Theories of Everything

3 October 2015

In a fit of procrastination I just read The Trouble with Theories of Everything by Lawrence M. Krauss. Quite simply, it argues that physics theories are scale-dependent. That is, theories that apply at one scale---however microscopic---do not necessarily apply at others. It goes further to suggest that attempts to unify theories lead to new mismatches. What I take from the article is that a theory like gravity may be suitable for one scale of analysis, say, an apple falling from a tree, but reveal theoretical flaws at other scales, say, predicting the behavior of subatomic particles.

I wonder if we should apply this notion to the social sciences. With my graduate students I've been reading two books so far this semester. The first is Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social, and the second is Martinelli, Mouleart, and Novy's Urban and Regional Development Trajectories in Contemporary Capitalism. Latour's book describes the actor-network theory (ANT) approach, in which our understanding is built up from the actors themselves and (kind of) decries the development and application of grand theories of the "social". URDTCC, meanwhile, is basically an anti-ANT approach that applies a host of macro-level social theories to urban and regional development. The further wrinkle with the latter is that the approach applies these theories to multiple time and spatial scales. And it enjoys variable success in doing so.

On some long term scales, the broad social forces (or "actors" in Latour's terms) create a smooth narrative, but one that feels hollow after reading Latour. For example, we are told in the context of financial capital's dominance in the contemporary development of London that, "The two fractions of capital---industrial and financial---eventually became antagonistic, a struggle that ended with the hegemony of financial capital and the decline of British industries"[66]. In other places, actors "positions" and "sociospatial structures" are "reinforced". But we are not told how they struggled, of what that hegemony consists, what the positions are, nor what "reinforced" means. These terms are shortcuts for summarizing what happened, and while I do not doubt their "accuracy", the shortcuts do not tell us "what happened" on the ground. And I guess I want that.

But this is where the scales come in. URDTCC primarily uses regulation theory for its analyses, and I think it generally does a good job of describing the big picture. However, it obscures so much of the local level dynamics that drive the processes. We need to know how certain financial capitalists pushed through regulation in their favor, for example. And this involves (perhaps) other theories that describe political action, psychological constitutions, investment decisions, etc., theories that in turn would not necessarily describe the macro-level outcomes.

Must we then rely on different theories for different scales of action? Krauss's article would suggest that we should. But it would also suggest that the effort to unify these scalar-specific theories should produce its own advances and new mysteries.

Bedtime stories

25 September 2015

More kids than business on this blog... This time it is because my older daughter finally seems to be getting interested in reading. She recently received a 만화책 (comic book) from a friend. Apparently it is their favorite, "I am Star". She told us that they even run around the playground during recess saying "I am Star" because that is what gives the girls in the book their power. Anyhoo, combine this with the extra work my wife has been doing with her to read, and suddenly Sienna is the one reading bedtime stories to her sister. For the last week or so, she has read to Gian from "I am Star" and other kids books until Gian falls asleep. Then she comes into our room, tells us that Gian is sleeping, and returns to their bedroom and puts herself to bed. I love it.

Bugaksan (북악산)

14 September 2015

There's a lot going on right now. I'm teaching a class that is simultaneously streamed to Nanjing and Fudan Universities. I'm getting my research project up and running. I am writing a biography of Susan Fainstein. I went to beautiful Urbino, Italy for the RC21 conference, where I ran into some old friends and made some new ones. And there's other stuff.

But I'm really writing because I'm proud of daughters for walking with little complaint (none on Sienna's part) from Sukjeongmun(숙정문) to Chunguimun(청의문) yesterday. Though it's only a couple of kilometers, here are links to a couple of links that show what a feat this is (1 and 2). Let's just say that to get some amazing views of the city, you have to do a lot of very steep climbs and descents. And the girls kicked butt. It made my weekend pretty awesome.

Big Week

29 July 2015

So this has been a big week for us. We have been in the US since early July. Most of the time has been at my parents' house, but the extended family also took a five-day trip to Sebasco Harbor Resort in Maine. It was fantastic in its own right, but the big news for us involves the little ones. First, Gian has started summer camp at Pequotsepos Nature Center, which she has been wanting to do for the last couple of years. Even though she screams bloody murder every morning when we drop her off, she is bouncing when we pick her up. Second, Sienna went ahead and lost her first tooth at the closing lobster bake in Maine. Then yesterday she lost her second tooth eating corn fresh from Whittle's. But the biggest thing is that this afternoon she swam by herself without support for the first time ever. It was only a meter or so, but it was independent...and amazing.

Research grant

30 June 2015

I have just learned that I will receive a $90,000, three-year research grant from the Korean National Research Foundation to study the export of Korean housing models to developing countries. I am a bit daunted and quite a bit excited, as this will quite clearly define my intellectual efforts over the next few years. The project combines two approaches to examining the role of housing in development. One aspect of the research is to examine how housing models are imported from more developed nations and translated into the local context. This will draw on actor-network theory, policy mobilities, and the interpretive policy analysis approaches to policy formation. The second is the cultural approach to housing, which seeks to explore how housing shapes culture and is in turn shaped by culture.

I will be working with Park, Jinhee, who recently received her PhD from the University of Sheffield's Town Planning Department. She will be central to the cultural approach, which she has been developing through her dissertation.