Consensus and attractors: the dynamics of knowledge circulation and transformation in southwest China
Contributor(s)Keller, Janet D.
Manalansan, Martin F.
Keller, Janet D.
Lehman, Frederic K.
Lehman, Frederic K.
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AbstractThis research, though a case study with the ethnic Jinghpo, proposes an inter-disciplinary framework for addressing a basic question in the cognitive sciences and in anthropology – how people reach agreement in daily life. Jinghpo live astride the border of Burma, China, and India, and were well-known in anthropological literature as Kachin. Since the early 2000s, Jinghpo have undergone a crisis in drugs/AIDS. People’s learning and use of knowledge about drugs/AIDS are shaped by four inter-woven knowledge systems: Jinghpo sacrifice healing, Christianity, modern bio-medicine introduced by the Chinese government, and southwest Chinese folk religions. Based on my 20 months of fieldwork, I investigate how public health information transforms into individually tailored effective knowledge, or a social consensus that shapes behavior. Such consensus derives from micro-level chaotic interactions among individuals of quasi-infinite diversities, who strive to be ethical citizens, religiously righteous persons, and morally un-stigmatized patients. Scholars generally highlight initial conditions and resultant consensus, but neglect or normalize the “middle course” of chaotic interactions among subjects who may eventually reach consensus. To explore such neglected chaotic processes, I draw on the concept of an “attractor” from chaos theory to formulate my Major Hypothesis: In chaos theory an “attractor” is regularities more or less accidentally emerging from, then normalizing, micro-level chaotic interactions. I hypothesize that a social consensus arises as an “attractor”. I define an “attractor” in knowledge circulation as a convincing argument that attracts people, reduces micro-level interactional chaos, bridges and absorbs controversies, and creates relative uniformity. A consensus is also influenced by the political economy of drugs /AIDS and of the politics of knowledge production in China. To accommodate such influence, I formulate an Alternative Hypothesis: inter/intra-ethnic power functions as an “attractor” in the derivation of a social consensus. In fieldwork, I followed the flow of 9 cases of knowledge circulation, with complementation from interviews and filming. Analysis demonstrates that at certain moments, a balance among knowledge systems formulated a stable configuration of initial conditions and contingencies, by which one could predict what future interactions would be. More often, a balance was broken, leading to a different balance or maintaining a state of disorder. Using the concept of an “attractor” I analyze how micro-level chaos in each case generates such a balance. Using my data I am also able to argue that power functions as an “attractor” during the derivation of a consensus. I therefore verify both hypotheses. This project combines my prior work in physics and in anthropology, and will contribute to the broader currents in the Chinese studies, the cognitive sciences, and anthropology. First, I propose a dynamic framework that understands Southwest China as not only an intersection between China and mainland Southeast Asia, but as an active space that drives the two areas into interaction. By focusing on the interactions among the four knowledge systems, my framework integrates three approaches in the literature to understanding Southwest China: 1) That of historians who explore the politico -economic incorporation of ethnic minorities in Southwest China into the imperial Chinese court. 2) That of anthropologists who focus on the Chinese government’s current agenda of nation-state building, treating minorities in Southwest China as a way to reflect on modern China’s transformations or to “annotate” contemporary mainland Chinese reform. 3) That of scholars with a Southeast Asia perspective, who consider Southwest China a politico-economic and socio-cultural intersection between China and mainland Southeast Asia. Second, this research reveals the cognitive dynamics of achieving social consensus in real-life contexts rather than in the restricted contexts of artificial modeling. An “attractor” represents a contingent combination of socio-cultural structures, power relations, socio-historical contingencies, individual particularities, and human agent. A focus on an “attractor” enables me to explore alternation of order and chaos, and of predictability of structures and randomness of contingencies. I therefore propose a framework for understanding social complexity derived from quasi-infinite diversities and inherent socio-historical randomness, which is a critical yet under-addressed issue in anthropology. My research, by formulating quasi-infinite diversities organized by an “attractor”, tames untraceable patterns of interaction and reflection into traceable regularities. Third, taking the two hypotheses together I argue that the source of a social consensus and the function of power relations can be treated as two instantiations of an “attractor” in knowledge circulation. My project unifies the cognitive process of a social consensus and the socio-political function of power relations. It bridges cognitive / psychological anthropology and studies of power relations, fields long separated by a lack of communication and dynamic reconciliation. Fourth, my framework integrates two parallel, though connected, approaches to human cognition: the computational approach that treats cognition as a Turing Machine of information-input/output, and the non-computational approach that explores knowledge acquisition through situated learning, the senses, and imagination, etc. I propose that cognition functions (as illustrated by the derivation of a social consensus) as an “attractor”, its computational mechanism serves as a structural force, and situated learning as contingencies.