Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Chuck Tilly




Along with many others, I was saddened today to learn that Chuck Tilly has died after a long fight with cancer. His passing is a very sad loss for his family and for the many scholars and friends who were so influenced by his ongoing thinking and writing. And there are hundreds or thousands of younger scholars who received encouragement and stimulation from Chuck throughout his teaching and writing career. They will feel his loss keenly.

Chuck was a deeply innovative thinker who kept coming up with new ideas and perspectives throughout his career -- from his earliest days as a Harvard graduate student, all the way through his difficult illness. I particularly admire the flexibility of his mind as he grappled with the challenge of explaining contentious action. So many of his ideas will continue to shape the way scholars think about these aspects of social life into the twenty-first century.

He was also a tremendously generous man as an intellectual, scholar, and mentor. People who worked with him at Michigan, the New School, and Columbia as graduate students always speak fondly of his warmth and good humor. The courage he demonstrated in facing his final illness is inspiring.

And, of course, many will think with regret of the many books Chuck still intended to write.

Readers who would like to get a sense of the range of Chuck Tilly's thinking and the fertility of his mind may want to visit an interview I conducted with Chuck in December, 2007. A YouTube version can be found here, and a higher resolution downloadable version is here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

New angles on French history


In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing Robert Darnton's numerous reviews of books on the period of the French Revolution in the New York Review of Books. (Darnton's own book, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, was also a great addition to the seminar -- but that's another posting.)

Written over roughly a twenty-year period, Darnton's smart reviews provide a great perspective on how the historiography of the French Revolution has changed. From the structural, class-centered approach of Albert Soboul, through Richard Cobb's insistence on mentalités, or Simon Schama's person-centered telling of the story, it is possible to see a shifting scene of historians' judgments about causes, structures, ideas, movements, and scale. All by itself this is an important insight into historical understanding. And it illustrates an important fact about historical knowledge: no event is ever known with finality. (This parallels the point made in my recent posting on China's Cultural Revolution.)

But in our discussions we also found that it is possible to look at Darnton's reviews themselves as an extended and implicit historiographical essay. In his commentary on the writings of others Darnton also reveals many of his own historical intuitions. And of course Darnton's own ethnographic turn in The Great Cat Massacre -- evidently worked out while Darnton was teaching an interdisciplinary seminar with Clifford Geertz -- is itself an important step on the historiography of French social change. And so the project of trying to discover whether there is a coherent and innovative philosophy of history nested within these reviews proved to be a fruitful one -- there is. And this provides an interesting new avenue of approach to the problem of formulating a philosophy of history, a different wrinkle on the insight that we can learn a lot from observing the practice of great historians.

Several points come out of this set of reviews quite vividly: for example, the deep contingency of historical change, the importance of the particular, the importance of experience and mentalités, the dialectic of events and agents, and the difficulty of framing a large historical event.

(If you have a subscription to the New York Review of Books, all the reviews are available electronically in the archive.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Philosophy and society

How does philosophy intersect with the social world? How does philosophical thinking contribute to better understanding of society? (At the right we see Jurgen Habermas teaching philosophy in 1960.)

It is possible that philosophy is not a well-defined discipline. But philosophers regard themselves as having something of a method, and something of a subject matter. The method, for analytically trained philosophers, anyway, is based on careful, critical analysis of ideas, concepts, and statements, and an effort to arrive at developed philosophical theories of important subjects: justice, rationality, equality, relativism, social construction, ... The subject matter is a little harder to specify. But there is an open-ended set of subjects that have drawn philosophers' attention for the past several hundred years: empirical knowledge, foundations of mathematics, the nature of the mind, moral truth, political justice, and the foundations of religious belief, for example.

So let's take this cluster of methods and topics to serve as one possible definition of philosophical thought; the question here is, how can philosophical reasoning be focused on understanding the nature of society?

One clear area of intersection is the philosophy of "knowledge of society" -- the philosophy of social science. Here the questions are epistemological -- how secure is the knowledge offered by the social sciences; methodological -- what methods of inquiry are well suited to the study of society; explanatory -- what is required for a good social explanation; and ontological -- what assumptions do we need to make about the nature of the social world in order to pursue social science research? It is fairly clear how philosophers can contribute to the development of theories and perspectives about these questions.

Another area where philosophy is relevant to society is normative social philosophy -- the theory of justice, human well-being, or communitarianism/liberalism, for example. Here the philosopher brings some organized thinking about values, ethical theory, and the messy facts of human social arrangements into the discussion. Here again, it is fairly clear how rigorous philosophical thinking can illuminate these questions; philosophy can help our understanding of these issues to progress.

But in addition to these fairly clear examples of philosophy about society, there seems to be another domain of intersection between philosophy and society that isn't as well charted. This is "empirically and historically informed study of social metaphysics". Many of the postings on this blog fall roughly into this category. Here the philosopher begins with some bits of knowledge about an aspect of the social world -- economic development, the world food system, or social contention; but then asks fairly foundational questions about how we ought to think about the components of these areas of phenomena.

A recurring subject in this blog, for example, is reflection on the question, "Social mechanisms or social regularities?". And the contributions here aren't purely conceptual, purely empirical, or purely inductive; instead, they are "theory informed by concrete examples of real social processes." And this approach to a problem seems different from all of the following -- pure methodology, pure epistemology, ethical theory, empirical investigation, or traditional social scientific theory formation. Instead, this level of philosophizing seems to deliberately call upon a synthesis of some empirical knowledge, some conceptual reflection, and some ontological reasoning. (Might we say that it looks something like a combination of Kant in his synthetic metaphysics, with Newton and Kepler in their theoretical and empirical research?)

(This approach, by the way, is exactly similar to what I want to advocate for the philosophy of history as well: philosophical reflection upon real examples of historical change and historical reasoning; and analysis of genuinely important and difficult problems that arise in both the course of history and the course of historical writing. So my view of the philosophy of history too is one that is neither purely a priori nor an exercise in direct historical scholarship.)

So the question today is -- what is the rational or intellectual standing of the assertions that are made in this synthetic form of philosophy?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Are there patterns of economic development?


There is an old-fashioned and discredited theory that holds that there are only a small number of development trajectories. Crudely, Western Europe's experience -- agricultural modernization, handicraft manufacture, population growth, urbanization, and large-scale mass manufacturing -- is the paradigm and "normal" case, and different processes in other countries are deviations or abnormalities. This is the approach economic historians once took towards Asian economic development; it is substantially refuted by Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience) and Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.).

A somewhat better approach postulates that there are alternative pathways of development, and that English, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian historical experiences of development all illustrate different trajectories. Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin explore this idea (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization). This approach emphasizes path dependence and the salience of institutions in economic development. Thus Robert Brenner maintains that it was differences in the particulars of the social-property relations governing farming that explained English transformation and French stagnation (The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe; see also a short descriptive essay, The Brenner Debate).

But other historians have pushed contingency and variation even deeper. So Pomeranz argues against a nation-based model of development. He argues that China's processes of development were very different in different regions, north and south, east and west. So instead of analyzing "China," he picks out one large macro-region, the lower Yangzi region, as the unit possessing enough integration to possess a distinctive pattern of development. Essentially, this is to say that the complex of institutions, crops, population dynamics, and urban patterns are unified but distinct in north China and southeast China, and that each constitutes a system of production with its own dynamics. So this serves to disaggregate China into several important and different regions.

So, with all this disaggregation and differentiation of economic development, let's ask the question again: are there patterns of economic development? Or is every region, city, or state sui generis?

Here is what seems plausible to me. The best hope we have for generalizations about economic development is not at the level of wholes -- regions or nations. Rather, what we can hope to do is to discover a number of recurring processes and mechanisms -- political, demographic, technology, institutional, and economic -- that can be identified and studied in multiple historical cases. In this category of recurring processes and mechanisms, I would include "proto-industrialization," "scissors crisis," "high level equilibrium trap," "state fiscal crisis," and "rapid urban growth" -- along with dozens of other comparable social and economic processes. These are mid-level social processes and mechanisms that correspond to specific opportunities or situations of persons and groups in a developing society, and they can arguably occur in historically separate cases. And actors will adjust their behavior in relation to these processes in their particular settings, to pursue their goals. Finally, some of these processes will aggregate in particular historical settings -- often in novel ways -- to give rise to a particular historical trajectory. (Notice that this is methodologically very similar to the picture that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly paint about the possibility of generalizations about contentious politics; Dynamics of Contention.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Retreat of the Elephants


Mark Elvin's title, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, is brilliantly chosen to epitomize his subject: the human causes of longterm environmental change in China over a four-thousand year period of history. How many of us would have guessed that elephants once ranged across almost all of China, as far to the northeast as what is now Beijing? And what was the cause of this great retreat? It was the relentless spread of agriculture and human settlement.

In other words, human activity changed the physical environment of China in such a profound way as to refigure the range and habitat of the elephant. "Chinese farmers and elephants do not mix." This story provides an expressive metaphor for the larger interpretation of environmental history that Elvin offers: that environmental history is as much a subject of social history as it is a chronology of physical and natural changes. Human beings transform their environments -- often profoundly and at great cost.

This is now a familiar story, when we consider the anthropogenic influences on global warming in the past fifty years. What Elvin's book demonstrates is that human activity is an integral part of the story in the long sweep of history as well. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in Elvin's treatment of the perennial problem of water management in China. Seawalls, canals, dikes, drainage, irrigation, desalinization, and reservoirs were all a part of China's centuries-long efforts at water control. And each of these measures had effects that refigured the next period in the water system -- the course of a river, the degree of silting of a harbor, the diminishment of a lake as a result of encroachment. (Peter Perdue'sExhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan tells a similar story about the fortunes of Hunan's Dongting Lake.) The waterscape of late Imperial China was very much a moving picture as human activity, deliberate policy interventions, technology innovations, and hydrology and climate interacted. There is a particular drama in seeing a centuries-long history of magistrates attempting to control the hydrology of the great rivers and deltas of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, to counteract silting and flooding and the massive problems that these processes entailed. Here the local officials made their best efforts to absorb the history of past interventions and their effects in order to design new systems that would obviate silting and flooding. This required planning and scientific-technical reasoning (137); it required large financial resources; and, most importantly, it required the mobilization of vast amounts of human labor to build dikes and polders. But always, in the end, the water prevailed.

Elvin's history is fascinating in a number of ways. He is an innovative writer of history, bringing new materials and new topics into Chinese historical research. His interweaving of agriculture, population growth, technology, and environmental change is masterful. He combines economic history, cultural history, and natural history in ways that bring continual new flashes of insight. He makes innovative use of literature and poetry to try to get some inklings into the attitudes and values that Chinese people brought to the environment. And he returns frequently to the dialectic of population growth and resource use -- a rising tempo of change that imposes more and more pressure on the natural environment.

(See The High-Level Equilibrium Trap for a discussion of one of Elvin's earlier and highly influential ideas -- the idea that Chinese agriculture had reached a stage of development by the late imperial period in which technique had been refined to the maximum possible within traditional technologies, and population had increased to the point where the agricultural system was only marginally able to feed the population. This is what he refers to as a "high-level equilibrium trap." He returns to something rather similar to this idea in Retreat of the Elephants by offering a theory of environmental exhaustion ("Concluding Remarks"): a measure of the degree to which population increase and economic growth have placed greater and greater pressure on non-renewable resources.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Social change in rural China

Contemporary China is a vivid demonstration of the fact that sociology is not a "finished" science. The processes of change that are underway in both rural and urban settings are novel and contingent. Existing sociological theory does not provide a basis for conceptualizing these processes according to a few simple templates -- modernization, urbanization, structural transformation, demographic transition. Instead, a sociology for China needs to engage in sustained descriptive inquiry, to untangle the many processes that are occurring simultaneously; and innovative theory formation, in order to find some explanatory order in the many empirical realities that China represents. The social reality of China is complex -- many separate processes are simultaneously unfolding and interacting; and it is diverse -- very different conditions and processes are occurring in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.

Consider one complex example, the wide and heterogeneous range of processes involved in the transformations of rural society: the explosive growth of a periurban sector that is neither city nor village; the rapid expansion of businesses and factories; the creation of an entrepreneurial social segment; the migration of tens of millions of people from rural areas to cities and from poor areas to more affluent areas; the emergence of new social groups in local society; the push-pull relationships between central government and regional and local government; the shifting policy positions of the central government towards rural conditions; the occurrence of social disturbances -- rural and urban -- over issues of property, labor, environment, and corruption; the rise of ethnicity as a political factor; various permutations of clientelism as a mechanism of political control; and the social consequences of family planning policies (e.g. skewed sex ratios). These are all social processes involving policy makers, local officials, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, business owners, activists, and other agents; they are processes that have their own dynamics and tempos; they are processes that interact with each other; and they aggregate to outcomes that are difficult or impossible to calculate on the basis of analysis of the processes themselves.

In other words: we can't understand the current and future development of rural society in China based on existing theories of social change. Instead, we must analyze the current social realities, recognize their novelties, and perhaps discover some of the common causal processes that recur in other times and places. And we should expect novelty; we should expect that China's future rural transformations will be significantly different from other great global examples (United States in the 1880s, Russia in the 1930s, France in the 1830s, etc.).

I began by saying that China demonstrates that sociology is not a finished science. But we can say something stronger than that: it demonstrates that the very notion of a comprehensive social science that lays the basis for systematizing and predicting social change is radically ill-conceived. This hope for a comprehensive theory of social change is chimerical; it doesn't correspond to the nature of the social world. It doesn't reflect several crucial features of social phenomena: heterogeneity, causal complexity, contingency, path-dependency, and plasticity. Instead of looking for a few general and comprehensive theories of social change, we should be looking for a much larger set of quasi-empirical theories of concrete social mechanisms. And the generalizations that we will be able to reach will be modest ones having to do with the discovery of some similar processes that recur in a variety of circumstances and historical settings.

There are some excellent current examples of research on contemporary China that conform to this approach. Kevin O'Brien attempts to discover a mechanism of social protest in his theory of "rightful resistance"(Rightful Resistance in Rural China); C. K. Lee identifies a set of mechanisms of mobilization in her treatment of "rustbelt" and "sunbelt" industries (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt); and Anita Chan identifies some common mechanisms of the exploitation of immigrant labor in China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Each of these books is a positive example of the kind of sociological research that will shed the most light on China's present and future: empirically rich, theoretically eclectic, and mindful of contingency and multiple pathways as state, society, environment, and other social processes interact.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Perestroika debate in political science



A debate has been raging in the discipline of political science for at least a decade, over the nature of the scientific status and methods of the discipline. Fundamentally, the "dissidents" argue that a narrow and "scientistic" conception of what good political science research ought to look like has reigned and has repressed other, more pluralistic approaches to political science research. The formal methods of rational choice theory, game theory, and statistical analysis prevail, and the more narrative approaches associated with comparative research, area studies, and qualitiative research have been marginalized. And, the critics maintain, the flagship journals of the discipline and the tenure committees of the leading departments converge in maintaining this orthodoxy within the discipline. (Kristen Renwick Monroe has edited a valuable collection that gives the reader a pretty good understanding of the origins and faultlines of the debate; Perestroika!: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science).

One of the central issues is this: what should a science of politics involve? What form of knowledge should political science produce? What is the role of universal laws or regularities in political science? How important are predictions?

Another key issue, related to the first, is the issue of the methodology of research that ought to be favored. Should quantitative methods be preferred? Should stylized assumptions be offered as the basis for formal rational-choice models of various forms of political behavior? What role should ethnographic research or case-study research play in the discovery of social-science knowledge?

Sanford Schram identifies some of the strands of the Perestroika critique in these terms: "Some focus on the overly abstract nature of much of the research done today, some on the lack of nuance in decontextualized, large-sample empirical studies, others on the inhumaneness of thinking about social relations in causal terms, and still others on the ways in which contemporary social science all too often fails to produce the kind of knowledge that can meaningfully inform social life" (Monroe : 103).

One of the most useful contributions to the Monroe book mentioned above is an essay by David Laitin. He takes issue with Bent Flyvbjerg's book, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it Can Succeed Again, and his advocacy of "phronesis". Laitin characterizes the method of phronesis as one that is sensitive to context and that pays close attention to the singular and specific features of a particular social process -- for example, the positioning that occurs as a city decides on its economic development strategy. So the method of phronesis is intentionally not aiming to discover regularities across a set of instances, but rather to uncover some specific features of a particular ongoing process.

Laitin argues that this approach is too narrow a foundation for social-science knowledge. He assimilates the phronesis method to what he calls a "narrative" approach; and he argues that good social science needs to use a three-fold methodology. Investigators should make use of the tools of narrative analysis; but they also need to use statistical methods (quantitative analysis across cases) and formal modeling (models of complex social situations based on assumptions along the lines of rational choice theory). Laitin refers to this approach as a "tripartite" method of comparative research.

Where does the philosophy of social science fit into this debate? I suppose that the philosophy of social science I have advocated has quite a bit in common with the criticisms raised by the Perestroikans. My views emphasize the contingency of social processes, lack of social regularities, multiple conjunctural causes at work, plasticity of social institutions, the value of ethnographic work, and the need for a plurality of methods of inquiry and explanation in the social sciences. And these views are at odds with the natural-science assumptions about how social phenomena ought to be investigated that the Perestroika group is criticizing. And some of the researchers whom I admire most deeply -- James Scott, Charles Tilly, Benedict Anderson, Theda Skocpol, or Susanne Rudolph -- are cited in the original Perestroika manifesto! At the same time, I am committed to the idea of empirical rigor, causal explanation, and making a connection between social science knowledge and practical social problems -- a set of views that are post-positivist but still in the tradition of enlightened empiricism, and opposed to the currents of post-modern jargon that are sometimes mixed into the debate.

So the task is clear: to formulate a conception of social-science research and knowledge that preserves the values of empirical rigor and theoretial clarity, while embracing a pluralism that will permit the formulation of social-science knowledge adequate to the social world and social problems we find around ourselves. The Perestroika debate is an important one, and can help us better in the task of understanding society.

Is sociology analogous to epidemiology?

Quantitative sociology attempts, among other things, to establish causal connections between large social factors (race, socio-economic status, residential status) and social outcomes of interest (rates of delinquency). Is this type of inquiry analogous in any way to the use of large disease databases to attempt to identify risk factors? In other words, is there a useful analogy between sociology and epidemiology?

Suppose that the divorce rate for all American men is 30%. Suppose the rate for New York City males with income greater than $200K is 60%. We might want to draw the inference that something about being a high-income male resident of New York causes a higher risk of divorce for these persons. And we might want to justify this inference by noticing that it is similar to a parallel statistical finding relating smoking to lung cancer. So sociology is similar to epidemiology. Certain factors can be demonstrated to cause an elevated risk of a certain kind of outcome. There are "risk factors" for social outcomes such as divorce, delinquency, or drug use.

Is this a valid analogy? I think it is not. Epidemiological reasoning depends upon one additional step -- a background set of assumptions about the ontology and etiology of disease. A given disease is a specific physiological condition within a complex system of cells and biochemical processes. We may assume that each of these physiological abnormalities is caused by some specific combination of external and internal factors through specific causal mechanisms. So the causal pathways of normal functioning are discrete and well-defined, and so are the mechanisms that cause disruption of these normal causal pathways. Within the framework of these guiding assumptions, the task of the statistics of epidemiology is to help sort out which factors are causally associated with the disease. The key, though, is that we can be confident that there is a small number of discrete causal mechanisms that link the factor to the disease.

The case is quite different in the social world. Social processes are not similar to physiological processes, and social outcomes are not similar to diseases. In each case the failure of parallel derives from the fact that there are not unique and physiologically specific causal systems at work. Cellular reproduction has a specific biochemistry. Cancerous reproduction is a specific deviation from these cellular processes. And specific physical circumstances cause these deviations.

Now think about the social world. A process like "urbanization" is not a homogeneous social process. Rather, it is a heterogeneous mix of social developments and events; and these components are different in different times and places. And outcomes that might be considered the social equivalent of disease -- a rising murder rate, for example -- is a also composite of many distinct social happenings and processes. So social systems and outcomes lack the simple, discrete causal uniformity that is a crucial part of epidemiological reasoning.

This is not to say that there are not underlying causal mechanisms whose workings bring about a sharp increase in, say, the population's murder rate. Rather, it is to say that there are numerous, heterogeneous and cross-cutting such mechanisms. So the resultant social outcome is simply the contingent residue of the multiple middle-level processes that were in play in the relevant time period. And the discovery that "X, Y, Z factors are correlated with a rise in the incidence of O" isn't causally irrelevant. But the effects of these factors must be understood as working through their influence on the many mid-level causal mechanisms.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Agency and deliberation


People act as a result of a great variety of mental influences: instincts, emotions, impulses, loyalties, norms, as well as reasons, intentions, and plans. A subset of this cacaphony is "rational-intentional action": actions that are the result of deliberation about ends and means, and choice among the set of available options for action. How does this sub-system of action fit into the larger swirl of psychological causes within the actor's mental system? The photo to the right is relevant; it is an image of a demonstration at Berkeley in the 1960s, in which the motives of the participants were surely a mix of rational, ethical, emotional, and collective impulses.

One picture that philosophers of action have used is the idea of "higher" and "lower" faculties of motivation and choice. This is an Aristotelian model of practical reason. The higher system is the rational process of deliberation; the lower system is the range of emotions and impulses; and the point of the picture is that the rational component should govern the workings of the lower faculties.

How does this construction work as an empirical theory of human behavior (even if an idealized and simplified one)? It could prove faulty in several different ways: The emotions could turn out to be the more important cause, with rational deliberation a weak and tardy late arrival. Or it could turn out that the system of action is a more integrated process in which "emotion" and "deliberation" play a more equal and interactive role. Or it could turn out that these two realms really can't be separated at all, and reason and emotion are comingled. We might find that it is possible to deliberate and reason about emotions, and it is possible for some emotions to push the deliberative process one way rather than another. And, most radically, it could be argued that these categories of introspection and folk psychology don't explain behavior at all; instead, we need a more scientific and non-mentalistic foundation for explanation of behavior.

There are a few basic facts about action that constrain any proposed theory:

(a) actions are influenced by the goals that people have, so deliberation must be a part of the story. Whatever else we observe, it is certainly true that people are sometimes goal-directed and calculating.

(b) We can provide clear and important examples of actions provoked by emotion or passion, so means-end rationality isn't the whole story.

(c) People often give reasons for actions that do serve to motivate their actions, but that are not framed as "means-end" reasoning. (For example, acting out of fairness.) So there are instances of action that are reasoned but not utility-maximizing.

What these points seem to demonstrate is that the mental system underlying behavior and choice is complex. No simple theory -- Markov mechanisms, operant conditioning, maximization, or rule-following--captures the full range of behavior.

These questions are important for several reasons. First, we need some indication of an answer to the question if we are to have confidence in rational choice theory at any level. Second, our ability to explain a wide range of human behavior depends on our having better ideas about how reasons, emotions, and norms play out to create behaviors such as extreme altruism, hate crimes, suicide attacks, or indifference to the suffering of others. So social science needs to have a credible theory of human agency and choice.

Who has the right kind of expertise to attempt to theorize in this area? Philosophers, to start; this discipline has devoted a lot of rigorous effort towards creating a framework for talking about the mind, intentionality, and action. Second, psychologists have some powerful theoretical tools for conceptualizing and investigating behavior. Here I think of the example of cognitive psychology and its paradigm of trying to devise theories that would represent a psychological process that possesses a given set of cognitive capacities (memory, pattern recognition, speech). And, conceivably, it might be that the discipline and methods of neurophysiology and brain science can shed light on action and mentation as well.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The world food system


Here is one very concrete way in which we live in a global world: the most basic need that we have -- food -- is satisfied on the basis of a system with global reach and global price and production interconnections. The planet's 6+ billion people need a daily diet of grains, oils, and protein, and the most important of these foods are produced within the context of a global trading system. Current estimates of malnutrition indicate that a significant percentage of the world's population live in hunger (Facts about Hunger, PRB). And, after a decade or so of relative stability in this system, changes in the world market are threatening major disruptions of food supplies. (See an earlier posting on the recent sharp rise in rice and wheat prices.)

Consider grain production and consumption. Here are a few websites with useful information about the world grain trade in the past decade: USDA, providing a lot of data on grain production and consumption; UC-Davis, a simple introduction to the global and US rice markets; UNCTAD, a thumbnail of the basics of the global rice trade over the past two decades; FAO, a compendium of data on food production; and IRRI, a compendium of data about rice production. One thing that becomes clear in reviewing some of this data is that the current crisis in grain prices should not have been a surprise. The forecast provided in the USDA report is based on 2006-07 data -- and it gives a clear indication of the supply and price crisis that the world is facing today.

This system is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it provides a nice example of a complex and causally interlinked social system that invites careful analysis. And it is a system that has the potential for stimulating explosive social upheaval -- given the political volatility that food prices and hunger have had historically.

We ought to ask a whole series of questions about how the food system works:
  • Technology -- how extensive and widespread are the forms of technology innovation that are changing the food system? Is there a Green Revolution 2.0 underway?
  • Productivity -- what are the trends in productivity in agriculture? Output per hectare, output per unit of input, output per labor-day
  • International trading institutions -- corporations, commodity and futures markets, flow of incomes to stakeholders. What effect have free-trade agreements had on grain production and prices -- WTO, NAFTA?
  • Social institutions of farming. What are the various institutions through which grain is produced -- peasant farming, family farming, large-scale corporate farming
  • Social effects of agrarian change -- how do rural conditions and quality of life change as a result of technology change in agriculture?
  • Macro-stability -- does growth in food supply match growth in population?

If we want to know how the global world works as a system, then we need to understand agriculture and agricultural trade better than we currently realize.

(Here is another New York Times story on the subject, highlighting the tension between food production and greenhouse gas emission reduction. See my earlier post on sustainable agriculture as well.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

The reality of society


We sometimes speak of "global society", we refer to "French society"; and we also think of face-to-face organizations and neighborhoods as small societies or social groups. There is an important conceptual point in the background in these common ways of speaking: what are the features of interaction or relationship that must obtain in order for a group of people to constitute a "society" or a "social group"?

There are a couple of points that are fairly obvious. These ensembles of individuals are not social groups:
  • all the people in the state whose last name begins with "J"
  • all the people in the world who enjoy spicy food
  • all the people in the world
  • the set of people who live within 100 miles of their state or provincial capital city

We would probably say that these aren't social groups or societies for several reasons:

  • these ensembles bring together very heterogeneous and disassociated individuals
  • these individuals don't interact significantly and persistently with each other
  • the individuals in each case lack a common identity
  • the individuals in these groups do not share a single set of values or mores
  • the populations described here do not possess a dense set of social networks that link almost all members of the group together
  • there is not a set of social structures that serve to coordinate and orient the behavior of all or most of the members of these ensembles

The fundamental point is that it would seem that the members of a society, as opposed to a random assembly of individuals, must have some strands of connection with each other.

So we might try this out: a society is a set of individuals --

  • who share a broad identity with each other, in at least the minimal sense that they regard themselves as members of the same society.
  • who share some set of values and ideas -- perhaps non-uniform but overlapping
  • who are related to each other through economic, political, or social interactions and networks of connections
  • who are subject to a common set of social institutions.

But these criteria are debatable. Does the first criterion above threaten to rule out Canada and Spain, because there are Quebecois and Basque separatist groups within these countries? Are the people who choose to live in the isolated compound of the Yearning for Zion ranch a part of United States society, given their extreme efforts to avoid any relationships with the larger society? Is a Facebook group of "friends" a society, given that the members are generally geographically and socially dispersed?

Most fundamentally, the criteria for defining an assembly of people as a "society" can't be too restrictive because a "society" is a looser assembly than some other kinds of social groupings -- religious organizations, social movements, or labor unions, for example. In each of these latter instances there is a high degree of coherence, solidarity, and shared identity and values across members of the group. Societies, on the other hand, embody diversity and difference across persons: multiple values, multiple social networks, multiple group identities. So somehow our definition of society needs to fall intermediate between the random assemblages of persons listed first, and the intentional communities mentioned above.

We might say, then, that a society is knit together by only an overlapping but non-comprehensive set of relationships, values, and identities. Individuals share values and identities with some other individuals; this defines one aspect of the "social-connectedness" graph of a society. And individuals interact with other individuals through economic, political, or cultural transactions; this defines another aspect of a social-connectedness graph. Everyone in a society is related through a set of network relationships to many other people in society; but there is no set of network relationships that encompasses everyone. And I suppose that it is possible that, when we have drawn out a massively complex graph of networks and relationships within the population, that there may be some groups that exist in "islands" within the larger social map, with relationships with each other but not with outsiders.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Knowing poverty


Poverty is an important social fact in virtually every society. What is involved in knowing about poverty -- for the citizen, for the poor person, for the social scientist, the historian, and the novelist?

To start, there is a set of descriptive and analytical features of poverty. How do we define the concept of being poor: is it a specific income level in a specific country or region; is it a specific level of deprivation in terms of access to a defined set of basic goods; is it a threshold level of resources necessary to actualize one's capabilities?

And then we want to know the facts about the disribution of poor people, geographically and demographically. What is the percentage of poor people in urban locations? How much rural poverty is there? How do poverty rates compare across major social groups (race, age, marital status)? And how have these statistics changed over time? We could imagine presenting this body of knowledge as a compact set of dynamic maps and graphs, representing the large body of data in terms of a series of displays over time and space -- for example, CensusScope. (Edward Tufte's work comes to mind here -- visit his website and an early, direction-setting book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition.)

Parallel to this factual and statistical knowledge about the distribution of poverty over a population is the sociological question, what are the social mechanisms that give rise to these patterns and trends? What kinds of factors cause some populations to have a persistent and high rate of poverty, while other populations experience much lower rates?

Another and distinct aspect of "knowing poverty" has to do with getting to the experience of being poor. This is partly a question for ethnography -- how do poor people struggle and cope?How do they experience their daily lives? And how do they express their experiences? But it is also an attempt to gain a clearer grasp of the situation of being poor -- what it means for everyday nutrition, how it affects options when illness or accident arises. Sociologists with an ear for qualitative investigation and conversation have bee able to capture a lot of this (Sennett and Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class; Richard Sennett, The Craftsman.) So making an effort to gain an understanding of the situation and experience of being poor is an important aspect of knowing poverty.

And how are non-poor people able to gain some knowledge of the situation and experience of being poor? This is where the knowledge of literature comes in; through the ability of the poet or fiction writer to vividly and accurately capture something of the lives and thoughts of people in very different circumstances than one's own. This is an important aspect of a multicultural pedagogy: finding materials that permit students to immerse themselves in the texture of other people's experiences of the world.

Now, finally, citizens. Poverty, it seems, is largely invisible to middle class people in the United States. Their knowledge of the basic facts and insights mentioned above is extremely limited. Here the problem isn't research or pedagogy. It is clear enough how the Detroit Free Press or the Atlanta Constitution could present the basic facts about national or regional poverty on a clear and understandable form. Instead, the problem seems to be a cognitive version of myopia. The social circumstances that confront us up close, and that are likely to influence our basic interests, get our focused attention. But all too often, more distant social problems don't get a second look. And this seems all too often to be the case for poverty.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What people know


It is interesting to consider what kinds of social knowledge people need in their everyday lives.

This is clearly a question of scale. At the proximate and local level, people need to know how to interact with local social practices and institutions. We need to know how to behave in the doctor's office, police station, and grocery store. We need to know whether the bus requires exact change. We need some way of understanding the provocative behavior of people we encounter -- panhandlers, teenagers, people asking for directions or a match, strangers in a cafe striking up a conversation. (Think about how challenging each of these situations can be in a foreign city -- and potentially how consequential.) And, of course, there is a wide range of organizational knowledge that we need in the workplace in order to function well within the organization.

So there are innumerable scripts we need to have in mind in order to navigate everyday life. Some of this knowledge has to do with the protocols of mundane institutions, and some of it involves an ability to interpret the intentions of other people as they seek to interact with us.

Now push back a level and consider another zone of important social knowledge -- knowledge of larger institutional practices that we need to take into account as we plan for the more distant future. What choices can I make today that will benefit me tomorrow, or shelter me from risks the day after? For example -- How does my retirement account work? What will the interest rate be on this variable rate mortgage in three years? How can my friends in the clubhouse or the statehouse help build my new consulting business? How secure is my job with this employer -- should I be looking for work in a more predictable industry? (This might be a question a mechanical engineer asks herself in the auto industry today.)

Now push the zoom-slide another notch and consider the knowledge of the larger social environment that the citizen needs to arrive at political judgments. What is the reality of public schools? How many high school students graduate from high school each year? What is happening in the labor market -- how much unemployment, how many new jobs are being created, what sectors and skills are in demand? How much hunger, poverty, and inequality is there in my region or state? What are the facts about the availability of health insurance within the general population? How much corruption and abuse of power is there within our government?

At roughly this level of abstraction are topics having to do with science and technology. How risky is nuclear power? How urgent a problem is global warming? What percentage of greenhouse gases stem from autos and what share from coal-fired electricity?

These last areas of knowledge are the most problematic. As we move up the scale from the face-to-face environment to knowledge of more distant social and environmental factors, it is almost certain that most people's beliefs become hazier, less accurate, and less comprehensive. Our stereotyped representations of things like poverty, opportunity, schooling, and employment levels are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate. And maybe this is entirely predictable from a cognitive "cost-benefit" point of view. It may be that the personal cost of being ignorant of the extent of global climate change, poverty, or urban health deficits is low. But from a collective point of view, this widespread ignorance is disastrous. It is hard to see how an electoral consensus can emerge in support of policies that are intelligently designed to solve major problems if the great majority of voters lack an understanding of those problems.

And here is a large and important question: to what extent is it realistic to expect that the general public can become knowledgeable, at some level of approximation, about how their society works? Is it inevitable that most citizens will have a clear knowledge of their neighborhoods but a very limited and often erroneous knowledge of the broader society? Or is there some hope that universities, news media, and the internet can do a better job of providing a reasonably accurate representation of some of the most pressing social realities and problems, in such a way that the broad population will come to be better informed about the workings of contemporary society?

(See "Folk Sociology" for more on this theme.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

China's cultural revolution

What is involved in understanding China's Cultural Revolution?

The question comes to mind for several reasons -- but most vividly because of a recent interview in France in the le nouvel Observateur with Song Yongyi. Song's personal itinerary is historic -- he was a "rebel Red Guard" in 1967, a political prisoner in China from 1970 to 1976, a librarian at Dickinson College in 1998, and a prisoner in China again in 1999 for six months for the "crime" of collecting documents about the Cultural Revolution. (See his website at California State University at Los Angeles.) Song is in the middle of creating a large database on the events of the Cultural Revolution, including especially an effort to document the killings and massacres that occurred during this period. Song estimates, for example, that more than 50,000 people were killed during the purge of the Mongolian Communist Party alone, and he attributes to an internal party document a figure of 1.72 million deaths during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

The question is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it has to do with historical knowledge and understanding. A vast amount has been written about the Cultural Revolution -- by western scholars and by Chinese people who participated in the CR or were victims of its violence. We have both first-hand stories and careful academic scholarship that document many aspects of this period of China's recent history. So in one sense, we are in a position to know a lot about this period of China's history. And China scholars have asked the "why" question as well -- why did it take place? For example, Roderick MacFarquhar's multivolume history of the period, culminating in Mao's Last Revolution, goes into great detail about the politics that surrounded the CR. Also of great interest is Joseph Esherick, Paul Pickowicz, and Andrew Walder's recent edited volume, China's Cultural Revolution As History.

We might want to say, then, that the history of the Cultural Revolution has been written.

But as Song Yongyi demonstrates, this would be incorrect, in two ways. First, the scope of the violence and the ways in which it was perpetrated -- the military and political institutions that were involved deeply in the transmission of the violence across China -- these factual aspects of the period of 1966-76 are still only partially known. And there is reason to believe that the remaining areas of ignorance are likely to substantially change our interpretation of the events. In brief, it seems likely that the scope of violence and killings is substantially greater than what historians currently believe, and the degree of deliberate political control of the instruments of disorder is greater as well. So the simple factual question, what happened?, is still to be answered in many important areas. More would be known if the authorities were to make the official archives available to scholars; but this has been a highly sensitive and secretive subject since 1989.

Even more important than the factual story, though, is the explanatory story. We don't yet have a good understanding of why this period of upheaval took place; what the social and political causes were, what the institutions were that facilitated or hindered the spread of disorder, and how these events aided or impeded the political agendas of powerful figures and factions in China. (When you visit the summer palace and Buddhist temples in Chengdu, for example, the guides tell you that these structures survived the destruction of the Red Guards because Deng Xiaopeng maintained control of the military in this region and gave orders to protect these historical structures.)

So the history of the Cultural Revolution still remains to be written. And this fact presents us with a very real question of historical epistemology: how much can we ultimately know about a vast and important event, for which there are voluminous archival sources and surviving witnesses? Can we hope to come to a "final" and approximately true interpretation of these events? And can we learn something important about social movements and political institutions from this history?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Agency, action, and norms

How do norms influence behavior? More fundamentally, what is a norm?

The question arises for two separate reasons. First, we are interested in knowing why people behave as they do (agency). And second, we are interested in knowing how large social factors (moral and cognitive frameworks, for example) exert influence over individuals (social causation).

The agency question is the more fundamental. Philosophers typically want to answer the question in terms of a model of practical rationality and deliberation. One philosophical answer derives from Aristotle and represents action as the result of rational deliberation. Individuals have a set of goals and values; they have a set of beliefs about the world; and they deliberate about the choices they confront with the aim of achieving their goals consistent with their values, given their beliefs about the world. But philosophers and thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Skinner, or Adorno would take issue with this reason-centered theory of action. Other sources of behavior might include unconscious habits or prejudices, instincts, impulses, emotions, and role-playing. A model that incorporates these diverse possible influences on action is unavoidably complex -- but human behavior is likewise complex.

Now let's try to locate the role of norms within a theory of agency. Norms have to do with the reasons and motives that people have for their actions. A norm is a particular kind of influence on action: it is a rule of behavior that leads someone to do something that is otherwise contrary to immediate impulse or interest. Norms get us to do things we don't want to do.

We might say, then, that a norm is a rule of behavior -- for example, "Don't wear shorts to a business meeting," "Don't take coins from the blind man's cup," "Give up your seat on the bus to a disabled person." And a rule can either be internally or externally represented; this means that the the rule may be internalized into the agent's process of decision-making, or it may influence the agent's behavior through punishments and rewards.

Even this simple discussion raises questions, however. Do norms have to be consciously accessible to the agent? Is a moral principle such as "Always keep your promises" a norm, or do ethical principles fall in a different category? Do norms have rational justification, or are they simply an accidental social product like tastes or styles?

As for the ways in which norms influence behavior --

It would seem that there are only a few mechanisms through which norms could possibly influence individual and collective behavior, largely distinguished by being external and internal.

First, it may be that there is an effective mechanism of social education through which each individual develops or activates an internally regulative system of norms or rules. This process can be described as "moral education." The most superficial observation of social behavior indicates that this is so, and social psychologists and sociologists have some ideas about how these systems work. But the bottom line appears fairly clear: individuals who are reared in normal human settings eventually possess action-behavior systems that embody a set of personal norms that influence their conduct. We might draw the analogy to the example of language learning: a normal human child is exposed to the linguistic behavior of others, and arrives at a psychologically realized grammar that guides his/her own language production.

Second, a norm might be embodied in the attitudes, judgment, and behavior of others in such a way that their actions and reactions create incentives and disincentives for the actor. For example, others may possess a set of norms concerning civility in public discourse, and they may punish or reward others according to whether their words are consistent with these norms. In this case the agent conforms to the requirements of the norm out of a calculation of costs and benefits of performance. (It would appear that there is a possibility of circularity here: the externally imposed norm depends upon the internally embodied norm of enforcement of the content of the rule on the part of others.)

Third, it might be the case that there are some norms of inter-personal behavior that are hard-wired. Some norms might have a biological, evolutionary basis. This is the line of thought that sociobiologists have explored with varying levels of success. The emotional responses that adults have to infants and children probably fall in this category -- though it is a conceptually interesting question to consider whether these emotional responses are "norms" or simply features of the affective system. This is relevant to the work that Allan Gibbard does in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Gibbard's fundamental insight seems to be that there must be an evolutionary basis for the "norm-acquisition system" -- the features of human psychology that permit them to acquire certain kinds of moral motives (altruism, friendship, fairness).

So -- what can we say about norms? Human beings act on the basis of deliberation, norm, impulse, and emotion. So our theory of practical rationality and action must make a place for the workings of norms. Second, norms are transmitted to individuals through concrete social processes -- family experiences, schooling, religious institutions, etc. Our theories of social life must incorporate an account of the processes of normative education through which individuals come to possess a particular normative structure. These experiences are the counterpart to the exposure to language on the part of the infant. And third, norms are socially enforced through the actions of others. So norms are socially embodied -- in the institutions of enforcement, the institutions and practices of moral education, and in the practical cognition of the individuals who make up the society.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Are there discrete social mechanisms?

McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly direct our attention to the level of the concrete social mechanisms that recur in many instances of social contention (Dynamics of Contention). They specifically refer to escalation, radicalization, brokerage, and repression as examples of social mechanisms that produce the same effects in the same circumstances, and that concatenate into historical processes and events. To this list I would add my own examples -- free-rider problems, norm diffusion, and communications networks.

I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that social explanations need to proceed on the basis of an analysis of underlying social mechanisms. But can this program be carried out in a Mendeleev sort of way -- try to discover a "table of elements" of causal mechanisms that aggregate into "molecules" of social contention?

The closer I look at the argument, the more concerned I become about the discreteness and elementality of the items MTT offer as examples. Take brokerage -- isn't this really an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different kinds of negotiation and alliance-formation? So brokerage isn't analogous to "expansion of ice during freezing" -- a clear example of a physical causal mechanism that is homogeneous across physical settings. Brokerage is rather a "family-resemblance" term that captures a number of different instances of collective behavior and agency.

If we find this line of thought somewhat persuasive, it suggests that we need to locate the causal connectedness among social settings at an even deeper micro-level. It is the situation of "agents with interests, identities, networks, allies, and repertoires" that constitutes the causal nexus of social causation on contention -- not a set of frozen mid-level groups of behaviors such as brokerage or radicalization. Instead, these mid-level concepts are descriptive terms that allow us to single out some broadly similar components of social contention.

Or in another vocabulary: the level at which we find real causal connections in the social world is the level of the socially situated and socially constituted individual in interaction with other individuals -- the perspective of methodological localism (Levels of the Social). This doesn't undermine causal realism -- but it does undermine the idea that there are meso-level "causal mechanisms" such as brokerage that really recur across instances.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Marc Bloch's history


One of the historians whom I most admire is Marc Bloch. He was one of France's most important medieval historians in the first half of the twentieth century, and he died at the hands of the Gestapo while serving in the Resistance in Paris in 1944. (Carole Fink's biography is an outstanding treatment of his thought and life; Marc Bloch: A Life in History; also important is Marc Bloch, l'historien et la cite.)

Here I am primarily interested in the substantive contributions Bloch brought to the writing of history. Bloch was one of the founders of the Annales school of history, along with Lucien Febvre, and he left a deep impression on subsequent historical imagination later in the twentieth century. In particular, he gave a strong impetus to social and sociological history, and he brought a non-Marxist materialism into the writing of history that represented a very important angle of view. The largest impact of the Annales school -- Febvre, Bloch, Ladurie, Braudel, Le Goff -- is the set of perspectives it forged for the understanding of social and cultural history -- looking at the structures and experiences of ordinary people as one foundation for the formation of history. This required the invention of new historical vocabulary and new sources of data. And Bloch was central in each area.

A couple of Bloch's books are most significant. Feudal Society is a very important contribution to our understanding of the institutions and social relations of feudalism -- the manorial system, vassalage, and kingship. And his writings about French agricultural history are of special interest (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). These books document quite a few important aspects of French rural social life -- both high and low. But even more importantly, Bloch brought several distinctive ideas into historical writing that continue to serve as illuminating models about how to understand the past. One is a version of materialist historical investigation -- Bloch provides great insight into the forces and relations of production in rural medieval France and the material culture of the middle ages. A second is an adept ability to single out and scrutinize some of the forms of political structure and power that defined French feudal society. And a third is a subtle way of characterizing the social whole of medieval society and mentality that owed much to Durkheim. In a curious way, then, Bloch's work picked up some of the themes that constituted modern social theory in Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

Bloch's materialism is most evident in French Rural History. Here Bloch gives a detailed and scholarly treatment of the social and community consequences of the diffusion of the heavy wheeled plough. He provides a careful technical analysis of the advantages and exigencies of the heavy plough, which was most suited to the heavy soil of northern France. And he works out the social prerequisites of this technology -- basically, a degree of community organization that could successfully coordinate land use consistent with ownership and the turning radius of the heavy implement and its team of horses. The technical requirements of the plough required certain social arrangements. And the social structure of the northern French village satisfied these conditions -- in striking contrast to the looser coordination found in southern French villages. "Only a society of great compactness, composed of men who thought instinctively in terms of the community, could have created such a regime. The land itself was the fruit of collective labour" (French Rural History, 45).

This is materialism; but it is not especially Marxist materialism. It doesn't give primacy to class relations. And it doesn't support any kind of teleology in historical development. But the central point was clear. Bloch sought to demonstrate that a major technology -- for example, cultivation with the heavy plough -- incorporates and implicates a whole complex social and cultural system. And a major part of social history is to discover the sequence of adjustments through which the technology system is incorporated.

The Durkheim part of the story is also an important one. Durkheim was a major influence on French social thought in the teens and twenties, and the vector to Bloch was particularly direct. The journal Annales d'Histoire Economique et Sociale was created by Bloch and Febvre as a vehicle for inviting a more sociological approach to economic history and to encourage interdisciplinary research in this field, and Bloch and Febvre were deeply influenced by the debate that surrounded history and Durkheimian sociology in the period 1890-1910.  R. Colbert Rhodes has written a good essay on Durkheim's influence on Bloch. Rhodes writes: "Bloch's essentially sociological approach to historical writing is responsible for some of the most distinctive and useful features of his work. Bloch reflects the Durkheimian social realist metaphysic by reaching behind individuals to the social group considered in its broadest aspect, the collective mentality. Bloch acknowledges in the Historian's Craft his dominant interest in the study of man integrated into the social group. In the Craft, Bloch borrows a citation from Lucien Febvre to state his own interest as 'not man, again, never man.' We are interested in "human societies, organized groups" (47).

The final feature of Bloch's thought I want to highlight is his vocabulary of structure and power in his treatment of French feudalism. There is a parallel with Weber in this body of thinking. Bloch spent a year studying in Germany and was presumably aware of Weber's thought, but there is no clear evidence of direct influence. But there are several ways in which some of Bloch's thought parallels Weber's. One is in his use of ideas about historical concepts that are similar to Weber's concept of ideal types. And the other is his careful analysis of the historical realities of relations of power and social structures that embody power.

Bloch's writings repay a careful reading -- both for their importance as first-rate historical scholarship and for the light they shed on the problem of historical knowledge and conceptualization. And it is highly relevant to find that all the strands of classical sociological theory find a counterpart in his thought.