Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls's A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for "meta-ethics" in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of "moral constitution" for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls's philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our "considered judgments" about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of "reflective equilibrium" as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls's approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls's theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, "what is the best theory of justice?", with the question, "what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?", there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls's description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls's assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the "maximize expected utility" rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the "maximin" rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we "maximize the minimum." (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not "what outcome would the rational agent choose?", but rather "what decision rule would the rational agent follow?".  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls's use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual--the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here -- anti-foundationalism and decision theory -- are consistent.  If Rawls's theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a "kind of moral geometry".)  What makes Rawls's use of decision theory "anti-foundationalist" is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine's notion of "The Web of Belief."

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls's moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman's excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Business interests and democracy

The central ideal of democracy is the notion that citizens can express their political and policy preferences through political institutions, and that the policies selected will reflect those preferences. We also expect that elected officials will act ethically in support of the best interests of the public. This is their public trust.

The anti-democratic possibility is that popular debates and expressions of preference are only a sham, and that secretive, powerful actors are able to secure their will in most circumstances. And in contemporary circumstances, that sounds a lot like corporations and business lobbying organizations. (Here is an earlier post on a report about corrupt behavior at the Department of the Interior.)

The January Supreme Court decision affirming the status of corporations as persons, and therefore entitled to unfettered rights of free speech, is the most extreme expression of the power of business, corporations, and money. As distinguished law professor Ronald Dworkin argues in the New York Review of Books (link), this decision dramatically increases the ability of corporations to influence elections and decisions in their favor -- vastly disproportionately to citizens' organizations. And, as Dworkin points out, corporations don't need to exercise this right frequently in order to have enormous impact on candidates and issues. The mere threat of a well-financed media campaign against key representatives will suffice to sway their behavior.

There are too many examples of pernicious influence of business interests on public policy. Take a useful policy that many states and cities have tested, pretrial release programs. It appears that the public interest has been defeated by ... the bail bondsmen. NPR ran a story on the pretrial release program in Broward, Florida (link). The program was successful, with a high appearance rate for court appearances and annual savings of $20 million for the county. But this program cost the bail bondsmen business. They hired a lobbyist, and in the dead of night the county commission scaled back the program. Here is how the "industry" describes the issue (link).  It is a pretty shocking story:
According to campaign records, Book [the lobbyist] ... and the rest of Broward's bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.
Keechl and several other commissioners declined NPR's repeated requests for an interview. At the meeting last January, they said they were concerned that Broward's pretrial program cost more than other counties' programs, and they vigorously denied that campaign contributions played any role.
Book had his work cut out for him. Broward's own county attorney wrote a memo warning commissioners that cutting back pretrial could be unconstitutional. But Book worked behind the scenes.
He met with commissioners, and according to county records, he had unusual access. That's because at the same time he was hired by the bondsmen to lobby commissioners, he was also hired by the commissioners to be their lobbyist. (transcript from NPR report)
The story makes the sequence pretty clear: Through the use of campaign contributions and influence of votes by commissioners, the bondsmen groups have prevailed to abandon the policy which was unmistakably in the public interest.  The commission acted in deference to the narrow financial interests of a business group; campaign contributions by that group played a decisive role; and an overburdened county government was denied a tool that was good public policy from every point of view.  And similar efforts are taking place in many cities.  So where is the public's interest? 

Or take the largest issues we face today in national politics -- cap-and-trade policy, healthcare reform, and the nation's food system. The influence of large financial interests in each of these areas is perfectly visible. Energy companies, coal companies, insurance companies and trade associations, and large food companies and restaurant chains pretty much run the show. Regulations are written in deference to their interests, legislation conforms to their needs and demands, and elected officials calculate their actions to the winds of campaign contributions. And the Supreme Court reverses a century of precedent and accords the rights of freedom of expression to corporations and unions that are enjoyed by individual citizens. So the influence of financially powerful corporations and industry groups will become even greater.

It would be deeply interesting if we had a sort "influence compass" that would allow us to measure the net deviation created by the private interests of companies and industries for a number of policy areas. How far from the due north of the public's interest are we when it comes to --
  • Environmental protection
  • Banking regulation
  • Insurance regulation
  • Energy policy
  • Cost-effective military procurement
  • Urban land use policy 
  • Airline safety
  • Licensing of public resources such as gas and coal leases
Of course the metaphor of "north" doesn't really work here, since there is no purely objective definition of the public good in any of these areas. That is the purpose of open democratic debate about policy issues -- what are the facts, what do we want to achieve, and what are the most effective ways of achieving our ends? But when private interests can influence decision makers to adopt X because it is good for the profits of industry Y -- in spite of the clear public interest in doing Z -- then we have anti-democratic distortion of the process.

Where are the democratic checks on this exercise of power? A first line of defense is the set of regulations most governments and agencies have concerning conflict of interest and lobbying. These institutions obviously don't work; no one who pays attention would seriously think that agencies and governments are uninfluenced by gifts, contributions, promises of future benefits, and the blandishments of lobbyists. And these influences range from slight deviations to gross corruption.  Moreover, influence doesn't need to be corrupt in order to be anti-democratic.  If an energy company gets a privileged opportunity to make the case for "clean coal" behind closed doors, this may represent a legitimate set of partial arguments.  The problem is that experts representing the public are not given the same opportunity.

A related strategy is publicity: requiring that decision-making agencies make their deliberations and decision-making processes transparent and visible to the public. Let the public know who is influencing the debate, and perhaps this will deter decision-makers from favoring an important set of private interests. Then-Vice-President Cheney's refusal to make public the list of companies involved in consultations to the National Energy Policy Development Group (link) is an instructive example; it is very natural to suspect that the recommendations put forward by the NEPDG reflected the specific business concerns of an unknown set of energy companies and lobbyists (link). So greater publicity of process can be a tool in enhancing the fit between policy and the public's interests. (Here are earlier posts on the capacity of publicity to serve as a check on bad organizational behavior (post, post).)

Another line of defense is the independent press and media. Our newspapers and magazines have historically had the resources and mission to track down the influence of private interests on the formulation of legislation, regulation, and policy. Bill Moyers is a great example (link); for example, his recent story on the role of campaign contributions in the election of judges (link). But the resources are disappearing and the cheerleaders at Fox News are gaining influence by the month. So relying on the investigative powers of an independent media looks like an increasingly long-odds bet.

So we have our work cut out for us to validate the main premise of democracy: that the interests of the public will be served faithfully by government without significant distortion by private business interests.

(Here is a recent post on C. Wright Mills' analysis of power elites and the influence accorded to corporations in the United States.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Equality and violence in Alabama, 1960s

image: Ben Shahn photo of Arkansas sharecropper

Creating civil and political rights for African Americans in the 1960s required courage and persistence by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.  The system of Jim Crow assured subordination in fundamental rights and needs for millions of rural southern black people -- the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to use public amenities, and the right to a decent education.  This system was held in place by the threat and reality of violence -- beatings, lynchings, shootings, and pervasive threats against individuals and families.  This kind of violent environment made it particularly difficult to see the road from subordination to equality.  The people of Lowndes County, Alabama, played a key role in this journey.  This is the core message of Hasan Kwame Jeffries' excellent recent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.  "Bloody Lowndes" was considered the most repressive and most violent area of black suppression in the South.  So success in achieving African American voter registration and elected representation would be an important step forward.

Here is how Jeffries describes the county:
Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965.  African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers.  They were also completely shut out of the political process.  There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. (Introduction)
Jeffries tells the story of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) and its effort to succeed in registering the black population of the county.  The struggle for equal rights in Lowndes County was nationally important, and SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael played a central role in the sustained effort.  This independent political party struggled to register black voters in order to gain elected offices for black candidates. The LCFO -- represented by the image of the black panther -- struggled for two years against violent opposition, attempting to exercise rights created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  (Huey Newton and Bobby Seale eventually drew inspiration from the LCFO and its symbol in the establishment of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.)

Racist violence in Lowndes County was common, and it is instructive to listen to oral histories of people who were there.  One example is Professor Gloria House, who participated in the SNCC effort to mobilize the county as a young Berkeley graduate student who "went south".  Here is an interview in which she offers a first-hand account of one particularly violent incident in Lowndes County. It is an important and dramatic testimony about the period.  Dr. House describes the arrest of a small group of SNCC workers; their imprisonment in the local jail for two weeks; their release; and the murder of one of the SNCC workers at the hands of white extremists.

A crucial part of the story of Lowndes County that Jeffries tells is the role that forcible resistance played.  The example of nonviolent protest was available, of course, through the strategies and actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But in the face of shotguns, torches, and ropes, the tactics of vigils, demonstrations, and boycotts seemed inadequate to the task.  Part of the success of the LCFO movement in Lowndes County was the clear statement by ordinary people in the county that they would not be intimidated, and that they would defend their rights and their lives with force if necessary.

It is interesting to compare Jeffries' detailed study of the struggle in Lowndes County with the more general treatment of the movement in Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  McAdam looks in detail at the factors across the South that facilitated or impeded the movement for civil and economic rights.  But Lowndes County doesn't come into his narrative directly.  More generally, the factor of "forcible resistance" doesn't play much of a role in his theoretical analysis.  Generally his view appears to be that forcible resistance was largely counter-productive to the movement, in that it stimulated vastly greater white supremacist response (142).  This question is worth examining in detail; there is a commonsense logic that implies that a population that makes clear its willingness to use force to defend itself against violence would deter violent attack.  So we might speculate that populations with this willingness to use force in self-defense would be more successful in establishing a zone of rights in local society.

It is important to recognize clearly and honestly the degree of violence that was exercised through the rule of the Jim Crow South, and the role that armed self-defense sometimes played in the struggle for equal rights.  It is one of the remarkable achievements of the American civil rights movement that its leaders and followers were able to steer their course towards freedom in a way that ultimately quieted the appeal to violence on all sides.

(Here is some background on Lowndes County, Alabama (link).  The ChangeDirection blog has a good multi-part series of posts on Stokely Carmichael's evolution as a leader in Lowndes County and nationally.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What do we want from sociology?

Let's say we've absorbed the anti-positivism argued many times here -- sociology should not be modeled on the natural sciences, we shouldn't expect social phenomena to have the homogeneity and consistency characteristic of natural phenomena, and we shouldn't expect to find social laws.  What remains for the intellectual task of post-positivist sociology?  What do we want from sociology?

Here are a handful of topics that are both important and feasible.
  • description and theory of social movements / collective action / popular politics
  • comparative study of large historical social-political formations such as fascism, colonialism, fiscal systems
  • descriptive analysis of social inequalities (race, gender, class, ethnicity) and their mechanisms
  • descriptive and theoretical accounts of major social institutions (corporations, unions, universities, governments, religions, families) and how they work (mechanisms)
  • Concrete studies of identity formation
So there is plenty for a post-positivist sociology to do. But more specifically, what can the science of sociology offer us? To start, we would like to understand some of the myriad social processes that surround us. We would like to understand how social stratification works; how economic power is translated into political power; why racial disadvantage persists from one generation to another; and what leads people to behave as they do in specific social settings. To put a name on this, we would like to have convincing theories of social mechanisms and processes, and some idea of how these aggregate into larger social processes.

Second, to whatever degree possible, we would like to have theories of social behavior that will permit us to intervene to prevent undesirable outcomes. We would like to greatly reduce the rate of teen violence in cities like Detroit and Chicago. And this requires theories of the factors that lead to the behavior so we can have some hope of designing solutions. So we would like for sociology to provide a degree of theoretical support for the design of helpful social policies.

Third, we would like for sociology to be an empirical discipline. And thus means that we want to "test" or otherwise empirically evaluate the hypotheses and theories produced by sociologists.

All three of these goals seem to point in the direction of a sociology of the middle range (as Robert Merton put it) -- theories that attempt to capture mid-range social processes such as racial discrimination in housing, power brokerage, or identity formation. The value of this level of focus is parallel to the three points just made. Mid-level analysis is suitable to investigation and discovery of social mechanisms. Mechanisms and processes at this level are likely to be most useful when it comes to designing policies and social interventions. And, finally, this level of sociological theory is most likely to admit of empirical investigation and validation through piecemeal inquiry.

What this suggests to me is that piecemeal inquiry into specific social phenomena is a more promising approach than grand unifying sociological theories. And this in turn suggests the metaphor of toolbox rather than orrery -- a collection of explanatory hypotheses rather than a unifying theoretical system.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Scientific realism for the social sciences

What is involved in taking a realist approach to social science knowledge? Most generally, realism involves the view that at least some of the assertions of a field of knowledge make true statements about the properties of unobservable things, processes, and states in the domain of study.  Several important philosophers of science have taken up this issue in the past three decades, including Rom Harre (Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity) and Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science).  Peter Manicas's recent book, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding, is a useful step forward within this tradition. Here is how he formulates the perspective of scientific realism:
The real goal of science ... is understanding of the processes of nature. Once these are understood, all sorts of phenomena can be made intelligible, comprehensible, unsurprising. (14)
Explanation ... requires that there is a "real connection," a generative nexus that produced or brought about the event (or pattern) to be explained. (20)
So realism has to do with discovering underlying processes that give rise to observable phenomena. And causal mechanisms are precisely the sorts of underlying processes that are at issue.  Here is how Manicas summarizes his position:
Theory provides representations of the generative mechanisms,including hypotheses regarding ontology, for example, that there are atoms, and hypotheses regarding causal processes, for example, that atoms form molecules in accordance with principles of binding. We noted also that a regression to more fundamental elements and processes also became possible. So quantum theory offers generative mechanisms of processes in molecular chemistry. Typically, for any process, there will be at least one mechanism operating, although for such complex processes as organic growth there will be many mechanisms at work. Theories that represent generative mechanisms give us understanding. We make exactly this move as regards understanding in the social sciences, except that, of course, the mechanisms are social. (75)
Manicas's illustrations of causal powers and mechanisms are most often drawn from the natural world. But what basis do we have for thinking that social entities have stable causal properties -- let alone a profile of causal powers that are roughly invariant across instances?

Consider an example, Theda Skocpol's definition of social revolutions:
Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of socio-economic and political institutions, and--as Lenin so vividly reminds us--social revolutions are accompanied and in part effectuated through class upheavals from below. It is this combination of thorough-going structural transformation and massive class upheavals that sets social revolutions apart from coups, rebellions, and even political revolutions and national independence movements. (link)
Realism invites us to consider whether "social revolutions" really have the characteristics she attributes to them.  Do social revolutions have an underlying nature distinctive causal powers that might be identified by a social theory?  More generally, what basis do we have for thinking that certain types of social entities possess a specific set of causal powers?

The answer seems to be, very little.  Types of social entities -- revolutions, states, riots, market economies, fascist movements -- are heterogeneous groupings of concrete social formations rather than "kinds" along the lines of "metal" or "gene".  Each of the extended historical events that Skocpol offers as instances of the category "social revolution" is unique and contingent in a variety of ways; these historical episodes do not share a common causal nature.  It is legitimate to group them together under the term "social revolution"; but it is essential that we not commit the error of reification and imagine that the group so constituted must share a fundamental causal nature in common.  So the most direct application of this kind of realism to the social sciences seems somewhat unpromising.

But we are on firmer ground when we consider a particularly central type of assertion in the social sciences: claims about underlying causal mechanisms or social processes.  So what does it mean to assert that a given social mechanism "really exists"? 

Take the idea of "stereotype threat" as one of the mechanisms underlying an important social fact, the racial and gender differences in performance that have been observed on some standardized tests (Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, "Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans" (link); see also this article in the Atlantic).  We can summarize the theory along these lines: "Prevalent assumptions about the characteristics and performance of various salient social groups can depress (or enhance) the performance of members of those groups on intellectual and physical tasks.  This provides a partial explanation of the observed differentials in performance."  This mechanism is hypothesized as one of the ways in which performance by individuals in various groups is socially influenced in such a way as to lead to differential performance across groups.  It postulates a set of internal psychological mechanisms surrounding cognition and problem-solving, all related to the individual's self-ascribed social identity.

The realism question is this: do these hypothetical psychological effects actually occur in real human individuals?  And do these differences in cognitive processes lead to differential performance across groups?  If we confirm both these points, then we can conclude that "stereotype threat is a real social psychological mechanism."  The microfoundations of this mechanism reside in two locations: the concrete cognitive processes of the individuals, and the social behaviors of persons around these individuals, giving subtle cues about stereotypes that are discerned by the test-taker.

So we might say that we can conclude that a postulated social mechanism "really" exists if we are able to provide piecemeal empirical and theoretical arguments demonstrating that the terms of the mechanism hypothesis are confirmed in the actions and behavior of agents; and that these patterns of action do in fact typically lead to the sorts of outcomes postulated.  In other words, we need to look at our hypotheses about social mechanisms as small, somewhat separable theories that need separate empirical, historical, and theoretical evaluation.  And when we are successful in providing convincing support for these mechanism-theories, we are also justified in concluding that the postulated mechanism really exists.  The social world really embodies stereotype threat if individuals are really affected in their cognitive performances by the sorts of subtle behavioral cues mentioned by the theory, in roughly the ways stipulated by the theory.  And we will feel most confident in this assertion if we also find new areas of behavior where this mechanism also appears to be at work.

This approach has an important implication about social ontology.  The reality of a social mechanism is dependent on facts about agents, their characteristics of agency, and the environment of social relationships within which they act.  So there is a close intellectual relationship between the ontology of methodological localism and realism about causal mechanisms.

(The smokestack image above illustrates a different kind of social mechanism -- the workings of externalities in a market economy, creating pollution by dumping public harms to save private costs.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Symbolic logic and ontology

image: theorem from Russell and Whitehead, Principia Mathematica

In what ways do the abstract features of symbolic logic reflect characteristics of thought?

The syntax of symbolic logic is illustrative.  First order predicate theory provides syntactic categories for individuals (a, b, c; x, y, z), properties (Fx, Gx), relations (xRy), n-place relations (R(x1, ..., xn)), logical connectives (∧, ∨, ~, ⊃), and quantifiers (∀x, ∃x).  We also need to introduce the notation of mathematical functions (x = f(w,y,z)) -- though this represents a significant expansion of the formal power of symbolic logic.  Individuals are objects that possess properties and fall within relations with other objects.  Properties and relations may be interpreted intensionally or extensionally: in terms of a verbal definition or in terms of a class of objects possessing the property or relation.  Functions are mathematical relations specifying the value of the dependent variable for all settings of the independent variables.

This syntax permits us to formulate statements about individuals and their properties and relations:
  • Bj (John is bald)
  • jTa  (John is taller than Alice)
  • ∃x(xTa)  (there exists some x such that x is taller than Alice; someone is taller than Alice)
  • ∀x(Cx ⊃ xTa) (for all x, if x is C then x is taller than Alice; all members of the choir are taller than Alice)
  • p = nRT/v (pressure equals n times R times temperature divided by volume)
So the syntax of symbolic logic has a relationship to a small subset of English syntax: nouns (singular and generic), adjectives, and relation terms.  What this syntax lacks is a direct way of expressing "doing" or becoming -- verbs or process terms. To express a thought like "The Roman Empire was becoming more corrupt over time" we would need to do some gymnastics.  If we restrict ourselves to the predicate core of symbolic logic, then we would need to introduce a new predicate:
  • Cx = x is becoming more corrupt over time
  • r = Roman Empire
  • Cr = The Roman Empire is becoming more corrupt over time
This solution is unsatisfactory because it leaves elements of the statement that are inferentially relevant in English, invisible in the logical paraphrase.  This is precisely the idea of change over time.  If we make use of the conceptual machinery of mathematical functions and differential equations, then we can provide a more refined analysis of the sentence:
  • r = Roman Empire
  • C(x,t) = the degree of corruption possessed by x at time t
  • dC(r,t)/dt > 0 = the value of C for r is increasing over time
Here we have been able to represent change or process as a derivative: the rate of change of the value of the function with respect to time.  This gives us a way of representing action, process, and change; though it is an open question whether this formalism will suffice for all types of change.  Consider this statement: "Robert's personality has changed a lot over the past decade."  In order to capture this idea we need a set of characteristics that constitute personality -- that is, we need a theory or definition of personality; and we need to represent these characteristics as functions of time.  Suppose this is our working analysis of "personality":
  • A(x,t) = degree of agreeableness x shows at time t
  • E(x,t) = degree of extroversion x shows at time t
  • O(x,t) = degree of openness x shows at time t
  • N(x,t) = degree of neuroticism x shows at time t
  • C(x,t) = degree of conscientiousness x shows at time t
To say that Robert's personality is unchanging is the simplest case:
  • dA(r,t)/dt = dE(r,t)/dt = dO(r,t)/dt = dN(r,t)/dt = dC(r,t)/dt = 0
And to say that Robert's personality is changing in that he is becoming less agreeable and more neurotic might be paraphrased this way:
  • dA(r,t)/dt < 0 ∧ dN(r,t)/dt > 0
It is a premise of logical positivism, including Bertrand Russell in Principia Mathematica, Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, and Rudolph Carnap in The Logical Structure of the World, that all the knowledge claims of science can be formulated using only these syntactic elements.  (In fact, it is possible to reduce the logical connectives to a single connective, the sheffer stroke ("not and"), and the quantifiers to a single quantifier and the negation sign.)  The vocabulary of a science consists of a finite number of primitive (undefined) terms and a number of terms defined in terms of logical compounds of primitive terms.  For example, mass, time, and location might be primitive terms in classical mechanics; then velocity and momentum are defined as logical compounds of these primitives.  And this view of the adequacy of first-order predicate logic for the whole of science implies something like  claim of "concept neutrality": the vocabulary of any science can be reformulated in terms of these simple logical elements.

Does this formulation help when it comes to inquiring about our "conceptual schemes" when we attempt to categorize the social world (link)?  Not very much. The hard questions that arise when we attempt to articulate a conceptual system for analyzing personality, social movements, revolutions, or ideologies are not aided by the putative fact that we could represent any adequate scheme of concepts in terms of the formalism of first order predicate theory plus mathematical functions. If we were willing to treat revolutions as discrete historical individuals with fixed properties, then of course it is true that we can formulate our theories of revolution in terms like these:
  • "All revolutions involve either widespread social unrest or defeat in war."
  • ∀x(Rx ⊃ (Ux ∨ Dx)) [all historical things are such that if they are revolutions then either they possess social unrest or experience defeat in war]
The ontological problem is simply this: revolutions are not uniform across instances or across time.  Revolutions do not have fixed, invariant properties.  So we cannot really treat revolutions as individuals over which we can quantify.  And the syntactical choice of representing "revolutions" as unchanging individuals is unsatisfactory.

Two observations seem justified.  First, the syntax of first-order predicate theory plus functions probably succeeds as a "grammar" within which we can express any knowledge claim in science.  (The most obvious exception is modal logic: claims that express necessity and possibility.  But many philosophers and scientists would argue that modal claims are not necessary to the vocabulary of science.)  But second, this logical syntax does not help to solve the deep conceptual and theoretical problems that must be addressed in real exercises of social science.  To define "revolution," "corruption," or "anomie" requires conceptual work that goes beyond the task of representing a given system of scientific statements in terms of a set of predicates and functions.  So symbolic logic is simply a scheme of representation, not a master system of concepts and syntax.

(See an earlier posting on these issues under the rubric of "Knowledge Claims in the Social Sciences".)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Theory" in sociology

What is a sociological theory? And how does it relate to the challenge of providing explanations of social facts?

In the natural sciences the answer to this question is fairly clear. A theory is a hypothesis about one or more entities or processes and a specification of their operations and interactions. A theory is articulated in terms that permit rigorous and unambiguous derivation of implications for the behavior of a body of phenomena -- perhaps through specification of a set of equations or through a set of statements with deductive consequences. A theory may specify deterministic properties of a set of entities -- thus permitting point predictions about future states of the relevant system; or it may specify probabilistic relations among entities, giving rise to statements about the distribution of possible future states of the system. And a theory is provided with a set of "bridge" statements that permit the theorist to connect the consequences of the theory with predictions about observable states of affairs.

So in the natural sciences, theories are expected to have precise specification, deductive consequences, and specific bridge relationships to observable phenomena.

Is there anything like this construct in the social sciences?

The question of the role of theory in social thinking is a complex one, and the concept of theory seems to be an ambiguous one (as Gabriel Abend points out in an article mentioned below). At one end of the spectrum (is it really a spectrum?) is the idea that a theory is a hypothesis about a causal mechanism. It may refer to unobservable processes (and is therefore itself "unobservable"), but it is solidly grounded in the empirical world. It postulates a regular relationship between or among a set of observable social factors; for example, "middle class ideology makes young people more vulnerable to mobilization in XYZ movements."

At a much more abstract level, we might consider whether a theory is a broad family of ideas, assumptions, concepts, and hypotheses about how the world works. So Marxism or feminism might represent a theory of the forces that are most important in explaining certain kinds of phenomena. We might refer to this broad collection of ideas as a "theory".  Or we might instead regard this type of intellectual formation as something more than a theory -- a paradigm or mental framework -- or something less than a theory -- a conceptual scheme.

Consider this taxonomy of the field of social knowledge-creation:
  • concepts -- a vocabulary for organizing and representing the social world
  • theory -- one or more hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes
  • mental framework / paradigm -- a set of presuppositions, ontological assumptions, guiding ideas, in terms of which one approaches a range of phenomena
  • epistemology -- a set of ideas about what constitutes valid knowledge of a domain
And we might say that there is a generally rising order among these constructs. We need concepts to formulate hypotheses and theories; we need theories to give form to our mental frameworks; and we need epistemologies to justify or criticize theories and paradigms.  In another sense, there is a descending order from epistemology to framework to concepts and theories: the framework and epistemology guide the researcher in designing a conceptual system and a set of theoretical hypotheses.

Where do constructs like feminism, critical race theory, or Marxism fall within this scheme?  We might say that each of these bodies of thought involves commitments in each of these areas: specialized concepts, specific causal hypotheses, an organizing framework of analysis, and an epistemology that puts forward some specific ideas about the status of knowledge and representation.

The theory of "resource mobilization" and social movements is somewhat less comprehensive (McAdam and Snow, Readings on Social Movements: Origins, Dynamics, and Outcomes; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings ; link, link, link).  It functions as a linked body of hypotheses about how social movements arise.  So RMT is a good example of the limited conception of theory.  Zald, McCarthy, Tilly, McAdam, and others purport to identify the controlling causal variables that explain the success or failure of mobilization around grievance. Their theories reflect a mental framework -- one that emphasizes purposive rationality (rational choice theory) and material factors (resources).  And they offer specific hypotheses about mobilization, organization, and social networks.

Gabriel Abend's article "The Meaning of Theory" (link) in Sociological Theory (2008) is a valuable contribution on this subject. Abend offers explications for seven varieties of theories and shows how these variants represent a wide range of things we might have in mind by saying that "theory is important."  Here are his formulations:
  1. Theory1. If you use the word ‘theory’ in the sense of theory1, what you mean by it is a general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables.
  2. Theory2. A theory2 is an explanation of a particular social phenomenon.
  3. Theory3. Like theory1 and theory2, the main goal of a theory3 is to say something about empirical phenomena in the social world. However, the main questions that theory3 sets out to answer are not of the type ‘what x causes y?’ Rather, given a certain phenomenon P (or a certain fact, relation, process, trend), it asks: ‘what does it mean that P?,’ ‘is it significant that P?,’ ‘is it really the case that P?,’ ‘what is P all about?,’ or ‘how can we make sense of or shed light on P?’
  4. Theory4. The word ‘theory’ and some of its derivatives are sometimes used to refer to the study of and the students of the writings of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas, or Bourdieu.
  5. Theory5. A theory5 is a Weltanschauung, that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. Unlike theories1, theories2, and theories3, theories5 are not about the social world itself, but about how to look at, grasp, and represent it.
  6. Theory6. Lexicographers trace the etymology of the word ‘theory’ to the late Latin noun ‘theoria,’ and the Greek noun ‘the¯oria’ and verb ‘the¯orein’ (usually translated as “to look at,” “to observe,” “to see,” or “to contemplate”). The connotations of these words include detachment, spectatorship, contemplation, and vision. This etymology notwithstanding, some people use the word ‘theory’ to refer to accounts that have a fundamental normative component.
  7. Theory7. Many sociologists have written about issues such as the ‘micro-macro problem,’ the ‘problem of structure and agency,’ or ‘the problem of social order.’ This type of work is usually thought to fall within the domain of sociological theory. One may also use the word ‘theory’ to refer to discussions about the ways in which ‘reality’ is ‘socially constructed’; the scientific status of sociology (value freedom, the idea of a social law, the relations between explanation and prediction, explanation and understanding, reasons and causes, and the like); or the ‘relativity’ of morality. In these examples the word ‘theory’ assumes a distinct meaning, which I distinguish as theory7. (177-181)
Abend comes to a very good conclusion about the ways we should think about theory -- and refrain from legislating the forms that theory can take.  He argues for a principle of "ontological and epistemological pluralism":
I believe that a satisfactory solution to SP [semantic predicament] should make as few ontological and epistemological demands as possible. The set of conditions under which the word ‘theory’ can be correctly used should not have too much built-in ontological and epistemological baggage. I call this the ‘principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism.’ The reason why I advocate this principle is, very roughly put, the following. Suppose sociologists made a certain picture of the world or idea about what can be known a prerequisite for something being a sociological theory at all. Consider some examples. We may demand that theories be underlain by the assumption that “the social world consists of fixed entities with variables attributes” (Abbott 1988:169). We may require that causality be taken to be the cement of the universe, the most important relation that can hold between two entities. Or, we could build into the definition of ‘theory’ the idea that social processes are regulated by laws of nature. Alternatively, we may demand the belief that the distinction between text and reality is misleading, or even the belief that there are no such things as ‘reality’ and ‘objectivity.’ Or else, we may demand the assumption that nothing exists but what can be actually observed or otherwise grasped by our senses, thereby denying existence to such ‘mysterious’ things as causality and similar ‘underlying theoretical mechanisms’ (Steinmetz 2005). In any of these scenarios, only to the extent that you shared the required ontology or epistemology, could you be said to have a theory of the social world. You could have other things about the social world—opinions, views, beliefs, ideas—but not a theory. By definition, that particular ontology or epistemology would be obligatory for one to be allowed to enter a theoretical discussion, make a theoretical contribution, or theorize at all. (195)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Works councils and US labor relations

image: Diego Rivera, Rouge Plant mural, Detroit Institute of Arts

The United States has one of the lowest rates of union representation of all developed countries. The 1994 level of unionized workers in the US had fallen to about 12 percent of private sector employment, and the trend is downward.  And the sole institutional form through which representation occurs in the US context is the union.  So the vast majority of American workers are left with no formal representation within the firm when it comes to wages, benefits, or work practices.

This situation contrasts strikingly with the labor-management institutions in place in much of Europe and Japan. In most other countries legislation establishes the opportunity or the mandate for a second form of worker representation within the workplace, the works council. Industry-wide unions establish wage levels; public policy stipulates the level of the "social wage"; and works councils provide an institutionalized context in which management and employees consult with each other, exchange workplace information, and work out firm-specific implementations of industry-wide agreements.  And, as Kathleen Thelen demonstrates, differences in the institutions surrounding labor in a market society can have major effects on important social and economic factors in the societies in which they are embedded (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan).

Joel Rogers and Wolfgang Streek's Works Councils: Consultation, Representation, and Cooperation in Industrial Relations is the result of an extensive NBER cross-country study of the economic and social effects of broadly implemented works councils in Europe and Japan. The bottom line is fairly clear: where they exist, these formal institutions of labor representation within the firm have clear theoretical and empirical benefits for productivity, worker skill levels, and willing patterns of cooperation between workers and management. (Richard Freeman's America Works: Critical Thoughts on the Exceptional U.S. Labor Market (2007) is a more general discussion of the singular nature of the American labor system.)

Generally speaking a works council system can be defined in these terms:
We define works councils as institutionalized bodies for representative communication between a single employer ("management") and the employees ("workforce") of a single plant or enterprise ("workplace"). (Rogers and Streek, 6)
This involves several aspects:
  • It is a system of mandatory consultation by management to give organized expression to the considered views of employees to contemplated changes.
  • Works councils do not have the authority to negotiate for wages and benefits; this is typically done by sectoral unions.
  • Works councils are typically firm-specific, limited to consultation and exchange of information about local decision-making.
The benefits associated with works councils in Europe and Japan are many and well documented  More specifically, the contributors found that works councils facilitate a number of welfare-enhancing outcomes:
  • Exchange of information
  • Enforcement of regulations
  • Improvement of mutual trust and labor productivity
  • Greater democracy and freedom for workers
  • Enhancement of productivity
  • Incentives for both management and employees to increase skill levels
Each of these outcomes is a substantial benefit within a market-based economic system. Take the issue of the enforcement of regulations, including OSHA rules, environmental regulations, and food safety assurance regimes. The inspectorate of the agencies responsible for these regulatory regimes cannot be sized to the levels needed to ensure enforcement through inspection and fines. There are simply too many workplaces and firms. And the only other current mechanism, private litigation when violations lead to individual damages, is too sporadic to constitute an effective enforcement regime.  So, for example, workplace accident rates are dramatically higher in the United States than Japan and Sweden; the US death rate is 3.5 times that of Japan and 5.8 times that of Sweden (398).  Works councils specifically empowered to gain knowledge about the regulatory requirements combined with detailed workplace knowledge can change this situation.

Or take the area of a cooperative exchange of information within the firm. When various actors have the opportunity and incentive to hoard information to further their particular interests -- whether management or employee -- then decisions will be faulty, efficiencies will be overlooked, and the production process will be less efficient than it could be. Works councils give employees a greater degree of confidence and trust in management and therefore a greater willingness to share useful workplace information. And management has a legal mandate to share pertinent information and to consult with employees about prospective decisions. These intersecting incentives and obligations promote a valuable cooperative exchange of information.

Richard Freeman and Edward Lazear go into detail in laying out the reasons grounded in microeconomics for expecting that works councils will be welfare-enhancing but need to be mandatory rather than voluntary.  Central to their analysis is the issue of information flow within a firm:
Economic theory recognizes that asymmetries in information between labor and management can produce inefficient social outcomes.  Different levels of a firm's hierarchy can use private information opportunistically, possibly through coalitions against other levels of the hierarchy. ...  Legal requirements that management disclose information to elected works councils raises the possibility that councils may help resolve the communication problem and raise rents. (33)
They also emphasize the benefits for quality of decision making that flow from the obligation to consult with employees.  "Consultation can increase enterprise surplus when workers offer solutions to firm problems that management fails to see ... and when management and labor together discover solutions to company problems that neither would have conceived separately" (44).

On first principles it would seem that the US economy would be better served by a system that incorporates works councils as a supplement to union representation. And workers are likely to be benefited in very specific ways --greater satisfaction in the workplace, greater involvement in a high-skills (and high-wage) economy, and a greater level of democratic equality. So what stands in the way of reforms leading in this direction? Joel Rogers considers this question in discouraging detail in the concluding chapter. The foundations of US labor law directly prohibit these forms of workplace representation, and the political will for implementing these policy changes is lacking on both sides. And it is difficult to see a gradual process of evolution in this direction based on voluntary establishment of these institutions by employers; the history of labor relations after both world wars suggest that these forms tend to extinguish when based on voluntary choices by enterprise owners. So it is difficult to see where the political will for this major reform of US labor relations might originate.

There is another consideration that favors the establishment of works councils that is not highlighted in this report -- the terrible situation of workers in the informal sector in the United States. Restaurant workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, non-unionized hotel workers, nannies, and housekeepers have very little ability to protect their interests and defend their legal rights. Health and safety standards apply to informal workplaces; all workers have a right to receive their wages in a timely way; and physical or verbal abuse should not be accepted in any workplace. But informal sector workers have very few means at their disposal to secure their rights in even these basic ways. Often undocumented, always in desperate need for a job, they are often at the mercy of bosses and managers who take advantage of them. There are emerging efforts to create analogs for works councils to help workers in these sectors to defend their rights and their livelihoods.  Intriguing experiments have emerged; for example, Restaurant Opportunity Centers in several cities (link) and Domestic Workers United in New York City (link). See Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream.  Here is an extended description of the book (link) and here is a link to her Economic Policy Institute working paper, "Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream".  Also of interest is the website for WorkingAmerica, the policy organization associated with the AFL-CIO.  Progress along these lines would sigificantly improve basic features of social justice in our society.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scott's social imagination

Image: Le Corbusier, Paris plan

What is most remarkable about Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is the texture and grain of the argument that Scott makes. This is a high-resolution argument that leaves little to doubt.

The guiding thesis is original and striking enough -- that a mental framework of "high modernism" guided the thinking of a wide range of twentieth-century reformers, from agricultural specialists to city planners to revolutionaries; and that this framework led to predictable disasters. Ecology, social behavior, and cityscapes are complex, involuted systems that demand locally tailored knowledge, and the abstract simplifications of scientific forestry or le Corbusier's geometric abstractions lead to unidimensional disasters. This is powerful and insightful stuff. (See an earlier post for more discussion of the main argument of the book.)

What I'd like to highlight here is something beyond this. It is the remarkable density and variety of the evidence upon which Scott draws to illustrate and confirm his thesis. This is a kind of research and discovery that seems to have virtually no counterpart in either the social sciences or the humanities.

His discussion of tropical agriculture is detailed and exact. He finds Edgar Anderson writing on Guatemalan gardens -- complete with diagrams; and it precisely confirms the point that traditional cultivator cultures have finetuned their crops and patterns of cultivation to the specific features of the micro-environment. He describes in great detail the goals, values, and drawings of le Corbusier and the plans he developed for Brasilia -- and these precisely capture the high modernist values that he has described. So Scott's thesis doesn't look like a hypothetical theory that needs to be confirmed through its consequences so much as an extended empirical interpretation that can be directly established or refuted.

It seems that Scott's thinking in this book -- the origins of the empirical, historical, and textual research that Scott eventually carried out -- began with the idea of legibility and state power, his insight that states seek to increase their ability to see and record the situations of their subjects. This is how he begins the book --
Originally, I set out to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around," to put it crudely.  In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill peoples on one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other.  ....  Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  (Introduction)
(This topic becomes the central focus in his next book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

But two other main insights accumulated as well.  A second and somewhat independent source of inspiration is Scott's longstanding respect for the knowledge systems and agency of ordinary people. Several strands of his research experience in Malaysia show up here --the mango tree and the ants, the local ecological wisdom of peasant farmers, and even the capacity of peasant communities to organize themselves. Scott has been face-to-face with local peasant knowledge, and he respects it. This knowledge he seeks to theorize as "Metis".

A third component of the inspiration and guiding thrust of the book is the puzzle of well-intentioned development disaster. Colonial agriculture and monocropping, Soviet collectivization, and city modernization all had some component of good intentions for human welfare; so why did they go so badly wrong?

Scott has taken these interests and has built a highly original, factual, and insightful argument.  He offers an interpretation of states, modernism, change, knowledge, and material culture that is exquisitely well matched to the historical details he provides.

It is as if we are watching a great art historian working through the corpus of a Picasso, shedding new light and insight on every page. But Scott isn't working with a previously defined corpus of paintings; he is pulling together wildly different areas of human behavior and building in the twentieth century. His canvas is the historical experience of twentieth century "modernization".  And he demonstrates a depth knowledge of each of these areas sufficient to nail the interpretation cold. In Scott's hands the high modernism thesis isn't just a sketchy hypothesis or theory; it becomes close to an established fact.

Perhaps the best analogy to the kind of work Scott has done here is a great synthetic historian of medieval France who maintains that this period was driven by a very specific set of guiding ideas -- and then demonstrates in micro-level detail the impact and manifestation of these ideas in the early kings, the Burgundian city, the Loire estate, and the Norman village. But I'm not aware of any historian who has offered this level of depth interpretation of France -- not Bloch, not Pirenne, not Braudel. Perhaps Le Roy Ladurie comes close in Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324; but Ladurie's canvas is small. A different parallel is with Schama's interpretation of France during its revolution in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution -- illustrating an interpretive point with small but deeply telling historical events like the Goncourts' balloon flight or the revolutionary monuments of Paris.

So what kind of work is this? Certainly not straight "political science". There is a good reason why Scott is named in the perestroika manifesto (post). It is not philosophy -- though it is admirably reflective, and in fact offers some original and valuable ideas about epistemology and ordinary knowledge.  It has some similarity to historical interpretation of an epoch -- though it is thoroughly empirical and detail-oriented. And in some ways it resembles a careful, innovative piece of interpretive work in the humanities -- literature, art history, music criticism -- in that it works back and forth between an interpretive hypothesis and careful, detailed work at the micro-level (text, painting, farming culture).  This is a powerful and original effort towards "understanding society" -- or at least important bits of the twentieth century.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The inexact science of economics

Image: social accounting matrix, Bolivia, 1997

Economics is an "inexact" science; or so Daniel Hausman argues in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics (Google Books link).  As it implies, this description conveys that economic laws have only a loose fit with observed economic behavior.  Here are the loosely related interpretations that Hausman offers for this idea, drawing on the thinking of John Stuart Mill:
  1. Inexact laws are approximate.  They are true within some margin of error.
  2. Inexact laws are probabilistic or statistical.  Instead of stating how human beings always behave, economic laws state how they usually behave.
  3. Inexact laws make counterfactual assertions about how things would be in the absence of interferences.
  4. Inexact laws are qualified with vague ceteris paribus clauses. (128)
Economics has also been treated by economists as a separate science: a science capable of explaining virtually all the phenomena in a reasonably well-defined domain of social phenomena.  Here is Hausman's interpretation of a separate science:
  1. Economics is defined in terms of the causal factors with which it is concerned, not in terms of a domain.
  2. Economics has a distinct domain, in which its causal factors predominate.
  3. The "laws" of the predominating causal factors are already reasonably well-known.
  4. Thus, economic theory, which employs these laws, provides a unified, complete, but inexact account of its domain. (90-91)
These characteristics of economic theories and models have implications for several important areas: truth, prediction, explanation, and confirmation.  Is economics a scientific theory of existing observable economic phenomena?  Or is it an abstract, hypothetical model with only tangential implications for the observable social world?  Is economics an empirical science or a mathematical system?

Let's look at these questions in turn.  First, can we give a good interpretation of what it would mean to believe that an inexact theory or law is "true"?  Here is a possible answer: we may believe that there are real but unobservable causal processes that "drive" social phenomena.  To say that a social or economic theory is true is to say that it correctly identifies a real causal process -- whether or not that process operates with sufficient separation to give rise to strict empirical consequences.  Galilean laws of mechanics are true for falling objects, even if feathers follow unpredictable trajectories through turbulent gases.

Second, how can we reconcile the desire to use economic theories to make predictions about future states with the acknowledged inexactness of those theories and laws? If a theory includes hypotheses about underlying causal mechanisms that are true in the sense just mentioned, then a certain kind of prediction is justified as well: "in the absence of confounding causal factors, the presence of X will give rise to Y." But of course this is a useless predictive statement in the current situation, since the whole point is that economic processes rarely or never operate in isolation. So we are more or less compelled to conclude that theories based on inexact laws are not a useable ground for empirical prediction.

Third, in what sense do the deductive consequences of an inexact theory "explain" a given outcome -- either one that is consistent with those consequences or one that is inconsistent with the consequences? Here inexact laws are on stronger ground: after the fact, it is often possible to demonstrate that the mechanisms that led to an outcome are those specified by the theory. Explanation and prediction are not equIvalent. Natural selection explains the features of Darwin's finches -- but it doesn't permit prediction of future evolutionary change.

And finally, what is involved in trying to use empirical data to confirm or disconfirm an inexact theory?  Given that we have stipulated that the theory has false consequences, we can't use standard confirmation theory.  So what kind of empirical argument would help provide empirical evaluation of an inexact theory?  One possibility is that we might require that the predictions of the theory should fall within a certain range of the observable measurements -- which is implied by the idea of "approximately true" consequences.  But actually, it is possible that we might hold that a given theory is inexact, true, and wildly divergent from observed experience.  (This would be true of the application of classical mechanics to the problem of describing the behavior of light, irregular objects shot out of guns under water.)  Hausman confronts this type of issue when he asks why we should believe that the premises of general equilibrium theory are true. But here too there are alternatives, including piecemeal confirmation of individual causal hypotheses. Hausman refers to this possibility as a version of Mill's deductive method.

I take up some of these questions in my article, "Economic Models in Development Economics" link, included in On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics.  This article discusses some related questions about the reliability and applicability of computable general equilibrium models in application to the observed behavior of real economies.  Here are some concluding thoughts from that article concerning the empirical and logical features that are relevant to the assessment of CGE models:

"The general problem of the antecedent credibility of an economic model can be broken down into more specific questions concerning the validity, comprehensiveness, robustness, reliability, and autonomy of the model. I will define these concepts in the following terms.
  • Validity is a measure of the degree to which the assumptions employed in the construction of the model are thought to correspond to the real processes underlying the phenomena represented by the model.
  • Comprehensiveness is the degree to which the model is thought to succeed in capturing the major causal factors that influence the features of the behavior of the system in which we are interested.
  • Robustness is a measure of the degree to which the results of the model persist under small perturbations in the settings of parameters, formulation of equations, etc.
  • Autonomy refers to the stability of the model's results in face of variation of contextual factors.
  • Reliability is a measure of the degree of confidence we can have in the data employed in setting the values of the parameters.
These are epistemic features of models that can be investigated more or less independently and prior to examination of the empirical success or failure of the predictions of the model."

(Hausman's book is virtually definitive in its formulation of the tasks and scope of the philosophy of economics.  When conjoined with the book he wrote with Michael McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy, the philosophy of economics itself becomes a "separate science": virtually all the important questions are raised throughout a bounded domain, and a reasonable set of theories are offered to answer those questions.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Conceptual schemes and social ontology

What does grammar tell us about the nature of our representations of the world? Do the linguistic categories that we use fundamentally shape the way we organize our understanding of the world? Do different cultures or different linguistic communities possess different "conceptual schemes"? Are different conceptual schemes incommensurable or can we translate from one to the other?  These questions come up in the context of any discussion of social ontology -- what does the social realm consist of?  In an earlier post we noticed that "thing" and "object" are ontological categories that perhaps don't work as well in the social realm. Perhaps more fluid categories such as process, relation, or activity work better.

First, what is a conceptual scheme?  It is an interrelated set of high-level, abstract concepts that allow us to break the empirically or historically given into a discrete set of cognitive boxes.  We might think of it as our highest-level concept vocabulary, within which more specific descriptors are arranged.  Our conceptual scheme gives us the mental resources needed to represent, describe, and explain the empirical reality we encounter.  Color, shape, mass, position, and force might be examples of components of a conceptual scheme for the realm of ordinary empirical experience.  Structure, group, ideology, and network might be components for the realm of ordinary sociological experience.  A conceptual scheme is thought in some way to be comprehensive: all the phenomena in a certain domain ought to find a place within the conceptual scheme.

Peter Strawson offered a very focused analysis of the everyday metaphysics involved in the ways we analyze and represent the world around us.  He proposes in Individuals (1959) that we can do "descriptive metaphysics" by examining the conceptual schemes we actually use.   And he argues that there are core conceptual categories that are universal.  (Paul Snowdon provides a useful discussion in his article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Here is Strawson's preliminary description of a conceptual scheme:
We think of the world as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world's history as made up of particular episodes in which we ourselves may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other.  These are remarks about the way we think of the world, our conceptual scheme.  A more recognizably philosophical, though no clearer, way of expressing them would be to say that our ontology comprises objective particulars....  Part of my aim is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular things. (Individuals, 15)
How might we begin to provide a "descriptive metaphysics" for social knowledge along the lines of what Strawson describes?  It is clear, to begin, that sociological analysis generally involves a rich and intertwined set of concepts and ontological assumptions about social phenomena.  Consider the range of approaches we might take in analyzing a complex historical phenomenon such as fascism: as a social movement, as a political psychology, as an expression of psychopathology, as an ensemble of ideological currents, as a set of political institutions, as a collection of social constituents, and so on, indefinitely.

More fundamentally, what conceptual choices do we need to make when we consider the swirling, fluid complexity of politics, culture, and struggle in Europe in the 1930s?  We might place ideological and cultural change at the center; we might focus on the artistic and literary creations of the period; we might emphasize power or social class; we might give primary emphasis to economic change; or we might be drawn particularly to differences in behavior and regime across countries and regions of Europe.  Each represents a different way of conceptualizing the historical reality of the 1930s in Europe.

So how can we make some progress towards analyzing social grammar or social conceptual frameworks?  We can ask this sort of question at two levels -- ordinary social cognition and language, and organized empirical social science.  At the ordinary-language level, we can ask questions like these: how do ordinary speakers represent the social world in which they live?  What is the nature of the American-English social vocabulary, the descriptive and referential terms that American people use to make statements, draw distinctions, and offer generalizations about the social world they inhabit?  At the level of theory, we can consider a given area of research and ask about the semantics and logical relationships associated with the terms that theorists use to describe and explain the phenomena of interest.

For ordinary language, we might find a list of common terms such as these:
  • Washington [the Federal government, the bureaucracy, the political system of the Congress, the major Federal agencies]
  • Lansing [state government and its bureaucracy]
  • justice / injustice [of taxation, affirmative action, executive salaries]
  • corruption [misuse of powers of office in private or public sectors]
  • major economic institutions [banks, banking system, corporations]
  • major economic facts and circumstances [unemployment, poverty, recession]
  • religious institutions
  • religious / ethnic identities
  • facts about race, racial differences, racial inequalities
  • interpretations of socially oriented behavior by others [altruism, egoism, pride, shame, rudeness]
  • judgments about unfavorable social change ["kids have no values anymore"]
Ordinary people use these concepts and other to organize and criticize their social world; and they are often articulate about what they mean by the various concepts.  But ordinary social cognition is perhaps less able to sketch out the relations that exist among the various social phenomena; this, perhaps, is one of the key tasks of social theory.  (Here is an earlier post on ordinary social cognition.)

Second, we might consider the vocabulary and conceptual resources of a given sociologist or sociological tradition.  For example, here are the main concepts Michael Mann uses in his description and analysis of European fascism in Fascists:
  • fascism [to be defined as "the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism"]
  • socialism
  • fascist followers and activists
  • power organizations
  • social movement
  • nation-state
  • nationalism
  • ideology
  • social constituency [groups characterized by status, class, occupation]
  • individuals
  • modernity
  • paramilitarism
  • authoritarian regime
  • democratic regime
  • capitalism [as an industrial social whole]
  • social power [ideological, economic, military, political]
  • individualism, racism, ethnic purity ideology [as components of ideology]
  • major events and crises -- World War I, the Great Depression
  • religious institutions and ideologies
These specific concepts could be related to a fairly short list of higher-level social concepts or what we might call social categories: individuals and their characteristics; social groups; structures; ideologies; events; influence terms [power, prestige, status].  But almost all the concepts on the list drawn from Mann's work involve a conceptual assemblage from the higher-level categories.  Capitalism is a set of structures, a set of social movements, and a set of ideologies.  Racism depends upon both structure and ideology.  Modernity is an ideological-cultural formation, a technological-scientific stage, and a socio-economic formation.  So the relation between the higher-level category system and mid-level sociological concepts is not one of subsumption but rather one of assembly, combination, or construction.

It is sometimes thought that our conceptual systems are simultaneously contingent and deeply influential in determining how we analyze the world around us.  Different conceptual systems lead to different and incommensurable representations of the world.  Donald Davidson wrote a pivotal essay on some of these questions ("On the very idea of a conceptual scheme" (1974; link)).  Here is how Davidson summarizes the conceptual-relativist view:
Conceptual schemes, we are told, are ways of organizing experience; they are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation; they are points of view from which individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene. There may be no translating from one scheme to another, in which case the beliefs, desires, hopes and bits of knowledge that characterize one person have no true counterparts for the subscriber to another scheme. Reality itself is relative to a scheme: what counts as real in one system may not in another. (5)
But ultimately Davidson argues that conceptual relativism and incommensurability are unintelligible.  They are claims that cannot be stated coherently.  And more positively, Davidson argues that we can understand each other's concepts and words by making use of a principle of charity: we interpret the other's speech, vocabulary, and syntax in such a way as to maximize the truth of statements he/she utters.
We do this sort of off the cuff interpretation all the time, deciding in favor of reinterpretation of words in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief. As philosophers we are peculiarly tolerant of systematic malapropism, and practised at interpreting the result. The process is that of constructing a viable theory of belief and meaning from sentences held true.  (18)
We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common sense, or scientific, knowledge of explicable error. (18)
(Here is a good discussion of Davidson's view in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

What is the situation in the field of social knowledge?  Are there deeply divided conceptual beginnings for the analysis of the social realm?  Or can we be confident in the mutual comprehensibility across practitioners of Marxist sociology, Durkheimian sociology, and ethnomethodology?

We can get some leverage on this question by asking whether we can provide concrete examples of candidates for alternative sets of social conceptual schemes.  For example, are individualism and holism distinct conceptual schemes for social cognition?  The first identifies human individuals as the fundamental "particular"; whereas the second identifies the social whole (structure, morality, ideology, class, way of life) as the fundamental particular.  The first requires that we define or specify higher-level social entities or conditions in terms of a compound of features of individuals; the second takes the social whole as irreducible and specifies individuals in terms of their relations to a set of social factors.

Here is another possible example -- perhaps materialism and idealism are distinct conceptual schemes within which to organize social experience.  The materialist scheme identifies a set of circumstances of the human organism (needs), the natural and build environment, and the forms of social activity that transform the environment as fundamental to social analysis.  The idealist scheme takes states of consciousness -- ideas, ideologies, moralities, wants, preferences, modes of reasoning -- as fundamental to social analysis and undertakes to characterize social facts in these terms.

Or consider a third possible example: structure and process.  A structure is an enduring configuration of social characteristics and positions, reproducing a set of powers and constraints for individuals enmeshed in these social relations.  A process is an ensemble of things in circumstances of change over time.  Structures emphasize permanence and stability; processes emphasize change and impermanence.  So perhaps the "structure" lens leads sociologists to a very different representation of the social world than the "process" lens.

These examples make it credible that there are in fact alternative conceptual beginnings from which we can analyze the social world.  What does not seem to be true, however, is the idea that these beginnings are incommensurable.  Instead, it seems persuasive that ideas and statements that originate in an ontology of social wholes can be effectively restated in an ontology that originates in a world of individuals; likewise, materialist and ideological approaches to the social world seem compatible and mutually constructive rather than contradictory and incommensurable.  The dichotomies considered here are not exclusive or incompatible.  In fact, any adequate explanation of a social process or outcome is likely to need to refer to both sets of categories.  And this implies something very similar to the position Strawson and Davidson arrive at: the idea of inter-translatability and mutual comprehension across these large conceptual divides.

(These questions converge to some extent with several other lines of thought -- the Whorf hypothesis (Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf), Quine's theories of indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity (Word and Object, Ontological Relativity), Kant's view that all knowledge is structured through a set of "categories" including cause, space, time, and objects (Critique of Pure Reason), and Kuhn's view of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).  Significantly, Strawson discusses Kant at length in The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and Davidson takes up the debate with Quine, Whorf, and Kuhn.)