Friday, August 29, 2008

Cooperatives within markets

In a recent post on ChangingSociety I considered the question whether households in a rural community might be able to achieve energy self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of crops such as cattails and community production of ethanol. One question raised there is whether it is possible to estimate the land and labor that would be required for household self-sufficiency, and the other is whether we might describe an economically feasible distillery cooperative system that would permit a hundred families to distill their product. Based on assumptions that are drawn from a number of sources out of a very complicated domain of knowledge about the economics of ethanol, I put together several scenarios to see what the lifestyle consequences would be for "fuel farmers". A scenario based on moderate assumptions yielded these results: in order to produce a household stock of fuel of 2,400 gallons of ethanol, a household would need to cultivate 10 acres of cattails and would need to expend 4 hours per day year round on cultivation, harvesting, and distillery coop duties.

What I'd like to focus on in this posting is the feasibility and characteristics of cooperatives as a way for small- and medium-sized communities to handle some of the key material activities they need to accomplish. In a modern society we are so accustomed to market mechanisms and individual decision-making that it is somewhat difficult to imagine how coops might work in modern circumstances. So, for the example under consideration here, the market scenario is straightforward: farmers grow cattails to serve as a raw material for a privately owned distillery; the price of the cattails is eventually determined as a function of the quantity and value of the final products of distillation (ethanol and feed); and cattail farming is simply another crop within the private farmer's portfolio. And if the business case for a privately developed distillery is favorable -- that is, the raw materials will be available in sufficient quantity and low price and the value of the product will be sufficient to provide a profit -- then entrepreneurs will emerge to fill this economic niche. Everyone's interests are satisfied: farmers earn more income, private owners earn a profit, and society is presented with a growing volume of renewable fuels.

But consider the downside of this market-based story from the fuel farmers' point of view. They have no control over the price that their cattail crop will bring; they are subject to the vagaries of commodity prices and the semi-monopoly position held by the local distillery; and they are likely to believe that the "middle man" is taking too much of their crop and labor in the form of profits. And, after all, the farmers' interest is in achieving a sustainable energy supply -- not simply a level of income consistent with the budget necessities of everyday life. They're growing the cattails because they are a source of energy that can be produced and consumed separately from the market. So passing through the market twice -- selling the raw materials and purchasing ethanol -- seems like an unnecessary and risky detour; why not simply turn the crop into ethanol directly without passing through the marketplace?

So the fuel farmer has an interest in directly capturing the energy content of the crop, not simply growing another kind of cash crop. This could be done by establishing a farm still and processing the crop directly; but there are significant economies of scale in distillation, so this is not an ideal solution. An inefficient distillation process simply means that the farmer must farm a larger area and expend more labor in order to arrive at the net quantity of fuel required. A better solution would result from sharing the distillation process among an extended group of households and maintaining a small to medium-sized distillery for the use of the community. So we might imagine leaders coming forward who propose the establishment of a cooperative distillery. Coop members would share costs, labor time, and ethanol based on the volume of feedstock that they provide to the process. If all households were farming roughly the same amount of land at the same level of intensity, then all households would contribute cash and labor equally and would "earn" the same quantity of ethanol from the process.

So now let's do a little bit of scenario building. Suppose there is a turnkey distillery operation that can be purchased for $2 million, with a well-documented set of technical efficiency characteristics. (That way prospective coop members know what they're getting into.) The distillery processes 60,000 pounds of biomass a day and produces about 2,000 gallons of ethanol. The distillation process requires 30 hours of labor per day. And this scale of production is about right for the needs of a cooperative involving 100 households. Members are required to accept joint financial responsibility for debt and operations of the coop, and they are required to provide their full share of coop labor at the distillery based on a schedule of work times. And, given the technical characteristics of farming and distilling, they can be confident that their fuel farming labor will result in a quantity of biomass that will entitle them to 2,400 gallons of ethanol annually. On a plausible set of assumptions, this means that each household will have coop dues of $2,200 and a monthly labor obligation of 6 hours.

So far, so good; this sounds like a good deal for each of the households. Each household satisfies its annual energy needs with an investment of $2,200 in cash and about 1,000 hours of labor expended on cultivation, harvesting, transporting, and distilling; whereas the cost of purchasing this volume of ethanol would be about $10,000. So what obstacles might arise in implementing this cooperative solution to the problem of energy self-sufficiency?

There are several predictable challenges that this scenario is likely to raise, including especially in the areas of governance, technical management, work management, accounting, trust, taxation, and sustainability over time.
  • Governance. The cooperative needs to make decisions about management, maintenance, and improvement of the facility. How should this be done? Are all decisions to be taken on the basis of a vote by the membership? Should there be an executive committee with some powers of decision-making? Is there an executive manager? How will conflicts among coop members be managed and resolved?
  • Technical management. The distillery is technically complex. Maintenance requires skilled technicians or millwrights. Can the coop count on these kinds of expertise among its membership? Will it need to hire outside experts and engineers to maintain the facility? Who will take responsibility for maintaining safety processes and standards within the facility?
  • Work management. Who will supervise the work of coop members while they are performing their tasks during coop labor? Is there a likelihood of "easy riding" -- coop members who bring their blackberries to work and keep checking their email rather than cleaning the boiler? What kinds of discipline processes are feasible within a coop -- for example, fines imposed on "no-show" workers? Will the coop need to reward internal experts with a somewhat larger share of the product?
  • Accounting. There is a very substantial amount of accounting of inputs and outputs that needs to be accomplished. As coop members pull up with a load of biofuel the quantity and quality needs to be measured and recorded. Clear formulas governing the pay-out of ethanol need to be codified. There is a time lag between depositing the feedstock and withdrawing the ethanol; rules need to be established that govern the household's entitlement to a given quantity of ethanol on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly?).
  • Trust. Members need to have a substantial level of trust in each other and in the non-professional managers of the process. Theft of assets is always a possibility by managers. Fraud on the part of coop members is also possible -- for example, mixing non-feedstock materials into a load of feedstock and taking credit for 6,000 pounds rather than 5,500 pounds of stock. More careful inspection procedures have a cost -- more labor time from the membership. Members need to be confident that other members will continue to pay their dues -- otherwise the debt obligations of the coop fall on a smaller and smaller circle of dues-payers.
  • Taxation. The cooperative is likely to face expanding demand for improvements of the facility, the technology, or the use of labor. This means raising the obligations imposed on coop members, in the form of coop dues, a percentage of their ethanol share, or an increase in labor time required by coop members. How will these increases in assessment be decided?
  • Sustainability over time. The economics of the cooperative distillery depend on a certain size of membership -- say 100 households. Like any human organization, there will be exits from the cooperative -- retirements, relocation, discouragement. Will the cooperative be able to continually recruit new members in sufficient numbers to keep the process in the black? Is there the risk of the "dying seminar" that Thomas Schelling writes about -- decline leading to rising costs for the remaining members, leading to further decline in membership (Micromotives and Macrobehavior)?
So -- there are significant challenges of governance, management, and trust that stand in the way of a successful cooperative. This doesn't mean that cooperatives are impossible to create or sustain, or that they don't have significant economic advantages for their members. But perhaps it does explain why this is not a common solution so far in modern social settings as a way of securing coordination and shared economic benefits among a mid-sized group of persons or households. At the same time, it seems very worthwhile to expend effort on trying to resolve these issues in ways that make cooperative arrangements more feasible and sustainable than they currently are in modern society.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The difference ontology makes

Quite a few posts here over the past few months have been on the subject of social ontology: what can we say about the nature of the social world? I've focused on characteristics like heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency, and have also given thought to some of the processes through which social phenomena are "composed" of lower-level processes and mechanisms. (The topics of methodological individualism, localism, and holism fall in this category.) Why are these questions important to the philosophy of social science? And how could they possibly contribute to better research and theory in the social sciences?

One answer is that it isn't really possible to investigate any domain without having some idea of what sorts of things the domain consists of. So attempting to arrive at perspicuous models of what the social world is made up of is a necessary step on the way to more specific forms of empirical and causal research.

A second answer derives from recognition of the harm that has been done to the cause of knowledge by misconceived ontologies in the history of science. This has been especially true in areas of knowledge adjoining human life and activity -- radical behaviorism in psychology, naturalism and positivism in sociology, and what Andrew Abbott calls the "variables paradigm" in quantitative social science. Better science will result from more propititious ontology, because we won't be in the situation of trying to force the social world onto the wrong sorts of boxes.

Third, there are good reasons for thinking that reasoning about social ontology is possible. If ontological thinking were purely apriori, then we might be reasonably skeptical about our capacity to move from philosophy to the world. But we have a form of access to social reality that we lack for the realities of nature and mathematics: we are participants in social reality and our thoughts and actions are constitutive of that reality. So theorizing about social reality of ontology isn't wholly apriori; rather, it is more akin to a form of intelligent observation of real social processes around us. Ontological thinking is really a form of empirically informed theorizing, at a fairly abstract level.

Let's turn now to the question of how concretely better social ontological thinking can help create better social research.

Researchers will be encouraged to explore multiple methodologies and theories when a more satisfactory social ontology guides them. Pluralism finds strong support in the ontology explored here, given the emphasis offered to social heterogeneity and contingency.

Some specific research strategies and questions are likely to arise as a result of more adequate social ontologies. Questions about causal mechanisms and processes of composition will receive special attention.

Fields of research like comparative historical sociology and case study methods will receive theoretical support and encouragement, since these approaches are particularly well suited to the ontological ideas revolving around heterogeneity, plasticity, and composition.

So, to return to the original question: it is in fact very appropriate and potentially helpful for philosophy of social science to give more attention to social ontology than it has traditionally done. The social world of the twenty-first century is chaotic and rapidly changing, and we need better mental frameworks within which to attempt to make sense of this complexity and change.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Power and social class

What does social class have to do with power? The two concepts represent theories about how a modern society works, and there are some fundamental relationships between them. But at bottom they are separate social factors that allow for independent forms of social causation. The first is fundamentally concerned with the economic structure of a society, the systems through which wealth is created and distributed, and the second is concerned with the expressions of politics within a society.

Both class and power can be placed into the dichotomies of structure and agency. The class system sets some of the parameters of "structure" within which individuals act, but it also creates some of the motivations and features of consciousness that constitute the agency of class actors. The forms of power present in a given society define some of the features of agency on the basis of which individuals and groups pursue their goals; but it is also fair to say that the institutions and social relations that define social power are also a part of the structured environment of action that is present in the social world. So both power and class are simultaneously features of structure and agency within a complex society; and the configurations created by class and power are causally inter-related without being isomorphic.

A class system can be defined as a system for producing social wealth in which productive resources and the results of production are unevenly divided across different groups. The producing class is "exploited" by the ascendant class: wealth is transferred from producers to owners. Serfs and lords, slaves and masters, workers and owners represent the primary classes of feudalism, ancient slavery, and nineteenth century capitalism. Within any society there are groups that fall outside the primary classes -- small traders, artisans, small farmers, intellectuals. But it is central to Marx's theory of class, that there is a primary cleavage between owners of the means of production and the direct producers, and that this cleavage embodies a fundamental conflict of interest between the two groups.

"Power" is a compound social characteristic in virtue of which an individual or group is able to compel the actions or inactions of other individuals or groups against their will or contrary to their interests, needs, and desires. Power derives from the ability to impose coercion -- truncheons, prisons, and punishment; and it derives from the ability of some agents within society to set the agenda for future action. Power is needed to get 1.5 million people to leave their homes in Beijing to make way for Olympics developments. Power is needed to prevent striking miners from shutting down La Paz. Power is needed to protect the glittering shop windows of Johannesburg from disaffected young people. Power is exercised by states -- through military and police, through agencies and bureaucracies, through legislation; it is exercised by corporations and other large private organizations; and it is exercised by social movements and other groups within society.

The two social factors are intertwined in at least three ways.

First, a class system constitutes a set of social inequalities within which there are deep conflicts of interest. So a class system sets the stage for the exercise of power; various groups have an interest in wielding power over others within a class system. Ascendant groups have an interest in sustaining the productive economic activities of subordinates whom they exploit, and they have an interest in squelching acts of resistance. But likewise, subordinate groups have an interest in using instruments of power to reduce or overturn the exploitative social relations within which they function.

Second, a class system assigns resources and positions to different groups and individuals that greatly influence the nature and weight of the instruments and tactics of power available to them. Owners have economic assets, alliances, and the state in their column. Producers have their numbers and their key locations in the economic process. A strike of rail workers is a substantial exercise of power, given the centrality of transport in a complex economy. So the particulars of a class system provide key determinants of the distribution of power within society.

Third, a class system also creates a subjectivity of power, powerlessness, and resistance that may iterate into new forms of the exercise of power. It may be an effective instrument of social control to cultivate a subjectivity of powerlessness in subordinate groups. And likewise, it may be materially empowering to subordinate groups to cultivate a culture of resistance -- by making collective action and solidarity more attainable, for example.

These are several ways in which facts about class and power intertwine. But power is wielded for non-economic purposes as well -- effecting the will of the state, achieving ethnic domination, and influencing culture, for example. So it would be incorrect to imagine that power is simply the cutting edge of class conflict.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


What is the role of trust in ordinary social workings? I would say that a fairly high level of trust is simply mandatory in any social group, from a family to a workplace to a full society. Lacking trust, each agent is forced into a kind of Hobbesian calculation about the behavior of those around him or her, watching for covert strategies in which the other is trying to take advantage of oneself. The cost of self-protection is impossibly high in a zero-trust society. Gated communities don't help. We would need to have gated and solitary lives. Even our brothers and sisters, spouses, and offspring would have to be watched suspiciously. We would live like Howard Hughes at the end of his life.

To begin, what is trust? It is a condition of reliance on the statements, assurances, and basic good behavior of others. The status of commitments over time is essential to trust. We need to consider whether we can trust a neighbor who has promised to return a lawn mower -- will he keep his promise? Can we trust the car park attendant not to take the iPod from the glove compartment? Can we trust the phone company to not add hidden fees to our bill in a corporate decision that they won't be noticed by most consumers?

It is sort of a commonplace in moral philosophy that you can't trust a pure egoist or an act utilitarian. The reason is simple: trust means reliance on the correct behavior of other agents even when there is an opportunity for gain in incorrect behavior and the probability of detection and sanctions is low. The egoist will reason on the basis of the advantage he/she anticipates and will discount the low likelihood of sanction. But likewise, the act utilitarian will add up all the utilities created by "correct action" and "incorrect action", and will be bound to choose the action with the greater utility. The fact of an existing promise or other obligation will not change the calculation. So the act utilitarian cannot be trusted to honor his promises and obligations, no matter what.

Standards of "correct behavior" are difficult to articulate precisely, but here's a start: telling the truth, keeping promises and assurances when they come into play, acting according to generally shared rules of professional and social ethics, and respecting the rights of others. We sometimes describe people and organizations whose behavior conforms to these sorts of characteristics as possessing "integrity".

In general, agents whose behavior is governed solely by calculation of consequences cannot be trusted, since occasions requiring trust are precisely those in which we need to rely on others to do the right thing in spite of consequences that would favor doing the wrong thing. (For example, taking the iPod in circumstances where there are dozens of attendants and the theft cannot be attributed to one person; keeping the lawnmower if the owner is in a state of rapid-onset dementia; adding the phony charges in a business environment where it can be predicted with confidence that only 5% of customers will notice and the penalties are trivial.)

So there are two basic models of action that people can choose: consequentialist and "constrained by obligations" (deontological). The first approach is opportunistic and myopic; the other reflects integrity and the validity of long-term obligations.

But here we have a problem. The most ordinary social transactions become almost impossible in a no-trust environment. If I can't trust my bank to hold my savings honestly, or my employer to keep its commitments about my retirement accounts, or the passenger on the seat next to me on a long airplane flight to not go through my briefcase if I drift off to sleep -- then I am forced into a condition of exhausting, sleepless vigilance. And, of course, we do generally trust in these circumstances.

But it is an interesting problem for research to consider whether different societies and groups elicit and sustain different levels of trust in ordinary life, and what the institutional factors are that affect this outcome. Is there a higher level of trust in Bloomington, Illinois than Chicago or Houston? Is trust a feature of the learning environment through which people gain their social psychologies? Are there institutional features that encourage or discourage dispositions towards trust? And what are the compensating mechanisms through which social interactions proceed in a low-trust environment? Is that where "trust but verify" comes in?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Composition of the social

Our social ontology needs to reflect the insight that complex social happenings are almost invariably composed of multiple causal processes rather than existing as unitary systems. The phenomena of a great social whole -- a city over a fifty-year span, a period of sustained social upheaval or revolution (Iran in the 1970s-1980s), an international trading system -- should be conceptualized as the sum of a large number of separate processes with intertwining linkages and often highly dissimilar tempos. We can provide analysis and theory for some of the component processes, and we can attempt to model the results of aggregating these processes. And we can attempt to explain the patterns and exceptions that arise as the consequence of one or more of these processes. Some of the subordinate processes will be significantly amenable to theorizing and projection, and some will not. And the totality of behavior will be more than the "sum" of the relatively limited number of processes that are amenable to theoretical analysis. This means that the behavior of the whole will demonstrate contingency and unpredictability modulo the conditions and predictable workings of the known processes.

Consider the example of the development of a large city over time. The sorts of subordinate processes that I'm thinking of here might include --
  • The habitation dynamics created by the nodes of a transportation system
  • The dynamics of electoral competition governing the offices of mayor and city council
  • The politics of land use policy and zoning permits
  • The dynamics and outcomes of public education on the talent level of the population
  • Economic development policies and tax incentives emanating from state government
  • Dynamics of real estate system with respect to race
  • Employment and poverty characteristics of surrounding region

Each of these processes can be investigated by specialists -- public policy experts, sociologists of race and segregation, urban politics experts. Each contributes to features of the evolving urban environment. And it is credible that there are consistent patterns of behavior and development within these various types of processes. This justifies a specialist's approach to specific types of causes of urban change, and rigorous social science can result.

But it must also be recognized that, there are system interdependencies among these groups of factors. More in-migration of extremely poor families may put more stress on the public schools. Enhancement of quality or accessibility of public schools may increase in-migration (the Kalamazoo promise, for example). Political incentives within the city council system may favor land-use policies that encourage the creation of racial or ethnic enclaves. So it isn't enough to understand the separate processes individually; we need to make an effort to discover these endogenous relations among them.

But over and above this complication of the causal interdependency of recognized factors, there is another and more pervasive complication as well. For any given complex social whole, it is almost always the case that there are likely to be additional causal processes that have not been separately analyzed or theorized. Some may be highly contingent and singular -- for example, the many effects that September 11 had on NYC. Others may be systemic and important, but novel and previously untheorized -- for example, the global information networks that Saskia Sassen emphasizes for the twenty-first century global city.

The upshot is that a complex social whole exceeds the particular theories we have created for this kind of phenomenon at any given point in time. The social whole is composed of lower-level processes; but it isn't exhausted by any specific list of underlying processes. Therefore we shouldn't imagine that the ideal result of investigation of urban phenomena is a comprehensive theory of the city -- the goal is chimerical. Social science is always "incomplete", in the sense that there are always social processes relevant to social outcomes that have not been theorized.

Is there any type of social phenomenon that is substantially more homogeneous than this description would suggest -- with the result that we might be able to arrive a neat, comprehensive theories of this kind of social entity? Consider these potential candidates: inner city elementary schools, labor unions, wars of national liberation, civil service bureaus, or multi-national corporations. One might make the case that these terms capture a group of phenomena that are fairly homogeneous and would support simple, unified theories. But I think that this would be mistaken. Rather, much the same kind of causal complexity that is presented by the city of Chicago or London is also presented by elementary schools and labor unions. There are multiple social, cultural, economic, interpersonal, and historical factors that converge on a particular school in a particular place, or a particular union involving specific individuals and issues; and the characteristics of the school or the union are influenced by this complex convergence of factors. (On the union example, consider Howard Kimeldorf's fascinating study, Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. Kimeldorf demonstrates the historical contingency and the plurality of social and business factors that led to the significant differences among dock workers' unions in the United States.)

What analytical frameworks available for capturing this understanding of the compositional nature of society? I have liked the framework of causal mechanisms, suggesting as it does the idea of there being separable causal processes underlying particular social facts that are diverse and amenable to investigation. The ontology of "assemblages" captures the idea as well, in its ontology of separable sub-processes. (Nick Srnicek provides an excellent introduction to assemblage theory in his master's thesis.) And the language of microfoundations, methodological localism, and the agent-structure nexus convey much the same idea as well. In each case, we have the idea that the social entity is composed of underlying processes that take us back in the direction of agents acting within the context of social and environmental constraints. And we have a premise of causal openness: the behavior of the whole is not fully determined by a particular set of subordinate mechanisms or assemblages.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What is a peasant?

Quite a bit of China's history has been framed in terms of the role of the "peasant" in Chinese society. Historians consider the features of the peasant economy; they examine the occurrence and dynamics of peasant rebellions and peasant mobilization; they ask about peasant culture and consciousness. What is a peasant? Is it a sociologically useful concept?

To start, we might consider a simple definition. A peasant is a smallholding farmer, producing crops for family consumption and for market exchange, using family labor throughout the farming cycle. Peasants live in villages; they engage in face-to-face relations with neighboring farmers; they possess a diverse range of cultural and religious beliefs and practices; they fall within a diverse range of social networks and local organizations (kinship organizations, temples, labor-sharing networks). (Robert Netting's Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture provides a particularly astute analysis of peasant life.)

So peasants are farmers. But even within a society that is largely rural with a high percentage of smallholding farmers, there is still substantial social diversity within local society. Small traders, necromancers, martial arts instructors, bandits, minor officials, priests, moneylenders, elites, scholars, and large land owners all play roles within a peasant society -- but they are not peasants. Their incomes derive ultimately from the farm economy, but their lifestyles, standards of living, values, and social status are all distinct from those of peasant farmers. So there is occupational diversity within rural society in almost every part of China, and a "peasant society" consists of many people who are not themselves "peasants".

The definition of the peasant just offered focuses on the occupational or material situation of the individual. It is not surprising, then, that materialist social theory has given particular emphasis to the category of "peasant society" as a potentially explanatory social category. Marxist analysis gives substantial importance to the situation of peasants and workers, and other non-Marxist materialist thinkers have done so as well.

But we can reasonably ask whether this set of "existential" facts have very much to do with a person's mentality and political behavior. Recall the very great range of social environments in which farming takes place in China -- from the rice paddies and deltas of the lower Yangzi, to the wheat farms of Hebei and Shandong in the north, to the mountainous plots of Yunnan in the southwest. Recall as well the cultural diversity that occurs across this range -- different ethnic groups, different local traditions, different religious and lineage practices. So it is worth asking the question, to what extent do members of village society share a peasant consciousness, simply in virtue of their social position as farmers? Is there any reason to believe that the material factors that define one's status as "peasant" are more fundamental to consciousness than the cultural or ethnic factors having to do with one's immediate social milieu? Does the peasantry constitute a distinct social group?

There are some shared features of peasant experience that would provide a partial answer to this question. First is the common experience of insecurity. Farmers are more vulnerable than most economic groups to the vagaries of weather, water, and soil. Second is the fact of surplus extraction. Because they are the most numerous group in most traditional societies, the state and other powerful agents in society have an interest in extracting part of the peasant's surplus from him/her. This occurs through rent, interest, and taxation. And it is a commonplace that the peasant's life is often held hostage to predatory surplus extraction. Peasants are close to be bottom of the ladder when it comes to power, status, and influence -- so they are vulnerable to exploitation.

These considerations suggest that there is in fact an important basis of group mobilization that is associated with one's status as "peasant". Farmers share an interest in famine relief, drought assistance, and collective action against predatory taxation or rent increases; so their status as peasants may contribute to deliberate efforts aimed at the development of class consciousness and group identity formation. Peasant organizations may emerge that deliberately cultivate political action and consciousness around peasant issues. And this in turn suggests a more complicated answer to the primary question here: one's status as a peasant may not determine one's outlook on the social world or one's mentality; but the struggles associated with making a life within the context of rents, taxation, drought, and famine may lead to the forging of a peasant consciousness that does in fact influence political behavior and solidarity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

History, memory, and narrative

What is the relation between "history", "memory", and "narrative"? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that "history" is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; "memory" is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and "narratives" are the stories that historians and ordinary people weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived. We use narratives to connect the dots of things that have happened; to identify causes and meanings within this series of events; and to select the "important" events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

If we think that "history" should be informed by the ways in which historical events were experienced by individuals, then we must also address the question of how to use the evidence of memory as a prism for attributing subjective, lived experience to the people who lived this history. If we are interested in the Great Leap Forward famine years, for example, we need to know more than the timeline of harvest failure or the map of grain distress across China; we need to know how various groups experienced this time of hardship. And for this we need to have access to documents and interviews reporting the experience of individuals in their own words; we need to have access to memory.

A particularly valuable body of work on China's recent history is currently underway, in the form of careful use of oral histories, memoirs, and other expressions of personal memories of some of China's most dramatic chapters of national history. C. K. Lee and Guobin Yang have presented some excellent examples of this work in Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memory in Reform China. The book contains chapters that draw out important new insights into the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the changing conditions of women, cinema, the experience of ethnic minorities, and the occurrence of violence and disorder in the past sixty years in China's history. Every chapter sheds new light on something of interest; the book is an absorbing read. Especially interesting are chapters by Paul Pickowicz and Guobin Yang.

In "Rural Protest Letters: Local Perspectives on the State's War on Tillers" Paul Pickowicz describes an extensive collection of interviews and private writings of a single Hebei peasant leader, Geng Xiufeng, written between the 1950s and the 1990s. Geng's writings often take the form of protest letters, addressed to leaders extending from local party officials to Chairman Mao himself. Geng also maintained a journal in which he recorded his observations of the effects of various state-directed reforms of agriculture -- and the inimical effects these reforms had on peasant standard of living. Geng was a peasant activist and leader in the 1940s in support of rural cooperatives, as a practical mechanism for improving agriculture and improving local peasants' standard of living. And he turns out to be an astute and honest observer of the twists and turns of policy disaster (rapid collectivization of agriculture), corruption, and disregard of peasants' welfare by the CCP. (This latter is the meaning of Pickowicz's phrase, "the state's war on tillers.") Pickowicz had conducted a number of interviews with Geng in the 1970s and 1980s, and was greatly surprised to learn that Geng had written dozens of protest letters and had accumulated a multi-volume memoir that chronicled many of these social observations about change in North China. The content of these writings is fascinating; but even more important is the evidence they offer of the astute abilities possessed by ordinary Chinese people in observing and criticizing the processes of change that enmeshed them. These manuscripts offer Pickowicz -- and us -- a window into the consciousness of some ordinary rural people as China's history enveloped them; and they make evident the fact that Chinese peasants were not mere passive instruments, but rather practical, observant, and sometimes wise thinkers about revolution and reform.

Guobin Yang's article, "'A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing': The Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Internet" touches the other end of the information spectrum -- not handwritten letters and reflections penned in the 1950s, but over 100 contemporary websites devoted to archiving and chronicling the Cultural Revolution. There are widely divergent stories that can be told in defining the Cultural Revolution as an episode of history: an excess of leftism, a deliberate use of power by China's leaders against each other and against society, a period of social hysteria, or even "still a good idea." (The latter is the theme taken by the website incorporated into Yang's title -- "A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing." This is one of the few publicly available websites that Yang unearthed that continues to glorify Madame Mao and her fellow radicals.) Yang demonstrates that we can learn a lot about how the current generation views the Cultural Revolution -- and the strands of disagreement that continue to divide opinion about its causes and meanings -- by examining in detail the editorial judgments and online commentaries that accompany these online "exhibition halls".

The use of photography and cinema to represent memory -- both individual and collective -- is an important theme in the volume. The photograph above, representing a "struggle" session against "class enemies," captures a particular moment in time -- two particular men, exposed to a particular crowd. It also emblemizes scenes that were common throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. And, presumably, it triggers very specific personal memories for individual Chinese people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, whether as victims, Red Guards, or bystanders. As David Davies notes in "Visible Zhiqing: The Visual Culture of Nostalgia among China's Zhiqing Generation", no photograph stands wholly by itself. But some photos have the directness and honesty needed to stand for a whole dimension of historical experience -- in this case, the violence and humiliation perpetrated against teachers, scholars, and officials by zealous mobs of Red Guards and their followers. In this way the photo can faithfully capture one important strand of the history of this period.

One thing I particularly appreciate in the volume is the innovative thinking it provides about the nexus of experience, identity, and history. The editors and contributors are very sensitive to the fact that there is no single "Hebei experience" or "Chinese women's experience"; instead, the oral history materials permit the contributors to discern both variation and some degree of thematicization of memory and identity.

Another important contribution of the volume is the emphasis it offers to the idea of the agency involved in memory. Memories must be created; agents must find frameworks within which to understand their moments of historical experience. "As people grope for moral and cognitive frameworks to understand, assess, and sometimes resist these momentous changes in their lives, memories of the revolution thrive" (1).

A third and equally important thrust of the volume is the persuasive idea that memories become part of the political mobilization possibilities that exist for a group. Groups find their collective identities through shared understandings of the past; and these shared understandings provide a basis for future collective action. So memory, identity, and mobilization hang together.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Leaders within complex organizations

Complex organizations depend on an extended group of leaders who have the responsibility of articulating and carrying out the missions of the organization. Leadership groups within complex organizations should be expected to be a factor that influences the performance of the organization, for better or worse. Here I am thinking of medium-sized organizations -- 500-2500 employees -- with some degree of functional specialization -- for example, a manufacturing company with divisions of manufacturing, marketing and sales, product design, finance and accounting, human resources, and government relations or a university with divisions of academic affairs, student recruitment, business and finance, student affairs, and external relations.

The complexity of an organization stems from the fact that a number of different kinds of activities are being carried out simultaneously by different groups of people, and there is no authoritative single "master bureaucrat" who sets tasks and oversees results for all agents of the organization. Inevitably there is some degree of decentralization of activity, with decision-makers at a variety of levels who are empowered to set the agendas of their units in such a way as to best achieve the overall goals of the organization. And higher-level leaders have a responsibility for attempting to achieve a suitable degree of collaboration and communication among lower-level leaders to make it likely that the activities of the units will contribute to a coherent and effective effort to achieve the organization's goals. And complex organizations that fail to achieve a sufficient degree of coordination of effort internally wind up being pretty unsuccessful; their product is often one that reflects the specific needs of each of the units, but fails to satisfy the overall goals of the organization. (This is the point of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Here are some of the central tasks of an organization's leaders. Leaders help set the strategic direction for the organization; they implement actions and processes at unit-levels within the organization; they collaborate with each other in efforts to achieve higher effectiveness within and across units; they seek out opportunities for new activities or initiatives that will further one or more priorities for the organization. And, as anyone knows who has worked within a variety of organizations -- both organizations and leadership groups function at a very wide range of effectiveness, from the dysfunctional to the superb.

Why are leaders important to the effectiveness of the organization? Because they serve to articulate the goals of the organization and the sub-units; they work with others to articulate strategies and activities for achieving these goals; they motivate staff within their units to carry out strategies; and they have the organizational resources needed to arrive at collaborative efforts across units. Persons who are good at these various activities will make the organization more effective; and persons who are less good at them will pull the organization down. The leader who tends to demoralize his/her staff is unlikely to be able to stimulate high-quality work within the unit; persons who defend their turf rather than looking for opportunities for cross-unit collaboration will interfere with the organization's ability to achieve coherence of effort and synergies of collaboration.

So what are some of the features of good leadership skills and a good leadership team? Here is the list I would offer as an observer of several organizations. Good leaders are cognitively and emotionally ready for collaboration; they are ready to see the gains that can come from honest and sustained efforts at solving problems that cut across the scope of several units. Second, good leaders are attuned to the shared mission and values that the organization has adopted. They don't excessively favor the particular interests of their unit over the larger priorities of the organization; instead, they attempt to align the activities of the unit with the priorities of the organization. Third, good leaders are committed to effective management of their own areas. They attempt to bring best practices into all the activities for which they are responsible. Fourth, they have the ability to motivate the members of their teams, building trust among team members and a degree of unity about the goals to which the unit is oriented. Fifth, they possess a willingness to innovate. They are problem-solvers who are actively seeking out new solutions to the problems their units face and the problems faced by the organization more generally. Finally, they have a fundamental willingness to think broadly about the organization's needs and priorities beyond their own specific areas of responsibility.

The defects that a leader or team can demonstrate are also fairly obvious. Lack of communication is a common fault within organizations, leading to circumstances in which other leaders and team members are in the dark about current plans and strategies. When Larry Bird stole the inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas in Game Six of the NBA Eastern finals in 1987, it was crucial that Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket. Second, bad leaders engage in gamesmanship and bureaucratic rivalries, aiming to achieve their ends in opposition to their peers. This obviously undermines trust, and it makes collaboration all but impossible. Third, bad leaders are largely driven by narrow unit-based interests, or even their own personal interests, rather than the organizations priorities and goals. And finally, bad leaders may display poor skills in motivating and managing the staff of the unit.

These are a few speculative hypotheses about what makes one leadership group more effective than another. But the hard question is this: what empirical methods exist for evaluating these hypotheses about effective leadership and management? Are there credible methods of investigation that would permit organizational researchers to evaluate the causal importance of some of these features of leadership? Or is "leadership" just one of those topics that has to be left to the "management theory" books that one finds in airport bookshops?

This topic is relevant for understanding society, because much of the action in contemporary society is carried out by the complex organizations described here. So having a better idea of how priorities and goals are linked up with concrete activities within an organization is a very important part of understanding the large social processes that jointly determine social change in the twenty-first century: economic development, social movements, educational progress, health care systems, and the like.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rawls's schematic sociology

John Rawls offers an interesting thought along the way in his development of the theory of justice, on the question of the stability of a well-ordered society.  Basically, the idea is that a set of principles of justice need to satisfy a condition of publicity and social stability: the principles need to be such that, when everyone knows that these are the principles that regulate their social interactions and know that all others have the same knowledge, the society remains stable.

Rawls puts the point this way:
Now a well-ordered society is also regulated by its public conception of justice.  This fact implies that its members have a strong and normally effective desire to act as the principles of justice require.  Since a well-ordered society endures over time, its conception of justice is presumably stable: that is, when institutions are just (as defined by this conception), those taking part in these arrangements acquire the corresponding sense of justice and desire to do their part in maintaining them.  One conception of justice is more stable than another if the sense of justice that it tends to generate is stronger and more likely to override disruptive inclinations and if the institutions it allows foster weaker impulses and temptations to act unjustly.  The stability of a conception depends upon a balance of motives: the sense of justice that it cultivates and the aims that it encourages must normally win out against propensities toward injustice.  (A Theory of Justice, pp. 454-455)

What is interesting here is that Rawls is engaging in a bit of sociological theorizing in this passage -- not simply apriori moral philosophy.  He is offering an analysis of the social psychology and motivations of people living within various frameworks of justice -- the principles governing the basic institutions and laws of a society -- and he hypothesizes that the social psychology of citizens is influenced by the features of justice that are embodied in their society.  The resulting social psychology in turn produces behavior that is more or less compatible with the continued stability of the institutions and laws.  A given set of institutions, generated by a certain theory of justice, gives rise to motivations on the part of citizens in ordinary life; and these motivations can be either stabilizing or destabilizing to the postulated institutions and framework of justice.  There is a feedback loop from institutions to social psychology to behavior to basic institutions.

This raises an interesting question: how much of a role does a shared sense of justice play in sustaining a peaceful and stable society?

One piece of the answer is straightforward: injustice is a common cause of societal conflict and violence. Basic social relations that are perceived to involve unfair exploitation of one group by another are an obvious source of motivation towards resistance and group violence. Contrastively, institutions that are publicly recognized to treat all citizens fairly may promote a social psychology and a set of behaviors that are affirming of the institutions -- leading to harmonious social life and stable institutions.

So Rawls's argument here does suggest an interesting conjunction of sociological reality and normative reasoning about justice.  Rawls returns to this topic in Political Liberalism, where he questions the strong assumptions associated with the idea of a well-ordered society. He offers instead the somewhat less demanding idea of an "overlapping consensus" as sufficient for a stable democracy.

But a sense of being treated unfairly is only one out of numerous causes of social conflict. Conflict can arise over numerous other types of issues as well: ethnic or religious identities, racism, neighborhood boundaries, and state policy, to name several.  And these areas of potential conflict are not addressed by Rawls's sketch of the sociology of a just society.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Components of one's "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one's social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of "social identity" as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can't explain the individual's identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of "social-ness" that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:
  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of "me" in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I'm related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of "intersectionality" that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one's identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called "Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory" in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren't "pure" expressions of one particular feature of one's location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one's overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One's identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one's location within the hip-hop generation or one's professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia's Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.

Bad behavior

How do we explain the occurrence of anti-social behavior that we witness in everyday life? For that matter, how do we explain the more common occurrence of good behavior?

There are numerous extreme examples of anti-social behavior. But more prosaic examples are more interesting.
  • A passenger on a jet airliner becomes enraged at being denied additional alcohol; screams at and punches flight attendants; attempts to open the hatch at 20,000 feet.
  • A couple continue to talk loudly on their cellphones -- during a blacktie dinner, interfering with the keynote speaker's presentation. When asked to be quiet, they say indignantly, "this is important."
  • A business traveler marches to the front of the security line and squeezes in front, saying, "I'm in a rush."
  • A parent enters a crowded elevator with a three-year-old child and stands by as the child presses all 15 buttons.
Most people are "polite". Most people treat others with consideration and respect. Most recognize the limits imposed on their behavior by the needs, wants and rights of others. But some do not -- they behave badly.

I'm mostly interested here in the minor forms of bad behavior -- disturbing or endangering others, confronting others with aggressively rude behavior, taking more than a reasonable amount of "space" in public settings. Behaving boorishly is what I'm talking about -- noisy, intrusive, rude, and self-centered actions that impose on others or that greatly privilege one's own immediate wants. This is the kind of behavior that once was attributed to American tourists, though today it seems to be the monopoly of no particular nationality. (I've just been on vacation, so I've been exposed to a lot of it.)

So now to hypotheses. Perhaps people behave badly because --

  • They don't see how their behavior affects other people.
  • They haven't internalized the norms defining appropriate behavior in public.
  • They reason that the norms don't apply to them in these circumstances.
  • They overvalue their own importance in a social setting. "My needs are more important than yours."
  • They think "I deserve this -- I've worked for it and these other people can take it or leave it."

What these hypotheses amount to is either a failure to recognize the nature of one's behavior in the circumstances, a failure to have adequately internalized the relevant social norms of behavior, an inability to recognize the legitimate and normal wants of others, or combinations of all these.

This subject is relevant to "understandingsociety" because it fundamentally has to do with social behavior, norms, and the cognitive-practical frameworks through which people generate their actions. In order to understand this behavior we need to know how people understand their own presence within a social setting. We need to know how they construct an ongoing representation along these lines "What's going on here? What's my role in this social encounter? What's expected of me? How much entitlement do I have to shape the encounter, versus the others present?" And we need to know how important conformance to local norms is to them. The oilman talking too loudly in the dining room at the Paris Ritz-Carlton may not know that local standards call for more decorous conversation, he may be thinking he's in his own private club back in Houston -- or he may just not care about the standards and the peace and quiet of the other guests.

Seen properly, then, this is an occasion for verstehen -- interpretation of the puzzling actions of others in terms of an extended hypothesis about the states of mind and motive from which the action emanated and "makes sense". And there is a lot of social cognition -- or failures of cognition -- that goes into bad behavior.