Tuesday, April 29, 2008

how many is a cohort?

Andrew Gelman very kindly sent me a link to his post of 25 April at the highly addictive Statistical modeling, causal inference and politics blog, on a story by William Saroyan, "70,000 Assyrians", in which the Armenian narrator gets into a conversation with his Assyrian barber. The narrator is in the habit of trying to work out how many Armenians there are in the world (he has seen estimates of a couple of million); he asks the Assyrian how many Assyrians there are, and is told 70,000. Neither group has a country of its own; the narrator thinks better things may come. The Assyrian says no, not for the Assyrians, 70,000 is not enough. Gelman comments:

This is the numeracy: 70,000 is a large number, a huge number of people. It's crowds and crowds and crowds--enough for an entire society, and then some. But not enough for a country, or not enough in a hostile part of the world where other people are busy trying to wipe you out. The idea that 70,000 is a lot, but not enough--that's numeracy.

I thought this was an interesting example. I then thought: Hang on a minute, what's the population of Andorra? I turn to Dr Wiki, who alleges that as of 2007 the principality had a population of 71,822, occupying a region of 468 square kilometres. It adds:

Responsibility for defending Andorra rests with Spain and France.
[Against whom, we might ask? France and Spain?] Andorra currently has no military force.

Andorra also lacks a currency of its own, using those of the two neighbouring countries; before 1999, it used pesetas and francs. Since 1999 it has used the euro. (It is not a full member of the EU; it just has a special relationship.)

Dr Wiki adds:

Andorrans are a minority in their own country; Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Britons and Italians resident in Andorra make up 67.7% of the population.

The language is Catalan. Catalonia, which has scraped through to achieve the status of Autonomous Community of Spain, has a population of 7,210,508, of which some 12% are immigrants. (If I were a Catalan I'd be mad as hell.)

The 'Basque Country', an area of seven regions falling partly in France partly in Spain, has a population of some 3,000,000. A portion of Spain is now recognised as the Autonomous Basque Community. Basque nationalists have expressed a strong preference for having an actual country at their disposal.

A Kurd I spoke to in Istanbul a few years ago told me there were some 60 million Kurds; it was absurd that they did not have their own country. Figures from the CIA World Factbook (again courtesy of Dr Wiki) suggest that the population is somewhere between 27 and 36 million. The Kurd spoke angrily of the fact that for many years Kurdish was forbidden in schools; it was illegal for Kurdish children to be educated in their own language. As a boy he had made money by going over the mountains into Iran and smuggling carpets back into Turkey; looked at in another light, he remained in Kurdistan throughout, and the illegality of the enterprise was simply a consequence of the fact that Kurds on either side of the border had no political entity of their own.

What the numbers show us is that there is something that needs explaining. Why is it easier for the 23,199 realio trulio Andorrans to have a country of their own than for a few million Basques, several million Catalans, or tens of millions of Kurds? And if you can actually get by as a country without an army and without a currency, two common concurrents of nationhood, what do you need one for? It's not that the answers are far to seek, but the numbers are what make us think some explaining needs to be done.

Since this is the Week of Endangered Languages, we might remember that those who are forced to emigrate, whether for economic or political reasons, often find their descendants cut off from their culture of origin within a generation. America, for all its supposed emphasis on family values, provides little support within its educational system for enabling the children and grandchildren of immigrants to achieve mastery of the language or languages of their forebears. With their linguistic competence, immigrants bring to the country a wealth of cultural capital (the last time I looked, some 250 languages were spoken in New York alone); it's routinely squandered. But Saroyan's preoccupation with finding other Armenians, with finding places where Armenian could be spoken, reflects in part the fact that the language found no place in the institutions of intellectual formation of the country in which he found himself.

Well, I was going to go on to talk about Harry Potter and the X-Men, but it is 3:34 pm. Where has the day gone? This was supposed to be the year of Internetting in moderation.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I actually thought about Andorra but then decided that it wasn't a real country and that it was just my hopeless Eurocentrism that made me think of it at all. I mean, once you count Andorra, you can really count almost any low-tax area in a peaceful part of the world. Also, my impression is that places like Andorra are relics of a simpler era in which governments and tax collectors didn't always make their ways to remote mountain villages and so forth. But I could be completely wrong on this.