstands a sign, or takes a ritual or a formality literally, and so on. In fact, a friend, while leafing through the book, advised me to stop reading it because it was 'subversive'; as in this example:

    A:   "Do you have the time?"
    B:   "Yes, I do."   (or even: "Yes. Do you have the inclination?")
The themes of the book are suggested by the titles of the essays – we clearly are in Goffman-territory:
  1. The Individual as a Unit,
  2. The Territories of the Self,
  3. Supportive Interchanges,
  4. Remedial Interchanges,
  5. Tie Signs, and
  6. Normal Appearances.
The last, and longest one, of these essays starts with the distinction, derived from observations of animal behaviour and at first discussed in very general terms, between two very different states in which an organism can be: that of being at ease, with only peripheral attention given to checking the environment, and that of being alarmed, prepared to either flee or defend if there is a threat, or attack if there is an opportunity. The essay then goes on to discuss in detail, and at some length, (throughout the book some discussions are a bit long, although sometimes lightened by funny asides,) what might be required for people, mostly in various social situations, to discount the environment as being safe enough and 'appearing normal', and for them to be able to get on with whatever business is at hand. Here, many of the examples relate to real or imagined undercover operations, spying, bank heists, and so on, because it is in these situations that there is a need for people – including often the victims, who must not show that they have become suspicious – to give the impression, by deliberately using signs that are usually given off unintentionally, of 'normal appearances'.

The appendix, "The Insanity of Place", is losely connected with what has gone before. Located in roughly the same area as the same author's Asylums, 1961, it is a study of what does, or can, go wrong socially – as opposed to psychologically – when a person becomes mentally ill, specifically manic, before and after a stay in hospital; and of the processes by which his family, the wider environment, and so on, but crucially also the doctors cannot avoid responding in terms of normal social expectations. Again, in the need for those around the (pre-)patient to constantly assimilate his behaviour, and adjust their own, to what is expected between members of the society – such as cycles of apology and forgiveness, or of request and gratitude, (all of which are unproblematic when someone is physically ill or injured) – those very expectations become explicit.


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Daniel M. HAUSMAN, Michael S. McPHERSON, Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy, 1996.
Cambridge University Press, 1996. 220 pp + glossary + list of references + index.
Being published in the series of "Cambridge Surveys of Economic Literature", this text is (a) addressed primarily to economists, and (b) highly 'concentrated': it is to the authors' credit that it remains fairly readable, despite the many concepts introduced in a short space, and the wide range of arguments presented, often in very terse form. The main contention is that economics, 'properly' (i.e. except perhaps in a narrow purely technical area,) cannot avoid moral issues, and will often benefit from explicit reflection on them; so that while traditionally moral judgments have been viewed as givens, arising from outside the theory, as in the natural sciences, they necessarily enter not only into normative economics (concerned with what should be done) but also into positive (ostensibly purely descriptive) economics. – The text also demonstrates how economic reasoning can contribute to deliberations on moral issues, as is by now widely accepted in philosophy.

In the Introduction two examples are presented, to be revisited in the Conclusion: an internal World Bank memo arguing for 'exporting' pollution to LDCs (Lawrence Summers, 1991,) which is only apparently value-free and 'purely economic'; and a 3-term model of saving for retirement in a society (Paul Samuelson, 1958,) which presupposes the keeping of contracts, i.e. a value-based society.

Rationality is a central concept in economic modelling, and Part I discusses, in gently technical terms, what it is and some problems, and links it to morality. Thus rationality – defined in terms of sets of preferences, and of acting on one's preferences and beliefs – is not purely descriptive, i.e. it not only specifies what is in someone's (self-)interest, say, but is normative too: I ought not be foolish just as I ought not be wicked. [– Read a brief passage from the book. –] And not only does moral reasoning require rationality, but making rational choices – including judgments in economics – presupposes taking some moral position; some such positions are examined in the next two parts.

Of the various dimensions along which outcomes, policies and institutions can be evaluated, economics has typically chosen individual welfare: a choice which implies a moral position. And making welfare the measure raises questions: One, how to define and/or measure it? To avoid commitment to any substantive standard, such as happiness, the formal criterion of satisfaction of individual preferences has been used; however, identifying welfare with preference-satisfaction – attractive though it is for economic theory – throws up problems, as with preferences based on false beliefs. Two, how to compare different individuals' welfare? On the whole economics has denied that such comparisons are possible, retreating to a criterion of 'efficiency': when no-one can be made better-off without someone becoming worse-off (Pareto;) but this is too feeble a criterion to be useful. Cost-benefit analysis is the attempt to tighten it without introducing inter-personal comparisons; however, it fails to avoid bias – willingness-to-pay for a good is linked with ability-to-pay, for instance –, or to take into account the reasons individuals have for their choices. – Consequentialism, and in particular utilitarianism, might be a way out for economists, but not only is there the problem of how to choose a utility function, but a consequentialist economics (like a consequentialist morality) can easily lead to evaluations widely considered unpalatable, on other grounds.

These other grounds include such values as liberty and rights, equality – of resources, or of opportunities, etc. – and justice; and even if economics was concerned only with welfare, economists do need to take an interest in the values, such as these, of policy makers. In Part III then, three kinds of moral theories are discussed: libertarianism, egalitarianism and contractualism, of which the latter in particular might succeed as an alternative to established pure welfare-economics.

An exciting development is that economists, and others, have increasingly learnt to discuss some of these moral issues more formally: to prove theorems, detect inconsistencies, and so on. So Part IV consists of brief chapters on social choice theory (Amartya Sen, Kenneth Arrow) – the investigation of social welfare functions, whose arguments are individual preferences, on which normative principles place constraints – and game theory; but while the rigour of these approaches is welcome, there is a danger of any relevance being lost in their abstractness.

In the Appendix, then, the authors try to take on the standard objections – that "economists are like engineers," and that "positive economics is value-free" –, and to conclude their case: by showing (using the test case of voluntary versus paid-for blood donations) "how positive economics involves morality."


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Stephen W. HAWKING, "Time: Real or Imaginary?", 1989.
Lecture, Oxford University, 06 July 1989.
Explanation of his computer-prepared speech and synthesized voice: Early space and time: General relativity (Albert Einstein): Quantum theory (Erwin Schrödinger): Consequences of complex-valued time for general relativity, cosmology [ At the lecture it did seem a bit as though most people had come to see the famous invalid rather than to hear about physics and maths. ]

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Eric HOBSBAWM, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 -1991, 1994.
Michael Joseph, 1994. 585 pp. + b/w illustrations, references, index.
[For some reason the title of the American edition is The Age of Extremes, and its subtitle just "A History of the World, 1914 -1991."]

This book follows on from the same author's three-volume history of what could be called, by contrast, the 'long 19th century,' which was divided into The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. Quite neatly, the 'short 20th century' – the phrase, if not the author's, certainly gained its fame from the title of this history of the period –, extending from the beginning of World War I to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, also divides into three 'ages': the Age of Catastrophe, including the two world wars and the world-wide slump of the inter-war period; then, what the author joins, not without sarcasm, in calling 'the Golden Age', i.e. "the 25 or 30 years of extraordinary economic growth and social transformation" ending in the early 1970s; and finally 'the Landslide', the next 20 years: a "new era of decomposition, uncertainty and crisis". As is unavoidable for this century, (and had perhaps also become more usual at the time of writing,) this is more consistently a 'world history' than the previous three volumes had attempted.

The book starts with a birds-eye view of the century – but then the whole of it takes a birds-eye view: while that is the approach we expect in histories of the more distant past, it does feel slightly odd in the case of events most of which took place in the author's lifetime, and that of his readers or their parents. On a large canvas, the book not only paints a picture of events and the connections between them, but also relates them to the future – i.e. our present: especially as regards development issues and the environment, the historian can use the benefit of hindsight. The picture includes both broad strokes – such as his opinion that while the opposition between the two sides may have been inevitable after World War II, the hysteria of the Cold War was the contribution largely of one side, the USA – and many fine details. including a few personal memories and side-observations, some no less relevant at the time of writing than to the period under consideration, such as: "At the end of the Cold War these movements [for nuclear disarmament, and anti-war] left behind some curious peripheral relics, such as ... an ingrained prejudice among environmentalists against any kind of nuclear energy."

That the exposition again often follows the logic of a sequence of events through the whole period, rather than being a simple narrative, should be less of a problem since most readers will be rather better acquainted with the broad outline of what happened this century than they might have been with the periods in the earlier volumes. And while sometimes polemical, it is not without humour (or sarcasm): "In this genre [spy novels] the British ... maintained a steady superiority, thus compensating for their country's decline in the world of real power." Or the description of post-war Austria as "a small country committed to neutrality, envied for its persistent prosperity and therefore described (correctly) as 'boring'." Some of the points are openly philosophical, as when the common front against Nazi Germany of the Western allies and the Soviet Union in World War II is explained not simply in terms of strategy and political alliances, but also in terms of the shared background, in the Enlightenment, of liberal capitalism and communism, which made them both equally opposed to fascism and its barbarity.

An historian's own political outlook will always affect not only his evaluation of particular actions, events and situations, but also his way of 'writing' history, the very terms in which he will endeavour to make sense of the past. As always, Hobsbawm, an economic-historian and a Marxist, is very clear about where he stands, and his style and affinities do not obtrude (– less so, to this reader's mind, than the numerous misprints –) but form an integral part of his large picture. So economic arguments have a central place, and as in the previous volumes, many points are underpinned with statistics; (there are no maps, but 32 pages of photographs.) While of course pressing home the defects and troubles of liberal capitalism and imperialism, he does not deny the failure of 'really existing socialism'; but this failure, for him, means the end neither of the aspirations on which it claimed to base itself, nor of the need for change to which it was a response: "If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness."

History clearly becomes more difficult to write as it merges into our politics, but Hobsbawm's harsh account of our modern times is as thrilling to read as it is troubling, with its uncompromising judgments and pessimistic future past-tense.


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Steven PINKER, How the Mind Works, 1997.
W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 565 pp + notes + bibliography + index.
In this ambitious work, the author puts forward an account of the working of our minds; while he would not claim that it is complete, he argues that it is an account of this kind that we must look for, for all the aspects of our mental functioning. It is essentially a scientific account, leaving no space for anything like a soul or a divine creator. He does however convey his excitement at what this mind of ours is capable of: on the one hand he extends the range of what we can explain, but on the other hand he greatly extends the range of what is in need of explanation but may have seemed to be trivial or obvious faculties, again and again he turns the apparently mundane into something marvellous. As in the same author's The Language Instinct, 1994, the writing is generally entertaining, if a little weightier here, and the occasional technical arguments quite accessible; and again he clearly enjoys debunking received ideas – such as that parents' behaviour, not just their genes, have a major effect on how their children develop, which is apparently not borne out by the evidence.

His account has two main aspects. First, it is a computational theory of the mind, and while there are only occasional references to the brain, there is talk of hardware and software. Various faculties we have, especially visual perception, – such as the abilities to recognise faces, or to detect 'cheating' (more easily than to make other, logically equivalent assessments) – are 'reverse-engineered' from the evidence, much of which comes from ingenious experiments. [– See an experiment to show the 'cheater detector' at work. –] What kind of interacting computational modules must we have to be able to do that ? How much of these has to be genetically hard-wired, and what can be learnt? Given, for instance, that there cannot ever be enough information available to construct a 3-dimensional representation of the world from the images on the retina, certain assumptions about the world, such as that lighting tends to be even, must be built in; and by performing the right experiments we can subvert, and hence expose, these assumptions.

The other main aspect of his account is that it is as rigorously Darwinian about the mind as we have learnt to be about the body; in fact the mind is viewed as a set of organs. With every faculty and other characteristic of our mental functioning we must ask how it could have evolved: what advantage would that have, either for the early humans living in foraging hordes in the savannah – which is the most recent part of our evolutionary history, the time since then having been too short –, or for any of their genetic ancestors, so that it would be selected for? While the advantage of being able to 'see' 3-dimensionally, for instance, is quite obvious, other characteristics of our minds, which are discussed mostly in the latter part of the book – such as our ability to think abstractly, our emotions, our desire to be happy, our relations with others, our humour and art – have no easy such explanation: in fact, the paradox of the apparent uselessness of human intelligence already plagued A. R. Wallace, who had been an early supporter of the theory of evolution. But explained they are, here: for instance, our ability to think abstractly is not as far removed from the concrete thinking of our foraging ancestors as might appear [– Read a brief passage from the book. –]; it is often advantageous (in game-theoretic terms) for it to be known that one's strategies may not be purely rational, so that one's threats and promises are 'guaranteed' by unfeigned anger and sincere friendship, and known not to be affected by what is in one's rational self-interest; genes are selfish (cf. Richard Dawkins, 1976) and have no purpose other than to spread copies of themselves to subsequent generations, but genes will be more successful if into our brains they build some unselfishness, especially towards family members, who may have copies to pass on; dissatisfaction with how we analyse our perceptions (e.g. an out of focus image, or sound that is just noise) makes us adjust, the reward for successful adjustment being pleasure: art, while it carries no evolutionary advantage, manipulates these 'buttons of pleasure' which do.

While the account is not reductionist, in that it does not attempt to 'explain away' our higher accomplishments (science, morality, friendship) in terms of more basic, baser mental functions (competition, self-interest, sexual drive,) some in-between level seems to be lacking: not much is said about how we actually experience our emotions, relationships, etc. But concerning the question of consciousness itself, Pinker suggests the intriguing possibility that our minds, evolved to propagate genes in a world of foraging hordes, may simply not be equipped to answer certain questions.


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Steven PINKER, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, 1999.
Basic Books, 1999. 287 pp. + glossary + notes + references + index.
Moving in the same area as the author's The Language Instinct, 1994, and How the Mind Works, 1997, this book summarises research and theorising by him and many others into the working of our language faculty. The first two chapters present and justify a general model of that faculty, in terms of (a) a semantic component, (b) a lexicon, a morphological and a syntactic component, and (c) a phonological component, all operating by transformational, and recursive, rules.

Most of the book then is given over to a detailed, closely argued study of regular and irregular forms in language, mostly verb forms and noun plurals in English. Despite occasional long lists of instances to plough through, if one chooses to read them all, the book does manage to be entertaining as well: the writing is clear and lively; good use is made of cartoon strips, in which such irregular forms appear to have been observed, and lampooned, surprisingly often; and so on. But the main pleasure, once again, comes from the quite frequent flashes of insight, when one discovers where the past tense of go, went, gone comes from, for instance; or why we say mice-infested, but rat-infested and not rats-infested; and why some people are lowlifes rather than lowlives.

The theory put forward, as in the book's title, is that language consists of (a) words, which are signs la Saussure: memorized links between sound and meaning, stored in a mental dictionary, and (b) rules – transformations la Chomsky, who is almost conspicuous by his near absence – that assemble words into combinations whose meanings can be computed from the meanings of the words and how they are arranged. It is found that irregular forms fail to show up, and a regular pattern makes itself available, when there is a failure of access to information in memory: when a word is new, rare, unusual, without a standard root, or without a way for information in the root to apply to the whole word; or when the memories of words are freshly formed in children, and when they have decayed from disease or damaged by injury in adults. The simplest explanation is that regular forms are computed by a mental operation that does not need access to the contents of memory: a symbol-processing rule which attaches suffixes, such as -ed and -s, to any word of the right category. Those two kinds of working can be found in all languages, some of which are briefly surveyed; related phenomena in German even show that the regular forms – in the sense of being the default, for instance – need not even be the most common ones.

Though they do form some clusters, there is no pattern to the distribution of regular and irregular words: many historical processes – phonological, geographical, social, and so on – are involved in making or keeping forms regular or irregular. Every generation, even every speaker, finds a particular set of forms in the language around them, which they try to either separately learn or formalise into rules as best they can, thereby perhaps contributing in their turn to further changes in their language. (Linguists of course have no better evidence either, no-one does: again, self-appointed 'language-mavens' are criticized for trying to set up one version as the standard language.) Thus, children at first make more mistakes – of over-application, as in mouses or digged – when they first start using a rule, presumably because before they had memorised even the regular forms.

Apart from a large amount of grammatical facts, both everyday and statistical, (including every irregular verb in English,) observations of children's language learning, and so on, evidence for how words and rules are used also comes from experiments, some quite neat, which are described, often testing how speakers dealt with nonsense words: wug - wugs. The main alternative considered to the words-and-rules theory is that our language faculty works by pattern association, and its proponents have tried to create neural networks and to 'teach' them to make regular and irregular forms. Throughout the book, the author shows a great concern for methodological correctness: always on the lookout for counter-examples to his accounts, using 'double dissociation' as a criterion of independence, and so on. And he is scrupulously fair to those alternative models, giving them the benefit of every doubt, and sometimes more; but it is clear that with all their complications they fall far short of the required explanatory power.

In the last two chapters, the findings about the working of language and the mind are shown to be borne out by research on brain activity; and the words-and-rules theory of the book is broadened to the different kinds of mental mechanisms advantageous to a mind in a partly, but only partly, predictable world.


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P.W. PRESTON, Development Theory: an Introduction, 1996.
Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 348 pp + bibliography + index.
This is an overview not only of development theory, from its inception in the 19th century until the present, but also of the changing social science contexts in which, in its different versions, it has been advanced. Having originally been largely concerned with the transition in Europe and then the US towards industrialised society, the main interest of the theory recently has been in the development of the less-developed countries of the Third World, and increasingly also of those of the former Second World. Any such theory, whatever its proponents may claim, cannot help being engaged, polemical and political, and the author is quite clear about his own methodology and his standpoint on the issues. In the presentation and style of the book there are some idiosyncrasies: each chapter has an overview at the beginning, a summary at the end, and a one-page diagrammatic representation of the argument in it. The later 're-use' of earlier material, from individual sentences to whole passages, I found off-putting at first but then, I can say, came to appreciate. The book has four sections.
  1. An introduction to the nature of social scientific analysis: The author's starting point is that all social theorising involves ontological, epistemological, methodological and practical commitments; and that the proper, the original concern of social science is the analysis of complex change in the making of the modern world: so development theory is not the narrow discipline it has been liable to be viewed as, but central to social science. Of the two approaches in epistemology, empiricism/positivism, which would assimilate social to natural sciences, and rationalism, according to which social science is concerned with the interpretative understanding of patterns of culture, the author considers the possibility of the former as illusory and opts for the latter, of which work by Ernest Gellner and Peter Worsley are given as examples.
  2. A review of the work of the major social scientific figures of the 18th and 19th centuries and their impacts in the 20th: Classical social theory arose out of enlightenment thinking and the 19th century industrial and democratic revolutions. Analyses of complex change could be mechanistic, interpretative or dialectical: each brought with it different assumptions, but all became part of the modernist project. The main exponents were Adam Smith ('the spontaneous order of the market place',) Karl Marx ('the dialectics of historical change',) Emile Durkheim ('the evolution of the division of labour',) and Max Weber and his transitional work. All these theorists pursued the modernist project of rational apprehension of the social world by means of political-economic analysis, but by the beginning of the 'short 20th century' (Eric Hobsbawm) the now familiar division into discrete disciplines had emerged, each of which deployed its professional expertise in the 'knowledge marketplace'.
  3. A comprehensive discussion of the post-1945 theories of Third World development: The colonial episode was part of the long expansion of the capitalist system, but even after coming to a close it left structural, institutional and cultural legacies that continue into the present. The early years after World War II produced a theory of economic growth informed by the desire of the US to order the post-war world, by the interest of capitalist business to maintain access to the territories of the Third World, by the nationalist developmentalism amongst the replacement elites, and by the example of the Marshall plan. But the modernisation theory of the 50s and 60s, with its simple distinction between traditional and modern societies, and a gradual process of moving from one to the other, was in fact no more than an illegitimate generalisation of the model of the West. In the 60s and 70s, the failed structuralist economics, which had suggested industrialisation in the Third World, was reworked into dependency theory: history had resulted in powerful metropolitan centres and weak Third World peripheries, whose development would require trade barriers, control of multinationals and regional trading areas. The institutionalist theorists (Gunnar Myrdal, Paul Streeten,) treating the theory of development of UDCs as a separate social science, argued that it was planning and the pursuit of effective nationstatehood, led by the local elites, that would bring a shift to an upward development track. The neomarxism of the 60s and 70s (Paul Baran,) according to which Third World economies were condemned to a distorting subordinate position in the global economy that could be remedied only by revolution and disengagement, eventually progressed into influential strategies of political-economic analysis in terms of the capitalist system and its interactions with other modes of production. Global development approaches (UN) stressed the interdependent nature of the global system, and the interests – humanitarian, environmental, even Keynesian economic – the First World has in the situation of the Third World improving. In the 80s, the counter-revolutionary neoliberalism of the metropolitan New Right (IMF, World Bank) again advocated the unregulated market as a means to maximise the benefits of all; however, the claims concerning its scientific status and its centrality within social science have effectively been disposed, and it has failed in practice.
  4. A prospective study of the current debates within the field of development theory about global structures and agent responses: New analyses of complex change have taken up some of the earlier themes, and have identified a newly intensified global interdependence. The theoretical focus has shifted from structural analysis with the purpose of informing intervention, to a dynamic, agent-centered analysis in terms of pre-existing forms-of-life; and the practice to concerns with the environment, women and the work of NGOs. As social theory itself has been undergoing reconstruction, confidence in simple positive analysis has been declining, as it has been recognised as context-bound, and interest in interpretative and critical strategies has risen. "Overall the substantive tasks of development theorists have shifted from the technical social scientific attempt to characterise authoritatively the shift to the modern world of the Western countries to order rationally the recapitulation of this experience by the countries of the Third World towards the dialogic elucidation of the dynamics of complex change within the tripolar global industrial-capitalist system."
[See three short passages from the book.]

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Boaventura de Sousa SANTOS, "On Oppositional Postmodernism", 1999.
Ronaldo Munch, Denis O'Hearn (eds.), Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm, Zed Books, 1999. pp. 29-43.
Taking its cue perhaps from the title of the collection, this essay starts out by asking why, if there is so much to criticise, it has become so difficult to construct a modern critical theory – i.e. (here:) a theory that is concerned as much with what could be as with what is. So that for most modern social scientists that essential critical question: Which side are you on? has become either illegitimate, or irrelevant – or plain unanswerable.

According to the author, one answer is that much of critical theory – such as, typically, Marxist theory – has been totalising, and has presupposed absolutes that have themselves had to be critically examined. And another, that modern critical theory still shares with conventional sociology the assumption of a single principle of social transformation: certain conceptions of historical agents, and of industrialisation, in the contexts of a duality of structure and agency, and of a certain relation between nature and society. But there is no such principle: there are no historical agents, the faces of domination and oppression are multiple, and what is needed is a theory of translation of experiences: of women, blacks, workers; nor is industrialisation the motor of development – the welfare of the many has clearly not improved with the increases in GNP. This crisis of critical theory has led to one of ideology, as oppositions have been replaced by new icons: capitalism/ socialism by industrial, post-industrial and informational society; imperialism/ modernisation by globalisation, and revolution/ democracy by structural adjustment and sustainable development.

Oppositional (so not: 'reassuring') postmodernity starts from a critique of knowledge, i.e. (here:) a path from ignorance to a way of knowing, which has become just knowledge-as-regulation, leading from chaos to order – first natural, in science, but later social as well. So we must face the challenges of reinventing knowledge-as-emancipation, which leads from colonialism, i.e. (here:) the conception of an other as object, to solidarity. For the social sciences this will mean a move from mono- towards multiculturalism, the obstacles of difference and of silence notwithstanding; from heroic expertise to prudence and edification; and from conformist to rebellious action.


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Amartya SEN, Development as Freedom, 1999.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 298 pp. + Notes + index.
The book is based on a series of lectures at the Worldbank, an institution which the author admits he had in the past been highly critical of, but with whose revised policy approach, under its recent president, he declares himself broadly in sympathy. That the text is an amplification of a series of lectures is presumably the reason for the often tiresome repetition found throughout, with sentences and even whole paragraphs sometimes recurring almost verbatim, and earlier arguments and evidence tending to be restated, instead of just being referred to; at the same time, some slightly technical arguments could have been put a little less succinctly. Otherwise the book is clearly and often entertainingly written, using sometimes striking statistics to good effect, and drawing on a wide range of non-economic learning and on the author's own experiences and background. Beyond the technical aspects, deep human concerns are obvious, as usual (– perhaps it was partly for these that Sen was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 1998.) Many of his points the author finds prefigured in the work of Adam Smith, who he feels has been too narrowly read, and deserves to be rehabilitated.

The main idea of the book is neatly summarised by its title: Whereas development theorists have tended to describe, or even to define, development in terms of some economic measure, such as GDP per capita, such a narrow approach not only fails to capture what we mean by development, but also to explain why development should even be desirable. Instead, development is here viewed as tied to the process of expanding human freedom, taken in a much wider than the political sense, including not only freedom from deprivations, such as early death, but also human capabilities, such as being able to gain an education. Freedom, in the process of development, has both a constitutive and an instrumental role.

In its constitutive role, freedom is the main object of development, enabling people to lead lives that they themselves have reason to value; so poverty, instead of being viewed as an ill in itself, is so as a form of capability-deprivation. When it comes to setting priorities and making valuations, the problems of traditional evaluative approaches, whether derived from utilitarianism, libertarianism, or Rawlsian justice, are largely due to each of them being based on too narrow an 'informational base', such as measures of welfare, or equality. While it obviously does not provide conclusive answers, the present perspective, by focusing directly on the substantive freedoms of individuals, it does overcome some of the limitations of the earlier approaches; and it enables us to analyse particular cases – such as the valuation of health care in the US and Europe, the (lack of) relation between life-expectancy and GNP per capita, and between poverty and starvation – and discuss policy issues like the role of markets, and the role of women in society.

In its instrumental role, freedom, it is argued, is the main means of development. Instrumental freedoms are divided into different types – political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security; (while the need for each of these is established, the particular division, and whether it is exhaustive, is not.) These freedoms not only contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely, they also complement and reinforce one another. It is a pleasure to watch two common arguments against such a freedom-based approach being debunked: One is that political freedoms in a country may have to be curtailed for the sake of economic development; this view is just not supported by the evidence. The other is that freedom is a Western concern and that to champion it elsewhere is culturally insensitive; however, a reading of local sources shows that freedom is valued no less highly elsewhere – it is those who gain from repression that proclaim specifically 'Asian values', say.

Some of the issues in the book go back to earlier work by the author: on famines and famine prevention – "No famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy." –, on gender inequality, (which is reflected in the about 100 million women "missing" in certain parts of the world,) and in social choice theory: he re-interprets Arrow's theorem – that it is impossible to arrive at a rational social choice by aggregating individual choices – as merely the rejection of the narrow informational basis which is assumed in the theorem's proof.

While I was not always as excited by this book as I had hoped, the freedom-based approach does seem to me to be a significant contribution to the process of re-thinking development theory, sharing with others conclusions such as the need to re-consider recipients as agents, and to include environmental concerns.


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Russell STANNARD, The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, 1989. - Black Holes and Uncle Albert, 1991. - Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, 1994.
Faber and Faber, 1998. 120 pp., 145pp., 143 pp.
It is clear that biological evolution by natural selection has in effect come to a halt for human beings. But that does not mean that we are no longer evolving in another sense; for our characteristics – as those of all individuals, of all species – depend on the interaction of innate capabilities and the environment, and while the former may be fixed, the latter continues to develop, as every generation grows up in an environment more advanced than the previous generations'. Thus, thoughts that in the past had been challenging to the most brilliant thinkers, who had of course grown up in their environment, are routinely understood by today's average undergraduates, who have grown up in ours. Many outstanding physicists at the beginning of the last century, while able to follow in theory the new developments of relativity and quantum theory, found some of the 'weirder' aspects of the new physics unacceptable; a modern child, on the other hand, who has read the three books in the Uncle Albert series will not be able to follow the theory yet, but will grow up prepared for those weirder parts, and may therefore be capable of a closer understanding of modern physics when they do later in life encounter the subject in earnest,

The books describe the investigations into the modern physics by Uncle Albert, who is loosely modelled on Albert Einstein, and his adventurous and modern niece Gedanken. Uncle Albert, by thinking very hard, is able to create a thought bubble into which Gedanken can be transported to perform experiments in a spaceship close to the speed of light, on a cosmological scale and, with the help of some of the characters from Alice in Wonderland, at the level of atoms and subatomic particles. The descriptions, and occasionally explanations, of the weird things that can happen are clear and seem appropriate, given the subject matter and the intended audience. However, to this adult reader three awkwardnesses were disturbing throughout:

  1. one is the use of thought experiments (Einstein's "Gedankenexperimente",) which actually are vehicles to figure things out that cannot be observed, as a source of observations, to the point of Gedanken having a dangerous experience falling into a black hole;
  2. another is the peculiar role of Uncle Albert, who on the one hand must have figured everything out already for the thought experiments to work, but on the other is portrayed as still discovering everything himself, with the help of his niece;
  3. the last is the need to turn everything into a story of an uncle and his niece, although some valid points are made in the course of this, about girls and science, about computers, about scientific arguments, even about friends, and so on.
Each book ends with a serious quiz, somehow tied into the story, and the answers to it; and with a chapter called: "P.S. A Bit of Real Science."

The topics covered in the three books are:

  1. from the constant speed of light and the equivalence of inertial observers to time-dilation and Lorentz-contraction; the equivalence of mass and energy; and the twin-paradox;
  2. the equivalence principle, that an observer cannot tell if he is accelerated or has weight in a gravitational field; the curvature of space, illustrated by the research of a professor-beetle and his beetle-assistants on a 2-dimensional surface in the Imaginary Universe Laboratory; the effects of gravitation on space and time; and black holes; and
  3. from the constitution of matter out of molecules, atoms, particles and quarks to the duality of wave and particle, applying to both quanta and matter; and the Uncertainty Principle, and its interpretation which in the final chapter are discussed by Uncle Albert and his friends Erwin, Niels, Max, and others.

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Vincent TUCKER, "The Myth of Development: A Critique of a Euro-centric Discourse", 1999.
Ronaldo Munch, Denis O'Hearn (eds.), Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm, Zed Books, 1999. pp. 1-26.
This essay, unfortunately abridged, is the first in a collection dedicated to the author's memory, and sets its tone. Taking as his starting point the obvious failure of development, both the theory and the practice, he accounts for it in terms of the lack of self-critical analysis on the part of Western social scientists, and hence of Western policy makers, of their own position.

Western social science has always subjected non-Western societies to critical scrutiny, has discredited their worldviews as 'traditional', and has constituted those societies as 'the Other', but our own Western myth of development and modernity has not been questioned. That myth has a particular historical origin – in the enlightenment and the beginning of colonisation – but seems, like all myths, self-evident to those who share it and to legitimise their judgments and policies. With the hegemony that the West (encompassing local non-Western elites and comprador intellectuals) has in all areas – power, the production of knowledge, culture (and the definitions inherent in it) –, that myth has become accepted as science and beyond critical analysis. and those at the receiving end of it are hardly in a position to reject it and define their identity differently; there have however always also been cultures of resistance, of which today's Islamic fundamentalism may be one.

The modernisation approach to development, of the 50ies and 60ies, was the expression of the expectation that all societies would follow the Western, or the American, course; but even the more radical dependency theory of the next two decades, revealing how underdevelopment in the non-Western world is related to Western development, still shared the same myth and failed to address the cultural dimension of domination.

While one might choose to abandon the project of development, because of the abuses committed in its name in the past, the author urgently argues that we reclaim it: that we work to replace the Western world's development monologue with a dialogue involving indigenous peoples, those at the receiving end, grass-roots and non-official associations, in the awareness that we need to be critical – of our relation between technology and nature, for instance – no less for our sake as for theirs.


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