Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ethnic Conflict ~ Academic Politics

My computer is down and my daughter's is having problems with the net, so I am going to post a long-held belief rather than react to current events.

The belief is as follows: in any society, somewhere between 10%-25% percent of the community is: insane, evil, criminally stupid, and/or tragically lazy. The question is how much influence these folks have and how does the rest of the community handle them. This is true of political communities and it is true of academic departments. I have worked in departments where a handful were a combination of crazy and dark-intentioned,  and the rest were kind and generous. But they didn't want to confront or challenge bad folks, so evil flourished. At another department, the truly nasty people held the commanding heights of the department (although some criminally stupid leadership also played a role), and, again, the rest of the community (well, the senior faculty) refused to see or challenge those creating heaps of problems, ultimately producing more than a decade of receivership.

Luckily, my current department has very few problematic folks and they are well contained. But my experiences in my academic travels led me to consider whether these same kind of dynamics are at play in the subject of much of my research--ethnic conflict. In most ethnic conflicts and also insurgencies as well, the mobilized are usually a minority in the population and the big question is whether they gain followers or, at least, deter folks from being more than bystanders.

We can perhaps consider whether certain forms of dysfunctions are worse than others. My initial guess is that evil is worse than insanity, insanity is worse than stupidity, and laziness is the least harmful.
  1. Evil is the worst because its effects are more likely to be in the same negative direction. Evil seems like a religious kind of term (thanks Reaper for a couple years of entertainment), but the basic idea is that individuals are deliberately trying to do harm, perhaps to advance their careers (by distributing merit increases in a deliberately prejudicial distribution, as folks at Vermont got caught in the mid-90s); perhaps for revenge or to punish imagined or minor slights; perhaps out of fear or the desire for power, etc.
  2. Insanity covers a wide range as well, but paranoia, delusions of adequacy/superiority, obsession, and other problems can cause great harm to a department/community, especially if the insanity is shared or empowered. But this is not quite as problematic as evil because it is not as directed towards creating harm. Indeed, some forms can be quite harmless, even amusing. Still, these kinds of dysfunctions can be damaging.
  3. Criminally stupid covers situations where individuals are not ill-intentioned nor are they driven by unseen demons. Instead, individuals and groups may suffer from incredibly poor instincts (posting a blog like this one may count in this category!), and make poor choices. I worked in a department where its leadership was was good intentioned (I think), but almost always erred, making poor choices when the best or at least less worse options were obvious to most. Again, this is less problematic than evil, and probably not as bad as insanity as it is possible to mitigate the harm, and, also, like a broken clock, this kind of problem sometimes produces the right answer anyway, even if by accident.
  4. The tragically lazy. One of the problems in any community is how to handle the free riders--those who do not contribute to the community but gain from the labors of others. This is particularly a problem when an institution lacks the ability to provide incentives because of job security and limited financial resources. It leads to a significant burden-sharing problem that can cause conflict. However, as long as there are folks who have a long term interest in their community and the costs of providing the goods are not prohibitive, the damage caused by the tragically lazy is not too bad--unless they encourage imitators.
Is the analogy apt? Or is it just the product of a mind driven temporarily insane by computer problems?

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