Vodka and Dogs

So why all the talk about Vodka if Patrick is really looking for a discussion of dogs? Neither he nor I drink (ok, every now and then…but I was voted “most likely to be sober” by my freshman dorm). Well, I think the discussion about Vodka speaks to the dog breeding issue.

The diffusion of Vodka from a regional and cultural meme to a global consumable is one example of a product that fits the “Diffusion of Innovations” theory presented by Everett Rogers in his 1962 book of the same name. Rogers’ work is based on the “technology adoption life-cycle,” which is a sociological model developed by researchers Bohlen and Beal to track the adoption of hybrid seed corn by farmers in Iowa. The technology adoption life-cycle model describes the diffusion of a new technology as influenced by the demographic and psychological characteristics of five defined adopter groups:

Innovators -> Early Adopters -> Early Majority -> Late Majority -> Laggards

“Fire water” started out as a localized innovation created by skilled and venturesome people. They applied the cutting edge technology of distillation to the old methods of creating booze and created a new product, they were “Innovators.” Innovators are typically risk takers, highly informed, gathering information from multiple sources, and have the means to bring theory into reality.

Once a new product or technology is created, Roger’s theory suggests that adoption of that product follows a bell curve (or s-curve when you look at cumulative saturation):

Not every product or innovation makes it through the whole process, in fact most don’t. As you’d expect, most innovations are only enjoyed by their innovators and never reach a mass appeal or audience. But the rare advancement that is good enough to make it off of mom’s fridge will likely follow this adoption scheme.

Bohlen and Beal’s original study dealt with hybrid corn as the innovation and various classes of farmers comprised the adopter groups. The demographic and psychographic classification of these farmer groups was established by the North Central Rural Sociology Committee’s Study of the Diffusion of Farm Practices. The finders were such:

Innovators: had larger farms, were more educated, more prosperous, and more risk-oriented
Early Adopters: younger, more educated, tended to be community leaders
Early Majority: more conservative but open to new ideas, active in community with high rates of influence on and from neighbors
Late Majority: older, less educated, fairly conservative and with dwindling social connections
Laggards: very conservative, small farms and small capital, oldest and least educated, limited social interaction

Customers often adapt technology to their own needs, so the innovation may change in nature from the early adopters to the majority of users, and often does. There are numerous examples of innovations that only crossed the chasm from Early Adopters into an Early Majority when they became marketed as ‘toys’ instead of ‘tools’ (think laser pens, the Slinky, kites, fireworks, CDs and DVDs).

Some of these innovations might have two or more diffusion cycles if you look at the initial intended market vs. the world market. For example, vodka most likely reached market saturation within the cultural groups closely associated with its creation long before it became an export product to the world market. The initial adoption locus could be modeled with its own bell curve with certain farmers and villagers being the early adopters and other villages being laggards, etc. When vodka became a world export good, this initial market could easily be lumped together into the Innovator and Early Adopter groups for the second wave model.

Two distinct diffusion waves for vodka is the reason that we still see the cultural groups who inherited it from the original innovators and early adopters drinking it straight. It reached saturation in the original market in its undiluted form. Vodka’s appeal today for these people is supplemented by its cultural and historical significance as well as on its own (caustic) merits.

Following the lead of master mixocologist Dmitri Mendeleev, the second wave of vodka adoption reached the global market because the product was watered down, refined, and appealed to a wider audience in a form that was competitive with the wider audience’s existing drinks of choice. It had to be a more agreeable product because it had to steal market share and it couldn’t rely on cultural fondness since it was culturally incongruous outside of its native region.

Mendeleev and the Perfect Vodka

Before Dmitri Mendeleev’s scientific divination of the optimal taste profile of a vodka served neat, the drink was a regional curiosity. It was overly potent and the nasty burn was its signature quality, thus the traditional names for the stuff all making reference to burning. Vodka’s less desirable qualities where perhaps what made it a cultural phenomenon in the land of its creation. ‘We can produce the most potent fire water and we drink it like men!’

This phenomenon is not uncommon. Many modern cultures have bizarre, nasty, or unpalatable traditional foods that endure as memes: “we do it this way because we have always done it this way.” “Tradition!” “It’s OUR culture.”

Iceland has hakarl, rotten shark meat bathed in urea. The Philippines have balut, boiled duck embryo. The Chinese eat dog. In Togo they eat rats. The American hamburger is taboo and revolting to many a Hindu. Many denizens of the world enjoy insects on their plates, but the closest most Americans come is a crab or lobster on a special occasion. The only reason I ever tried a Rocky Mountain Oyster is because it has Rocky Mountain in the name and is something of a local curiosity here in Colorado.

“The purpose of continuing to eat these foods makes the rituals real and distinguishes the festival culture from everyday life—it reinforces history. By eating these foods—which can be hard to eat—you prove your tie to the community”
– Nan Rothschild, an archaeologist at Barnard College in New York.

Can the same not be said of dog breeding? How many people do you know that select their breed based upon historical ties to their culture or a culture they admire? How many of them pursue activities that reinforce history or prove their tie to the breed? Many of those activities are not easy, cheap, or accessible; and yet they persist.

I contend that the “small number of trial handlers” that Donald McCaig says dominate “stockdog culture” see themselves as inheritors of the legacy of the first wave of Border Collie diffusion. The wave that saw a few dogs that were a regional curiosity become an almost ubiquitous and essential farm implement in the United Kingdom. Farmers today aren’t part of the innovators or early adopters, as the use of the Border Collie as the premiere sheepdog already reached saturation acceptance in generations past. But the cultural theory still applies.

Sheep trials today are rituals and the larger trials are certainly festivals. They do reinforce history, right down to which dogs get bred and which don’t. In truth, the examination of a pedigree has more to do with paying homage to history and trying to recapture some of its glory that it does in informing a breeding decision. A big name dog a few generations back has a much larger psychological effect on the breeder than that dog’s genes have a physiological effect on the puppies.

The trialing of a working bred border collie is a difficult endeavor and a working bred border collie can be as unpalatable to the masses as undiluted vodka.

The true innovation of vodka was that it could be produced in higher initial concentrations than other alcoholic beverages like wine or beer. The advancement in distillation techniques allowed for proofs of over 190 (where 200 is the theoretical limit of pure alcohol, despite ethanol distillation’s limit of 95.6% ethanol and 4.4% water by weight due to that mixture being an azeotrope–the concentration of the vapor is the same as the concentration of the liquid meaning that you can’t boil off any more water without boiling off the same ratio of alcohol).

Vodka wasn’t special because it tasted good, was cheaper, easier to drink, or even easier to produce. It was special because it was much more powerful than the existing alternatives. It gave you an experience you couldn’t have with the other varieties of booze. There were other alcoholic drinks like wine and beer, but vodka is clearly in a different league when it comes to potency.

The same can be said of the Border Collie. Its early adoption was due to its superior ability to herd sheep. There were other dogs that could meet some of the needs, but the BC was clearly more powerful than the alternatives. It could do things with livestock that you simply couldn’t do with another dog.

The Border Collie is a technological innovation and those farmers were Innovators. It’s no small coincidence that the Border Collie was created and refined in the same place and time as waves of Agricultural Improvement and the Industrial Revolution were bringing great changes to England and Europe.

And just like with vodka, there are at least two waves of adoption of the Border Collie. The first wave established the Border Collie as a sine qua non herding tool. The second wave is going on right now as the Border Collie finds its market off of the farm as a pet, a dog sport athlete, and in a myriad of working jobs that don’t involve sheep and cattle.

There exists everywhere a medium in things, determined by equilibrium. The Russian proverb says, ‘Too much salt or too little salt is alike an evil.’
– Dmitri Mendeleev

Just like with vodka, the second wave is not beholden to the culture of the first wave. The second wave has changed and is changing the border collie to suit its own needs and to its own taste. As with vodka, the cultural adopters prefer to evoke the old name “working sheepdog” to distinguish their product from the “border collie” that is in the mind’s eye of the masses. And just like with vodka, the public prefers a version that is more balanced and more palatable than the version that meets the taste of the old timers.

And like vodka, much respect and homage is paid to the motherland and the history and culture gleaned from her shores, but in reality, the centers of production have moved and the old country now imports quality goods from lands she used to only export goods to.

So for all the talk of watering down the breed, perhaps the self appointed cultural elite might consider that most of us like our border collies like the majority likes their vodka, in the perfect equilibrium, and that means a little watered down from the industrial distillation that places concentration above palatability.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.