Collidoscope: Of the Police, Wine and Education Technology

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here.  If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


Understanding the American police

Credit: Victoria Pickering/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Victoria Pickering/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Is it possible to love the police?

Growing up, I’ve always been wary of the police. An irrational fear as a child turned to a general discomfort around anyone with a weapon, then to a more aware dislike of many of their activities, attitudes and beliefs. The many stories from friends, especially female friends, of their encounters with policemen didn’t help. But behind it all, there was a curiosity: What drives police behaviour and the ways in which they choose to wield power? Of course people must view the police differently, coming from different standpoints, but how do the police view different people?

“Police are different things to different people,” starts Mark Greif’s fascinating article in the Verso Books blog, excerpted from his collection of essays Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Greif’s article is specifically about the police in the US, so racial differences and how they shape both police perceptions and perceptions of the police play a big role.

One of Greif’s recurring points on understanding how police work is his reference to touch – something I hadn’t thought of before but made immediate sense. A very easy way for the police to express power, Greif writes, is the ease and perceived legitimacy with which they can touch someone else. It could be a harmless or even protective touch – directing someone away from harm. It could be holding you back from a fight. It could be restraining you during a protest, arresting you on the street, even pushing you to the ground. And as an individual, you are likely to expect certain kinds of touch depending on both your immediate circumstances and your identity.

These expectations, according to Grief, can even be shaped by the police themselves, when they do what he calls “distributing crimes”:

Where the police identify a crime against the city, state, or law, rather than an affronted person – the so- called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale – we can best speak of another police function as distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal. The police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (mostly carried by those on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (unlit taillight, noisy muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals – the poor and marginal – and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals, as soon as they are stopped and frisked and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. (Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all.)

But what makes the police the police? One of the essential function of the police, Greif argues, is not one that is often talked about: being seen. And not just seen, but seen in a way that projects force. That’s what the uniform is all about. But a uniform is just a uniform and cannot make up for human frailty. “There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires imagination of these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away,” Greif writes.

And then comes an analogy that I didn’t see coming. It’s not necessarily central to Greif’s argument, but it’s ingenuity calls for it to be quoted, I think.

The symbol of police in this dimension in North America is the donut. The donut is equivocal. It is not loved as apple pie is. It has no national or official standing as apple pie does. It has a local message only. Donuts, like other deep- fried delicacies, do not travel well. Yet donuts have our rueful affection. Really, it is the pursuit of coffee that drives police to donut shops. Donuts confirm what they will not admit with their badge and gun, that they are the ones who must be awake all the time, in public, in the extremely boring job of sitting in a place, either thereby to assure passersby and the public that they are sitting there, watching, or to ensure that other people don’t sit there. This sitting is being added to their nature; the stasis gathers at their waists. They are living traffic cones. Traffic cones, too, would drink coffee and eat donuts to stay awake.

Greif goes on to discuss several other aspects of being a policeman: the element of secrecy, the importance of being present, the duties they are expected to fulfil both by themselves and by society, and so on. While his analysis is very interesting to understanding the police, to go into all the details here would take me far beyond my self-imposed word limit.

Let me move instead to answering my original question. Given all their traits and the arena in which they operate, is it possible to love the police? On an individual level, Grief says, it is definitely possible. Momentarily, when perhaps the find a lost loved one or recover a stolen good. But as an entity? That situation, for Greif, would be possible perhaps if the police were to look beyond their own professional duties to a more general notion of humanity.

Perhaps the other scenario really is when we know they have order or law on their side, and they don’t apply it – because, they hint, their adherence is to community, not to the State. “I see you, and I let you go, for the sake of an order you and I share which is yet not the law.”

This reaches to a completely different part of theories of democracy— to fraternity, solidarity, sympathy, sociability, trust— the least formalizable part, the part most betrayed in recent years (or maybe always) by moneyed politics and corrupted government. The least articulable part, and a place to start.


A changing market for Bulgarian wine

Credit: Reuters/John Kolesidis

Credit: Reuters/John Kolesidis

How do you balance between quantity and quality of production?

I hadn’t ever heard of Bulgarian wine (not that that’s telling of anything), but Yuson Jung’s article in Economic Anthropology taught me a whole lot about its history and cultural context. Socialist Bulgaria exported tens of millions of bottles of wine, focusing on the quantity of production rather than the quality, Jung writes.

Despite being an ‘Old World’ wine, Jung argues that the values of production in the Bulgarian wine industry pre-1990 were quite different from that in heavyweight wine-producing countries like France, Spain or Italy. Here, wine was famous for where it was from, the high-quality grape used, the beautiful landscapes that make for great ‘wine tourism’. While these European centres focused on high-quality wine that prided itself on local, ‘artisanal’, ’boutique’ production, the wine industry in Bulgaria was about export-oriented mass production.

With the collapse of the centralised economy, dramatic transformations began in the Bulgarian wine industry. State-owned vineyards and production units were distributed among private owners. This was around the same time as the start of the growth of ‘New Word’ wines, many of which started off as quantity-oriented and now are also known for their quality. For the new private wine producers in Bulgaria, the changing market was difficult to keep up with, Jung writes. After joining the EU in 2007, Bulgarian wine producers could avail of EU agricultural subsidies for wine production, but were also competing in the common market.

What Jung points to her article is a linear ‘quality-quantity’ nexus in the production of wine, both globally and in Bulgaria. From her ethnographic research on wine producers in the country, Jung found that those who were more successful and being able to keep up with the changing markets were those who chose one – quality or quantity – and stuck by their choice. The problem arose, according to her research, when large scale, technology driven enterprises decided to also try and portray themselves as high-quality wines. These wines were often unable to fetch the prices they thought they deserved, either in the local or the global market, being sold instead as ‘cheap’ wine. While this might work fine for those who knew their focus was quantity, producers stuck somewhere in the middle of the nexus found themselves not producing at full capacity, not recovering their costs and spending too much (time and money) on trying to fit in with the artisanal culture. The definition of what is artisanal, Jung argues, has little to do with the technology used (artisanal wineries across the world use technology-intensive methods too, unlike the romanticised notion of ‘handmade’ wine) and more to do with and ethical judgment on what is the right way to produce, focusing largely on local products, for instance.

Jung does not critically examine the quality-quantity nexus, her research stop at saying that “the transformation of the Bulgarian wine industry is not so much about moving the entire industry from an economy of quantity to an economy of quality. Rather, what is important is the idea that one producer cannot be both quantity and quality oriented. The varying degrees of success and failure are related to how different wine producers align themselves with particular systems of value based on the vision for their wine production”.

But it left me with a range of questions. How does the market determine the quality of a wine? How much importance does the way in which its production is marketed (state of the art, artisanal and so on) hold in determining its value? And is it really impossible to produce really “good” wine while also producing lots of it? The ideals of how to produce wine seem to fit with global norms of production in general and things being mass produced being looked down upon. And also with the ideals set by ‘Old World’ European wine producers, now competing in a changing market where these ideals mat not be enough to set them apart.


Technological predictions, storytelling and education

Stockholm's public library. Credit: Samantha Marx/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Stockholm’s public library. Credit: Samantha Marx/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Why do we make (and buy) certain predictions about technology?

“The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release,” education technology researcher Audrey Watters’s talk published in boundary2 is evocatively titled. Witty and sharp, Watters’s discusses in detail something that we’re all mildly aware of don’t always pay much attention to. Do predictions about the future change how we behave in the present?

Watters’s starts of by looking at a whole bunch of ‘quotable quotes’ on the future of education and the role technology will play in that. Her interest is not in making her own predictions, she clarifies, but chronicling the predictions of others: where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to achieve and so on.

“Books will soon be obsolete in schools.”  – Thomas Edison, 1913.

“In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.” – Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the MOOC (massive open online course) startup Udacity, 2012.

“In fifteen years from now, half of US universities may be in bankruptcy. In the end I’m excited to see that happen. So pray for Harvard Business School if you wouldn’t mind.” – Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, 2013

What these predictions are, Watters argues, are nothing more than fantasies (even if nightmarish) about the future of education. Edison’s “soon” isn’t here yet and I don’t really see it creeping up on us. It is extremely hard to imagine that the over 25,000 universities in the world will suddenly up and disappear in 46 years, making way for ten (a very precise number) Udacity-like platforms. In most parts of the world, the number of universities is growing, though the condition of publicly-funded universities is a cause for concern.

So why repeat this fantasies? If you say them often enough, Watters says, and pretend like you really think they’re true, they’re likely to become “factualised”. Not facts, but things people make take to be facts – leading investors, students, politicians, university administrations to all behave in a certain way. And more often than not, this behaviour will benefit those who made the predictions in the first place or others like them, Watters argues.

So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.

Fantasy. Fortune-telling. Or as capitalism prefers to call it “market research.”

What “irks” Watters the most about this ‘market research’ is that it is portrayed as having no history or context, as emerging from a pool of infallible and trustworthy data. Consultancy firms that are famous for making predictions never go back to what they predicted last year, she says, do not explain why certain predictions just disappeared or were replaced. These reports, according to her, are less about actual predictions and more about guiding and justifying certain expenditures.

Another thing Watters points out is that the rate of technological change today is often widely overestimated. Just because there are new technological products coming at us from every direction, she argues, doesn’t mean that technology itself is growing at the same pace. Random calculations may make for catchy quoted, but that doesn’t mean that things are really changing as fast as is often indicated, according to her.

And that’s where it ties into the why of these predictions, the present gains to be made from a seemingly fantastical future.

Therefore the task for schools – and I hope you can start to see where these different predictions start to converge – is to prepare students for a highly technological future, a future that has been almost entirely severed from the systems and processes and practices and institutions of the past. And if schools cannot conform to this particular future, then “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Watters’s speech is easy to relate to. I’ve often wondered at the flurry of percentages and precise predictions thrown around, often with no explanation of where they’re coming from. They’re easy to disregard as something not worth taking seriously, until you stop and think: Is there someone out there, anyone, who is taking this seriously? Even if not to buy into in, but to shape decisions or explain decisions already made? That’s when it becomes important to question them and look for counter-narratives, Watters argues, to make sure odd futuristic predictions aren’t taking the present somewhere we don’t want it to go.

I believe we need to recognize that predicting the future is a form of evangelism as well. Sure gets couched in terms of science, it is underwritten by global capitalism. But it’s a story – a story that then takes on these mythic proportions, insisting that it is unassailable, unverifiable, but true.

The best way to invent the future is to issue a press release. The best way to resist this future is to recognize that, once you poke at the methodology and the ideology that underpins it, a press release is all that it is.

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If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]