Nation of Beancounters

Why do birds of a feather flock together?

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on June 30, 2013

Let’s assume that (a) people vary along some invisible attribute – honesty, sex drive, propensity to work hard etc. Furthermore, let’s assume that (b) people project their preferences onto others – honest individuals believe that human beings are “basically honest” and so on. They believe that such people like them are “normal”.

Let’s make all these people randomly interacting with each other, with the option of repeating the interaction if they should so wish. Suppose that (c) in conversation, people end up signaling (consciously or not) what they consider “normal.” Individuals within their range have no problem, but (d) people outside it feel uncomfortable – if you have a high sex drive, you’re not going to comfortable around those who consider you a “pervert” or “slut”. People cease interacting with those who consider them “abnormal”. Thus the only people who interact repeatedly with each others are those who fall in each other’s range of “normal” i.e. people very similar to each other.

As a result of these handful of simple assumptions, we now have a population in which those who repeatedly interact with each other are very similar to each other. Thus, birds of a feather flock together. This model supports the proverb, “tell me who you spend time with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

A few related points:

(1) One might argue that people with similar tastes tend to “flock” because they have something in common to talk about. This might well be true but the purpose of this model is to explain how people with similar attributes, rather than preferences over different kinds of goods or activities, congregate. People may never talk about such attributes at length. Of course, it’s possible that attributes correlate with tastes.

(2) There are many things that proscribe the kind of friends (or romantic partners) we have – where we work, where we went to school etc. Thus it might seem as if we have no say in what kind of people we can befriend. However, one is always friends with only some of those we interact regularly with. Furthermore, one chooses one’s workplace etc based at least partly on how we like our colleagues, the “atmosphere” or “culture” etc.

(3) There are, I believe, some simple predictions that serve as tests of falsifications – people who are less judgmental should have a wider variety of friends; people who have are well-read or have traveled a lot (and therefore have a broader idea of what is “normal”) should have a wider variety of friends; the larger the organisation a person works/studies at, the more likely that cliques will form.

(4) UPDATE: It is a mistake to extrapolate the experiences of others based on the experiences of oneself and one’s friends, since you may be very different from other people.


Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on February 24, 2013

1. The downside of police sensitivity to women’s issues. Trade-offs everywhere.

2. Scambaiting.

3. How does the language you speak affect the way you think?

4. Rituals and bonding.

5. A portrait of Napolean Chagon, controversial anthropologist. “Indiana Jones has nothing on me.” Also, the portrait of a discipline under postmodernism. And people wonder why we use so much math!


Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on February 8, 2013

The demand for emotional labour

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on February 4, 2013

The concept of ‘emotional labour‘ was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild who used it to describe how some professions require people to present as expressing certain emotions regardless of how they feel.

The idea is that the waiter who smiles and tells you to ‘have a nice day’ doesn’t really feel happy to see you and doesn’t particularly care how your day will go, but he’s asked to present as if he does anyway.

The idea has now moved on and this particular example is considered ‘surface acting’ or ‘surface emotional labour’ while ‘deep acting’ or ‘deep emotional labour’ is where the person genuinely feels the emotions. A nurse, for example, is required to be genuinely caring during his or her job.

More here. The article reads this as an attempt to convert laborers into ‘deep emotional’ workers.

My own reading is different. Worker behavior is hard to monitor. How do you know that the worker is being care with the merchandise even when you can’t observe her? How do you know that the cashier is smiling – and making customers feel better – even when the customer is timid and unlikely to complain (but likely to never come back)? How do you know the nurse will replace everyone’s bedpans on time – and spare helpless and clueless people hours of misery – even when her supervisor is on leave?

Workers that are genuinely and emotionally connected to their job are more likely to do all these things. The trick then is to find the ones who are connected. The performance reviews of Pret etc (see article) is thus a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. You aren’t “required” to feel deeply, but rewarded with this high paying job if you do. Less emotional workers can take their labour to places that cares less about such feelings, pays workers less and charge customers lower prices. This is a bit like how McDonald’s doesn’t hire the highest quality chefs.

A modern sociologist may disagree, and insist that all types of labour are “produced” – i.e. created – by the system. That may well be true but (a) this is the reason that the system produces such labour, (b) so is it really such a bad thing?

My two cents about the economics of the Ashis Nandy thing

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on January 31, 2013

Sociologist Asish Nandy claims that what he meant by the statement “corrupt people come from Other Backward Classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes” is that “most of the people getting caught for corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities, as they don’t have the means to save themselves unlike people from upper castes”.

In the spirit of charity, I’m willing to take his word for it. But there’s a certain amount of confusion embedded in this discussion.

The upside of being a corrupt bureaucrat/politician is that you can make a lot of money. The downside is that you might be caught and persecuted, with all the disrepute that comes with it. Both lower caste and upper caste bureaucrats enjoy the same benefits. On the other hand, if Nandy’s second statement is true, lower caste bureaucrats face higher costs, which makes them less likely to take a bribe, i.e. be less corrupt. So Dalits would be among the least corrupt, even though they get apprehended more often.

Of course, the confusion can be clarified if Nandy took “corrupt” to mean “people who get caught taking bribes” rather than “people who take bribes.”

A less charitable look at the statement, as well as the furor that followed, can be found here.