Walkabout 3: Distributional Coalitions and Bureaucratic Silos in Chico and Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

One of the reasons for this walkabout was frustration with the Chico State bureaucracy. Officially, Chico State is about busting through “silo walls,” and encouraging inter-disciplinary work and research. But in practice silos abound. Silos are the result of “distributional coalitions” which rigidify the past. “Distributional coalitions” is really just Mancur Olsen’s fancy word for silos, i.e. those bureaucratic structures which always endure. For me personally, it means that I cannot teach the inter-disciplinary classes I designed, and research support has disappeared.  So time for a walkabout to see what else might be possible.

What Mancur Olsen was writing about, is what has begun to restrict my flexibility as something of a maverick at Chico State. Years of bureaucratic accumulation (i.e. distributional coalitions) created “the rules” that tie faculty, departments, and colleges into tightly together in some type of Rube Goldberg structure. If one piece does not do its part, it means that a major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., cannot be offered.   The rule becomes important for its own sake, irrespective of its utility for achieving a broader goal.

At Chico State, this means that atop each of these major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., is an ever-vigilant administrator ready to protect historical interests, no matter what “strategic” planning may say about he future. Committee-generated reports in which each pre-existing “stakeholder” has a say, are classic generators of such coalitions. Indeed, Chico State’s new President just reinforced Chico State’s own silos by dividing the university into four stakeholders (i.e. staff, faculty, students, and rich “friends”), and then conducting a “Listening Tour,” which is really just another way of saying that she wants to know how the pie was divided up in the past, so that those interests can continue to be protected.  That is what distributional coalitions are all about.

And so old habits will remain. Classes remain on the books long after a distributional compromise reached via stakeholder committees. The result: Ever taller bureaucratic “silos” wary of anything new or different. These silos of course work like a machine, each one a cog connected to the next so that you have a self-protecting system which breaks down if on cog falls out. Doing something different it is (correctly) reasoned, will result an existential threat to the various majors, minors, certificates, GE programs, etc. Scheduling works the same way—everything is fine-tuned so that students can be processed in predictable ways which frankly, are pretty boring. And then of course there is the all-purpose bureaucratic excuse that there is “no money” is invoked because in reality there isn’t any more—all the money has already been allocated to those pre-existing distributional coalitions. Or in plainer English, what has been divvied up in the past is more important than the needs of the future.

What about my walkabout in Thailand? I am teaching in an International College which is only 12 years old. Faculty turnover is high at the International College (not so much at the older Thai college), reflecting salaries which are low by “international” standards, and continuing demands by “Bangkok” for international-level qualifications. But there are few “distributional coalitions.” Scheduling is often done at the last minute, and you are not always sure what class you will teach, or the exact day it will start.  INdeed, since I’ve been here, I’ve taught in four departments both on my on initiative, and that of the administration.  Unlike Chico, there is at the same time encouragement to tie my teaching to my research agenda.  It is indeed a somewhat chaotic “inter-disciplinary heaven!” As for “silos,” there are in fact few in the traditional sense. The “distributional coalitions” are in fact weak, because there is little looking backwards to protect a non-existent gloried past. But in exchange, it seems like what a colleague here at Payap told me the other day. We are all like gears spinning independently. Yes, we get to do our “own thing,” but the specialized offices which would ordinarily support us are missing. Freedom we have, but sometimes a little follow-through would be nice!

International Borders and Border Guards

I don’t like international borders. I have been through many of them, and at each one there is the potential that you will be detained, and disappear into a system which is not accountable to anyone, much less you. Agents make decisions to arrest and detain you based on information they can see on their computer, but you cannot. And based on laws that they claim to know better than you, even if you do not.  It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules, or not—they win, you lose no matter what. When you cross borders, you do not have rights—you can be detained at the whim of the officer for reasons only the officer and their superiors know. You do not have a right to a lawyer, (see below) or even know why you are detained or deported. The immigration officer is always right—they can see their computer screen, and you cannot. 

I have been detained at borders in the United States and elsewhere, and sometimes threatened with arrest. Fortunately I have never been detained for more than a couple of hours. But every time it happens, even for a short time, it is disconcerting. Your freedom is in the hand of a faceless stranger in a uniform who is unaccountable to you or the law. It terrifies children, like the five year old Iranian boy old recently arrested in Houston. Or for that matter, the time an immigration officer in Oakland, California, threatened my wife Dagmar with deportation in front of our two small children.

The funny thing is that, despite the presumed rigor at international borders, the United States has some of the freest and safest travel. Without any immigration controls. Millions travel by road and train between Washington DC to New York crossing four state borders, and are never asked for their papers at a border check point. In the European Union, millions routinely cross national borders without being hassled by the faceless bureaucrats, either. This is because both the US and EU have figured out that security comes from things besides submission to a faceless uniformed bureaucrat. The borderless US and EU are two of the greatest achievements for freedom of human movement. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people seem to want to surrender freedoms to the faceless bureaucrats behind the computer screens who are unaccountable to the rule of law.

“Not going to happen,” an official tells lawyers at the airport.

Why the Super Bowl Matters, Especially to Sociologists

I think I’ve mentioned before, but I really don’t understand the lure of watching sports on TV. Or in person. Or from a skybox in a stadium with 50,000 other people. Generally, I don’t understand watching sports. So when I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, home of the Kansas State Wildcats with a Big 12 football team, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into. When I rented an apartment directly across the street from the university’s football stadium, my friends couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t understand why that would be exciting; I was happy just to get housing close to my classes.

If you’ve never been to a Midwestern United States college football game, you don’t know American football. People in places like Manhattan, and Norman Oklahoma, and Lincoln Nebraska put the “fan” in fanatic.

The first Saturday of the new football season came as a shock to me.

It began on Thursday, with a few dozen people parking their recreational vehicles in the stadium’s parking lot, getting ready for the big game. They tailgated for two full days.

On the morning of the first game, the street outside my apartment became a parking lot, and driving anywhere from my apartment became impossible. I know, I tried. The wave of purple (Bleed Purple!) clad, ordinary looking people walking toward the stadium just before the game overwhelmed my car, and I feared I would be lost in a never-ending sea of purple.

I shook my head at all of those fanatics, and couldn’t figure out why they were making such a big deal about a football game.

But a few months later, as I walked through the student union toward a late night-dollar movie, I began to understand what the fuss was about. There, across the foyer of the union, stood a young woman clad in what people from my adopted home town of Chico, California, substitute for football fanaticism: a Sierra Nevada Brewery t-shirt. I had never seen the young woman before, but as my feet sped toward her, I didn’t care: the shirt, and the young woman, were a welcome reminder of home.

I nearly accosted the young woman in the Sierra Nevada t-shirt, and asked her how she came across the shirt. To my surprise, she was a native of Chico, and, more amazingly, the daughter of one of my old Sociology professors at Chico State. I nearly fainted with joy. We spent 5 or 10 minutes talking about Chico, then I let her go, although somewhat reluctantly.

I never saw the young woman again, but the connection I wanted to make with her because she wore that Sierra Nevada shirt made me start thinking about the reason I needed that connection. I never approached people in my home town when they wore the same shirt, but when I was 1800 miles from home, I couldn’t stop myself from approaching her.

As humans, we seek out connections with people, since we are social creatures. We crave bonding, thrive with positive reinforcement from others, and actually heal ourselves in times of stress when we seek out others for comfort. In traditional societies, connections with people are easier to make and maintain, since few people move great distances.

In modern societies, social ties are more difficult to make and maintain.

When I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada in the early 2000s, it was the fastest growing city in the nation, with 6,000 people moving to the city, and 2,000 people moving out every month. It was a city in flux, and a city where no one made lasting connections. It was especially hard hit after 9/11 happened. It was a tough city to make friends in. It was also the city with the highest rate of teen suicide in the nation.

Emile Durkheim argued that it was the connection to others, the strength of a community’s ties, that is related most significantly to long term suicide rates in a culture. When I think of Las Vegas, I don’t doubt his theory. When I lived there, I thought the break down in social ties was an anomaly, but in the dozen years or since I’ve left Las Vegas, I’ve felt the social ties in the U.S. break down at a faster rate. As a result of these weakening community ties, we are seeking other ways to recreate these ties more and more.

Have you ever asked yourself why Facebook is so popular? It’s because we have largely lost the social ties we had in traditional communities, and Facebook allows us to recreate those ties.

Today, the average person will move more than 11 times throughout his or her lifetime. Most of those moves will be before they reach 45 years old. Most children live in households where both parents work, and we are raising our children to not be home and connected to their neighborhood as much as in previous generations. Children and adults today spend more time working or in school, participating in sporting events, and traveling than they do in their homes and neighborhoods, and with extended family. In essence, we have broken the traditional social ties that Durkheim found to be a fundamental necessity in stable societies. We used to come together around our families, our neighborhoods, and our churches, but in modern society, today, those ties are broken over and over again throughout our lifetimes.

But there is one constant that many people, Americans especially, can cling to and identify with wherever their lives take them: national sports teams.

In a time when we feel the least connected with others, even our closest family members, sharing a connection with millions of other fans of football or baseball or basketball, and especially sharing a connection with other people who support your team, is invaluable.

Sports team affiliation transcends religion, gender, age, time, place, race, and socioeconomic status. Sure, it can create rivalries, but taken in a positive light, team pride can, and does, create closer social bonds and community ties. Hanging out with people on Super Bowl Sunday creates and recreates community, and from a sociological perspective, makes a more stable and predictable society, and that is good for all, even if you only watch for the commercials, and show up for the food.

So if anyone complains or asks you today about why you watch the game, don’t feel guilty. Tell them you are contributing to social cohesion and saving lives by recreating community ties.

In the meantime, I’ll be on a plane, headed for Kansas, maybe wearing a Sierra Nevada t-shirt. If you see me, give a shout out for Chico, but don’t ask me the score of the game; I don’t even know who’s playing.


Originally posted February 1, 2015 at Ethnography.com