Letters from students

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to/from Douglas R. White

Graham Peterson: Interdiscipllinarity

4-13-2001 Graham Peterson: Interdiscipllinarity

Dear Mr. White,

I am a bachelor student at University of Illinois at Chicago. I work with Professor Deirdre McCloskey, prof. of economics rhetoric and history here on her series of books asserting that economics needs to move past assumptions of utility maximization and become a sort of Humanomics.

I've put in my application to transfer to University of Chicago. If it goes through I should find institutional support for non-traditional social science reading, incorporating anthropological and economic analysis, probably with touches of sociology and psychology as well.

If I'm not accepted and stay here at UIC, I will write a petition to design my own degree -- something I've got a good shot at as an Honors College student working with one of the most respected faculty on campus.

So what's the problem? Specialization. Having so many burning questions about economic theory, what it lacks, and where it intersects other social inquiry, I don't know where to turn to design a focused course of study. The best I can imagine, I'll eventually have to design a game-plan based on the major controversies, then work backwards in the different sciences to hear where conflicting views came from. Your work on the "in the beginning" stories posed by anthropologists and economists is extremely interesting to me.

Economists make a lot of poorly researched and hackneyed claims about how one day long ago we all lived in little socialist dictatorship pods, how trade evolved out of barter as a less equal , but more efficient means of allocation. I have a real problem with zero-sum tradeoffs between equity and efficiency. I also have a real problem with looking at barter as an outmoded form of exchange. I'm not suggesting we barter wheat-futures instead of pricing them, I'm suggesting that bartering takes place constantly without any recognition from price theorists. The better economists recognize that the price system is prohibitive to trade in some instances: within the firm too much haggling means nothing gets done. So they say, administrative decisions take the place of exchange there. Not true, tacit barter of human capital is what makes teamwork work -- why cooks don't haggle with one another when it comes to passing pans and knives across the kitchen.

If you have any advice for a young and eager student who's a bit confused on how to work his out-the-box thinking into an institutional framework, I'm willing to hear all of it. I read your history on Sante Fe's website and it seems like you've long since been down the road I look to travel.

Sincerely, Graham Peterson

Reply Tuesday, April 13, 2010, 8:57 AM DRW


your letter is very inspiring to me. Would you mind if I posted it on a new wiki page on my interdisciplinary intersci wiki "Letters from students" or some such? (would be a new heading tho I have posted other email dialogues). Reason: I have always thought these are the kinds of disciplinary-breaking questions we should be asking. As a Brown U undergrad I tried to create a combined humanities-physics double major and was call in by the Dean who told me I must specialize, and it couldn't be done. He wanted me to read The Education of Henry Adams to prove his point but it proved the opposite. Adams was an interdisciplinarian and I thought the Dean's argument that this couldn't be done after Einstein to be invalid. Understanding moving (dynamical) frames of reference is part of what is needed in the social sciences rather than fixed firmaments painted on the ceiling. With a wiki page, being concise and mutually editing, a crisp dialogue could be done with interest on both sides.


Mon, April 12, 2010 7:13 pm Graham Peterson


Feel free to post my comments. Whether "it can be done" or not, I can't help but compare the focus on equilibrium, the pendulum swinging back and forth, to Taoist philosophy I read years ago. It's the way I think. That was my plea, my sale to University of Chicago. I told my interviewer, "I'll be sitting in an anthropology class hearing about the distributive behavior of the Canella in the Amazon and start comparing it to... I don't know, my father's small business or something."

Academe fights itself. It fights to codify laws, yet keep them open to questions. It fights to establish systematized education, but its Socratic longings nag at it to not be too rigid. Economics is a very special field in this regard. It's had a hegemonic privilege in the social sciences for a long time. It's enjoyed the formalized linear structure of mathematics education. And now it's being criticized, even heavily from within, for the problems that structure has caused in the theory.

So I am in a tough position as an undergrad. Interdisciplinary work seems more welcome in the hard sciences, especially things like physics. I wonder if your humanities/physics double major would be better received in our day of theoretical physics. I want to do my degree in political economy, exploring the ethical, political, and social considerations of economics. I want to do that in a world where one need only an 800 on the math portion of the GRE and a physics or math major in undergrad to get into economics grad programs. So I think I'm somewhat rightfully afraid that my passions may lead me to career suicide. So be it. School is free for me, and I enjoy what I'm doing. I didn't come back to school at 24 years old after living a checkered life because I'm a mold-fitter.

Thanks for your response. I look forward to staying up-to-date with what Sante Fe Institute is doing, along with other researchers working outside the Homo-economicus box.

Tue, April 13, 2010 3:19 pm Doug White


If you do go to Chicago, look up the work of John Padgett, political science, who is also THE economic historian of Florence (emergence of banking and the modern state) who is also an SFI faculty member. Excellent person to work with. I am starting a project parallel to his on Florence but focusing on the Livorno (Leghorn the English name, the great port for British trade and stopovers to the orient) if you are interested.

Thu, April 15, 2010 10:30 am Graham


I read one of Padgett's papers on Florence. It was on whether Florence markets c1400s matched Chamberlin's model of perfect competition. I skipped over a lot of the statistical analysis and went to the verbal conclusions and analysis (I tend to do that -- I'm an older student lacking years of formal math training and am still somewhat intimidated by math -- I'll get over it). It was great stuff, though, really interesting. I actually emailed him asking him about the world of poly-sci, suggested reading on the co-evolution of state and trade. His work is exciting stuff. I doubt he's got time for students from other schools who've never taken poly-sci before, though.

I'd love to work on Livorno (that is if I interpret your message correctly as an invitation). McCloskey is a world renowned economic historian, focused largely on British and Dutch trade, also a close mentor of mine. She may be a valuable asset to bounce suppositions off of and ask for reading direction if necessary. I don't know how much use I could be on the network analysis stuff. I've yet to take Calc one (scheduled for summer term) and have only basic algebraic, geometric, counting theory, and matrix skills. I'd be learning more than contributing, and probably slow you down in that regard. Then again, more minds make more insights.(?)

I want to dive into behavioral economics independently this summer, but barely understand a lick of the math. Concepts are no problem, but most derivations I run into in scholarly papers involve variables/notation I've never seen before.

I'm going to take intro to political theory with a Bentham scholar here at UIC this summer. I hope to parlay that into work on felicitous calculus (assumption that we are pleasure maximizers using rational choice to allocate pleasure utilities).

Thanks again for your interest and time.

Regards, Graham

Re: Livorno Thu, April 15, 2010 11:50 am Doug

Re your: "I'd love to work on Livorno (that is if I interpret your message correctly as an invitation). McCloskey is a world renowned economic historian, focused largely on British and Dutch trade, also a close mentor of mine", you and McCloskey can use the wiki
|search| Livorno-Leghorn Merchant Networks
to find and check the blog by my collaborator, see if there is sufficient historical and genealogical data for the study. I have my colleague and co-author Joerg Reichardt interested in working on a role-set detection program sensitive to changes through time, and we have enough data on who are members of the occupational groups do to latent role-structure analysis of the intermarriage network.

Fri, April 16, 2010 10:46 am Graham


McCloskey would be looking for an expansion of the middle-class, the rise of a bourgeoisie around 1700, and a change in rhetoric towards pro-trade talk to match. Her big thing is that the ethics of trade drive it, and what happens between the ears. The explosion in growth around 1700 that's increased national incomes exponentially since then can't really be explained by cotton gins and vertical integration. She claims it's something ethereal, a set of social mores allowing and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurialism. Where do you think, if any place, those ideas fit into your research? We are, after all, studying the same period.

Regards, Graham

Fri, April 16, 2010 4:46 am Doug

Could well be, I will look at her [new book chapter Chapter 11 of The Bourgeois Revaluation: But in the Late Seventeenth Century the English Changed. I just got up to 1688-98 in my study of the English part of its parliamentary revolution. As she says: "In the 1690s, with a Dutch king, the William of William and Mary, the British proceeded in a rush to adopt Dutch institutions such as excise taxes, a central bank, a national debt, a stock market, a free press." But its the EIC trade that is one the transformative drivers even before the William of Orange and Mary. (Search the wiki for Peter_S._Bearman#Peer-Reviewed_articles Emily Erikson and Peter Bearman's AJS article.)

She says: "During the decades up to 1700 the effective rulers of Britain became in theory and practice more and more mercantilist, and then by the end of the eighteenth century even a little bit free trading — anyway more and more after the late seventeenth century concerned with national profit and loss, instead of ensuring this man’s monopoly profit and that woman’s church attendance. Sir William Temple noted in 1672 that before 1648 in the great nations of Europe “their trade was war.” But “since the Peace of Munster, which restored the quiet of Christendom in 1648, not only Sweden and Denmark but France and England have more particularly than ever before busied the thoughts and counsels of their several governments. . . about the matters of trade.”260 The English were first in this Dutchlike subordination of politics to trade. As Montesquieu put it in 1748, “other nations have made the interests of commerce yield to those of politics; the English, on the contrary, have ever made their political interests give way to those of commerce.”261 Well. . . not “ever,” but by 1748 often."

[http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/weblog/2010/04/05/chapter-10-of-the-bourgeois-revaluation-and-so-the-english-bourgeoisie-could-not-rise/ rough draft Chapter 10 of The Bourgeois Revaluation: And So the English Bourgeoisie Could Not “Rise”]

Re: Livorno

[http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=livorno+merchants&btnG=Search&as_sdt=2000&as_ylo=&as_vis=0 "livorno merchants"

Re: Livorno

Application letter (anonymous)

I am applying to the mathematical behavioral sciences PhD program at University of Irvine with the purpose of carrying out research on social networks. In my undergraduate studies, I pursued my interests both in mathematics and social sciences. As a mathematics major my coursework focused on the fundamental fields in mathematics including: abstract algebra, real and complex analysis and topology. I complemented my mathematics degree with courses I took in linguistics, philosophy and cultural anthropology. I took a class on theories of culture in my senior year which convinced me to focus my graduate study on social networks and their use at understanding ethnographical data.

Starting in my senior year in high school, I have grown a strong interest in complex systems. Through a book I read in high school called Complexity: an Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, I was introduced to complex systems and to Santa Fe institute in New Mexico where scholars from various disciplines come together to study complex systems. During my college years, I kept doing outside readings on complex systems in my spare time. In my senior year in college, I gave a talk in the mathematics department on complexity science summarizing my readings thus far. This talked touched upon topics such as: emergence, multi-agent modeling and ways in which one can go about quantifying a system's complexity. The talk was mainly based upon three books: Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life by professors Miller and Page, Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems by Keith Sawyer and Growing Artificial Societies Social Science From the Bottom Up by Professors Axtell and Epstein. After reading these books, I developed a general sense of complex systems. Because there were no classes offered in college on complexity science, I took classes on mathematics, computer science and anthropology to form a strong basis on which I can add complex systems studies in graduate school. I believe the program in UC Irvine is well-suited for me as there are classes such as: Complexity: Network Dynamics, Adaptive Agents, and Theory of Games and Network Theories of Social Structure.

In addition to the books I read on complex systems, there was a class I took in my senior year that further shaped my career plans. Before taking this anthropology class called Theories of Culture, I was not sure what aspect of complex systems I should focus. I liked observing and investigating emergence at different levels such as in brain sciences, population dynamics and at the level of societies. However, after taking this class, I decided I especially want to focus my studies on societies as complex systems and networks that connect people. In this class, I learned about theories of many anthropologists such as Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Spencer, and Boas. I was especially thrilled to see the notion of complex interactions among many individuals in the theories of Emile Durkheim and Malinowski. Stemming from my readings of Durkheim and Malinowski, I would like to focus my studies on the following two topics: Emergence of ideas and social institutions in a society and the dynamics of social solidarity, change and resistance to change. I aspire to equip myself with the necessary mathematical knowledge through classes I will take in the department to address such issues in my research. I plan to stay in academia after completing my degree in UC Irvine and continue my career by doing research and teaching.

If admitted, I would especially like to work under the supervision of Professor Douglas White. I learned about the mathematical behavioral sciences PhD program in UC Irvine through him. I had a book that he co-authored called Network Analysis and Ethnographic Problems: Process Models of a Turkish Nomad Clan. As a Turkish citizen, I was very surprised to see that there was such a thorough research conducted on a Turkish clan. This book was also fascinating for me as it proved to me that one can combine social studies with mathematics and do ethnographic work aided by mathematical theories. Therefore, this book also set my career plans and introduced me to the program in UC Irvine which I find specifically well-suited to me.