Sunday, March 29, 2009

Primitive accumulation

Marx's treatment of the "so-called 'primitive accumulation'" is one of the most historically detailed sections in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). And it is one of the most interesting parts of Capital to read as a separate piece. (Here is an electronic text of the section.) It is Marx's account of the historical processes of change in rural life of the fifteenth through eighteenth century in Britain and Ireland, through which peasants were forced off their land and the commons were enclosed. Marx believes that this separation of the peasantry from the land was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism, in that it created the conditions in which there was a pliable and abundant proletariat. This "free" proletariat was needed for the creation of the factory system and the development of manufacturing cities. So the process of primitive accumulation created the changes in social relations, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth that permitted the creation of the capital-labor relation and factory-based capitalism.

Marx sometimes puts this point in a fairly teleological way, looking at primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the road to British capitalism. (For example, he refers to this process as "the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production.") But it is possible, and preferable, to read Marx's analysis here less teleologically, as simply a detailed account of some of the crucial but contingent changes that took place in rural social relations during these centuries, without importing the idea that these changes were functionally related to the later development of capitalism. And read non-teleologically, the section holds up fairly well in relation to modern historical scholarship.

Marx describes the basic social relations of British rural life in the fifteenth century in these terms, as a freeholding peasantry with access to substantial common lands, pasture, and forest:
The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage-labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage-labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.
And he identifies the crucial turn towards expropriation of the free peasant proprietor:
In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.
(It is interesting to recall that Oliver Goldsmith describes the eighteenth-century version of this process in Ireland in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770):
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o'ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied. )
And Marx emphasizes the coercive nature of this expropriation of the yeoman peasant:
Even in the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the country clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. We leave on one side here the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. We deal only with the forcible means employed.
A crucial component of the "primitive accumulation", in Marx's interpretation, was the abolition of common property, culminating in the enclosure acts in the seventeenth century:
Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. Sir F. M. Eden refutes his own crafty special pleading, in which he tries to represent communal property as the private property of the great landlords who have taken the place of the feudal lords, when he, himself, demands a “general Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Commons” (admitting thereby that a parliamentary coup d’état is necessary for its transformation into private property), and moreover calls on the legislature for the indemnification for the expropriated poor.
We even are afforded a glimpse of the economist's view of the rationality of enclosure. According to John Arbuthnot, enclosure and the creation of private farms is a more productive use of land and labor:
Let us hear for a moment a defender of enclosures and an opponent of Dr. Price. “Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field.... If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation” (to which, of course, the “converted” ones do not belong) “should wish for ... the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.”
And here Marx describes the final stages of the "rationalization" of agriculture, in the expropriation of the Scots:
The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.
Eventually we come to the point where industrial capitalism is feasible and there is a "free" proletariat available for labor:
It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance.
And, of course, Engels picks up the story from the perspective of nineteenth-century Manchester and Birmingham, and the conditions of squalor and oppressive factory labor that resulted. (See an earlier posting on Engels's sociology of the proletarian city.)

The English Marxist historians have devoted a lot of their attention to this period of British social history. (Harvey Kaye gives a very good account of the work of this generation of Marxist historians in The British Marxist Historians.) Maurice Dobb is one of the English socialist historians who has retraced Marx's steps on this subject in some detail. One of Dobb's important books, Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (1963), treats this process of the decline of the English peasantry and the rise of the proletariat, making use of the historical scholarship of the first part of the twentieth century. Some of Rodney Hilton's research on this period can be found in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Rev). Several generations later, Robert Brenner gave a somewhat different interpretation of the history of agrarian change in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; his views were developed in the splendid journal Past & Present and were separately published along with a round of critical reactions in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hobbes an institutionalist?

Here is a surprising idea: of all the modern political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes comes closest to sharing the logic and worldview of modern social science. In Leviathan (1651) he sets out the problem of understanding the social world in terms that resemble a modern institutionalist and rational-choice approach to social explanation. It is a constructive approach, proceeding from reasoning about the constituents of society, to aggregative conclusions about the wholes that are constituted by these individuals. He puts forward a theory of agency -- how individuals reason and what their most basic motives are. Individuals are rational and self-concerned; they are strategic, in that they anticipate the likely behaviors of other agents; and they are risk-averse, in that they take steps to avoid attack by other agents. And he puts forward a description of two institutional settings within which social action takes place: the state of nature, where no "overawing" political institutions exist; and the sovereign state, where a single sovereign power imposes a set of laws regulating individuals' actions.

In the first institutional setting, he argues that individual competition in the context of the absence of sovereignty leads to perpetual violent competition. In the second institutional setting, he argues that individual self-striving within the context of a system of law leads to the accumulation of property and peaceful coexistence.

Here are some of Hobbes's premises about individual agents from chapter XIII of Leviathan:
From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man's single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.
So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.
The passions that incline men to peace are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the laws of nature, whereof I shall speak more particularly in the two following chapters.
And these motives and forms of behavior by individuals lead to a predictable outcome for the collectivity in the state of nature: a war of all against all.
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
This is an institutionalist argument. It models the behavior that is expected of a certain kind of agent within a certain kind of institutional setting; and it projects the consequences of these "microfoundations" for the aggregate society. In other words, Hobbes is offering a micro- to macro-argument based on analysis of modes of agency and assumptions about a particular institutional context.

Compare this logic with a description of the logic of social explanation offered by contemporary rational-choice social theorist James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory:
A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. (2)
So the logic of Hobbes's argument is fairly clear; and it is deeply similar to that of institutionalist rational-choice theorists. Thomas Schelling's title, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, captures the idea in three words: derive descriptions of macro-level social arrangements and behavior from premises concerning individual-level motivation and action.

It is not a profound criticism of Hobbes's philosophical analysis to quarrel with Hobbes's specific assumptions about what is possible within the state of nature. And in fact, a number of contemporary political scientists argue that it is possible for men and women to create non-political institutions within the context of what Hobbes calls the state of nature. Coordination and cooperation are indeed possible within a "state of nature"; it is possible to achieve coordination within anarchy. From a sociological point of view, this is really a friendly amendment; it simply adds a further premise about the feasibility of certain kinds of cooperation. So the "cooperation within anarchy" criticism of Hobbes is advanced as a substantive argument about the feasibility of durable social institutions that do not depend upon a central coercive authority. And it depends upon several specific assumptions about the circumstances and mechanisms through which local groups of people can establish self-enforcing forms of cooperation that overcome free-riders and predatorial behavior. It is likely enough that Hobbes would not have been persuaded by this argument; but ultimately it is an empirical question.

Several arguments against Hobbes's conclusions about the state of nature are especially valuable from this point of view. First, I find Michael Taylor's arguments in Community, Anarchy and Liberty particularly convincing -- essentially, that peasant communities have traditionally found ways of creating and sustaining cooperative institutions and relationships that persist without the force of law to stabilize them. "Contracts" backed by legal systems are not the only way of establishing coordination and cooperation among independent agents. Robert Netting provides relevant examples in Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture, around traditional forms of labor-sharing and seasonal cooperation. And Elinor Ostrom and her collaborators make similar arguments in their historical and sociological studies of "common property resource regimes" -- essentially, stable patterns of cooperation maintained by local voluntary enforcement rather than central legislation (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). Ostrom documents dozens of important historical cases where traditional communities have managed fisheries, forests, water resources, and other common properties without having a central state to support these patterns of cooperation and coordination.

But these are empirical and theoretical refinements to a fundamentally coherent model of social explanation that is full-fledged in Hobbes's work in the mid-seventeenth century: explain aggregate (macro) social outcomes as the result of mechanisms and actions at the level of individual actors.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philosophical frameworks in the social sciences

It is fairly evident that there were substantive ontological assumptions about how the social world worked that guided the founders of sociology: individuals create social outcomes (Mill), norms and values have a superordinate role in social action (Durkheim), the problem of social order is the fundamental problem for sociology (Durkheim), crises are common within capitalism (Marx), social events are meaningful and historically particular (Dilthey), modern society is marked by impersonal social institutions (Tönnies) .... Assumptions at this level guided the thinking of specific theorists as they developed conceptual schemes in terms of which to understand the social world and advanced theories about how the social world worked.

We should therefore not imagine that the social sciences developed as an abstract, logical solution to a simple problem, as perhaps naive empiricism might have suggested: identify the domain of social phenomena that constitute the declared subject matter of a given discipline of social science; examine and classify the phenomena so as to discover whatever regularities are to be found among them; formulate theoretical hypotheses about the laws that govern these phenomena; and explain the patterns and events that are discovered as the consequences of these hypothetical laws. Instead, each of the founders of the social sciences came to his or her studies with fairly specific pre-scientific ideas about what the domain of the social world was and how it should be explained. These ideas are both ontological and methodological; and all of them are contestable. Perhaps we might describe this framework as a “folk philosophy of knowledge” that is to some extent unexamined but that guides the pursuit of knowledge, the form that it takes, and the ways in which it is evaluated.

German intellectual historian Fritz Ringer tries to locate Max Weber's intellectual origins within what he calls an "intellectual field" -- as he puts it, "a constellation of positions that are meaningful only in relation to one another, a constellation further characterized by differences of power or authority, by the opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and by the role of the cultural preconscious, of tacit 'doxa' that are transmitted by inherited practices, institutions, and social relations"; Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences, p. 5. I think that Ringer is raising a question quite similar to mine here: what are the substantive reference points and conceptual presuppositions that the theorist brings to his theory and inquiry as he sets out. And this question is particularly crucial at the beginning; later theorists are in turn formed by their readings and reactions to the theories and systems of the prior generation.

Naturalism and positivism -- the idea that the social sciences ought to resemble the natural sciences, and the idea that the goal of science is the discovery of empirically supported lawlike generalizations -- constituted a powerful folk philosophy of science that was shared by Durkheim, Mill, and Comte. Given the power of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century, naturalism is unsurprising—even though it is profoundly misleading when applied to the social world. (See an earlier posting on non-naturalistic models of social science for more on the shortcomings of naturalism as a framework for social inquiry.)

But naturalism and positivism were not the only substantive philosophical frameworks that influenced the first generation of the social sciences. The hermeneutic tradition was a strikingly different starting point for the rigorous investigation and explanation of social realities. The hermeneutic tradition derived from literary and biblical interpretation; it looked at history and human affairs as a body of meaningful signs that required interpretation. And it emphasized the singular over the general, the historically particular over the law-like generalization. Dilthey's hermeneutic philosophy offered a non-positivist, non-causalist starting point for the "human sciences". The intellectual tradition that Dilthey absorbed and re-deployed as a basis for the human sciences was philosophically rigorous and committed to careful argumentation and interpretation. But it differed profoundly from the epistemology of empiricism and positivism.

The key point here should not be lost. It is that the various efforts to forge a scientific theory of society are partly empirical and theoretical; but they are also partly metaphysical and epistemic, grounded in pre-scientific assumptions about the nature of the social world and the nature of empirical study of society that are only partially expressed and are inherently debatable. Metaphors, pictures, hunches, and the thinker's own experiences play a deeply important role in the development of sociological frameworks. This is why it is appropriate to refer to the "sociological imagination." There are other starting points; and if we had started with different philosophical frameworks and different metaphors, we would have arrived at different sociologies. So engaging with the philosophy of social science is a fruitful way of trying to rethink the presuppositions of existing approaches to a "science of society".

A prior posting on philosophy and the social sciences addresses this issue as well. Here is a posting on the roots of the philosophy of social science and a posting on continental philosophy of social science that are relevant as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Social control of crowds

There is a pretty high level of social protest taking place in France today. Strikes and demonstrations are taking place in many cities, involving students, faculty, workers, and other ordinary people. (Here is a recent news roundup dated March 19, 2009, on strikes, demonstrations, and manifs in the past month or so, and here is a BBC report on a round of large strikes in January.) The demands largely have to do with the current economic crisis, unemployment, changes in the social security system, and proposed reforms to higher education. French people are demanding specific changes from the government, and the government does not seem to want to compromise.

These collective actions carry out a tradition of public protest in French political culture that goes back at least a century and a half (Charles Tilly, The Contentious French). And few politicians in France will have overlooked the fact that public protests have sometimes developed into even more confrontational forms of collective action and conflict -- in 1968, for example, and in the banlieue in 2005. So the current round of protests and mass demonstrations has a significance in French political history that raises the possibility of even more intense civil conflict in the next twelve months.

What is to prevent the possibility that large organized demonstrations and strikes may develop into more violent conflicts between the population and the state in the future? How can the state ensure that large-scale peaceful protest -- a basic democratic right -- doesn't turn into episodic rioting and civil unrest when political stalemate emerges or when economic and social conditions worsen?

The question is a pressing one, because very large demonstrations and protests are volatile and unpredictable. When there are tens of thousands of participants and a range of leading organizations in a large demonstration, it is possible for the actions of the crowd to develop in ways that were not intended or anticipated. A peaceful march down a central boulevard can proceed from beginning to end with a great deal of internal discipline, with organizations maintaining ranks and preserving order. Many of the photos of manifs in French cities are distinguished by the prominent signs and banners the protesters carry announcing the organizations they represent -- labor unions, student organizations, faculty groups. And these banners themselves are an indication of organization and discipline. So large, peaceful protests can be organized and carried out successfully.

But the same march can also degenerate into skirmishing and street fighting involving small groups of activists and police. A small splinter group of violent protesters may break away from the march to engage in acts of violence against property -- burning cars, smashing shop windows. And these acts may spread by contagion to other parts of the crowd. Or a group of activists may deliberately confront the police with stones or bottles, with the goal of provoking violent reaction and an escalation of conflict. (This appears to have happened repeatedly in Athens a few months ago, and it was an anarchist tactic in the anti-globalization protests that took place in many cities a few years ago.) Or a group of police may engage in a demonstration of power intended to intimidate the crowd, leading to police violence against members of the crowd; again, this violence may spread to other locations. Even an unfortunate accident can lead to an outburst of violence -- a frightened driver losing control of his car and injuring a group of demonstrators, for example, can lead to panic and escalation. And any of these small outbreaks of violence can spread through the larger crowd, leading to an uncontrollable spasm of action and reaction.

So how can the authorities in a democracy develop strategies for ensuring that peaceful protests avoid violent escalation? I suppose the most direct strategy is to consider the demands themselves and evaluate whether they legitimately call for changes of policy that ought to be enacted. Compromise over the central issues leading to mass protest presumably has some effect on the likelihood of violence and disorder. If the people are convinced that the government is acting unjustly, the government ought to at least consider whether there is some legitimacy in these complaints.

A second strategy is more tactical. Recognizing that protest is likely to occur, it makes sense for the authorities to work with the organizers and their organizations to arrive at agreements about the scope and nature of the protest. The route, location, duration, and other conditions of the protest can be negotiated. And the authorities are well advised to attempt to gain the support of the organizers in an agreement to maintain internal discipline within the demonstration -- to win the agreement of the organizations themselves to attempt to suppress possible outbursts of violence by minority elements within the crowd.

A third strategy involves, of course, policing. The authorities have both the ability and the obligation to use police powers to ensure public order. And this means that they need to plan intelligently for the disposition and behavior of police forces to contain possible violent outbursts. But the use of police force is a delicate political art. Heavy-handed, intimidating policing seems to be as likely to provoke violence as to suppress it. Police behavior that depends upon the conspicuous threat of force likewise is likely to be provocative -- a double line of police with truncheons and riot gear, with face shields providing a disturbing anonymity, is likely to provoke fear and aggression in the crowd that it confronts. And, of course, police behavior that crosses the line to overt acts of brutality is almost certain to provoke violent response, as news of police violence spreads through the crowd. But it is also possible to err on the side of insufficient police presence; forces that can be quickly overwhelmed create the situation of a sudden escalation of violence by a crowd that has suddenly realized that there is no barrier to further violent actions.

It would seem that the ideal prescription for a policing strategy is something like this: enough police force in the vicinity to respond quickly and decisively to acts of violence by members of the crowd; positioning of police forces in fairly inconspicuous locations so their presence is not itself a provocation; and well-trained police forces who can be trusted to refrain from unnecessary violence against protesters. (The "police riot" in Chicago in 1968 plainly led to rapid escalation of violence in that situation.)

What makes this question so complicated is the fact that it involves social actions, conflicts, and relationships at many levels: the basic conflict between organized groups with explicit demands and the state with its interest in enforcing its policies; the limited degree of control that protest organizers have over the behavior of followers; the fact that smaller groups and organizations within the protest movement may have goals that are more radical than those of the main organizations; the fact that the authorities have only limited control over the forces at their command; and the fact that there may not be acceptable compromises that successfully resolve the conflict between protesters and the state. These factors make the behavior of the crowd somewhat unpredictable, and they introduce major sources of contingency into the way in which a particular day of protest and season of dissent play out.

Bringing the discussion back to France in 2009, there seem to be several large possibilities for the coming year. The government may decide that it needs to adjust some of its policies in order to reduce the level of popular dissent and unrest; it needs to reach a social compromise. The government may hold firm but the dissenting organizations may grow fatigued or discouraged -- so that the current round of protest and strikes subsides. Both sides may hold firm but an equilibrium level of protest and response may be reached, with neither side escalating to a higher level of civil conflict and violence. Or, finally, both the government and the protest movement may hold firm and protests may spiral upward into greater levels of social conflict, with riots and violent protests ensuing. More and more force may be exerted through police repression, and this may lead to more widespread and more aggressive demonstrations in the following weeks. And, of course, all of these scenarios are likely to have consequences for electoral outcomes in the coming several years.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Acting as a group

What is involved in acting as a group? What is the difference between a crowd of pedestrians crossing Mass Ave in Cambridge when the light changes and a group of students marching into Harvard Hall in an attempt to initiate a protest? How about the difference between a group of history graduate students pursuing research simultaneously but separately on early New England diseases in Widener Library, and a research group of scientists collaborating to discover the mechanism of HIV transmission at the cellular level?

The intuitive answer to these questions is pretty clear. A group activity requires some level of collective intentions and purposes on the parts of the participants towards each other and towards the group itself. A group is more than an ensemble of individuals performing a similar set of actions (pedestrians, independent researchers). Rather, we want to see some indication that the individuals regard themselves as members of the group; that they embrace some conception of the action that members of the group propose to perform; and that they individually choose their plans of action out of consideration of this group or collective purpose. In a group's actions, the individuals who make up the group are oriented towards the group and its goals and purposes. In other words, groups are constituted by some form of group-oriented intentionality on the part of individual members, and group actions are performed by individuals who have adopted a set of beliefs and attitudes towards other members of the group and its collective purposes.

There are quite a few complications that arise here, however. Here is one: many collective activities involve participants with a wide range of affiliation with the collective purpose. There are core members who explicitly and emphatically declare adherence to the collective goal and plan. There are some who are willing followers without a clear idea of the purpose or plan. There are opportunistic joiners who have their own private reasons for joining the group project. And there may even be a degree of disagreement within the group about goals, strategies, and tactics -- with the result that many committed members nonetheless differ from each other with respect to their collective intentions. And these aren't sharp distinctions in most cases -- so a given collectivity may consist of a deeply mixed group of individuals with respect to their understandings, purposes, and affinities for the collective action.

Several philosophers have focused on this set of problems surrounding "group intentions". Margaret Gilbert thinks there is a sharp distinction between group intentions and individual intentions (On Social Facts). More recently, Raimo Tuomela refers to "we" intentions and "I" intentions in order to explain the defining characteristics of group behavior in The Philosophy of Social Practices: A Collective Acceptance View. Both Gilbert and Tuomela seem to think that groups have intentions that are autonomous from the purposes and intentions of members of the group -- a sort of Durkheimian view of the autonomous reality of the mentality of groups. What these approaches have in common is a desire to postulate a strong distinction in levels between group intentions and individual intentions.

Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”. The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber, by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3).

I don't find this collectivist approach to "individuals behaving as groups" at all convincing, for several reasons. One is the point mentioned above about the heterogeneity of individual motivations and purposes within a group activity. This seems to imply that there couldn't be a coherent, univalent group intention that stands separate from the individuals who constitute the group. Instead, there are only the somewhat polyglot collective intentions within agents, with some degree of within-group communication and shaping about their shared collective purposes.

Second, there is the general skeptical point about "spooky" social entities -- entities that are thought to have an existence independent from the states of agency and mind of the individuals who make up the social world. How could one possibly imagine that there is a collective intention associated with the Burmese monks in 2007, standing separate and independent from the beliefs, assumptions, loyalties, and adherences of many individual monks and networks of monks?

And here is a third puzzle. We need to have some idea of the concrete social processes through which group-oriented intentions are created at the individual level in particular social circumstances. We need to know something about the microfoundations of group formation. It doesn't help to simply postulate "collective intentions"; we need to have a concrete sociology of the ways in which individuals come to have group-oriented beliefs, values, and motives.

Finally, the "autonomous collectivity" view doesn't work very well when we try to use it to interpret the practice of gifted social scientists who attempt to explain collective action. E. P. Thompson, James Scott, Chuck Tilly, Doug McAdam, and William Sewell all devote a lot of their effort to explaining how specific social collectivities came to define themselves as "groups" and came to act in a collective way. But their approaches are invariably based on understanding the many threads of mobilization, structure, and meaning at the disaggregated level that eventually build up to a movement. Thompson's metal workers, Scott's Southeast Asian peasant rebels, Tilly's Vendeans, McAdam's civil rights activists and followers, and Sewell's Marseillaise craftsmen all reflect the variation and concrete historical construction of individual consciousness within concrete political movements that confirms the variability and agentic nature of social movements and group identity.

That said, there is still a crucial role for group-oriented thoughts and purposes at the level of at least some of the participants in a group. Without these group intentions at the individual level, we couldn't say that there is a group at all -- only a collection of individually oriented individual actors. Something like this must be true for at least some of the members of a group action:
  • X regards a set of other individuals as constituting a group G to which he/she belongs;
  • X believes that G has a common interest or need N;
  • X is motivated to join in concert with others in G in such a way as to bring about N;
  • X believes that some significant number of other members of the group share these collective thoughts, purposes, and motives;
  • X believes that some significant number of G will act accordingly;
  • and X has a consequent motivation to engage in the collective action.
One additional condition seems to be pragmatically required in order for these conditions to arise: there must be some tangible process of communication and mobilization through which the group-oriented intentional states mentioned here are created in the various individuals.

So there are mandatory group-oriented states of mind that are part of the constitution of a group. But notice this key fact: these features of beliefs, intentions, and motives that I have mentioned are all located at the level of the individual actors. There is no higher-level collectivity that possesses an independent "group intention". So a group is constituted by the states of intentionality and belief of its members, and the concrete processes of communication and mobilization through which a degree of group-orientedness and coherence emerges within the states of mind of the participants. Weber was right after all! Fundamentally, there are only three social-intentional states postulated here: affiliation, mutual recognition, and solidarity. And there is a postulate about the micro-social processes through which these are cultivated: mobilization, communication, and embodied social networks.

And this analysis in turn is entirely compatible with the perspective of methodological localism that I've mentioned several times here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Technical practices

What is involved in providing a sociology of technical practices? (An earlier posting is also devoted to this question.) Here I am thinking primarily of technical material practices -- building a house or a boat, distilling spirits, weaving a basket, maintaining a biological research lab, or repairing a photocopy machine. There is a degree of continuity in the "tacit knowledge" and embodied skills and methods that are represented in the plans and actions of practitioners of these different human activities. These bodies of knowledge and skill define the activity in a fairly specific way. And there are indefinitely many other configurations of practices that might have accomplished the same task. So a practice is historically and socially specific; it is the result of prior experimentation and adaptation in the context of needs, materials, and a physical environment within specific communities and locations.

Here is a simple formulation of what I'm calling a technical practice:
A practice is an ensemble of techniques, skills, and stylized responses, embedded in a population at a time, accomplishing a specific range of domestic tasks, and sustained through social mechanisms of transmission.
There are a number of fundamental questions that this definition raises. How are practices embodied in individuals or groups? How do they proliferate, from one generation to the next and across social space? How does a given state of practical knowledge change over time, through transmission, mutation, and deliberate refinement? Do practices have a degree of stability over time, or do they morph so flexibly as to defy analysis? Are there "signatures" for given ensembles of practices -- e.g. a set of features of device design in boat building or a set of techniques of water management in farming -- on the basis of which we can observe the proliferation and change of a practice over time and space? Is there a self-referential element in practices—do practitioners deliberately or consciously modify their practices?

The example of traditional boat design and building is a good one to illustrate a technical practice (suggested in the images above). The boat-building traditions of medieval Scandinavia represent a body of skill and technique transmitted from master to apprentice, with variation over time and place. Farming practices in traditional agricultural societies provide another good example. In this case, the practice involves knowledge concerning crops, animals, seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, timing, and response to the unexpected. (This is the kind of local practical knowledge that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.) It is embodied in local knowledge, folk beliefs, techniques and tools, and customs of a given population at a particular time. It is transmitted from practitioner to practitioner (perhaps parent to child) through training and imitation. Sometimes organizations play a causal role in transmission (e. g., a guild of boat designers and builders may deliberately control the transmission of relevant knowledge and skills from one individual to another). And it seems likely enough that historians can in fact observe the proliferation of technical practices such as these over centuries of time by observing the spatial distribution of artifacts associated with the practice. (Jon Elster discusses some aspects of the technical practices associated with traditional boat building in Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.)

A particularly interesting question is the degree to which technical practices are “plastic” over time and space. How readily do they morph over time and space (akin to the way in which messages morph in the game of “telephone”)? Is there an analogy between a practice and a gene, in which the gene encodes instructions for the phenotype—producing a next-generation genotype? The stability of species through biological evolution depends on the fact that gene transcription is a highly accurate process, so the offspring is highly likely to encode the same bits of information as the parent. Is there the requisite stability within the domain of practices, or are we more likely to find significant differences in ostensibly similar practices across the villages of a region?

The stability question turns on the mechanisms of replication that social practices embody. Traditional social practices are not embodied in standard "handbooks" of best practice; instead, they are transmitted through networks of training and imitation. So changes are likely to occur during the replication of the practice at the local level. Innovation occurs as local illiterate but intelligent farmers or builders discover enhancements. These innovations are imitated and reproduced by neighbors and changes accumulate. Naturally, there is nothing inherently optimal or progressive about such a process. Good ideas and innovations die out; mediocre practices persist; and sometimes genuine advances occur.

Finally, the question about whether a technical practice has a specific signature -- a characteristic set of tools, patterns of land use, and products -- is crucial for our ability to track changes in practices historically. With a signature -- for example, a characteristic form of ceramic glazing -- it is possible to track the spread of a practice across time and space. It is then possible to track changes in practice over time and geography by tracking the dispersion of tools and products. For example, a new technique in ceramics can often be pinpointed in a place at a time; then through archeological research it is often possible to track the diffusion of the innovation over the next century to other places. And once we’ve done that, we can ask productive questions about what the mechanisms of the diffusion of practical knowledge were: migration of farmers and artisans, trade routes, the sale of books and pamphlets, …

It seems that technical practices in pre-modern societies are of particular interest for a couple of reasons. They give us a subject matter where it is possible to study local knowledge and skill in some detail. They represent a domain of human activity where it is possible to track change over time and to form some hypotheses about the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of techniques. And they are a fairly visible manifestation of some basic features of social life -- the harnessing of knowledge and skill to solving some of the practical problems of life, and the creation of innovations through which these basic material needs might be satisfied in a marginally better way. And it wouldn't be surprising to discover that the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance and diffusion of traditional techniques are also found in the practical knowledge communities of technicians in the modern world -- photocopy machine repair specialists, airline mechanics, or lab technicians.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

eighteen forty-eight

The revolutions of 1848 were the stage upon which the "spectre haunting Europe" danced. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Alexandre Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous other critical observers of Europe's trajectory looked at 1848 as a moment of continent-wide social and political revolution. Mike Rapport's 1848: Year of Revolution is a very interesting effort to synthesize the movements and events of the year in a specific attempt to try to assess the degree to which events in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan, and dozens of other European cities hang together as a "year of revolution." It's worth reading -- even for those for whom the history is pretty familiar.

One reason that the book is so interesting is that the period itself is fascinating -- the events, the social movements and causes, the mechanisms through which social contention spread and intensified, and the personalities who were drawn into engagement and commentary. The three men pictured above -- Tocqueville, Herzen, and Bakunin -- are only a sliver of the powerful and enduring personalities who played important roles during the critical weeks and months of unrest in a variety of cities. Another reason for the interest of the book is Rapport's effort to separate out some of the causes and claims that led to mass protest in city after city -- relief of impoverishment, anger at the impersonal economic relations of the time, and the claims of ethnic and national groups for self-determination. Fundamentally, Rapport suggests that mobilization and political demands flowed from two basic issues: the crushing poverty that segments of urban society experienced at mid-century, exacerbated by financial crisis and crop failures (Paris, Berlin), and the demand for political autonomy for national and ethnic groups (Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary). Finally, the book is distinguished by its effort to treat the full canvas of unrest and violence across much of the continent -- not simply focusing on France, as one is sometimes inclined to do in thinking about 1848.

Tocqueville's Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 is a particularly intimate view of the events in Paris in spring, 1848. Tocqueville was a Deputy of the National Assembly and an aristocrat, and in January 1848 he gave a prescient speech in the Chamber of Deputies:
I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano ... can you not sense, by a sort of instinctive intuition ... that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel ... the wind of revolution in the air? (quoted in Rapport, 42)
In Recollections he chronicles his own experiences only a few months later, walking the streets of Paris during the street fighting in February 1848. He writes of his experience of February 23, 1848:
I took my leave early and went straight to bed. Though my house was quite near the Foreign Office, I did not hear the firing which so greatly changed our fate, and I went to sleep unaware that I had seen the last day of the July Monarchy. (Recollections, 35)
As I left my bedroom the next day, the 24th February, I met the cook who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself and poured out a sorrowful rigmarole from which I could understand nothing but that the government was having the poor people massacred. I went down at once, and as soon as I had set foot in the street I could for the first time scent revolution in the air: the middle of the street was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages, or people walking; one heard none of the usual street vendors' cries; little frightened groups of neighbours talked by the doors in lowered voices; anxiety or anger disfigured every face. I met one of the National Guard hurrying along, rifle in hand, with an air of tragedy. I spoke to him but could learn nothing save that the government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). (36)
Rapport describes the massacre to which Tocqueville's cook and the National Guardsman apparently refer, as being the instigating event that led to successful insurrection in February. It took place on rue des Capucines:
When the marchers came to a halt, they pressed against the soldiers, and the officer, apparently hoping to nudge them back a little, ordered his men to 'Present bayonets!' As the troops performed the manoeuvre, a mysterious shot burst into the night air. In a knee-jerk response the nervous soldiers let off a volley, the bullets killing or wounding fifty people. (52)
Tocqueville continues with his stroll on the morning of February 24:
The boulevard along which we passed presented a strange sight. There was hardly anyone to be seen, although it was nearly nine o'clock in the morning; no sound of a human voice could be heard; but all the little sentry boxes the whole way along that great street seemed on the move, oscillating on their bases and occasionally falling with a crash, while the great trees along the edge came tumbling into the road as if of their own accord. These acts of destruction were the work of isolated individuals who set about it silently, methodically and fast, preparing materials for the barricades that others were to build. It looked exactly like some industrial undertaking, which is just what it was for most of those taking part. (38)
(I've always thought it would be very interesting to take a group of students on a walking tour of the sites that Tocqueville mentions in Recollections -- though many of the locations must have disappeared in the work of Haussmann in reconfiguring the urban geography of Paris. Timothy Clark has some very interesting analysis of Haussmann's designs in The Painting of Modern Life.)

Marx's writings of the events of February and June in France are more analytical and more political at a nuts-and-bolts level. Marx's face-to-face experience of the events was more fleeting than Tocqueville's -- Rapport recounts Marx's rather unsuccessful efforts as a political speaker, attempting to raise class consciousness (231). (Blanqui and Proudhon both seem to have been more successful in this vein.) But Marx followed the events carefully through available journalism, and he made every effort to interpret the comings and goings in a way that made sense to him from the framework of historical materialism and politics as class conflict. Here is how Marx described the outcome of the bloody June repression of the revolution in Paris:
The Paris workers have been overwhelmed by superior forces; they have not succumbed to them. They have been beaten, but it is their enemies who have been vanquished. The momentary triumph of brutal violence has been purchased with the destruction of all the deceptions and illusions of the February revolution, with the dissolution of the whole of the old republican party, and with the fracturing of the French nation into two nations, the nation of possessors and the nation of the workers. The tricolour republic now bears only one colour, the colour of the defeated, the colour of blood. It has become the red republic. (N.Hr.Z., 29 June 1848)

There remained only one way out: to set one section of the proletariat against the other. For this purpose the Provisional Government formed twenty-four battalions of Mobile Guards, each composed of a thousand young men between fifteen and twenty. For the most part they belonged to the lumpenproletariat, which in all towns, forms a mass quite distinct from the industrial proletariat. It is a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all sorts, living off the garbage of society, people without a definite trace, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu, varying according to the cultural level of their particular nation, never able to repudiate their lazzaroni character.... Thus the Paris proletariat was confronted by an army of 24,000 youthful, strong, foolhardy men, drawn from its own midst. The workers cheered the Mobile Guard as it marched through Paris! (Eighteenth Brumaire, 52-53)
For me, one of the most interesting questions about 1848 is also the most basic: were these disturbances "revolutionary," or were they something different and perhaps less historically significant over the long sweep of the century? Were perhaps the "February days" better described as simply a short period of civil unrest and plebeian rioting; and were the "June days" simply a show-down with a state and military increasingly willing to use force to exert its will? And might we think that it is best to look at Berlin, Milan, Vienna, and Paris in 1848 as largely separate social upheavals brought together in a relatively short period of time, but lacking the internal connections that would constitute a large revolution? In other words, was 1848 really a "year of revolution", as Rapport says in his subtitle, or was it less dramatically, a year of unrest, rioting, and eventual political change?

One reason for posing the question in these terms is the fact that the concept of "revolution" is a very imposing one. When we think of "revolutions," we think of the great examples -- France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949. We think of organized revolutionary parties; mass movements; political contest over control of the state; a program of fundamental social and economic change; and eventual seizure of state power. Against this sweeping set of unifying ideas, one might say that 1848 never reached this threshold of significance and unity.

But perhaps this way of putting the question gets it backwards. Perhaps it is the "great" revolutions that need a second look -- as Rapport suggests somewhere in a single sentence. Perhaps it is the Russian Revolution that has been over-dramatized, and the widespread social and political upheavals of 1848 are more genuinely revolutionary than the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in one corner of Europe. The upheavals across Europe in 1848 are continental in scope; they involve a confluence of related claims (for autonomy for national groups, for poverty relief, for a democratic voice in government); and they did in fact result in "regime change" in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. And, as Rapport, Tocqueville, and Marx seem to agree -- by June 1848 in France, at least, there was a polarization around class lines and the primacy of the social question.

So it's a simple question, really: were there any "revolutions of 1848"?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Proto social inquiry

We sometimes imagine that the current disciplines and methods of the social sciences represent a more or less inevitable set of approaches to the problem of understanding social phenomena. But really, the latter task is much larger than the specific sets of disciplines and methods we have currently developed. It is worth turning back the dial a bit and reflecting on the intellectual currents that led to contemporary programmes for the social sciences.

Reflective people have been curious about the workings of the social world for as long as they have observed and commented upon the world of actions and institutions that they found around themselves. The Greeks were particularly interested in such things as the causes and outcomes of war (Thucydides), the properties of different kinds of states (Plato), the nature of the family (Aristotle), and so on. Often the focus was on the question of “justice”—the features of social arrangements that were justified on moral grounds. But there are also many examples of philosophers and writers who were interested in the question of the how and why of social life: how does it work, what sorts of causes are at work, and why do certain kinds of outcomes occur (poverty, war, violence)? These reflections often represented systematic thinking and observation, but they did not amount to what we would call “social science” today.

Several important changes occurred in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that created a new impulse towards a different kind of study of the social world. One was eighteenth-century globalization. There was more knowledge available from travelers and colonial administrators about exotic social and familial practices in non-European places. The fact of religious and moral diversity was itself a startling discovery. This set of discoveries demonstrated the unavoidable fact of human social diversity. In the eighteenth century European thinkers raised questions deriving from the observed differences in social orders around the globe; so thinkers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu considered the significance and causes of different patterns of social organization in Europe, the New World, Africa, and Asia. So the questions arose, how do these alternative social orders work, and why are there such wide differences in the first place?

Second was an increasing recognition of the interconnectedness of economic and political life within European societies themselves. The physiocrats and the British political economists began to postulate causal connections between certain kinds of social facts—settlement, trade, extension of agriculture, and law—with certain kinds of outcomes—the creation of the wealth of nations. The physiocrats particularly highlighted the systematic relationships that exist between environment, land, food production, prices, rents, and other forms of economic development. And debates about economic policies in the nineteenth century -- debates over the Corn Laws, for example -- likewise pointed towards the discovery of previously unobserved causal connections among economic facts.

A third major change carried over into the nineteenth century—the advance of modern industrial production, urbanization, bureaucratic states, class formation, migration, and a recognition of major social changes associated with urbanization and industrialization. These changes, associated with the industrial revolution, set urgent new intellectual challenges to thoughtful observers; why were these changes taking place, and where were they going? Even Hegel expressed theoretical interest in the rise of the bureaucratic state -- Shlomo Avineri's Hegel's Theory of the Modern State makes a very clear case for the historical and empirical interests that Hegel had, along with his abstract philosophical theory of Right. What would be the consequences for European (or French and English) civilization of these basic seismic shifts in the order of society? Thus, for example, Engels, Tocqueville, and Carlyle all reflected intensely on the meaning of Manchester for the new society (link, link, link).

Fourth, a raft of novel and urgent social problems—destitution, factory safety, crime, widespread hunger, deracination of the majority population, and the creation of enormous cities—loomed large in the emerging interest in creating “sociology.” How could a modern society cope with these problems? (Gareth Stedman Jones's book Outcast London is particularly interesting for the insights it shed on how nineteenth-century observers, including Alfred Marshall, attempted to understand the problems and changes associated with London's rapid development.) Parliamentary commissions on conditions of labor, public health, and other important social problems provided an empirical basis for more systematic study by theoretically minded thinkers. The systematic collection of social statistics in turn created an intellectual demand for analysis in the form of the mathematics of probability and statistics. (Ian Hacking's book, The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference, provides a nice account of some of these developments.)

Finally was the rise of full-blown results in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century—chemistry, electromagnetism, mechanics, geology, and biology. So the idea of studying and explaining the patterns of the social world with the same kinds of "science" was a fairly natural next step. The sudden impact of Darwinian ideas about biological evolution and the origin of species at late century was also important for some early sociologists. Founding social scientists as diverse as Marx, Durkheim, Comte, and Spencer were influenced by the models of empirical and logical rigor associated with positive natural science -- sometimes to the detriment of the future development of the social sciences. (See earlier postings on positivism and naturalism for more about these shortcomings.)

The point here is a simple one. The agenda for "understanding society" is an old one, predating the modern social sciences by centuries. And the needs that we have for understanding, explanation, and intervention in the area of complex social processes and problems inherently exceed the scope of the particular efforts we've made to date in constructing empirically rigorous social science. We need to keep our eyes open for new problems and new approaches in the social sciences, if we are to do a satisfactory job of understanding and coping with the social issues of the twenty-first century. (See earlier postings on world sociology , French sociology, and Chinese sociology for more thinking about the need for innovation in the social sciences.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Inequalities in France

Inequalities in France are particularly volatile these days, with high unemployment, rising income inequality, increasingly evident differences in opportunities for young people from immigrant communities, and rather different levels of schooling available to different communities in France. Social conflict, strikes, and political disagreements are rising in France, and it will take skillful work by community leaders and public policy makers to arrive at a new and sustainable social consensus. There seems to be a new social reality in France -- and to cope with these new realities, there is an urgent need for good social understanding of the causes of social distress, social inequality, and social conflict.

Some recent work in French sociology, economics, and journalism provides some useful contributions towards arriving at that better understanding of contemporary France.

Noteworthy along these lines is an important institute at the Sorbonne that focuses on inequalities in France, L'Observatoire des inégalités. Researchers affiliated with the Observatoire have recently published the institute's second report on inequalities, L’état des inégalités en France 2009 (link). The volume includes extensive statistical information about social and economic inequalities in France, as well as a set of short, thoughtful essays offering analysis of several dimensions of current inequalities. Observatoire Director Louis Maurin and President Patrick Savidan provide the introduction to the volume. The book is a solid and illuminating snapshot of the situation of wealth, income, education, gender, and ethnic status in France today, and it provides a useful empirical baseline for understanding current debates and conflicts in France during this period of severe economic crisis.

The major categories of measurement include income and poverty, employment, education, life style, social origin, gender, age, nationality and immigration, space and territory, health, housing, and comparisons with Europe and the world.

The book brings forward a great range of social data. Several graphs and charts caught my eye as being particularly interesting. Here's a map of poverty across the face of France:

And here is a graph indicating the rate and volume of poverty over several decades. The second panel indicates a fairly large decline in the percentage of poverty since 1970, with relatively little change in the past ten years.

Women's equality in the workplace appears to have made more progress than in many other countries. Since 1951 median female salary has increased from about 65% of median male salary to about 82% in 2005:

And the percentage of adults with higher education is also an interesting variable. Overall, 17.7% of adults have a two-year or four-year degree beyond the Baccalaureat (roughly, high school diploma). This compares to a U.S. figure of about 27% of the adult population with an bachelor's degree (link), with an additional percentage of adults with a two-year associate's degree. This is especially important because another table documents that 72% of young people with the Bac+2 have regular jobs, compared with only 43% of young people lacking a diploma. Clearly, access to higher education is a critical component in economic opportunity in France, as it is in the United States.

The section on health is interesting, though it would be useful to have more public health variables and more disaggregation across regions and communities. In the fifteen years between 1976 and 1991 life expectancy for both men and women has increased by about three years, and the gap between male and female life expectancy has remained wide at about seven years (76 compared to 83 for the period 1991-1999). In general, this volume indicates that French public opinion and public policy seems to pay more attention to the situation of "handicapped" people than is the case in the United States.

The section on nationalities and immigrants is also eye-opening. 15% of immigrant households fall below the poverty line, compared with 5.6% of non-immigrant households. And households of North African origin show a staggering poverty rate of 22.6%. The report makes it plain that a significant part of this differential derives from overt discrimination; a candidate with a French surname is between 1.5 and 3 times more likely to receive a job interview than a French resident of Moroccan origin.

An excellent companion to this book is La France invisible, prepared by Stéphane Beaud, Joseph Confavreux, and Jade Lindgaard. (See an earlier posting on French sociology for a brief discussion of this book.) This book makes an extensive effort to catalogue the many slices of French society that are often overlooked; this is the sociological reality that underlies many of the forms of inequality described in L’état des inégalités en France 2009. La France invisible is not primarily interested in statistical measurement; there is not a single table or graph in the 650-page volume. Instead, it is an effort at sociological description and ethnographic insight into the situations of daily life of the various disadvantaged minority groups in France. The editors link their work to an earlier book by Pierre Bourdieu, La Misere du monde, in 1993. Their goal is to give voice to people and groups who have been largely unheard in the larger society in the past thirty years. And they have made a very powerful contribution to this effort.

Combine these books with the careful and intense fieldwork by Didier Lapeyronnie in Ghetto urbain, and you have a great survey of social inequalities in France today. (See an earlier posting on segregation in France that refers to Lapeyronnie's work.) Lapeyronnie's work documents in great sociological detail, some of the social realities that define the situation of inequality, discrimination, and segregation that limit many of France's immigrant communities today. And it is self-evident, that France must address these issues in ways consistent with its highest civic values -- or social conflict is inevitable.

I am sure that every country is developing its own forms of analysis of the new social realities that the twenty-first century confronts us with.
And it is an interesting fact that there are persistent differences across national traditions of social inquiry. We certainly need new approaches and new mental frameworks in terms of which to understand the rapidly changing social circumstances of the cities and populations of the world today. Berlin, Oslo, and Milan are probably creating equally interesting new ideas about how to conceptualize emerging social realities. But even in this global world of ideas, the obstacle of language makes transmission of these research traditions difficult. The contemporary French sociological framework is sufficiently distinctive from American and British sociology to serve as a highly interesting point of contrast and innovation for fresh thinking everywhere.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Metaphors for history

What kind of thing is "history"? Think of the history of the Roman Empire, or the history of Tokugawa Japan, or the history of the American banking system. We want to be able to conceptualize these complex stories as possessing some kind of unity over centuries of time, thousands of locations, and millions of lives; we want to be able to identify common threads of development, common themes or topics that continue to recur throughout the history of the period. And yet it is plain that history consists of unmeasured diversity and heterogeneity as well -- individuals, psychologies, local conditions, aberrant princes, external threats, famines, floods, and panics. So historians are led to adopt different kinds of metaphors to attempt to provide a degree of unity to their subject. There are quite a few different metaphors that have been used to characterize history: a river, a tree, a labyrinth, an ocean, a landscape. Several are particularly worth unpacking, but the metaphor that I prefer is "pathway."

Here is how the river metaphor might work as a way of thinking about the "course" of history. Rivers have tributaries -- rivulets of water flowing down hill into the broader concourse. History has "streams" of contributing events that lead to the larger outcome -- the confluence of developments in the French medieval rural economy, the development of the fiscal crisis of the Ancien regime, and the emergence of a town-based bourgeoisie, for example, coming together to contribute to the unfolding of the French Revolution. There is a seeming unity to a river over time, even though the constituent water simply passes through continuously; analogously, one might view history as a "stream" of events that individual humans pass through, constituting a larger and more stable historical current. (Though of course we won't forget the Heraclitus paradox.) Rivers are to some extent constrained -- by existing topography, but also by human artifacts (dams, levees, flood walls). Historical developments too are constrained by circumstances such as agricultural productivity, population levels, and warfare. Rivers sometimes change their course -- for example, the frequently changing course of the Yellow River over many centuries. But more commonly they become longstanding features of the terrain over centuries or millenia. Analogously, there is at least the semblance of long, steady periods of continuity of human affairs within human history -- interrupted by crises and turning points. (See an earlier posting on the idea of a turning point.) Rivers have a direction of flow -- from north to south, from high ground to lower ground. And some interpreters of history have argued analogously for a direction of change in history as well -- towards "progress," "modernization," greater administrative intensity, higher standards of living for the population, or greater democracy, for example. And rivers have a powerful momentum of their own -- we can be swept away in the currents of the Mississippi River, as John Reed was swept up in the events of the Russian Revolution.

The river metaphor captures some of our intuitive thinking about history -- tributaries, currents, stretches of turbulence. But it also conveys a necessity or inevitability that fails to come to grips with the deep contingency of history. A river has an inexorable course of flow -- from high ground to low ground. And the topography essentially determines the shape and configuration of the river bed. This metaphor suggests that history too has an inevitable course or direction -- which is profoundly untrue.

How about the idea of history as a tree? Here, the idea is that there are "branches" in history -- points where developments could have gone "left" or "right", and the next phases of history are dependent on the specific branches that have been taken before. America could have invested in canals rather than railroads -- and its transportation history and subsequent urbanization would have been significantly different. (Robert Fogel makes an argument along these lines in Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History; here is a nice, short description of his argument.) The analogy isn't exactly between "history" and "tree"; instead, it is between the space of hypothetical historical possibilities and the branches of a tree. Actual history is one specific pathway through this tree of possibilities. Finally, trees have systems of "roots" -- the structures under the ground and out of sight that explain the nutrition and growth of the tree. And how often historians turn to expressions like "the roots of the Cold War extend back to X, Y, and Z."

This metaphor does a better job of capturing the contingency of history, in that it highlights that the actual course of history is simply the aggregate result of the branches or choices taken previously -- with the clear understanding that other routes through the space of possibilities were possible as well. One of the obvious difficulties with the tree metaphor, though, is the extreme uncertainty that exists about the branches, the hypothetical alternative outcomes that might have put a given society on a different trajectory. For any given major historical event we can speculate with varying degrees of rigor about how things might have come out differently; but we can't really go very far down the route of the "alternative history" that might have ensued. So the idea of a "tree diagram of alternative histories" is only a metaphor, not something that could be accomplished through historical research. (Niall Ferguson has an interesting book on "counterfactual history"; Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.)

So here is a third possible metaphor for history: history is an accumulation of pathways and contingencies that embed human action over time. I find that this metaphor works well as a way to characterize the course of history. Paths are created by purposive agents, going somewhere with an understanding of the topography. Pathways become roadways, and they become systems of constraint and opportunity. And they sometimes become the elements or segments of larger systems with long historical and human consequences (for example, the Roman road system illustrated at Ambrussum above). Road systems illustrate the meaning of “path-dependence”; once the pathway exists, other routes across the terrain become less likely. And the metaphor illustrates as well the perpetual interaction of agent and structure that good historians almost always emphasize; the plasticity of social entities; the contingency of their specific properties; and their constraining power influencing human choices.

The pathways metaphor incorporates both diachronic and synchronic elements into our conceptualization of history. At a given time, history presents us with a given set of embodied constraints and opportunities that represent the accretion of the past as a context for the present. The system of roads penetrating through a medieval town represent a snapshot of its history over a thousand years -- and a set of frustrating obstacles to the contemporary driver. Marx puts the weight of history's legacy in these terms in the Eighteenth Brumaire:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
But there is a diachronic aspect of the metaphor as well: the structures that constrain the present today are themselves involved in a temporally extended process of modification and accretion from yesterday to today to tomorrow. The road system continues to evolve in response to contemporary needs and wants, and presents a new set of constraints and opportunities to the generation to come.

On this approach, history doesn't have any ultimate directionality; it is simply the sum of a long series of inventions, actions, interventions, and accidents over decades or centuries. At the same time, it is subject to a degree of explicability, in that earlier moments of historical development set the stage for choices and inventions in the next phase. Outcomes are "path-dependent", in that they depend critically on the circumstances and accidents of the past. But at the same time, there is a degree of "sunk costs," social momentum, and embodied infrastructure that make some historical developments much more likely than others.