Studying phenomena at the meso-level

I’m currently reading Rough Country ( by Robert Wuthnow. I’d like to highlight a couple things that I think make this a unique study and that sets an example for the kind of analysis that I aspire to.

First is the focus on Texas. The state is both an official jurisdiction but also a coherent region. It has a set of cultural, economic, and political institutions that have been shaped by its geography and history, it has several major urban areas, and it has its noted ecology. Yet it also presents an opportunity to examine the development of American history and its institutions as well. So, it presents a case study from which to deduce wider, national-level trends (beyond the valuable information on Texas).

Furthermore, he writes that an important “interplay [in his analysis] casts regional independence and personal autonomy against national identity and incorporation. The shifting definition of the region itself … emerges as a continuing theme” (pg. 7). This is a crucial venue for geographical study, as there is more to a ‘region’ than simply its official boundaries, but rather its interactions with peers and interactions with national trends, to say the least.

Second is the explicit focus on meso-level phenomena. In the words of the author: “The argument is rather about a series of processes that happen in distinctive ways and yet illuminate aspects of the relationship between religion and society that are best seen as this intermediate level of social organization” (pg 7). That is, his central object of study is the church (in the abstract), but more specifically the congregations and pastors in communities, and also the supporting structures such as religious conventions and higher-level organizations within specific denominations. He continues: “One of the processes derives from the ordering, chaos-reducing, nomizing role that nearly all discussions of the relationship between religion and society have emphasized” (ibid, italics original). So, the analysis is concerned very much with institutions in the most traditional sense–the incentives and discourses that guide behavior.

In academic geography (and perhaps other fields), you don’t often come across mid-level studies like this. Typically, case studies are concerned with organizations in specific places (a firm, a city, maybe a sector), and this occasionally can scale up to a more regional-level. I have not read much work that combines a thorough historical and geographical analysis of (1) a coherent region and (2) its institutions. Some examples of regions that deserve more study that come to mind but that also cross multiple official boundaries include Federal Reserve districts, large and varied ecological zones (Great Lakes, Gulf Coast), border lands (Mexico-USA), and metropolitan areas (often MSAs do not reflect a single municipal jurisdiction). Examples of mid-level institutions include police agencies, financial markets, banking markets (also cross multiple jurisdictions, in the USA at least), commodity supply chains (which get a lot of attention in geography), or federal agencies (those with branch structures, like the Social Security System or the Post Office).

My aim is to write up thoughts as I get through the book and how it is shaping my thinking on institutions, designing methodology, and the ‘meso-level’ in general.


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