Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Was the Civil Rights movement a revolution?

photo: African-American newsman attacked by mob in Little Rock, 1957 (link)

I think of the results of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States as the second American revolution, though a slow-moving one. And it is tempting to think of MLK as one of the founding fathers of this revolution. Is this an exaggeration or a legitimate historical and sociological judgment? Was this struggle comparable in any way to the experience of France in 1789, Cuba in 1953, or Teheran in 1979?

It is true that this period lacked some of the common attributes of a revolution -- in particular, it did not lead to regime change or fundamental change in the system of government. But it resulted in a fundamental realignment of power in the United States nonetheless. It profoundly changed the terms of inequality embodied in the race regime of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. It decisively closed the door on the idea of second-class citizenship for African Americans in the United States, and ultimately for other social and ethnic groups, and it broke up forever the foundations of white power and white supremacy through which this subordination was maintained.

It is important to remember the brutality and comprehensiveness of the system of Jim Crow relations between white and black people that prevailed in much of the United States in the 1920s into the 1950s. The photo above captures this system for me: resistance to demanded forms of subordination was met with physical violence. Jerrold Packard provides a detailed and graphic inventory of the code of the Jim Crow system in American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, and Danielle McGuire's At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power offers a focused look at the way the Southern racial system worked for women. This system of subordination extended to virtually all forms of ordinary life: employment, residence, politics, family life, education, and ordinary street behavior. And it was a durable system, reproducing itself through generations of assertive displays of white power. (See also C. Vann Woodward's 1955 book The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Anne Valk and Leslie Brown's moving collection of oral history interviews in Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South.)

The civil rights movement challenged every dimension of this system. African Americans of every level of society demanded equality and rights of access to all of the crucial activities of ordinary life: transportation, schools, voting rights, political participation, and the full expression of human dignity. And many thousands of black men and women showed their courage and commitment in standing up to the violence that enforced this system. This includes the famous -- King, Parks, Abernathy, Lewis, Malcolm; but it also includes the many thousands of ordinary people whose names are now forgotten but who accepted beatings to register to vote or enroll in segregated schools.

So if a revolution may be described as a fundamental change in the power relations in a society, brought about by the concerted effort of a large-scale collective movement, then indeed, the civil rights movement brought about a revolution in America. Doug McAdam's fine sociology of American race relations and the civil rights movement is right to call this an insurgency in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. It was an insurgency that was broadly based, passionately pursued, supported by effective regional and national organizations, and largely successful in achieving its most important goals.

It barely needs saying that this revolution is not complete. Tom Sugrue found a good phrase to capture the story in the title of his recent book, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. But further progress will build upon the cultural and structural changes brought about by these courageous and committed ordinary men and women in waging revolution against an oppressive social order.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and "elite status". Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. "If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships."

Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society -- able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine's, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is "elite"?

To start, "elite" is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn't automatically create an "elite" in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.

But "elite" also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as "elite". Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.

Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.

Pierre Bourdieu's theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status -- school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles -- are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu's approach:
One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)
Bourdieu uses the language of "consecration" -- the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.

The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul's School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton's central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that "track" students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:

What they mean by "class projects" is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.

Khan's reading of St. Paul's School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:
All of this is to say that the 'new' inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)
The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.
And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)
These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Philosophy of social science and the graduate student

Is there any reason to think that a course in philosophy of social science can be helpful for a graduate student in sociology or political science (or education, public health, or public policy)? Is this part of philosophy a useful contribution to a PhD education in the social sciences?

I think there are several reasons to support this idea. I believe that a good course in this area can help the aspiring researcher extend his or her imagination and modes of inquiry in ways that can make the first years of research particularly fruitful. In what ways is this so? There are several, in my view.

First, though, I must confess that it wasn't always so. The courses I took in philosophy of science and philosophy of social science as an undergraduate were in fact stultifying and discouraging rather than eye-opening and expanding. There was the idea that the nature of "science" had been settled by the Vienna Circle, that there was an all-encompassing model for explanation and justification (the hypothetico-deductive method), and that the significant problems facing young social scientists had to do with forming adequate concepts and finding ways of operationalizing these concepts to test them against the world of observable data. Essentially, then, the work of the social scientist was simply to fill in the blanks in a schema that had already been prepared. (I'm thinking in particular of two textbooks, Hempel (Philosophy of Natural Science) and Rudner (Philosophy of Social Science).)

And the anti-positivist reaction to this kind of philosophy of science wasn't much more helpful. Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Hanson pointed out the shortcomings of the theory of science contained in logical positivism. But they didn't have much to say that was very specific or helpful when it came to the task of formulating theories and hypotheses that would serve to explain social outcomes. So I wouldn't have said that the typical course in philosophy of science in the 1980s was particularly valuable for the young researcher either.

But the situation in this field changed in the 1990s and after. Most important, many philosophers who took up the philosophy of social science embraced the idea that the field needed to be developed in tandem with the real problems of research and explanation that sociologists and political scientists grappled with. PSS could not remain an apriori discipline; instead, the philosopher needed to gain expert understanding of the disputes and problems that were under debate in the disciplines of the social sciences. (This switch occurred even a little earlier in the philosophy of biology and philosophy of psychology.) Philosophers needed to work as peers and colleagues with social scientists.

And once philosophers began to step away from the dogmas of received formulations of philosophy of science, they began to ask new questions. What is a good explanation? How does social causation work? What is a causal mechanism in the social world? What kind of thing is a social structure? How do structures maintain their causal properties over time? How do individual actors contribute to social causation? These are all questions that are intertwined with the ordinary reasoning that talented sociologists and political scientists are led to through their own efforts at theory formation. And philosophers found helpful mid-level locations from which to address questions like these in ways that made substantive contributions to the concrete work of social research and inquiry.

Here are some concrete results. Philosophers have worked productively to help arrive at better ways of treating social causation. They have clarified the nature of social causal mechanisms. They have brought new clarity to questions about the relationships among levels of social and individual activity. They have highlighted the centrality of the idea of microfoundations. They have helped to dissolve the apparent contradiction between structural causation and actor-centered social processes. They have problematized the assumptions we sometimes make about social kinds and social generalizations. They have directed new attention to the ways that we characterize the actor in the social world. And it seems to me that each of these kinds of insights makes a difference to the researcher in training.

So, indeed, it makes good sense to offer a challenging course in the philosophy of social science to PhD students in the social sciences. This isn't because there is a new set of verities that these young researchers need to master. Rather, it is because the nature of the current discussions in the philosophy of social science parallels very nicely the process of theory formation and development that we would like to see take place in sociology and political science. We would like to see the exercise of intelligent imagination by social researchers, unconstrained by the dogmas of methodology or ontology that a discipline is all too ready to provide. The social world is strikingly and permanently surprising, with novel conjunctions of processes and causes leading to unexpected outcomes. we need new ways of thinking about the social world and the social sciences, and philosophy of social science can help stimulate some of that thinking.

Here are the books I'll be discussing in my graduate course in philosophy of social science this semester:

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hip hop, the boardroom, and the street

What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn't simply mirror the street -- it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.

Byron Hurt's very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. "Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay" (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.

Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.

This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.

And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation -- political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X ClanKRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn't often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don't make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)

Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:
That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)
And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: "The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don't think that's a coincidence.... The music became less and less conscious" (43:30).

Imani Perry's Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:
The combination of democracy ("speak your piece") and meritocracy ("be the best MC") that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)
This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.

(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

What is a European?

One of the great achievements of the establishment of the European Union was the beginnings of a broader transnational identity from Spain to Finland — or so it seemed for a decade or so. But is this even a coherent idea? Is it credible to imagine that the citizens of Spain, Greece, Latvia, France, and Finland would come to see themselves as fellow “Europeans” rather than Spaniards, Greeks, Latvians, Frenchmen and women, and Finns? What would be the content of such a pan-European identity? How would it come about?

One of the theorists who believed that a pan-European identity was possible was Karl Marx. His view was partial but emphatically trans-national: he believed that international working men and women could come to have a shared class identity that transcended national boundaries. But the mobilization of working class men and women into the armies of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia in 1914 provided a harsh reality check on that notion, at least in the historical circumstances of the early twentieth century. It appeared that nation and patriotic feelings trumped class and international solidarity. (Here is a very interesting collection edited by Marcello Musto, The International Workingmen's Association, that provides some of the founding documents and later discussions of Marx's version of internationalism.)

Willem Maas has given thought to this topic. Maas is the author of Creating European Citizens and Democratic Citizenship and the Free Movement of People. Maas's work focuses on an emerging consensus about rights and citizenship that transcends the various national cultures of the continent.
Since the end of the Second World War, an extensive set of supranational rights has been created in Europe. These rights extend entitlements, impose obligations, and have increasingly been designated with a term traditionally reserved for the relationship between individuals and states: citizenship. (Creating European Citizens, vii)
One part of this very interesting analysis is the notion that people develop their political affinities through the concrete work of building institutions and legislation. So the simple fact that the European Parliament convenes in Strasbourg is itself a potential pathway to a growing collective identity around the civic values articulated within that institution. The establishment and enforcement of civic rights for individuals qua citizens of Europe -- including crucially the right of free movement from one country to another -- created a basis for civic bonds that could play a much larger role in precipitating a European collective identity. And the creation of transnational educational institutions -- the Erasmus project in particular -- has perhaps laid a basis for a more full movement of people and ideas across the face of Europe (link).

An Ur-text on social identities is Ben Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition). According to Anderson, national identities are made, not discovered; social and collective identities are social constructs. In order to understand the collective identities of "Basques", "socialists," or "Tennesseans", we need to identify the mechanisms and pathways through which common political ideas and cultural images are adopted by a group of people. Emmanuel Todd and others describe such a process for the case of France (linklink). And it is not incredible to imagine a social-cultural process through which a thread of “European-ness” could come to play an important role across all these national settings.

At the same time, it is striking to take note of the very great diversity that exists in local cultures and identities across the map of Europe, in terms of values, moral frameworks, personality characteristics, and social perceptions. This is true across countries; but it is also true within countries, with substantial regional, religious, and class differentiation within each country. So it is challenging to speak of a "Spanish identity" without asking, "Which region of Spain? What social class? What ethnic or national minority?" And even more challenging is the idea that there is an emerging "super-identity" that may serve to unify the political consciousness and values of the people of the continent.

What might constitute the core elements of a pan-European identity? We might think of shared beliefs and values; we might think of ideologies and political movements; and we might think of key elements of culture that transcend national boundaries. But it is clear that there is enough diversity across the face of Europe to make substantial convergence around any of these large axes not very likely. Are Europeans more sympathetic to the plight of the poor? Some are -- but some are not. Are Europeans more progressive and liberal than North Americans? The resurgence of the right in Europe makes this dubious as well. Are Europeans more tolerant and accepting of others? The rise of anti-immigrant parties and movements in almost every European country makes that idea dubious as well.

Several of these considerations suggest that there are institutional and legal changes underway in Europe through the institutions of the European Union that may slowly permit a greater cultural and political integration of the people of the continent. Perhaps the very idea of "Europe" may come to play a larger role in the more specific identities that people have in the various countries of Europe -- as the idea of "Canada" serves to bring together the people of British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and the idea of "France" unifies Bretons, Alsatians, and Provenรงals. But it is also clear that there are cultural and political forces working against European integration that are powerful as well. So the future of the "European" in place of the Briton, the German, or the Spaniard is still in doubt.

(See an earlier discussion of an exchange of views between John Rawls and Philippe van Parijs on the topic of a European identity; link. See also this discussion of Andreas Wimmer's theory of methodological nationalism; link.)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups -- race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity -- are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI -- some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff's excellent piece.)

Monday, December 29, 2014

John Levi Martin on theory

I've found the work of John Levi Martin to be particularly original when it comes to rethinking some of the basis assumptions of sociological theory. (Here are a few earlier posts on his work; link, link. John also provided a guest post here.) So I was pleased to receive a copy of his most recent book, Thinking Through Theory. The book takes a fresh look at the role of "theory" in the intellectual work that sociologists do, and it provides valuable guidance to Ph.D. students in sociology as they begin crafting their own intellectual tools. Here is how he introduces his topic:
This book is about the improvement of sociological theory. The focus here is on good thinking. I'm not saying that no one thinks well in our discipline, but we often can do better. Unfortunately, few theorists are explicitly concerned with the issues of how to avoid thinking in circles, how to know when we are contradicting ourselves, how to avoid thinking tautologies are meaningful. (vii)
JLM's central idea about the role of theory is what he calls "theory-work": attempts to "improve the precision, clarity, and coherence of our ideas" (10). Sometimes this means working hard to establish whether two sociological ideas are compatible. More generally, JLM recommends the hard work of teasing out the logical implications of the hypotheses and concepts that we use in attempting to make sense of the social world we encounter. (He calls this work "orthological", or "right-thinking".)

JLM doesn't give this example, but it would appear that Mancur Olson's discovery of the undermining logic of free riding within collective action is an example of what he means by good theory work. In The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups) Olson worked out the implications of the two framing ideas -- self-interested decision-making and the fact of shared interests within a group:
  1. People act in their own best interests.
  2. People have shared interests.
  3. Therefore people act out of regard for their shared interests.
Olson demonstrated that the typical circumstances of groups with shared interests lead us from premise 1 to the negation of conclusion 3. Here Olson does exactly as JLM recommends; he works out the logic of collective action through careful analysis of the premises and the situation.

I like JLM's approach to the logic of theorizing in the social realm, but I find that I occasionally take issue with specific claims he makes. For example, in a brief discussion of Diane Vaughan's treatment of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, he thinks that reference to "institutional culture" is tautological when used to explain behavior within a specific organization. "Institutional culture is itself nothing other than the pattern of social action that takes place in the institutional setting" (35; cf. 45). But a culture is more than an ensemble of behaviors. It is the embodied mental equipment that leads individuals within the institution to act as they do, and it is the microfoundations of training and socialization through which these individuals come to possess that mental equipment. These are organized processes and cognitive realities at both the individual and the ensemble levels, and it is reasonable to attribute a stable reality to them. Different organizations have substantially different cultures and norms, and it is perfectly justified to be realists in referring these cultures and norms as causal factors. This is not a tautology. Frank Dobbin does a good job of articulating this notion in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age (link).

I'm also unconvinced by the categorical position JLM takes on "actors". "There are no collective-level actors" (38). JLM correctly observes that organizations have internal structure, and that the sub-units of the organization contribute to the "decision" the organization makes. But he is insistent that decisions and actions are always conducted by individuals. I agree that there are always microfoundations for an organization's actions at the level of various individuals within the organization (link, link) -- just as there are microfoundations at the level of the neuron for the calculations that the individual considers. But neither set of microfoundations resolves the question of where the level of agency lies. And it seems to me that there are clear cases where an organization functions normally according to its own procedures and arrives at a decision, and it is appropriate to attribute the agency to the organization rather than the individual who signed the last document. Awarding tenure within a university is a good example. Decisions are made at a range of levels, subject to locally enforced procedures and criteria, and tenure is recommended. The fact that the provost is the final stop in the process doesn't mean that the action belongs to her alone.

These are not inconsequential quibbles. Rather, they contribute to a recommendation to JLM, to be more receptive to an appropriately developed realism when it comes to mid-level social structures and actors. JLM is right in saying that realists need to be substantially more rigorous in theorizing the entities and forces that they purport to identify at the meso (supra-individual) level (100). He is appropriately critical of some aspects of critical realism. But that doesn't mean that realism is illusory. Hard work is need to show how an organizational culture wields causal power, how a fiscal agency "decides" an interest rate policy, or how regulatory agencies are systematically subverted. And in my view, we need some new theoretical tools to allow us to arrive at a solid actor-centered social realist answer to these kinds of questions. But the questions themselves are legitimate and important.

This is a bold book. At bottom it is a call for rethinking almost all of the theoretical concepts that we use in the social sciences -- norm, institution, rationality, actor. JLM wants sociology to question its premises and look differently at the domain of the social world. I agree with him that this rethinking is needed. There are quite a few disparate voices attempting to do just that -- Fligstein and McAdam, for example, and Crozier and Friedberg before them (link, link), in their innovative efforts at joining actors and structures. Thinking Through Theory is a worthy contribution to this effort.

(Here is one of my own earlier efforts to confront the topic of theory in sociology; link. As noted in the post, Gabriel Abend has also done excellent work in clarifying the several uses of "theory" in sociology; link.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn't really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these -- no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith's view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else -- the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really solve the fundamental problem: society's inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Monday, December 15, 2014

George and Bennett on case study methodology

Establishing causal relationships within the fabric of the social world is more challenging than in the biological or physical-chemical domains. The reasons for this difficulty are familiar — the high degree of contextuality and contingency that is characteristic of social change, the non-deterministic character of social causation, and the fact that most social outcomes are the result of unforeseen conjunctions of independent influences, to name several.

Alexander George and Andrew Bennett argue for the value of a case-study method of social research in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. The idea here is that social researchers can learn about the causation of particular events and sequences by examining them in detail and in comparison with carefully selected alternative examples.

Here is how they describe the case-study method:
The method and logic of structured, focused comparison is simple and straightforward. The method is “structured” in that the researcher writes general questions that reflect the research objective and that these questions are asked of each case under study to guide and standardize data collection, thereby making systematic comparison and cumulation of the findings of the cases possible. The method is “focused” in that it deals only with certain aspects of the historical cases examined. The requirements for structure and focus apply equally to individual cases since they may later be joined by additional cases. (67)
George and Bennett believe that the techniques and heuristics of the case study approach permit the researcher to arrive at rigorous and differentiated hypotheses about underlying social processes. In particular, they believe that the method of process-tracing has substantial power in social research, permitting the researcher to move from the details of a particular historical case to more general hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes in other contexts as well (6). They discourage research strategies based on the covering-law model, in which researchers would seek out high-level generalizations about social events and outcomes: “highly general and abstract theories … are too general to make sharp theoretical predictions or to guide policy” (7). But they also note the limits of policy relevance of “independent, stable causal mechanisms” (7), because social mechanisms interact in context-dependent ways that are difficult or impossible to anticipate. It is therefore difficult to design policy interventions based on knowledge of a few relevant and operative mechanisms within the domain of behavior the policy is expected to govern, since the workings of the mechanisms in concrete circumstances are difficult to project.

Fundamentally they align with the causal mechanisms approach to social explanation. Here is how they define a causal mechanism:
We define causal mechanisms as ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entities. In so doing, the causal agent changes the affected entity’s characteristics, capacities, or propensities in ways that press until subsequent causal mechanisms act upon it. (137)
And they believe that the case-study method is a suite of methodological approaches that permit identification and exploration of underlying causal mechanisms.
The case study approach – the detailed examination of an aspect of a historical episode to develop or test historical explanations that may be generalizable to other events – has come in and out of favor over the past five decades as researchers have explored the possibilities of statistical methods … and formal models. (5)
The case study method is designed to identify causal connections within a domain of social phenomena.
Scientific realists who have emphasized that explanation requires not merely correlational data, but also knowledge of intervening causal mechanisms, have not yet had much to say on methods for generating such knowledge. The method of process-tracing is relevant for generating and analyzing data on the causal mechanisms, or processes, events, actions, expectations, and other intervening variables, that link putative causes to observed effects. (214)
How is that to be accomplished? The most important tool that George and Bennett describe is the method of process tracing. "The process-tracing method attempts to identify the intervening causal process--the causal chain and causal mechanism--between an independent variable (or variables) and the outcome of the dependent variable" (206). Process tracing requires the researcher to examine linkages within the details of the case they are studying, and then to assess specific hypotheses about how these links might be causally mediated. 

Suppose we are interested in a period of violent mobilization VM in the countryside at time t, and we observe a marked upswing of religious participation RP in the villages where we have observations. We might hypothesize that the surge of religious participation contributed causally to the political mobilization that ensued. But a process-tracing methodology requires that we we consider as full a range of alternative possibilities as we can: that both religious and political activism were the joint effect of some other social process; that religious participation was caused by political mobilization rather than caused that mobilization; that the two processes were just contingent and unrelated simultaneous developments. What can we discover within the facts of the case that would allow us to disentangle these various causal possibilities? If RP was the cause of VM, there should be traces of the influence that VM exerted within the historical record -- priests who show up in the interrogation cells, organizational linkages that are uncovered through archival documents, and the like. This is the work of process tracing in the particular case. And I agree with George and Bennett that there is often ample empirical evidence available in the historical record to permit this kind of discovery.

Finally, George and Bennett believe that process-tracing can occur at a variety of levels:
The simplest variety of process-tracing takes the form of a detailed narrative or story presented in the form of a chronicle that purports to throw light on how an event came about.... A substantially different variety of process-tracing converts a historical narrative into an analytical causal explanation couched in explicit theoretical forms.... In another variety of process-tracing, the investigator constructs a general explanation rather than a detailed tracing of a causal process. (210-211)
One of the strengths of the book is an appendix presenting a very good collection of research studies that illustrate the case study methodology that they explore. There are examples from American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. These examples are very helpful because they give substance to the methodological ideas presented in the main body of the book.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New tools for college success


Today is the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action in Washington DC. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have spearheaded this effort to increase the participation levels of disadvantaged students in post-secondary education. Several hundred presidents of universities around the country have come together in Washington to share best practices in encouraging college participation and college success for all Americans, including low income and educationally disadvantaged young people. The disparity in college attendance rates between the top and bottom quartiles of family income is shocking, even when we control for SAT/ACT performance. (Various estimates were offered today, including an estimate of more than 75% attendance in the top quartile versus less than 10% for the bottom quartile.)

Central themes for the day include several important ideas: using big data sets of disaggregated information on student performance to refine curriculum and pedagogy, using new technologies in support of more effective teaching and learning, and controlling the cost of higher education. Participants have emphasized a crucial point: economically and socially disadvantaged students are not provided the support and advising in their early years that are necessary to help them feel that college is a feasible path for them. And the challenge of learning about the college application process and the financial aid process is a high hurdle for disadvantaged first-generation students and families. Measuring academic success and improving successful completion are critical issues facing every university. And finding ways of changing the attitudes of disadvantaged students and families towards the feasibility of college is urgently needed.

There is some very facile talk about the connection between the last two topics -- technology and cost. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, was particularly outspoken on this topic. But it is important to remember that a quality education costs money to support, it requires committed faculty members who develop meaningful relations with their students, it requires effective support services, and we are right to be suspicious of claims to dramatically reduce those costs. Learning is more complex than simply being exposed to great online graphically rich course materials and video lectures. Of course we should be searching for innovations that work to improve learning and control costs, and many examples were presented today. But hoping for a magic pill, whether Udacity, Khan Academy, or Coursera, that leads to great college-level learning and costs almost nothing is chimerical. The idea of a $10,000 bachelor's degree is such a chimera, beloved in some state houses but unattainable at an acceptable level of quality of outcome for the graduates.

More promising is the strategy of using realtime student learning data to finetune and focus the learning process to achieve greater success outcomes for students. Can a calculus teacher or an entry-level chemistry professor use realtime data during the semester to identify individual students and topics that require greater attention? Can entry-level courses in psychology, statistics, or biology be redesigned using this kind of data to improve the flow of topics and pedagogy to address sticking points? Can this kind of data provide some guides to designing better uses of new technologies in the university learning process?

There are some good examples of these kinds of uses of big data within universities. Here are some examples supporting student advising (link) and student success (link). And here is a review of recent thinking on the use of big data in several sectors including universities (link). We might call this "student success 2.0," and every university is well advised to find ways of using these tools to improve retention and student success.

A particularly difficult challenge for universities is how to handle incoming students who are under-prepared for college-level math courses. It would be fantastic if there were proven bridge programs that succeed in bringing students from where they are when they leave high school to where they need to be in order to succeed in STEM fields in college. Are there good examples of such programs that effectively use new technology, great teachers, and big data to support real student progress?

One thing is clear: there is no magic bullet that ensures that the student with a weak grasp of algebra is instantly ready for Calculus I. But are there cutting-edge examples of bridge curricula that take students barely at a ninth-grade level of math skills to an ability to perform adequately in an entry-level college math course? Are there examples in use that make good use of technology and realtime data to customize the educational experience to support this degree of academic progress?

The challenge of increasing college attendance and completion for disadvantaged students is one of the most important social issues we face. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the point this morning, the disaffection of disadvantaged young people in our country is at a crisis level. We must find ways of providing real pathways towards good jobs and middle class lives for the least advantaged young people in our society, and improving college access and improving attendance and completion are crucial steps towards that end.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shaping of inner-city African-American experience

It is recognized by ethnographers that place and history mean a great deal in the everyday experience that people have in their neighborhoods — villages, industrial towns, universities. The ways that we perceive the world and the patterns of action and reaction that we bring to it are profoundly shaped by the histories and practices of the communities in which we live. Current-day social reality is a path-dependent consequence of our pasts.

Elijah Anderson provides a striking exploration of this basic insight in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, his 1999 ethnographic reflection on inner-city Philadelphia. Anderson wants to understand the content of the "code of the street" -- the values around which young inner-city men and women orient their actions and aspirations. And, in the urban world of the late 1990s in America, a lot of that code circles around violence and aggression. Anderson wants to know how inner-city youth think about violence, and he wants to understand why impoverished urban neighborhoods have become so much more violent than their counterparts were when W.E.B. Dubois studied them early in the twentieth century.
Here I take up more directly the theme of interpersonal violence, particularly between and among inner-city youths. While youth violence has become a problem of national scope, involving young people of various classes and races, in this book I am concerned with why it is that so many inner-city young people are inclined to commit aggression and violence toward one another. (preface)
Here is a strong description of the underculture of violence that Anderson identifies on Germantown Avenue:
The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor—the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, limited basic public services (police response in emergencies, building maintenance, trash pickup, lighting, and other services that middle-class neighborhoods take for granted), the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and absence of hope for the future. (kl 430)
Consistent with the basis ethnographic insight mentioned above, Anderson wants to understand two things: what is the "code of the street"; what are those norms of behavior and masculinity that come together in inner-city Philadelphia (or Detroit, Miami, or Chicago)? And second, what were the historical and social circumstances that shaped the emergence of this set of norms?

Here is Anderson's preliminary answer to the first question:
At the heart of this code is a set of prescriptions and proscriptions, or informal rules, of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public social relations, especially violence, among so many residents, particularly young men and women. Possession of respect -- and the credible threat of vengeance -- is highly valued for shielding the ordinary person from the interpersonal violence of the street. (kl 74)
The answer to the second question is more complex. A part of Anderson's answer has to do with widespread alienation among urban young people from the legitimacy of basic social institutions, including the criminal justice system. But the more general historical cause that he explores is the history of racial discrimination and impoverishment that American cities have almost always witnessed. Racism and almost insurmountable segregation have created a thoroughly disaffected underclass in American cities.

Anderson's framing of his topic is very similar to the perspective argued above about situated knowledge. Here Anderson highlights the links that exist between social cognition, conceptual frames, and behavior:
How do the people of the setting perceive their situation? What assumptions do they bring to their decision making? What behavioral patterns result from these actions? What are the social implications and consequences of these behaviors? (kl 106)
A particularly powerful part of the book is Anderson's extensive use of individual stories -- decent people, crack addicts, young mothers, working poor, and others. The long story of John Turner, the final chapter in the book, is particularly powerful. These stories serve to document Anderson's key lines of interpretation -- the meaning of the street code, the way the violence of the street is experienced and accommodated, the ways that these men and women think about the world they inhabit. This use of detailed personal stories from field notes means that the reader has at least a degree of independence from Anderson's narrative, since there is always the possibility of interpreting these vignettes differently from Anderson.

Here Anderson quotes an older man at the funeral of a young man from the neighborhood:
I knew the boy well. I always warned him about these drugs, but he couldn’t resist. He knew. I told him I’d come to his funeral. And this is what I’m doing. It is a shame. But you know, it is the system. It is the system. No jobs. No education. And the drugs are all about. You realize what amount of drugs come in here [the neighborhood]. That’s not us. It is them. The white people. They bring the drugs in here. They don’t want us to have nothing. But this is what they give us. All this death and destruction. I know a boy did shoot him, but it was really the system. The system. (kl 2276)
It is striking to compare the ethnography that Anderson constructs with that presented by Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. The topics of violence, the drug trade, and a culture of fundamental disaffection are distinctly not the focus of Young's research or his central findings. In conversation Young takes the view that these themes are over-emphasized in media presentations of urban problems, and often sensationalized. Instead, Young seeks to uncover the thought processes through which the young men he studies think about work and life aspiration. And yet the housing projects of Chicago are not very different from the lower reaches of Germantown Avenue. Are these ethnographers contradictory, or are they simply separate threads in the complex social and personal realities of inner-city American cities?

(Readers will note that there are many points of convergence between Anderson's cultural sociology in this book and the intricate drama of the streets expressed in The Wire. Here is a nice piece by John Skrentny on culture and race that address some of the same issues; link.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Geddes on methods

Earlier posts have examined some recent thinking about social science methods (link, link). Here I will examine another recent contributor to this field, Barbara Geddes.

Geddes is a specialist in comparative politics, and her 2003 Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about how the social sciences should proceed. Her central concern is with the topic of research design in comparative politics. How should a comparative researcher go about attempting to explain the varying outcomes we observe within the experiences of otherwise similar countries? How can we gain empirical grounds for validating or rejecting causal hypotheses in this field? And how do general theories of politics fare as a basis for explaining these concrete trajectories -- the rise of authoritarianism in one country, the collapse of communism in the USSR, an outbreak of democracy in that country, or a surprising populism in another? Geddes finds that the theories that guided comparative politics in the sixties, seventies, and eighties proved to be inadequate to the task of explaining the twists and turns the political systems of the world took during those decades and argues that the discipline needs to do better.

Geddes's proposed solution to this cul de sac is to bring theory and research design closer together. She wants to find a way of pursuing research in comparative politics that permits for more accumulation of knowledge in the field, both on the side of substantial empirical findings and well grounded theoretical premises. Theoretical premises need to be more carefully articulated, and plans for data collection need to be more purposefully guided so the resulting empirical findings are well suited to evaluating and probing the theoretical premises. Here is a good summary paragraph of her view:
The central message of this book is that we could steer a course through that narrow channel between untested theory and atheoretical data more successfully, and thus accumulate theoretical knowledge more rapidly, if certain research norms were changed. Although research norms are changing, basic principles of research design continue to be ignored in many studies. Common problems include inappropriate selection of cases from which to draw evidence for testing theories and a casual attitude towards nonquantitative measurement, both of which undermine the credibility of evidence gathered to support arguments. The failure to organize and store evidence in ways that make it accessible to others raises the cost of replication and that also slows theoretical progress. Uncritical acceptance by readers of theories that have not undergone systematic empirical test exacerbates the problem. (5)
What does Geddes mean by "theory" in this context? Her examples suggest that she thinks of a theory as a collection of somewhat independent causal hypotheses about a certain kind of large social outcome -- the emergence of democracy or the occurrence of sustained economic development, for example. So when she discusses the validity of modernization theory, she claims that some components were extensively tested and have held up (the correlation between democracy and economic development, for example; 9), whereas other components were not adequately tested and have not survived (the claim that the diffusion of values would rapidly transform traditional societies; 9).

Geddes does not explicitly associate her view of social science inquiry with the causal mechanisms approach. But in fact the intellectual process of inquiry that she describes has a great deal in common with that approach. On her view of theory, the theory comes down to a conjunction of causal hypotheses, each of which can in principle be tested in isolation. What she refers to as “models” could as easily be understood as schematic descriptions of common social mechanisms (33). The examples she gives of models are collective action problems and evolutionary selection of social characteristics; and each of these is a mechanism of social causation.

She emphasizes, moreover, that the social causal factors that are at work in the processes of political and economic development generally work in conjunction with each other, with often unpredictable consequences.
Large-scale phenomena such as democratic breakdown, economic development, democratization, economic liberalization, and revolution result from the convergence of a number of different processes, some of which occur independently from others. No simple theory is likely to explain such compound outcomes.  Instead of trying to "explain" such compound outcomes as wholes, I suggest a focus on the various processes that contribute to the final outcome, with the idea of theorizing these processes individually. (27)
What Geddes's conception of "theory" seems to amount to is more easily formulated in the language of causal mechanisms. We want to explain social outcomes at a variety of levels of scale -- micro, meso, macro. We understand that explanation requires discovery of the causal pathways and processes through which the outcome emerged. We recognize that social outcomes have a great deal of contingency and path dependency, so it is unlikely that a great outcome like democratization will be the result of a single pervasive causal factor. Instead, we look for mid-level causal mechanisms that are in place in the circumstances of interest -- say the outbreak of the Bolshevik uprising; and we attempt to discern the multiple causal factors that converged in these historical circumstances to bring about the outcome of interest. The components of theories to which Geddes refers are accounts of reasonably independent causal mechanisms and processes, and they combine in contingent and historically specific ways.

And in fact she sometimes adopts this language of independent mid-level causal mechanisms:
To show exactly what I mean, in the pages that follow I develop a concrete research strategy that begins with the disaggregation of the big question — why democratization occurs — into a series of more researchable questions about mechanisms. The second step is a theorization of the specific process chosen for study — in this case, the internal authoritarian politics that sometimes lead to transition. The third step is the articulation of testable implications derived from the theorization. (43)
And later:
I argued that greater progress could be made toward actually understanding how such outcomes [as democratization and authoritarian rule] by examining the mechanisms and processes that contribute to them, rather than through inductive searches for the correlates of the undifferentiated whole. (87)
(This parallels exactly the view taken by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention, where they argue systematically for a form of analysis of episodes of contention that attempts to identify recurring underlying processes and mechanisms.)

It emerges that what Geddes has in mind for testing mid-level causal hypotheses is largely quantitative: isolate a set of cases in which the outcome is present and examine whether the hypothesized causal factor varies appropriately across the cases. Do military regimes in fact persist with shorter average duration than civilian authoritarian regimes (78)? Like King, Keohane, and Verba in Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, Geddes is skeptical about causal methods based on comparison of a small number of cases; and like KKV, she is critical of Skocpol's use in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China of Mill's methods in examining the handful of cases of social revolution that she examines. This dismissal of small-N research represents an unwelcome commitment to methodological monism, in my view.

In short, I find Geddes's book to be a useful contribution that aligns more closely than it appears with the causal mechanisms approach to social research. It is possible to paraphrase Geddes's approach to theory and explanation in the language of causal mechanisms, emphasizing meso-level analysis, conjunctural causation, and macro-level contingency. (More on this view of historical causation can be found here.)

Geddes's recommendations about how to probe and test the disaggregated causal hypotheses at which the researcher arrives represent one legitimate approach to the problem of giving greater empirical content to specific hypotheses about causal mechanisms. It is regrettable, however, that Geddes places her flag on the quantitative credo for the social sciences. One of the real advantages of the social mechanisms approach is precisely that we can gain empirical knowledge about concrete social mechanisms through detailed case studies, process tracing, and small-N comparisons of cases that is not visible at the level of higher-level statistical regularities. (A subsequent post will examine George and Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (Belfer Center Studies in International Security), for an alternative view of how to gain empirical knowledge of social processes and mechanisms.)