Monday, April 27, 2009

Acting, deliberating, performing

Earlier posts have addressed aspects of action -- particularly the features that align action with purposiveness and choice, deliberation, planning, and improvisation. Here I'd like to focus on the idea of action as a performance -- a series of behaviors meaningfully orchestrated by the actor out of consideration of an expected "script". Here we interpret actions as falling into scripts and roles, created by the culture's history and constituting the actor's behaviors as a performance. The agent is postulated to possess a stock of mini-scripts and role expectations that are then invoked into a "syntax" of performance in specific social settings.

The anthropologist Victor Turner makes central use of this framework in constructing his ethnographies (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society). He refers to this approach as dramaturgical ethnography. The idea here is that social groups -- cultures -- have created for themselves a set of schemes of ways of behaving that individuals internalize and play out as social settings arise. There is the role of the doctor, the salesman, the librarian, the clown, and the general, and the individuals who assume those roles know the scripts. So when they interact in social settings relevant to their roles, their behaviors reflect the role and the script. The scripts become part of the furniture of "behavioral cognition" -- the routines the players string together in ordinary and extraordinary social settings. (Note the parallel with Erving Goffman's treatment of everyday behavior (post).) And, perhaps, the script governs the social actor so deeply that his/her behavior no longer has its own individual meaning or intention. (It is said that Gary Cooper never saw his role in High Noon as the anti-McCarthyism allegory that most people on the progressive side of the spectrum take it to be.)

What does this framework imply about the actor's state of mind in performing an action? How much agency do actors maintain under this theory? And to what extent is the actor's conduct his own, deriving from his or her own authentic self rather than from an externally created role? Consider as an example, a fire captain's behaviors and speeches during his management of the fire company's handling of a major fire. Let's amplify the story a bit. The captain and the members of the company have a well-rehearsed set of procedures for various scenarios encountered in fighting a fire -- "victim trapped in bedroom", "elderly person inside", "possible toxic materials on site", "roof collapse imminent". As these contingencies arise, captain and company play out the prescribed actions. Second, though, there is probably a prescribed style of command that influences the captain's manner and conduct: be calm, give sufficient attention to the company's safety, keep control of the press and crowd on-site, don't fall into a screaming, cursing rage when things go badly. (Think of Captain Sullenberger's methodical double sweep of the USAir passenger cabin after landing his disabled aircraft on the Hudson River, before exiting for his own chance of rescue.)

So there are fairly tangible ways in which the behaviors of the commander and the company are in fact governed by scripts and roles. The dramaturgical interpretation makes sense here. The actions of these participants are not invented de novo on the scene of the fire; rather, they derive from earlier practice of roles and, more intangibly, carrying out of a certain conception of behavior of a commander under stress. We don't get actions here that derive from unadorned actors, considering a range of choices and choosing the best in the circumstances.

But neither do we get the opposite extreme -- robots playing out their scripts without intelligence or adaptation to circumstance. Instead, each of the players in this story retains his/her own assessment of what is currently going on and what deviations of script may be demanded. The captain retains the ability and the responsibility to break with procedures when there is an imminent reason to do so; and this degree of autonomy extends down the line of command to the junior firefighter. So the routines and scripts guide rather than generate the behavior.

So the performative interpretation of social action is not inherently inconsistent with the idea of intelligent, purposive action. Instead, we can think of the actor in this case -- captain or junior firefighter -- as involving in a complicated series of behaviors that reflect both deliberation and internalized script. I think this interpretation is very analogous to Pierre Bourdieu's position on the subject of habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice. Conduct that is guided by norms (in this case, scripts and roles) can nonetheless also be intelligent and strategic. Seen in this light, the dramaturgical interpretation supplements the purposive theory of action rather than replaces it.

It is challenging to get the balance right, though, between the compulsion of a set of norms or scripts and the practical freedom the actor maintains at every point to act differently than the prescription. It seems unavoidable that the kinds of scripts, roles, and norms mentioned here have some binding power over the agent in actual social life. Much of the time the behavior simply plays out the script, with no homunculus reconsidering the action from the point of view of other possible choices. And often the role or norm is psychologically compelling to the extent that the actor can't realistically consider breaking it. Today's British newspapers break a mini-scandal in which an environmental activist is pressured by the Scottish police to serve as a paid secret informant (story). They offer a substantial amount of money and immunity from otherwise scary criminal charges for her cooperation. Rather than accepting their terms she bugs her meeting with them with her cellphone and exposes the police effort. Why? Presumably because her understanding of her role as a principled activist with the courage of her convictions made accepting this offer humiliating and impossible. (Think, though, how many people made a different choice in the GDR when confronted by the Ministry for State Security (Stasi).)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Creativity, convention, and tradition

images: Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906); Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1849)

Conventions define how to do things correctly -- trim the hedges, choose an outfit for an evening at the opera or the racetrack, how much to tip the server. They also define or constrain productions in the arts -- writing a short story or a sonnet, performing a Brahms quintet, participating in an Andean flute group. We might define a convention as a stylized but unwritten rule of performance. A tradition is an extended set of conventions for a given area of performance. We can refer to traditions of classical German chamber composition, Japanese landscape painting, or hiphop street performance. A conventional act or performance, then, is one that directly and consistently expresses the relevant conventions.

So -- at any given time, a particular set of conventions drive the creation of works of culture and guide the interpretation of the product. These conventions are somehow embedded in the community of creators, viewers, and critics. And innovation, breaking or stretching the rules, creates the possibility of novelty and creativity within the process. It is important to notice, though, that conventions generally don't govern every aspect of a performance. The convention of the sonnet mandates a form and meter and gives some constraint on subject. But it would certainly be possible to write a sonnet in deviant meter in praise of a farm tractor; the audience would be able to make sense of the production. So the artist always has a degree of freedom within the tradition.

I find several specific ideas to be useful in analyzing cultural conventions and their products -- in particular, "idiom", "voice", and "novelty". Within a given medium, there is an existing stock of shorthand ways of expressing an artistic or symbolic idea. We may refer to these modes of expression as "idioms" of the genre. When the stranger in the 1950s western is wearing a black hat, the audience understands he is the villain. When the soundtrack swells in an ominous minor key the audience knows there is trouble coming. These idioms aren't natural signifiers; rather, they are conventions of the B movie. So the idioms of a genre are a particularly direct form of convention within the semiotics of the genre.

"Voice" is a counterpart of originality. It is the intangible "signature" that the individual artist brings to his or her work -- what Eisenstein brings to many of his films, distinctive from Bergman and Kurosawa. Voice represents a kind of consistency over time, but it is not defined by homage to tradition; instead, it is an expression of the specific sensibility of the individual artist, the specific way in which this artist forges together his/her material and vision within the resources of the genre and its conventions. Eisenstein's films aren't formulaic, even though one can recognize a common sensibility running through them.

What about novelty and creativity? Novelty is the break outside of convention that the artist brings to the production in order to express a particular idea or perspective in a new and forceful way -- for example, the transition from sepia to color in The Wizard of Oz. The original and genuinely creative artist or writer finds ways of bringing novelty and his/her own originality into the production, giving the audience new and unexpected insights and ideas. The element of innovation needs to point the audience towards its signification without relying wholly on the existing traditions of reading. (Picasso's portrait above of Gertrude Stein displeased some friends of the writer because "it doesn't resemble Gertrude Stein." Picasso is said to have replied, "It will.")

But here is an apparent conundrum of creativity and convention. Any performance or artistic work that is wholly determined by the relevant conventions is, for that reason, wholly uncreative. It is like a conversation in a Dashiell Hammett novel: no surprises, each gambit programmed by the conventions of the crime novel. Or it is like a string quartet composed by an earnest follower of Beethoven, with no phrase breaking the flow, no note out of place. And for the careful listener, each is ultimately boring; there is no novelty in the work. And there is no opening for the original and creative voice of the creator. Originality and new perspective have no place.

But now the other half of the conundrum: novelty without regard to the frame of tradition is incomprehensible and meaningless. The classical composer of 1800 who somehow heard the world atonally, arhythmically, and to the accompaniment of falling trash cans and who then wrote a symphony in thirty movements on this basis -- this composer is innovating, all right. But he/she is not creating works that any existing audience could hear as "music". There is no bridge of meaning or hermeneutic practice to facilitate interpretation.

It is relevant here that we are led to refer to the audience. Because cultural products require the conveying of meaning; and communication of meaning requires some reference to conventions shared with the audience -- whether in music, painting, literature, or hiphop. Meaning of any cultural performance is inherently public, and this means there have to be publicly shared standards of interpretation. The audience can only interpret the performance by relating it to some set of conventions or other. These may be conventions of representation, structure, or mythology; but the audience needs some clues in order to be able to "read" the work.

There are, of course, periods in art history where it appears that innovation is all and continuous convention is nothing. For example, Courbet and the realist painters were evidently shocking to the viewing public for their dismissal of the classical values of the Salon -- in the Burial at Ornans above, for example. But really, there was a great deal of continuity within the context of which the realist manifesto was shocking to the public. (T. J. Clark does a great job of "reading" the painting for its continuities with previous traditions of painting and the sources of its originality; Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, pp. 80-83.)

So what does all of this imply about "creative breakthroughs" in the genres of the arts? It seems to imply that major and culturally significant breakthroughs occur when talented people fully absorb the semantic (and historically specific) conventions that define the genre at the current time; he/she finds ways of squeezing every bit of new meaning out of these conventions in the production of the cultural product; he/she plays with the limits of the convention, testing them for the possibility of forging new meanings; and sometimes, he/she breaks a convention altogether and substitutes a new meaning maker in its place (presenting Julius Caesar in the garb of fascist Italy of the 1930s, for example).

These topics are relevant to understanding society, because this dialectic of convention, innovation, and meaning-making is virtually pervasive in everyday life. Jokes, business meetings, and street demonstrations all have some elements of this dance of meaning, convention, and originality. So it is important to gain greater understanding of the intersection of convention and innovation.

(There are numerous unanswered questions raised by this topic. How is a tradition of painting or composition related to a scientific or technological tradition? How is a literary or artistic tradition related to a "style" of technology or a scientific research programme? How can we take measure of "radical innovators" in the arts such as Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, or John Cage and American experimentalism in composition? And how do beauty or aesthetic value come into this equation? What are the qualities of a work of art that lead us to say, "That is beautiful!" or "that is hideous!"? What are the threads of convention, form, meaning, and originality that contribute to great aesthetic value?)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mobilizing a movement

The red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok are very interesting. Throughout March 2009 there were massive demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people. They are mostly supporters of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD; also designated as DAAD), the mass party of former prime minister Thaksin. And generically they are in opposition to the current government and to the yellow shirt movement that brought it to power in street demonstrations in fall 2008. (These demonstrations succeeded in forcing the closure of Bangkok's airports, which was significant because it threatened the tourist economy upon which Thailand depends.)

The social composition of the red shirt movement is loosely described as consisting primarily of poor people, largely from rural parts of Thailand. The media coverage also makes it clear that the red shirt movement is able to call upon the support of thousands of urban Bangkok people, including taxi drivers. Their immediate demand is for the resignation of the current government, which came to power through undemocratic means. But more generally, the movement seems to call for greater social equality in Thailand and greater democracy.

The question I want to raise here is a pretty limited one but theoretically crucial. It concerns the processes of mobilization through which these tens of thousands of people were induced to travel to Bangkok and involve themselves in extended and increasingly risky demonstrations. In general, massive demonstrations don't just happen; they need organization and planning. How did this mobilization transpire? What national, regional, and local organizations brought it about? I don't have the expertise to answer the question, so I'm putting the issue out here, in the hope that some of the commentators on the #redshirt twitter feed will help with some specifics.

There are a number of different ways in which this mass mobilization might have happened.

One is through the efforts of an effective and extended party organization. It might be the case that UDD is a well-organized and well-financed organization with numerous professional activists in the countryside. There may be village- and town-based UDD offices that maintain a regular presence at the grass-roots level. The activists may be experienced at keeping the grievances alive, keeping political sentiments aroused, and -- when the time is right -- they may have the capacity to mobilize bus-loads of adherents for the trip to Bangkok. On this scenario, mobilization is analogous to the "get out the vote" processes through which political parties in the United States mobilize their supporters at the polls on election day.

Here's a second way the mobilization could work. UDD might be an umbrella organization at the urban center with little grasp into the countryside and villages; but it may loosely lead a number of independent organizations that have a substantial presence in rural areas. Then, through coalition politics and a degree of high-profile leadership, the center and the coalition partners may call for mobilization, and coalition activists at the local level may take the organizational steps needed to elicit hundreds of bus loads of volunteers. This is a bit more challenging than the first scenario from the point of view of maintaining political unity -- each partner may have a somewhat different agenda -- but may be more feasible from the point of view of the level of resources needed by the central party. Here is a posting from April 9 in New Mandala that seems to suggest this type of mechanism.

I suppose there is a third logical possibility as well: a reasonably well-organized central party, no regional partners, but a mobilization that results simply from a widely broadcast "call to action". Crudely -- UDD leaders call for large street demonstrations; the call is broadcast on friendly mass media; and tens of thousands of rural people heed the call and make their way to Bangkok.

Naturally, we can ask exactly the same kinds of questions about the yellow shirt movement; and it is possible that the answers will be different in the two cases. I don't have any way of knowing whether any of these scenarios is close to the realities in Thailand today. But it is worth knowing, and there are many smart observers in Thailand who can shed light on the matter. So, Thai tweeters, how does it work?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Understanding across generations

Cohorts sometimes have very different formative experiences. Perhaps this means that they form different ways of taking the world in -- different expectations, different paradigms of how things work, different basic reactions about how to behave. And, in turn, perhaps this makes intergenerational understanding difficult; both younger and older may need to engage in real hermeneutic effort to make sense of each other.

This is often said to be the case for the US birth generations of 1920 and 1950. The former experienced the Great Depression, Tommy Dorsey, World War II, and the atom bomb. The latter experienced Woodstock, Jimmie Hendrix, the Beatles, and the war in Vietnam. The values of thrift, self-sufficiency, and sacrifice attached easily to the "Greatest Generation". Questioning authority, personal freedom in all things, and a weird combination of political engagement and personal narcissism formed the nimbus of the sixties generation.

These truly were very different social, familial, and economic circumstances for the two successive generations. But is it clear that these differences amounted to differences in worldview deep enough to make mutual comprehension difficult? Or are these differences overstated in films and novels (Death of a Salesman, The Graduate, Appocalypse Now), but really small beer in actual fact?

Part of the answer depends on what we think is involved in "understanding" the inner lives and external behavior of others. We observe people's behavior in specific circumstances -- how they treat their friends or children, how they handle important social obligations like the draft, or how they react to tragedy and loss; and we try to reconstruct how they think, feel, and reason. We try to form an idea of what they care about, what they value, and what kinds of principles they honor.

Part of what we mean when we judge we just don't understand the other person's actions, is that we can't assimilate their behavior to anything like our own core values and commitments. Likewise, we have the greatest sense of understanding when the other's conduct is compatible with our own values; we judge "she's pretty much like me in a core way."

When the other's behavior deviates widely from our own values and perceptions -- like Darnton's apprentices in their massacre of Parisian cats, or like the war protester pissing on a flag in the view of the sixtyish VFW witness -- we have to get more actively hermeneutic: what is the perception and valuation of the situation possessed by the other, in light of which his action makes sense to him? We have to actively reconstruct an interpretation of the other person's mental framework.

One thing we know from everyday experience: friendship and extended interaction leads to hermeneutic learning between people with very different starting points. So the fact that we begin with little in common doesn't ensure that we'll stay in that place. But this takes effort, and if there isn't a basis of friendship and mutual respect we may not get there. It explains, too, why parents and their children often do succeed in understanding each other in spite of these generational differences: they care enough to try to figure each other out.

But maybe the example of mid-century America is a pretty clear case; maybe it's true that the world of the VFW sixty-year-old in 1970 is different enough from the draft-resisting protester that they are mutually opaque. They each need the skills of a Geertz or a Maslau to have a meaningful conversation with each other.

But what about today? Are there hermeneutic gaps as wide as this between the 1950, 1970, and 1990 cohorts? Is it possible that the experiences of people now sixty and now twenty-five are just as wide? Are the young truly foreign to the middle-aged? And for that matter -- is it true that sixty is today's forty?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Objectivity and bias in complex happenings

Complicated things happen: riots occur, military coups take place, governments collapse. The happenings consist of a myriad of events and actions, many social actors, and a range of political interests and grievances. We want to know what happened; who did what; and who is responsible for the course that events took. It is one of the tasks of journalists, commentators, and historians to arrive at accounts of complicated things that answer many of these questions. And we want those accounts to be objective, truthful, and unbiased. Each account is a creative act of selection and narrative construction; the analyst has to sort out the evidence that is available to him or her and arrive at a chronology and a causal interpretation that makes sense, based on the evidence.

What we want from the historian and the journalist is easily described, though achieved with difficulty. We want an account that provides an accurate and truthful narrative of the events, based on the best available factual and historical information. We want an account that avoids the biases of the actors, including especially those of the most powerful actors who have the greatest capacity to shape the story -- the government, the military, and the major parties. We want an investigator who is able to question his/her own initial assumptions -- sympathy for the underdog, patient acceptance of the government's good intentions, or whatever. And we want a narrative that provides a balanced synthesis of the many events of the time period into a storyline with a degree of coherence: what the major events were, what choices were made by the actors, what the motivations of the actors were, and perhaps -- who acted responsibly and who acted recklessly or out of narrow self-interest.

It has to be acknowledged at the start that there are often multiple truthful, unbiased narratives that can be told for a complex event. Exactly because many things happened at once, actors' motives were ambiguous, and the causal connections among events are debatable, it is possible to construct inconsistent narratives that are equally well supported by the evidence. Further, the intellectual interest that different reporters bring to the happening can lead to differences in the narrative: one reporter may be primarily interested in the role that different views of social justice played in the actions of the participants; another may be primarily interested in the role that social networks played, so the narrative is structured around network connections; and a third may be especially interested in the role of charismatic personalities, with a consequent structuring to the narrative. Each of these may be truthful, objective, unbiased -- and inconsistent in important ways with the others. So narratives are underdetermined by the facts. And there is no such thing as an exhaustive and comprehensive telling of the story -- only various tellings that emphasize one set of themes or another. That said -- it is entirely possible that a given event will have provided enough factual data in the form of witness reports, government documents, YouTube videos, etc., that the main sequence of events, cast of actors and responsibility for events are unambiguous.

The example I'm thinking of in particular is the recent period of demonstration and riot in Bangkok involving red shirts, followers of former prime minister Thaksin, and the government and military. (See several other posts here and here.) But other examples are easily found: the taking of the Bastille, the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago (pictured above), the return of Franco to Malaga, or the decision of General MacArthur to cross the Yalu River in Korea. Virtually every historical event is a complex happening; so the problems raised here are endemic to historical interpretation.

One of the important issues being debated right now in Thailand is the question of arriving at a balanced and fact-based judgment of the amount of force that was used by the military in dispersing the crowds of protesters on April 13-14. The government reports that it used minimal force -- paper bullets, firm orders to fire above the crowds when using live ammunition, and a very low number of casualties as a result. Critical observers suspect a different story; based on memories of past repression by the military in times of street demonstrations, there is suspicion that the amount of violence was much greater. Some commentators speculate that there may have been many more deaths than have been reported and that the bodies were secretly taken away; ambiguous videos are brought forward as evidence for this possibility. So how are we to sort out the truth of the matter?

We can raise the question of objectivity at two levels: the investigator and the narrative. So let's begin with the narrative itself -- what do we want in a good comprehensive piece of journalism that tells this story accurately and fairly? We want an account that lays out the causes, events, and actions that made up this period of several weeks of protest and reaction. We want to know what organizations and leaders took what actions at what time, to call forth what organized responses. We want to know what key decisions the government made. We want to know how the prime minister and the police and military deliberated about responses to massive demonstrations. We want to know how the several occasions of mob violence against officials and offices transpired. We want to know the crucial details of the final hours of confrontation between the military and the crowd, and the degree of violence that transpired at that point.

And what do we want from the investigator of this complex happening in Bangkok? We want a commitment to arriving at the most truthful account of the story possible; a commitment to considering the full range of empirical and factual evidence available; and an ability to tell the story without regard to one's antecedent affinities and loyalties. It shouldn't be a "yellow shirt" or a "red shirt" story; it should be a factual story, based on critical reading and assessment of the available evidence. In order to arrive at such an account, the honest reporter needs to exercise critical good sense about the sources and the interests that the conveyors of the information have: the biases of the government, the press, and the parties as they provide evidence and interpretation of the events. And we want this account to be as free as possible of the interfering influences of bias and political interest. We want an honest and comprehensive synthesis, not a one-sided spin.

The good news is -- both goals are possible. The standards and values associated with both good historical writing and good journalism lead at least some investigators to exert their talents and integrity to do the best job they can to use the evidence to discover the details of the story. Not all journalists are equally committed to these standards -- that's why we prefer the I. F. Stones to the Jayson Blairs of the world. But enough are committed that we've got a good shot at sorting out the realities and responsibilities of the complex happenings that surround us through their objective, fact-based reporting.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Franco-Prussian War

The rapid, bloody, and total defeat of the French army by the Prussian army in 1870-71 was an enormous and unexpected shock to France and to Europe. Since the Napoleonic Wars it was taken as given that France's armies were powerful, well-equipped, and well generaled. But the Prussian army quickly defeated French armies across eastern France, from Wissembourg to Sedan, with massive loss of life on the French side. And the collapse of the army was rapidly followed by the siege of Paris and the Paris uprising leading to the establishment of the Commune of Paris and eventually its bloody suppression. So this period of two years was a critical moment in France's history in the nineteenth century.

Michael Howard's 1961 history, Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871, is probably the most comprehensive book in English on the Franco-Prussian War. Here's how Howard expresses the the comprehensiveness and shocking totality of France's defeat:
The collapse at Sedan, like that of the Prussians at Jena sixty-four years earlier, was the result not simply of faulty command but of a faulty military system; and the military system of a nation is not an independent section of the social system but an aspect of it in its totality. The French had good reason to look on their disasters as a judgment. The social and economic developments of the past fifty years had brought about a military as well as an industrial revolution. The Prussians had kept abreast of it and France had not. Therein lay the basic cause of her defeat. (1)
So Howard's judgment of the causes of this massive military failure is ultimately technological and systemic. The technical changes to which he refers are familiar: the role that railroads could play in the logistics of nineteenth-century warfare (opportunities that needed to be recognized and incorporated into military plans and the design of operational systems); the advent of new infantry weapons (breech-loading rifles of greater range and speed of loading); and new advances in artillery. The Prussian army incorporated breech-loading rifles (the needle gun) as early as 1843; whereas the French (as well as the British and Austrian armies) retained the muzzle-loader until the 1860s. And the Prussian generals led major advances in artillery in the decades leading up to the Franco-Prussian war, with greater precision and fire power in their Krup guns.

Railroads played a key role in Prussia's mobilization and logistics. The Prussians were able to maintain coordination and organization of their rail system; whereas the French rail system quickly fell into disorder. Howard describes the military potential of railroads in these terms:
Speed of concentration was only one of the advantages which railways provided. They carried troops rapidly to the theatre of war; and they enabled them to arrive in good physical condition, not wearied and decimated by weeks of marching. Armies needed no longer to consist of hardened regular troops; reservists from civil life could be embodied in the force as well.... Further, the problem of supplying large forces in the field was simplified. (3)
The systemic part of Howard's diagnosis is a failure of government: a failure to coordinate ministries and the bureaucracy of the military in pushing forward the reforms that would lead to effective incorporation of new technological possibilities into the order of battle and mobilization. The Prussian army made intelligent use of the General Staff as a learning organization; the French had no comparable organization.

Military failure is perhaps best viewed as a single species of organizational failure more generally. Elliot Cohen and John Gooch offer a different analytical basis for trying to understand the military disaster of the Franco-Prussian War in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. Bad generals can cause military disasters; but Cohen and Gooch take the position that "human error" is an explanation we turn to too quickly when it comes to large failures. (Likewise, "pilot error" and "surgeon error" are too superficial in aviation and hospital failures.) Rather, it is important to look for the systemic and organizational causes of failure. They treat war as a complex organizational activity, and they attempt to discover the causes of military failures in a variety of kinds of organizational failure. They identify three basic kinds of failure: "failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt" (26). And when these kinds of failure compound in a single period, it is likely enough that the result will be catastrophic failure.

Cohen and Gooch offer a fascinating "matrix of failure", partitioning "command level" (from president down to operating units) and "critical task" (communication of warning, appropriate level of alert, coordination) (55); and they demonstrate how mistakes at various levels of command in the several critical tasks can cascade into "critical failures". The cases they analyze include the failure of American antisubmarine warfare, 1942; Israel Defense Forces on the Suez Front and the Golan Heights, 1973; the British at Gallipoli, 1915; the defeat of the American Eighth Army in Korea, 1950; and the French army and airforce, 1940.

It seems that the Cohen-Gooch framework can be usefully applied to the Franco-Prussian War. Each of the key failures occurred: failure to anticipate (especially, failure to anticipate the possible consequences of Prussia's rapid military modernization in the 1850s and 1860s; failure to anticipate the fatal consequences that would follow from the French declaration of war in July 1870); failure to learn (an almost total lack of ability on the part of the French general staff to make sense of the causes of defeat as they occurred in summer and fall 1870); and, most strikingly, a failure to adapt (essentially the same tactics were used at Sedan as had first been applied at Wissembourg; Howard, 204-08).

Emile Zola's treatment of the war, The Debacle: 1870-71, is not a piece of analytical history; instead, it is a brilliant novelist's best effort to capture the horror and hopelessness of the campaigning in the summer and fall of 1870 from the point of view of the peasant Jean Macquart. The confusion of endless marches in one direction and then the reverse; the misery of driving rain; the hunger of poorly provisioned campaigning; and the seemingly endless terror of artillery and rifle fire put the reader into the shoes of the foot soldier as he approaches his end. The novel presents a textured and grim picture of the confusion of the march and the terrors of the battlefield:
In Remilly there was a dreadful mix-up of men, horses, and vehicles jamming the street which zigzags down the hill to the Meuse. Half way down, in front of the church, some guns had got their wheels locked together and could not be moved in spite of much swearing and banging. At the bottom of the hill, where the Emmane roars down a fall, there was a huge queue of broken-down vans blocking the road, while an ever-growing wave of soldiers was struggling at the Croix de Malte inn (139-40)
And a description of fighting in Bazeilles:
Clearly the attack was going to be terrible. The fusillade from the meadows had died down. The Bavarians were masters of the little stream fringed with poplars and willows, and were now preparing for an assault on the houses defending the church square, and so their snipers had prudently drawn back. The sun shone in golden splendour on the great stretch of grassland, dotted with a few black patches, the bodies of killed soldiers. (190)

Lying on the ground, sheltering behind stones or taking advantage of the slightest projections, the men were firing all out, and along this wide, sunlit and empty street there was a hurricane of lead with streaks of smoke, like a hailstorm blown by a high wind. A young girl was seen running across the road in terror, but she was not hit. But then an old man, a yokel in a smock, was insisting on getting his horse into a stable, and he was struck in the forehead by a bullet with such force that it knocked him into the middle of the road. The roof of the church was blown in by a shell. (191)
And here, the fateful trap of Sedan, where the larger part of the French army was annihilated:
The hundred thousand men and five hundred cannon of the French army were there packed together and hounded into this triangle. And when the King of Prussia turned westwards he saw another plain, that of Donchery, empty fields extending to Briancourt, Marancourt and Vrigne-aux-Bois, a waste of grey earth, powdery-looking under the blue sky, and when he turned to the east there was yet again, opposite the huddled French lines, an immense vista, a crowd of villages..... In all directions the land belonged to him, he could move at will the two hundred and fifty thousand men and the eight hundred guns of his armies, he could take in with one sweeping look their invading march. (197)
It is an interesting question to ask: to what extent do the skills of the novelist complement the theories of the social scientist and the narratives and analysis of the historian, in helping us to come to a better understanding of the reality of the historical moment? Is Zola's novel a genuine addition to our ability to make sense of this period in France's history? Or is it simply -- fiction?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American urban unrest

photo: Newark, 1967

Several recent posts have focused on periods of civil unrest in other countries -- France and Thailand most recently. The United States has its own history of civil unrest as well; and much of that history involves poverty, race, and cities. So it's worthwhile taking a look at some of the dynamics and causes of the major urban race riots that have occurred in the United States in the past seventy-five years. Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and Watts stand out as particularly dramatic moments in American urban history of the late 1960s, and it is useful to tease out some of the historical contingencies and large social conditions that produced these periods of strife.

At the crudest level, we can tell a pretty compelling story about why these riots occurred. The facts of racial segregation and intense poverty and restricted opportunities for African-Americans created an environment where urban African-American youth had seething grievances and a sense of little to lose; a dilapidated and depressing housing stock reinforced this sense of isolation, anger, and hopelessness; and specific incidents triggered an outburst of urban violence against property (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; specific acts of police misconduct; etc.). So structural conditions (racism, segregation, economic inequality, poverty, and limited opportunities) led to a political psychology of grievance, anger, and hopelessness in a large part of the urban population; and it was only a matter of time before a spark would fall into this tinder. Riots were predictable given the structural conditions and the resulting psychology.

But this is a commonsense folk theory of unrest; what do the experts think? Janet Abu-Lughod provides a particularly thoughtful and probing history of this subject in Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is a noted urban sociologist (though notably not a student of social contention in the Tilly school), and her approach is comparative and spatial. She wants to identify the similarities and differences that exist across a small number of cases of major race riots. She picks out six riots in three cities (Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) over a period of about seventy-five years (1919-1992) and employs a method of paired comparisons. Her goal is to achieve three things:
First, I hope to illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time, as these have been affected by internal and international patterns of migration, wars and wartime production demands for labor, legal changes governing housing segregation, and the civil rights movement.

Second, I hope to explain variations in riots in the three largest metropolitan regions by examining differences in their demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups within each city, and the degree and patterns of racial segregation in their unique physical settings.

Third, I hope to demonstrate differences in the ways relevant city government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks -- ways that reflect the distinctive power structures of each city and the prior "social learning" relevant to race relations that evolved in each place. (8)
One of the things that is most original in Abu-Lughod's treatment is the primacy she gives to the spatial features of urban geography and the geography of racial segregation in the various cities. She believes that spatial characteristics of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles explain important aspects of the six riots. But another original contribution is the emphasis she places on sequence and learning: an uprising later in time takes a somewhat different shape because of things that insurgents and authorities have learned from earlier uprisings. Both insurgents and authorities have "repertoires" of tactics that are updated by prior experiences.

Spatial considerations come into Abu-Lughod's analysis in several ways: as a source of conflict (over de facto borders between racially defined areas), and a source of logistical difficulties for the authorities when it comes to the challenge of deploying forces to suppress rioters (in Los Angeles, for example). Urban development plans that intrude into black neighborhoods -- for example, the expansion of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago -- are also identified as a spatial process that provokes racial conflict.

Abu-Lughod draws several general conclusions based on the pairwise comparisons that she has made. One important conclusion concerns policing. She argues that a well-trained, restrained, and disciplined police force is more likely to sustain peace in tumultuous times and less likely to worsen conflicts when they arise (270); whereas undisciplined and violent police forces greatly worsen the degree and duration of conflict. And second, she argues that the cases suggest that cities in which the city administration has taken steps to enhance trust and collaboration with the organizations of disadvantaged populations will be least likely to suffer major race riots. "Where there is ongoing interaction between well-organized protest movements, with leaders capable of articulating specific demands for change, and a responsive local government, the more quickly hostilities can be brought to an end" (270). So there are specific steps that cities can take to attempt to reduce the likelihood of prolonged major race riots.

But these points don't address the most basic causes of race riots: poverty, segregation, and severe inequalities of opportunity across racial lines. As she points out, the Kerner Commission in 1968 urged the nation to address these inequalities; the Johnson administration undertook to do so; and very, very little progress has been made in the intervening forty years towards greater social justice along these lines. So perhaps her most sweeping and penetrating conclusion has to do with the depth and severity of the problems of race, poverty, and segregation we continue to face in American cities, and the likelihood this creates for future major disturbances.
Given the obdurate persistence of racism in American culture, and the widening divides in the racial/ethnic/class system over the past three decades (attributable to changes in the international division of labor that have reshaped labor demands in the United States, coupled with massive immigration and a generation of neoliberal national policies that have shred the welfare safety net woven in the Great Depression), I am amazed that major urban rebellions have thus far been so constrained. (269)
One thing that this account has not addressed is the element of organizations and leadership. Abu-Lughod presents the riots she treats as if they were simply wholesale reactions of the mass populations of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, to a pressing set of structures and grievances. And this appears to make these periods of strife as being non-strategic -- reactive rather than purposive, expressive rather than political. But it is a key insight of the resource mobilization approach that we need to spend particular effort at discovering the organizational resources that were available to insurgents; the background thought is that uprisings require mobilization and coordination, and that this is impossible without some sort of organization. So were there organizational resources that helped to sustain and spread the urban riots of the 1960s?

Abu-Lughod doesn't ignore urban activist organizations altogether; for example, she talks about the role of the NAACP and the Urban League in organizing and negotiating skillfully in support of the economic and political interests of African-Americans in New York during periods between major riots. And she refers to the organizational capacity of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York as a substantial asset in the ability of the black community to organize and sustain protests against police brutality in 1964 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the periods of strife themselves seem to be largely disorganized, in her narrative, and CORE organizers exerted themselves to damp down the violence rather than sustain it. Generally the civil rights organizations appear to have played the role of peace makers rather than insurgents.

A good complement to Abu-Lughod's analysis is Tom Sugrue's recent book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. This is a very careful and detailed treatment of the sustained activism and achievements of major civil rights organizations in the North that were aimed at achieving greater equality for African-Americans. And it gives a very nuanced appreciation of the degree of political sophistication and activism that existed in the urban African-American communities of the north throughout the 1960s. Sugrue documents in great detail the strategies and commitment of organizations such as CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League. But I think Sugrue agrees with the basic view that the rioting itself was not the result of insurgent organization: "There is little evidence that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were planned, coordinated, and controlled. What was most striking about the long hot summers was not their coordination or coherence. Their very spontaneity convinced many leftists that they were manifestations of a popular -- if still undeveloped -- revolutionary consciousness" (334-35).

If this interpretation is correct (spontaneous rioting without organization through such vehicles as street gangs, underground groups, etc.), then the spatial considerations that Abu-Lughod focuses on really are crucial; our explanations of the spread and persistence of violence in these cities depend on neighborhood-level mobilization alone. And it suggests that American urban riots were somewhat different from insurgency movements in other countries; they are more spontaneous and less organized than the campaigns of the aggrieved mentioned in prior postings (1848 Paris workers, Thai red shirts, student protests in France).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thailand's redshirts and civil unrest

photos: Battaya demonstration 4/11/09 (top 2); Bangkok 4/12/09 (bottom)

Thailand's civil unrest took a new turn Saturday (4/11/09) when "redshirt" demonstrators managed to push through security forces and invade the resort hotel where ministers of ASEAN were preparing to meet. These demonstrations were organized by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). The ASEAN meeting was scheduled in the Pattaya beach resort, roughly 90 miles from Bangkok. (Here are some very graphic photos of the hotel invasion published in a Thai news publication.) Demonstrators smashed doors and windows in the hotel, raced through the building, and found their way to rooms where several ministers were lunching. The ministers fled through the back of the hotel and were evacuated by helicopter and boat. Reports indicate that the early phase of the demonstrations in Pattaya was opposed by local people ("blueshirts"), who attempted to block the redshirt march to the resort; but they were quickly overwhelmed by a show of force by the redshirts (report). The Thai government immediately canceled the ASEAN meeting and evacuated the ministers from the country. Large demonstrations continue in Bangkok today by redshirt activists, and the situation is unfolding rapidly. (Here is a GoogleMaps image of the environs of the Royal Cliff Beach Resort (A) where the ASEAN meeting was to occur.)

Some commentators describe the basic struggle as one between former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's followers who want to see a major redistribution of power and resources in Thai society (redshirts; DAAD), against the forces of the status quo and the powerful and privileged, represented by current prime minister Abhisit (yellowshirts; PAD). (Others denounce Thaksin's motives as being corrupt and self-serving, more interested in power than social reform.) Redshirt support tends to draw from poor and unemployed Thais, largely rural, whereas the yellowshirt movement tends to reflect the powerful groups in Thai society, including the military and business elites. The redshirt demonstrators are supporters of Thaksin and are demanding the resignation of Abhisit. Thaksin was forced from office in a military coup in September 2006. Demonstrations by "yellowshirt" groups and the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) against the government by the People's Power Party allied with Thaksin in September and October 2008 led to the closure of Thailand's major airports and had a large economic impact on Thailand by its effects on tourism. Abhisit became prime minister in December 2008. Thaksin is playing a visible role in encouraging the current round of demonstrations against the government and is evidently positioning himself as the only person who can bring the redshirt movement off the streets. (Here is an article by Michael K. Connors that provides much of the recent background. Michael Connors' blog, Sovereign Myth, will be interesting to follow as well.)

In other words, Thailand has been undergoing a period of intense social unrest for several years, with major contentious organizations at work to further their programs and mobilize followers, and with occasional outbursts of major urban demonstrations and riots. And the relations among the most powerful groups in Thai society seem to be up for grabs: the military, the business elites, the middle class, the urban poor, and the rural poor. Each segment wants something; and increasingly it seems that their demands find expression in mass mobilizations in the streets of Bangkok.

These events are interesting from several points of view. One is the simple fact that a relatively small group of demonstrators was able to bypass Thailand's security forces in their security deployment for a major international summit. This seems roughly as shocking as if demonstrators had succeeded in penetrating the meeting rooms of the G20 in the Excel Centre in London. News reports suggest that the police and army units offered no resistance to the protesters in their assault on the resort hotel. This seems to imply that the government has uncertain control of the police and security forces -- an impression reinforced by demonstrations taking place today in Bangkok in which demonstrators have succeeded in seizing police vehicles and weapons.

It is also interesting to consider what must be occurring beneath the surface in order to support the mobilization and coordinated actions of large groups of redshirt demonstrators in Pattaya and Bangkok. What are the forms of organization, leadership, and communication that support this extensive level of mobilization? What kinds of networks have been established to permit quick and effective mobilization? How are radio and television, cell phones, text messages, and twitter feeds being used to rally supporters? Where does the money come from that both redshirts and yellowshirts have identified as being important inducements to participation by poor people? For that matter -- what sort of organization or mobilization took place in order to bring the blueshirts mentioned above into action in Pattaya? (A story in The Nation suggests that this may have been the result of efforts by a government agent.) In Bangkok "red" radio stations appear to be broadcasting calls to action by supporters of the DAAD. FM 92.75 and FM 107.5 are mentioned in a current story in The Nation.

As for leadership -- one leader of the redshirts in Pattaya is mentioned in several news reports, Arisman Pongruengrong. If you google his name today, you'll find he was arrested within the past twelve hours (post, post). Here's a photo of Arisman in Pattaya on Saturday:

Another dimension of interest is a "new media" point: it is possible to get a fair amount of real-time information about the demonstration and public attitudes by following relevant keywords on Twitter. If you search for #redshirt on Twitter, you'll get a steady stream of comments and events ( (There are other utilities that permit easy Twitter searches as well -- for example, tweetvisor.) And it seems possible to put together a spatial and temporal picture of the events based on references to specific streets and intersections. With enough patience it would be possible to annotate the Google map clipped above with specific events mentioned in the twitter feeds: taxis blocking this street, APC seized on that street, etc. Here's a start of a map of Bangkok indicating the locations of Government House and a major protest blockade on Din Daeng Road.

Contentious politics is an enormously interesting and productive component of contemporary social science. The evolving situation of contention in Thailand seems tailor-made for a detailed analysis by researchers within this tradition. I'd love to see a research paper that extends McAdam-Tarrow-Tilly's Dynamics of Contention by providing a detailed "tagging" of the development of these protests in terms of the chief social mechanisms of mobilization and contention that these authors highlight -- escalation, brokerage, identity shift, radicalization, convergence, and framing, for example. And unlike the unfolding of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1980s, Thailand's current contention can be investigated pretty deeply just using the tools available on the desktop: Google, Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, and access to virtually every newspaper worldwide.

MTT make an important point throughout their treatments of periods of contention: the deeply contingent nature of social contention. We can explain many of the component processes of an uprising. But we can't discover "laws" of uprisings that would permit confident predictions of outcomes. And this point about contingency seems especially compelling today: even knowing the basic intentions and resources available to the various parties in Thailand today, it is impossible to predict with confidence what the next few weeks will bring. Will the government decide to use the coercion option? Will this succeed -- will security forces obey orders to use force against civilians? Will the exercise of force provoke even more powerful expressions of unrest? And if the government decides to continue its current policy of restraint -- will the current redshirt movement simply gather more and more steam, will it take over important government buildings and television stations, will it be in a position to forcibly bring about a change of government and the return to power of Thaksin? Or will even more surprising turns of events emerge, outside this range of more-or-less foreseeable contingencies?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Darnton's history

Twenty-five years ago, Robert Darnton offered a highly original perspective on historical understanding in his The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), and the book still warrants close attention. He proposes to bring an ethnographic perspective to bear on historical research, attempting to arrive at nuanced interpretation of the mentalities and worldviews of ordinary folk in early modern France. (Significantly, Darnton collaborated with Clifford Geertz at Princeton, and the influences seem to have run in both directions.)

Darnton attempts to tease out some of the distinguishing elements of French rural and urban culture—through folklore, through documented collective behavior, or through obscure documents authored by police inspectors and bourgeois observers. He is “realist” about mentalités; and he recognizes as well the plasticity and variability of mentalités over time, space, and group. (“I do not believe there is such a thing as a typical peasant or a representative bourgeois” (Darnton 1984 : 6).) And he is more interested in the singular revealing incident than in the large structural narrative of change; he demonstrates that careful historical interpretation of a single puzzling event can result in greater illumination about a historical period than from more sweeping descriptions and narratives.

Darnton does not accept the notion that “good” social history must be quantitative or highly “objective”—that is, neutral with respect to perspective. Rather, he sees the task of a cultural social historian as one of uncovering the threads of voice and action that permit us to reconstruct some dimensions of “French peasant worldview” and to see how startlingly different that worldview is from the modern view. Our distance from the French peasant is great—conceptually as well as materially. So the challenges of uncovering these features of agency and mentality based on very limited historical data are great.

In the title essay of the volume Darnton goes into a single incident in detail: the autobiographical account of Nicolas Contat, a printer’s apprentice (later journeyman), in which Contat describes an episode of cat killing by the apprentices and journeymen in the shop. Darnton relates the incident to its cultural and social context—the symbolic role that cats had in festivals in the countryside, contemporary attitudes towards violence to animals, the sexual innuendo represented by killing the mistress’s cat, the changing material relations between master and worker in the 18th century trades. Darnton offers a “thick description” of this incident, allowing the reader to come to a relatively full interpretation of the significance of the various elements of the story. At the same time, he sheds light on the background mentalité and social practices of workers and masters. So the essay is a paradigm of interpretative cultural history. Darnton describes his work in these terms:
It might simply be called cultural history; for it treats our own civilization in the same way that anthropologists study alien cultures. It is history in the ethnographic grain. … This book investigates ways of thinking in eighteenth-century France. It attempts to show not merely what people thought but how they thought—how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion. (Darnton 1984 : 3)
Darnton implicitly considers whether this incident should be considered an instance of class resistance—that is, whether we can see the germs of class struggle in this complex moment. And his general perspective is that such a reading would be reductionist and anachronistic. There is resistance in this incident; there is sharp hostility between shop workers and the master and his family; but the resistance and the resentment are thematized around more specific grievances and patterns than the class struggle story would suggest. (It may be that we could better relate Darnton’s reading of the incident to Scott’s “everyday forms of peasant resistance,” emphasizing as it does the role of humor and undetectable violence; see an earlier post on this subject.) The workers’ conduct in this incident is not aimed at overthrowing the master, but at imposing an episode of pain and celebrating a moment of riot.

The notion of reading runs through all the chapters, for Darnton suggests that one can read a ritual or a city just as one can read a folktale or a philosophic text. "The modes of exegisis may vary, but in each case one reads for meaning—the meaning inscribed by contemporaries in whatever survives of their vision of the world" (Darnton 1984 : 5).

The analysis of folk tales is just as rewarding. Darnton offers a content analysis of the folk tales collected by several generations of folklorists. He disputes the psychological interpretations offered by Fromm, Bettelheim, and others—most convincingly on the grounds that they fail to pay close enough attention to the narrative content and known historical context of the stories. Instead, Darnton offers an interpretation of the world and worldview of the peasant storytellers who invented and repeated these tales: the omnipresence of hunger, the hazards of life on the road, the burden of children in poor households, … He shows that there is great consistency in the narratives of these stories over many generations—and also there are national differences across German, French, and English versions of the stories.

Darnton’s work in this book is valuable for the philosophy of history in several ways.
  • First, it exemplifies a different model of historical knowledge: not a series of events, not a cliometric analysis of society and class, but an interpretation of moments and mentalités in a fashion designed to shed light on the larger historical moment. It is an effort to make historical understanding “ethnographic.”
  • Second, it possesses its own form of rigor and objectivity. The facts matter to the interpretations that Darnton offers—the facts of the multiple versions of folk stories, the facts of what we know about the changing circumstances in the printing trades, the facts of peasant hunger at several periods in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Third, it has the potential for shedding deeper light on French popular action than we are likely to gain from a traditional “rational actor” or class-conflict approaches. The motives that Darnton discerns among the printers are sometimes goal-directed; but sometimes emotional, and sometimes related to the simple recklessness of young men in constraining circumstances.
Finally, Darnton's work here provides some specific insights into questions about the historical study of “mentalités” (post). Darnton shows that it is possible to make significant headway in the project of figuring out how distant and illiterate people thought about the world around them, the social relations in which they found themselves, the natural world, and much else. The documents available to us in the archives have a richness that speaks to these ways of thinking the world; it is therefore a valuable task for the historian to engage in piecing together the details of daily life and experience that the documents reveal and conceal.

(See an earlier post for a different aspect of Darnton's historiography -- an analysis of the reviews he has written over twenty-five years in the New York Review of Books.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

French sociology as a distinctive tradition

One might think that the globalization of intellectual life has led to the result of the "unification" of major scientific disciplines around one shared set of global assumptions about the discipline: what the major unsolved problems are, what the discipline should strive to achieve, what the products of knowledge ought to look like. From the outside, anyway, one imagines that there is just one "world physics," governed by roughly the same assumptions whether practiced in Berne, Chicago, London, Berlin, or Delhi. (I would find it very interesting to be corrected on this assumption, if any readers can support the idea that there are important differences in national traditions when it comes to high-energy physics or molecular biology.)

In the social sciences, though, this assumption of convergence and unification seems to be incorrect. Instead, it seems to be the case that there are durable national traditions in sociology, political science, and anthropology that are distinct in different national settings; and further, it seems that the fairly extensive amount of cross-fertilization that occurs through international conferences and publications hasn't in fact significantly undermined the durability of these distinct traditions.

A fairly obvious version of this observation arises when we contrast the ways that economic theory is pursued in the United States and India. American economists by and large take the methodological position of neoclassical assumptions about individual behavior, general equilibrium assumptions about systemic behavior, and the assumption of "mathematicization" as a model for how knowledge results ought to be formulated. (Examples might include Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu in the 1950s, and currently Greg Mankiw.) Indian economists, by contrast, seem as a group to be more interested in the human and social content of economic behavior and systems -- the effects that economic processes have on quality of life, the ways in which income and nutrition are related, and more generally, the social relations that correspond to the abstract equations of economic theory. (I'm thinking of scholars such as Partha Dasgupta (An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution) or Amartya Sen (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation) as exemplars of the latter perspective; here is Sen's biographical essay on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Prize.)

That's economics; similar observations might be made about political science and anthropology. Here I'd like to sketch out a fairly specific hypothesis: that French sociology forms a substantially distinct tradition of social thinking in the twentieth century, and that this tradition has remained largely intact in spite of the substantial amount of Franco-American interaction that has occurred in the social sciences and humanities. I don't mean to suggest that there are no important themes of convergence, shared issues, and some cross-fertilization between French and American sociology. But I am suggesting that French sociology has developed through French academic institutions and traditions since the 1920s; that departments and research institutes have maintained a degree of continuity in the topics and methods in use; and that these followed a path of development that was significantly different in timing, topics, and methods from the development of American sociology during the same time period. And in fact, when we look at some important recent works of French sociology, such as Didier Lapeyronnie's Ghetto urbain or Stephane Beaud's La France invisible, we get a distinct impression of researchers who have cultivated significantly different assumptions about the nature of sociology. Can we get more specific about this impression?

Making this sort of comparison requires that we compare the recent histories of the two traditions of sociological resesearch and theory. There are a couple of sources that provide some key signposts for the development of American sociology in the twentieth century. I particularly like two of Andrew Abbott's books: Chaos of Disciplines and Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred, a history of the Chicago school. (Martin Bulmer's The Chicago School of Sociology is another good source on the history of the Chicago school.) Another important and valuable contribution on the history of American sociology is Craig Calhoun's edited book, Sociology in America: A History. I think these books give a pretty good mid-level understanding of the intellectual and institutional steps through which American sociology developed over roughly a 75-year period.

For the French side, there are several recent books that can serve as a mid-level guide to the development of sociology as a social science in France. One is by Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont (Les courants contemporains de la sociologie [Contemporary Currents in Sociology]). The other is by Philippe Masson (Faire de la sociologie: Les grandes enquêtes françaises [Doing sociology: the great French investigations]). Both books appear to be written for a readership that doesn't exist in the United States: advanced undergraduates needing a theoretically sophisticated introduction and guide to the evolution of the discipline of French sociology. And for my eye, both books do an admirable job of presenting the relevant sociological ideas clearly, rigorously, and with nuance. Neither is a research monograph; but neither book descends into over-simplification. So they serve as a good basis for getting an understanding of the geography of the evolution of the intellectual frameworks of sociology in France over the past seventy years.

There are several interesting features of the narrative that the two books offer. Most basic is periodization: they both begin with the post-war period in French sociology. Histories of American sociology generally start with the Chicago school in the 1920s and make the intellectual connections backwards to Tönnies, Simmel, Durkheim, Darwin, and Comte. But these books treat contemporary French sociology as finding its origin in studies of French society following World War II. Béraud and Coulmont write, "In 1945, at the end of the second world war, French sociology no longer existed. It had lost its intellectual force and energy. And the social context didn't really prepare the ground for its revitalization. It was necessary first to reconstruct France from the destruction of war." Masson makes a similar point, writing that "sociology (with its departments, research laboratories, curricula, reviews, etc.) wasn't constituted until relatively recently, during the end of the 1950s and the decade following." And, Béraud and Coulmont suggest, the pre-war tradition of Durkheim's sociology had exhausted itself; so reviving sociological research was not simply a matter of dusting off the ideas and methods of Durkheim and his followers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The choice of 1945, then, is meaningful; the authors appear to suggest that French sociology took a genuinely new beginning after World War II. Béraud and Coulmont break the story up into several major intellectual periods and meta-themes in roughly chronological order:
  • "renewal of French sociology" (Marxism, labor sociology, American influence, empiricism, statistical methods); [Raymond Aron, Michel Crozier, George Gurvitch, and, transitionally, Pierre Bourdieu/Jean-Claude Passeron, Les Héritiers]
  • "Thinking inequalities" (inequality, opportunity, domination, masculinity, segregation) [Pierre Bourdieu, Raymond Boudon, Eric Maurin];
  • "Action and homo sociologicus" (habitus, strategy, situational sociology);[François Dubet, Pierre Bourdieu, Raymond Boudon, Bernard Lahire]
  • "History and sociology" (the role of comparative historical work in sociology); [Jean-Claude Passeron, Edgar Morin, Henri Mendras]
  • "Individual and modernity" (individualization and the definition of modernity) [Raymond Boudon, François Dubet, Eric Maurin]
Influences and concepts from American social science come into the account in a few places -- for example, in the discussion of rationality and collective action theory (free riders, methodological individualism) and in the discussion of the influence of Goffman's sociology of interaction. (The sociology of German-born, British-based sociologist Norbert Elias is also credited with being a substantial influence.) But most commonly, the discourses described here, the debates and controversies that are described, are largely self-contained within the precincts of French sociological research.

Philippe Masson offers a different basis for surveying pretty much the same series of developments within French sociology. He picks out a number of important topics and researchers for detailed treatment: Georges Gurvitch, Georges Friedmann, Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, Louis-Joseph Lebret, Alaine Touraine, Michel Crozier, Edgar Morin, Henri Mendras, Raymonde Moulin, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Passeron, Luc Boltanski, Pierre Bourdieu, François Dubet, Bruno Latour, Steve Wooglar, Jean Peneff. Topics he highlights include urban sociology, sociology of labor, the study of inequality, the study of the professions, the influence of "constructivism", the study of urban youth, and the sociology of science and technology. Masson notes the influence of American sociology at a number of points (82), including the influence of Talcott Parsons. And he also describes a significant French interest in the American Chicago school of sociology and the approaches of "ethnomethodology". Once again, though, at least in my reading, it seems to me that the narrative that Philippe Masson provides is one that captures a fairly autonomous national tradition of sociological thinking -- with occasional but limited influences from developments in sociology in the United States.

This is a start on the question at hand. Both these books seem to document what might be called in the sociology of science a largely independent research tradition constituting French sociology since World War II. (This impression of independence could probably be tested by a citation analysis.) This tradition defined its own problems for research; debated and pursued a variety of methods of investigation; and formulated some fairly specific ideas about what a finished sociological analysis ought to look like. And it seems to have resulted in a current sociological enterprise that differs in significant ways from current American or British sociology.

What is needed next is a good analytical account of how French sociology differs from American sociology in terms of (a) the topic areas that are identified as most important for investigation, (b) the methods that are regarded as most reliable and scientifically justified (statistical, qualitative, comparative, participant-observer, ...); and (c) the assumptions that exist about what form sociological knowledge should take (deductive theories, narratives of particular social processes, statistical tables, ...).

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Transnational protest movements

We've seen a fairly large increase in the occurrence of large international protest movements in the past thirty years. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s drew a substantial following across Europe and to some extent North America. (Historian E. P. Thompson played a significant leadership role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; see for example PROTEST AND SURVIVE.) Anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, and Davos drew substantial support from international organizations and participants. Major anti-war protests occurred in numerous European cities after the onset of the US-led war on Iraq. And now protests in London against the G20 meeting and in Strasbourg against NATO have drawn supporters and groups around Europe (post). (Here is a current account of the Strasbourg protests in the Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace.)

These movements are riveting in a number of ways, from the point of view of sociology and international politics. We can ask questions at every edge of the phenomena:

Power and influence. How effective are mass demonstrations at achieving their declared goals? Do mass demonstrations influence government and multinational policies in the direction intended by the organizers and followers? For that matter -- how much of an influence can a large demonstration in Rome have on a subsequent effort to mobilize over a similar issue in New York? What is the role of mass media in the timing, pace, and public impact of large demonstrations?

Mobilization. What processes of mobilization and organization are at work in these specific periods of mass mobilization? To what extent do modern transnational protests embody a significant degree of common purpose and political identity? (Here's a recent post on the difficulty of defining a group mentality.) What organizations have the most influence in determining the strategy and tactics of the mass political actions that are called for? What networks of leaders and counter-politicians can be discerned in the period of mobilization leading up to the mass event? What is the nature of the networks that exist within the various communities of interest -- environmentalists, anti-war activists, anti-globalization activists? What sorts of issues have proven most potent in mobilizing significant numbers of adherents and organizations from different countries? What motivates followers to heed the call and bring themselves to London or Strasbourg? What is the combination of commitment, identity, and adventure that results in involvement?

Internal politics. What factors internal to a movement -- whether environmentalist, anti-globalization, anti-war, anti-nuclear -- lead to cohesion and dissension within the movement? What factors lead to the occasional outbreaks of violence between protesters and police? (See an earlier post on this question.) Is violence a deliberate tactic on either side -- militants or forces of order? What role do organizations such as anarchist groups and other radical, rejectionist groups play within the broader movement? Is it possible for small groups of rejectionists to "hijack" the large demonstration for their own purposes?

These questions overlap several distinct areas of research: resource mobilization theory, social movements, international relations theory, and comparative politics. (This is a point that McAdam, Tilly, and Tarrow make in Dynamics of Contention: there is much to be gained by studying these contentious movements across the traditional areas of study.) And the questions are probably further complicated by the availability of internet-based forms of communication and mobilization.

Sidney Tarrow has turned his attention to international protest movements as a particularly interesting form of "contentious politics." His 2005 book, The New Transnational Activism, treats international protests and their movements from the point of view of the Tilly-McAdam-Tarrow framework of theory and analysis of contentious politics. Here are a few framing assumptions from the introduction:
Students of domestic movements long ago determined that collective action cannot be traced to grievances or social cleavages, even vast ones like those connected to globalization. Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware of and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets. If these thresholds constitute barriers in domestic politics, they are even higher when people mobilize across borders. Globalization is not sufficient to explain when people will engage in collective action and when they will not.

Nor does combating globalization automatically give rise to "global social movements." For Charles Tilly, a "social movement" is "a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities" that uses a well-hewn contentious repertoire on the part of people who proclaim themselves to be worthy, unified, numerous, and committed.

For one thing, forming transnational social movements is not easy. Sustaining collective action across borders on the part of people who seldom see one another and who lack embedded relations of trust is difficult. For another, repertoires of contention grow out of and are lodged in local and national contexts. Even more difficult is developing a common collective identity among people from different cultural backgrounds whose governments are not inclined to encourage them to do so.
Tarrow's central hypothesis about transnational protest movements comes back to the core idea of "opportunity structures." International organizations and networks have created a new set of opportunities for transgressive groups who have an interest in challenging the status quo.

Tarrow identifies several important types of sources of evidence and theory for his current work: international political economy, anthropologists and students of public opinion, specific studies of international protest events, studies of transnational networks and institutions, and theorists of the idea of "global civil society." He explicitly locates the book as falling squarely within the research program established in Dynamics of Contention; his goal is to make use of this ontology of social mechanisms and processes to provide a sociology of transnational protest.

What I'm eager to see is some of the concrete empirical work that this approach suggests: specific empirical studies of the networks, organizations, and dynamic processes through which major transnational protests have unfolded in the past decade or so. It would seem that some important new tools helpful for such study are now much more readily available -- essentially, using the internet to track organizations, announcements, and efforts at mobilization. Tarrow provides some of this research -- for example, in his summary of research on the networks and localism of participants in the "Battle of Seattle". But this level of analysis seems to be where the action needs to be at this point in the study of transnational social movements. But Tarrow is certainly right in thinking that this subject area is important, and it is one that follows very logically from the framework of analysis of social contention developed by himself, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly in the earlier Dynamics of Contention.