Small frame for big picture


Each of us wants to believe we are a special snowflake, a unique shimmering reflection of the divine spark that made us. On a certain level we are all unique and special. On another, we are nauseatingly predictable and driven by the surrounding herd. The chasm between these realms is a matter of scale and perspective.

Associate professor of mathematics at Northeastern University, Ivan Loseu, speaks to this in a recent interview with the website, www.Phys.org; “If (the universe) is a tree, I’ve told you about only its roots … a mole may think it has a full picture of an oak or a maple, but until it pops its head through the soil, its perspective is limited.”

For nearly two decades my work as a social scientist has been driven by the quest for a new type of grand theory, which is to say I’ve been looking for a set of simple laws that accurately describe complex phenomena and work at all scales of analysis. Naturally, I have often leaned on analogies couched in the language of math and physics.

Perhaps the least excruciating way to describe it is to think about the difference between classical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Classical mechanics is based on the work of Isaac Newton. It describes the ordered laws of motion for large objects and systems. Whereas quantum mechanics relates more to the chaotic motion and activity of microscopic particles. Are we looking at atoms or galaxies? Assuming that the cosmos is driven by immutable (if unknowable) laws, shouldn’t our theories work for both? Again, the divide is essentially one of scale and perspective, but it’s more complicated than that.

Turning back to my wheelhouse, the individual and society, we confront a similar conundrum.

We also face a glaring prejudice in social science: determinism. For many who embrace a post-modern notion of the individual, anything that makes two snowflakes similar is heresy. Fortunately, history is rich with heretics.

While he didn’t express it in these terms, the University of Chicago sociologist, C. Wright Mills, elegantly captures the interdependence of the individual and the collective almost 60 years ago.

In his timeless classic, “The Sociological Imagination”, Mills writes: “Within the broad limits of the physiology of the sense organs, our very perception of the physical world, the colors we discriminate, the smells we become aware of, the noises we hear, are socially patterned and socially circumscribed. The motivations of men, and even the varying extents to which various types of men are typically aware of them, are to be understood in terms of the vocabularies of motive that prevail in a society and of social changes and confusions among such vocabularies.”

This is the language of physical mechanics. Unlike the solipsistic quantifiers that predominate modern academia, Mills’ spare prose speaks to a symphony of social process — the delicate, yet chaotic interplay of individuals within the boundaries of the larger stable social system.

Writing on the vicissitudes of fortune, the fifth century Roman philosopher, Ancius Boethius, penned a similar relevant thought: “Human perversity, then, makes divisions of that which by nature is one and simple, and in attempting to obtain part of something which has no parts, succeeds in getting neither the part — which is nothing — nor the whole, which they are not interested in.”

While he’s talking about the false happiness of wealth and power (themes Mills also visits) the broader notion rests in vain attempts to divide that which can’t be divided. This is in many ways the great failing of modern social science — all trees, no forest.

In turn, this explains why I spend an increasing amount of time reading journals like the Physical Review Letters and PlosOne. It’s not because I think I’m going to magically start doing physics research; it’s that my own discipline has largely abandoned big questions. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, “… it’s the pictures that got small.”

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.