Efficiency vs. Robustness: On Scott’s Seeing Like a State

Previously, on A (Budding) Sociologist’s Commonplace Book*, I discussed a useful distinction I learned from a very nerdy encounter: efficiency versus robustness. To rehash briefly, complex systems biologist Jack Cohen argued that many failures in complex systems can be attributed to the hyper-emphasis on efficiency at the expense of robustness. Apparently inefficient systems are often useful under specific, but uncommon circumstances. Thus, removing these systems will increase efficiency in normal times, but promote dramatic failures under other conditions.

I was thinking about this distinction while reading James Scott’s fantastic 1998 book, Seeing Like a State. The book is subtitled “how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed”, which nicely summarizes the cases described in the book. Scott is fascinated (and frightened) by the emergence of what he calls “authoritarian high modernism”, the combination of a rationalizing modernist impulse with the power of a centralized state unfettered by a strong civil society. Scott draws on cases as diffuse as the emergence of scientific forestry, the construction of Brasilia, and the forced relocation of peasant farmers into model village communities in Tanzania. Backed by universalizing, modernist science, various state actors imagined that they understood forests**, cities, or agriculture well enough to construct new versions from scratch that superseded the existing versions. In other words, urban planners imagined that they could build a new city from the ground up that solved the problems of existing cities, while forest scientists imagined that a perfectly planned city would optimally take advantage of resources to maximize timber production. These schemes, in general, failed miserably.

Scott’s analysis of these failures hinges on the distinction between formal, universal knowledge and “metis” or tacit, local knowledge. This framework is very productive: we understand why farmers, forced to form in neat, monocropped, and unfamiliar rows become ineffective – all of the technologies and wisdom they have developed for the specific terrain they learned to farm no longer hold. Simultaneously, we understand why the modernists want to promote a “legible” world, one that can be easily calculated, governed, and supposedly optimized. Similarly, Brasilia’s wide streets, vast plazas and tightly zoned sectors destroyed the informal social ties prevalent in mixed-use, organically grown urban zones. The city was made more easily understandable for planners – everything had a specific place – but at the expense of eliminating the value of local knowledge which strengthens less planned communities.

I think this distinction between metis and formal knowledge is useful, but I also think it would be helpful to think in terms of efficiency and robustness. The problem with high modernism was not simply that it promoted very narrow goals, but that it relied on very narrow metrics that failed to plan for failure. In other words, the problem was not simply a narrow emphasis on productivity, but an emphasis on efficiency of production over robustness of production. For peasants, as has been widely discussed in many works including Scott’s own fantastic Weapons of the Weak, the goal more like “maximizing the probability I will have enough to feed my family” than it is “maximizing the expected amount of production”. In other words, robustness, not efficiency, is key. High modernism failed so dramatically because of how it conceived of the thing to be maximized, not just because it sought to maximize a single variable. What was lost in translation from the forest science or agricultural science of the West was not just the local conditions – styles of prodcution, varieties of seed, available tools, etc. – but the changing interests of the farmers. Big Western agribusiness*** really does want to maximize production (or profit, which is closely related), and can deal with a lot more variation.

But, to reiterate, Seeing Like a State is a tremendously wonderful book. In fact, I think it might be a great introduction to the idea of the performativity of economics, which were first widely discussed the same year (in Callon’s 1998 introduction to an edited volume). Scott, like the performativist, is fascinated by how social scientific knowledge produces a certain order in the world that looks like the model that the science is based on. And Scott, like the performativists, is interested in the failures of those reproductions – when the world overflows the model. Unlike the performativists, Scott’s cases are relatively clear – the planners, connected with the apparatus of an authoritarian regime, are much more closely linked to the eventual project than the more tenuous connections of mainstream economists. You can question how much of a role academic economists have in financial markets, or certainly the broader economy. But it’s hard to argue with the observation that Brasilia looks a lot like the plans for Brasilia, and so on.

* Yes, I know that my blog is almost entirely unlike a TV-show.
** I wanted to note somewhere that I wish Scott were a bit more of an actor-network theorist, and this is as good a place as any. Scott touches on the active role played by nature in resisting high modernist schemes, but shies away from these stories. For example, Scott notes the problems of monocropping in agriculture but frames them primarily in terms of the destruction of the local knowledge that enabled farmers to work the land. But without the resistance of the plants themselves, the farmers’ inability to translate their skills to a new environment would not have mattered. Similarly, trees don’t want to line up into straight rows – it takes a lot of work to produce such an environment, and other parts of nature resist. Those elements are key to Scott’s story and are present, but understated. I think that’s one of the main differences between an ANT-style account of the kinds of phenomena Scott describes, and a well-done, but more traditional one – the non-human actors are buried in the details rather than foregrounded. Similarly, Scott touches on the interaction between the scientists and nature, but his emphasis is much more on the state than on the science.
*** Overly generalizing both agribusiness and peasants, of course..

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