Monday, November 29, 2010

Merchant capital

Karl Marx was very interested in capital -- an abstract concept referring to society's wealth. And he was interested in the persons who owned and controlled capital -- the capitalists. But the primary focus of his lifelong analysis was upon one particular species of capital, what he referred to as "industrial capital." This is the form of wealth involved in the production process -- factories, mines, railroads.  He had less to say about the aspect of capital that designated the exchange process -- what he referred to as "merchant capital" and finance capital. This selective focus reflected one of Marx's main historical opinions -- the idea that history moves forward through the development of the "productive forces," and that industrial capitalists (as well as the industrial proletariat) are the agents of this kind of economic change. Here is a brief description from Capital of the role of merchant's capital in his analysis.
The reason is now therefore plain why, in analysing the standard form of capital, the form under which it determines the economic organisation of modern society, we entirely left out of consideration its most popular, and, so to say, antediluvian forms, merchants' capital and money-lenders' capital. The circuit M-C-M, buying in order to sell dearer, is seen most clearly in genuine merchants' capital. But the movement takes place entirely within the sphere of circulation. Since, however, it is impossible, by circulation alone, to account for the conversion of money into capital, for the formation of surplus-value, it would appear, that merchants' capital is an impossibility, so long as equivalents are exchanged; that, therefore, it can only have its origin in the two-fold advantage gained, over both the selling and the buying producers, by the merchant who parasitically shoves himself in between them. It is in this sense that Franklin says, "war is robbery, commerce is generally cheating." If the transformation of merchants' money into capital is to be explained otherwise than by the producers being simply cheated, a long series of intermediate steps would be necessary, which, at present, when the simple circulation of commodities forms our only assumption, are entirely wanting. (Capital I, Chapter 5)
According to the labor theory of value, only the expenditure of living labor into the production process of a commodity can create new value; so only industrial capital includes a process that creates new wealth. Merchant capital plays no role in the production process, and it is therefore historically unimportant -- or so is Marx's view in Capital.

If we now look back on European history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, this assessment seems badly wrong as an historical observation. Merchants and their companies played key roles in the establishment of a world trading system; they actively facilitated the race for colonies by the European powers; and often they played a quasi-military role in suppressing resistance by locals in distant parts of the world. So "merchant capital" and companies established for the purpose of international trade seem to have played a key role in the creation of the modern world system.

Robert Brenner undertook to provide a detailed historical account of the role of merchants and their organizations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993). This is a departure from Brenner's important contributions to the agrarian changes associated with England's agricultural revolution in the sixteenth century (link), and it is also a much more detailed historical study than his previous works. Brenner is interested primarily in two topics: first, how did commerce evolve in the sixteenth century in England, both nationally and internationally; what were the institutions, organizations, and individuals that emerged as vehicles for pursuing individual and corporate interests by large merchants? And second, how did the emergence of large merchant fortunes and companies interact with the politics of the English state during this early modern period?

To offer a historical analysis of commerce, it is necessary to have extensive commercial data. Appropriately, Brenner's research depends heavily on good information about imports and exports throughout the period. Here is his compilation of London cloth exports 1488-1614:

So aggregation of voluminous historical economic data represents one important portion of Brenner's historical research here. The other important part, however, is at the other end of the scale -- detailed information about many of the individuals who played leadership roles in the commercial and political developments of the period.

Fundamentally the book is about the political power of the merchant class. Brenner makes the point that English commercial interests were deeply dependent upon English political and military strength in the competition for import and export markets.
English merchants found it feasible to establish the new trades in large part because of the weakening hold of Portugal and Spain over their commercial empires, as well as certain other favorable political shifts in the new areas of commercial penetration. Even so, they could successfully capitalize on the openings presented to them only because of the growing political, as well as economic, strength of English commerce and shipping in this period. (5)
The development of England's colonies was particularly important for English merchants:
During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, English traders, for the first time, sought systematically to establish commerce with the Americas. Important City merchants had opened up the new trades with Russia, Turkey, Venice, the Levant, and the East Indies that highlighted the Elizabethan expansion, and in each case, had had recourse to their favorite commercial instrument, the Crown-chartered monopoly company. (92)
This meant, in turn, that great merchants had great political interests, both in terms of military policies of the Crown and in terms of the privileges and monopolies upon which their profits depended.  And much of Brenner's narrative is a careful parsing-out of the deliberate and purposive political alignments sought out by the great merchants and their companies.
The Levant Company's privileges were indispensable for its elaborate system of trade regulation and, in turn, for the reservation of the profits of the trade to a restricted circle of merchants. As members of a regulated company, the individual Levant Company merchants traded for themselves with their own capital, but were required to adhere to rules and policies set by the corporation's general court. (66)
Political alignments were especially important during the century of conflict leading to civil war and revolution.
The political activities and alignments of London's merchant community both expressed and helped determine the character of City and national conflict in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. From November 1640, London politics and national politics became ever more inextricably intertwined, and ovesears merchants played key roles at both levels.... Civil war became inevitable when City and parliamentary conflicts became fully merged through the consolidation of alliances between the City radical movement and the opposition in Parliament, on the one hand, and the City conservative movement and the Crown, on the other. (316)
An overwhelming majority of company merchants ultimately fell into one of these two allied political categories [of royalist supporters]. But it is difficult to be sure how they were distributed between them ... because surviving evidence on the political orientation of large numbers of citizens is available only for the period beginning in July 1641. (317)
But on the other side:
The traders of the colonial-interloping leadership stood at the head of the City popular movement and played a critical role in connecting that movement to the national parliamentary opposition.  The new merchants' continuing intimate ties with London's domestic trading community (from which many of them had come) put them closely in touch with a City parliamentary movement that was overwhelmingly composed of nonmerchants. Meanwhile, their activities in the colonial field gave them pivotal links with those Puritan colonizing aristocrates who constituted a key component of the national parliamentary leadership. (317)
If we wanted a single phrase to summarize Brenner's task in this work, it is the idea that much of England's politics in the early modern period were influenced or determined by the demands of the commercial sector. The great merchants wielded great political power. And so we need to have a fine-grained understanding of these companies and their networks if we are to understand the coalitions and policies of the period. Contrary to the view put forward by Marx above, merchant capital and its associated actors and organizations were indeed a potent historical factor in modern history.

A recent book by Stephen Bown, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600--1900, picks up the story of merchant capital from a different angle and with a very different level of resolution. Bown is particularly interested in demonstrating the active (and often violent) role that large merchant companies played in the development of the world trading system and the colonial relationships that emerged from the seventeenth century forward. Bown's central focus is on the individuals and the companies that created the colonial world: Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive and the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov and the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson and the Hudson's Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.

Bown opens his book with the story of the Dutch efforts in the early seventeenth century to push English and Portuguese traders out of the East Indies (Indonesia).  The central actor of this story is an employee of the Dutch East India Company and an experienced naval admiral, Pieter Verhoeven. The narrative of Verhoeven's assault on the Moluccas is a good place for Bown to begin, because it brings together the themes of armed violence and commercial interest that are the core of his book. Verhoeven's instructions from the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company were explicit:
We draw your special attention to the islands in which grow the cloves and nutmeg, and we instruct you to strive after winning them for the company either by treaty or by force. (10-11)
Bown draws out a story of global competition between nations and trading companies that illustrates the brutality and self-interestedness of colonialism throughout the three-century period he traces. And the chief victims of this violence are non-European peoples from Indonesia to Alaska to South Africa. What the book doesn't provide is what is so evident in Brenner's book -- a detailed understanding of the political and organizational relationships that underlay these military and commercial adventures.

Both books have something to add to our own efforts to understand big business in the twenty-first century. On the evidence offered here, business organizations -- corporations and companies -- have their own interests and agendas, and states have a great deal of difficulty in constraining them to the public good. This is obvious in the failures of large financial institutions to safeguard the interests of the public in 2008 -- the harmful conduct of finance capital, but it was equally evident in the behavior of the Dutch East India Company or Brenner's opening example, the Company of Merchant Adventurers. The hidden hand does not assure us that markets, commerce, and private interest will bring about the common good.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Urban and metropolitan problem solving

The issues that almost all large American metropolitan regions and cities are facing are important and messy. Here is a short list: racial segregation, concentration of poverty, poor health and nutrition, poor schools, crime and violence, and disaffection of young people. These problems are important because they hold back the personal lives of millions of Americans living in poverty and degraded urban neighborhoods. And they are messy because they are multi-causal and interconnected. Each problem feeds into another, and it is generally difficult to say what kinds of policy changes and plans would lead to eventual improvement. These are "wicked" problems (link) that require planners to work with complex and unpredictable processes in an effort to improve Cleveland, Chicago, Oakland, Miami, Houston, Kansas City, and Detroit.

There is another reason why urban and metropolitan problems are hard to solve -- the lack of political will to seriously address the problems in a long-term and sustained way. State legislatures often have an anti-urban bias. Regions often embody conflicts of interest between suburbs and city. Jurisdictions are often more concerned about their own narrow interests than in finding workable regional solutions. And the Federal government often fails for decades to mount serious and realistic urban strategies. So the result is often stasis -- nothing happens.

One aspect of the challenge is the availability of timely, reliable data about a region's health and performance. City governments collect a lot of data about health status, land use, and crime; but they are often reluctant to make their information available to researchers and the public. Foundations and individual researchers undertake studies focused on one problem or another; but often the reports are difficult to find and difficult to compare.

So we might hypothesize that the situation would be improved if there were an active, well-resourced clearinghouse for regional data from a wide range of sources: census, municipal departments, academic studies, land use surveys, and environmental surveys. Ideally these data sets would be managed by a professional staff who are able to integrate the various sources into a query-based GIS system, and ideally the data sets themselves would be publicly available (subject to appropriate privacy conditions). this kind of regional data warehouse would not directly solve the problems the region faces; but it would give a clear understanding of the scope and distribution of the problems that need to be addressed; it would provide an empirical base for proposed policy solutions; and it would provide a baseline for eventually evaluating the policies that are adopted.

Fortunately, there are good examples of exactly this kind of effort underway in various regions around the country. One such effort is underway at the Community Research Institute, part of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Michigan (link). The Institute focuses primarily on several counties surrounding Grand Rapids, but it is also preparing to expand its coverage to other parts of Michigan. With a foundational database linking US Census data geographically, the Institute attempts to provide geographically linked data down to the neighborhood level. Here is an example of a map of the teen birth rate in neighborhoods of Grand Rapids (link). The Center has developed a general tool, MAPAS, that can serve as a platform for integrating and presenting a wide range of social data sources (link).

A similar effort is underway in the Detroit metropolitan region, under the rubric of Data Driven Detroit (link). D3 is attempting to create this kind of publicly accessible, spatially presented data warehouse for the city and the region, and the early results are promising.  Here is a report on a recent study conducted by D3 on housing stock in Detroit (link).

So how can data sources like these be folded into good planning efforts for urban and metropolitan progress? The city of Detroit under the leadership of Mayor Dave Bing is just beginning an important planning effort that ties into the need to adjust the cityscape to the dramatically smaller population it now contains. This effort is called the Detroit Works Project (link), and it is explicitly committed to data-driven decision making and planning.

Another effort that is underway is the Integration Initiative within Living Cities (link, link). Detroit is one of the cities that has been funded within the program.  Here is how Living Cities describes the national project of the Integration Initiative:
The Integration Initiative builds upon Living Cities’ 20-year history of investing in cities. It acknowledges both the power and limitations of the neighborhood as a lever for change and seeks to drive a broader perspective that recognizes the role systems and regions must play in securing economic opportunity for low-income people.
The Integration Initiative will provide at least $80 million in grants, loans and Program-Related Investments (PRIs) to five regions to help them tackle the greatest barriers to opportunity for low-income residents, including education, housing, health care, transit and jobs. Living Cities and its members are making a total investment of $15 million in grants, $15 million in PRIs and $50 million in commercial debt. PRIs are flexible, low-cost loans provided at below-market rates to support charitable activity.
In order for a project like this to succeed, it needs to be based on solid empirical data.  It is crucial for the progress of metropolitan Detroit, and other cities around the country, that the region succeed in creating a unified regional data source.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hobbes in context

We often think of Hobbes as being an originator in English philosophy, a strikingly innovative thinker who burst on the scene with the first formulation of a social contract theory of government. And we sometimes think of his justification of absolute sovereignty as a fairly direct reaction to the disorders Britain experienced during its Civil War and Glorious Revolution.  Richard Tuck's Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction puts Hobbes into a much more nuanced position.

Fundamental to Tuck's approach as a historian of philosophy is to problematize the idea of "philosophy".  Rather than assuming that the subject matter and methodology of philosophy were fixed once and for all by some traditional authority -- perhaps Aristotle and Plato -- Tuck takes the position that thinkers have defined themselves in ways that have eventually come to be described as "philosophy," but that nonetheless cover a very wide range of intellectual approaches and concerns.  Here is a particularly striking set of ideas from Tuck's contextualization of Hobbes:
It is sometimes tempting to think that the heroes of the various histories of philosophy or ethics -- men as different as St Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Kant, or Hegel -- were all in some sense engaged in a common enterprise, and would have recognized one another as fellow workers. But a moment's reflection reminds us that it is we who have made a unity of their task: from their own point of view, they belonged to very different ways of living and had very different tasks to perform. They would have seen themselves as intellectually kin to men who do not figure in these lists -- priests or scholars who had on the face of it no great philosophical interest. (1)
I think his point here is an important and insightful one: philosophy was reinvented in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, and swerved dramatically away from ancient and medieval philosophy. It was a new project, motivated by different problems, assumptions, and goals.

Tuck gives a good deal of attention to Hobbes's biography, with the implication that these historical, social, and familial circumstances contributed to shaping the philosophical imagination of the maturing thinker.  The situation of service as tutor and secretary to the household of William Lord Cavendish that occupied Hobbes for most of his life plays an important role in his intellectual development.  It also provided him with direct access to some of the great intellectuals and scientists of France and Venice, including eventually Mersenne, Descartes, and Galileo.  

A central intellectual theme in the air during Hobbes's early development was that of humanist skepticism about empirical and ethical knowledge. 
The central feature of this literature was a pervasive scepticism about the validity of the moral principles by which an earlier generation had lived. (7)
The response of many of Lipsius's generation (he was born in 1547) was to give up strongly held and publicly defended beliefs of all kinds, and to retreat to a dispassionate and skeptical stance. (9) 
Tuck argues that Hobbes defined his thought in terms of an effort to create a new, though more modest, basis for knowledge in both empirical and ethical matters. In fact, Tuck leaves the impression that the philosophy of science is as important in Hobbes's work as the philosophy of politics. He was greatly influenced by the example and thinking of Galileo.  Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World appeared in 1632, and during 1634 Hobbes purchased a copy of the book for Newcastle.  One of the key issues in the philosophical world was whether the senses deceive us; and Hobbes followed Descartes in holding that the observable features of the world (color, smell) should not be understood to directly correspond to real characteristics of the invisible reality of the object.  Hobbes was interested in optics and mathematics -- the areas of science that appeared to be most relevant to the question of the real features of the world.  And he sought to articulate a conception of knowledge according to which real properties in the world create phenomenal properties in the observer through "motions" (or causal processes).  

Another core theme in Hobbes's itinerary is a visceral opposition to government religion -- religious requirements embodied in the state.  Tuck shows with repeated examples why this issue was so important during the Civil War; the struggle between contending sides had very much to do with the scope of religious discipline to be imposed by the state.  Hobbes was opposed to religious law and mandates of belief, and therefore found himself in roughly the camp of the Tolerationists.
The ecclesiastical regime put into place by the new republic after 1649 was very close to what Hobbes seems to have wanted on general grounds, and which he may well have enthusiastically preferred to traditional episcopacy.  This is because, like almost all the most interesting 17th-century political theorists (including Grotius and Locke), he seems to have feared the moral and intellectual disciplines of Presbyterian Calvinism far more than anything else. (39)
Hobbes's primary object in arguing like this was to elevate the power of the sovereign over the churches -- bands of fanatics (in his eyes) who wished to enforce absurd opinions upon their fellow citizens, and whose activities were primarily responsible for the civil wars of Europe.  They could only be controlled if the soverign was empowered to determine public doctrine and silence disputes. (85)
Tuck argues that Hobbes's earliest and most important influence on Hobbes in the area of moral and political philosophy was Hugo Grotius and his book, The Laws of War and Peace.  Tuck describes this influence in these terms:
[Grotius] could play the same role for him as Galileo's Dialogues did for all members of the Mersenne circle, as a represntation for them of the kind of science which was to be put on their new, post-sceptical foundations. (25)
Tuck summarizes Grotius's core theory in two fundamental principles: "All men would agree that everyone has a fundamental right to preserve themselves, and wanton or unnecessary injury to another person is unjustifiable" (26).  Tuck finds that these principles have counterparts in Hobbes's arguments in Leviathan.

So Tuck seems to be putting forward several important strands of interpretation that run against the grain of the customary telling of Hobbes's philosophy: first, that his philosophy of science and sensation plays a larger role than we might have thought; and second, that his most famous theory, the theory of unlimited sovereignty, has rather specific roots in Hobbes's immediate intellectual context (Grotius) and political environment (struggles over the extent of religious legislation).  It is not the result of a purely abstract reflection on the situation of rational persons in a state of nature, but rather a complex argument that intertwines with England's own political tensions in mid-seventeenth century.

Steven Pincus's 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a nice complement to this line of thought, in that it offers a fundamentally new reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.  Here is how Pincus describes his project:
England's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that had a hand in shaping it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and public intellectuals identified England's Revolution of 1688-89 as a defining moment in England's exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.  Historians have pointed to the Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state. Scholars of literature and culture highlight the Revolution of 1688-89 as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation.  All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of England's Revolution of 1688-89.  Unfortunately, that narrative is wrong. (Introduction)
(Two articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes's philosophy are worth reading (linklink).)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Consolidated quantitative history

It is fascinating to browse through the sessions on the program at the Social Science History Association this month (link). SSHA is distinguished by its deep embrace of disciplinary and methodological diversity, and there are panels deriving from qualitative, comparative, and theoretical perspectives. But particularly interesting for me this year are the more quantitative subjects -- reflecting the cliometric impulse that led to the formation of the SSHA several decades ago.  (Here are a few comments by Julia Adams, Elisabeth Stephanie Clemens, and Anne Shola Orloff, past and current presidents of SSHA, on this history.) There are panels on historical measures of the standard of living in different parts of Eurasia; on fertility, mobility, and population size in small and large regions; on longterm climate and atmospheric fluctuation over time (the year without a summer in mid-nineteenth century); levels of agricultural productivity over several centuries in several regions; the degree of inequality in landholding in Scania and North China; and many other fascinating studies of measurable social properties. And, of course, the papers offer time graphs of the variables that are the subject of the study.

So what if we had a goal of providing a unified and public measurement of factors like these over a large expanse of time and space? What if we set out to synthesize many studies currently underway and arrive at a common set of measures over time for these regions?

To an extent this is the goal of the Eurasian Population and Family History Project: to assemble a large set of research groups across Eurasia, measuring demographic data using comparable methods in the several locations (link). Though the project hasn't yet produced a synthetic volume summarizing all the results, we can hope that this kind of product will eventually be forthcoming. The researchers describe the project in these terms: “New data and new methods … have begun to illuminate the complexities of demographic responses to exogenous stress, economic and otherwise.… Combined time-series and event-history analyses of longitudinal, nominative, microlevel data now allow for the finely grained differentiation of mortality, fertility, and other demographic responses by social class, household context, and other dimensions at the individual level” (Tommy Bengtsson, Cameron Campbell, James Z. Lee, et al, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History), 2004, pp. viii-ix). Their goal is an ambitious one; it is to provide detailed, analytically sophisticated multi-generational studies of a number of populations across Eurasia. The studies are intended to permit the researchers to probe issues of causation as well as to identify important dimensions of similarity and difference across regions and communities.  The most recent volume in the series appeared earlier this fall (Noriko Tsuya, Wang Feng, George Alter, James Z. Lee, et al, Prudence and Pressure: Reproduction and Human Agency in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History)).

Suppose we wanted to go further and create an interactive Wiki site that permitted researchers to upload their findings for a specified set of variables; and suppose the underlying software created a dynamic set of time graphs and maps representing these data over time. And suppose that the data displays can be broken out at different levels of scale -- North China, China, Eurasia. Finally, of course, we would want to specify that the data summaries are tagged with meta-data indicating the studies and methodologies leading to the graph. Could we say that this hypothetical site would then represent the meta-knowledge of the community of economic historians, climate scientists, and historical demographers? And could we speculate that this product would be an enormous benefit for historical researchers in a broad range of disciplines?

We can immediately predict some limitations to such a collective project. Most important is the unavoidable incompleteness of the data. We may have studies on farm productivity that document output for portions of North China and portions of the Yangzi Delta. But, of course, this doesn't tell us much about western China. So we can't realistically aspire to a full and complete representation of the variables full regions and periods.

Second, there is the problem of methodological inconsistencies across studies. Robert Allen is a leader in attempting to document standard of living across Europe and Asia (Robert Allen, ed., Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe). And a central problem he faces is that multiple studies estimate consumption and wellbeing in different ways. So forming a composite representation requires an additional set of assumptions and models by the meta-study researcher.

Third, there is the question of defining the role for verbal analysis and reasoning in such a knowledge system. Are we to imagine this collective data set as a universal data appendix to a huge range of verbal historical narratives and analyses? Or might we come to think that the graphs speak for themselves, with no need for verbal analysis and inference?

All that said, I think the hypothetical Wiki site would be enormously valuable. It would provide us with birds-eye view of the large structural and material features that defined and constrained Eurasian history. And it has the potential of suggesting new avenues of research and new causal hypotheses about documented processes of change. For example, we may compare the time series of life expectancy and average temperature, and we may hypothesize that mortality and fertility were affected by abnormal climate conditions (through the medium of agricultural performance). But we may also be able to observe suggestive correlations between material variables and behavior -- for example, between ecological crises and the frequency of peasant uprisings. Or, conceivably, our eye might be led to a graph of sex ratios in a region and another of the incidence of banditry, and we might be led to a "bare sticks" hypothesis about social unrest: when there is an excess of unmarried young men, we can expect an upsurge of banditry and crime.

There are increasingly powerful tools available that permit scholars and the interested public to explore large public datasets such as the US Census or Bureau of Labor Statistics (link).  It is perhaps not wholly unrealistic to imagine a platform that permits multiple researchers to contribute to a meta-dataset for economic and social history of the world.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New modes of historical presentation

Victor Lieberman's Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 represent about 1000 pages of careful, dense historical prose extending over two volumes. As previously discussed (link, link), the book reviews a thousand years of history of the polities of France, Kiev, Burma, Japan, and China, it documents a significant correlation of timing across the extremes of Eurasia, and it offers some historical hypotheses about the causes of this synchronicity. It is a long and involved story.

My question here is perhaps a startling one: Is it possible that some alternative modes of presentation would permit the author to represent the heart of the historical findings much more efficiently in the form of a complex animated visual display? Could the empirical heart of the two volumes be summarized in the form of a rich data display over time? Is the verbal narrative simply a clumsy way of representing what really ought to be graphed? What would be gained, and what would be lost by replacing the long complex text with a compact series of graphs and maps?

This thought experiment is possible because Lieberman's argument lends itself to a quantitative interpretation. Essentially he is focusing on factors that can be estimated over time: degree of scope of a regime, degree of integration of institutions, economic productivity, agricultural intensity, rainfall, temperature, population level and density, mortality by disease, and transport capacity, for example. And he is looking for one or more factors whose temporal variations can be interpreted as a causal factor explaining correlations across the graphs. So we could imagine a master graph representing the factual core of the research, with six groups of graphs over time, representing the chief variables for each region over time.  Here is Lieberman's initial effort along these lines, graphing his estimate of "scope and consolidation" of the states of SE Asia and France.  And we can imagine presenting different data series representing his findings about agricultural productivity, mortality, population, climate change, etc., arranged around a single timeline.

We might imagine supplementing these superimposed data series with a series of dated maps representing the territorial scope of the states of the various regions, arranged along a timeline:

 France T1
 France T2
France T3

(A similar series would be constructed for the states of SE Asia.)

What this coordinated series of graphics represents, then, is the core set of facts that Lieberman has synthesized and presented in the book.  By absorbing the social, political, and economic changes represented by this graphical timeline, the reader has gained access for the full set of empirical claims offered by Lieberman.  And, one might say, the presentation is more direct and comprehensible than the verbal description of these changes contained in the text.  Moreover, we might expect that patterns will emerge more or less directly from these graphic presentations -- for example, the synchrony between state crisis and accumulating climate change.

As for what is lost in this version of the story -- several things seem clear. First, much of the narrative that Lieberman provides is synthetic. He attempts to pull together a wide variety of sources in order to arrive at a summary statement such as this: "The Capetian state increased dramatically in scope and administrative competence between 1000 and 1250." So the narrative serves to justify and document a particular inflection point in the long graph of "French polity". It provides the evidentiary basis for the estimate at this period in time.

Second, of course, the packet of graphs I've just described lacks the eloquence and vividness of the prose that Lieberman or other talented historians are able to achieve in telling their stories. It represents only the abstract summary of conclusions, not the nuance of the reasoning or the drama of the story. The prose text is inherently enjoyable to read, and it engages the reader to share the historical puzzle. But, one might argue, the epistemic core of the book is precisely the abstract factual findings, not the prose style. And the reasoning can be captured as a hypertext lying behind the graph -- a sort of annotated hyper-document.

Finally, this notion of arriving at an abstract, schematic representation of a history of something doesn't work at all for many kinds of historical writing. Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture is an inherently semiotic argument, working out the ways that public ceremonies and monuments work in the consciousness of a population. Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History is a deft interpretive inquiry, arriving at a complex interpretation of a puzzling set of actions. These examples of great historical writing are evidence-based; but they are not designed to allow estimation of a set of variables over time. And I don't see that there is the possibility of a more abstract and symbolic representation of the historical knowledge they represent.

One might say that what we have encountered here is an important fissure within contemporary historical writing, between "cliometric" research and knowledge (Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians) and hermeneutic historical knowledge (Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting). The former is primary interested in the processes of change of measurable human or social variables over time, whereas the latter is concerned with interpreting human actions and meanings. The former is amenable to quantitative representation -- graphs -- while the latter is inherently linguistic and interpretive. The former has to do with estimation and causal analysis, while the latter has to do with interpretation and narrative.

Often, of course, historians are involved in both kinds of interpretation and analysis -- both measurement and interpretation.  So when Charles Tilly describes four centuries of French contention in The Contentious French, he is interested in charting the rising frequency of contentious actions (cliometric); but he is also interested in interpreting the intentions and meanings associated with those actions (hermeneutic).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Eurasian time

Victor Lieberman is probably the leading historian of Southeast Asia writing in English today. His primary focus is Burma, and throughout his career he has done a masterful job of piecing together the political, cultural, and economic history of the succession of Burmese polities over a millennium, using materials in many local languages.

His current work broadens the canvas by looking at broad temporal patterns of consolidation and turmoil across the full expanse of Eurasia, including Russia, France, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. In two volumes of Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (Studies in Comparative World History) he documents a degree of synchrony among widely separated polities that demands explanation. (Here is an earlier discussion of his programme in Volume One; link.)
Between 1240 and 1390 the principal realms of mainland Southeast Asia collapsed. The same was true of France and Kiev, whose political and economic travails merged with a general European crisis. (Kindle loc 512)
Here is how the pulsing of consolidation and disintegration looked in Southeast Asia:
In sum -- in lieu of four modest charter polities in 1240, 23 kingdoms in 1340, and 9 or 10 kingdoms in 1540 -- mainland Southeast Asia by the second quarter of the 19th century contained three unprecedentedly grand territorial assemblages; those of Burma, Siam, and Vietnam. (Kindle loc 799)
Lieberman defines consolidation as a broadening of scope of a polity, including territory, population, war-making capacity, and fiscal reach. And he notes that each of the world polities he studies shows a sequence of consolidation, followed by periods of turmoil and breakdown.
Along with territorial consolidation and administrative centralization, a third index of integration within each empire was a growing uniformity of religious and social practices, languages, and ethnicity. (Kindle loc 873)
And this was true as much in Burma as it was in 17th and 18th century France.

Moreover, and this is his key point, these periods show a remarkable degree of synchrony, from Kiev to Paris to Burma. So here is the central question: what kinds of global triggers or events could have created this synchrony?

Here are a few candidates that he considers. For the 10th-13th century, he considers the effects of global climate fluctuation, disease, Viking invasions, and the predations of Mongol armies from Inner Asia. And for the 17th and 18th centuries he considers the expansion of Eurasian trade, modern arms, and monetary uses of silver in Europe and Asia (Kindle loc 8745). Here is how the climate factor works:
Agriculture also exhibited long-term dynamism, the product of several influences. By increasing the reach and force of monsoon flows and minimizing droughts linked to El Nino events, the Medieval Climate Anomaly c. 800/850-1250/1300 contributed in some uncertain but possibly critical degree to that demographic and agricultural vigor, and associated institutional vitality, characteristic of the charter era, two of whose chief polities, Pagan and Angkor, lay in dry zones. (Kindle loc 1008)
Internal to each polity are factors that appear to be local in their effects: population change, agricultural improvements, new organizational forms in governance, military, and taxation, and the diffusion of literacy and national culture. Concerning the polities of Southeast Asia he writes:
My essential argument is this: Four phenomena -- expansion of material resources, new cultural currents, intensifying interstate competition, and diverse state interventions -- combined to strengthen privileged lowland districts at the expense of outlying areas. (Kindle loc 996)
But the logic of these processes does not imply any sort of global synchrony; so, once again, what would serve to link consolidation and disorder in France and Burma? Here is Lieberman's summary assessment.
Why, then, these loose, but increasingly close parallels over a thousand years? On current evidence, the synchronized florescence of Kiev, charter Southeast Asia, and Capetian France owed more to parallel social experiments and especially the Medieval Climate Anomaly than to long-distance trade. Political collapse in the 13th and 14th centuries reflected the intersection of institutional weakness with resource constraints caused by centuries of sustained growth, strains that were aggravated by post-1250/1300 climatic deterioration, shifting trade routes, Tai eruptions in Southeast Asia, and Mongol-Tatar mediations.  The latter could be either military (in Burma, Angkor, and Kiev) or epidemiological (across Europe). Political revival after c. 1450 in all five realms reflected, in part, counterphasic trends: institutional responses to antecedent weaknesses, demographic recovery, and climatic amelioration. But post-1450 reintegration also relied on substantially novel technological and organizational factors, so that each polity started from a higher level than its 10th-century predecessor.  (Kindle loc 9341)
This is world history you can get your teeth into. It is detailed, making use of the best available sources for each of the regions and polities considered. And it is bold in its effort to arrive at trans-continental, even global causes of these local developments.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Transmitting technology

How do large technological advances cross cultural and civilizational boundaries? The puzzle is this: large technologies are not simply cool new devices, but rather complex systems of scientific knowledge, engineering traditions, production processes, and modes of technical communication. So transfer of technology is not simply a matter of conveying the approximate specifications of the device; it requires the creation of a research and development infrastructure that is largely analogous to the original process of invention and development. Inventors, scientists, universities, research centers, and skilled workers need to build a local understanding of the way the technology works and how to solve the difficult problems of material and technical implementation.

Take inertial guidance systems for missiles, described in fascinating detail by Donald MacKenzie in Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. The process MacKenzie describes of discovery and development of inertial guidance was a highly complex and secretive one, with multiple areas of scientific and engineering research solving a series of difficult technical problems.

Now do a bit of counterfactual history and imagine that some country -- say, Burma -- had developed powerful rocket engines in the 1950s but did not have a workable guidance technology; and suppose the US and USSR had succeeded in keeping the development of inertial navigation systems and the underlying science secret. Finally, suppose that Burmese agents had managed to gain a superficial description of inertial navigation: "It is a self-contained device that tracks acceleration and therefore permits constant updating of current location; and it uses ultra-high precision gyroscopes." Would this be enough of a leak to permit rapid adoption of inertial navigation in the Burmese missile program? Probably not; the technical obstacles faced in the original development process would have to be solved again, and this means a long process of knowledge building and institution building.  For example, MacKenzie describes the knotty problem posed to this technology by the fact of slight variations in the earth's gravitational field over the surface of the globe; if uncorrected, these variations would be coded as acceleration by the instrument and would lead to significant navigational errors.  The solution to this problem involved creating a detailed mapping of the earth's gravitational field.

This is a hypothetical case. But Hsien-Chun Wang describes an equally fascinating but real case in a recent article in Technology & Culture, "Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s" (link). There was essentially no knowledge of steam power in Chinese science in the mid-Qing (early nineteenth century). The First Opium War (1839-1842) provided a rude announcement of the technology, in the form of powerful steam-driven warships on the coast and rivers of eastern China. Chinese officials and military officers recognized the threat represented by Western military-industrial technology, but it was another 25 years before Chinese industry was in a position to build a steam-powered ship. So what were the obstacles standing in front of China's steam revolution?

Wang focuses on two key obstacles in mid-Qing industry and technology: the role of technical drawings as a medium for transmitting specifications for complex machines from designer to skilled workers; and the absence in nineteenth-century China of a machine tool technology.  Technical drawings were an essential medium of communication in the European industrial system, conveying precise specifications of parts and machines to the workers and tools who would fabricate them.  And machine tools (lathes, planes, stamping machines, cutting machines, etc.) provided the tools necessary to fabricate high-precision metal parts and components.  (Merritt Roe Smith describes aspects of both these stories in his account of the U.S. arms industry in the early nineteenth century; Harpers Ferry Armory and New Technology.)  According to Wang, the Chinese technical culture had developed models rather than drawings to convey how a machine works; and the intricate small machines that certainly were a part of Chinese technical culture depended on artisanal skill rather than precision tooling of interchangeable parts.

So communicating the technical details of a complex machine and creating the fabrication infrastructure needed to produce the machine were two important obstacles for rapid transfer of steam technology from Western Europe to Qing China.  But perhaps a more fundamental obstacle emerges as well: the fact that Chinese technical and scientific culture was as yet simply unready to "see" the way that steam power worked in the first place.  When steam warships arrived, acute Chinese observers saw smoke and fire, and they saw motion.  But they did not see "steam-driven traction", or the translation of kinetic energy into rotational work.  (This is evident also in the drawing of the treadmill water pump above; the maker of the drawing clearly did not perceive from the Italian drawing how the motion of the treadmill was translated into the vertical pumping action.)  Wang quotes a description from an observer in Guangzhou in 1828:
Early in the third month ... there suddenly came from Bengal a huo lunchuan [fire-wheel ship] .... The huo lunchuan has an empty copper cylinder inside to burn coal, with a machine on the top.  When the flame is up, the machine moves automatically. The wheels on both sides of the ship move automatically too. (37)
And another observer wrote in Zhejiang in 1840:
The ship's cabin stores a square furnace under the beam from which the wheels are hung. When the fire is burning in the furnace, the two wheels turn like a fast mill and the ship cruises as fast as if it is flying, regardless of the wind's direction. (37-38)
The give-away here is the word "automatically"; plainly these observers had not assimilated a causal process linking the production of heat (fire) to mechanical motion (the rotation of the paddle wheels).  Instead, the two circumstances are described as parallel rather than causal.

So the fundamental motive force of steam was not cognitively accessible at this point, even through direct observation.  By contrast, the marine utility of paddlewheel-driven warships was quickly assimilated. Chinese commanders adapted what they observed in the European naval forces (powerful paddlewheels that made sails unnecessary) to an existing technology (human- or ox-driven paddlewheels), and large "wheel-boats" saw action as early as 1842 on Suzhou Creek (40).

Wang notes that several Chinese inventors did in fact succeed in discerning the mechanism associated with steam power by the 1840s. Ding Gongchen succeeded in fabricating a model steam rail engine 61 centimeters long and a 134-centimeter model paddlewheel steamboat; so he clearly understood the basic mechanism at this point.  And Zheng Fuguang appears to have mastered the basic concept as well.  But here is Wang's summary:
Ding's efforts show that despite the circulating writings of a few experimenters, the steam engine remained a novelty, which was difficult to understand and probably impossible to reproduce. Interested parties were discussing it, however, but attempted to grasp it in terms of their indigenous expertise alone rather than more broadly understanding the new Western technology. (45)
In 1861, during the Taiping Rebellion, a senior military commander Zeng Guofan created an arsenal in Anqing for ammunition, and also set about to create the capacity to build steam-powered ships.  With the assistance of experts Xu Shou and Hua Hengfang, the arsenal produced a partially successful full-scale steamship by 1863, and in 1864 Hua and Xu succeeded in completing a 25-ton steamship, the Huanghu, that was capable of generating 11.5 kilometers per hour.  The Chinese-build steamship had arrived.

Here is how Wang summarizes this history of technology adaptation over a 25-year period of time:
The path from the treadmill paddlewheel boat to the Jiangnan arsenal's steamers was a long journey of discovery. Qing officials experimented with the knowledge and skills available to them, and it took time--and trial and error--for them to realize that steamboats were driven by steam, that machine tools were necessary to turn the principle of steam into a workable engine, and that drawings had to be made and read for the technology to be diffused. (53)
So perhaps the short answer to the question posed above about cross-civilizational technology transfer is this: "transfer" looks a lot more like "reinvention" than it does "imitation."  It was necessary for Chinese experimenters, officials, and military officers to create a new set of institutions and technical capacities before this apparently simple new technological idea could find its way into Chinese implementations on a large scale.

(The image at the top is one of the most interesting parts of Wang's very interesting paper; it establishes vividly the difficulty of transmitting technologies across different technical cultures.  The Italian drawing dates from 1607, and the Chinese copy dates from 1627.  As Wang points out, the Chinese version of the drawing is visually highly similar to the Italian original; it is a good copy.  And yet it fails to designate any of the technical features of how this treadmill-operated water pump works.  The pair of drawings are fascinating to examine in detail.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Merton's sociological imagination

Robert Merton began life as Meyer Schkolnick, son of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and he became one of the most influential American sociologists of his generation.  He is most often associated with a couple of phrases that came to embody common knowledge in the social sciences -- "theories of the middle range," "unforeseen consequences," "focus group," and "standing on the shoulders of giants."  But what, precisely, was his conception of sociology as a science?  What sort of knowledge did he believe that sociology should aspire to?  Did he offer anything like a "paradigm" for sociology as a body of research, theory, and explanation?  And what does his work have to offer to today's generation of sociologists?

Craig Calhoun and others organized a conference at Columbia in 2007 involving a group of pathbreaking sociologists in a variety of sub-disciplines to consider the legacy of Merton, and the result is a highly interesting volume of essays, Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science.  Contributors include Craig Calhoun, Alehandro Portes, Charles Tilly, Robert Sampson, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Viviana Zelizer, Thomas Gieryn, Aaron Panofsky, Alan Sica, Ragnvald, Kallebert, Peter Simonson, Harriet Zuckerman, and Charles Camic, and jointly they consider a very wide range of themes and perspectives from Merton's work.  The volume isn't presented as a festschrift; Gieryn provided just such a collection in 1980 during Merton's life (Science and Social Structure: A Festschrift for Robert K. Merton).  Instead, this volume is conceived as a way of taking the measure of Merton's contributions to sociology as the field continues to develop, and to sound out ways in which Merton's theories and ideas have either flourished or declined in the decades since the most influential ideas were published.  The volume therefore serves very well as an avenue through which to ask the analytical question: what defined Merton's sociological imagination?

In his introduction to the volume, Craig Calhoun presents one important part of Merton's work as being the job of "professionalizing" sociology.  But he also believes that Merton's contributions were substantive and fundamental.  He quotes Merton from "On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range" on the overall purpose of sociology:
Each to his last, and the last of the sociologist is that of lucidly presenting claims to logically interconnected and empirically confirmed propositions about the structure of society and its changes, the behavior of man within that structure and the consequences of that behavior. (14-15)
This is a very focused statement about the nature of sociology; it involves <empirically justified> <theories> about social <structures> and social <behavior>.  It defines a method (empirical, fact-based research), a research product (a body of "logically interconnected statements"), and a subject matter (social structure and behavior).  At the same time, it isn't a wholly informative statement.  What falls under the topic of "social structure"?  Is the theory of organizations a component of a theory of social structure?  How deeply into the intricacies of social psychology should the sociologist go in researching social behavior?  Calhoun makes it clear that he believes that Merton's "philosophy of sociology" becomes more concrete through his efforts to clarify the concepts and theories that sociologists advance.  This is a move from the more abstract to the more concrete -- and very consistent with the idea of "theories of the middle range."  And in fact, much of the value of the volume comes from the efforts made by the contributors to delve more deeply into some specific areas of research and theory formation in which Merton involved himself.

The sociology of science is certainly one of the important areas where Merton made a lasting contribution, and several essays in the volume are devoted to this field.  Thomas Gieryn asks whether Merton formulated a paradigm for the sociology of science -- a good question, since Merton himself was one of the first (along with Thomas Kuhn) to use the word "paradigm" to analyze scientific and intellectual activity.  Gieryn does a very useful job of collating the many things that Merton attributes to his core uses of the concept of paradigm throughout his work from 1968 to 2004 (115):
  • assumptions
  • problem sets
  • problematics
  • key concepts
  • generalizable concepts
  • central concepts
  • conceptual apparatus
  • logic of procedures procedures of inquiry
  • scheme of analysis
  • vocabularies 
  • postulates
  • classification
  • ideological imputations
  • inference
  • substantive findings
  • inventory of extant findings
  • types of pertinent evidence
  • basic propositions
  • interpretative schemes
  • provisional agreement
Gieryn attempts to codify this list into three areas: "what we know about the social world ... ; how sociologists should study the social world ... ; prototheories that explain in causal fashion why society is the way it is" (115).  (Another way of boiling these elements down would be along these lines: concepts and interpretive schemes; inference and evidence;  broadly accepted substantive findings.)

Gieryn goes on to offer his own account of a paradigm for sociology as a series of oppositions:
  1. Science is social and cognitive
  2. Science is cooperative and competitive
  3. Science is institutionalized and emergent
  4. Scientific objects in the world are real and constructed
  5. Science is autonomous and embedded
  6. Science is universal and local
  7. Scientific knowledge is cumulative and ... not (120)
This formulation demonstrates one of the emergent values of a project like this one: inventive sociologists are led to push forward an important question ("What is a paradigm for sociology?") through careful consideration of Merton's work and its strengths and limitations.

An area where Merton is not so well known is in the area of "cultural sociology."  In fact, "culture" seems entirely absent from the short definition quoted above.  Merton is usually read as offering an abstract, structural-functional approach to the social world that pays little attention to cultural factors and meaningful behavior.  Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and Viviana Zelizer take issue with this interpretation, however, in their chapters in the volume.  Epstein puts her perspective in these terms: "Many of Merton's key concepts for the analysis of social life centered on the cultural domain, mated with structural variables" (79).  And she thinks that a key part of Merton's approach to sociological thinking invokes a cultural interpretation of social life:
Learning to think like a sociologist, according to Merton, requires going beyond the individual as the unit of analysis, as is the focus of rational-choice theorists or mainstream psychologists today.  The sociologist is required to consider the cultural web in which individuals are embedded, the social context that causes them to make certain choices and to act in concert with others because they share or are persuaded by social conventions that lodge them in institutional frameworks, which in turn circumscribe their options. (81)
Merton's sociology of science is perhaps a particularly clear example of Epstein's point here; Merton invokes the idea of the ethos of science, the norms and values that govern the choices of scientists, as one of the key sociological facts about science as socially embedded activity.  And this ethos is plainly conveyed to scientists through concrete social arrangements of training and education.

Another area that is less familiar is "sociological semantics" and rhetoric -- basically, Merton's interest in tracing some of the metaphors and concepts that have been important in the ways that people have conceived of history and society.  His book, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, traces the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" as a metaphor for the advancement of science.  (He traces the lineage past Isaac Newton's usage of the phrase to Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century.)  Essentially, it is a phrase that captures the idea of cumulation and progress, incorporating and extending the body of knowledge received from prior generations.  Charles Camic notes that Merton often insisted on a sharp delineation between the history of ideas and the sociology of ideas (275).  But Camic argues that Merton actually pursued inquiries that crossed over this line repeatedly in his interest in tracing quotations, concepts, and metaphors through the history of science (278).  His treatment of "serendipity" is a good example; and Camic argues that Merton regarded this kind of analysis as a serious exercise in sociological research.
That Merton himself viewed these writings in light of a larger intellectual project, rather than as occasional amusements, is something he made increasingly explicit, however. (279)
Merton summarized this area of interest under the heading of "Neologisms as Sociological Concepts: History and Analysis" and as a "study in sociological semantics" (279, 280).  Camic quotes Merton as holding that "the frequency and nature of quotations in society [serve] as objects of study in themselves" (283), and he links this kind of inquiry to the study of propaganda and mass persuasion as well.

In short, Merton is a sociologist who repays careful, extensive review, and this volume is a very good start.  It proves the notion that we can not only stand on the shoulders of giants, but can also gain insights that go beyond and beside those predecessors.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Super-high-density Shanghai

Shanghai is a city approaching 20 million people, and it is arguably the most economically dynamic city in Asia.  This concentration of population and economic activity surely has important long-term consequences.  There was an interesting piece in the Shanghai Daily recently by Nate Stein, called "Sky's the limit for well planned city of Shanghai."  Stein makes a really intriguing point about the Shanghai metropolitan region that seems very important.  He argues that the "invisible boundary" of a city is a margin that is roughly 45 minutes from the city center; and that this boundary is moving out fast in the lower Yangtze River Delta.  Improvements in transportation have brought a handful of mid-sized cities into the 45-minute zone, with the result that Shanghai is fast becoming the most populous high-density metropolitan area in the world.

Here is the heart of Stein's view:
After building a subway in 1995 that has quickly grown to the world's longest and most traversed, Shanghai's invisible border moved outward significantly and drastically increased its growth potential. Instead of surrounding dense urban development with sprawling suburban homes, Shanghai's residents live in apartment buildings that do not restrict the growth of a city like stand-alone homes do.
Being built upon a backbone of compact flats and public transit, rather than homes on large lots and personal automobiles, means that the population has no upper boundary or, in a very literal sense, the sky is the limit, depending on how many people can fit in one building.
People are stacked on top of and below others as growth extends up, and not out. Concentrations of people make mass transit feasible and waste less fuel and energy. Efficiency greatly increases in compact cities and provide for the feasibility of small businesses staying in demand among residents without cars who need the convenience of small neighborhood shops.
The almost entirely urban design of Shanghai provides for impressively sustainable growth potential. The problem of overcrowding is on the horizon, but Shanghai has been effectively advancing its transit infrastructure. There is a two-level road tunnel under the Bund, the main portion of downtown, to prevent congestion and high-speed rail lines coming into existence that will further extend the reach of its invisible 45-minute boundary.
So Shanghai is a city with almost limitless density, in the sense that it can add population vertically rather than laterally and it can serve that population with a high-capacity rapid transit system.

Here is the Yangtze River Delta mega-region by night:

The transportation improvements that continue to transform the Shanghai urban landscape include both the subway system and the high-speed rail system connecting China's cities.  Here is what the Shanghai Metro system looks like today:

And here is the plan for 2020:

The system currently consists of twelve lines, with new track being added rapidly.  It handles something like five million passengers a day.

The other major improvement in transportation is the extension of the high-speed inter-city rail network.  High-speed trains now connect Shanghai to Hangzhou and Suzhou, bringing those cities comfortably within the 45-minute radius of Shanghai.  The high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou takes only 25 minutes today.  In practical terms, this means that there can be a tight integration among firms, knowledge workers, and universities throughout this region with a total population approaching 90 million people in the Yangtze River Delta Region.  Professionals can live in Hangzhou or Souzhou and do their work in Shanghai.

Here is the intriguing question: does this development of a high-density, high-population metropolitan Shanghai have important implications for social and economic development?  Is this mega-city going to represent a qualitative change in the world's urban history?  Will Shanghai become a unique new kind of mega-urban place, with significantly higher growth potential than other world cities?

One reason for thinking that this may be true is the case that people like Richard Florida and Saskia Sassen have made for the synergies created by a densely interconnected urban area.  Florida talks about the concentration of talent afforded by a high-density city, and Sassen focuses on the economic and informational networks that are stimulated by high-density cities.  In each case there is the idea of non-linear interaction effects and positive feedback loops.  Sassen's concept of a global city captures her core idea; a global city is one that has a large volume of connections to other cities around the globe, in terms of trade, services, telephone calls, internet traffic, and financial transactions (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.).

Shanghai is not the only large metropolitan area in the world, of course; but it appears to have features of urban system interconnectedness that take it out of the category of "sprawl" cities like Mexico City or Johannesburg.

Sassen puts some of her thinking into an interesting paper titled "Megaregions: Benefits Beyond Sharing Trains and Parking Lots?" (link). Here is how she frames her problem in the paper:
I have been asked to examine whether there are particular advantages to economic interactions at the megaregional scale and whether such interactions might play a role in enhancing the advantages of megaregions in today’s global economy. Familiar advantages of scales larger than that of the city, such as metropolitan and regional scales, are the benefits of sharing transport infrastructures for people and goods, enabling robust housing markets, and, possibly, supporting the development of office, science, and technology parks. Critical policy options identified by RPA in this regard would aim at strengthening the megaregional scale of economic interactions by investing in intercity and high speed regional rail, enhanced goods movement systems, and land use planning decisions.  More complex and elusive is whether the benefits of megaregional economic interaction can go beyond these familiar scale economies and, further, whether this would strengthen the position of such megaregions in the global economy. 
And here is part of her answer:
One central argument I develop in this paper is that the specific advantages of the megaregional scale consist of and arise from the co-existence within one regional space of multiple types of agglomeration economies. These types of agglomeration economies today are distributed accross diverse economic spaces and geographic scales: central business districts, office parks, science parks, the transportation and housing efficiencies derived from large (but not too large) commuter belts, low-cost manufacturing districts (today often offshore), tourism destinations, specialized branches of agriculture, such as horticulture or organically grown food, and the complex kinds evident in global cities. Each of these spaces evinces distinct agglomeration economies and empirically at least, is found in diverse types of geographic settings –from urban to rural, from local to global.  The thesis is that a megaregion is sufficiently large and diverse so as to accommodate a far broader range of types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings than it typically does today. This would take the advantages of megaregional location beyond the notion of urbanization economies. A megaregion can then be seen as a scale that can benefit from the fact that our complex economies need diverse types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings, from extremely high agglomeration economies evinced by the specialized advanced corporate services to the fairly modest economies evinced by suburban office parks and regional labor-intensive low-wage manufacturing. It can incorporate this diversity into a single economic megazone. Indeed, in principle, it could create conditions for the return of particular (not all) activities now outsourced to other regions or to foreign locations.
It would appear from a non-specialist's perspective, that Shanghai promises to have many of these multiple "agglomeration economy" dimensions, and from this we might expect that its economic growth will be accelerated with further densification.

Here is another interesting application of the idea of a global city to the case of Shanghai -- a conference paper by Professor Lin Ye, "Is Shanghai Really a 'Global City'?" (link).  Ye's test involves examining three factors:
  1. Central place in the national economy
  2. Concentration nodes for global capital
  3. Agglomeration sites to provide professional services (5)
Does Shanghai rate highly enough in these three areas to qualify as a global city?

Ye concludes that the data support a "yes" in each area.  The Shanghai region represents a very significant percentage of the total Chinese GDP, and was increasing from 1992 to 2001 (7).  It represented 5.16% of total GDP in 2001, with only roughly 1.5% of population.  Second, Shanghai represented a significant concentration of China's foreign direct investment and exports during these years.  Shipping and air traffic were concentrated in the metropolitan region as well.  So Ye concludes that "Shanghai has become a strategic concentration node for global capital" (12).  Finally, Sassen's most important criterion has to do with being a key node in the global network of professional services.  He finds that here too, Shanghai measures up.  So-called "tertiary" industries amount to 45.8% of employment -- dramatically greater than China's overall 27.7% rate (14).  And the volume of financial services, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) business activity is very high as well.  "Shanghai is leading the way to transform to an information-based professional service concentration place" (15).  One important measure is the Globalization and World Cities Study Group assessment (link).  GaWC singles out a list of 46 global firms (accounting, financial services, architecture, ...), and then ranks cities according to how many offices they possess of these firms.  Ye notes that GaWC identified 55 global cities based on the concentration of global advanced producer service firms in each city, and Shanghai is on this list, with 27 offices out of the 46 global firms (compared to 105 offices in New York).  Ye concludes that Shanghai has "quickly adjusted from a traditional manufacturing center to a place that provides advanced professional services to the whole world" (17).  It isn't yet in the top rank; but it is increasing its global interconnectedness rapidly.

These transitions from primary sector to tertiary sector businesses that Ye documents indicate that Shanghai is already well on its way to being a knowledge-centered global city.  And the processes of densification described above should only amplify this process.