Abstraction and the Details

by Kieran Healy on January 22, 2008

Nicholas Gruen and Tom Slee follow up — and generalize from — my post the other day about the details of proposals for presumed-consent organ donation in Britain. Here’s Nicholas:

bq. But for a long time I’ve observed the poor functionality of economics which often gets itself hung up on what’s in the textbooks, rather than trying to use the concepts, principles and techniques enunciated there as a _first jumping off point_ and a tool kit to try to solve problems keeping in mind that the solving of problems will almost always involve a high degree of (non-disciplinary) commonsense.

And here’s Tom:

bq. The common thread is that the big decisions and big ideas make less of an impact than the low-level, detailed specifics of each situation. … It’s a small step from there to saying that people at the top of large organizations (whether they be governments or countries) have surprisingly little influence and that we should not pay much attention to broad pronouncements and grand visions. It’s people dealing with everyday problems that we should pay attention to.



Tracy W 01.23.08 at 11:33 am

The older I get, the more and more I learn the details matter.

Although I think feedback is far more important than common sense. A lot of things don’t act according to common sense, and common sense is rather uncommon – I know I lack it.


Nicholas Gruen 01.23.08 at 3:34 pm


I appreciate your point. The idea of ‘commonsense’ sounds like propaganda. And feedback is a pretty important thing as well – perhaps the thing that conditions commonsense on the ground. But I guess, having tried not to use ‘commonsense’ I ended up stuck with it – I’ve not been able to find a substitute. But of course that’s a commonsense conditioned by some close familiarity with the detail, rather than something that is imposed from some higher vantage point.

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