Hidden Structures

The Economist of November 7 had an article on 'Lagrangian coherent structures' which describes these as 'the skeletons of the sea and the air'. The article explains by saying:

To understand what a Lagrangian coherent structure is, it helps to imagine a crowd at a railway terminus, says Thomas Peacock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the structures. Some people will be arriving. Some will be leaving. And, whichever they are doing, they will be going to and from numerous different platforms. The result is chaos, but structured chaos. What emerges is a shifting pattern of borders between groups of people with different goals. These borders are Lagrangian coherent structures. They are intangible, immaterial and would be undetectable if the passengers stopped moving. But they are also real enough to be treated mathematically.

Strangely Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization uses a similar analogy, taken from sociologist Harold Garfinkel's work, to discuss organizational culture saying that

'the most routine and taken-for-granted aspects of social reality are in fact skillful accomplishments. When we travel on a subway car, visit a neighbor, or act as a normal person walking down the street, we employ numerous social skills of which we are only dimly aware. …

What happens if we deliberately attempt to disrupt normal patterns of life. Look a fellow subway passenger in the eye for a prolonged period of time. He or she will no doubt look away at first but get increasingly uncomfortable as your gaze continues. Perhaps he will eventually enquire what's wrong, change seats, or get off at the next stop. … You will gradually discover how life within a given culture flows smoothly only insofar as one's behavior conforms with unwritten codes. Disrupt these norms and the ordered reality of life inevitably breaks down.

Further Linda Smircich (Linda Smircich. 1983. Concepts of culture and organizational Analysis, Administrative Science Quarterly 28. September) notes that researchers who study organizations from a cognitive perspective 'leads them to view organizations as networks of subjective meanings or shared frames of reference that organization members share to varying degrees and which, to an external observer, appear to function in a rule-like or grammar-like manner.'

So I'm now wondering whether what appear to be learned accomplishments around social behavior will turn out to be a mathematically predictable responses to hidden structures. If so, is culture structure after all and can it be taught (or learned) through mathematics?

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