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Taking My Lumps in an Ever Flattening World


Coclanis, Peter A. (2007). Taking My Lumps in an Ever Flattening World. Historically Speaking, 9, 40.


The World is Flat is perhaps the most widely read (or at least sold) volume on globalization yet to appear on the scene. Although Friedman's central point is well taken—the world is in fact getting smaller and more closely integrated as a result of stunning breakthroughs in transportation and communications in recent decades—the author's many critics are also correct in pointing out that Friedman's argument shouldn't be taken literally, for many lumps remain. A recent experience of mine certainly brought the latter point home to me. I'll try to explain, but let me warn unwary readers to follow closely, for things quickly get complicated and messy. The world may be getting flatter, but a pancake it ain't! I am an economic historian by training and hold an academic post in the southeastern part of the United States. Several years ago while doing research in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Prince, I mean, Burma), I unearthed some very interesting historical data relating to a technical area of economic history known as historical anthropometrics , that is, the study of human height, stature, and nutrition in past time periods. I had previously done some work in this field, often in collaboration with an economist working out of Munich. After returning to the U.S. and analyzing my data in a preliminary way, I e-mailed my economist friend in Munich last summer to see whether he might be interested in another collaboration. He got back to me forthwith—again by e-mail—saying that he was tied up for the time being, but that he could recommend a friend of his as a potential collaborator : an economist from Corsica, trained in Marseilles, but now holding a research position in Tokyo. As luck or, at any rate, fate would have it, I was about to begin a visiting professorship in Singapore, and thought his recommendation propitious. You know, working in Asia on an Asian research project with a collaborator in Asia, albeit by way of Corsica. In any case, my Munich friend—a Hungarian, by the way, who as a kid migrated to Chicago, my hometown, and grew up not far from me (although we never met until we were adults)—e-mailed Tokyo, effecting a mutual introduction. The Corsican and I took it from there, and (by e-mail) agreed to collaborate. In September 2005, shordy after arriving in Singapore , I sent copies of my research materials (via overnight package delivery service) to Tokyo, and during the fall we began working together on a paper relating to Burma based on these materials. We worked quickly because each of us wanted to get a lot done during that term: I would be returning to the U.S. before Christmas and my Corsican collaborator in Tokyo would be taking up a new position in Canberra, Australia comeJanuary. To our good fortune , we made sufficient progress during the fall to write up a proposal to deliver our preliminary findings at a major conference to be held in Strasbourg in late June 2006. To our greater good fortune, our proposal was accepted onto the program. During die winter and spring of 2006, we continued to work on the paper—from North Carolina and Australia respectively —and exchanged drafts (as e-mail attachments ) regularly. By the end of May, we had a decent working draft of our paper in hand, with pretty robust results, I might add. Indeed, emboldened by the progress we had made, my collaborator suggested that I arrange to have a seminar set up in Singapore for him, the idea being that he stop off in the island nation on the way from Canberra to the conference in France. I have good contacts at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and was happy to use them to arrange for such a seminar. As luck (fate?) would have it, my older son happened to be studying at NUS last summer , and I told him about the seminar, hoping that he might attend, if only to...


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Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Historically Speaking


Coclanis, Peter A.