Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Protests in China

Carrefour protest in Beijing

China has witnessed a visible increase over the past ten years in the number of protests, demonstrations, and riots over a variety of issues. Areas of social problems that have stimulated collective protests include factory conditions, non-payment of wages, factory closures, environmental problems (both large and small), and land and property takeovers by developers and the state.

It isn't surprising that social conditions in China have given rise to causes of protest. Rapid growth has stimulated large movements of people and migrant workers, development has created massive environmental problems for localities, and opportunities for development have created conflicts between developers and local people over land and property rights. Following the terrible earthquake in Sichuan and the collapse of many buildings and schools with tragic loss of life, there was a wave of angry protests by parents against corrupt building practices. So there are plenty of possible causes for protest in China today.

What is more surprising, though, is that the state has not been successful so far in muzzling protest, or in keeping news of local protests from reaching the international public.

YouTube provides a surprisingly wide window on protests in China and other parts of the world. It is worth viewing a sampling of clips from YouTube that surface when one searches for Chinese protest.  The following clips were collected in January 2009.  But here is a sobering fact: most of these clips have disappeared from YouTube with a message indicating that they violate "terms of use."  One is forced to speculate about the pressures that brought this about.

Unemployment for Chinese migrant workers

Labor protest in Shanghai

Shoe factory protest for back wages

Environmental protest in Xiamen

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

Parents protesting children's death in Sichuan

Will the sociology of the future be able to use the contents of YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as an important empirical indicator of social change in societies such as China, Malaysia, or Russia?  One thing is evident from this small experiment: YouTube is not an archive, and researchers are well advised to capture and document the items they want to study.

The finish line

Source: Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line

For quite a long time the United States had a global advantage in its educated population. No more. The US now ranks low among OECD nations for percentage of adults with a baccalaureate degree. And the increases in this percentage witnessed in the United States in the 1950s leveled off in the 1970s. These facts have major consequences -- both for quality of life in the United States for individual citizens and for the ability of the US to compete globally in a knowledge-based economy.

William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson have completed another important piece of research on the current social realities of higher education in the US with Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities. This research goes significantly beyond the prior important work Bowen and his collaborators have done. Here Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson have shifted focus from the issue of access (the core issue in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education) to degree completion, and they have shifted from elite private colleges and universities to public universities -- flagships and regionals. The book is mostly concerned with first-time freshmen, but also provides valuable data on the educational careers of transfer students. (Chapter seven looks at transfer student outcomes in particular.)

The heart of their research here is the creation of a pair of large databases of students that permit tracking the outcomes of a large student population over time. They have collected data on several hundred thousand students who entered universities in 1999. One data set is the "flagship" database including records of over 120,000 students enrolled in 21 leading public universities. The second is the "state systems" database with over 60,000 students enrolled in 47 regional campuses in four states.  Here is how they describe the two databases:
The Flagships Database was assembled between September 2005 and August 2006. The core of the database is an institutional file that contains detailed demographic, academic, and financial aid data on essentially every student who entered one of 21 selective public universities in the fall of 1999 (although most universities excluded from their data students who began their studies on a part-time basis).1 The institutional file is linked with secondary data files provided by the College Board, ACT, the National Student Clearinghouse, and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Additionally, the home addresses of the students have been matched to their corresponding geographical codes (“geocodes”) and can be linked to census data down to the block level.
The State Systems Database, which covers a wider range of institutions in four states—Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia—was assembled between June 2006 and June 2008. This database, also on the 1999 entering cohort, includes institutional files from every public university in Maryland, North Carolina, and Ohio as well as every public and private college and university in Virginia.2 Additionally, we have data on every North Carolina student who was a high school senior in 1999. These files are linked with secondary data files provided by the College Board and the National Student Clearinghouse, and the students’ home addresses have been linked to their corresponding geocodes. (Appendix B, pp. 5-6)
(The authors and the publisher have posted a 150-page PDF document on the publisher's website providing extensive details on the data sets and chief quantitative results (link).)

A particularly important data source they employ is the National Student Clearinghouse (link), which permits tracking the same student from one institution to another. NSC now encompasses over 90% of undergraduates in the United States, so it serves as an existing national tracking system. It allows us to answer the important question, what happens to a student when he/she leaves a given institution?  Does she become a permanent dropout, or does she go on to graduate from another university?  Another large data source they employ is the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) of the 1992 high school class.

Using these databases they are able to probe for significant differences in outcomes based on SES, race/ethnicity, gender, parental education, and type of institution.  The outcomes they are particularly interested in are completion rates, time to degree, field of study, and grades. This represents a real breakthrough in empirical studies of higher education; no existing data source had the size needed to break out these sub-populations meaningfully.  The data permit the construction of a segmented national profile of college attendance and completion, and the data sets are large enough to allow for a significant degree of testing of causal hypotheses about differences across groups.

The logical structure of the questions posed in the research looks a lot like this:
  • Are there significant differences across {demographic features -- e.g. ethnicity} with respect to {outcome feature -- e.g. completion rate}?
  • how much of the observed variation can be explained by {readiness feature -- e.g. SAT/ACT score}?
Their approach to the second type of question is to control for the readiness feature(s) using a regression or other statistical technique and examine the residual differences in an adjusted data graph. Here is an example:

There are many striking findings in the research that speak to the profound effects of stratification on life prospects. Take bachelor's degree attainment broken out by family income (fig. 2.3a) and race/ethnicity (fig. 2.5). A young person from the bottom quartile of family income has an 11% chance of receiving a bachelor's degree, compared to a 52% chance for the person from the top quartile. There is also a major disparity between white and black young adults.  The data indicate strikingly different bachelor's degree attainment rates across race and gender: white males 29%, white females 36%, black males 10%, black females 21%. One way of reading these results is this: the cumulative disadvantages associated with poverty and race in the United States have permanent effects on the opportunities available to disadvantaged people later in life.  And our education system is not succeeding in erasing these disadvantages.  The research offered here can at least help to design institutions that are more successful in doing exactly that; and this is one of the key goals that Bowen and his colleagues have for the work:
We want to end this first chapter by reiterating that the purpose of the research reported in this book is not only to improve our understanding of patterns and relationships but also--as a high priority--to search for clues about ways to make America's colleges and universities more successful in moving entering students on to graduation. (19)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Repression in China

The Chinese government signaled a major escalation in its policy of repressing dissidents with this week's conviction of dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo on charges of subversion (New York Times link).  Liu's eleven-year sentence on charges of subversion sends a chilling message to all Chinese citizens who might consider peaceful dissent about controversial issues.  Other dissidents have been punished in the past year, including environmental protesters, advocates for parents of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake, and internet activists.  But Liu is one of the first prominent activists to be charged with subversion.  Liu is a major advocate of Charter 08, and his conviction and sentencing represent a serious blow to the cause of political liberalization in China.  Regrettably, the regime of citizen rights of expression, association, and dissent has not yet been established in China.

What is Charter 08?  It is a citizen-based appeal for the creation of a secure system of laws and rights in China, and has been signed by several thousand Chinese citizens (New York Review of Books translation).  The central principles articulated in the Charter include:
  • Freedom
  • Human rights
  • Equality
  • Republicanism
  • Democracy
  • Constitutional rule
The specific points included in the Charter include:
  1. A New Constitution
  2. Separation of Powers
  3. Legislative Democracy
  4. An Independent Judiciary
  5. Public Control of Public Servants
  6. Guarantee of Human Rights
  7. Election of Public Officials
  8. Rural-Urban Equality
  9. Freedom to Form Groups
  10. Freedom to Assemble
  11. Freedom of Expression
  12. Freedom of Religion
  13. Civic Education
  14. Protection of Private Property
  15. Financial and Tax Reform
  16. Social Security
  17. Protection of the Environment
  18. A Federated Republic
  19. Truth in Reconciliation
What is involved in advocating for "legality" and "individual rights" for China's future? Most basically, rights have to do with protection against repression and violence. These include freedom of association, freedom of action, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the right to security of property.  History makes it clear that these rights are actually fundamental to a decent society -- and that this is true for China's future as well. Moreover, each of these rights is a reply to the threat of violence and coercion.

Take the rights of expression and association.  When a group of people share an interest -- let's say, an interest in struggling against a company that is dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river -- they can only actualize their collective interests if they are able to express their views and to call upon others to come together in voluntary associations to work against this environmental behavior. The situation in China today is harshly inconsistent with this ideal: citizens have to be extremely cautious about public expression of protest, and they are vulnerable to violent attack if they organize to pressure companies or local government to change their behavior.

The use of private security companies on behalf of companies, land developers, and other powerful interests in China is reasonably well documented. And these companies are largely unconstrained by legal institutions in their use of violence and gangs of thugs to intimidate and attack farmers, workers, or city dwellers. It's worth visiting some of the web sites that document some of this violence -- for example, this report about thugs attacking homeowners in Chaoyang. Similar reports can be unearthed in the context of rural conflicts over land development and conflicts between factory owners and migrant workers.

So this brings us to "legality." What is the most important feature of the rule of law? It is to preserve the simple, fundamental rights of citizens: rights of personal security, rights of property, rights of expression. What does it say to other people with grievances when private security guards are able to beat innocent demonstrators with impunity? What it says is simple -- the state will tolerate the use of force against you by powerful agents in society. And what this expresses is repression.

It is also true that the state itself is often the author of repression against its own citizens for actions that would be entirely legitimate within almost any definition of core individual right: blogging, speaking, attempting to organize migrant poor people. When the state uses its power to arrest and imprison people who speak, write, and organize -- it is profoundly contradicting the core rights that every citizen needs to have.

It should also be said that these legal rights cannot be separated from the idea of democracy. Democracy most fundamentally requires that people be able to advocate for the social policies that they prefer. Social outcomes should be the result of a process that permits all citizens to organize and express their interests and preferences -- that is the basic axiom of democracy. What this democratic value rules out is the idea that the state has a superior game plan -- one that cannot brook interference by the citizens -- and that it is legitimate for the state to repress and intimidate the citizens in their efforts to influence the state's choices. A legally, constitutionally entrenched set of individual civil and political rights takes the final authority of deciding the future direction of society out of the hands of the state.

Give the Chinese people democratic rights and they can make some real progress on China's social ills -- unsafe working conditions, abuse of peasants, confiscation of homeowners' property, the creation of new environmental disasters. Deprive them of democratic rights, and the power of the state and powerful private interests can create continuing social horrors -- famine, permanent exploitation of workers, environmental catastrophes, development projects that displace millions of people, and so on. The authoritarian state and the thugocracy of powerful private interests combine to repress the people.

(Here is a very interesting audio interview with Perry Link on the NYRB website about the context of Charter 08. Also of interest is a piece by Daniel Drezner (post) on Charter 08 on the ForeignPolicy blog.  See also this very extensive analysis of the Charter by Rebecca MacKinnon at Rconversation.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What makes a sociological theory compelling?

In the humanities it is a given that assertions and arguments have a certain degree of rational force, but that ultimately, reasonable people may differ about virtually every serious claim. An interpretation of Ulysses, an argument for a principle of distributive justice, or an attribution of certain of Shakespeare's works to Christopher Marlowe -- each may be supported by "evidence" from texts and history, and those who disagree need to produce evidence of their own to rebut the thesis; but no one imagines there is such a thing as an irrefutable argument to a conclusion in literature, art history, or philosophy.  Conclusions are to some degree persuasive, well supported, or compelling; but they are never ineluctable or uniquely compatible with available evidence. There is no such thing as the final word, even on a well formulated question. (Naturally, a vague or ambiguous question can always be answered in multiple ways.)

In physics the situation appears to be different.  Physical theories are about a class of things with what we may assume are uniform characteristics throughout the range of this kind of thing (electrons, electromagnetic waves, neutrinos); and these things come together in ensembles to produce other kinds of physical phenomena.  So we often believe that physical theories are deductive systems that attribute a set of mathematical properties to more-or-less fundamental physical entities; and then we go on to derive descriptions of the behavior of things and ensembles made of these properties.  And the approximate truth of the physical theory can be assessed by the degree of success its deductive implications have for the world of observable ensembles of physical things.  So it seems that we can come to fairly definitive conclusions about various theories in the natural sciences: natural selection is the mechanism of species evolution; gravitational force is the cause of the elliptical shapes of planetary orbits; the velocity of light is a constant.  And we are confident in the truth of these statements because they play essential roles within deductive systems that are highly confirmed by experiment and experience.

So what about the empirical domains of sociology or history? Is it possible for careful empirical and theoretical research to provide final answers to well formulated questions in these fields? Is it possible to put together an argument in sociology on a particular question that is so rationally and empirically compelling that no further disagreement is possible?

There is a domain of factual-empirical questions in sociology where the answer is probably affirmative. What is the population of Detroit in 2000? What percentage of likely voters supported McCain in October 2008? What is the full unemployment rate among African-American young people in Ohio? When was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recognized in Cleveland? There are recognized sources of data and generally accepted methods that would allow us to judge that a particular study definitively answers one or another of these questions. This isn't to make a claim of unrevisability; but it is to assert that some social inquiries have as much empirical decidability as, say, questions in descriptive ecology ("what is the range of the Helicinidae land snail in North America?") or planetary astronomy ("what is the most likely origin of the planetary body Pluto?").

But most major works in sociology do not have this characteristic. They do not primarily aim at establishing a limited set of sociological or demographic facts. Instead, they take on larger issues of conceptualization, explanation, interpretation, and theory formation. They make use of empirical and historical facts to assess or support their arguments. But it is virtually never possible to conclude, "given the available body of empirical and historical evidence, this theory is almost certainly true." Rather, we are more commonly in a position to say something like this: "Given the range of empirical, historical, and theoretical considerations offered in its support, theory T is a credible explanation of P."  And it remains for other scholars to either advance a more comprehensive or well-supported theory, or to undermine the evidence offered for T, or to provisionally accept T as being approximately correct.  Durkheim put forward a theory of suicide based on the theoretical construct of anomie (Suicide).  He argued that the rate of suicide demonstrated by a population is caused by the degree of anomie characteristic of that society; and he offered a few examples of how the theoretical construct of anomie might be operationalized in order to allow us to measure or compare different societies in these terms.  But his theory can be challenged from numerous directions: that it is monocausal, that it assumes that suicide is a homogeneous phenomenon across social settings, and even that it overstates the degree of consistency that exists between "high anomie" and "high suicide" social settings.

Take Michael Mann's analysis of fascism (Fascists). He considers a vast range of historical and sociological evidence in arriving at his analysis. His theory is richly grounded in empirical evidence. But numerous elements of his account reflect the researcher's best judgment about a question, rather than a conclusive factual argument. Take Mann's view that "materialist" and class-based theories of fascist movements are incorrect.  I doubt that his richly documented arguments to this conclusion make it rationally impossible to continue to find support for the materialist hypothesis. Or take his definition of fascism itself. It is a credible definition; but different researchers could certainly offer alternatives that would lead them to weigh the evidence differently and come to different conclusions. So even such simple questions as these lack determinate answers: What is fascism?  Why did fascist movements arise? Who were the typical fascist followers? There are credible answers to each of these questions, and this is exactly what we want from a sociological theory of fascism; but the answers that a given researcher puts forward are always contestable.

Or take Howard Kimeldorf's analysis of the different political trajectories of dock-workers' unions on the East and West Coasts (Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront). Kimeldorf provides an explanatory hypothesis of the differences between the nature of these unions in the east and west in the United States, and he offers a rich volume of historical and factual material to fill in the case and support the hypothesis.  It is an admirable example of reasoning in comparative historical sociology.  Nonetheless, there is ample room for controversy.  Has he formulated the problem in the most perspicuous way?  Are the empirical findings unambiguous?  Are there perhaps other sources of data that would support a different conclusion?  It is reasonable to say that Kimeldorf makes a credible case for his conclusions; but there are other possible interpretations of the facts, and even other possible interpretations of the phenomena themselves.

These are both outstanding examples of sociological theory and analysis; so the point here isn't that there is some important defect in either of them.  Rather, the point is that there is a wide range of indeterminacy in each of these examples: in the way in which the problem is formulated, in the basic conceptual assumptions that the author makes, and in the types and interpretation of the data that the author provides.  Each provides a strong basis, in fact and in theory, for accepting the conclusions offered.  But each is contestable within the general framework of scientific rationality.  And this seems to suggest that for the difficult, complex problems that arise in sociology and history, there is no basis for imagining that there could be a final and rationally compulsory answer to questions like "Why fascism?" and "Why Red labor unions on the Pacific Coast?"  And perhaps it suggests something else as well: that the logic of scientific reasoning in the social sciences is as close to arguments in the humanities as it is to reasoning in the physical sciences.  It is perhaps an instance of "inference to the best explanation" rather than an example of hypothetico-deductive testing and confirmation.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merton's sociology of science

The organized study of "science" as an epistemic practice and a knowledge product has taken at least three major forms in the past century: the philosophy of science, the history of science, and the sociology of science.  Philosophers have been primarily interested in the logic of scientific inquiry and the rational force of scientific knowledge.  Historians have been interested in the circumstances, both external and internal, through which important periods of the growth of scientific knowledge have occurred -- the Newtonian revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the "discovery" of cold fusion (above).  And sociologists have been interested in examining the norms and organizations through which "science" is practiced -- how young scientists are trained, how collaboration and competition work within a scientific discipline or a laboratory, how results are assessed and communicated.

And because the intellectual frameworks within which philosophers, historians, and sociologists have been educated differ substantially, these meta-disciplines of the study of science are significantly different as well.  The philosophers are largely interested in the quality of the product -- the rational force of a given body of scientific knowledge.  The historians are interested in the contingencies of development of a given field.  And the sociologists are interested in the social processes that lead to the creation of a body of scientific knowledge; they are inclined to "bracket" the epistemic standing or truth-value of the theories and hypotheses that a tradition has produced.

Robert Merton was one of the giants of American sociology.  One of his core contributions had to do with his efforts to define the subject matter and methodology of the sociology of science.  A volume of Merton's essays from the 1930s through 1960s on the sociology of science appeared in 1971, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, and these essays are worth re-reading today.  Here are some of Merton's formulations of the task of the sociology of science in "The Neglect of the Sociology of Science" (1952):
Numerous works ... have variously dealt with one or another part of the subject [of the sociology of science].  But these ... have not examined the linkage between science and social structure by means of a conceptual framework that has proved effective in other branches of sociology. (210)
Among current introductory textbooks in sociology ... all deal at length with the institutions of family, state, and economy, many with the institution of religion, but very few indeed with science as a major institution in modern society. (211)
Unlike the pattern in solidly established disciplines, in the sociology of science, facts are typically divorced from systematic theory.  Empirical observation and hypothesis do not provide mutual assistance.  Not having that direct bearing on a body of theory which makes for cumulative knowledge, the empirical studies that have been made, from time to time, by natural scientists have resulted in a thin scattering of unconnected findings rather than a chain of closely linked findings. (212-13)
So the goal of the sociology of science is to examine the linkage between science and social structure using the "conceptual frameworks" of sociology.  The sociology of science needs to be based on empirical observation -- i.e. it cannot be a purely conceptual discipline.  But it must possess an appropriate framework of sociological theory within the context of which empirical observations of scientific practice can be explained.

Several ideas were particularly important in Merton's efforts to conceptualize the processes of science:
  • the importance of discovering the norms that underlay the research and thinking of scientists in a given field (the ethos of science); ("the emotionally toned complex of rules, prescriptions, mores, beliefs, values and presuppositions that are held to be binding upon the scientist")
  • the internal social structure of various scientific disciplines (training, communication, information flow, evaluation)
  • the incentives that exist within the scientific disciplines that constitute the driving force for scientists to aggressively pursue publishable results; the reward system.  How do the imperatives of the ethos and the institutions of science come together to determine the patterns of behavior of the individual working scientist?  
One of Merton's key methodological contributions was the idea that it was possible to observe and measure the institutions of science through careful empirical examination of the biographies, journals, and other objective markers of scientific activity. (This is what he refers to as the conceptual framework of sociology.)  He repeatedly attempts to quantify and measure the activities of science -- publication rates, inventions, numbers of scientists in a field, and so forth.  For example, in "Changing Foci of Interest in the Sciences and Technology" (1938) he attempts to estimate the pattern of shifting scientific interest in England over the period of 1665-1702 by counting the numbers of articles to be published in various areas of science (tables 3-4). He finds that the physical and formal sciences fall in frequency during this time period, while the life sciences rise significantly (201).  How should we explain this shift in the interests of the scientific community?  Merton advocates a sociological cause.  Referring back to Rickert and Weber, he argues that this shift is likely to be linked to the broader societal interests of the time period:
Scientists often choose problems for investigation that are vitally linked with major values and interests of the time.  Much of this study will examine some of the extra-scientific elements which significantly influenced, if they did not wholly determine, the foci of scientific interest. (203)
Another of Merton's key ideas is the role of the reward system of science, which he takes to be the motor of scientific change:
Like other institutions, the institution of science has developed an elaborate system for allocating rewards to those who variously live up to its norms.... The evolution of this system has been the work of centuries, and it will of course never be finished.  (297)
And he finds that this reward system gives great weight to originality and priority -- which leads to the recurring phenomena of priority disputes, fraud, and plagiarism in science (309).  And it leads as well to the phenomenon of multiple discovery by independent researchers:
The pages of the history of science record thousands of instances of similar discoveries having been made by scientists working independently of one another.  Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make anew a discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else had made years before.  Such occurrences suggest that discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate in man's cultural store and when the attention of an appreciable number of investigators becomes focused on a problem, by emerging social needs, by developments internal to the science, or by both. (371)
A final topic of interest in Merton's sociology of science is his treatment of "peer review".  Here is how he describes this part of the institutions of science in "Institutionalized Patterns of Evaluation in Science" (1971):
The referee system in science involves the systematic use of judges to assess the acceptability of manuscripts submitted for publication.  The referee is thus an example of status judges who are charged with evaluating the quality of role-performances in a social system.  They are found in every institutional sphere. (460)
So we might encapsulate Merton's intellectual framework for the sociology of science in a few basic ideas: the sociologist needs to find ways of observing scientific practice empirically; the conduct of science is driven by the values that the institutions of science inculcate and enforce; the incentives created by the scientific institutions shape and motivate the behavior of scientists; and the product of science is the result of the constrained activities of scientists shaped and motivated in these particular ways.  So the sociologist needs to discover and document the values, he/she needs to uncover the evaluation mechanisms, and he/she needs to discover in detail how innovations and theories have emerged in specific research environments.

What this description leaves out from a contemporary perspective might include:
  • analysis of social networks of collaboration and communication among scientists
  • analysis of the institutions of training through which scientists learn their craft
  • content analysis of the results of scientific inquiry -- recurring features of theory and explanation within specific research traditions
(Trevor Pinch is an important contemporary contributor to current sociology of science and is one of the editors of the 1995 volume, Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Here is a link to his syllabus for a seminar on the sociology of science that indicates how he conceptualizes the discipline.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who invented the totalitarian state?

The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck's Prussia, Napoleon III's France, Czar Alexander's Russia, and Victor Emmanuel's Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking -- the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state "total" -- an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,
The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)
Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society -- the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice -- grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups -- including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly's discussion of "trust networks" is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad's The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion -- police and other armed state forces such as militias -- were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state's imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  -- and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century -- thus making the state's goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the "reach of the state" increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco's Spain or Mussolini's Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann's findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn't much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries -- scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society -- requires research that doesn't appear to exist at present. )

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sewell on history

William Sewell, Jr., is a particularly talented historian of French social history. His study of the guild mentalities of workers in Marseille after the Revolution breaks many preconceptions about "class" and the definition of labor (Structure and Mobility: The Men and Women of Marseille, 1820-1870). But he is also a philosophically minded observer and critic of historical writing. In Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation he offers a singular contribution to historiography by an innovative interdisciplinary historian and sociologist. The book is a contribution to what I would call "applied philosophy of history": careful, analytical attention to some of the problematic constructs and frameworks that underlie the ways in which scholars attempt to characterize and explain historical change. The issues Sewell raises resonate strongly with comparative historical sociologists — scholars who are concerned with analyzing social processes in a variety of settings over an extended period of time.

Why do historians and social scientists need this kind of analysis? Because the logic and constructs involved in thinking historically are still incompletely understood. We will do a better job of understanding and probing the past, if we are more self-conscious about some of the assumptions and frameworks that we bring to our work. What is a historical “period”?  What is an "event"?  How are large historical constructs to be defined (revolutions, Tudor state, Marseillaise working class)?  For that matter -- is there anything of historical importance captured in the snapshot of a Marseille street scene in 1914 pictured above?

Many historians have judged that the social sciences should somehow be relevant to their work of explaining historical outcomes. But what is involved in making use of social science theories in historical research and explanation? It has been evident for several decades that social processes are diverse, messy, and heterogeneous. So the impulse towards finding general laws of social transformation has been discouraged. But what is to take the place of a generalizing, universalizing approach within a “social science” study of social transformation? The best answer available at present is, an extensive borrowing from a wide range of the human sciences. The social sciences can provide a toolbox of mid-level theories of mechanisms, mentalities, and institutions that can provide resources for historians as they attempt to analyze and explain particular historical episodes.  What can anthropologists tell historians about the challenge of reconstructing the mentalities of people in the past? What can the geographers of place tell us about the logic of trading and transport networks? What can researchers on collective action tell us about some of the factors that may have accelerated or inhibited popular protest in particular historical settings?

Some philosophers have offered to shed light on these abstract questions about the ontology of history and the logic of historical explanation through philosophical analysis -- for example, Ian Hacking's Historical Ontology. Sewell’s approach to these meta-historical questions is not from the point of view of philosophy, but rather from that of the methodologically sophisticated practitioner. And the results are noteworthy. Logics of History makes a very substantive contribution to the revitalization of the field of the philosophy of history.

Sewell's volume provides a reading of the intellectual development of social history as a discipline since the 1960s: the currents of Marxism, anthropology, and post-modernism, and the themes of underclass history, local meanings, and multiple texts. Sewell's central goal is to shed light on some of the core theoretical constructs that are used in historical research. There are chapters on the concepts of temporality, structure, culture, synchrony, the event, and historical duration.

A recurring topic in the book is the question of “temporality”. Sewell points out that social scientists often give short shrift to the temporal properties of a set of social changes or processes. In “Three Temporalities: Towards an Eventful Sociology” he carefully teases apart the different ways in which historically minded sociologists have treated historical processes, and he singles out teleological temporality, experimental temporality, and “eventful” temporality. The first approach places historical events into a supposed necessary series of stages; the second takes events out of historical settings in order to use them as the fodder of quasi-experiments in causal reasoning; and the third approach emphasizes the path dependence of historical sequences. Events in their particular historical settings have causal consequences for the shaping and occurrence of later events. Sewell characterizes events in this way: “Events may be defined as that relatively rare subclass of happenings that significantly transforms structures. An eventful conception of temporality, therefore, is one that takes into account the transformation of structures by events” (100). Sewell returns to his understanding of events in several later essays in the book as well, including “A Theory of the Event” and “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures.”

Other important topics that Sewell considers include the intellectual foundations of our conceptions of structure (“A Theory of Structure”) and culture (“The Concept(s) of Culture”), and the involvement of both these concepts in historical cognition. In both instances Sewell takes up a large meta-concept within the social sciences and subjects it to careful analytical attention. The results are substantial; both essays suggest new ways of thinking of the role of social structures and cultures within historical processes—not as fixed, uniform causal influences, but as flexible and plastic constructs within which historical actors live and act.

These topics are important because their nuances can significantly affect the practitioner’s process of reasoning and inquiry as he or she treats historical processes. If the investigator begins with an assumption of fixed causal laws, then he or she is inclined to regard specific historical developments as instances of historical regularities. If, on the other hand, one approaches historical processes as involving a high degree of contingency and plasticity of historical events and structures, then one will give substantially greater attention to the specifics of the case.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Koestler's nightmares

Image: book burning by National Socialist paramilitaries, 1933

Image: Ukraine peasants fleeing famine

Image: street battle, Spanish Civil War

Arthur Koestler was an articulate witness of the atrocities of the twentieth century; and much of what he witnessed was terrible.  Reading his books gives one an intense and personal vision of fascism, dictatorship, mass murder, starvation, and cruelty on a monstrous scale.  As George Orwell wrote of Koestler's books in 1944, "The subject-matter of all of them is similar, and none of them ever escapes for more than a few pages from the atmosphere of nightmare" (link).  Koestler worked as a Communist journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of the brown shirts; he was the first European journalist to travel through the Ukraine to witness the results of famine in Stalin's war against the Kulaks (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside); and he observed the Spanish Civil War, where he was arrested after the fall of Malaga, imprisoned, and sentenced to death as a Red.  (Here is an earlier post on Koestler.)

These experiences are described in his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, and the narrative of his experiences in Spain is presented in Dialogue With Death.  But Koestler's best known book is a novel, Darkness at Noon, which is the story of the final weeks of life of the fictional Soviet revolutionary Rubashov in Stalin's purges of the 1930s and the Moscow show trials.  After a life as leader, theorist, and agent in service of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, Rubashov is arrested for fictitious crimes of conspiracy and betrayal against the State.  He is arrested before dawn; it takes him quite a while to find his pince-nez.  He is thrown into a Soviet political prison -- it is reminiscent to him of the fascist prisons in which he had suffered beatings and torture years earlier.  He is brought to confess to these crimes and others under interrogation by his former comrade-in-arms, Ivanov, and the new Soviet thug, Gletkin.  Ivanov is psychologically manipulative; Gletkin is brutal; but both strive to break Rubashov and compel his confession.  They are successful; Rubashov confesses to betraying the Revolution; and like Bukharin, he is convicted and summarily shot in the back of the neck.  Along the way there is quite a bit of debate about history, the individual, the Party, and the Future of Humanity.  The key question of the novel is the puzzle: why did Rubashov confess rather than following the secret advice of the prison barber -- "die in silence!"?

Koestler himself was a committed Communist agent in Berlin in the 1930s; so his descriptions of Rubashov's activities in eastern Europe have the ring of truth -- including Rubashov's betrayals of Richard and Little Loewy in the name of socialism.  The novel recreates the Moscow show trials of 1937 with uncanny insight.  Rubashov is loosely based on Nikolai Bukharin, one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Russian Revolution.  Koestler's novel was written only two years after the trial and execution of these leaders of the Russian Revolution at the hands of Stalin's functionaries.  Here is what he says about the central character:
The characters in this book are fictitious.  The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real.  The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials.  Several of them were personally known to the author.  This book is dedicated to their memory.  Paris, October, 1938-April, 1940
But here is what I find fascinating.  Koestler's fictional recreation of the arrest and trial of the top Party officials, in the person of Rubashov, and the background assumptions and rationalizations assumed by the prosecutors and interrogators, is remarkably close to the historical reality.  Here is Koestler's description of his own arrest and arrival in a Spanish fascist prison in Malaga:
It is a unique sound.  A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside; it cannot be shut except by being slammed to.  It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired.  But this report dies away without an echo.  Prison sounds are echo-less and bleak.

When the door has been slammed behind him for the first time, the prisoner stands in the middle of the cell and looks round. I fancy that everyone must behave in more or less the same way.

First of all he gives a fleeting look round the walls and takes a mental inventory of all the objects in what is now to be his domain:
  • the iron bedstead,
  • the wash-basin,
  • the W.C.,
  • the barred window.
His next action is invariably to try to pull himself up by the iron bars of the window and look out.  He fails, and his suit is covered with white from the plaster on the wall against which he has pressed himself. (Dialogue with Death, 59)
And now turn to Rubashov's first few minutes in Stalin's jail cell:
Rubashov walked up and down in the cell, from the door to the window and back, between bunk, wash-basin and bucket, six and a half steps there, six and a half steps back.  At the door he turned to the right, at the window to the left.  It was an old prison habit; if one did not change the direction of the turn one rapidly became dizzy. ....  Rubashov stood hesitantly in the middle of the cell, then put his pince-nez on again and propped himself at the window. (Darkness at Noon, 14, 18)
Much of the drama of Darkness at Noon is the series of interrogations Rubashov undergoes, and the mental transformation that they bring about in this courageous man to bring him to confess to the most farfetched and unbelievable crimes.  The transcripts of Bukharin's prosecution exist; Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen's THE GREAT PURGE TRIAL provides extensive transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin and other show trial victims.  It is striking to compare the interrogation of Bukharin with the interrogation of Rubashov.  Consider this bit of interrogation of Rubashov, beginning with the voice of prosecutor Ivanov:
"To return to more tangible things: you mean, therefore, that 'we' -- namely, Party and State -- no longer represent the interests of the Revolution, of the masses or, if you like, the progress of humanity."
"This time you have grasped it," said Rubashov smiling.  Ivanov did not answer his smile.
"When did you develop this opinion?"
"Fairly gradually: during the last few years," said Rubashov.
"Can't you tell me more exactly? One year? Two? Three years?"
"That's a stupid question," said Rubashov. "At what age did you become adult? At seventeen? At eighteen and a half? At nineteen?"
"It's you who are pretending to be stupid," said Ivanov.  "Each step in one's spiritual development is the result of definite experiences.  If you really want to know: I became a man at seventeen, when I was sent into exile for the first time." (69)
And now a similar moment in the actual transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin.
Vyshinsky: Allow me to begin the interrogation of the accused Bukharin. Formulate briefly what exactly it is you plead guilty to.
Bukharin: Firstly, to belonging to the counter-revolutionary "Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites."
Vyshinsky: Since what year?
 Bukharin: Roughly since 1928. I plead guilty to being one of the outstanding leaders of this "Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites." Consequently I plead guilty to what directly follows from this, the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organization, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part, in any particular act.  Because I am responsible as one of the leaders and not as a cog in this counter-revolutionary organization.
Vyshinsky: What aims were pursued by this counter-revolutionary organization?
Bukharin: This counter-revolutionary organization, to formulate it briefly ...
Vyshinsky: Yes, briefly for the present.
Bukharin: The principal aim it pursued, although, so to speak, it did not fully realize it, and did not dot all the "i's" -- was essentially the aim of restoring capitalist relations in the U.S.S.R. (Tucker, 328)
And now, back to Darkness at Noon and Rubashov; the porter's daughter reads aloud the newspaper account of the last minutes of Rubashov's testimony:
"Asked whether he pleaded guilty, the accused Rubashov answered 'Yes' in a clear voice.  To a further question of the Public Prosecutor as to whether the accused had acted as an agent of the counter-revolution, he again answered 'Yes' in a lower voice ...."
Here seems to be Koestler's own explanation of the puzzle of the confessions:
Some were silenced by physical fear, like Hare-lip; some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons from the clutches of the Gletkins.  The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats -- and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience.  They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.  There was no way back for them.  Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game.  The public expected no swan-songs of them.  They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night.... (DN, 105)
Fiction and reality are deeply intertwined here.  I don't believe that Koestler had access to transcripts of the show trials at the time he wrote Darkness at Noon in 1940, though he had read accounts of the trials.  So the convergence of the fictional Rubashov and the historical Bukharin is remarkable.  And the transformation of Koestler's own experiences -- in Communist activism and in fascist prison under sentence of death -- into the fiction of Rubashov is very striking.

The state prosecutor who conducted the show trial of Bukharin was Andrei Vyshinsky.  Following his success in the show trials, Vyshinsky became a prominent diplomat under Stalin.  And after World War II he served as permanent representative to the United Nations during the period that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted and adopted.  He led the Soviet Bloc nations in abstention from the vote adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Here is a fragment of the outrageous speech he gave on this occasion:
Human rights could not be conceived outside the State; the very concept of right and law was connected with that of the State. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, 21-22)
I am drawn to Koestler's writings -- both his fiction and his autobiographical writings --  in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to "understand society" -- to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.  George Orwell is another of my favorites in this aspect of literature, including especially Homage to Catalonia and A Collection of Essays; so it is very interesting to me that Orwell wrote the short essay about Koestler mentioned above.  It is also interesting that they were both published in England by Victor Gollancz, along with E. P. Thompson.

(Louis Menand has an interesting profile of Koestler in the New Yorker this month.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Measuring recession's impact: Michigan

Michigan has been in a rolling crisis since 2002 or so: the state has experienced the loss of manufacturing jobs, mortgage foreclosures, and plummeting state and municipal revenues at a pace that has left the region badly shaken. What have been some of the macro-level effects?  How have population, income, employment, and housing changed since 2000?  In particular, what effects has the recession had on southeast Michigan, where almost half of the state's population lives?

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has released a preliminary analysis of the data collected in the 2008 American Community Survey (a periodic resurvey conducted by the US Census Bureau; link).  Some of the results are startling. Most dramatic is what has happened to income, but the region also shows important changes in residential occupancy, poverty rates, and unemployment.

The report considers data for seven counties in southeast Michigan -- Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne.  (This corresponds loosely to the definition of the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area, which consists of the six counties of Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair, and Wayne.) The population of this region was 4.8 million in 2008, essentially unchanged since the 2000 census. So the region had not experienced significant net out-migration as of 2008 (post).  But the age structure of the population has changed noticeably, from a median age of 35.2 in 2000 to a median age of 38.1 in 2008.

The most striking change in this period is a dramatic drop in household and per capita income.  In 2000 the median household income was $64,590, which fell to $54,184 in 2008 -- a 16% decline in household income.  And per capita income fell from $40,993 to $34,665 -- a 15% decline in per capita income.  This is a very large decline in a short time. 

The report also documents a wide income gap based on race.  In 2008 median white household income was $63,183, whereas in black households it was $40,021 and in Hispanic households it was $44,548.  White households were about 50% more affluent than black households. 

Both parts of these findings are important.  The overall decline in personal and family income in eight years is quite remarkable; it certainly represents a very significant decline in the standard of living in the region as a result of recession-related job losses and wage cuts.  And the racial disparities indicated by the gaps between white, black, and Hispanic households demonstrate the persistent racial disadvantages that seem to be hard-wired into the region.

The decline in family income has other harmful consequences as well.  The net purchasing power of the region dropped by a significant percentage -- which translates into the loss of revenues for small businesses whose revenues depend on consumer purchases.  And state revenues based on income taxes and sales taxes in the region fell as well by a comparable percentage -- leading to a fiscal crisis for the state and for municipalities.

Not surprisingly, the ACS data demonstrate that there was a significant upsurge in the poverty rate in the region between 2000 and 2008.  In 2000 10.6% of the population lived below the poverty line; and in 2008, this group had risen to 13.9% -- a 31% increase.  The percentage of families with children in poverty rose from 11.5% to 15.7%, an even greater increase than in the general population.

The effects of the foreclosure crisis are visible in this report as well.  Changes in residential vacancy rates are an indicator of rising frequency of foreclosures.  In 2000 there were 106,680 vacant housing units (5.5%).  In 2008 this number had risen to 260,974 units (12.6%).  This reflected large increases in both homeowner and rental vacancy rates over the time period.

Another noteworthy feature of the report is the light it sheds on differences by county in some important variables across the region.  Most striking is the percentage of adults with a college degree.  The region as a whole has 28% of its adults with a bachelor's degree or higher.  And this number has increased from 25% in 2000.  (At the other end of the spectrum, 12.4% of the adult population lacks a high school degree in 2008.)  But this average masks a very wide range of college attainment rates by county, from a low of 13.9% in St. Clair County (the extreme northeast of the map above) to highs of 42.3% in Oakland County and 51.3% in Washtenaw County.  Wayne County has a college completion rate of 19.5%.

Also striking are the income differences across counties.  Median household incomes ranged from a low of $42,376 (Wayne County) to a high of $71,486 (Livingston County).  Washtenaw County (home of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan) is somewhat anomalous: it has the highest percentage of college-educated adults, but its median household income is in the middle, at $57,848.

Predictably, poverty rates varied across counties as well.  Livingston County had the lowest poverty rate in 2008 (7.6%), while Wayne County had the highest poverty rate by a significant margin (20.1%).  So a person in Wayne County had almost three times the likelihood of living in poverty as a person in Livingston County.  Washtenaw County's poverty rate is also surprisingly high, at 14.6%.

Finally, it appears that the foreclosure crisis had differential impact across the region as well.  Wayne County shows the highest residential vacancy rate in 2008 (17.9%), whereas Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, and Washtenaw Counties fall between 7.6% and 8.6%.  So the residential vacancy rate in Wayne County is at least double that of other parts of the region.

This set of data from the 2008 American Community Survey sheds light on two very important facts.  First, southeast Michigan has suffered deeply and rapidly as a result of the recession.  The loss of jobs and shrinking of business activity resulted in rapid and sharp declines in family income; the recession greatly increased the number of home foreclosures; and it resulted in placing another 155,000 people in poverty -- a 31% increase in the number of people in poverty.  And second, the 2008 data demonstrate that these effects are not uniformly distributed across the region.  Several counties weathered the recession relatively well.  The worst effects have been experienced in Wayne County and the city of Detroit.  And, given the degree of racial segregation that is demonstrated in Southeast Michigan, this implies that the recession had disproportionately harmful effects on the African-American population of the state.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development). We need to put the poor first.  However, I also believe that our ability to achieve this goal is highly sensitive to the distributive structures and property systems that exist in poor countries.  The property institutions of developing countries have enormous impact on the full human development of the poor.  As a result, ethically desirable human development goals are difficult to attain within any social system in which the antecedent property relations are highly stratified and in which political power is largely in the hands of the existing elites.

The fundamental question of poverty is this: how do people earn their livings? The economic institutions of the given society (property relations and market institutions, for example) determine the answer to this question. An economy represents a set of social positions for the men and women who make it up. These persons have a set of human needs—nutrition, education, health care, housing, clothing, etc. And they need access to the opportunities that exist in society—opportunities for employment and education, for example. The various positions that exist within the economy in turn define the entitlements that persons have—wages, profits, access to food subsidies, rights of participation, etc. The material well-being of a person—the “standard of living”—is chiefly determined by the degree to which his or her “entitlements” through these various sources of income provide the basis for acquiring more than enough goods in all the crucial categories to permit the individual to flourish (Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). If wages are low, then the consumption bundle that this income will afford is very limited. If crop prices are low, then peasants will have low incomes. If business taxes are low, then business owners may retain more business income in the form of profits, which will support larger consumption bundles and larger savings. There is thus a degree of conflict of interest among the agents within the economic system; the institutions of distribution may favor workers, lenders, farmers, business owners, or the state, depending on their design. And it is very possible for economic development to proceed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the upper levels of society without leading to much change at the bottom.

Here I want to review an important empirical example of economic development without commensurate gain for the poor of the region: the effects of the Green Revolution in the rice-growing regions of Malaysia. James Scott provides a careful survey of the development process in Malaysia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985). The chief innovations were these: a government-financed irrigation project making double-cropping possible; the advent of modern-variety rice strains; and the introduction of machine harvesting, replacing hired labor. Scott considers as relevant factors the distribution of landholdings, the forms of land tenure in use, the availability of credit, the political parties on the scene, and the state's interests in development.

Scott's chief finding is that double cropping and irrigation substantially increased revenues in the Muda region, and that these increases were very unequally distributed. Much of the increase flowed to the small circle of managerial farmers, credit institutions, and outside capitalists who provided equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Finally, Scott finds that the lowest stratum—perhaps 40%—has been substantially marginalized in the village economy. Landlessness has increased sharply, as managerial farms absorb peasant plots; a substantial part of the rural population is now altogether cut off from access to land. And mechanized harvesting substantially decreases the demand for wage labor. This group is dependent on wage labor, either on the managerial farms or through migration to the cities. The income flowing to this group is more unstable than the subsistence generated by peasant farming; and with fluctuating consumption goods prices, it may or may not suffice to purchase the levels of food and other necessities this group produced for itself before development. And these circumstances have immediate consequences for the ability of poor households to achieve the development of their human capabilities. Their nutritional status, their health, their literacy, and their mobility are all directly impaired by the fact of low and unstable household income. Finally, the state and the urban sector benefits substantially: the increased revenues created by high-yield rice cultivation generate profits and tax revenues that can be directed towards urban development.

Scott draws this conclusion:
The gulf separating the large, capitalist farmers who market most of the region's rice and the mass of small peasants is now nearly an abyss, with the added (and related) humiliation that the former need seldom even hire the latter to help grow their crops. Taking 1966 as a point of comparison, it is still the case that a majority of Muda's households are more prosperous than before. It is also the case that the distribution of income has worsened appreciably and that a substantial minority—per­haps 35‑40 percent—have been left behind with very low incomes which, if they are not worse than a decade ago, are not appreciably better. Given the limited absorptive capacity of the wider economy, given the loss of wages to machines, and given the small plots cultivated by the poor strata, there is little likelihood that anything short of land reform could reverse their fortunes. (Scott 1985:81)
This example well illustrates the problems of distribution and equity that are unavoidable in the process of rural development. The process described here is one route to "modernization of agriculture," in that it involves substitution of new seed varieties for old, new technologies for traditional technologies, integration into the global economy, and leads to a sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture. Malaysia was in effect one of the great successes of the Green Revolution. At the same time it created a sharp division between winners and losers: peasants and the rural poor largely lose income, security, and autonomy; while rural elites, urban elites, and the state gained through the increased revenues generated by the modern farming sector.

Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, and Benjamin White's Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (1989) provides detailed case studies of these sorts of processes of property and power in development in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The German debate over method

A prior post described a major debate around 1900 in the French academic world over the terms of exchange among history, geography, and sociology. The debate also involved disagreements among France's academic elites over the structure of the future French university system. This was sometimes referred to as the "new Sorbonne" debate, and it had important implications for future developments in French social and historical thinking (post on French sociology).

Germany underwent its own debates about similar issues at about the same time. At stake was the fundamental question, how should the human sciences be construed? The central axes of these debates were positivism and the search for general causal explanations, and historicism and the search for hermeneutic understanding of specific individuals and historical moments.  The several schools of thought offered very different ideas about how best to understand the social world.  A central point of debate was the famous distinction drawn by Wilhelm Windelband between nomothetic and idiographic sciences.  Fritz Ringer formulates Windelband's distinction (1894) in these terms:
Methodologically, the empirical disciplines in fact fall into two groups: the Gesetzeswissenschaften pursue "nomothetic" knowledge of the general in the form of invariant "laws"; the Ereigniswissenschaften strive for "idiographic" knowledge of singular patterns or events. (Ringer, 32)
Within the terms of this distinction, the historicists were offering idiographic knowledge, whereas the natural scientists were offering nomothetic knowledge.  And the more positivist theorists of the human sciences argued that the social sciences should aspire to the kind of generality and universality that is required by nomothetic science.

These German debates played key roles in the development of twentieth-century sociology.   Just as Durkheim played centrally in the French debate, Max Weber was a key actor in the German debates.  His own treatment of the historical school is contained in several essays in Roscher and Knies and Critique of Stammler, and his later development was deeply influenced by his engagement with these controversies.  (G. H. von Wright's Explanation and Understanding provides a philosopher's analysis of the two traditions.)

Fritz Ringer's Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences is a good source on the content and importance of the German methodology debate about the cultural sciences.  Ringer attempts to understand the logic of Weber's conception of methodology and theory in sociology through his responses to historicism, positivism, and verstehen theory.  Weber was committed to contributing to a scientific study of society; but what does science require when it comes to human society?  These strands of historical and social thought in German intellectual life imply rather different answers to this question.  And Ringer argues that Weber's methodology is designed to make sense of the valid insights of each current of thought.  Ringer holds that Weber's approach is both causal and interpretive; both general and particular.

Another important study of this set of debates is Woodruff Smith's 1991 book, Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840-1920 (Google Books link).  Here is how Smith describes his subject:
In the nineteenth century, there appeared a new group of academic disciplines that took culture as a primary object of scientific study.  These included anthropology in its many varieties, human geography, culture history, and branches of psychology that focused on culture.  In other fields, the concept of culture became a significant part of the apparatus of interpretation.  Bodies of theory about culture emerged, often overleaping the boundaries between disciplines.  The development of these "cultural sciences" was an international phenomenon to which people of all major European nations and the United States contributed.  But distinctive national approaches also revealed themselves, each largely shaped by the public context of intellectual life in a particular country.
This book is concerned with the cultural sciences in Germany between the 1840s and about 1920.  During those years, German academia exercised its most profound influence on the rest of the world -- an influence that is generally acknowledged in some cultural sciences, for example geography, but to which rather little attention is paid in others, such as cultural anthropology.  In the German intellectual setting, Kulture and Kulturwissenschaft came to have many meanings.  Here we shall concentrate on cultural scientists who believed that they were practicing a nomothetic science (i.e., searching for the laws of human society as revealed in culture) and who regarded culture itself mainly in its anthropological sense. (3)
Ringer is writing as an historian of ideas, and he borrows an important concept from Bourdieu as an intellectual framework for his analysis -- the idea of an intellectual field.  He explains the idea in these terms:
I have elsewhere drawn upon Pierre Bourdieu's writings to define the "intellectual field" as a constellation of positions that are meaningful only in relation to one another, a constellation further charactrized by differences of power or authority, by the opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and by the role of the cultural preconscious, of tacit "doxa" that are transmitted by inherited practices, institutions, and social relations.  Specifying the vague notion of "context" in this way, one can see that individuals may stand in a variety of specific relationships to their intellectual and social environment. (5)
This concept works well for Ringer's purposes, because it permits analysis of both the intellectual and the institutional settings of the debates that shaped Weber's thinking about the human sciences.  The structure of the university and the relations of power that existed within the academic world are relevant -- as was equally true in the case of the French debate; and the inherent logic and rational force of a given school of thought is determining as well for the formation of the young investigator's understanding of "sociology." To borrow a metaphor from Marx, "intellectuals make their own thoughts, but not in circumstances of their own choosing."  So the concept of intellectual field works well as a framework for the sociology of knowledge.

The historicist tradition included writers such as Ranke, Roscher, Knies, Schmoller, and Sombart.  (Joseph Schumpeter offers some notes on the historicist school in his massive volume on the history of economics, History of Economic Analysis (IV:4); Google Books link.)  Historicists reject the idea that the social sciences (or economics) should aspire to the discovery of universal laws of society or universal and unchanging human institutions.  The concrete study of specific economic institutions of the past -- economic history -- is a more insightful way of understanding the workings of economies than pure mathematical theories of competitive equilibria that are intended to apply in all times and places.  Johann Gustav Droysen was a particularly articulate critic of the positivist strand of thought.  "[Droysen's] main argument had to do with the divide between the search for regularities and the historian's predominant concern with the interpretive understanding of the unique and particular" (Ringer, 12).  Instead of general laws and uniform structures, the historicists argue that human society illustrates historical particularity and individuality -- in structures and institutions as well as persons.

Often this insistence on historical particularity converged with the hermeneutic view that social understanding always involves the interpretation of meaningful human action and motivation.  (Here is an earlier post on interpretation theory, and here is a post on the ways in which Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have adapted these ideas.)  Wilhelm Dilthey (1883) argued that the human sciences were profoundly different from the natural sciences because they involved interpretive understanding of human action rather than mechanical explanation of a system of causes.  Ringer observes, further, that another of the founders of modern sociology, Georg Simmel, arrived at a very similar theory of verstehen in the 1890s, and that Simmel's influence on Weber was greater than that of Dilthey.  Even more important for Weber, though, was a book by Heinrich Rickert, The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences (1902).  Rickert's theories reconsider the distinction proposed by Windelband, proposing that the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic knowledge does not correspond to the distinction between natural and social knowledge. 

The positivist framework became important in German intellectual life in the middle of the nineteenth century, though Ringer observes that "positivism" in the Comtean sense had virtually no advocates in German intellectual life prior to the Vienna Circle (post).  But there was a current of thought in Germany in the late nineteenth century that took its lead from the logic of the natural sciences and attempted to apply this model to the human sciences. Mid-century philosophers such as Friedrich Albert Lange advocated for a philosophy that combined the methods of the natural sciences with a neo-Kantian metaphysics (19).  Ringer singles out a stratum of what he calls "scientist-philosophers" -- Rudolf Virchow, Wilhelm Ostwald, Friedrich Ratzel, Adolf Bastian, Karl Lamprecht, and Wilhelm Wundt, as a group of intellectuals who brought the epistemic values of the natural sciences into an effort to construct the human sciences (20).  If there is to be such a thing as a social science, positivism maintains that it should have the same logical characteristics as natural sciences like physics and chemistry; and this was taken to mean that it should seek out lawlike generalizations that are independent of space and time.

One important voice representing a broadly naturalistic perspective on the social sciences was Carl Menger.  His critique of the historicist school from the point of view of pure economic theory is an important stage in the debate.
Our cognitive interest is directed either at the concrete phenomena in their position in space and time and at their concrete interrelationships, or else ... at the recurrent patterns in which they appear.  The former research direction aims at knowledge of the concrete or, more correctly, the individual, the latter at knowledge of the general. (Investigations into the Methods of the Social Sciences, quoted in Ringer, 16)
It appears that we could summarize the development of the two traditions as including a few branching streams of thought:
  • Positivism =====> science seeks to discover universal laws 
  •                   =====> science offers causal explanations

    Historicism =====> the historical and human sciences study particular human institutions in specific historical settings 
  •                    =====> the human sciences proceed through systematic interpretation of the subjective meanings and intentions of individual actors
The two major ideas associated with historicism can certainly be separated; one can accept the point that institutions are historically variable without accepting the unavoidably hermeneutic nature of social knowledge; and one could be a thorough-going hermeneutic without committing to the point about the historical boundedness of institutions or human nature.  And there is a similar disconnect on the side of positivism; as Ringer points out, it is possible to be a causalist without assuming that causes are ahistorical and universal.  One might take the view that a given kind of cause has a set of social powers within the context of one set of institutions but not another -- in the context of the Roman empire but not in the context of British colonialism. So both schools of thought have important distinctions collapsed within them.

Fundamentally we might say that these debates raised a small number of key questions: Is there a sharp distinction between the natural and social sciences?  Is causation relevant to the interpretation of human affairs?  Is there a distinctive method of interpretation of human action that underlies the scientific study of society and culture?  Are there laws that govern social phenomena?  Should the social sciences make use of universal concepts that apply in all times and places, or should its concepts be tailored to specific historical settings?  In what ways are "history" and "nature" distinguished?  Taking positions on these topics also sets the parameters for the kind of research and knowledge the social scientist will pursue.

From the vantage point of the present, it seems that we can provide some fairly compelling answers to these questions.  Social institutions are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent; so the historicists were right about this point.  Human action and human nature are historically conditioned as well, in the concrete and ordinary sense that "character," "motivation," "knowledge," and "identity" are all historical products; once again, the historicists were right.  The social sciences do not need to discover universal, timeless laws of society; such a quest is futile and inspired by a bad philosophy of science.  So the positivists and naturalists were wrong on this point, and the historicists were closer to the truth.

But this doesn't mean that we are forced to conclude that the social sciences are idiographic and particularistic.  Rickert was right in doubting the sharp distinction between human action and the natural world; it is entirely coherent to assert that human mentality and action are natural phenomena.  And there is plenty of room in the human sciences for a causal analysis of social change and social persistence.  But we should not understand these causal judgments as resting on an as-yet unknown set of causal laws.  Instead, we are better off working with an ontology of causal mechanisms, embodied in institutions and actions of persons.  And, finally, we are not forced to choose between idiographic and nomothetic science; instead, the social sciences should aspire to an empirical analysis of the world that is sensitive to the particularity of social institutions and identities, while at the same time discovering the limited generalizations that are made possible through the discovery of common social mechanisms.  In a sense, we might say that current historical sociology represents the resolution of these debates that took place in Germany in the 1870s through 1920s.  Researchers such as Tilly, Moore, Steinmetz, Adams, and Skocpol have made a great deal of progress in defining the balance between the particular and the general in their studies of complex historical processes.

(These historicism debates have also been of interest in recent Japanese social science research.  An interesting pair of contributions from a Japanese perspective are Yuichi Shionoya's The Soul of the German Historical School: Methodological Essays on Schmoller, Weber and Schumpeter and  The German Historical School: The Historical and Ethical Approach to Economics.)