Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pragmatic inquiry

Intellectuals are sometimes accused of being out of touch with the real world. But there is a strong thread of intellectual life that proceeds on the basis of a commitment to linking thought to action, theory to practical outcomes. Karl Marx and John Dewey had at least this in common: they both urged intellectuals to commit themselves to joining the intellectual realm with the solution of humanity's challenges. This isn't a universal view; pure physicists and mathematicians, many philosophers, and many theorists of the arts would adamantly defend the pure search for truth and creativity, no matter what connection these may have to the improvement of humanity. But at least some thinkers and researchers see the purpose of their work as bringing the leverage of science and the mind into engagement with practical human problems. We might refer to this as a "pragmatic" perspective on inquiry.

What is involved in pursuing a life of inquiry within a pragmatic perspective? Most basically, it is the idea that inquiry can make a practical difference in the world. According to a pragmatic perspective, science is not a free-standing system for its own sake; rather, science serves humanity. There should be consequences that flow from research and inquiry that somehow or other lead to resolution of problems that we care about. This suggests a loose priority for "problem-directed research" over "curiosity-driven research." And a pragmatic orientation implies that the researcher should design his/her research activities in an intelligent portfolio around a significant set of pressing human problems.

A second implication of "pragmatism" in research comes down to expectations about methodology and epistemology. A pragmatic conception of research defines the epistemic values of research results "practically." A theory or set of measurements should be "good enough" for the needs of the problem, rather than aspiring to an abstract notion of perfect precision. The standards of precision and veridicality are set by the needs of the problem to be solved, rather than existing as free-standing requirements of ever-greater precision. (Sometimes, of course, greater precision is of great practical importance.)

But there is a little bit of a paradox underlying these comments. We don't generally know what kind of theoretical advance will be needed or constructive in application to a particular problem. Solving problems requires valid understandings of the mechanisms that give rise to these problems; but discovery of underlying mechanisms may proceed best from apparently unrelated theoretical research. So this seems to imply that the research community as a whole will be most pragmatically successful, if there is some division of labor within the community between "curiosity-driven researchers" and "problem-solver researchers." (This seems to correspond roughly to the distinction between pure research and applied research.)

There is of course an important current of American philosophy that is labeled "American pragmatism." (See Christopher Hookway's excellent essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Israel Scheffler, Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Pierce, James, Mead and Dewey.) How do the central ideas and exponents of this school -- Peirce, James, Dewey, perhaps eventually Goodman, Quine, and Rorty -- relate to the discussion to this point? William James puts the point of pragmatism in terms of a theory of semantics (link): we can explore the meaning of concepts in terms of the practical difference one interpretation or the other makes in the realm of ordinary experience. John Dewey emphasizes the practical connections that exist between knowing and living (Experience and Nature). Neither of these ideas exactly captures the sense of "pragmatic" that is at work here, though; the idea that there is a human point to inquiry, and that the investigator needs to pay attention to both ends of the "theory/world" dichotomy.

It is also interesting to realize that there is a parallel theme in Marx's thought. Marx's insistence on the unity of theory and practice falls in this general area, as does his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have sought only to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it" (link). Marx didn't diminish the importance or value of theoretical research; but he insisted on the importance of keeping in mind the relationship between theory and practice, between knowledge and social improvement.

The Chicago school of sociology provides a good illustration of a pragmatic approach to social research. (See Martin Bulmer, The Chicago School of Sociology.) The Chicago sociologists regularly went back and forth between assessment of the current material and social problems that the city of Chicago was experiencing, and formulation of theories and analytical constructs that might assist in better understanding and addressing these problems. (It is interesting that John Dewey was an important early influence on the formation of the Chicago school.)

So there is a coherent position to take concerning the relationship between intellectual inquiry and practical outcomes. We might say that one of the responsibilities of intellectuals is to assure that their work ultimately has value, and an important manifestation of value is "contribution to the solution of practical human problems." However, it is also true that there are other ways in which intellectual work can have value; so the pragmatic approach cannot be considered to be an exclusive one. Moreover, the point made above, that pure imaginative and theoretical investigation can often have great practical value assures that there is a continuing point to pure research as well. Proof of the Gödel incompleteness theorem didn't have direct practical consequences for computing, so far as I know; and yet it is unmistakeably a valuable result of human reasoning, and one that sheds strikingly new light on the nature of mathematical truth.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Microstructure of strife

Let's work backwards in thinking about sustained inter-group violence, and begin by considering some of the street-level incidents that constitute a period of violence against or between groups. What factors are necessary to the occurrence of inter-group violence in a region? And how can an understanding of these factors contribute to better strategies of conflict reduction and prevention?

I'm thinking here particularly of ethnic and sectarian violence, including examples like these -- periods of violence in Northern Ireland, upsurges of the Intifada, stone-throwing against vehicles of another group, violent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, violent settler resistance to resettlement in Israel, ultra-orthodox attacks on more secular Jews in Jerusalem, or Hindu violence against Muslim communities in India. A group of teenagers throw rocks at visible members of another religious group. A cell of young men place a fire bomb in a department store in a Protestant area. A mob rages through a Muslim neighborhood, attacking innocent households. A gang of toughs pressures a minority family to move from the majority neighborhood with threats and beatings. What motivates the participants to involve themselves in these violent actions? And what social factors are necessary in order to turn a few violent individuals into a major violent inter-group event?

Quite a few earlier postings are relevant to various aspects of these questions (thread). And, as has been frequently mentioned here, Charles Tilly's theories of contentious politics are crucial here (Dynamics of Contention, Contentious Performances). Here my interest is in line with the idea of promoting peace: if we understand the dynamics of contention better, perhaps we can do a better job of designing institutions and policies that minimize the occurrence of inter-group strife.

We can begin to analyze these examples by providing some analytical questions: what are the contentious social groups?Are acts of violence spontaneous or orchestrated? Are there contentious organizations providing a degree of stimulus and coordination to the violent acts? Are participants "professionals" or ordinary members of civil society? What is the nature of the grievances that motivate typical participants and stimulate the incidents of violence? What role do media play in the etiology of the outburst of violence? (For example, it is now well understood how radio broadcasts were used to spread ethnic killings in Rwanda.)

Studies of contentious politics can perhaps be summarized along the lines of a small handful of causal components:
  • motivation and mobilization of followers;
  • actions and reach of organizations;
  • availability of resources and opportunities; and
  • existence of social networks.
Who are the followers and what motivates them? What are the organizations that are working towards mobilization for acts of violence? What are the motivations and tactics of leaders of these actions? The role of political entrepreneurs and their private political interests appear to be important factors in the occurrence of ethnic and religious strife. (Atul Kohli offers this kind of analysis of Hindu violence against Muslims in India in Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability.) And finally, what networks of communication and mutual support exist among individuals, leaders, and organizations? (Mario Diani and Doug McAdam have a very interesting recent collection on the latter factor; Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

This broad analysis of the components of contention is useful for peace studies because it suggests a number of avenues of strategy and tactics for reducing inter-group violence. Violence requires followers; so reducing the motivations and grievances that ordinary people have to join a violent social group is obviously a positive step. (This pertains to the line of thought expressed in an earlier posting about the relationship between justice and peace.) Violent movements usually require organizations to coordinate and stimulate attacks; so governments and security services can work to disrupt or contain violent organizations. (The multi-decade struggle in the United States against the Ku Klux Klan is an example.) And, symmetrically, people interested in peace can support organizations in the same terrain that reject violence -- thus reducing the appeal of violent organizations. Once the centrality of social networks is recognized in the mechanisms of stimulating, spreading, and escalating violence, security agencies can themselves undertake to map out the networks of violence that exist and disrupt them. And the crucial role that resources play in violent mobilization -- access to funds, weapons, or media, for example -- suggests a strategy of resource denial to the forces of order. The state and other agencies can work to reduce the availability of necessary resources to violent organizations.

It seems apparent that if we are to succeed in reducing social conflict and violence, we need to have a good understanding of the social mechanisms through which these conditions arise. And fortunately, there is a very rich literature on social contention that can be incorporated into the study of the structural conditions of peace.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Conflict as an empirical-practical study

Conflict and peace studies have been a part of academic research since at least the 1970s. Many universities have created major research centers devoted to the study of the causes of conflict and possible pathways of conflict resolution. In some cases the focus of study is on particular zones of inter- and intra-state conflict: recurring civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East; Northern Ireland; Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia; or US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War. And in other cases the focus is less regionally specific and more concerned about identifying root causes and remedies for social conflict.

Causes of large social conflict are widely varied: for example, disagreements about access to resources, including water; disagreements about the use of religious sites; direct military competition to secure hegemony in various regions; disagreements about physical borders between states; and the list can be extended. We can also speculate that there is a "social psychology" associated with conflict -- both as a cause and as an effect. Social conditions that create fear, uncertainty, or suspicion of other social groups are surely relevant to the occurrence and duration of social conflict. In turn, an extended period of conflict and violence among groups within a population further undermines the potential basis for future trust and cooperation among members of these groups. And we can likewise explore the dynamics of the processes of political entrepreneurship through which some leaders seek to mobilize support around divisive identities and issues.

It is apparent that the study of conflict inherently requires an interdisciplinary approach. It has sometimes seemed to tilt towards international relations theory, with its calculus of political interest and rational strategy. But the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, social psychologists, political scientists, and area specialists are all relevant to the key problems: arriving at applicable (and testable) theories of the causes of conflict in a variety of circumstances, and arriving at strategies for reducing the sources of conflict and defining pathways from "conflictual" to "non-conflictual". We need to have fairly concrete sociological and ethnographic understanding of the structures and mentalities that are associated with extended periods of social conflict, if we are to understand the mechanisms that create, sustain, or inhibit these conflicts.

Resolution of inter-state conflict (warfare) seems to be a special case, and in many ways an easier case, than resolution of intra-state or intra-regional conflict. Answering the question, "Why do inter-state wars occur?" is likely to be quite different from answering the question, "Why does inter-group violence occur along ethnic or religious lines?" Finding ways of establishing enduring co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in India; finding ways of stabilizing relations between Protestant and Catholic communities and populations in Northern Ireland; resolving the causes of ethnic conflict and violence in Kenya or Rwanda; or creating a basis for peaceful co-habitation among Palestinian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem -- each of these challenges seems different and more difficult than solving the Cold War or managing inter-state nuclear competition.

What are the sources of this additional level of difficulty? There seem to be several reasons for this greater intractability. First is the fact that these conflicts involve mass populations that are only subject to minimal degrees of organizational or state control. So it is often difficult to resolve these sorts of conflicts through negotiations among a few powerful parties; instead, alleviating the causes of conflict needs to be pursued on a more disaggregated level. Second, the dialectic of action and reaction, affront and retaliation, seems to take on a life of its own that makes inter-group conflict and violence very difficult to damp down. One incident leads to several, with a spreading radius of conflict.

So are there some basic hypotheses about reducing conflict that might be applied to a situation of conflict within a population in a specific region -- whether among religious groups, ethnic identities, or other grounds of division? Here are a couple of thoughts.
  • First, remove the material causes of inter-personal and inter-group conflict -- unfair rules, practices of discrimination, limited access to resources such as schools or clean water, or barriers on mobility.
  • Second, find ways of addressing past hatreds in the current generation. Somehow work towards establishing an openness to sharing of the region peacefully that doesn't currently exist.
  • Third, work vigorously to establish new pathways of opportunity for disadvantaged populations: schools, health, property ownership.
  • Fourth, undertake a serious and goal-directed program of legislation and policy to correct past injustices.
  • Fifth, pay close attention to the details of the issues that divide groups -- geography, claims on property, grievances about unequal opportunities -- and be prepared to address them in detail.
  • Sixth, encourage the formation of organizations in civil society that see both sides, and that will work towards reducing objective and subjective causes of hatred and conflict.
These recommendations seem to amount to one basic point, almost Biblical in its simplicity: peace requires justice. So if we want to establish a peaceful regional or global society, we need to work very consistently and patiently towards establishing the conditions of just and equitable life circumstances for all people affected. Put the point the other way around, and you have a general hypothesis about the causes of conflict: pervasive, sustained injustice breeds violence and conflict.

But here is the hard question: is there any evidence that measures like these will work? Can a population get past its old sources of bitterness and hatred? Are there practical strategies that India, Ireland, or Israel can pursue that will methodically reduce the volatility of intra-population conflict? What kinds of empirical studies are available to help evaluate the efficacy of these various measures? Are there studies within social psychology on religious, racial, or identity politics that shed light on conflict and its resolution? These are the kinds of questions that we most need the disciplines of peace and conflict studies to address.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Israel's complexity

A first visit to Israel has been a fascinating experience in trying to begin to understand a different society.

I've met with university administrators and professors; reporters and media people; young people with a passion for social justice in Israel; a senior official in the foreign ministry; and a senior leader in an Israeli NGO devoted to securing greater social equity in East Jerusalem. I've met Israelis of many backgrounds: people with seven generations of family in Israel and Palestine, third-generation Kurdish Jews, recent Ethiopian and Sudanese immigrants, American and Canadian immigrants from the 1970s and 1980s, recent European business immigrants -- even a French producer of Yiddish art performances in Ein Karem.

I've seen high-tech zones in Herzliya, slums in Tel Aviv, stunning new luxury apartment complexes in central Jerusalem, and the dense and squalid reality of East Jerusalem. I've seen the wall -- the security fence -- and have witnessed how it bisects neighborhoods in a tightly packed urban core. I've seen children in East Jerusalem who plainly have very limited futures -- and I've seen new settlement apartment complexes in East Jerusalem, apparently sited precisely in order to make it virtually impossible to divide Jerusalem along the lines of the Clinton plan.

I've talked with university secretaries in Haifa who nonchalantly mentioned racing down the stairs six times a day to take cover from rockets -- with only 60 seconds of warning. I've seen the student cafeteria at Hebrew University that was blown apart by a bomb in 2002, and the touching memorial to the students who lost their lives there. And I've seen a major hospital in Jerusalem with a trauma center encapsulated in bomb-blast concrete and ventilation adequate to fend off chemical weapons. I've talked with Israeli citizens who are very committed to making progress on peace and justice for Palestinians, and who are equally passionate in supporting Israel's obligation to secure its citizens against violent attack. I've visited an appealing restaurant on the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv -- only to find that it's been closed for several years following a string of deadly suicide bombings there. And, of course, I've seen armed security guards in every cafe, restaurant, and hotel, trying to assure the safety of the guests.

There are quite a few social types I haven't been exposed to in more than a passing way in this brief visit: Bedouins, Russian political bosses, human traffickers preying on girls from Eastern Europe, and settler organization activists, for example. So there is a lot of Israel's current sociology that I haven't gotten an exposure to yet. But it is clear that there are deep social problems just under the surface -- in Israel's cities no less than other cities in the world. There are many examples -- corruption, organized criminal activity, misuse of urban land use procedures, persistent inequalities of opportunity for some Israelis.

Israel has achieved many enormous successes since its founding sixty-some years ago. It has created a robust democracy -- though one in which the Palestinians of East Jerusalem do not yet choose to participate. It has created and nurtured great universities -- the Technion, Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute, to name just three. And it has committed in formal and informal ways to making a university education accessible to all Israelis. It has somehow nurtured an ethic of service and engagement in community among many young people -- the School of Social Work at Hebrew University, for example, is a lively place for community-based activism by students and community members. And it has embodied an entrepreneurial spirit in the high-tech world that has lent great impetus to economic growth. So these are great achievements.

But it is hard to see how Israel's future can be as bright as it could be unless the Palestinian conflict is resolved. A continuing status quo seems entirely unsustainable. The conflict needs to be resolved in ways that establish a fair foundation of life for all the communities and people of the region. And it needs to be resolved in a way that fundamentally respects Israel's rights of security for its citizens and institutions. Surely basic social justice is an irreplaceable prerequisite of a harmonious social order; likewise, the acceptance of nonviolence by all members of society is fundamental to a sustainable society.

There isn't much that one can learn in a fundamental way in just a brief exposure to a complex country. But here's a preliminary thought: Israel's course is being set today by a very wide range of actors: the Knesset and prime minister, city authorities, settler organizations, business investors, educators, NGOs, orthodox activists, and ordinary Israeli citizens. And where the policies will come out is deeply unpredictable. Will Israel succeed in solving the problem of a just solution for the people of greater Jerusalem? Will it succeed in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians that lays the basis for harmonious shared regional life? Or will disruptive actors on both sides continue to make enduring compromise impossible? The sad reality, from many other historical examples, is that passionate minorities and self-interested private interests may well prevail in creating structures that make lasting peace and justice impossible, for their own self-interested reasons. And that would be a tragedy, for all the people of the region.

Friday, May 22, 2009

China's agricultural history

Consider the discipline of the agricultural history of China. The following represent a sampling of research problems concerning the social and economic history of rural China in recent research:
  • What were the patterns of population growth, growth of cultivated land, and growth of net output, in traditional China? (Perkins 1973)
  • What was the distribution of land tenure arrangements in north China? (Arrigo 1986)
  • What was the structure of rural marketing hierarchies? (Skinner 1964, 1965)
  • What was the urbanization rate in 1893? (Skinner 1977)
These are all factual questions about features of economy and social institutions. The findings on these topics are, of course, fallible and revisable.

A core study in Chinese economic history is Dwight Perkins' Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968 (1973). This study plays the role in China studies that Deane and Cole (British Economic Growth 1688-1959) plays in English studies. Perkins attempts to provide estimates of population growth, cultivated land, and grain output for a period from the late fourteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Perkins' central thesis is that China's population increased five- or six-fold between the late fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that the agricultural system was able to keep pace with this increase in equal measure by expanding cultivated acreage and by raising the yield per acre (1973:13).

So what kinds of historical and empirical data provide a basis for these sorts of estimates?

For the pre-twentieth century period, Perkins' findings are largely based on primary research: Ming-Ch'ing tax records on population and cultivated acreage, local gazetteers, agricultural handbooks published over past centuries, memorials by local officials to the Emperor, and so forth. He also refers to a large volume of Chinese and Japanese research on the agrarian history of China. The local gazettes provide a great deal of information about the timing and location of markets; commodity prices; land tenure arrangements; and the activities of local elites.

For the twentieth century there are a different set of sources available: rural studies by American or European investigators (Buck, Tawney, and Gamble); data collected by the China Maritime Customs bureau; provincial gazetteers compiled by the Ministry of Industries; and a series of village studies of North China undertaken by the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company. The earliest twentieth-century studies of the Chinese rural economy in English include Tawney (1932), Buck (1930, 1937), and Gamble (1963). Tawney and Buck provide statistical data describing the state of the Chinese rural economy in the early twentieth century. An important source in current economic research on the early twentieth century is the Mantetsu surveys. These were Japanese field studies conducted by the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company during 1935-42, and provide extensive detail concerning the structure and organization of the rural economy in selected parts of North China.

In addition to these source materials, there are a number of core studies that have appeared since 1950 that function in much the way that was seen in English economic history. They represent a synthesis of primary data available at the time of publication which later researchers are authorized to draw upon in support of other claims. In addition to Perkins, these include Gamble (1968), Myers (1970), Rawski (1972), Skinner (1964, 1965), and Huang (1984). There is also an extensive literature in Japanese on Chinese economic history.

Current economic history of China depends on previously underutilized sources--local archives, government records, Japanese studies, and the like. Thus Huang (1984) makes extensive use of the Mantetsu surveys, Board of Punishment reports (1984:47), and county archives (the Baxian archives; 1984:51). William Rowe's study of the economic and social history of the city of Hankow is even more closely dependent on primary sources: county gazettes, records of English companies (e.g., Jardine's), and local and provincial government records. This feature may reflect the differences between stages of development of the two disciplines; in the China case there are still extensive primary sources that have not been investigated, and there are correspondingly large and important questions about Ming and Ch'ing economic history which have not been addressed, let alone resolved, in the existing literature.

Perkins pays careful attention to the problem of validating the key estimates of economic activity upon which his analysis depends, and he refers to some of the ways in which he attempts to check the validity of these sources:
I have, in fact, frequently judged the validity of data for the decades and centuries prior to the 1950's on whether these earlier figures were consistent with those for 1957 and with historical developments in the intervening periods. (Perkins 1969:10)
Perkins gives a consistency test for his estimates of population and acreage:
If the pre-modern estimates of provincial population and acreage had been arrived at by arbitrary methods, one would expect yield data derived from such figures to rise in certain periods and fall in others with no apparent pattern. . . . But most of the estimates in Table II.3 for 1850 bear a close relation to the 1957 figures. (1969:20)
Perkins' research predates the current debate about "involution" in the field of Chinese economic history; but his estimates (and those of Bozhong Li) set the parameters for much of that debate. (See "The Involution Debate" for more on this recent controversy.)


Arrigo, Linda Gail. 1986. Landownership Concentration in China: The Buck Survey Revisited. Modern China 12 (3):259-360.
Buck, John Lossing. 1930. Chinese farm economy. Chicago, Ill.,: The University of Chicago press.
———. 1937. Land Utilization in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fogel, Joshua. 1987. Liberals and Collaborators: The Research Department of the South Manchurian Railway Company. Association for Asian Studies.
Gamble, Sidney D. 1968. Ting Hsien; a north China rural community. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Huang, Philip C. C. 1985. The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Huang, Philip C. 1990. The peasant family and rural development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Li, Bozhong. 1998. Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Myers, Ramon H. 1970. The Chinese Peasant Economy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. 1972. Agricultural Change and the Peasant Economy of South China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rowe, William T. 1984. Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City 1796-1889 Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Skinner, G. William. 1964-65. Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China. Journal of Asian Studies 24 (1-3).
Skinner, G. William. 1977. Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China. In The City in Late Imperial China, edited by G. W. Skinner.
Tawney, R. H. 1966 [1932]. Land and Labor in China. Boston: Beacon.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Generalizations in history

Historical generalizations are often suspect: "The Renaissance encouraged innovative thinking," "The Qing state stifled independent commercial activity," "The open frontier created a distinctively American popular culture." The problem with statements like these is their sweep; among other things, they imply that the Renaissance, the Qing state, or American culture were essentially uniform social realities, and they erase the forms of variation that certainly existed -- and that often constitute the most interesting of historical discoveries.

So grand generalizations in history are problematic. But then we have to ask a different sort of question. Specifically -- what kinds of generalizations are possible in history? If we can't answer this question constructively, then historical research loses much of its interest and purpose. If historical knowledge were limited to statements about specific actors in concrete local circumstances, it would have roughly the interest of a police report. Rather, the historian needs to aggregate his/her understanding of the available evidence into statements about larger agglomerations: villages, towns, and cities; crowds, classes, and professions; assemblies, riots, and movements. Moreover, we would like to be able to make something larger of the historian's findings -- something that sheds light on broader social realities and trends. And each of these requires generalization: statements that extend beyond the particular instances that are presented by the historical record.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's micro-history of the tiny village of Montaillou (Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324) is worth considering in this context. His opening lines raise the question of generalization:
Whoever wishes to know the peasant of the old or very old regimes, does not aim at grand syntheses -- regional, national, or continental: I think of the work of Goubert, Poitrineau, Fourquin, Fossier, Duby, Bloch ... What is always missing is the direct aspect: the witnessing, without intermediary, how the peasant presents himself.
Le Roy Ladurie gives a treatment of the history of a very specific, small place -- a specific group of village actors in a short time period. Their stories are told through the records of Inquisition investigations. So you might say -- it's all very particular knowledge about this specific time and place. But if so, what makes it historically meaningful or valuable? How does it extend our historical knowledge and imagination? Why does it have greater historical significance than an ethnographic study of the graduates of a particular high school in rural Illinois in 1967, for example? We could imagine the latter study making for interesting reading -- the valedictorian ended up as a small-town insurance agent, the class clown became a well-known agricultural expert at the university, 60% of the graduates still lived within 20 miles of their high school location in 40 years. But would this latter study constitute a significant piece of "American social history"? And what more would we ask of the author of this study, in terms of relating his/her findings to larger historical settings and contexts, before we would call it a contribution to social history?

There appear to be several different ways in which a concrete micro-study can achieve the broader significance that it needs to qualify as a genuine contribution to historical understanding.

One possibility is that the micro-study is somehow "representative" of larger social realities at the time. One might read Montaillou as being representative of many other remote places in fourteenth-century France -- so the description of this place might serve to generalize to other parts of France. And what does this mean? It means, presumably, that the historian arrives at true statements about Montaillou that are also true of other villages at other times. (Though the author's cautions against "grand synthesis" seem to count against this use of his findings.)

Another possibility is diachronic generalization: the historian may have identified, under the "microscope" of detailed study of these decades in Montaillou, the crossing and emergence of historical patterns and changes that themselves have broader significance over time. The mental significance of Catholicism for rural people, for example, may have been undergoing change over a period of centuries; we might take the Montaillou snapshot as one instant in time of the larger historical trend. (Our historian of the small town high school class imagined above, for example, might relate her findings to changing attitudes towards universities or the government in small-town America.)

A third possibility is at the level of concepts of behavior and agency. The historian may grapple for ways of extending his/her vocabulary of action and thought for actors in the past; the micro-study may suggest a new set of categories in terms of which to understand the forms of action and thought that were possible for fourteenth-century common rural people. It is certainly an important question for the historian, to ask "why do people act as they do?" in specific historical settings -- the outposts of the Roman empire, village India, or sixteenth-century London; and the micro-study may serve to broaden the range of answers we have for this fundamental question. This intellectual task is not one of "generalization", but rather one of "speciation" -- specification of the broad range of variation that is possible within historical reality.

This may all come down to a truism: there is an irresolvable tension for historians between "specification of the local" and "generalization over trends". Too much generalization, and you lose the point of historical research -- you lose the tangible granularity of real people and social settings in history, and the surprising singularities that historians like Le Roy Ladurie or Robert Darnton are able to put in front of us. Too little generalization, however, and the research becomes pointless -- just a specification of a collection of actions and outcomes for which the existing historical record happens to provide some information. We want both from good historical writing: an adequate attention to specificity and some degree of projectability and insight into broader questions.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Longue durée

Image: Making dikes on the Yellow River

Many historical changes take place on a human scale -- the Great Depression came and went within the lived experience of many millions of people, and they were able to tell comprehensible narratives of the beginning, middle, and end. Likewise with periods of political transition and upheaval -- the Vietnam war protests, the Reagan revolution, the Cold War. So these events can be scaled within the historical sensibilities of individuals who experienced them. But what about changes that are so extended and so gradual that they are all but imperceptible? How is history of the longue durée to be understood? (This posting picks up the thread from an earlier post on "historical tempo".)

The sorts of changes I have in mind here run along these lines: a long, slow increase of population density relative to available resources; a gradual shift in the gender ratio or age structure of a population; the gradual silting of a river system and estuary; a slow erosion of a traditional system of values; and an extended process of increasing or decreasing tolerance between intermixed religious groups. In each case it is possible for the changes to be slow enough to defy recognition by historical participants; and yet each of these slow processes may have very important historical consequences.

Paul Pierson addresses many of the issues raised by slow pace of historical processes in Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. But in a somewhat different theoretical setting the topic was also of particular interest to some of the historians of the Annales school -- Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in particular. We might say that these are examples of historical processes working "behind the backs" of the participants.

The question here is a simple one: what are the methods of observation and inference through which historians can identify and investigate these sorts of long, slow processes? And what is the standing of such processes insofar as they stand outside the scope of events of ordinary historical experience? Given that participants have no basis for identifying the long, slow processes within which they swim, what is the status of the historian's hypotheses about such processes?

As for the question of how historians can identify these kinds of century-long processes: this task is really no more challenging than the problem of arriving at hypotheses about unseen processes in other areas of science. It takes ingenuity and imagination to hypothesize how a gradual increase in local violence might relate to slow demographic trends; but once the historical demographer turns her eye in this direction, it is no great leap to hypothesize that a rising male-to-female ratio may be a part of the cause (as Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer argue in Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population). What is necessary, though, is a fairly rigorous ability to measure variables of interest at different points in time and to discover trends among these observations. In other words, the turn to cliometrics -- quantitative observation of historical trends -- is more or less essential to the history of the longue durée. And it is not too surprising that the Annales historians were deeply interested in demographic history, price series, and historical measurements of economic activity.

So this answers part of the question: a history of long processes requires careful observations of quantities over time, and it requires the formulation of causal hypotheses about how these trends influence other historical circumstances of interest. Jack Goldstone's efforts to link the occurrence of revolution to slow demographic processes falls in this category (Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World). And Mark Elvin's treatment of the centuries-long struggle between officials and rivers in China to gain control of flooding and silting illustrates the historian's ability to take the long perspective (The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China; see this posting on Elvin's work).

And what about the other question -- the status of historical conceptions of these long, slow processes? They are not abstractions from the historical self-understandings of participants. By hypothesis, participants cannot perceive these sorts of processes. Instead, they constitute a more hypothetical historical structure that may nonetheless play a future role in the narratives participants tell about themselves. A slow process of climate change may be imperceptible at a given point in time. But once it is identified and articulated by the analytical historian the construct may come into popular consciousness; what was previously invisible may become part of the furniture of the popular narrative.

So if we conceptualized historical episodes along the lines of life events, then the longue durée would be forever outside of history. If, on the other hand, we include in our definition of history all the structures and trends that can be identified by analytical history, then the history of the longue durée is entirely comprehensible. Moreover, it is apparent that ordinary historical apperception can itself incorporate the theories of historians. And in this sense, the longue durée can enter back into ordinary historical experience.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Engaged youth

A while ago I posted on the subject of "disaffected youth". I don't have a basis for estimating the percentage of the youth population that falls in this category, but surely it's a fairly small number in most places. Here I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum -- the relatively small but meaningful percentage of young people who have a significant level of "civic engagement" in their blood.

You can identify some of these young people in almost every city and suburb in America. They are the high school and college students who feel passionately about community service, civic engagement, and "giving back". They are involved in activities like alternative spring break, Habitat for Humanity, and the United Way. They are involved in community service in a major way -- through mosques, temples, and churches, through social justice organizations such as Amnesty International, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Oxfam, and through organized community service programs at universities and high schools. And they are to be found in a big way in nationally organized programs for community service like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and CityYear.

I've met quite a few of these engaged young people over the past ten years, and they are truly inspiring. They are idealistic in a thoroughly practical way. They see the impact they can have through service, and they understand the importance of designing and implementing service programs in the most practical way possible. They care about the individual people they help -- children, elderly, impaired, impoverished -- in very specific human terms. They understand the value of working together in collaboration and teamwork to accomplish great things, and they understand deeply the values and rewards of racial and religious diversity. Finally, they have very little of the crass materialism of "youth America" as it was portrayed on Beverly Hills, 90210 or other examples of this genre. So this group of young people gives a truly optimistic perspective on our society for the future.

I don't take these points to lead to a generalization about American youth as a group. In fact, what is striking is exactly how atypical these young people seem to be relative to the population as a whole -- and how similar and compatible they are with each other. But it remains the case -- whether 5% or 25%, there is a meaningful minority of today's generation of young people who give a remarkable level of commitment to social engagement.

My question here concerns the social psychology of this group. This is a question about the circumstances of social development that are in place today: where do these young people and their values come from? How has this wonderful mix of optimism, service, and respect for racial differences come about? And how can it be furthered?

One thing is immediately clear: it seems to be unrelated to affluence, race, or neighborhood. A cross-section of the CityYear corps is instructive: young people with very similar social values are showing up from middle-class suburbs, impoverished inner cities, and towns that are neither urban nor suburban. And it is easy to find white kids, rich and poor, brown kids, African-American kids, and Asian-American kids -- all coming together into a corps of 60-150 young people in a given city. None of these groups seems either more or less concerned about social justice, none seems more readily open to learning from peers from other races, and none seems socially and culturally more ready for a serious commitment to engagement and service. In other words, class, race, and income don't seem to be critical in defining today's youth social engagement.

A couple of factors are probably highly relevant to the degree of engagement and civic values that is displayed by young people involved in AmeriCorps and CityYear.

First, there have to be strands of American culture that are creating a "pulse" of concern about social justice and individual involvement in community among young people. This set of dispositions can't be a totally random result. Whether it's a generation of young people acculturated by Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, or by the broadening circle of awareness of the injustice of racism and poverty, or a "bounce" from the social activism of the sixties generation -- there must be some cultural currents that are making many of today's young people more ready for social involvement and more concerned about social justice. Somehow our society, our families, our schools, and our media are producing a certain fraction of the youth cohort that possess these values and commitments. (Though crucially, we can ask whether that fraction is greater than years past or is pretty much constant.)

Second, recruitment certainly plays an important role in explaining this observation about the similarity of corps members from very diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps and CityYear members are by no means a random sample of the general population. Instead, they are young people who have actively sought out the opportunity for service presented by these organizations, and they have responded favorably to the very explicit expressions of value commitments they represent.

Another factor that seems to be operative in generating the value orientation of AmeriCorps and CityYear members is the nature of the training and bonding that occurs within the experience. Young people may come to CityYear with positive attitudes about race relations -- but their understanding, commitment, and concrete skills in working in multiracial teams certainly deepens enormously through their year of service. Likewise, what may have been a somewhat thin "will to serve" at the time of recruitment seems typically to deepen into a robust, life-changing involvement in community organizations. The experience of the organization, its leaders, peers, and the service itself leads to a profound deepening of personal engagement.

It's worth dwelling on the causes of youth engagement, because it seems very likely that many of the social problems we will face in the future will only be solved if we can come together as communities of concern, giving our time and our energy to address the serious challenges that are just over the horizon. And these young, engaged people are demonstrating how it can be done.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Subsistence ethic as a causal factor

In his pathbreaking 1976 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, James Scott offers an explanation of popular politics based on the idea of a broadly shared "subsistence ethic" among the underclass people of Vietnam and Malaysia. Earlier postings (hidden transcripts, moral economy) have discussed several aspects of Scott's contributions. Here I want to focus on the causal argument that Scott offers, linking the subsistence ethic to the occurrence of rebellion.

Scott's view is that the ensemble of values and meanings current in a society have causal consequences for aggregate facts about the forms of political behavior that arise in that society. Speaking of the peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia of the 1930s Scott writes,
We can learn a great deal from [peasant] rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation--their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry's vision of social equity, we may realize how a class "of low classness" came to provide . . . the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (Scott 1976:3-4)
This passage represents a complex explanatory hypothesis about the sources of rebellion. Scott holds, first, that peasant rebels in Indochina in the 1930s shared the main outlines of a sense of justice and exploitation. This is a system of moral values concerning the distribution of material assets between participants (landlord, state, peasant, landless laborer) and the use of power and authority over the peasant. Second, this passage supposes that the values embodied in this sense of justice are motivationally effective: when the landlord or the state enacts policies which seriously offend this sense of justice, the peasant is angered and indignant, and motivated to take action against the offending party. Offense to his sense of justice affects the peasant's actions. Third, Scott asserts that this individual motivational factor aggregates over the peasantry as a whole to a collective disposition toward resistance and rebellion; that is, sufficient numbers of peasants were motivated by this sense of indignation and anger to engage in overt resistance. On this account, then, the subsistence ethic--its right of a subsistence floor and the expectations of reciprocity which it engenders--is a causal antecedent of rebellion. It is a factor whose presence and characteristics may be empirically investigated and which enhances the likelihood of various social events through identifiable mechanisms.

The subsistence ethic may be described quite simply. Scott writes, "we can begin, I believe, with two moral principles that seem firmly embedded in both the social patterns and injunctions of peasant life: the norm of reciprocity and the right to subsistence" (167). Villagers have a moral obligation to participate in traditional practices of reciprocity--labor sharing, contributions to disadvantaged kinsmen or fellow villagers, etc. And village institutions and elites alike have an obligation to respect the right of subsistence of poor villagers.
Claims on peasant incomes . . . were never legitimate when they infringed on what was judged to be the minimal culturally defined subsistence level; and second, the product of the land should be distributed in such a way that all were defined a subsistence niche. (10)
Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice--a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

We can identify a fairly complex chain of causal reasoning in Scott's account. First, the subsistence ethic is a standing condition in peasant society with causal consequences. It is embodied in current moral psychologies of members of the group and in the existing institutions of moral training through which new members are brought to share these values. Through the workings of social psychology this ethic leads individuals to possess certain dispositions to behave. The features and strength of this systems of values are relatively objective facts about a given society. In particular, it is possible to investigate the details of this ethic through a variety of empirical means: interviews with participants, observation of individual behavior, or analysis of the content of the institutions of moral training. Call this ensemble of institutions and current moral psychologies the "embodied social morality" (ESM).

In line with the idea that the subsistence ethic is a standing causal condition, Scott notes that the effectiveness of shared values varies substantially over different types of peasant communities. "The social strength of this ethic . . . varied from village to village and from region to region. It was strongest in areas where traditional village forms were well developed and not shattered by colonialism--Tonkin, Annam, Java, Upper Burma--and weakest in more recently settled pioneer areas like Lower Burma and Cochinchina" (Scott 1976:40). Moreover, these variations led to significant differences in the capacity of affected communities to achieve effective collective resistance. "Communitarian structures not only receive shocks more uniformly but they also have, due to their traditional solidarity, a greater capacity for collective action. . . . Thus, the argument runs, the more communal the village structure, the easier it is for a village to collectively defend its interests" (202).

We may now formulate Scott's causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

What this account does not highlight -- and what is emphasized by several other theories we've discussed elsewhere (post, post, post, post) -- are the organizational features that underlie successful mobilization. Instead, Scott's account focuses on the motivational features that permit a group to be rallied to the risky business of rebellion.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Farms in historical materialism

Materialist explanations in history generally attempt to discover fundamental features of technology and labor that impose a very deep imprint on the rest of society. Farming is almost always fundamental in this respect; the forces and relations of production are particularly visible, and the products of the farm system are fundamental to the survival of society. The standard of living of a traditional society is largely determined by agricultural productivity and the nature of the farming system -- nutrition, for example, is essentially determined by the ratio of total grain output to population. Finally, virtually all traditional economies are primarily rural; so farm life defines the conditions of ordinary social existence for the majority of the population. So let us consider a brief analysis of the farm. (A. V. Chayanov's classic treatment of the peasant economy, The Theory of Peasant Economy, written in the 1920s, remains highly valuable. Robert Allen's lifetime of research on the English farm economy is highly insightful (Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850), as is Bozhong Li's work on the farm economy of the Lower Yangzi (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).)

A farm is the basic unit of agricultural production. It represents the coordinated application of diverse factors of production in order to produce crops. The factors of production include labor; land; tools, implements, and machinery; fertilizers; and water resources and irrigation techniques. Crops include both foods (e.g., rice, wheat, millet) and raw materials (e.g., cotton, soya beans). And farms may be organized for a variety of purposes: to satisfy a family's subsistence needs, to create a profit within a market system, or to provide employment for the greatest number of rural people.

Farms in different agrarian regimes may be characterized in terms of a set of technical and social features. On the technical side we need to know what the scale of cultivation is (farm size); what techniques of cultivation are employed; what varieties of crops and seeds are available; what types of farm tools and machines are used; what types of irrigation, if any, are in use; what varieties and skills of labor are employed; what types of fertilizers are used; and what forms of agronomic knowledge are available to the farmer. (We might reduce this variety of technical features to a spectrum ranging from low-technology to high-technology farming systems.) On the social side we need to know the purpose of cultivation (family subsistence or commercial profitability); the form of land tenure in place (fixed rent, sharecropping, smallholding, etc.); the forms of labor employed (slave, serf, family labor, hired labor); the forms of supervision employed; and the processes of income distribution embodied in the agricultural system.

These features are the primary subject of research for agricultural historians such as Allen and Li. These features essentially determine the most important economic characteristics of the agricultural system. First, they determine the productivity of the farming system, whether measured in terms of land efficiency (output per hectare) or labor efficiency (output per man-day). For once we know the techniques of cultivation in a given ecological setting, it is possible to form relatively accurate estimates of output for a given input of land, labor, and capital. This set of considerations also determines what we might describe as the net rural product--the total agricultural product over and above the replacement cost of the factors of production. On this basis, Chinese historians such as Dwight Perkins attempt to estimate the overall wealth and income of late Imperial China, including estimates of quality of life for the majority of rural people (Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968).

Second, the full description of the farming system as indicated above will allow us to infer the system of surplus extraction in place; it will be possible to indicate with adequate precision how much surplus is generated and where it goes. Victor Lippit attempts to arrive at such an estimate for traditional China (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance). This in turn permits us to describe the system of rural class relations that correspond to a given farming regime.

Within this framework we can now indicate a variety of types of farms; and as a working premise, we may postulate that agrarian regimes in which different farm types are dominant will have distinctive patterns of organization and development. The following are advanced as ideal types; variants and mixed examples are possible as well. However, these types are selected as being particularly central in the development of both Asian and European traditional economies. And, significantly for the historian of social change, each farming system creates a distinctive pattern of incentives, barriers, social relations, and modes of behavior that have important consequences for historical change.
  • The peasant farm. The peasant farm is small (1-10 hectares), and is organized to satisfy consumption needs of the family. It is managed and run by a peasant family using family labor. Cultivation is divided between subsistence crops and commercial crops with some risk-aversive preference for subsistence crops. There is a very low level of capital available to the peasant farmer, and cultivation is oriented towards labor-intensive techniques. Low-cost traditional techniques and tools are employed in cultivation. The peasant cultivator typically pays rent on the land he cultivates, though smallholding with clear title to the land is also possible.
  • The manor. This farm is of medium size (100 hectares). It is managed by a resident lord whose aims are (1) to satisfy the consumption needs of his household, and (2) to produce a marketable surplus to generate cash income. The manor employs a sizable number of bonded laborers (serfs or slaves); it uses traditional techniques of cultivation but benefits from some economies of scale; and it employs foremen as supervisors. Part of the estate is farmed by individual families in circumstances of peasant farming.
  • The capitalist farm. This farm is medium to large (50-150 hectares) and is organized to produce a profit. It is therefore located within a commercialized rural economy within which crops may be readily marketed. The farm is organized and directed by the capitalist farmer, who may either own or rent the land. The capitalist farmer has the fiscal resources needed to make capital investments in the process of cultivation; and he is oriented towards cost-cutting in considering various alternative techniques. The capitalist farm employs wage labor, where the wage is determined by local economic circumstances and the minimal cost of subsistence. The capitalist farm represents a rationalization of available techniques aimed at maximizing the profitability of the unit.
  • The cooperative farm. The cooperative farm is a large unit (100-400 hectares) owned by the cultivators (75 families). This farm is oriented towards profitability; it uses the labor of the cultivators; and it is organized by a council of the cultivators. The collective has access to investment funds, and is therefore able to invest in new techniques; moreover, the collective farm benefits from economies of scale.
Significantly, this typology of farming units corresponds broadly to the classical Marxist taxonomy of modes of production: feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The peasant farm, however, represents a form of organization of the productive forces of rural society that is overlooked in Marxist theory: call it the "peasant mode of production." The peasant mode of production may be defined as a system in which agriculture is performed on peasant farms; the bulk of the population consists of free peasant cultivators; and agricultural surpluses are extracted through rent, interest, and taxation.

In short, careful analysis of the circumstances of farming is crucial for large-scale history, including especially the history of economic development, the history of urbanization, and the history of human well-being. And, of course, the twentieth century demonstrated the centrality of peasants in the great political movements of revolution and anti-colonialism.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Being clumsy

We've probably all been clumsy from time to time -- knocking over the teacup on the desk when reaching for a pencil, dropping a jar when moving from the kitchen to the table, tripping on an uneven bit of sidewalk when walking the dog. We sometimes refer to this kind of behavioral mistake as "maladroit".

Can we give an explanation of clumsy behavior?

Here as elsewhere, a little conceptual work is helpful. We might characterize a clumsy event as "an inadvertent negative result of a series of bodily movements intended to accomplish something else altogether." And, it would seem, we need to add a characteristic of causation into the definition: the negative result came about as a consequence of the agent's series of actions and movements -- not simply an unfortunate coincidence. The actor bears responsibility for the negative result in some way. (We wouldn't call it "clumsy" if I knock over the glass of wine because the waiter has just placed it at my elbow and out of my visual range; rather, this is simply an accident.)

It is also useful to consider the contrast that is intended by the use of the concept. The contraries of "clumsy" seem to include adjectives such as skillful, adroit, agile, graceful, or deft. (And consider whether there are nuances of differences among even these positive valence adjectives.) The idea of the degree of bodily control exercised by the actor comes into all of these concepts, both negative and positive. The agile and graceful person -- an athlete or a dancer -- is praised for his/her ability to place the body in exactly the way she wishes to. The clumsy person trips, drops, smashes, and spills -- that is, he/she lacks the ability to control the results of bodily movements.

So "clumsy" is a feature of bodily performance, in which the intended course of affairs has gone wrong. It is a defect of performance and, derivatively, a defect of competence. A clumsy person is one who is prone to committing more than his/her share of clumsy actions. To refer to a movement or a person as clumsy is to find fault (though perhaps without blame); it is to highlight a deviation between what we expect of normal behavior and the observed behavior.

So what is the standard of competence and performance that we implicitly have in mind when we deploy the standards of "adroit" and "clumsy" when it comes to physical performances? It's something like this. We recognize, first, that every physical action is actually a complex and orchestrated series of component movements. To catch a high fly ball requires the outfielder to predict the destination of the ball; to organize his leg and body movements in order to run to the destination; to prepare for the leap into the air; to extend the glove arm and snag the ball. But more prosaically, to pour a glass of water has a lot of the same complexity of orchestrated movements and calculations. Both activities require "body intelligence" -- an active (unconscious) process of orchestration of sub-movements into larger perfomances.

Second, there is a substantial amount of knowledge gathering, calculation, and projection that is required in order for the actor to form a cognitive map of the arena of action: where the target will be at a particular point in time, what obstacles exist in the environment, and how the bodily movements need to be orchestrated on such a way as to avoid the obstacles and achieve the desired outcome. The waiter approaching the table to refill the water glasses is illustrative: he/she needs to observe and record the placement of the guests, their glasses, the floral arrangements, and the random items on the table; he needs to approach in such a way as to avoid contacting the guest or spilling the water on the guest; he needs to navigate the pitcher past the guest and between the flower arrangements; bring the pitcher adjacent to the water glass; and pour just enough water into the glass to fill it. Mission accomplished, he needs to withdraw the pitcher without knocking over the flowers or spilling on the guest. And, since the guests are in motion, be needs to regularly update the representation of the field of play and be alert to the possibility of sudden movements by the guest.

In other words, we expect quite a lot from the "adroit" waiter from the point of view of active knowledge gathering and skillful orchestration of movements based on the current cognitive map -- representation of the world and management of the body. The adroit person is one who has a reasonably good representation of the physical spaces around himself/herself; has a reasonably good ability to project the future configuration of the space; and has a reasonably high ability to orchestrate the series of movements needed to accomplish a task and a high ability to bring the body to implement the resulting series of steps.

So where does "clumsy" come into this story? Evidently, clumsy mistakes can derive from any of these three sources. The cognitive representation of the field may be incorrect or glaringly incomplete (the waiter may have failed to note that the guest is particularly tall and consequently bumped his head in his forward motion) (faulty representation). Second, the waiter may miscalculate times and distances -- he may think he can just clear the guest's arm gestures as he passes with the water pitcher (faulty calculation). Or he may have a faulty ability to orchestrate his own physical movements. He intends to touch the pitcher to the lip of the water glass, but he over-shoots and breaks the glass (faulty orchestration and/or faulty implementation).

So now we might speculate a bit: a clumsy person may be clumsy in virtue of deficiencies in any of the three areas -- representation, calculation, and orchestration -- and the nature of the clumsy performance is different for each of the three forms of deficiency. The first person may be clumsy because he/she doesn't pay a lot of attention to the field of play; builds up an incomplete representation of the placement of the furniture; and, as a result, bumbles into the footstool or the coffee table. Or there may be another sort of cognitive defect -- for example, a limited ability to remember the features of the cognitive map that has been developed -- he keeps forgetting the footstool. The second person may have a deficient ability to project future states of the field of play based on its current state. He sees the revolving door in front of him, but mis-estimates how quickly it is moving and collides with it. The third person may have a full and sufficient cognitive representation of the field of play; may be fully able to run the dynamics forward in time through mental calculation; but may have difficulty in arranging the movements of the body accordingly. And this deficiency in turn may derive from various causes -- a defective implementation of the routines of motion, an awkward geometry of the body so there is systematic misplacement of the feed, a slow neurological process leading to body movements that aren't quite in synch, ...

And here is one final thing we might observe, based on this treatment. A single clumsy act can be explained as the result of a single moment of bad performance -- lapsing of attention to the environment, failing to calculate carefully the relevant future states, stumbling. An enduring characteristic of clumsiness, on the other hand, invites an explanation based on a feature of deficient competence in one of the areas mentioned above -- a chronic problem in the actor's cognition of the environment, or the actor's ability to project future states, or the actor's ability to orchestrate and control the movements of the body. And, if we were in the "clumsy-therapy" business, we might try to identify where the deficiency lies and then try to find ways of improving the actor's competence in this area.

What kind of analysis is this? Partially it is an ordinary language analysis, along the lines of J. L. Austin. It involves diving into the nuances of meaning that we have in mind when we describe certain actions as "clumsy." But partly it is a phenomenological inquiry: what is the state of mind and body that is associated with committing "clumsy" mistakes? What is the "life world" of imperfect performance? (Hubert Dreyfus (A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition), Samuel Todes (Body and World), and Richard Sennett (The Craftsman) capture different parts of this perspective.) And, finally, it is a bit of speculative cognitive psychology; it is an attempt to work out the structure of the cognitive and motor activities that need to occur in the normal performance of activities like catching a fly ball or pouring a glass of water. And, based on this schematic analysis, it is an effort to see how the mistake of "clumsiness" can emerge from normal skilled performance. This is analogous to Noam Chomsky's inventive use of grammatical "mistakes" as a clue to the underlying grammatical competence possessed by normal language users.