Observations as a Municipal Ethnographer
Mikulov, Czech Republic - Over the past week, I've been in several geographic contexts. Let me tell you where first, and then I'll share an observation. This is where I've been:
-Detroit, MI (Both the downtown areas, and the neighborhoods) -The suburbs of Detroit, MI (Rochester, MI to be exactly) -Long Island, New York -The inner suburbs of New York City in upstate New York -Vienna, Austria -Mikulov, Czech Republic -A series of towns between Vienna and Mikulov
Even beyond the places I've been in the past few weeks, I've been to many other cities and towns in my lifetime. Moreover, I've been to different pockets of communities within each of these geographies. The key observation I've made is based on this curation of cities and towns I've done throughout my life.
Upon first glance, I would've expected places to be similar based on geographic proximity (e.g., Detroit would be most similar to Rochester, Long Island would be most similar to upstate, Vienna would be most similar to Mikulov, etc.)
Geographic proximity was probably something that really mattered 50 or 100 years ago. But the funny thing is, I think that's changing. The places most similar to each other are precisely not the places which are geographically closest.
Rochester, for example, felt most similar to suburban Vienna. Vienna felt similar to London, DC, or another Capital cities. The small Austrian towns I've rode through felt more similar to Western Kentucky than they did to Vienna or Mikulov.
A theory: economic similarities trump geography and culture To cut to the chase, here's what I realized: nowadays, places have more in common with places across the world that have similar economies (industries, education, etc.) and levels of wealth to them. That is to say, they have surprisingly little in common with places that are near them but have dissimilar economies.
Of course, language and culture matter. But, I think those things are starting to matter less because language barriers are falling due to the internet and cheap global transportation give many people the opportunity to experience other cultures.
As time goes on and the world gets "flatter", those language and cultural barriers will matter less and less - economic similarities will matter more and more.
My roommate on the trek I'm on in the Czech Republic and i were just talking about it. He agreed that my theory is possible and put it this way (note that he's Korean-American, but spent the last 5 years working in Korea before coming to Ross). If he was on the subway in Korea he'd be more likely to strike up a conversation with a westerner who looked like a businessman, rathern than talking to someone who was Korean but didn't seem like a business person.
Moreover, he believes that if he were to talk to a non-businessy Korean not only he would be uncomfortble, the person he was talking to would be uncomfortable (assuming his conversation partner had a different socio-economic prfile). In his subway example, wealth and profession (i.e., economic similarity) trumps geographic and cultural commonality.
On first glance, that seems normal. But when you stop and think about it, it's terribly interesting, no?
Here's the takeaway (I'm using some of the phrasing from my very smart friend and classmate Adam): now places may have more in common with other places with similar economies and levels of wealth, whereas they used to have more in common with places which were geographically proximate to them.
If this hypothesis is true - that places in today's age share greater commonalities based on economy and wealth (note: "wealth" could just as easily mean inequality levels) - it would have far reaching effects on civil society. I don't know what would actually happen, but I think some of the following scenarios are plausible (these are scary enough, even if they're only plausible and not probable:
-Nothing will happen. Perhaps, economic affinities will trump geographic and cultural affinities enough for conflict to occur (I don't believe this, but it's a reasonable conclusion)
-Economic similarities are self-reinforcing and become more pronounced
-As economic similarities become more pronounced, now, people who are increasingly dissimilar are still living near each other. This leads to conflict and "class wars"
-Institutions (i.e., governments and large corporations) try to manipulate public opinion to distract the poor from economic dissimilarities and growing levels of inequality. For example, political parties could increase attention on issues which distract the poor's anger from issues of inequality, or, realign the poor's primary affiliation to nationalistic identities.
Here's how what I just said could look in practice: a political party fanning the flames on a volatile social issue to captivate poorer audiences (e.g., gay rights) - this is an example of diverting attention from inequality to a volatile issue. National governments pursue military action against another country to unite a country against an external threat instead of internal institutions - this is an example of institutions realigning citizens to nationalistic identities.
Both of these examples sound familiar, no?
I'm not saying this is happening, just that it's a plausible course of action for any institution if my hypothesis about geograhy and economic similarities are correct.
-Conflict across nations (inter-state conflict) could reduce, but intra-state conflict could rise. The influence of large municipalities and regional governments will rise because of their new importance in managing inequality, economic growth, and societal conflict.
I leave you with this: when you choose who you talk to on the subway, how would you choose? If it was 50 years ago, would you choose someone else?
I think that answer would be different today than it was 50 years ago. If so, there could be far reaching implications.