Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Looking through a Sudanese telescope: the beauty of complex valuation

From my favourite Georgrapher:

"Biological nature that is accessible to the naked eye is actually a tangled mess, and whatever mathematical order there is may be just coincidence. Physical nature- the stars above- is by comparison more orderly, but even there modern scientists tend to discover chaos, historical accident, and violence rather than the simple harmony taken for granted by their predecessors. Still, physicists have not given up. The test of profound truth is still beauty. As the astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar puts it, 'In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein's equations of general relativity... provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This 'shuddering before the beautiful,' this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound" (Tuan, 2000, 157)."

I have long wondered why, how and when mathematics began its slow and painful encroachment into my world. As a child, I was never particularly pleased to find myself in a Maths classroom with my eyes stuck on a graph or sum. For sure, I had some lovely maths teachers over the years. An amazing East Bergholt-ite who allowed us to spend a week charting a commet across the sky. I remember his revealing that, if the commet had come but six months later, it would have filled the entire sky at But when it came time to make important decisions about my preferences in life, I did my very best to avoid any serious mathematical thought. Who needs to know the slope of a line anyways? I live in East Anglia, possibly the flattest part of the UK! My future lay in words, in history, in politics, in anything that did not start a sentence with a "x" and end it with a "y". The mathematical creep had yet to begin its chase.

The first instance of creep took place in Econ B at LSE. Full of spirit and enthusiasm,  I soon realized that my beloved Economics, rather than involving social-political discussions, instead involved unsavory looking equations whose symbols seemed to taunt- what the hell is that little triangle doing in here?!- I plowed on ahead, reluctantly teaching myself the laws of Calculus and forcing my eyes to confront the endless stream of numbers and symbols that bled down my professors' powerpoint slides. Day in, day out, oh how my eye balls shed tears! By the end of my first year, I no longer winced at the sight of an equation but I had firmly decided that my future lay somewhere else... somewhere a whole lot less mathematical. 

It was therefore, somewhat of a disappointment to learn in the other half of my undergraduate degree, that nature, yes, nature could be reduced to number: contigent valuation, the assigning of economic value to environmental goods. This little "trick" of environmental economics has managed to persuade the world to factor the environment into its economic and financial calculations... ilhamdulilah- Necessity is the mother of all invention. But can you really assign value to nature? Is the value of a tree or flower reducible to its market price? Is the value of a national park reducible to the travel costs of its visitors? Is the value of an island reducible to the compensation of its inhabitants in the event of a flood?I remember answering an essay question: Is any number better than no number at all? NO, I said, NO it isnt you creeping little mathematical equation, you! It is only because the environment tends to be rather mute, that we happen to think so. 

Now, far away from environmental economics, in the safety of sandy Sudan, I have found my passion in something else, in the study of social networks. But here too, mathematics is encroaching. Run away! Run away! Social capital, the assigning of economic value to social relations, has begun to creep this way!  

Don't get me wrong! It would be wonderful to "measure" social relations, to assign value to different sorts of relationships: which are important, which are draining, which relationships will get you a job, which relationships instead ask YOU to get THEM a job.. the cheek!... but wait, there is something wrong with this... 

We assume that all human beings value things in the same way. But many Sudanese interviewees have forced me to confront an important chicken-or-egg lesson: Are relationships the pathway to money, or is money the pathway to relationships? The family firm is a case in point. To what purpose is a business run, to make money or to make a family? Do we live to work or work to live?

Today I was interviewing a Sudanese businessman-academic- ex-civil servant (the triple threat of Khartoum) about the problems of privatization in the field of agriculture. He had taken part in the privatization of the telecommunications industry in the 1990s and was frustrated that other industries, like agriculture and transportation, were less amenable to his model. He explained that many agriculturalists did not want to sell their land. They valued the land more than the money. Try as the government may, these stubborn farmers/landowners could not be bought. This reminded me of the story of the Darfuri cattle herder, who was very wealthy in terms of of cattle but lived simply and did not spend money lavishly. In the end, this was to prove his undoing. Instead of choosing an expensive bus ticket, he chose the cheapest alternative and died in a terrible bus crash. His cattle herd was not convertible into money. It was the well of his prestige, even in death. 

Not everyone sees money as the absolute source of value. For many Sudanese like the Darfuri herder, cattle is the source of their dignity and identity. It is the currency of marriage and the currency of prestige. Social relations ARE the ends, not the means in this particular community. In fact money might not even be A means at all. Incorporating these individuals into the same economy as the rest of Sudan has been a challenge that has faced many governments throughout the country's history. It is a dilemma that needs a more complex solution than simple monetary bargaining. But there is an important lesson here. We should not assume that everything of value can be bought. We cannot assume that everything of value can be measured with the same currency. Instead we should build models that acknowledge different kinds of value in different social settings. 

Yes, as I said before, necessity is the mother of all invention, including different kinds of capital. We want to be able to incorporate natural and social "goods" in order to avoid taking them for granted. We do not want economic development to destroy the fabric of our social relations and natural environments and we should therefore endeavour to find cunning ways of including them into our decision-making processes... but we should also remember that these capitals (social, natural and even ethnic, if you go with the latest Comaroff book) are, by their very nature, convenient inventions of our minds. We have invented these different kinds of capital to serve a need. They are built not on some physical reality "out there", but on our own considerations of value. In this sense, they are extremely contextual: they have been constructed out of particular ways of choosing what is and what is not valuable to society at one point in time and one place in space. 

It is a frustrating lesson, because like the mind of the physicist, there is an allure to maths, there is a yearning to find simplicity in the workings of the world, but perhaps there is a deeper source of beauty in this lesson, for we learn that, as human beings, we are far more beautiful than the stars and the moons above, because in contrast to our cosmic companions, we CANNOT be reduced to numbers. Instead of shuddering before the beauty of simplicity, we should shudder before the beautiful complexity of our (human) nature and the myriad ways in which we view the same world. 

Isn't that more beautiful than anything you can see through a telescope? For when did a star make value from its mind? Never.  Abadan! 


  1. Excellent analysis...And indeed it is more beautiful than anything anyone is likely to see.....
    The one you've interviewed has had enough from it. It seems to me based on what you've written is that he did not find what you've described as "cunning ways". Several ministers of Agriculture have been passing on this position and yet we still import 40% of the overall wheat...WHY?..
    During the journey from Sinkat(Portsudan) to Khartoum earlier this month, I shared a seat with a farmer who has a medium-size land at Aljazeera project, He told me about what happened at Aljazeera project and how the government's greedy has caused the death of it. He also told me that if the independence had been delayed for just 5 years all the water channels would have been in concrete and no alluvium would have damaged the land!!. 54 years have passed and still channels are made of mud and alluvium blocks watering the far-away land.
    Despite the acclamations all over sudan about "Agriculture is the real oil" which is become a slogan, yet they did nothing towards it. All what they did is that inviting the egyptians, the chinese and sometimes turkis to come and farm our land.. If they are questioning the sudanese farmers, they should put in their minds that Aljazeera project on it's greatest days, when it was the spine of Sudan's economy was run by sudanese.. So, whose to be blamed?... Agriculture the only way out for us... I hope on someday they make some actions instead of words !!!

    Laura, I know I'm off-point here.... but i just find myself concentrating on agriculture... Sorry and just to let you know I really enjoy your posts. :)


  2. Thanks Taha! You are right, of course, that the land issue has been very poorly handled by the central government. The Nuba Mountains got involved in the Southern war primarily over land issues... but I think you also have to see it from the perspective of the central government, trying to economically plan and meeting resistance from landowners... but anyhow, we can talk about this tomorrow! :)