Friday, October 31, 2008

Unequal polities

Most nations are at least nominally based on the idea of the legal equality of all citizens. This commitment provides a salient pathway through which even the most disadvantaged groups can pursue their goal of achieving greater equality for themselves and their communities, consistent with the defining values of the nation. Some countries, however, have embodied legal differences among groups of their citizens based on the religion or ethnicity of the person. And in these circumstances, pariah groups have no pathway -- legal or moral -- through which to attempt to create a non-violent pathway towards greater social justice for themselves.

Malaysia is a striking example of the latter circumstance. Its constitution and legal system give fundamental privileges to members of the Malay majority, referred to as "Bumiputra" privilege, and accord more limited rights and opportunities to non-Malay groups (Indian, Chinese, Christian, other). It is a polity based on differential rights for different ethnic and religious groups. Many of the most desirable opportunities in Malaysian society -- in employment, government office, contracting, and education -- are reserved or prioritized for Malays, defined as a racial group. It is hard to see how such a political system, defined on the premise of significant legal and economic inequality across different groups, could be justified to members of the subordinate groups. And, in fact, large street demonstrations in 2007 by the Indian community marked an exceptional indication of the discontent these policies create, and the lack of legitimacy these policies create in the whole population.

The question here is a fairly specific one: how can a polity founded on these sorts of invidious and permanent distinctions among groups of its citizens remain stable? Is it possible to generate any variety of "political legitimacy" across the whole population that contributes to political stability in these circumstances of extreme constitutional inequality among ethnic groups? How can the government maintain its power and ability to govern?

In the case of Malaysia the answer to the question about governing seems to be a combination of institution-rigging, force, and intimidation of the large ethnic populations. The constitution sets the stage with its stipulation of Bumiputra privilege. And electoral and parliamentary rules pretty much guarantee a permanent and large Malay majority in the parliament for parties such as the UMNO. So the political rules entrench the political hegemony of the Malay majority. This means that minority ethnic groups and parties have no hope of gaining progress towards legal equality of rights of citizenship through the legal process.

And this is where force and intimidation come in. It would seem that the strategy of mass demonstration and protest would be a natural recourse for large ethnic groups in Malaysia. But the state has made it clear that it will quickly suppress demonstrations with force -- in fact, the 2007 demonstrations were striking by their rarity in Malaysian public life.

But there is a deeper and more sinister kind of force in the air as well. This is the threat of largescale "race riots" directed against Malaysia's Indian and Chinese communities. The riots of 1969 were vicious and destructive, and they are remembered. The threat of pogrom and ethnic cleansing by Malays against Indian and Chinese Malaysians is not far from the surface and it is taken seriously. Rhetoric by UNMO politicians in speeches before parliament reinforce this sense of threat.

The theoretical questions at issue here can be posed from two angles -- the state and the group. From the state's point of view, the question is whether it is possible to navigate the fundamental conflict of interest that is created between Malays and the rest of Malaysian society through some combination of minor accommodation and the threat of repression. Can a consensus politics, backed by the perennial threat of force, emerge from this kind of fundamental inequality across groups? From the point of view of the large Indian or Chinese Malaysian populations, the question is whether there are tactics of collective action and popular mobilization that might allow them to pursue their demands of social and political equality effectively. Can they turn the tables on the Malay government? Can they gradually create the conditions in which the Malaysian state is compelled to accept the fundamental premises of a just civil society -- equality of all citizens and free rights of political participation for all?

Here is a link to an independent Malaysian news source that many Malaysians have confidence in.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is there such a thing as human nature?

People often make claims about "human nature." For example -- "It is a part of human nature to be egoistic." "Human beings are naturally acquisitive." "Cooperation is a natural human instinct." "Human nature defines the way we learn language." "Violence is natural."

What would human nature look like? To start with a preliminary definition, we might say that human nature is a relatively fixed set of characteristics of psychology, motivation, and cognition that are not the product of learning. Or, at a slightly greater remove from behavior, we might include innate capacities that can be triggered by appropriate experiences, but may also remain latent if those experiences are not encountered. (This is roughly the way that Noam Chomsky thinks about language competence in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.)

When people have identified some psychological characteristics as being part of human nature, they usually have had one of three things in mind. First, thinkers have sometimes held that there are "innate ideas" -- beliefs and concepts that are hard-wired and are not learned through experience. For example, Kant holds that the ideas of space, time, and causality are a necessary part of any intelligent being's mental equipment. Second, thinkers have sometimes postulated that there are certain visceral emotions that come with the normal human equipment -- for example, fear of loud noises, love of infants, or empathy. And third, people sometimes assert that there are some fundamental dispositions to behavior that are a part of "human nature" -- for example, being self-interested, being amenable to the appeal of fairness, being monogomous or its opposites.

The logical contrary to the idea that there is a human nature, is the idea that human beings are simply general-purpose "learning machines," equipped with a pretty impressive inference engine and neurophysiological computer; so all our beliefs, emotions, and dispositions to behavior are learned through experience. (Even on this approach there is something "fixed" in the human apparatus -- the set of computational processes through which learning occurs. But everything else is variable and dependent upon the environment in which learning takes place.)

This is the "tabula rasa" theory -- the idea that the mind is a blank slate upon which experience inscribes specific knowledge and dispositions to behavior. On this approach, the mind consists of an extended inductive logic engine (permitting the acquisition of beliefs about the world); a "culture-acquisition device" (permitting the absorption of linguistic and normative practices from the surrounding community); and a "scenarios and actions" guidebook assembly kit (permitting the construction of a growing list of commands along the lines of "when such-and-so happens, do thus-and-so"). Altogether this being has the ability to gather empirical and causal beliefs, gain language and values, and acquire a set of guidelines about how to behave. And, according to the tabula rasa theory, the content of each of these attainments is governed only by the feedback of experience. Supply a different environment, and you get different knowledge, values, and behavior.

It is evident that much of an adult's mental makeup is the result of his/her history and the enveloping culture within which the individual has developed. Learning is a fundamental aspect of human life, and it occurs at virtually every level; modes of reasoning, self-control, willingness to cooperate with others, and definition of the appropriate distance of separation between two people in a conversation are all human performances that are culturally and individually variable. They are the outcome of social learning. Further, human culture fundamentally influences human behavior -- and culture is only transmitted through lived experience.

The question of human nature is whether there are any dispositions or behavioral outcomes that are largely independent from these learning and developmental processes. Are there any social behaviors, emotions, or impulses that are an innate part of the human mental system? The sociobiologists have offered one line of analysis on this question. They note that the human mental system -- cognition, emotions, and the control of behavior -- is embodied in an organ that is itself subject to natural selection and evolution, the central nervous system. So it seems logical to expect that this system will have acquired some socially specific characteristics through the evolution of hominids and modern human beings. Edward O. Wilson took a controversial stab at the question in On Human Nature. And Richard Dawkins tried to get a handle on the evolutionary biology of cooperation in The Selfish Gene. Each book has proven controversial over the decades since publication -- largely on grounds of the complaint that they are somewhat reductionist in their disregard of the causal importance of culture in the behaviors they describe. (See, for example, Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology.)

But surely the foundation of the approach is a valid one: the human brain has been shaped through natural selection; skill in social relationships is relevant to reproductive success; so it is logical to expect that there has been specialized brain development around the challenges of social interaction. Allan Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment explores these ideas in some detail and in a way that is exempt from the accusation of reductionism.

The strongest case for mental features that might be part of human nature concerns what might be referred to as the social emotions and the foundations of social cognition. The social emotions might include a disposition towards reciprocity, an innate responsiveness towards infants, and a deep grounding of empathy for the suffering of other human beings. It is not difficult to put together an analysis that would show that these psychological traits might have differential reproductive advantage for the individuals who carry these traits. And the foundations of social cognition also seem to qualify as candidates for features of human nature as well: the ability to recognize and remember faces, the ability to "read" emotions and mental states in the speech and behavior of others, and the ability to quickly apprehend a social setting, for example. Here too there seem to be the makings of a selection-based explanation of the proliferation of these traits through a population; these cognitive abilities surely confer some reproductive benefits on the individuals who possess them. Another example of a mental trait that might be an enduring component of human nature is the ability to plan future actions, considering alternatives and choosing a series of actions that brings about the future outcome that the individual has selected. The cognitive abilities that underlie planning would appear to confer substantial evolutionary advantage.

What seems not to be justified is any form of simplistic "social Darwinism", leading to the assumptions of narrow self-interest as a component of permanent human nature. Here the error is an over-quick inference from the proposition that "evolution favors organisms that out-reproduce their fellows at a given time" to the conclusion that "organisms that maximize local self-interest will out-reproduce their fellows." This inference is unjustified, since we can readily describe models of populations in which reciprocity and altruism out-reproduce egoism and narrow self-interest.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Polling and social knowledge

Here's a pretty interesting graphic from

As you can see, the graph summarizes a large number of individual polls measuring support for the two major party candidates from January 1 to October 26. The site indicates that it includes all publicly available polls during the time period. Each poll result is represented with two markers -- blue for Obama and red for McCain. The red and blue trend lines are "trend estimates" based on local regressions for the values of the corresponding measurements for a relatively short interval of time (the site doesn't explicitly say what the time interval is). So, for example, the trend estimate for August 1 appears to be approximately 47%:42% for the two candidates. As the site explains, 47% is not the average of poll results for Obama on August 1; instead, it is a regression result based on the trend of all of Obama's polling results for the previous several days.

There are a couple of things to observe about this graph and the underlying methodology. First, it's a version of the "wisdom of the crowd" idea, in that it arrives at an estimate based on a large number of less-reliable individual observations (the dozen or so polling results for the previous several days). Each of the individual poll results has an estimate-of-error which may be in the range of 3-5 percentage points; the hope is that the aggregate result has a higher degree of precision (a narrower error bar).

Second, the methodology attempts to incorporate an estimate of the direction and rate of movement of public opinion, by incorporating trend information based on the prior several days' polling results.

Third, it is evident that there is likely to be a range of degrees of credibility assigned to the various component polls; but the methodology doesn't assign greater weight to "more credible" polls. Ordinary readers might be inclined to assign greater weight to a Gallup poll or a CBS poll than a Research2000 or a DailyKos poll; but the methodology treats all results equally. Likewise, the critical reader might assign more credibility to a live phone-based poll than an internet-based or automated phone poll; but this version of the graph includes all polls. (On the website it is possible to filter out internet-generated or automated phone polling results; this doesn't seem to change the shape of the results noticeably.)

There is also a fundamental question of validity and reliability that the critical reader needs to ask: how valid and reliable are these estimates for a particular point in time? That is, how likely is it that the trend estimate of support for either candidate on a particular day is within a small range of error of the actual value? I assume there is some statistical method for estimating probable error for this methodology, though it doesn't appear to be explained on the website. But fundamentally, the question is whether we have a rational basis for drawing any of the inferences that the graph suggests -- for example, that Obama's lead over McCain is narrowing in the final 14 days of the race.

Finally, there is the narrative that we can extract from the graph, and it tells an interesting story. From January through March candidate Obama has a lead over candidate McCain; but of course both candidates are deeply engaged in their own primary campaigns. At the beginning of April the candidates are roughly tied at 45%. From April through September Obama rises slowly and maintains support at about 48%, while McCain falls in support until he reaches a low point of 43% in the beginning of August. Then the conventions take place in August and early September -- and McCain's numbers bump up to the point where Obama and McCain cross in the first week of September. McCain takes a brief lead in the trend estimates. His ticket seems to derive more benefit from his "convention bump" than Obama does. But in the early part of September the national financial crisis leaps to center stage and the two candidates fare very differently. Obama's support rises steeply and McCain's support falls at about the same rate, opening up a 7 percentage point gap in the trend estimates by the middle of October. From the middle of October the race begins to tighten; McCain's support picks up and Obama's begins to dip slightly at the end of October. But the election looms -- the trend estimates tell a story that's hard to read in any way but "too late, too little" for the McCain campaign.

And, of course, it will be fascinating to see where things stand a week from today.

Here is the explanation that the website offers of its methodology:

[quoting from]

"Where do the numbers come from?

When you hold the mouse pointer over a state, you see a display of the latest "trend estimate" numbers from our charts of all available public polls for that race. The numbers for each candidate correspond to the most recent trend estimate -- that is the end point of the trend line that we draw for each candidate. If you click the state on the map, you will be taken to the page on that displays the chart and table of polls results for that race.

In most cases, the numbers are not an "average" but rather regression based trendlines. The specific methodology depends on the number of polls available.
  • If we have at least 8 public polls, we fit a trend line to the dots represented by each poll using a "Loess" iterative locally weighted least squares regression.
  • If we have between 4 and 7 polls, we fit a linear regression trend line (a straight line) to best fit the points.
  • If we have 3 polls or fewer, we calculate a simple average of the available surveys.
How do regression trend lines differ from simple averages?

Charles Franklin, who created the statistical routines that plot our trend lines, provided the following explanation last year:

Our trend estimate is just that, an estimate of the trends and where the race stands as of the latest data available. It is NOT a simple average of recent polling but a "local regression" estimate of support as of the most recent poll. So if you are trying to [calculate] our trend estimates from just averaging the recent polls, you won't succeed.

Here is a way to think about this: suppose the last 5 polls in a race are 25, 27, 29, 31 and 33. Which is a better estimate of where the race stands today? 29 (the mean) or 33 (the local trend)? Since support has risen by 2 points in each successive poll, our estimator will say the trend is currently 33%, not the 29% the polls averaged over the past 2 or 3 weeks during which the last 5 polls were taken. Of course real data are more noisy than my example, so we have to fit the trend in a more complicated way than the example, but the logic is the same. Our trend estimates are local regression predictions, not simple averaging. If the data have been flat for a while, the trend and the mean will be quite close to each other. But if the polls are moving consistently either up or down, the trend estimate will be a better estimate of opinion as of today while the simple average will be an estimate of where the race was some 3 polls ago (for a 5 poll average-- longer ago as more polls are included in the average.) And that's why we estimate the trends the way we do."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Causal mechanisms

The central tenet of causal realism is a thesis about causal mechanisms or causal powers. We can only assert that there is a causal relationship between X and Y if we can offer a credible hypothesis of the sort of underlying mechanism that might connect X to the occurrence of Y. The sociologist Mats Ekström puts the view this way: “the essence of causal analysis is ... the elucidation of the processes that generate the objects, events, and actions we seek to explain” (Ekstrom 1992, p. 115). Authors who have urged the centrality of causal mechanisms for both explanatory and purposes include Nancy Cartwright (Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements), Jon Elster (Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences), Rom Harré (Causal Powers), and Wesley Salmon (Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World). (Hedstrom and Swedberg's collection, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, is a useful source. An important advocate for a realist interpretation of science is Roy Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science.)

Nancy Cartwright is one of the most original voices within contemporary philosophy of science. Cartwright places real causal mechanisms at the center of her account of scientific knowledge. As she and John Dupré put the point, “things and events have causal capacities: in virtue of the properties they possess, they have the power to bring about other events or states” (Dupré and Cartwright 1988). Cartwright argues, for the natural sciences, that the concept of a real causal connection among a set of events is more fundamental than the concept of a law of nature. And most fundamentally, she argues that identifying causal relations requires substantive theories of the causal powers (capacities, in her language) that govern the entities in question. Causal relations cannot be directly inferred from facts about association among variables. As she puts the point, “No reduction of generic causation to regularities is possible” (Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements, p. 90). The importance of this idea for sociological research is profound; it confirms the notion shared by many researchers that attribution of social causation depends inherently on the formulation of good, middle-level theories about the real causal properties of various social forces and entities.

What is a causal mechanism? Consider this formulation: a causal mechanism is a sequence of events, conditions, and processes leading from the explanans to the explanandum (Varieties Of Social Explanation, p. 15). A causal relation exists between X and Y if and only if there is a set of causal mechanisms that connect X to Y. This is an ontological premise, asserting that causal mechanisms are real and are the legitimate object of scientific investigation.

Aage Sørensen summarizes a causal realist position for sociology in these words: “Sociological ideas are best reintroduced into quantitative sociological research by focusing on specifying the mechanisms by which change is brought about in social processes” (Sørensen 1998, p. 264). He argues that sociology requires better integration of theory and evidence. Central to an adequate explanatory theory, however, is the specification of the mechanism that is hypothesized to underlie a given set of observations. “Developing theoretical ideas about social processes is to specify some concept of what brings about a certain outcome—a change in political regimes, a new job, an increase in corporate performance, … The development of the conceptualization of change amounts to proposing a mechanism for a social process” (239-240). Sørensen makes the critical point that one cannot select a statistical model for analysis of a set of data without first asking the question, what in the nature of the mechanisms we wish to postulate to link the influences of some variables with others? Rather, it is necessary to have a hypothesis of the mechanisms that link the variables before we can arrive at a justified estimate of the relative importance of the causal variables in bringing about the outcome.

The general nature of the mechanisms that underlie sociological causation has been very much the subject of debate. Two broad approaches may be identified: agent-based models and social influence models. The former follow the strategy of aggregating the results of individual-level choices into macro-level outcomes; the latter attempt to identify the factors that work behind the backs of agents to influence their choices. (Sørensen refers to these as “pull” and “push” models; Sørensen, 1998.) Thomas Schelling’s apt title Micromotives and Macrobehavior captures the logic of the former approach, and his work profoundly illustrates the sometimes highly unpredictable results of the interactions of locally rational behavior. Jon Elster has also shed light on the ways in which the tools of rational choice theory support the construction of largescale sociological explanations (The Cement of Society: A Survey of Social Order). The second approach (the “push” approach) attempts to identify socially salient influences such as race, gender, educational status, and to provide detailed accounts of how these factors influence or constrain individual trajectories—thereby affecting sociological outcomes.

Emphasis on causal mechanisms for adequate social explanation has several salutary effects on sociological method. It takes us away from uncritical reliance on uncritical statistical models. But it also may take us away from excessive emphasis on large-scale classification of events into revolutions, democracies, or religions, and toward more specific analysis of the processes and features that serve to discriminate among instances of large social categories. Charles Tilly emphasizes this point in his arguments for causal narratives in comparative sociology (Tilly 1995). He writes, “I am arguing that regularities in political life are very broad, indeed transhistorical, but do not operate in the form of recurrent structures and processes at a large scale. They consist of recurrent causes which in different circumstances and sequences compound into highly variable but nonetheless explicable effects” (Tilly 1995, p. 1601).


  1. Dupré, John, and Nancy Cartwright. 1988. Probability and Causality: Why Hume and Indeterminism Don't Mix. Nous 22:521-536.
  2. Ekstrom, Mats. 1992. Causal explanation of social action: The Contribution of Max Weber and of Critical Realism to a Generative View of Causal Explanation in the Social Sciences. Acta Sociologica 35 (2):107(16).
  3. Sørensen, Aage B. 1998. Theoretical mechanisms and the empirical study of social processes. In Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, edited by P. Hedström and R. Swedberg.
  4. Tilly, Charles. 1995. To Explain Political Processes. American Journal of Sociology.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Influence" concepts

Power is an elusive social concept, because it is fundamentally relational and composite. The power that a person or group possesses can only be defined in relation to the domain of persons over whom this power can be wielded and the set of social resources that constitute the levers of this power. Power must be characterized in terms of domain and mechanisms. The question here is whether there are other social concepts that have a similar conceptual geography. If so, this may give us a better basis for explaining the concept of power.

Consider these possible sibling concepts: status, affluence, charisma, eloquence, funny ... Each of these is what we might call an "influence" concept. It stipulates a capacity to bring about a particular kind of effect in other persons. It follows that these concepts are inherently relational; we cannot define "charisma" or "eloquence" without explicitly or implicitly specifying the group of people who respond to these qualities. Second, conveying influence requires a mechanism of influence; and in fact each of these examples depends upon some set of qualities or assets through which the individual with the property is able to exert this influence (admiration, laughter, persuasion, willingness to follow, willingness to obey).

Further, each of these characteristics is social in one way or another. "Status" depends on an audience that is prepared to "read" a person with certain attributes as possessing a certain status, and it depends on the individual being socially situated on such a way as to acquire those tags (the Mercedes, the $600 haircut, ...). "Affluence" depends on having resources adequate to support consumption noticeably superior to that of most other people in this social setting -- in fact, it is doubly social, in that it depends upon comparison with other consumers and on the affluent person's having access to socially defined resources, which implies a particular situation within a particular set of social relations (corporation, pirate gang, government bureau).

Power differs from these other influence terms in several ways. Most crucially, power is less dependent on the social psychology of others and more dependent upon material resources. Status and eloquence are pretty much in the eye of the beholder, whereas the power of a criminal boss depends largely on his ability to marshall force. Affluence is similar in this respect, while "funny" is more similar to status.

So an important distinguishing feature within this conceptual space of "social influence" concepts is whether the attributes needed to wield influence are personal psychological traits or external, socially defined assets. David Letterman is funny because he has a set of capabilities -- quick verbal wit, droll timing, sarcastic imagination, extreme facial motility -- that we are culturally prepared to find amusing. These traits are not inherently funny -- presenting the same skit to a group of Navajo ranchers might elicit only puzzled looks. But in our comedy culture, the person who has Letterman's qualities but at a less adept level will not succeed in being funny. Al Capone was powerful because he had violent men available to do his bidding. This wasn't a feature primarily of his psychological characteristics but rather his particular social location and the material resources of violence he could call upon.

We might consider how charisma fits in this analysis, especially since this concept has almost as common appeal in political analysis as power. We might say that a charismatic person is one who has the ability to influence other people to want to act in the ways he/she asks of them. This influence is often described as sub-rational and sub-conscious: followers act out the exhortations of their charismatic leader out of emotional allegiance rather than rational judgment. So the capacities required of the charismatic leader are features of personality and performance -- the charismatic person needs the qualities that permit him/her to inspire followers. In this way charisma is similar to being funny. But these capabilities also give the leader the ability to influence followers beyond their rational will -- which makes charisma more similar to power.

So we might summarize this analysis in application to the concept of power along these lines:

X has power =df {X has access to social resources Ri that permits him/her to compel the behavior of persons Pj}

X is funny =df {X has skills and personality traits Ci such that X's performance typically elicits laughter from persons Pj}

X has charisma =df {X has skills and personality traits Ci such that X's performance typically elicits admiration and loyalty from persons Pj}

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Labor mobilization

Workers are a group who ought to be readily prone to mobilization. They are brought together into proximity with each other in large numbers in factories, rail stations, ports, and other workplaces. The circumstances of production usually give them causes around which to gather -- health and safety issues in the workplace, bullying or disrespectful treatment by supervisors, petty or demeaning work rules. And the business incentives created for owners and managers assure an environment in which workers are likely to have economic grievances, ranging from low pay to withheld wages to pension fund corruption and default. So the conditions for mobilization of workers in protest and advocacy seem propitious almost everywhere. And yet passive acceptance seems about as common as spontaneous or organized protest and resistance. So what other factors come into play? What explains historical patterns of worker passivity and protest? And going a bit further, what factors influence the form that protest takes when it occurs?

Marx's answers to these questions are well known. The development of industrial capitalism brought about the objective conditions for a militant working class identity. Capitalism increasingly erased differences among artisans and other producers. It conducted a process of commodification of labor that increasingly place all producers in the condition of wage labor. And the imperatives of profits pushed the industrial system towards worse working conditions, lower wages, and a degraded social position. The emergence of a unified class identity and a readiness for protest was inevitable. "Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains."

Marx's story here isn't a fantasy. There are real institutional processes embedded in this story that correspond pretty well to the historical experience of labor and capital in many countries and times. But neither is it an iron law of social development. Each country's experience of development is somewhat different -- sometimes in major ways. And crucially, the result Marx expected -- a steadily rising tide of radical worker mobilization -- has certainly not occurred. So, once again, what are the more specific and local factors that influence the occurrence and form of worker mobilization?

One of Charles Tilly's central ideas about the occurrence of protest is its historical character. Protest movements have histories that form their present. Tilly emphasizes the central role that traditions and repertoires of protest play in virtually every instance. Protest is not simply the automatic response to exploitation and bad conditions. Rather, protest is an act of collective agency. And this means that outrage and protest must be conceptualized and placed into a practical context. So traditions of protest and grievance play a key role in determining the occurrence and form of mobilization. Parades, strikes, boycotts, road blockages, and petitions all represent forms of the "art of resistance" that have developed differently in different traditions of popular politics. (See The Contentious French for more on this.)

E. P. Thompson's focus on the particulars of the group identity that has formed represents another crucial factor that helps explain differences across historical settings. Classes make themselves -- and they make themselves in different ways. William Sewell's treatment of the guild consciousness of nineteenth century workers in Marseilles illustrates the point (Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848). Historians and sociologists can observe these processes of identity in formation through a variety of ways -- both historically and in the present. And these differences in consciousness formation have consequences for mobilization and action. For example, C. K. Lee argues that China's workers today, in both "rustbelt" and "sunbelt" settings, have absorbed a set of attitudes towards the moral importance of their legal protections within existing Chinese law, that profoundly influences the form that protests take Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

Resource mobilization theory highlights another crucial factor that helps explain differences in mobilization across similar material settings. For a group to successfully constitute itself as an effective collectivity, it needs to have access to a range of resources. Communication requires resources; organization requires fulltime activists; propaganda requires access to printing assets; and so forth. So we can get a better picture of the status of labor mobilization in a particular setting, by examining the resources and opportunities for collective action that exist for potential activists.

Organization is a factor that also makes a large difference in the occurrence and form of mobilization. The presence of the IWW plays a key role in Howard Kimeldorf's account of Philadelphia dock workers (Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement). The CCP is key in Lucien Bianco's trarment of peasant mobilization in China (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China). Organizations permit a movement to acquire the coordination of effort required by successful mobilization. And it permits "escalation" -- extension of mobilization to a broader territory or a broader set of alliances.

It is also important to recognize the role that agency and strategic interaction play in the unfolding of mobilization. Struggle involved multiple parties responding to each other's actions. And the outcome may be entirely unforeseen; state actions can both ameliorate the causes of worker grievance (through more vigilant regulation, for example) and deepen worker grievance (through a legal system that systematically disregards worker claims) -- and may even do so at the same time.

A final factor that needs mention is the state. Actions and policies by the state can have a large effect on mobilization at several levels. Through regulation it can reduce grievances -- pension fund abuse, health and safety issues, intimidation in the workplace. And by providing a substantial social security system -- unemployment benefits, access to healthcare, decent treatment of the elderly -- it can blunt some of the aggressively harmful tendencies of the unbridled private system that would otherwise lead to explosive protest. Finally, the state can use its coercive and legal power to channel protest in one direction rather than another.

So where does this take us with respect to the original question -- what explains patterns of worker mobilization? We've noticed some general circumstances that are conducive to worker activism and mobilization. But this account also highlights a wide suite of independent factors that influence mobilization, both up and down. This treatment reinforces the view that social change is highly contingent. And it shows the irreplaceable role to be played by good, specific works of historical sociology. No comprehensive theory suffices for any particular case. Instead, we need to discover the particular ways in which general processes and more contingent factors come together to forge a particular historical juncture. (An influential recent book that tries to work out where workers' movements might be going in the twenty-first century is Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization Since 1870.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

What do polls tell us?

We're all interested in the opinions of vast numbers of strangers -- potential voters, investors, consumers, college students, or home owners. Our interest is often a practical one -- we would like to know how the election is likely to go, whether the stock market will rebound, whether an influenza season will develop into a pandemic, or whether the shops in our cities and malls will have higher or lower demand in the holiday season. And so we turn to polls and surveys of attitudes and preferences -- consumer confidence surveys, voter preference polls, surveys of public health behaviors, surveys of investor confidence. And tools such as aggregate and disaggregate the data to allow us to make more refined judgments about what the public's mood really is. But how valid is the knowledge that is provided by surveys and polls? To what extent do they accurately reflect an underlying social reality of public opinion? And to what extent does this knowledge provide a basis for projecting future collective behavior (including voting)?

There are several important factors to consider.

First is the heterogeneity of social characteristics across a population at virtually every level of scale -- including especially attitudes and beliefs. No matter what slice of the social demographic we select -- selecting for specific age, race, religion, and income, for example -- there will be a range of opinions across the resulting group. Groups don't suddenly become homogeneous when we find the right way of partitioning the population.

Second is an analogous point about plasticity over time. The attitudes and preferences of individuals and groups change over time -- often rapidly. In polling I suppose this is referred to as "voter volatility" -- the susceptibility of a group to changing its preferences in response to changing information and other stimulation. And the fact appears to be that opinions and beliefs change rapidly during periods of decision-making. So knowing that 65% of Hispanic voters preferred X over Y on October 10 doesn't imply much about the preferences of this group two weeks later. This is precisely what the campaigns are trying to accomplish -- a new message or commercial that shifts preferences for an extended group.

Third are questions having to do with the honesty of the responses that a survey or poll elicits. Do subjects honestly record their answers; do they conceal responses they may be ashamed of (the Bradley effect); do they exaggerate their income or personal happiness or expected grade in a course? There are survey techniques intended to address these possibilities (obscuring the point of a question, coming back to a question in a different way); but the possibility of untruthful responses raises an important problem for us when we try to assess the realism of a poll or survey.

Fourth are the standard technical issues having to do with sampling and population estimation: how large a set of observations are required to arrive at an estimate of a population value with 95% confidence? And what measures need to be taken to assure a random sample and avoid sample bias? For example, if polling is done based solely on landline phone numbers, does this introduce either an age bias or an income bias if it is true that affluent young people are more likely to have only cell phones?

So, then, what is the status of opinion surveys and polls as a source of knowledge about social reality? Do public opinion surveys tell us something about objective underlying facts about a population? What does a finding like "65% of Iowans favor subsidies for corn ethanol" based on a telephone poll of 1000 citizens tell us about the opinions of the full population of the state of Iowa?

Points made above lead to several important cautions. First, the reality of public opinion and preference itself is fluid and heterogeneous. The properties we're trying to measure vary substantially across any subgroup we might define -- pro/con assessments about a candidate's judgment, for example. So the measurement of a particular question is simply an average value for the group as a whole, with the possibility of a substantial variance within the group. And second, the opinions themselves may change rapidly over time at the individual level -- with the result that an observation today may be very different from a measurement next week. Third, it is a credible hypothesis that demographic factors such as race, income, or gender may affect attitudes and opinions; so there is a basis for thinking that data disaggregated by these variables may demonstrate more uniformity and consistency. Finally, the usual cautions about sample size and sample bias are always relevant; a poorly designed study tells us almost nothing about the underlying reality.

But what about the acid test: to what extent can a series of polls and surveys performed over many subgroups over an extended period of time, help to forecast the collective behavior of the group as a whole? Can we use this kind of information to arrive at credible estimates of an election in two weeks, or the likely demand for automobiles in 2009, or the willingness of a whole population to accept public health guidelines in a time of pandemic flu?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mapping social data

Fig. 1. Household income inequality (US Census 2000 link)

Fig. 2. Poverty rates (US Census Data 2000 link)

Fig. 3. 60 day bank card delinquency -- Q1 2008 (Federal Reserve Bank link)

Fig. 4. 90 day mortgage delinquency -- Q1 2008 (Federal Reserve Bank link)

It's interesting to look at each of these data maps in detail. The comparisons of patterns are very revealing. Figure 4 is the most familiar to us -- it shows the geographical distribution of the mortgage crisis across the country. California and Florida aren't a surprise; but there are other hot spots across the country. For example, the "rust belt" of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana shows a pretty dense set of high mortgage delinquency counties. But then consider the next crisis that may be coming -- consumer credit default. Here again the spatial patterns are interesting. Mississippi and Louisiana jump off the map on the poverty and inequality maps, and on the bank card default map as well. And then you can compare these state-by-state patterns with the top two figures, mapping poverty and inequality across the counties of the United States. And, finally, it's interesting to compare all these patterns of economic distress -- with the pattern of blue and red counties in the 2000 Presidential election.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mental life

We are all persons with thoughts, desires, emotions, memories, and awareness. In some sense we have first-hand knowledge of all this -- we are the ones who experience the situation of going through a difficult job interview, of feeling angry at an aggressive driver, of trying to decide what to do in a moment of important choice, of remembering an incident that occurred months or years earlier. We're not in the position that Thomas Nagel assumed when he tried to reason about what it feels like to be a bat ("What is it Like to Be a Bat?" in Ned Block, ed. Readings in Philosophy of Psychology v.1). And yet we have a surprisingly thin set of theories of what is involved in this active experiencing of the world as a thinking, acting person -- and some of our theories are obviously wrong. So why is it so hard to formulate a clear, simple philosophy of the mind -- an overarching sketch of how various mental states and processes relate to each other within the functioning person?

One sign of the confusion this subject engenders is the great variety of terms we use to capture what we're talking about: the mind, the agent, the self, the person, the subject, the knower, the actor, the ego, the conscious being, the soul. Each of these terms might be said to refer to the same thing -- the experiencing, wanting, acting human individual. And yet each highlights a different aspect of the topic: the act of perception, the gathering of knowledge, the experience of wants and desires, the fact of subjectivity, the problematic unity of the self, the process of decision making and action, the causality of the emotions, the situation of awareness. And, sure enough, there is a separate strand of philosophical thinking about each of these perspectives.

So here is my question: is it possible to sketch a basic theory of the conscious human being that allows us to assign a place to each of the mental activities and processes that we think are taking place; and can the various parts of psychology and neuroscience give us greater understanding of how this system works and greater confidence in the theories we advance? Can we arrive at a schematic but phenomenologically and behaviorally adequate sketch of how these bits of mental activity and process fit together? The diagrams above are pulled from the web with the search term "models of mind." They illustrate some very different ways of representing these different aspects or features of the person's mental experience, and they are, in some sense, the sorts of theories I'm looking for in this posting. But none is close to being satisfactory. So the question is, can we arrive at a sketch that can be defended on the basis of the evidence of logic, phenomenology, and behavior?

I think this was a large part of William James's goal in writing The Principles of Psychology. James wanted to explore the complexities of human mental life as presented through introspection; and he wanted to do this in a scientific fashion. (See a very good article from SEP on James here.) James describes his scientific goals in these terms in the first few sentences of the work:
Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like; and, superficially considered, their variety and complexity is such as to leave a chaotic impression of the observer.

Scientific psychology left this program behind almost a century ago, although parts of the effort are reflected in current cognitive psychology and social psychology. But it isn't sufficient to simply legislate the problem away; it is impossible to deny that memories, impulses, intuitions, aversions, feelings, desires, emotions, daydreams, and calculations all play roles in human mental life and action. So we need to have at least a sketchy idea of how we think the mental world we experience is organized and how this soup of mental life is related to action and behavior.

The effort to find concepts and frameworks in terms of which to analyze human mental life has been a continuing part of philosophy, in the fields of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, and cognitive philosophy. One place to start on this large field is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with articles on folk psychology, mental representation, the computational theory of mind, memory, and Merleau-Ponty. Philosophers have continued to take seriously the questions of consciousness, subjectivity, representation, and thinking.

But another place where one can turn in attempting to get a handle on the nature and organization of mental experience is literature. Great novels often capture a lot of the complexity of ordinary human mental experience in their narrations of individuals as they navigate life: Stavrogin in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, Rufus Scott in Baldwin's Another Country. These are "interior" novels -- novels where the author is making a sustained effort to get inside the head of the character, giving the reader a view of the nature of the subjective experience and thoughts that the character undergoes. And it seems to me that the intellectual work that the author is doing is very similar to the work of a philosopher in grappling with the nature of consciousness: he/she is attempting to arrive at a language that allows for description of these fleeting interior moments, and a framework of observation about how they may fit together -- how passion or jealousy affects action, how calculation interferes with love, how the experience of discrimination colors one's relationships. These theories aren't necessarily true -- in fact, one of the things we can do as critical readers is to see how well the novelist's framework of mental life holds together from the points of view of consistency and phenomenology -- but they represent significant intellectual efforts at understanding mental life nonetheless.

I think the subject is important for understanding the social world, because the subjective, active human individual is the "molecule" of social life. The ways in which individuals reason, act, form beliefs, create affinities, and emote are deeply important to social processes. And we won't understand many features of social life unless we can make some degree of progress on the problem of formulating an abstract model of the human person.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Greenblatt in the world

I recently read Stephen Greenblatt's brilliant biographical book on Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and I was once again struck by what a large contribution Greenblatt might make to the social sciences. His innovations in literary theory are well known, particularly in his pioneering work on forging "the new historicism" (for example, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare). (Here is a link to a nice website on the new historicism.) Greenblatt's interpretive imagination, his ability to think clearly and innovatively about identities and meanings, and his remarkable ability to link a series of observations into a startling inference and insight -- these abilities would be most beneficial to the problems associated with "understanding society." We need some new ways of framing the tasks of understanding social and historical reality -- and Greenblatt's incisive mind provides many new perspectives on these sorts of issues.

And, in fact, the idea isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Greenblatt's contribution to Sherry Ortner's The Fate of "Culture": Geertz and Beyond shows his ability to turn ethnographic, as does his book on the writings of the colonial navigators who brought Europe to the new world (Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World). In each case he demonstrates how fertile the connections are between literary, ethnographic, and historical interpretation. He is particularly profound when it comes to thinking about social identities -- they ways they are formed and expressed, and the ways they vary across time and place.

But let's focus here on what makes Will in the World such an interesting book. Greenblatt does a simply stunning job of constructing an interpretation of Shakespeare's mentality and his creative mind, linking the grainy historical context in which Shakespeare was writing to the brilliance and startling novelties expressed in his plays. Greenblatt is pursuing a bold ambition here because there is so remarkably little evidence about Shakespeare's life that would serve as the basis for a traditional biography. Moreover, Greenblatt's goal is somewhat different from that of the traditional biographer. He is interested in getting a better understanding of the author's mental and experiential world, based on his personal chronology, many very specific details about England's history during this half century, and a profound knowledge of Shakespeare's writings.

Greenblatt freely admits that much of his interpretation exceeds the historical facts. There are few documents that would directly establish Shakespeare's feelings about his marriage or his family; the situation of the persecution of England's Catholics; or his attitudes towards Marlowe, Greene, and the other brilliant bohemian playwrights of the London scene. And yet he makes a case for his interpretation that is deeply compelling and evidence-based -- though the evidence is largely internal to Shakespeare's body of writing. (Even the lack of diaries or personal notes is taken as a kind of evidence -- evidence of the very great danger that the persecutions by the Crown created for anyone suspected of involvement in Catholic conspiracies. Greenblatt writes vividly of the rows of heads on spikes that would have greeted him as he entered London for the first time -- often the heads of Catholic conspirators.)

Another kind of evidence in Greenblatt's case is the collation of knowledge of historical conditions in the mid-sixteenth century in England that we do know quite a bit about -- the availability (or non-availability) of books, the character and content of schooling, the history of the expulsion of the English Jews -- with the series of developmental experiences that Shakespeare certainly went through. Even if we know next to nothing about Shakespeare's youth, the fact that he is likely to have attended the Stratford grammar school under the tutelage of a Simon Hunt, tells Greenblatt quite a bit about the kinds of drama and history to which he would have been exposed.

The Crown's fierce oppression of the Catholics in the early to mid-sixteenth century is a particularly important element of Greenblatt's interpretation of Shakespeare's mentality. Greenblatt hypothesizes that this period of terror touched Shakespeare and his family fairly closely. The smashing of Catholic images in churches, the dismissal of the local priests, and the occasional hunt for persistent Catholic practices in private homes all touched Stratford directly. And John Shakespeare himself had evidently signed a Catholic "spiritual testament", discovered in the eighteenth century hidden away between the rafters and ceiling of the Stratford home. In this setting, Greenblatt considers a scenario for the missing year of Shakespeare's life at the age of 16: he considers that the young man may have served as a private teacher in the household of John Cottam, a prominent secret Catholic in Lancashire. And there he would have had vivid exposure to the drama surrounding the illicit activist Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion. (Campion was apprehended, tortured, and executed in 1581.) Greenblatt finds many traces of this personal history of covert Catholicism in Shakespeare's plots, language, and life.

What I find most thought-provoking in Greenblatt's work here, is his ability to bring history, literature, and life story together into one extended interpretation. The book sheds light on ordinary life in sixteenth-century England -- rural and town. In this respect it serves as vivid social history. And it sheds light on the literature as well -- the many ways in which themes and turns of language can be related to Shakespeare's own itinerary, as well as the astonishing ability the writer had to transform the ordinary into something transcendent.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Marx's historical thinking

Marx's theories are deeply historical, in that he wants to explain the dynamics of change of large historical formations such as capitalism or feudalism, and he insists on putting social events into historical context. And, of course, Marx is most celebrated for developing a general approach to historical explanation, the theory of historical materialism. But how does Marx do when he treats concrete historical events? How is Marx as an historian?

There are surprisingly few extended examples of detailed historical analysis in Marx's writings. There is Marx's account of "primitive accumulation" in English agrarian history in the 17th and 18th centuries in Capital. There are occasional references to the Roman Empire and classical slavery throughout his work. And there are his important writings about the French urban uprisings during 1848 and its aftermath (The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France). These essays include quite a bit of historical detail -- personalities, events, parties, speeches. But they are closer to political journalism than to careful historical analysis. They are based primarily upon Marx's personal contemporary observations -- not on the usual historian's studies in archives and secondary sources. They come closer to personal recollections and observations than to a typical historical research product.

If there is a unifying theme of interpretation in these articles, it is the idea that the parties and factions pursue programs that are based on class interests. The party of order defends property and privilege, and the party of progress expresses and defends the interests of the underclasses -- urban workers and artisans. Theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas have used these texts as a basis for propounding theories of political consciousness and action and the "relative autonomy" of politics. The essays illustrate Marxist theories of politics. But considered solely from the point of view of historiography and historical knowledge, the articles aren't particularly distinguished.

Let's make an unfair but informative contrast: a comparison between Marx's writings and those of some of the great twentieth-century historians whom his ideas inspired. I'm thinking of scholars like Albert Soboul, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, or Gene Genovese. Each of these scholars borrowed deeply from Marx's social theories -- class, power, consciousness, resistance, economic structure, property systems, labor. But each of these historians does something else as well: he digs deeply into the gnarly, special, and resistant reality of historical events and groups -- peasant movements, churches and manifestoes, parties and conspiracies, slave quarters. These historians try to discover the particular and peculiar graininess of history; they allow theory to rest lightly on their narratives.

So what does Marx have to teach us about the craft of historical writing and reasoning? I'm inclined to say that Marx uses history but doesn't really write history. His writings are historically oriented, but they are almost never works of primary historical discovery and explanation. Marx is a theorist of historical processes; but he is not really a working historian, and his writings don't really offer much by way of innovative historical reasoning. It remained for Marxist historians of the twentieth century to bring together Marx's theoretical insights with rigorous methods of historical research and discovery.

Monday, October 13, 2008

What holds a country together?

When you consider the enormous differences that exist across regions and traditions in the United States, it raises an interesting question: what factors serve to knit this population together into a single polity? We don't share a single set of cultural values, a single religion, or a single political tradition. So what helps this population of some 300 million achieve some degree of civic or national identity?

One possible answer is a skeptical one: there is no such common strand of civic identity in the United States. Instead, we are a nation of overlapping identities and traditions, with the remarkable good fortune that these differences have only rarely developed into serious inter-group conflict. On this approach, the general history of harmony among groups and regions is only a happy accident.

Another possible approach goes a bit further than this one, in noticing that in fact there is quite a bit of social dis-harmony in the history of the United States. Racism and the violent oppression of African-Americans and Latinos during various periods, the hostile reception offered to internal migrants during the Great Depression, the violence and hostility offered to gay and lesbian Americans at various junctures, and the harsh words Sarah Palin directs against Easterners all point in that direction. We might say that it is the generally effective reach of the state rather than a shared civic or national identity that usually maintains a large degree of inter-group peace in the United States.

There is also, of course, the identity that derives from patriotism and the flag. This is a political psychology of nationalism, and it doesn't have much to do with reflective values. It is a constructed identity, aimed at making an identity group out of a mixed population. And if this is the best we can do, then the performances of patriotic songs and speeches are obvious mechanisms through which leaders attempt to instill the appropriate emotions. And the act of dissent may seem deeply disruptive, if this is all that holds us together.

It may be that there are other mechanisms of political identity formation that work in the direction of forging a national identity. Film and television are candidates here, and large events of shared history may play a role too. I particularly admire Lincoln's phrase, "the mystic chords of memory." But shared memories don't always create a shared identity -- for example, we can validly ask whether the remembered experience of the Vietnam War contributes more to identity or division.

But here is another and more positive possibility. We might hope that the United States has painfully and haltingly created a shared civic culture that stands above the more visceral strands of religious, ethnic, or nationalistic identity. It is a moral value system that stands deliberately above more specific value commitments that derive from our particular philosophies or traditions. This culture is the value system of liberal democracy. It valorizes the idea of the equal worth of all persons; the moral importance of mutual respect; the idea that everyone has the same rights to freedom of action and legal protection; the recognition that disagreements about values and policies are normal parts of a democracy; and the conviction that this system of equal citizenship and dignity is a morally worthwhile achievement in American history and politics.

This approach says that we do have the makings of a civic identity. But how does this approach avoid amounting to an amalgam of bromides from high school civics courses or the political theories of Locke and Rousseau?

It avoids this unhappy fate by being so hard. This political identity of equality, respect, and liberty has to be constructed rather than assumed. This requires the best efforts of leaders and citizens. And it runs into conflict with some very powerful currents in American culture -- xenophobia, racism, mistrust, and the politics of division, for example. Some of our national leaders have been articulate in nurturing these values -- Johnson amd Clinton, for example. Others have chosen a language of division -- Richard Nixon comes to mind ("the silent majority") along with Spiro Agnew and his "nattering nabobs of negativism". Unity around the values of justice, equality, and democracy is more difficult to achieve than division across group identities and interests. But it is a much more admirable basis for a human polity, and a better guide for a pluralistic America.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Policy, treatment, and mechanism

Policies are selected in order to bring about some desired social outcome or to prevent an undesired one. Medical treatments are applied in order to cure a disease or to ameliorate its effects. In each case an intervention is performed in the belief that this intervention will causally interact with a larger system in such a way as to bring about the desired state. On the basis of a body of beliefs and theories, we judge that T in circumstances C will bring about O with some degree of likelihood. If we did not have such a belief, then there would be no rational basis for choosing to apply the treatment. "Try something, try anything" isn't exactly a rational basis for policy choice.

In other words, policies and treatments depend on the availability of bodies of knowledge about the causal structure of the domain we're interested in -- what sorts of factors cause or inhibit what sorts of outcomes. This means we need to have some knowledge of the mechanisms that are at work in this domain. And it also means that we need to have some degree of ability to predict some future states -- "If you give the patient an aspirin her fever will come down" or "If we inject $700 billion into the financial system the stock market will recover."

Predictions of this sort could be grounded in two different sorts of reasoning. They might be purely inductive: "Clinical studies demonstrate that administration of an aspirin has a 90% probability of reducing fever." Or they could be based on hypotheses about the mechanisms that are operative: "Fever is caused by C; aspirin reduces C in the bloodstream; therefore we should expect that aspirin reduces fever by reducing C." And ideally we would hope that both forms of reasoning are available -- causal expectations are born out by clinical evidence.

Implicitly this story assumes that the relevant causal systems are pretty simple -- that there are only a few causal pathways and that it is possible to isolate them through experimental studies. We can then insert our proposed interventions into the causal diagram and have reasonable confidence that we can anticipate their effects. The logic of clinical trials as a way of establishing efficacy depends on this assumption of causal simplicity and isolation.

But what if the domain we're concerned with isn't like that? Suppose instead that there are many causal factors and a high degree of causal interdependence among the factors. And suppose that we have only limited knowledge of the strength and form of these interdependencies. Is it possible to make rationally justified interventions within such a system?

This description comes pretty close to what are referred to as complex systems. And the most basic finding in the study of complex systems is the extreme difficulty of anticipating future system states. Small interventions or variations in boundary conditions produce massive variations in later system states. But this is bad news for policy makers who are hoping to "steer" a complex system towards a more desirable state. There are good analytical reasons for thinking that they will not be able to anticipate the nature or magnitude or even direction of the effects of the intervention.

The study of complex systems is a collection of areas of research in mathematics, economics, and biology that attempt to arrive at better ways of modeling and projecting the behavior of systems with these complex causal interdependencies. This is an exciting field of research at places like the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Michigan. One important tool that had been extensively developed is the theory of agent-based modeling -- essentially, the effort to derive system properties as the aggregate result of the activities of independent agents at the micro-level. And a fairly durable result has emerged: run a model of a complex system a thousand times and you will get a wide distribution of outcomes. This means that we need to think of complex systems as being highly contingent and path-dependent in their behavior. The effect of an intervention may be a wide distribution of future states.

So far the argument is located at a pretty high level of abstraction. Simple causal systems admit of intelligent policy intervention, whereas complex, chaotic systems may not. But the important question is more concrete: which kind of system are we facing when we consider social policy or disease? Are social systems and diseases examples of complex systems? Can social systems be sufficiently disaggregated into fairly durable subsystems that admit of discrete causal analysis and intelligent intervention? What about diseases such as solid tumors? Can we have confidence in interventions such as chemotherapy? And, in both realms, can the findings of complexity theory be helpful by providing mathematical means for working out the system effects of various possible interventions?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What to do?

Decision makers at every level are perplexed by the turbulence created by the current financial crisis. Everyone is acting under great uncertainty -- business owners, state governors, the Department of the Treasury, the presidential candidates, and university officials. And yet today's actions may have enormous effects on the business, the non-profit organization, the family, or the state tomorrow. Liquidity drought, variations in cash flow, the availability of credit for major capital projects, the possibility of bankruptcy of major and essential business partners such as contractors, the possibility of further major job losses in various regions, abrupt decline in demand for houses and cars, and a plummeting stock market make for an environment of choice in which every action can have seriously bad consequences.

I'm thinking here particularly of decision makers who are responsible for large, complex organizations -- organizations that deliver services or products, that depend on staff and facilities to fulfill their mission, that need to make medium-term plans about investments of resources for future use, and that depend on assumptions about revenues in the future to satisfy the cash-flow needs of the enterprise to stay financially viable. What is noteworthy about this situation of choice is that it necessarily involves plans and projections about the future. And it involves the temporally extended coordination of activities of people and expenditures of resources over a prolonged period of time. This means that it isn't possible to achieve success through a purely opportunistic and moment-by-moment response to events. You can't fly a complex organization by the seat of your pants.

So how do we plan for the best outcomes in the current circumstances of turbulence and uncertainty? The normal assumption of continuity -- assume that most circumstances won't change much between today and tomorrow -- is distinctly inappropriate. Today's economic and financial environment has many moving parts -- and they interact in surprising ways. And unfortunately, it appears that there is no reliable science to guide us here. Experts disagree about the mechanisms and the potential remedies of the current crisis. Navigating this environment is akin to trying to catch a pingpong ball in a crowded wind tunnel.

So what is to be done? I mean to pose this question in the most pragmatic way possible. Given deep uncertainty about the changes that may occur tomorrow, and given a fairly deep ignorance of the fundamental mechanisms that are affecting this storm, how can prudent stewards of institutions and businesses do the best job possible to preserve the fundamental interests of their stakeholders and carry out the missions of their organizations?

There are a couple of rational-choice answers to this question, falling generally under the topic of "decision making under risk and uncertainty." One prescription is the expected utility rule: identify the possible actions and their various outcomes; assign a probability and utility to each outcome; and choose the action with the greatest expected utility (sum of the products of probability and utility for the outcomes). Or we might consider the more risk-averse rule, the minimax principle: choose that action with the least bad worst possible outcome.

Unfortunately, neither of these decision procedures is of much help in current circumstances. We don't know what the range of possible outcomes is for a given action or policy (because we don't understand the mechanisms); we can't assign likelihoods to outcomes; and it's not feasible to measure the utility of a given outcome, all things considered. So expected utility decision-making doesn't seem very helpful in current circumstances.

Another approach depends on what we might call "locally rational decision-making" or heuristic decision-making. We don't know what the consequences of an extended liquidity crisis are, but we may reason that more reserves are always useful; so we may choose to curtail spending today to increase reserves. Or we may observe that an additional debt burden for the business is likely to be a handicap in the future, so we may postpone important capital projects. Or we may defer hiring additional staff in order to preserve more budget flexibility in the future. But notice that there are rules of thumb that point in the opposite direction: "A business should take bold moves in times of crisis, to leave it in a stronger position when recovery begins." This advice would encourage investment rather than curtailing it. So the problem with rules of thumb is that they often come into conflict with each other -- leaving the decision maker in a quandary.

In fact, if the range of uncertainty is great enough, it is impossible to be prudent. Prudence involves taking steps today that are most likely to leave you in a satisfactory position tomorrow. But if we are uncertain about even the most basic truisms -- if we are in a position where the most basic assumptions of continuity are defeated -- then we can't begin to weigh possible outcomes or design prudent strategies. It's hard to see how a pilot could fly "prudently" in the dark and without instruments.

It would seem that today's financial crisis doesn't create quite this degree of radical uncertainty, however. It is a fair bet that the world economy and financial system will survive and will recover within a few years. It is likely enough that cash reserves will be very useful for organizations and businesses in the next few years. It is likely that risky decisions have a greater potential for enterprise ruin than in normal times -- "high risk, high reward" is probably a bad rule to follow in current circumstances. And these assumptions add up to a counsel of conservation of resources, flexibility of activities, cost discipline, and preservation of accessible reserves.