waves, barrier reefs and understanding public opinion

September 27, 2010

waves, barrier reefs and understanding public opinion

When it comes to public and private aptitudes and behaviors and climate disruption and the engendered response, we tend to rvert to thinking of the “people” as a mass of consumers.  I’ve been looking for opportunities to re-metaphorize this. A brief talk on what happens to waves on barrier reefs suggests the following.

We tend to think of social process as a wave of influence moving outward into a population. But the population is already organized in sub groups, such as a pocket of high unemployment or a gated community of the upper middle class, of office buildings, factories, military bases, or hospitals. Each has different  characteristics when it comes to the ability of such larger flows to penetrate, or be invited in.

Often the wave of social influencing – fads, policies, attitudes, mediated by the press run into barriers. The barrier has the effect of slowing much of the wave, chopping it up (imagine a wave hitting a barrier reef), which slows the moment, produced bakward moving waves and increases complexity (and entropy) in the process. This gives some protection to those on both sides  of the barrier, creating little nooks where the old can survive, but also where the new can avoid being knocked over before (say by rapidly mobilizing public opinion social disaggregation prevents hysteria and rumor) it takes root.

We might speak of the morphology of the wave as it is influenced by the places where it runs up against stuff, and where it flows freely. The front edge of the wave hitting resistance (such as a claim to scientific legitimacy hitting a community of the religiously inclined)loses its coherency an becomes many small wave fronts of opinion and outlook.

Those who are most rooted create a kind of boundary layer of conservative thinking over which the wave moves, being little affected, and the rootedness and density of such populations constitute a real barrier, a drag, on the moving wave of new opinion. A new wave can only  maintain full momentum if it is felt to be responsive to local conditions ass they are perceived.

It would  be a good task to look at  a larger number of possible parameters that determine this move of a wave of  new thought or new sense (such as fear, rumor, opportunity) through  established populations. Obviously some waves connect with almost everyone, and others with very few. At the moment it might be the difference between the affecting power of the wave of interest in Paris Hilton vs the interest in the wave of acidification of the ocean. In the ocean  case the physical impact is huge and unseen, and in the other case miniscule and seen by everyone.

The question of the difference of impact: the what/why/ who/when for these two “waves”,  is not well understood.

There is a danger that we mistake the flow where it is visible, towards the surface, with what is happening underneath. The media can be in a flurry of activity and apparently powerfully affecting, but most people remain inert and unaffected by  it.

An example would be the difference between the way capitalist ideas (vs feudal arrangements) along with market oriented agricultural practice, affected the peasants in England in the 16th and the French in the 17th century. The scale of France was larger and the nobility had a deeper grasp on the land, and  resisted the new market ideas, giving some protection to the peasants.  The result was that England moved rapidly – and avoided a violent revolution – but France did not.

As the wave of idea and perception flow through the locally segmented population some people at a distance from the waves origin are affected as if there were no distance, and others are not affected. There is a kind of transfer of momentum of the messages, but it is not  even. The mental receptivity, relevant local conditions, and clarity of the message are not at all evenly distributed.

We could speak of friction to the movement of a wave, friction which has an impact on local conditions ,even if the wave – such as the tea party – is powerful. The friction is always the result of the  struggle to maintain local conditions, and this, in the process, in the process changes the quality and content of the wave.

And while the wave dissipates, it might pick up resonating centers (local leaders and media and relevant conditions) – altering the message – There are also lagoons of quiet that remain unaffected by the new wave, but this is always because they are large bodies of public opinion caught up in other ideational themes. For example, those most concerned about the  bank crisis seem among the least affected y climate change. The example is not perfect, because of churn at the edges for the small number who are affected – and open to affected – by both.

The overall point here is that we should not look at populations as homogeneous ensembles of like dull minded people, but as microenvironments of people who are in some cases going to be very receptive, because of local conditions of economy, education , land use – and others who, for equally solid reasons will be impervious.

Those people are partially organized by class, racial identity, sexual orientation, income level, and many other factors, some unseen, that will turn out to be very relevant. Spatial distribution and age cohort not the least.

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