Sunday, May 25, 2008


Is there such a thing as a "mentalité" of a people, group, or nation? Take these young people at an Iowa potluck supper, or the traders pictured below at the Chicago Board of Trade -- is there a midwestern mentalité that they can be said to share? What factors might be comprised by such a concept? What forms of variation must we expect within a group sharing a mentalité? And what are the social mechanisms through which these hypothesized forms of shared experience and thought are conveyed?

First, what does the concept mean? Most basically, a mentalité is thought to be a shared way of looking at the world and reacting to happenings and actions by others, distinctive from other groups and reasonably similar across a specific group.

This characterization folds together a number of things: cognitive frames for understanding the world, values and norms around which one organizes one's actions, and a repertoire of reactions and responses to scenarios in the world. And all of this comes together in the form of a signature form of consciousness and behavior. A mentalité shapes the individual's experience of the world, and it provides a specific foundation for one's choices and actions as events in one's world unfold. And a mentalité is thought to be shared across a social group, so it is not simply a set of individual and idiosyncratic mental attitudes.

Historians of the Annales school (see an earlier posting) gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim's ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history's tapestry -- though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie's "sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village" (review in the New York Review of Books by Lawrence Stone of Le territoire de l'historien, The Territory of the Historian, and Carnival in Romans). And the sorts of features of "worldview" that are often invoked in describing a mentalité include superstition and magical beliefs. A fundamental clash of mentalités arises in the conjunction of traditional, magical thinking and modern, scientific thinking in the nineteenth century. (Relevant snippets from The Annales School: Critical Assessments can be found here.)

Several questions are pressing when we consider this concept. First, is the governing idea of underlying variation of worldviews across cultures and times valid in any non-superficial sense? Trivially, of course, we recognize that tastes and morés vary across places and cultures. This was one of Montesquieu's insights. But is there a more fundamental way in which Scots experience the world differently from Basques or Yoruba? Or are the differences associated with tastes and manners simply an overlay that sits on top of a more fundamental human similarity? This question pushes us towards the debate between advocates of "human nature" against the "historicists," according to whom the most basic features of human cognition and action are contingent and historically shaped.

Let's go out on a limb here for the moment and postulate that even fairly deep aspects of cognition and behavior are historically and culturally variable. Deep aspects of "human nature" are plastic and subject to historical construction. This leaves it open that there may be elements of common human experience while postulating a deep-running plasticity as well. And this leaves it open, in turn, that there is a useful place in historical analysis for the idea of a mentalité.

Second, we need to reflect upon the ways in which adherence to a mentalité should be expected to vary across individuals, places, and cohorts. And, of course, we should expect variation, since every human attribute comes in a range across a population -- and even more so for learned traits. So if we think that a mentalité comprises a cognitive framework, a value system, and a set of expectations about behavior -- we should also expect that there will be a range of ways in which these items are instantiated in different people within the same group.

Third, we need to attempt to trace out some of the mechanisms through which a mentalité is reproduced and maintained across generations and places. We need an account of the microfoundations of mentalité, along the lines of an earlier posting on social practices. We've already sketched some of these mechanisms in prior postings. But the fundamental idea is that there is a range of institutions through which children and young people acquire mental skills and content, both formal and informal -- schooling, religious education, family practices, and local traditions, for example. So for there to be a persistent mentalité for a population, there must be a reasonably consistent delivery system across the population that transmits this ensemble of items. And sociologists and historians need to be able to uncover some of the specifics of these institutions.

And, fundamentally, how would we confirm the notion that a population possesses a mentalité? How would we support a claim like this: "medieval villagers of the Vosges possessed a mentalité that distinguished them from their modern counterparts and their contemporaries in other regions"? There are several answers we might give: Robert Darnton used some of the tools of ethnography to get at the thoughts of the agents of the great cat massacre in 1740. Or we might imagine a contemporary sociologist using some of the many-country surveys of values (World Values Survey) as a basis for judging that French and Italian people in 1960 possessed significantly different moral frameworks with respect to certain subjects. Or we might rely on our own acquaintance with multicultural friends --- perhaps certain Danish people and certain Nigerians -- and simply remark internally, "How differently they seem to perceive and react to the world."

Finally, we might at least consider the idea that the globalization of communication, transportation, and education has substantially reduced the variability of worldviews and cognitive frameworks, so that modern consciousness is much more uniform than medieval consciousness and thought.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thinking as a structured process

For some reason I was reminded of a classic and challenging article by Karl Lashley, "The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior" (1951). As I recall, the article was a pivotal contribution to new and productive thinking in what became "cognitive psychology." And it was one of the central components on Noam Chomsky's earliest attacks on radical behaviorism as a paradigm for psychology. Chomsky took the article to provide scientific evidence for the view that there is more to mental processes than a simple concatenation of stimulus-response mechanisms. Most basically, the article laid a basis for attributing substantial degrees of mental structure to ordinary human performances. (See this link for a nice reflection by George Houghton and Tom Hartley on Lashley's arguments on this subject.)

I'm sure there is more to the article than this, but what I remember most clearly is Lashley's study of "serial" behaviors such as typing, where there is some antecedent credibility in the idea that each discrete step is a probabilistic result of the previous step. This would assume that the performance is a Markov process -- one in which each step depends only on the prior one.

Lashley analyzes typing behavior and asks, what can we learn from analysis of errors? And simply, he argues that there are patterns of errors that demonstrate that the typist has a representation of the full series of actions as he/she proceeds through the performance. An example would be the incidence of transposition errors between characters in different parts of the word. If we find that there are numerous examples like this: "PRAZOC" instead of "PROZAC" --then this seems to imply that the typist has the whole sequence of finger movements in mind in the early stage of the performance. And this is inconsistent with the idea that the performance is a Markov chain of linked pairs.

Noam Chomsky soon linked that concept to the idea of a sentence being the manifestation of a syntactic structure as a real, underlying mental representation. (He presented this idea in a famous review of Skinner's book, Verbal Behavior; here is a snippet from Kenneth MacCorquodale describing Chomsky's argument.) Here the idea is that a language-user's comprehension and production of a sentence like "Fairbanks is the desolate capital of Montana" (a sentence, by the way, that has probably never been previously written or uttered) involves a cognitive representation of a number of abstract structures that are not serial or linear. Rather, the competent user arrives at an abstract representation of the whole sentence including its syntax, semantics, and phonology. And the point can be expanded: we might imagine that many kinds of complex performance -- dance, fencing, piano or cello performance -- involve higher-level planning, representations of abstract structures or grammars, and execution of the performance based on the abstract plans and representations.

The other alternative is that the full complex performance is generated by an initial setting and a set of rules deriving the next move based on the current move.

Now let's apply this perspective to thinking. The Markovian perspective would hold that an apparently complexly structured piece of reasoning or creating is actually a serial process in which one step entails its successor. And the more extreme forms of behaviorism evidently entailed that thinking is "nothing but" a series of learned responses to a current set of stimuli -- so the Markov-process interpretation seems to be entailed by the behaviorist premise.

There are pieces of human cognitive performance that probably do have something like this structure -- a meandering conversation or a stream-of-consciousness monologue, for example. But in general, we seem to be confronted with numerous instances of reasoning and creating that do not have this property. Instead, many instances seem to reflect an underlying strategic structure, in which elements that are introduced early in the production are crucial for later turns in the argument or creation. Why does Rawls introduce the idea of reflective equilibrium early in the book? Because he envisions a stage in the argument where this construct will be a vital part of the argument. Why does Monet sketch out the dark shadows around the windows of the Cathedral early in his painting work? Because he has a vision of the eventual gestalt of the finished painting. And, critically, we can speculate that these conceptions are cognitive realities in the mind of the philosopher or artist.

In each instance we seem to have a clear example of a thinker whose complex reasoning and creation is not solely serial. Instead, each is an example of an abstract representation of the whole guiding the particular steps of execution. And this suggests something very much like the Chomsky vision of syntactic representation of the whole guiding the building of the composition.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

How much of social life can be explained?

How much of social life can be explained?

It may sound like a strange question -- surely everything can be explained! And it's true that nothing that occurs is "inexplicable". But consider this homely example: if I spill my coffee on the desk, is there a scientific explanation of the particular shape that the splash of liquid takes? The final configuration of liquid on the desk is fully governed by physical laws and existing conditions; but chance and contingency play a critical role in the flow and splash of liquid as it moves into equilibrium. Some facts about the final equilibrium can be explained and predicted -- the flat surface and shallow depth, for example. But the particular configuration of the radiating arms of the spill is highly contingent. So we might say that the depth of the pool has a scientific explanation but the shape does not.

Now bring the focus back to the social. The social universe contains a great deal of stuff that is random, chaotic, and conjunctural. Social outcomes are path-dependent: later events often depend critically on circumstances that occurred earlier in time. And this means that outcomes may be decisively shaped by accidental and ideographic events that occurred in the past.

Take collective behavior. In analogy to the coffee spill, we might be in a position to explain the behavior of each person in a crowd -- and it may still be true that there is no explanation of the behavior of the group as a whole. (Maybe that is suggested by the beach crowd scene above.) Sometimes there is a salient explanation of group behavior, and sometimes there is not. And we might want to say that any social outcome that is random or depends primarily on a random concatenation of causes, cannot be explained but merely retraced. We can provide a narrative but not an explanation.

In fact, for a wide range of social phenomena, the outcome is simply the resultant of many small influences, and there is no salient reason for this particular outcome. There had to be some result, and the observed result is no more distinguished than any of the other possible outcomes. If the best causal story we can provide depends on unvarnished coincidence, then it seems reasonable to say that there is no explanation of this particular fact.

The most interesting social explanations arise when:

There is a large social trend or event that surprises us (change or unexpected persistence) and there is a previously unobserved factor that can be demonstrated to have caused the trend. Crudely, we might say that an outcome or pattern has an explanation just in case we have reason to believe there is a major causal factor that produces the pattern or outcome.

There appear to be a couple of pragmatic features to this question about whether something is amenable to scientific explanation. (This raises the question of the pragmatics of explanation in contrast to the logic of explanation.) First, it appears that there an implicature, in asking for an explanation of X, that X is unexpected. If so, there is an implication of contrast: contrary to the usual situations where X does not occur, X occurred on this instance. What caused X to occur? What factor in the situation led to the surprising outcome now? And second, there is the pragmatic preference for large and general factors rather than local and particular factors to serve as explanations.

So we might test out this idea: the proportion of social events that permit substantive scientific explanations is very low. Most social events are routine and expected, and they are the resultant of a large number of unimportant influences. And if either condition is present, then we might say that the event lacks an explanation.

Agendas for Chinese sociology

The challenge for Chinese sociology is the challenge of Chinese society. Chinese social sciences are presently in a period of deep uncertainty. Marxist ideas about method and theory are no longer governing, and new paradigms have not yet taken full form. This transition is especially important because of the magnitude and novelty of the social changes that China is experiencing today. Now is an important time for engagement between innovative Chinese and Western sociologists and philosophers in an effort to arrive at models of social research and explanation that work well for contemporary China.

Here is a brief inventory of some of the many social processes and challenges that are underway in China today, and that constitute an agenda of research for a distinctive China-centered sociology of the future.

Most visible among China’s current social changes is the economic transformation associated with market reforms in the past two decades. The reform of agriculture in the 1980s had massive effects that continue to reverberate in Chinese rural society. The reforms in the 1990s of the institutional setting of manufacture and international trade have created large currents and pressures in Chinese society: smashing of the brass rice bowl, stimulus to massive internal migration, creation of new ensembles of powerful players, creating of wealth, immiseration of some workers, …

Seen from a narrowly economic point of view, the question is this: How can China sustain 10% rates of economic growth? What further policy changes and institutional reforms will be necessary in order to both support and accommodate rapid economic growth?

Seen from the broader point of view, the question is: What are the social implications of this massive economic transformation? What changes have occurred within factories? How do workers reason about the choices they are faced with when privatization occurs? What is happening to displaced workers? What implications are emerging for public health, for the care of the elderly, or for access to education? What are the conditions of social well-being across China? How much inequality is resulting from these reforms, and how is it distributed across region and sector? How are these circumstances changing over time?

Something like 70% of China’s population is rural, with a sizeable percentage swinging back and forth between rural residence and low-paid urban work. The transformations that are underway in the countryside are very important. There is a profound readjustment of property rights underway, with a corresponding struggle between farmers and power-holders over ownership and control of land. The inequalities that have commonly existed between city and countryside are evidently more extreme than ever since 1949; incomes are rising rapidly in the urban manufacturing and service economy, and farmers’ incomes are stagnant. Western provinces such as Shaanxi continue to witness rural incomes in the range of $300 per year—the World Bank’s standard of extreme poverty. And farmers’ access to social services is very limited, including access to education; so opportunities for inter-generational improvement are much more limited than those presented to urban people.

Corresponding to some of these points about rural property ownership and inequalities, is a dramatic increase in the volume of rural protest and collective action. Tens of thousands of instances of collective protest and unrest occur every year in the countryside—and the incidence is rising. The state is concerned about conditions in the countryside; but its response is muted and confused. At some points the rhetoric of the state has been pro-farmer in the past few years; but there is also a “law and order” thread that offers the stick rather than social reform. Complicating the issue is the disconnect between the central government’s policies and the actions of local and provincial governments. The interests of the local and provincial governments are often tilted towards “development” and modernization – with corresponding lack of support for farmers’ rights. The central state appears to lack the ability to control the use of coercion by local authorities in putting down peasant collective action and protest.

A common cause of rural unrest is the fact of local corruption and abuse of the powers of local authorities. The study of corruption, and the institutions of state and market that might help to control corrupt practices, is an important subject for Chinese social scientists. Parallel to corruption is the question of the extension of the system of law. To what extent are players able to appeal to their rights and to gain access to processes of law enforcement? Are there emerging non-governmental organizations and other independent organizations that support workers’ and farmers’ rights? How can this institutional framework be extended and made more effective?

Internal migration and the status of ethnic minorities are other important subjects for study by Chinese social scientists. Once again, these are processes that are changing rapidly; it will be important for Chinese demographers, social policy analysts, and ethnographers to put together effective research programmes that will track and explore these processes.

The social behaviors that affect the environment and energy use, including changes in the volume of transportation and motor vehicles, present evident challenges for the future of Chinese society. Social scientists need to provide insight into the drivers of these behaviors, and social scientists can help to design social policies and institutions that might steer Chinese consumption patterns in directions that are more compatible with China’s longterm environmental sustainability.

Many Chinese intellectuals are posing questions about the role of values in Chinese society. Are there traditional Chinese values that might help secure a stable and harmonious future for Chinese society? Are there strategies or policies that might help to stabilize a social consensus about the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the distributive justice of China’s economic development? Social scientists can probe these questions at a variety of levels, asking the empirical question of the current distribution and variation of social values and the institutional question of the forces that influence future developments in social values.

Finally, the social challenges that will be posed by an aging Chinese population, in the context of a dramatically smaller cohort of younger workers as a result of the one-child policy, will be increasingly important in the coming two decades. Health care, income support, housing, and mental health services will all be important challenges for Chinese society, and once again, there is very little precedence for the magnitude of these challenges in other parts of the world.

Plainly, there is an urgent need for a new surge of effective social-science research in China. But equally, it is clear that these many areas of change represent a mix of different kinds of social processes and mechanisms, operating according to a variety of temporal frameworks, with different manifestations in different regions and sectors of Chinese society. So we should not expect that a single sociological framework, a unified sociological theory, or a unique sociological research methodology will suffice. Instead, Chinese sociological research needs to embrace a plurality of methods and theories in order to arrive at results that shed genuine light on China’s social development.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Social science history and historical social science

Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”?

E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work is multi-faceted. He gives treatment of workingmen’s organizations and publications; churches and pastors; riots and chants; petitions to parliament; and much else. The story is historical in several respects: it provides an account of change over time and it engages in detailed and fine-grained description of specific circumstances in the past. Is Thompson attempting to explain something? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that his aim is to describe this extended, multi-location, multi-group process of “making”, along with some sense of the circumstances and features of agency that brought this “class” into being. And he goes out of his way to emphasize the contingency of the story that he tells: this “class” could have taken a very different shape, depending on altered circumstances and agency along the way. His is as much like the work of a biographer, detailing the development of personality, the contingencies of personal history, the formation of character, and the actions of the mature person.

Charles Tilly treats the development of contentious politics in France over three centuries. His account too is “historical”: it describes the development and diversity of contentious politics in France through revolution and periods of quiet. His account too is attentive to difference; he emphasizes the many ways in which French contentious “underclass” politics varied across time and across region. The politics of workers in Paris were quite different from those of the winemakers of the Vendée. But Tilly’s account is deliberately sociological and theoretical. The goal of his study is to discover causes; to test a few theoretical hypotheses about mobilization; and to use the “data” of French working class history as a basis for testing and evaluating sociological theory.

Each of these examples is a major intellectual contribution; each contributes to our historical understanding; each focuses on a historically situated working class. But the two oeuvres have substantial differences of orientation and feel. One is explicitly theoretical in its goals; the other is nuanced and descriptive. One aims at arriving at explanations; the other is interested in providing a qualitative understanding of the experience of ordinary men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries in rural England. One is historical social science, while the other is social science history.

So it is an important question within the philosophy of history, to articulate the difference between these two configurations of “social science” and “history.” How are the two genres distinguished? Are they differences of style, each embodying a complex of narrative and explanatory values? Are they at opposing ends of some sort of spectrum, ranging from descriptive to explanatory or concrete to abstract? Or are they actually logically different in some way—perhaps along the lines of the distinction between three conceptions of time described by William Sewell?

Perhaps most extremely, would we be right to consider excluding Tilly’s work from the domain of the “historical” and place it instead within the domain of social science, distinguished from other varieties of social science primarily by the fact that the data upon which it depends are facts about the past? In other words, is it possible to suggest that “historical social science” is not a variety of historical writing at all?

How might we characterize some of the differences between these two bodies of writing about the past? Do they constitute different paradigms, research frameworks, or forms of historical practice? Do they embody different complexes of assumptions about what to emphasize, what the standards of rigor are, what is required by way of description, detail, and fact; what is intended by way of explanation and understanding; the role that interpretation of the lived experience of agents plays; and so on?

Comparative historical social science is a particular instance of historical social science. There is a well-developed contemporary literature on the conceptual and methodological issues raised by comparative historical social science. And the participants in this literature generally seem to come down on the side of the “social science” conclusions rather than the “historical explanations” side of the debate. The goal of comparative social science is to assess causation, and to use knowledge of concrete historical cases as a source of evidence for evaluating causal theories. Examples include the explanation of social revolution (Theda Skocpol), the explanation of social contention (Charles Tilly), the explanation of economic development (R. Bin Wong, Philip Huang), the explanation of labor union politics (Howard Kimmeldorf).

Now let us turn the lens in the other direction and ask, in what ways do the contents of social science knowledge aid in the construction of historical knowledge? What is the role of theory and causal hypothesis in paradigm examples of historical knowledge? Virtually all historians would first insist: “Historical research cannot take the form of application of social science theory to the data. Rather, the historian’s task is to discover the particular and the grain of the materials in front of him. History is not the unfolding of theoretical premises and good historical knowledge does not result from deducing consequences from general social science theories.” That being conceded: are there forms of historical inquiry and knowledge that are importantly and rationally assisted by social science theory?

One variant of historical writing where social science theory is apparently pertinent is in the “causal narrative”. Historians are well served by appealing to social science theories of causal mechanisms in order to explain the transitions that they identify in their causal narratives. This is a logical point. And yet, it is strikingly difficult to find examples of leading historians who make use of social science theory in this way. Philip Huang is an example of a professional historian who makes substantial use of social science theory and concepts; Simon Schama is an example of a historian who is averse to this use. More commonly, the authors who provide causal narratives informed by social science theory are themselves sociologists or other social scientists (Skocpol, Tilly, Wolf, Paige).

It seems from some of these scattered observations, that there is indeed a significant difference between social science history and historical social science. The explanatory goals appear to be different, and the methods of reasoning and standards of rigor and adequacy seem to be distinct as well. So the question of how the disciplinary differences fit together is one that demands continued scrutiny.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Microfoundations of social practices

By a practice I mean such things as agricultural techniques, craft technologies, and customs of ordinary life -- how to greet a neighbor, how to discipline one's children, how to decorate the home for a holiday. A practice is a combination of concrete knowledge, a string of practical techniques, and a set of attitudes and judgments. (It would be interesting to look at practices as being "coded", along the lines of a gene or a sentence.)

How about the other half of the question? A "microfoundation" is a set of local-level pathways and mechanisms through which a social process is caused or mediated. It is a particular set of individual circumstances that create the patterns of behavior that aggregate to the observed social outcome. For example, the microfoundation for an observed failure to carry off a successful tiger hunt is the set of circumstances of recruitment through which eligible participants are enabled to "free-ride" on the participation of others.

So -- do social practices have "microfoundations"?

First, consider the social reality of a practice like wine-making. Pre-modern artisanal wine makers possess an ensemble of techniques through which they grow grapes and transform them into wine. These ensembles are complex and developed; different wine "traditions" handle the tasks of cultivation and fermentation differently, and the results are different as well (fine and ordinary burgundies, the sweet gewurztraminers of Alsace versus Germany). The novice artisan doesn't reinvent the art of winemaking; instead, he/she learns the techniques and traditions of the elders. But at the same time, the artisan wine maker may also introduce innovations into his/her practice -- a wrinkle in the cultivation techniques, a different timing in the fermentation process, the introduction of a novel ingredient into the mix.

So the practice of Alsatian winemaking in the seventeenth century has a complex social reality. There are elements of knowledge and practice common among many wine growers in the region; there are differentiating changes over space and time; and the whole tradition has a history that extends backward in time and space. We might imagine that the geo-history of the winemaking traditions of Alsace would track the continuity, change, and transformation of the complex of practices across time and space -- perhaps in the form of a set of dynamic maps illustrating the diffusion of the tradition, and the diffusion of variants and modifications, over space and time.

Now we are ready to come back to the question of microfoundations. There are at least two aspects of this story that require microfoundations, corresponding to persistence and change: the social mechanisms of reproduction of the practice from generation to generation (persistence) and the social mechanisms of transmission of innovation across space and time (change). (There is an interesting analogy here with the reproduction of a genotype over time, with faithful reproduction and mutations.) If we committed the intellectual sin of reification and imagined that there is one unique and extended social practice that is "Alsatian winemaking wherever it occurs," we would have missed a crucial part of the story just told; there is no essential social practice of winemaking (or greeting a neighbor or decorating the house for Passover). Rather, there are bundles of bits of knowledge, assumptions, judgments, and behaviors that are embodied in the thoughts and actions of individuals at a certain time; and there are social mechanisms through which these bundles of knowledge are transmitted across generations and across space and time.

Seen from this point of view, the study of the persistence, change, and brachiation of a social practice or traditional technology is a genuinely fascinating window into patterns of human activity over time. If it were possible to trace the travel of an innovation in the fermentation process from its origin in a given village, along the circuits of the periodic markets, across a jump to a more distant place (by long-distance ship, for example) we would have a "marker" of the routes of social interaction and travel that were characteristic of seventeenth-century rural Alsace. The logic of this investigation would be similar to that pursued by historical linguistics, observing the gradual transformation of the syntax, phonology, or vocabulary of a language over several centuries and an extended region.

And the topic of microfoundations is an important theoretical question in this story. It invites us to ask several foundational questions:
"What are the social processes within which the complex social practice is embodied in human behavior and knowledge at a certain time?"
"What are the social processes through which this body of knowledge is transmitted relatively intact from one generation to the next?"
"What are the social mechanisms of transmission through which these clusters of human knowledge and their variations are conveyed across space and across social groups (from village to village)?"

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Piecemeal empirical assessment of social theories

The philosophy of science devotes a large fraction of its wattage to this question: what is the logic of empirical confirmation for scientific beliefs? (A good short introduction is Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction.) In the natural sciences this question became entangled with the parochial fact about the natural sciences, that scientific theories postulated unobservable entities and processes and that the individual statements or axioms of a theory could not be separately confirmed or tested. So a logic of confirmation was developed according to which theories are empirically evaluated as wholes; we need to draw out a set of deductive or probabilistic consequences of the theory; observe the truth or falsity of these consequences based on experiment or observation; and then assign a degree of empirical credibility to the theory based on the success of the observational consequences. This could be put as a slogan: "No piecemeal confirmation of scientific beliefs!"

This is the familiar hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation (H-D), articulated most rigorously by Carl Hempel and criticized and amended by philosophers such as Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Norwood Hanson, and Imre Lakatos. These debates constituted most of the content of the evolution of positivist philosophy of science into post-positivist philosophy of science throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I don't want to dive into this set of debates, because I am interested in knowledge in the social sciences; and I don't think that the theory-holism that this train of thought depends upon actually has much relevance for the social sciences. The H-D model of confirmation is approximately well suited -- but only to a certain range of scientific areas of knowledge (mathematical physics, mostly). But the social sciences are not theoretical in the relevant sense. Social science "theories" are mid-level formulations about social mechanisms and structures; they are "theories of the middle range" (Robert Merton, On Theoretical Sociology). They often depend on formulations of ideal types of social entities or organizations of interest -- and then concrete empirical investigation of specific organizations to determine the degree to which they conform or diverge from the ideal-typical features specified by the theory. And these mid-level theories and hypotheses can usually be empirically investigated fairly directly through chains of observations and inferences.

This is not a trivial task, of course, and there are all sorts of challenging methodological and conceptual issues that must be addressed as the researcher undertakes to consider whether the world actually conforms to the statements he/she makes about it. But it is logically very different from the holistic empirical evaluation that is required of the special theory of relativity or the string theory of fundamental physics. The language of hypothesis-testing is not quite right for most of the social sciences. Instead, the slogan for social science epistemology ought to be, "Hurrah, piecemeal empirical evaluation!"

I want to argue, further, that this epistemological feature of social knowledge is a derivative of some basic facts about social ontology: social processes, entities, and structures lack the rigidity and law-governedness that is characteristic of natural processes, entities, and structures. So general, universal theories of social entities that cover all instances are unlikely. But second, it is a feature of the accessibility of social things: we interact with social entities in a fairly direct manner, and these interactions permit us to engage in scientific observation of these entities in a way that permits the piecemeal empirical investigation that is highlighted here. And we can construct chains of observations and inferences from primary observations (entries in an archival source) to empirical estimates of a more abstract fact (the level of crop productivity in the Lower Yangzi in 1800).

Let's say that we were considering a theory that social unrest was gradually rising in a region of China in the nineteenth century because of a gradual shift in the sex ratios found in rural society. The connection between sex ratios and social unrest isn't directly visible; but we can observe features of both ends of the equation. So we can gather population and family data from registries and family histories; we can gather information about social unrest from gazettes and other local sources; and we can formulate subsidiary theories about the social mechanisms that might connect a rising male-female ratio to the incidence of social unrest. In other words -- we can directly investigate each aspect of the hypothesis (cause, effect, mechanism), and we can put forward an empirical argument in favor of the hypothesis (or critical of the hypothesis).

This is an example of what I mean by "piecemeal empirical investigation". And the specific methodologies of the various social and historical sciences are largely devoted to the concrete tasks of formulating and gathering empirical data in the particular domain. Every discipline is concerned to develop methods of empirical inquiry and evaluation; but, I hold, the basic logic of inquiry and evaluation is similar across all disciplines. The common logic is piecemeal inquiry and evaluation.

(I find Tom Kelly's article on "Evidence" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be a better approach to justification in the social sciences than does the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, and one that is consistent with this piecemeal approach to justification. Kelly also reviews the essentials of H-D confirmation theory.)

More on knowing poverty

Mike Poole has picked up on the question of "knowing poverty", an earlier topic in UnderstandingSociety, in a very interesting post on his blog, greetingsearthlings. He adds a really valuable international perspective on the topic of how we understand poverty if we don't experience it directly -- he's Australian, trained in Southeast Asian Studies at ANU, living in Hong Kong, and very involved in the conditions of Filipino people living and working in Hong Kong.

This is a really great example of how the internationalism of the web can really make it possible for people to gain a better understanding of the human issues that most people face -- if they want to! Wouldn't it be great if a serious international discussion of the rice crisis and interruptions of food security in many countries got going in thoughtful postings like Mike's.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Cities are fascinating -- individually and in the aggregate. Are there distinct types of cities? Are there specific social processes that are associated with the development of cities in different countries or civilizations? Are there regularities across cities in different settings?

Two authors I've particularly admired in their analysis of cities -- at very different historical and spatial scales -- are G. William Skinner and Saskia Sassen. Skinner's historical treatment of Chinese cities is innovative and original (The City in Late Imperial China and The Chinese City Between Two Worlds; both edited books, the first including two major essays by Skinner). And Sassen's treatment of the global city in the twenty-first century sets the standard for bold new thinking about the social processes that are transforming the contemporary world (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo and Global Networks, Linked Cities).

Skinner is fascinated with the spatial arrangement of cities across historical China, and the hierarchies of economic, political, and social relationships that exist among them. And he is interested in the extended historical processes through which great and small cities took their shape. A crucial discovery -- regions rather than nations are the appropriate unit of analysis. "Fairly early in my research on Chinese cities it became clear that in late imperial times they formed not a single integrated urban system but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors" (CLIC 211). Transport systems were the primary integrative mechanism that Skinner identifies, and in China, transport was largely defined by navigable river systems.

In "Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China" Skinner is interested in explaining regional differences in urbanization rates across macroregions, and he isolates a handful of causal factors: population density of the region, division of labor, application of technology, commercialization/interregional trade, extraregional trade, administration. He finds that these variables do a pretty good job of explaining the urbanization rates for the eight macroregions he identifies (CLIC 235). A second interesting finding has to do with rank-size relationships of cities by region for late imperial China. Referring to a statistical regularity postulated by G. K. Zipf, according to which the rank-size distribution for a country or region is expected to be approximately linear when plotted with double-log scales, Skinner examines the rank-size distribution for the eight macroregions. And in a panel of graphs for the eight regions (CLIC 238-39) he demonstrates that the distributions conform remarkably well to this prediction, with a few interesting outliers (Canton, Kweiyang, Middle and Upper Yangtze regions).

Skinner's other essay in the volume is just as interesting, "Cities and the Hierarchy of Local Systems." In this paper Skinner focuses on the hierarchies within which Chinese cities fall -- one having to do with imperial administration and the other having to do with economic interaction. These hierarchies are both determined by the nature of the social interactions (and social functions) that are focused on various cities. And they are distinct. For the economic hierarchy of cities and towns Skinner's starting point is central place theory; according to this approach, cities and towns are ranked according to the volume of products and services that they provide and the nature of trade that exists between the city and other places in the hinterlands. The central analytical ideas here are "the demand threshold of the supplier and the range of a good" (277). These concepts work out, with appropriate simplifying assumptions, into a hexagonal array of places, containing nested hexagons of lesser places in a descending sequence. Skinner analyzes the location (spatial and hierarchy) of cities and towns in the Upper Yangzi region and finds that the analytical assumptions are born out.

The administrative hierarchy of cities is defined by different criteria -- location within the imperial system and a characteristic set of administrative functions. Skinner lays out this hierarchical system and then classifies cities and towns accordingly; and he finds, once again, a set of highly interesting regularities. In this case he finds that the distribution of administrative functions across cities and towns reflects intelligent administrative design. "These findings effectively dispose of the notion that cities in imperial China were but microcosms of empire, more or less uniform creations of an omnipotent state. Rather, they give evidence of skilled husbanding and deployment of the limited bureaucratic power that a premodern court could effectively control" (345).

Now let's swing forward a century and look quickly at Saskia Sassen's analysis of global cities New York, London, and Tokyo). Sassen takes a different cut on the dynamics and structure of modern cities. She places the great cities of the late twentieth century into networks that are global rather than national or regional. She looks at networks of exchange that include financial transactions, information flows, and movements of expertise and knowledge-based services. And global cities are those cities that serve as dense hubs of these kinds of exchanges on a global basis. (The map at right doesn't come from Sassen, but it appeals to me in the context because it uses the connectedness of cities to rewrite the geography of the globe. See a ContinentalDrift posting for some discussion.)

Sassen singles out seven hypotheses (quoting from the preface to Global Cities):

  1. the geographic dispersal of economic activities that marks globalization ... is a key factor feeding the growth and importance of central corporate functions
  2. these central functions become so complex that increasingly the headquarters of large global firms outsource them
  3. those specialized service firms engaged in the most complex and globalized markets are subject to agglomeration economies
  4. the more headquarters outsource their most complex, unstandardized functions ... the freer they are to opt for any location
  5. these specialized service firms need to provide a global service which has meant a global network of affiliates
  6. the growing numbers of high level professionals and high-profit making specialized firms have the effect of raising the degree of spatial and socioeeconomic inequality evident in these cities
  7. the dynamics described in hypothesis six lead to the growing informalization of a range of economic activities which find their effective demand in these cities yet have profit rates that do not allow them to compete

And, in a single sentence, her conclusion is:

Economic globalization and telecommunications have contributed to produce a spatiality for the urban which pivots both on cross-border networks and on territorial locations with massive concentrations of resources (xxii).

The book attempts to document and explore these points through a huge range of evidence about flows: flows of investment, flows of telephone calls, flows of scientists and specialists. And global cities are the places where these flows concentrate and originate; they are nodes in the global system of exchange that constitutes the modern knowledge-intensive economy. Like Skinner, she is very interested in networks and hierarchies; unlike Skinner, she doesn't seem particularly interested in spatial patterns (and their graphical expression, maps).

These points just scratch the surface of the insights that these two social scientists have provided as we try to understand cities in relation to larger social networks. But perhaps it's enough to illustrate the crucial point: there is ample room in social science and history for innovative perspectives on old questions.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Logistics as a historical force

The constraint of what people can do often plays a large role in what they actually do. The study of logistics is the study of constraints. Logistics has to do with the intersection of resource, activity, space, and time. A plan is an orchestrated sequence of activities over space and time, provisioned by appropriate resources as needed. Historical actors orchestrate their actions in terms of extended plans -- which means that they pay extensive and detailed attention to logistics. And historians need to do so as well.

One common species of historical question is, "Why did the agent do such-and-so?" Why did Napoleon's invasion of Russia fail so formidably? Why did Charles Martel infeudate his central power? Why did Napoleon III fail to respond with effective military action to the Prussian invasion of France in 1870? Why did Alexander the Great avoid the direct route through the Thar Desert? Analysis of constraints is often critical to being able to answer these questions.

In each case logistics comes into the explanation at a more or less evident level. The historian's first impulse is to ask the question of purpose and plan: what was the agent intending to accomplish? How was the observed course of action an intelligent solution? When there is no apparent rational explanation, the historian may then retreat to "miscalculation" or error. But choice always involves an assessment of constraints, and this is where logistics come in. What looks like error may actually be a rational adjustment to constraint. The point here is that logistical obstacles or difficulties are often a hidden factor on the agent's choice -- and these factors may ultimately dictate a strategy or plan that looks otherwise irrational. And historians sometimes give these constraints too little attention.

Logistics is relevant to a wide range of complex social action. Take, for example, the difficult chess match involving two NBA coaches during a forty-eight minute basketball game. Each coach makes a series of substitutions throughout the game. Some are dictated by "match-up" -- getting the right defensive players on the floor given the current offensive set of the opponent. But some of the choices may appear dumb in the eyes of the duffer fan -- "why did he take Iverson out now exactly when he's on a run?" And often, I think, the answer is logistics. Each player has a finite amount of energy and spring in his legs. And each has a finite allotment of personal fouls to give. So the coach's task, in part, is to manage substitutions in such a way as to make maximum use of his star players over the full forty-eight minutes. It doesn't help much to have built up a 10 point lead with four minutes to go if the top scorer and rebounder are out of gas. And this is a logistics problem.

A more serious example -- what about Alexander the Great in his celebrated and brilliant conquest of the world? Why did Alexander make the sometimes puzzling strategic and tactical decisions he made through his campaigns? The answer, according to Donald Engels, is logistics (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army). As Engels puts the point, "When the climate, human geography, physical geography, available methods of transport, and agricultural calendar of a given region are known, one can often determine what Alexander’s next move will be." Engels provides careful calculations of fodder, the number of horses needed to provision and feed the Macedonian army, and the rate of speed attainable by such an army -- and finds that Alexander's choices were generally well suited to the logistical constraints and his larger strategic goals.

The study of transportation technology as a historical factor certainly falls within the general topic of "logistics as a historical cause." (See Transportation for more extensive treatment of this topic.) Transport systems like rail networks provide specific opportunities and constraints on choice, and intelligent strategists make every effort to understand these well. So, correspondingly, the historian needs to do so as well if he/she is to explain the choices taken. (If you want to invade Burgundy from Frankfurt in 1860, don't plan to move your army by train. And if you plan to invade Russia by rail in 1910, be prepared for the change of gauge at the frontier.)

Military historians generally pay careful attention to logistical factors as they attempt to understand military choices and strategies. But analysis of resource-time-space-activity factors probably receive less attention in other parts of historical and social research than they should.

Where does the concept of logistics fit into the concepts we use to analyze historical processes and actions? Some historians might say that it is a minor and peripheral analytical tool. But seen properly, I would say that the notion of logistics is actually a key concept that ties together the complex and extended historical actions that we want to be able to explain. It is thus a central concept within an adequate historical ontology.

This point is relevant to historical research at two levels. First, it emphasizes the importance of incorporating a careful analysis of the agent's beliefs about the constraints he/she faces into the analysis of the eventual plans and choices. And second, at a more systemic level, it suggests that study of major logistical systems --transport, water management, urban infrastructure, the food system -- may have substantial value as a source of hypotheses about large historical causes. These systems structure the opportunities and constraints that face rulers and ordinary people alike, and they have the capacity of pushing development in one direction or another in a particular historical conjuncture. They therefore function as historical causes.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Realism for the social sciences?

Scientific realism is the idea that scientific theories provide descriptions of the world that are approximately true. This view implies a correspondence theory of truth -- the idea that the world is separate from the concepts that we use to describe it. And it implies some sort of theory of scientific rationality -- a theory of the grounds that we have for believing or accepting the findings of a given area of science. (See a brief article on the basics of scientific realism including some useful references here.) Realism, objectivity, and facts go together. We can interpret a theory realistically just in case we believe that there is a fact of the matter concerning the assertions contained in the theory. (See earlier postings relevant to this topic, Concepts and the World and Social Construction.)

Realism raises all kinds of interesting questions when we consider applying it to the social sciences. For one thing, it requires a useable distinction between the world and the knower. This raises the question: is there an objective social world independent from the perceptions and concepts of observers? And this also is a complicated question, because the persons who make up social processes at the micro-level are themselves "knowers" of the social world. So there is a question about the objectivity of the social world and a corresponding question about social construction of social reality. If all social phenomena are socially constructed, then how can it be the case that some statements about social phenomena are objective and independent from the conceptual schemes of the observer?

Scientific realism got its impetus from the fact that physical theories invoke theoretical concepts that are not themselves directly observational -- muon, gravity wave, gene (at an early stage of biology). So the question arose, what is the status of the reference and truth of scientific sentences that include non-observational concepts -- for example, "muons have a negative electric charge and a spin of -1/2"? Since we can't directly inspect muons and measure their charge and spin, sentences like this depend for their empirical confirmation on their logical relationships to larger bits of physical theory -- and ultimately upon a measure of the overall degree to which this physical theory issues true experimental and observational predictions. And the empirical confirmation of the theory as a whole, the story goes, provides a rational basis for assigning a reference and truth value to its constituent sentences. So the fact that "muon" is embedded within a mathematical theory of subatomic reality and the theory is well confirmed by experimental means, gives us reason to believe that muons exist and possess approximately the characteristics attributed to them by muon theory.

But all of this has to do with esoteric physical theory. Is there any relevant application of realism in the social sciences? Here's one important difference: the social sciences are barely "theoretical" at all in the sense associated with the natural sciences. The concepts that play central roles in social theories -- charisma, bureaucratic state, class, power -- aren't exactly "theoretical" in the sense of being non-observational. And social concepts aren't defined implicitly, in terms of the role that they play in an extended formal theoretical structure. Rather, we can give a pretty good definition of social concepts in terms of behavior and common-sense attributes of social entities. In the social sciences we don't find the conceptual holism that Duhem and Quine attributed to the natural sciences (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory; W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object). Instead, both meaning and confirmation can proceed piecemeal. So if realism were primarily a doctrine about the interpretation of theoretical terms, there wouldn't be much need for it in the social sciences.

But here are several specific ways in which scientific realism is useful in the social sciences, I think. And they all have to do with the kinds of statements in the social sciences that we think can be interpreted as expressing facts about the world, independent of our theories and concepts.

Causal realism. We can be realist about the meaning of assertions about causation and causal mechanisms. We can take the position that there is a fact of the matter as to whether X caused Y in the circumstances, and we can assert the objective reality of social causal mechanisms. On the realist interpretation, social causal mechanisms exist in the social world -- they are not simply constructs of the observer's conceptual scheme. And the statement that "Q is the process through which X causes Y" makes a purportedly objective and observer-independent claim about Q; it is an objective social process, and it conveys causation from X to Y. Q is the causal mechanism underlying the causal relationship between X and Y.

Structure realism. We can be realist about the existence of extended social entities and structures -- for example, "the working class," "the American Congress," "the movement for racial equality." These social entities and structures have some curious ontological characteristics -- it is difficult to draw boundaries between members of the working class and the artisan class, so the distinctness of the respective classes is at risk; institutions like the Congress change over time; a social movement may be characterized in multiple and sometimes incompatible ways; and social entities don't fall into "kinds" that are uniform across settings. But surely it is compelling to judge that the Civil Rights movement was an objective fact in the 1960s or that the Congress exists and is a partisan environment. And this is a version of social realism.

Social-relations realism. If we say that "Pierre is actively involved in a network of retired French military officers", we refer to a set of social relations encapsulated under the concept of a social network and composed of many pair-wise social relations. Here too we can take the perspective of social realism. It seems unproblematic to postulate the objective reality of both the pair-wise social relations and the aggregate network that these constitute. Each level of social relationship can be investigated empirically (we can discover that Pierre has regular interactions with Jean but not with Claude), and it seems unproblematic to judge that there is a fact of the matter about the existence and properties of the network -- independent of the assumptions and concepts of the observer.

Meaning realism. Now, how about the hardest case: meanings and the objectivity of interpretation. Can we say that there is ever a fact of the matter about the interpretation of an action or thought? When Thaksin offends Charat by exposing the bottoms of his feet to him -- can we say that "Charat's angry reaction is the result of the meaning of this insulting gesture in Thai culture"? Even here, it is credible to me that there is a basis for saying that this judgment expresses an objective fact (even if it is a fact about subjective experience); and therefore, we can interpret this sentence along realist lines: "Thaksin's gesture was objectively offensive to Charat in the setting of Thai culture." It is evident that many of our interpretations of behavior and action are substantially underdetermined by context and evidence; so it may be that much interpretation of meaning does not constitute a "fact of the matter." But this seems to be a fact about particular judgments rather than a universal feature of the interpretation of meanings.

So it seems that it is feasible and useful to take a social realist perspective on many of the assertions and theories of the social sciences; and what this says, is that we can interpret social science statements as being approximately true of a domain of social phenomena that have objective properties (i.e. properties that are independent from our conceptualization of them).