Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Here's a post that considers, in a more technical way, the issue of focus I wrote about yesterday.
...a fairly wide range of social science research today embraces the general idea of providing microfoundations for macro-level assertions. And this seems to be a very reasonable requirement, given what we know about how social entities, processes, and forces are composed.
I have some experience with an analogous micro-macro set of decisions on focus in my field, chemistry. All of observable chemistry is constituted of atomic interactions, which can be modeled but are not completely understood. There are various intermediate ranges of understanding that can be used in modeling as well. But sometimes, particularly in engineering, it is more effective to use what I think of as top-down measures, analogous to macro-level in Daniel Little's sociological discussion. One of these is the Reynolds number, which describes when flow changes from laminar to turbulent. I haven't fully kept up with the field, so it's possible that computing power has allowed finer-grained modeling to supplant the Reynolds number, but I strongly suspect that designers of chemical plants still use Reynolds numbers.

In sociology and political science, even less is known about actions on the micro level and how they relate to the macro. So the picture will still need to be considered at the various scales, and finding the right scale on which to base a decision will continue to be important for policy-making.

This has come home to me on a very personal basis the past few days. Photos from northern New Mexico, taken through our smoky haze, are appearing on the Web, some to murmurs of appreciation. And their interplay of light and line is indeed to the standards that have been set for photographic beauty. Some commenters recognize the conflict between that beauty and the fact that the photograph also represents the destruction of 95 square miles that contained very different kinds of beauty: delicate wildflowers on the forest floor, assemblages of dark pines and golden aspens in the fall, living animals, now deposited across northern New Mexico in a fine ash. Or, for some of us, the pervasive orange tone evokes Dante's Hell. Different levels.

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