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Editorial Statement: Models

Models play a dizzying number of roles in our efforts to understand and shape our world. Vietnam offers many a model for the war in Iraq, while that war has in turn been justified by newly minted models of "democracy" and even "Islam." But what are models? Examples from the past, simplified representations, heuristic devices, artistic depictions, someone who sits for a painter or displays clothes and makeup? Derived from the Latin term “modulus,” meaning small measure, the English word “model” was first used to describe a miniature casting or drawing from which a final, larger work could be made. This definition of course remains with us today, especially in the arts and architecture, but models have also come to play a more active and integral role, both generating and standardizing knowledge in society at large and in professions and disciplines from mathematics and computer science to climatology, economics, and politics.

The classic distinction between models of reality and models for reality is still useful. While perhaps all fields of knowledge rely on a version of a model of reality, only some, such as “rational choice” or “game” theory, have attained the confidence to insist on the efficacy of their models for reality. That is, they are involved not only in producing representations of what reality is but also what it should be. Then, again, perhaps every model of reality becomes itself a force in the world independent of its creator, producing modular effects. Yet some models have more effect on the understanding of reality than others, due to a number of variables.  They may be more appealing because they actually do more accurately and parsimoniously depict reality or predict the future, but their appeal may also derive solely from the power of the disciplines and professions for which they have become paradigmatic.

In this issue we explore this diversity of models in the natural and social sciences and the complicated ways in which they facilitate, arrange, and even constrain knowledge. What kinds of models populate our world and how do we use them?

We chose for this issue’s icon Henry Ford’s famous Model T—the line of automobiles that reputedly “put America on wheels.” As its name implies, the car itself was a model, the most successful in a series of prototypes (it followed the “Model S”) that Henry Ford built in the early twentieth century. Its importance rests less in its origin, however, than in the speed with which it could be built, and thus in a model of production—the assembly line—that has become synonymous with American industry and the mass market. We might also think of how Ford’s strategy in promoting a very specific model of private transportation has become part of a larger legacy—the production of carbon dioxide and its cumulative effects on global warming.

Models in the history of science and in the academy have had similar modular effects. During the Renaissance and early Enlightenment simplified models of planetary motion permitted astronomers and cosmographers to peer into the workings of the heavens and to slowly displace biblical interpretations of the place of human beings in the universe. Yet such abstract, representational models that mirror reality are hardly the only ones employed by scientists today. As Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and M. Norton Wise explain in Comptes Rendus, models also can work by analogy—for instance from animals to human organisms—and explore systems, rather than discrete particles. From the study of DNA and string theory to emphasis on "microhistories," models that focus on situated, dynamic interaction have come to offer a powerful alternative to science based on the application of universal laws.

Modeling by analogy has important implications for how knowledge is extrapolated from one case to another. Also in Comptes Rendus, Mary Ann Case, a lawyer and former Law and Public Affairs Fellow, brings this issue into daily life, sharing her research on sex-segregation in restrooms and the ways that gender modeling structures even our most intimate spaces. She asks why the restroom is the last bastion of sex-segregation--should the restrooms of the future be constructed with “she-inals,” on the male model, or on something entirely different? Can we move without or beyond our models?

The ways in which models or paradigms unconsciously structure our experience of reality has been an important issue for historians from Thomas Kuhn to Michel Foucault. Several contributors to this issue discuss the dominance across the social sciences of rational actor models drawn from economics. There is much evidence that models in economics have indeed become normative as well as analytic, and that even universities have increasingly succumbed to pressures to think of themselves and their students in terms of the vicissitudes of markets. In Innovations, Stanley Katz reflects on “model builders” at the Woodrow Wilson School and the long (and in many ways alternative) history of liberal education as a means to produce model citizens.

The “Western Canon” represents a powerful model for education. The Princeton campus once prominently displayed a statue of a male model—“The Princeton Student,” also known as the “Christian Student.” But now, perhaps because the university has become more diverse, this model has been relegated to the lobby of the Jadwyn Gym. In the Forum, Mike Mahoney and Melani McAlister discuss the model student and the dystopia of a classroom in which curiosity is replaced by careful attention to what the professor wants to hear. In the Interview, New Yorker editor and Princeton alumnae David Remnick discusses his education at the university, as well as the contemporary publishing industry, Russia, and the fatal failure of the press to “get the story” on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In 4Q & 4A, three Princeton professors—Stanley Corngold, Ruben Gallo, and Nigel Smith—discuss their careers in modeling, from the classroom to the photo-set and the stage, forcing us to consider our own role models as well as our role as models to others.

- The Editors
John Borneman (Anthropology), Gyan Prakash (History), Barry Jacobs (Psychology)

- Graduate Student Editors
Alexander Bick is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
Vera Keller is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
Peter Kurie is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology
Anthony Petro is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion
Sidhartha Goyal is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics