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Risky business

By Charles Butler

On a mid-September morning, Miguel Centeno stood among 16 Princeton graduate students in a small Wallace Hall classroom connecting threads from centuries-old western civilization texts Miguel Centeno, Princeton's Musgrave Professor of Sociology, leads a discussion on the dilemma of social order. The Cuban-born professor has brought a push-the-envelope approach to the classroom and his teaching. (Photos courtesy of Denise Applewhite))to present-day life.  The Musgrave Professor of Sociology and International Affairs and chair of the Sociology Department, Centeno moved the  discourse from liberalism to freedom to autonomy with hardly a pause, punctuating his points every now and then by urging the students  to “Think about this!”

Shirt-sleeves rolled to his elbows, his fists often clenched as he spoke, Centeno challenged the students to question their assumptions as he linked the theories of W. E. B. Dubois, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Occasionally he brought up someone unexpected  —  Mark Twain, for example — yet weaved him or her into the central theme of his talk: the dilemma of social order.

The students seated around the conference table were a social order unto themselves. Evenly split between men and women — including a former school teacher and a veteran of the Iraqi war — the students keyed in notes on their laptops as quickly as they could. The books they brought to class — Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro, The Federalist Papers, Democracy in America, and Mill’s The Subjection of Women — lay next to them, the individual stacks forming a mini-skyline on the tabletop. The group listened as the lecture progressed through self-interest and the formation of the US Constitution and the fight for environmental responsibility.

 “This is a very 21st century discussion,” Centeno said in an aside.

As the lecture portion of the three-hour seminar, SOC 501/Classical Sociological Theory, wound down, Centeno put on his glasses and took a seat in the chair at the head of the room. Leaning back slightly, he asked, “Any questions — now that I’ve talked to you for 40 minutes?”

The students around the table looked at each other, and hands began to rise.

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As Centeno would explain later over lunch in his book-filled Wallace Hall office, a roomful of questioning students is exactly what he hopes to see — and inspire — when he concludes a lecture.

 “I want to unwrap [the students’] thinking. To train them how to think — not what to think — on whatever position they want to take,” he said. “What is the basis on which you are making this observation? What are the assumptions? Are you making this in an unbiased way? As much as possible I want them to be nobody’s fool and to give them the tools to take apart arguments.”

For much of the past two decades, ever since he arrived at Princeton, the Cuban-born Centeno has brought a push-the-envelope approach not only to the classroom but to his research as well.  Leaning toward interdisciplinary scholarship, his writing reflects the range of his interests and includes books and articles on Latin America, globalization, war, and American patriotism. His most recent book, State and Nation Making in Latin America and Spain: Republics of the Possible, edited with Agustin Ferraro, was published this year; Global Capitalism: A Sociological Perspective, written with Joseph Cohen, was published in 2010. An upcoming volume, War and Society, is due out in 2014.

His current work focuses on social order — the interdependent rules and institutions that allow interactions between people at a relatively efficient level.  

In today’s global environment, vastly different examples of social order are apparent: In a small rural village, an urban metropolis, a corporation, and even in online groups. Centeno is interested in identifying communities, studying them, and understanding how they succeed — or fail.

“There’s a spectrum of social order; you can have a lot of it or a little of it,” he said. “And it is really complicated when you have a lot of people in one who don’t know each other and have to trust each other.”

This interest inspired Centeno to launch a research community on global systemic risk that looks to understand “the plumbing of globalization” and the potential for catastrophic failure when networks are linked. The three-year research community (AY 2014–16) is funded and administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Centeno believes the study of risk has the potential to become an important academic and policy field.  With the same lively focus he conveys in the classroom, he is working to establish Princeton as a center for multidisciplinary dialogue as the field emerges.

According to Centeno, a glance at recent headlines reveals the need for such an inquiry. He points to the financial crisis of 2008 that, he said, was triggered in part by the breakdown in trust Wall Street trading partners usually share when valuing assets.  And to the disruption in worldwide travel after the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. And to concerns for public safety, commerce, and food and energy production set off by the shutdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.

He argues that these and other events that upset social orders around the world are a byproduct of increased global interdependence. Over the past 30 years, he said, complex systems have evolved around a predictable flow of information, money, energy, goods, communication, and people. While these massive systems have improved efficiencies over their predecessors, he said, they are also susceptible to defects that, due to heightened interconnectedness, can quickly turn a localized crisis into a worldwide calamity.

“We depend on very complex processes,” Centeno said. “[But] we don’t understand how they work. How fragile they are. We need to look at what is underneath them.”

To that end, the research community is comprised of experts who are fluent in these networks and can speak to their pressure points. The 24 scholars work in climate science, computer science, economics, financial engineering, Internet security, mathematics, nuclear disarmament, philosophy, behavioral psychology, terrorism/security, and trade.

Centeno hopes that as the community brings together scholars who would not typically work together, patterns will emerge from their shared findings that will lead to a better understanding of how systems work and how they break down.

For instance, one community member, Adam Elga, is an associate professor of philosophy at Princeton whose current research focuses on cascading failure. (That is, when one unit — a bank or electrical generator — fails, it makes it more likely others will fail.) Another community member, Jacob Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs, is studying political violence and the organizations that produce it.

Typically, Elga’s and Shapiro’s work would not intersect. But through the community, says Elga, “professors [learn] about what else is going on in related areas.”

Adds Shapiro, “There is a common theme of risk underlying all of our research, but we don’t know yet what the group’s unifying theme will be. The community exposes us to research outside our areas that may help allow us to figure this out.”

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Back in his office, Centeno speaks of how he has long been fascinated by systems, by how things work, and by how one thing connects to another — all influencing how lives are lived and how people behave.

 For instance, he gets a kick out of traffic lights: “We’ve gotten vast amounts of humanity to stop at red lights!”

 And tap water: “It’s an amazing miracle that for 99.99 percent of my life, when I turn on the tap, water comes out!”

 And beer. Once, when in Moscow, he came upon a kiosk selling, among other items, a six-pack of Old Milwaukee beer. “I thought, Wow! How the hell did that six-pack end up in Moscow? It didn’t just happen,” he said.

In fact, he admits, he is mindful of the connections that informed his own life. As a 10-year-old he emigrated from Cuba with his mother, and they settled in the rust-belt city of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Through his early years in Erie, Centeno gave little thought to attending college, or at least an elite one. It seemed a remote possibility considering his humble surroundings. But when he was 15 or so he learned that two of his cousins had been admitted to Yale University— and were awarded scholarships to make it affordable. His focus changed.

“It was the equivalent of the kid who sees a successful businessman and decides, ‘This is the way to go,’” recalled Centeno, who ultimately earned his degrees at Yale. “My cousins taught me that you didn’t need money to go to an Ivy League school. The minute I got that, when I learned that you could turn grades into a scholarship to an Ivy League school, it was an ‘Aha’ moment!”

And he wants to give others the chance to feel the same way. In 2001, in conjunction with Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, he founded the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), a rigorous academic and cultural enrichment program that supports high-achieving, low-income high school students from school districts in the Princeton area. The multi-year tuition-free program prepares participants for admission to and ongoing success within selective colleges and universities. To date, more than 200 PUPP graduates have been accepted to such institutions, including Brown, Columbia, and Princeton.

For Centeno, that tangible number is just the starting point; he sees beyond it to its potential. “The hope has always been that the connections work. You try to create the conditions under which the most productive outputs from these interactions will develop.”

Centeno knows that the PUPP participants’ success is not guaranteed. But as someone who also knows how to make de Tocqueville as interesting and cool as a Miles Davis tune during a Monday morning seminar, Centeno also holds that it’s a possibility with a melodious upside and a risk worth taking.