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A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.

[ by Charles Cameron — the four goats go with the woman, the cow called Bessie belongs with Hiyakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction ]


My friend the anthropologist Peter van der Werff recently wrote this paragraph about a woman he met in India:

The very poor woman explained me she and her four goats needed the shadow of a tree to escape from the blistering afternoon sun in their semi-arid part of India. There was a tree at the edge of the village, but the owner did not allow her to come near that tree. Therefore, she and her goats suffered from the heat, at the cost of her health and the productivity of the goats.

I was reminded of SI Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction.


Caution: you really do need, as it says, to “read” this image from the bottom up…

See Bessie, the Cow, in SI and AR Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, pp. 83-85, 5th ed..


Why did I think of Hayakawa’s ladder?

Here are two other things m’friend Peter had to say about the woman and her goats, the merciless sun, and that tree with its abundance of merciful shade:

As long as economists don’t include oppression and exploitation in their models, they cannot understand poverty.


Such cruel relationships occur in many of the 750,000 villages of India. Without including those oppressive and exploitative realities, real poverty is not captured. We may invite economists to fit this reality in the computer.


We humans can do it. But how do we configure models that can hold those levels of granularity and abstraction — of individual human concern and global decision-making necessity — close enough together to give our grand plans humane flexibility?

I suspect writers such as Lawrence Wright know more about this than the number crunchers — and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic

13 Responses to “A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    Oppression and exploitation can be included in models.  It may a form of consumption by the oppressors. They are trading the subjective gratification of cruelty for more tangible goods that would be available if their victims were better able to trade with them or otherwise become superior participants in mutually beneficial exchanges.  Or the cruelty may be a rational means of intimidation to keep people in a subjected state where the oppressor can obtain a high proportion of the value created by the oppressed with the oppressed unwilling to resist, flee, or otherwise abandon or upset a one-sided transaction.  Often these relationships exist where the simplest type of supply and demand analysis applies: Lots of humans so that labor is dirt cheap, and not much capital to raise the productive value of the labor.  In that case, the oppressors simply use up the lives and labor of the people whom they can oppress because the lives and labor of these people is a cheap and disposable good.  That is not nice, but it is economically rational. If by Peter’s challenge he means that economists omit these considerations, that may often be true, but I know it is not always true.  Also, in the anecdote, the owner of the tree had his own uses for the tree, and if he let one person shade there for free, others would want to, ultimately putting his property at risk.  He was not kind, but he was preserving what he had.  I don’t see anything at odds with economic thinking, and it need not merely be cruelty or oppression, but protecting a scarce asset for the owner’s benefit. People too often take a stereotyped view of what economics is, and how it works, and make criticisms based on that.  It does not advance the conversation very much.  

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:
    I don’t think Peter wants to make the case of the poor woman with the goals and no shade more than it is, but I think he’s concerned that there should be a conversation, and that it should advance towards less cruelty and greater clarity — and I suspect he’d welcome insights from all concerned, the tree’s owner included.  I think his comment is very much intended in the spirit of a remark of Pope Francis, in one of the homilies to which you pointed me today:

    we understand reality better from the outskirts not the centre. 

    Peter would like to give those “on the outskirts” more of a voice..

  3. Marshall Says:

    Context matters, as always. No model will tell us if the tree owner is being a rational economic actor or if he’s just an asshole, much less if he’s both. No model will tell us if the old woman is a moocher or a whiner or if she has a long-standing legitimate grievance, much less if all of the above is true.
    But I could tell you after a couple of hours there. (As I’m sure Peter could, as well.)
    I have ideas about holding granularity and abstraction, together. But you simply cannot do it if someone doesn’t get out there and talk to old women and tree owners.

  4. Mark Says:

    “Keep in mind Lori’s mantra: “No stories without numbers, no numbers without stories.” ”  http://charitablewords.com/2012/10/your-story-matters-work-to-tell-it-well/

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    “and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic …”


    Previously, I have tried to describe statistics by saying Statistics are Fog of War.    The spaces between the grains of granularity inspire abstractions; in viewing the abstractions, we often forget that we are no longer looking at the grains; and, statistics are one way we do this.  We often war over these abstractions, not realizing that we are trapped in that “fog of war.”


    I recently wrote a much better post touching upon the subject, but also looking at it through the lens of narrative, in Facts as Past Performance.    But there I also made the connection between the fog of war of statistics and personal narratives.  So I’m not altogether certain that anecdotes are incredibly different than statistics.  At best, anecdotes may at least acknowledge the foggy, shadowing humans existing behind the narrative, unlike statistics which typically “say” that the humans are largely irrelevant as humans; but there again, a major difference can be found between acknowledging real, individual humans and thinking of those same persons as the abstract, “human-in-general.”  Much of so-called “love of humanity” only treats humans in humanity as an abstraction.     

  6. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Also, I’d recommend reading Auden’s little piece “Postscript:  Infernal Science,” from his collection The Dyer’s Hand.  Link to an excerpt I found posted online: http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com/2009/11/counting.html.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:


    I have ideas about holding granularity and abstraction, together. But you simply cannot do it if someone doesn’t get out there and talk to old women and tree owners.

    I’d love to hear more — and yes, that’s why people like Peter get out there and talk, and I’m very glad they do!

    No stories without numbers, no numbers without stories.

    I like that mantram a lot.
    And Curtis — aah!  I need time to read and reflect!

  8. Marshall Says:

    Humans are quite good at social context. We generally have a pretty good idea of what is going on right around us. We are bad at broad distances and over time. Because of the latter, and because we now live in a civilization where distance and time matter a bit, we have a strong tendency to forget that the former is powerful.
    About a decade ago, in Nepal during the civil war, an NGO instituted a Friday morning, 20-minute staff meeting in all 75 District offices. The meeting needed to answer four questions sent out every week from the HQ in Kathmandu. Every week, one question was about how their local development projects were doing, one question was about their efforts to improve the lot of women, one question was about tension in the local context, and the last was a wildcard.
    Offices discussed the four questions for just 20 minutes, captured the conversation and sent it back to Kathmandu by lunch. The HQ aggregated the answers and looked at trends over time and sent a report back before Monday.
    Every Monday, each District office handed out a brief report to staff that located their individual efforts in the broader development strategy of their organization. This improved morale, as you might imagine. It improved effectiveness as they could more quickly see success and failure and challenge and so could adjust.
    It also had another, unintended result. They began to track the progress of the war. They realized that their question about local tensions was mapping onto the movements of soldiers and rebels. They found they could predict with reasonable certainty where those movements would intersect (by design or by accident) and they could prepare their staff — and the staff of other NGOs — to anticipate outbreaks of violence.
    In order to keep staff safe they did not broadcast what they were doing, though they did share pieces of their data with embassies and diplomats. They acquired a reputation for really understanding the dynamics of the broad situation across Nepal.
    Granularity, aggregated into abstraction, with a focus on practicality.
    People on the ground talking to old women and tree owners with four questions in the back of their mind that they know they will have to answer Friday morning.
    People at HQ with a commitment to take the stories seriously and to turn them into a larger story that their staff could use.
    I’ve been telling NGOs (and donors and UN) that story for about a decade, in the field and at HQs. Not one has ever implemented something similar, though I have found a couple who already did it before I met them. Those few NGOs are the most effective I’ve seen.

  9. larrydunbar Says:

    Charles, perhaps the name of your post should have been called The Looming Tree. 

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thank you.  I suspect I’ll be quoting that response to quite a few people — most helpful.

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Gotcha.  I very much admire the book. 

  12. Peter van der Werff Says:

    Lexington Green: Thank you for your elaborate response on June 4th. Please know I have economists among my best friends and colleagues. But also from them I have learned that there is a quite a difference between what economists might do and what they actually do. 🙂

  13. Peter van der Werff Says:

    I like this discussion about the general and the specific. Thinking about the theme these days while writing about my family after WWII and how different they experienced the details of single persons and the abstractions of millions.

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