Friday, March 26, 2010

Pittsburghese Economy

Late last night, my wife and I were discussing the cultural anthropology of business. Economic globalization makes obvious the problems of lost in translation. But what about the differences within a country? The Economist with a German case study:

German dialects, formed by geography and political and religious fragmentation, express deep-seated cultural differences. These persist even though borders between petty princedoms are invisible (and often no longer audible). Even small differences count. Swabians share Baden-W├╝rttemberg with Badeners. Both spoke Alemannic dialects. But Swabians, who say Haus (house), have a bias against living in the neighbouring old grand duchy, where they say Huus.

That trade is livelier among regions that share a language is well known. The paper’s authors think they are the first to find a similar effect within a single language in one country. They measure migration not trade, because the data are better and cultural factors matter more. The best predictors are still Wenker’s [maps]. “Even when we don’t speak dialect, the cultural territory is still there,” says Alfred Lameli, one of the authors.

Does this confuse cause and effect? Regions may have similar dialects because earlier generations migrated and their descendants follow suit. To rule this out, the authors looked at the way communist East Germany weakened social links that encourage migration. After unification, they found, the old migration patterns came back, suggesting that migrants respond to cultural factors more than to social ties. It seems that neither television, nor the autobahn, nor even the Kaiser, has created a single country in Germany.

I like how migration is used as a surrogate for trade. It's very clever and illuminating in terms of the significance of path dependency. Concerning economic development, I think we tend to grossly underestimate the disparate cultural geography of the United States. Creating the better rational choice rarely has the intended effect.

That brings me to regional branding initiatives and a post at Reimagine Rural. Mike Knutson is exploring the power of storytelling and how it might help revitalize rural parts of the United States. A good storyteller understands her/his audience. Unless you figure out a way to deeply connect with the listener, viewer or reader; then you won't make an impact. It is hard to beat face-to-face interaction in terms of feedback and crafting your narrative given the new information.

A cheat (or "hack") is to exploit cultural common ground. Anyone adept at con(fidence) games can explain how it is done. Want to attract the Creative Class to your town or city? Then you must first understand placelessness:

But for the more vulnerable, the stakes are higher. Mexican laborers are encouraged to work in the United States but chased away by armed vigilantes. In India, northern migrants to coastal, cosmopolitan Mumbai are beaten by armed cadres of a sons-of-the-soil political movement. In China, untold millions of rural dwellers have been drawn to the city to make the roads and buildings to fuel the country’s boom. But, under the reigning hukou system of residency permits, they find themselves without the rights of locals in the big city, without guaranteed access to education and medical care, vulnerable at any time to being sent back to the village.

Officialdom struggles to process people without a place. Census forms don’t understand them. Commercial television and cinema create few characters in their image. Tax collectors insist that they choose one of their many countries as the real one. Politicians represent particular places, not ideas or industries or genders, and so if you are a Somalian-born American working in Paris for Nissan, you live in a democracy but without meaningful representation, with no public servants driven to take up your battles.

But the problem is not just external. The placeless often also suffer a gnawing tension within, a love-hate relationship with roots.

How well can Rural America enfranchise the placeless? That question gnawed at me while I read "Hollowing Out the Middle". In that book the placeless are characterized as a threat to the cultural integrity of these communities. As someone who is very sensitive to xenophobic narratives, I didn't see any space for outsiders in the policy recommendations. I'm not against local empowerment, but I don't see how rural towns can survive with such a perspective.

This is a handicap throughout the Rust Belt. I see it in my hometown of Erie. There is little to no interest in appealing to non-natives. This reinforces the negative feedback loop that Ed Morrison draws:

"Place develops a bad reputation" is the key mesofact here. How does your community overcome that stereotype? You must be an excellent con man, not a great storyteller.


The Urbanophile said...

I do think Europe is different. Everyone I know from work there admits there is an incredible "stuckness", even within countries. People cling to their hometowns, to their traditions. I think of the German speaking enclave in Belgium, for example. Tocqueville talked to about the mobility of Americans. While I don't deny the effect you are talking about, America is a fundamentally rootlness nation I think.

Jim Russell said...

There is definitely a big difference in domestic geographic mobility between the US and Europe. Thus, I think it important to understand rootless culture in America. On the other hand, the migration pattern described in the German study can be found in the United States.

We tend to focus on a large geographic unit that assumes homogeneity. Among others, Snow Belt-to-Sun Belt or "everybody is leaving". A finer analysis is required because it reveals cultural variance that could be exploited as a trade link.

I'm reminded of Longworth's demarcation of the Midwest. Where is the Appalachian Frontier? That discussion matters. And now we have some proof that mapping network migration can help us arrive at some useful (and interesting) conclusions.

Instead of asking "why are people leaving" we should be investigating the why of the where they are going.