Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Causal-mechanisms theory in Europe

The causal-mechanisms theory of social explanation has been influential throughout an extensive network of European philosophers and social scientists, often with a pretty direct connection to the analytical sociology research programme. Peter Hedstrom and his research network are particularly influential in this spread of ideas. It is worth mentioning a couple of books in the past ten years that have brought this approach to non-English speakers.

Philosopher Michael Schmid published Die Logik mechanismischer Erklärungen (The Logic of Mechanistic Explanation) in 2006. This appears to be the first full-length consideration of the "social mechanisms" theory of social explanation in German, and it is an impressive volume. Schmid also has an extensive chapter in English in Peter Demeulenaere's fine collection, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.

Schmid's book consists of careful analytical expositions of the theories of a dozen social scientists and philosophers who have advocated for this approach to social explanation, including both current and past proponents. Here is the table of contents, in my own non-expert translation, which gives an idea of the topics and authors Schmid concentrates on.

Michael Schmid, Die Logik Mechanismischer Erklärungen

1. The logic of sociological explanation

2. Philosophical foundations for an explanatory sociology

2.1 Mechanisms and the "Theory of complex phenomena" (Friedrich A. von Hayek)
2.2 Causality, social system, and mechanistic explanation (Mario Bunge)
2.3 Microfoundations and causal mechanisms (Daniel Little)

3. Mechanisms in sociological theory

3.1 Individual decisions and structural selection (Robert Merton)
3.2 Individual rationality and the interdependence of action (James S. Coleman)
3.3 Bridge principles and the transformation problem (Siegwart Lindenberg and Reinhard Wippler)
3.4 Macro-social phenomena and "rationality située" (Raymond Boudon)
3.5 Generative structuralism and generative mechanisms (Thomas J.Fararo)
3.6 Social mechanisms and the theory of rational decision-making (Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg)
3.7 Process mechanisms and causal reconstruction (Renate Mayntz)
3.8 "Generative mechanisms" and "structural models" (Hartmut Esser)

4.0 The research heuristic of mechanismic explanation

Many of these authors considered here are core to the analytical sociology framework, including especially Merton, Coleman, Boudon, Hedstrom, Swedberg, Mayntz, and Esser.

A second relevant book appeared in 2004 in Italian. This is Filippo Barbera's Meccanismi sociali: Elementi di sociologia analitica. As the title indicates, the book provides a programatic introduction to the social mechanisms approach as expressed within the analytical sociology framework. The contents are descriptive of the focus of the book (again, in my non-expert translation).

Filippo Barbera, Meccanismi sociali


I. Social mechanisms: history, authors, and objectives

I.1 Introduction
I.2 The Columbia School
I.3 Social mechanisms, theory of action and the crisis of the deterministic paradigm

II. Analytical sociology in the contemporary scene

II.1 Introduction
II.2 The relation between social theory and empirical research
II.3 Three principles for analytical sociology: causal processes, multi-level schemata, and formal theory

III. From macro to micro: the logic of the situation

III.1 Introduction
III.2 Interdependence between states: Sour Grapes and Ulysses and the Sirens
III.4 Institutional environments, exchange, and preferences
III.5 Training opportunities
III.6 Effect of social interaction
III.7 Structural effect

IV. The micro-micro axis: the principle of social action and rationality

IV.1 Introduction
IV.2 The forward-looking model
IV.3 The backward-looking model
IV.4 The cognitive model and framing

V. From micro to macro: aggregation and emergent effects

V.1 Introduction
V.2 Microfoundations of emergent effects
V.3 Strategic interdependency
V.4 Processual interdependence
V.5 Relational and spatial interdependence
V.6 Dynamic analysis of micro and macro

VI. Mechanisms in empirical research
VI.1 Introduction
VI.2 The diffusion of pharmacological innovation
VI.3 Individual educational choices
VI.4 Collective violence

VII. The integration of theory and social research

VII.1 Introduction
VII.2 Building the phenomena to be explained
VII.3 Postulating the generative mechanism
VII.4 Testing the mechanism

Here is a translation of a few lines from the introduction:
This book presents a theoretical perspective and empirical research that have gained growing acceptance in contemporary sociology. Many terms have been used to identify this perspective: "explanation by social or generative mechanisms", "sociological analysis", "sociology of causal processes", and "analytical sociology". Here we will use each of these expressions interchangeably. The book aims to rebuild from within the core of analytical sociology by isolating the principles and objectives shared, without carrying out a systematic comparison with other trends in contemporary sociology. This systematization had to first try to reduce the heterogeneity that characterizes the internal perspective of the social mechanisms approach, but not completely undo the specificities of the individual authors and the different proposals they put forward. The priority attention given to the objectives of clarification and synthesis of a complex and heterogeneous field has had to overshadow the critical evaluation of analytical sociology. This critical evaluation, incidentally, is not entirely absent, and in any case is made ​​more simple after we have specified the conditions and objectives of the approach. (7)
German philosopher Renate Mayntz also takes up issues on mechanistic explanation in the social sciences. Her 2009 book, Sozialwissenschaftliches Erklären, is a volume of essays on the philosophy of social science and social science methodology that address issues about mechanisms as well as the macro-micro link. Here is a rough translation of the table of contents:

Renate Mayntz, Sozialwissenschaftliches Erklären

1. Social science knowledge interests and cognitive capabilities: An Introduction
2. Research methods and cognitive potential: natural and social sciences in comparison
3. Invitation to shadow boxing: sociology and modern biology

4. Rationality in Social Science Perspective
5. Causal reconstruction: theoretical statements in actor-centered institutionalism
6. Social mechanisms in the analysis of social macro-phenomena
7. Individual action and social events: The micro-macro problem in social science
8. Emergence in Philosophy and Social Theory (in English)
9. Embedded Theorizing: Perspectives on Globalization and Global Governance (in English)

Mayntz's critical review article on the mechanisms literature appeared in 2004 in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and is available online here.

Also worth mentioning is recent work by Petri Ylikoski, including his excellent University of Helsinki 2001 dissertation, Understanding Interests and Causal Explanation (link). The dissertation is available online and provides an excellent basis for understanding many of the issues concerning causal explanation as they arise within the analytical sociology framework.

Each of these theorists relates directly or indirectly to the framework of analytical sociology and usually to Peter Hedstrom's group directly. Barbera was a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he worked closely with Hedstrom. Schmid demonstrates a close knowledge of Hedstrom's work and of the analytical sociology perspective more generally, and Hedstrom is one of the philosophers he focuses on in his book (3.6). Schmid also has sections on Mayntz, Boudon, and Esser, key figures in the literature of analytical sociology. Ylikoski has published co-authored papers with Hedstrom following the completion of his dissertation.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Is justice a security issue?

Most people would probably say they would prefer to live in a more just world to a less just one. There is a strong moral basis for preferring justice. But is this a consideration that states and large international organizations need to take into account as they design their strategies and plans for serving their present and future interests? Do national governments have good practical reasons to think about the consequences their policies and actions may have on the circumstances of justice in the world? What about policies and actions through which states attempt to secure their future economic wellbeing -- do policy makers need to pay attention to the social justice consequences of these actions?

There is a strong empirical and historical case for thinking that the answer to this question is "yes." Injustice is a source of resentment, indignation, and conflict. In the long run, the victims of injustice will not be ignored. Justice is a security issue for states and supra-national organizations, and simple prudence demands that policy makers take it into account. To put a simple label on this idea, justice is a security issue.

Here is a European Union statement about its longterm interests that makes this point fairly explicitly (link):
In the context of ever-increasing globalisation, the internal and external aspects of security are inextricably linked. Flows of trade and investment, the development of technology and the spread of democracy have brought prosperity and freedom to many people, while others have perceived globalisation as a cause of frustration and injustice. In much of the developing world, poverty and diseases such as AIDS give rise to security concerns, and in many cases economic failure is linked to political problems and violent conflict. Security is a precondition for development. Competition for natural resources is likely to create further turbulence. Energy dependence is a special concern for Europe.
What are the theoretical and historical arguments for this conclusion? Here are several.

On the side of theory, several points are well established. Chronic and unrelieved poverty leaves people with low attachment to their own societies and less for the global community. The frustration of very basic human needs is bound to fuel indignation and resistance. So poverty and deprivation are causes of resistance. But there is also evidence that inequality itself has negative consequences for a society's health; this is the central finding of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (link). Finally, the social psychology created by a system that is perceived to be unfair and exploitative is likely to breed resistance and lawless action. Barrington Moore, Jr. was right when in Injustice he wrote:
Without strong moral feelings and indignation human beings will not act against the social order. In this sense moral convictions become an equally necessary element for changing the social order, along with alterations in the economic structure. 469
Gareth Stedman-Jones summarizes Barrington Moore's conclusion in these terms: "His argument is that human beings in stratified societies accept hierarchies of authority, so long as these hierarchies are not merely imposed by force, but based upon an 'unwritten' social contract, which binds together dominant and subordinate groups in a set of mutual obligations" (link).

So there are good empirical reasons, based in social psychology and the study of contentious politics, for expecting that injustice breeds conflict.

Are there historical demonstrations of the consequences of injustice for disorder? There are. We have the examples of slave revolts throughout the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries; anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia following World War II; the sustained resistance of the Burmese and East Timor peoples to dictatorship; and the sustained struggle for equal rights in the United States by African Americans, sometimes punctuated by major urban riots. In each case a set of social institutions had been created that were profoundly unjust for a sizable population, and this population gathered resolve and courage in opposing those arrangements.

So the conclusion seems clear. If we want to have a world in which there is a sustainable level of the rule of law and a low level of social conflict, we need to invest in justice. We need to work to create a system in which all peoples can satisfy their most basic human needs; where everyone can feel that he/she is respected in her humanity; and where no one judges that the basic structure of social life is exploitative.

In other words, states are well advised to actively include the basic requirements of justice in their plans for the future. Otherwise they are simply creating the tinder for future conflict.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Current issues in causation research

This week's conference on Causality and Explanation in the Sciences in Ghent was an unusually good academic meeting (link). Participants gathered from all over Europe, as well as a few from North America, Australia, and South Africa, to debate the logic and substance of causal interpretations of the world. Among other things, it provided all participants with a very good sense of the ideas about causation that are generating the most discussion today.

A general perception that emerges from the gestalt of papers at the conference is that there are three large focus areas in current research on scientific causation. First, there is interest in specifying what causal assertions and concepts mean in scientific explanations. What are the logical, conceptual, and pragmatic issues associated with causal assertions and explanations?

Second, there is a large body of work focusing on the methods we can use to support causal inference in the sciences. Every field of science produces volumes of data about variables and events over time. What methods exist to permit inferences about causal relationships among the observed variables and entities? This includes causal modeling statistical methods, but also comparative methods deriving from Mill's methods of difference and similarity.

Third, there is a group of philosophers and scientists who are primarily interested in the ontology of causation in various parts of the sciences. How do various factors exercise causal powers in ecology, the social sciences, or complex systems? Researchers in these areas need provisional answers to questions raised by the first two groups, but their focus is on substantive causal processes rather than the logic of causal statements.

It is useful to inventory half a dozen approaches that were repeatedly cited. This survey is impressionistic but gives an idea of the current landscape.

The mechanisms approach. The idea that we can explicate causation through the idea of a mechanism has been rising in importance over the past twenty years. The idea here is that the fundamental causal concept is that of a mechanism through which X brings about or produces Y. This is argued to be key to causation from single-case studies to large statistical studies suggesting a causal relationship between two or more variables. Peter Hedstrom and other exponents of analytical sociology are recent voices for this approach for the social sciences, though expositions of this approach don't usually go into the level of detail expected by philosophers like Woodward and Cartwright. An important paper by Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden and Carl Craver, "Thinking about Mechanisms", sets the terms of current technical discussions; their view is referred to as the MDC theory. A common concern is that the approach hasn't been as clear as it should be about what precisely a mechanism is. James Mahoney made this criticism in 2001 in "Beyond Correlational Analysis" reviewing Charles Ragin, Fuzzy-Set Social Science and Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (link), and we still need a more generally recognized specification of the idea. (See an earlier post on this approach; link.)

The manipulability account. Jim Woodward is perhaps the leading exponent of the manipulability (or interventionist) account. He develops his views in detail in his recent book, Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. The view is an intuitively plausible one: causal claims have to do with judgments about how the world would be if we altered certain circumstances. If we observe that the concentration of sulphuric acid is increasing in the atmosphere, we might consider the increasing volume of H2SO4 released by coal power plants from 1960 to 1990. And we might speculate that there is a causal connection between these facts. A counterfactual causal statement holds that: If X (increasing emissions) had not occurred, then Y (increasing acid rain) would not have occurred. The manipulability theory adds this point: if we could remove X from the sequence, then we would alter the value of Y. And this in turn makes good sense of the ways in which we design controlled experiments.

Difference-making. Another strand of thinking about causation focuses on the explanations we are looking for when we ask about the cause of some outcome. Here philosophers note that there are vastly many conditions that are causally necessary for an event but do not count as being explanatory. Lee Harvey Oswald was alive when he fired his rifle in Dallas; but this doesn't play an explanatory role in the assassination of Kennedy. Crudely speaking, we want to know which causal factors were salient; which factors made a difference in the outcome. Michael Strevens provides a detailed and innovative explication of this set of intuitions in his recent book Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation, where he introduces his theory of "Kairetic" explanation.

Contrastive analysis as a theory of explanation. When we seek an explanation of something, we generally have something specific in mind: why X rather than X'? And an explanation that keys off the wrong contrast will fail, even though its premises are correct. Bas van Fraassen (1980), The Scientific Image, is often cited in this context. A conference participant, Petri Ylikoski, develops a contrastive counterfactual theory in his dissertation (link). This body of work seeks to clarify pragmatic issues concerning explanation, including understanding and explanatory relevance. If we ask for an explanation for why X occurred, we are usually presupposing a question like this:

Why did X occur [rather than Y]?
  • Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than not]?
  • Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than his raincoat]?
  • Why is John carrying his umbrella [rather than his assistant Harry]?
These all demand different answers:
  • Because he expects rain;
  • Because it is too warm for a raincoat;
  • Because Harry is carrying three heavy suitcases.
Here is a much-cited review article by Nancy Cartwright on van Fraasen's work (link), and here is a discussion of contrastive explanation by Jonathan Schaffer (link).

Causal modeling theory. This topic refers to the large body of statistical theory devoted to identifying potential causal relationships among observable variables in a large data set. Hubert Blalock is a founder of this approach (Causal Inferences in Nonexperimental Research; 1964) with his statistical models for causal path analysis. (Here is a short account of the history of path analysis in genetics.) Judea Pearl has contributed a great deal to the method of structural equation modeling (SEM) in Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference and elsewhere. Here is a handbook article in which he explains the method and its causal relevance (link). Pearl maintains a research blog on causality here. Granger causality is a specific technique for assessing causal relationships within time series data: X Granger-causes Y if variations in X and Y together do a better job of predicting Y than variations in Y by itself.

Prior foundations of philosophical theories of causation. Two older discussions of causality also received some notice in these papers: J. L. Mackie on INUS conditions and causal fields (The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation) and Wesley Salmon on the causal structure of the world (Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World).

Nancy Cartwright's "Causation: One Word, Many Things" provides a very good contemporary review of the varieties of approaches that are currently being taken to the idea of causation (link).

Much of the intellectual vitality of this group of philosophers is captured in the major work recently edited by Phyllis McKay Illari, Federica Russo, and John Williamson, Causality in the Sciences. The book contains a very wide range of disciplines and approaches in its treatment of the topic.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Woodward on mechanisms

Jim Woodward has extended a lot of his philosophical effort towards the task of understanding causation in the sciences (Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation). Woodward is a primary exponent of the "manipulationist" theory of causation. He brings a counterfactual orientation to the problem of defining causal relations. If we assert that X caused Y, there is an implication that, if X had not occurred, Y would not have occurred. This implication isn't universally valid, since some events or outcomes are causally overdetermined. (Both X and X' may be a sufficient cause for Y -- in which case removing X still allows for Y through the X' pathway.) Notwithstanding this problem, the counterfactual nature of causal assertions is widely recognized. And this implies the association between causation and intervention or manipulation: if X causes Y, then we should be able to influence the occurrence of Y by manipulating X. This fact in turn underlies the logic of experimental design.

Woodward's treatment of causation deserves fuller treatment than I'll give it here. In this post I will focus on his application of these ideas to the notion of a causal mechanism. He lays this treatment out in a short but influential article, "What is a Mechanism? A Counterfactual Account" (link).

Here is the core idea. He focuses on the Machamer-Darden-Craver (MDC) definition of a causal mechanism (link):
Mechanisms are entities and activities organized such that they are productive of regular changes from start or set-up to finish or termination conditions. (3)
Woodward's contribution is to give greater clarity to the idea of regularity or law by adding the idea of a relationship that is "invariant under intervention". This idea models the notion of experimental testing of a causal hypothesis. We are interested in "X causes Y". We look for interventions that change the state of Y. If we find that the only interventions that change Y, do so through their ability to change X, then the X-Y relation is said to be invariant under intervention, and X is said to cause Y. Here is how he expresses the idea in the article:
I understand this in terms of the notion of invariance under interventions. Suppose that X and Y are variables that can take at least two values. The notion of an intervention attempts to capture, in non-anthropomorphic language that makes no reference to notions like human agency, the conditions that would need to be met in an ideal experimental manipulation of X performed for the purpose of determining whether X causes Y. The intuitive idea is that an intervention on X with respect to Y is a change in the value of X that changes Y, if at all, only via a route that goes through X and not in some other way. This requires, among other things, that the intervention not be correlated with other causes of Y except for those causes of Y (if any) that are causally between X and Y and that the intervention not affect Y independently of X. Thus if A is a common cause of B and S as in the example above, manipulating B by manipulating A will not count as an intervention on B with respect to S since in this case the manipulation affects S via a route (the route that connects A to S ) that does not go through B. (369-70)
Here is how he applies this idea to causal mechanisms. A mechanism consists of separate components that have intervention-invariant relations to separate sets of outcomes. These components are modular: they exercise their influence independently. And, like keys on an accordion, they can be separately activated with discrete results.
So far I have been arguing that components of mechanisms should behave in accord with regularities that are invariant under interventions and support counterfactuals about what would happen in hypothetical experiments. (374)
Here is the proposal all of this leads up to:
(MECH) a necessary condition for a representation to be an acceptable model of a mechanism is that the representation (i) describe an organized or structured set of parts or components, where (ii) the behavior of each component is described by a generalization that is invariant under interventions, and where (iii) the generalizations governing each component are also independently changeable, and where (iv) the representation allows us to see how, in virtue of (i), (ii) and (iii), the overall output of the mechanism will vary under manipulation of the input to each compo- nent and changes in the components themselves. (375)
Woodward illustrates his theory of mechanisms with simple physical and biological examples. How does this theory work when we consider social mechanisms?

What seems most evident is that social mechanisms are not commonly as complex as Woodward's examples would suggest. The sorts of mechanisms that crop up in sociology seem largely to be "simple" mechanisms: they don't consist of multiple independent components leading to an outcome.

Here is the way that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (MTT) characterize mechanisms and processes in Dynamics of Contention:
  • Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.
  • Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (24)
These definitions imply that processes are compound, whereas typical mechanisms are simple.

Here are examples that MTT offer of mechanisms:
  • resource depletion or enhancement affects people's capacity to engage in contentious politics (25)
  • commitment is a widely recurrent individual mechanism in which persons who individually would prefer not to take the risks of collective action find themselves unable to withdraw without hurting others whose solidarity they value (26)
  • Brokerage ... as the linking of two or more previously unconnected social sites by a unit that mediates their relations with one another and/or with yet other sites (26)
  • Identity shift ... alteration during contentious claim making of public answers to the question: "Who are you?" (27)
In each case we seem to have a simple relationship between one social or environmental fact and a typical outcome -- not a complex concatenation of "cogs and wheels" of social interaction.

So when we consider typical examples of social mechanisms -- free-riding (Olson), escalation (McAdam-Tarrow-Tilly), identity competition (Horowitz) -- we commonly find that they are all basically one-step mechanisms. So the assumption that a mechanism consists of modular components doesn't fit the social sciences well. There are complex social processes, to be sure, but it seems best to understand these as concatenations of distinct mechanisms rather than as a single complex mechanism. (Why? Because they are all too often unrepeatable.)

This doesn't mean that we can't understand social mechanisms along the lines Woodward suggests, if we are content to acknowledge that it is hard to find complex social mechanisms. But in order for even this to be the case, we would have to confirm that these simple mechanisms produce intervention-invariant regularities.

This requirement runs up against a different problem, however. The regularities that correspond to typical social mechanisms are soft regularities, not hard-and-fast laws. Social causation is probabilistic, not deterministic. The regularities corresponding to social causes derive from features of human agency and behavior, and they are deeply exception-laden. The free-rider mechanism tends to give rise to under-investment in the public good -- except when people self-organize, semi-coercive organizations appear, or altruistic religious attitudes take hold. Social mechanisms are productive, in the sense that they "bring about" the associated outcomes. But they are not invariant across all or most cases.

This implies that there are no intervention-invariant relations to be had in the social world. And therefore we need some other analytical foundation if we are to persist in thinking there are social causal mechanisms.

Woodward addresses something very much like this possibility in conjunction with psychological mechanisms. And he draws a prescriptive conclusion: if the "mechanisms" cited in psychology do not have these characteristics of modularity and invariance, then they aren't really mechanisms:
the standard boxological diagrams allegedly describing the operation of psychological mechanisms drawn by psychologists are rarely accompanied by convincing evidence that the parts corresponding to the boxes satisfy the modularity condition described above. If the argument of this paper is correct, this is a reason for being skeptical that these diagrams describe genuine mechanisms. (377)
It seems likely enough that he would reach a similar conclusion about the kinds of mechanisms offered by MTT.

(Here is an excellent review by Michael Strevens of Woodward, Making Things Happen.)

Advertising and making consumers

There is a pervasive feature of modern economic life that never entered into the theories of the economists in the first century of the discipline: marketing, advertising, and the shaping of consumer desires. And yet this activity is itself a trillion-dollar industry, and arguably has greater effect on social values and consciousness than religion, politics, or the workplace. Our culture is flooded by marketing messages that surely have a vast cumulative effect on the ways we think about life and the things we value. And this feature of modern social life is radically different from pre-20th century -- village life in France in the 1880s, city life in 17th-century London, or even life in Chicago in 1920. So it's worth thinking about.

The images above come from of a google image search for "advertising 1900". They are all print ads for products around the turn of the twentieth century. There are several brands represented here that are still with us. Plainly advertising in newspapers and magazines was well entrenched by then.

So what factors made advertising a feature of mass society but not the medieval market town? Capitalism is about selling things. Companies need to generate demand for their products. So capitalism needs effective ways of stimulating new desires for products in consumers.

And this suggests one social factor that led to a dramatic increase in advertising and marketing in the late nineteenth century, the sharp increase in urbanization and modern transportation. These factors implied a strong increase in the density of demand and the circulation of consumers using modern transportation. When you have trolleys and railroads you have large numbers of people moving around, and they can be turned into consumers. This made it worthwhile to invest in marketing and advertising.

These observations take me in two directions. One is historical. I'm pretty sure that cities were much less visibly marketed and advertised in 1861 or 1911 than they are today. There must be some interesting work on the history of advertising, but the bottom line is this -- advertising was a product of an intensive consumer product society, and consumerism didn't really become dominant until the twentieth century. So living in Ghent, San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Stockholm, or New Orleans in 1880 would have involved a dramatically quieter environment when it came to product advertising and posters in public spaces. Here are a few street scenes to give an idea of the limited scope of street advertising at roughly the turn of the 20th century from Brussels, New York, and Manchester.

The other line of thought is more systemic. Why did we invent advertising at all in some fairly recent point in our past? Here a number of points seem salient.

Begin by considering the overall purpose of advertising. One aspect is informational. A goal of advertising is to bring information about products to the purchasing public. If everyone knows about your product, then there isn't a need to advertise it. Second, it is to bring about a positive attitude towards this product in that set of consumers. And third, it is to make the sale -- to give the consumer the emotional push needed to go ahead with the purchase.

Being systematic about advertising means being very specific about the targets of the campaign. What segments of the public does the business want to reach?

First, there are already people who would like to purchase something like product X but are not currently doing so. Here the challenge for the company is to get information about the product in front of these would-be buyers and induce them to make a purchase.

A second group of potential buyers are people who already consume a related product Y but might be persuaded to switch to X. Here the challenge is to create dissatisfaction with Y, or a new conviction that X is better. Cigarette marketing fell partially in this category when it was legal. The goal was to persuade smokers to switch from one brand to another, by implying the experience was better or the smoker would have greater social status. One brand sells "cool," another sells "masculine," another sells "sexy."

There is a third group that sellers would like to reach: people who currently don't want X at all, but might be induced to do so through appropriate messaging. This means changing preferences and creating new desires in the potential consumer. Tobacco advertising and children's cereals seem to fall in this category. Both have aimed to create new consumers -- children who "want" Captain Crunch and adolescents who want cigarettes.

And how about the golden grail -- whole societies that haven't yet acquired the desire for a category of product? Maybe it's luxury skin products in Nigeria, baby nursing formula in Kenya, Weber barbecue grills in Argentina, or Volkswagens in Indonesia. Here the goal is to quickly grow the consumer public interested in acquiring this product -- and positioning the brand so future competitors will have a hard time breaking into the market.

So advertising is about shaping the information people have, the desires and preferences they experience, and the attitudes and emotions they have towards products and the act of consumption. And it is fundamentally aimed at changing both consciousness and behavior. Seen from this point of view, advertising is deliberately a fundamental cause of the shaping of modern social consciousness.

There is a body of thought which focused on this aspect of capitalism and mass society, and that is the critical philosophy of the Frankfurt School. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) Adorno and Horkheimer laid out an extensive critique of the culture industry and the role it played in modern capitalist society. Here are a few lines particularly relevant to advertising (link). Their interest here is the culture industry more generally, but much of their thinking sheds bright light on the role of advertising in mass consumer society.
Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organisation and planning by management. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumers’ needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance. The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.
The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen. This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound film.
The might of industrial society is lodged in men’s minds. The entertainments manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure – which is akin to work. From every sound film and every broadcast program the social effect can be inferred which is exclusive to none but is shared by all alike. The culture industry as a whole has moulded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product. All the agents of this process, from the producer to the women’s clubs, take good care that the simple reproduction of this mental state is not nuanced or extended in any way.
The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.
Here is the first chapter of James Gordon Finlayson's Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, which offers some very helpful explication of the perspectives of the Frankfurt School on this set of issues.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Social things, kinds and meso causes

Consider a social entity -- say the IBM corporation -- and consider the group of individuals who currently make up the entity. What is the relation between the social entity and the individuals? There are several things that are plainly true: the entity is composed of the individuals. The behavior of the entity supervenes upon the individuals. But other issues are less clear. Does the corporation have causal properties of its own? Is this corporation an instance of a broader class of social entities with similar properties? Do we need to explain the corporation by deriving its properties from the properties of its constituents?

There are analogous issues in other areas of the "special" sciences. Take weather, for example. We have a fairly complex vocabulary of weather ontology and causation: El Nino, warm front, high pressure cell, hurricane, windshear, etc. Two things seem evident. First, weather phenomena are composed of lower-level physical components: bodies of water at a range of temperatures, non-homogeneous gases (atmosphere), inputs of energy (sunlight), and the like. Weather phenomena are "nothing but" ensembles of micro-cells of gases, water, land masses, and energy. Weather states might be exhaustively described as a set of micro-states with no reference to weather vocabulary; we could, if we wanted, reduce weather statements to micro physical statements. At the same time, we can legitimately describe weather phenomena at the meso or macro levels -- storms, etc. There is no compelling scientific reason to insist on reduction or elimination. And we can explain weather outcomes in terms of causal statements that invoke other meso factors. The fact that there are no autonomous weather phenomena does not mean there are no autonomous weather explanations.

There isn't much of a problem in defining or identifying entities at the level of social aggregates. The IBM corporation is no more ontologically suspect than Hurricane Irene. Both are high-level entities composed of lower level things and processes. What is more problematic is when we consider whether there are "kinds" of social entities; whether there are law-like generalizations that are true of those kinds of things; and whether kinds of social things have distinctive causal properties and processes.

Candidate social kinds might include armies, bureaucracies, and religions. I take the view, however, that none of these concepts identifies a set of social entities that have enough in common to call them a kind. They are heterogeneous in all the ways that have made them intriguing to historical sociologists. Caesar's army, Rommel's army, and Ho Chi Minh's army had some things in common; but they also had enormously important differences at the level of organization, technology, and leadership structure. So it isn't plausible to look at them as constituting a kind of social entity.

This high degree of heterogeneity among the items classified under social concepts also provides the basis for a negative answer to the question about laws as well. Armies are not like metals; they don't have a common set of generating processes, and they don't give rise to significant regularities. We can't say things like "all armies fight to exhaustion within 12 months."

We can, however, identify common processes and challenges that confront all armies, and we can consequently tease out some causal mechanisms and processes that recur across armies in a wide range of contexts. This is the thrust of McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly's analysis of mechanisms underlying contention.

This discussion illustrates three rather different points. First, there is the level of descriptive concepts we choose to use. Second is the issue of whether explanations need to proceed from more fundamental to more complex. And third is the issue of the ontological status of composite entities.

These topics have been addressed under the rubric of inter-theoretic reduction for almost forty years. Jerry Fodor's "Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis" (1974) (link) and "Special Sciences: Still Autonomous After all These Years" (1997) (link) present core arguments for the autonomy of the special sciences. He distinguishes between token-token identity and type-type identity, pointing out that it might be the case that the first kind of identity obtains while the second does not. His central argument is that the possibility of multiple functional realizability demonstrates that it will not be possible to reduce higher-level laws to lower-level laws.

Jaegwon Kim has addressed the issue of physicalism throughout his career, most recently in Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. He holds that the concept of supervenience provides a basis for finessing the demand for reduction from higher kevel to lower level. Julie Zahle raises some of these problems in her contribution to Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology: A Volume in the Handbook of the Philosophy of Science Series, "Holism and Supervenience."

My general intuition is that the issue of inter-theoretic reduction and an insistence on a strong version of methodological individualism are much less important to the philosophy of social science than they have appeared to be. Once we have sufficiently understood the ways that individuals, institutions, networks, and values work at the local level, we are in a good position to characterize meso-level social entities like organizations and value systems. And we are intellectually empowered to try to discover the dynamic properties of these systems of actors and social arrangements. So meso level causal properties seem entirely legitimate in the social sciences.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A jobless future?

Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio wrote a pretty gloomy book in 1994 with the striking title, The Jobless Future. Here is a Harvard Educational Review discussion of the book (link). What is most discomforting in reading the book today is the degree to which the factors they identify seem to be today's headlines. What does jobless mean here? In a word, it means that the US and other OECD countries will never recover the number and quality of jobs they need in order to regain the middle class affluence they had in the 1950s and 1960s. The future will involve work -- but not enough jobs to ensure a low unemployment rate. Here is their assessment in 1994:
For there is no doubt that we have yet to feel the long-term effects on American living standards that will result from the elimination of well-paid professional, technical, and production jobs. At the same time, nearly everyone admits that many of these jobs are gone forever. (xi)
The central structural factors they identified in 1994 are still key parts of our economic environment today: technology innovation replacing labor, rising productivity producing persistently flat labor demand, shifts in the structure of the economy towards finance and service sectors, and internationalization of production.
Technological progress and capital accumulation seem to disrupt the social fabric in the United States. A weakened position in the international economy demands that American industry increase its productivity and cut its unit labor cost. As Carl G. Thor, president of the American Productivity Center in Houston, says, "The trick is to get more output without a surge in employment." Technological change and competition in the world market guarantee that increasing numbers of workers will be displaced and that these workers will tend to be rehired in jobs that do not pay comparable wages and salaries. Women and minorities will suffer the most as the result of these changes; the increased participation in an occupational sector by women and minorities is often an indicator of falling wages in that occupation. (3)
The second explanation, more sobering, emphasized the role of huge federal and consumer debt accumulated beween the late 1970s and the early 1990s that has drained public and private investment, inhibiting recovery and growth. (5)
This, in brief, is the context within which a severely reduced job "market" began to take shape, not only for U.S. workers, but potentially for all workers. In this book we argue that the progressive destruction of high-quality, well-paid, permanent jobs is produced by three closely related developments. (8)
The implication they draw is stark: new jobs will never be created at a rate to satisfy rising demand for jobs.
Our first argument—that the Western dream of upward mobility has died and it is time to give it a respectful funeral—may have at long last seeped into the bones of most Americans, even the most optimistic economist. The dream has died because the scientific-technological revolution of our time, which is not confined to new electronic processes but also affects organizational changes in the structure of corporations, has fundamentally altered the forms of work, skill, and occupation. The whole notion of tradition and identity of persons with their work has been radically changed. (15)
They've also got a vision of what the future could look like: satisfying lives with a decent standard of living, based on a combination of paid work and guaranteed social income.
The aim of this work is to suggest political and social solutions that take us in a direction in which it is clear that jobs are no longer the solution, that we must find another way to ensure a just standard of living for all. (xii)
Accordingly, if unwork is fated to be no longer the exception to the rule of nearly full employment, we need an entirely new approach to the social wage and, more generally, "welfare" policy. If there is work to be done, everyone should do some of it; additional remuneration would depend on the kind of work an individual performs. (353)
They are as interested in the "satisfying" part of the question as the "standard of living" part. They want to know what sources of meaning, worth, and value are possible for a whole civilization in which work and career are no longer the primary focus? It is an existential question as much as it is an economic one -- which takes us back to an earlier post on income and wellbeing.

But here is someone else who has a vision of a jobless future: William Gibson. His pictures of the Sprawl (an urban agglomeration extending from Atlanta to Boston) and the Bridge (the improvised "off the grid" community living on the earthquake-damaged Oakland Bridge) offer a grim picture of life for people scraping by in a cyberpunk world. There is talent, technology innovation, wealth, economic competition in Gibson's world -- but there's nothing that looks like a middle class life for ordinary people. (Here are a couple of the novels: Neuromancer, All Tomorrow's Parties.)

It seems inescapable that the rising inequalities of income and wealth we have experienced for thirty years are strongly linked to the jobless state of 15% to 20% of us (counting discouraged workers and underemployed workers) and the fairly stagnant living standards of another 50%. By tolerating this acceleration of inequality, our society is also silently sanctioning the end of social solidarity and the compact that we've had according to which everyone benefits from economic activity. Our graph seems to be pointing more in the direction of Gibson than Aronowitz. But maybe this is the fundamental goal of right wing rhetoric after all: to decisively break the bonds of social solidarity and mutual obligation altogether and to allow privilege to have its way unconstrained by social obligations. Surely we owe each other more than this.

So far the strategies on the table about employment are either about job creation (Democrats) or providing even more tax relief for business and the wealthy (Republican). None of these voices consider the more radical implication: we may need to consider a dramatically new way of thinking about income, work, social distribution, and lifestyle in the future. And that's what Aronowitz and DiFazio proposed almost 20 years ago.

(Philippe Van Parijs' recent contribution to Boston Review on a universal basic income is a really interesting start on some serious alternative thinking (link).)

More on meso causation

A recent post considered the question, do organizations have causal powers? There I argued that they do, in a number of ways. Here I'd like to return to these claims and see how they disaggregate onto subvening circumstances, including especially patterns of individual and group activity. The italicized phrases are extracted from the earlier post.
  • First, the rules and procedures of the organization may themselves have behavioral consequences that lead consistently to a certain kind of outcome.
How do rules and procedures causally affect the behavior of the actors who participate in them? (a) Through training and inculcation. The new participant is exposed to training processes designed to lead him/her to internalize the procedures and norms governing his/her function. (b) Through formal enforcement. Supervisors are institutionally charged to enforce the rules through direct observation and feedback. (c) Through the normative example of other participants, including informal sanctions by non-supervisors for "wrong" behavior. (d) Through positive incentives administered by supervisors and mid-level functionaries. Each of these avenues for influencing the behavior of an actor within an organization depends on the actions and motivations of other actors within the organization. So we have the recursive question, what factors influence the behavior of those actors? And the answer seems to be: all actors find themselves within a dynamic system of behavior by other actors, frequently maintaining an equilibrium of reproduction of the rules and roles.
  • Second, different organizational forms may be more or less efficient at performing their tasks, leading to consequences for the people and higher-level organizations that are depending on them.
Institutions designed to do similar work may differ in their functioning because of specific differences in the implementation of roles and processes within the organization. This is a system characteristic of the particular features and interactions of the rules and processes of the organization, along with the expected behaviors of the participants. It is also a causal characteristic: implementing system A results in greater efficiency at X than implementing B. The underlying causal reality that needs explanation is how it comes to pass that participants carry out their roles as prescribed--which takes us back to the first thesis.
  • Third, the discrepancy between what the rules require of participants and what the participants actually do may have consequences for the outputs of the organization.
This causal claim highlights the difference between formal and informal procedures and practices within an organization. Informal practices can be highly regular and reproducible. In order to incorporate their implications into our analysis of the workings of the organization we need to accurately understand them; so we need to do some organizational ethnography to identify the practices of the organization. But in principle, the logic of explanation we provide on the basis of informal practices is exactly the same as those offered on the basis of the formal rules of the organization.
  • Fourth, the specific ways in which incentives, sanctions, and supervision are implemented differentiate across organizations.
This is one of the key insights of the "new institutionalism." The specific design of the institution in terms of opportunities and incentives presented to participants makes a large difference in actors' behavior, and consequently a large difference to the system-level performance of the institution. Tweaking the variable of the level in the organization's hierarchy that needs to sign off on expenditures at a given level has significant effects on behavior and system properties. On the one hand, higher-level sign-off may serve to restrain spending. On the other hand, it may make the organization more unwieldy in responding to opportunities and threats.
  • Fifth, the organization has causal powers with respect to the behavior of the individuals involved in the organization.
This factor parallels thesis 1 but is meant to refer to longterm effects on behavior and personality. The idea here is that immersion in a particular organization and its culture creates a distinctive social psychology in the people who experience it. They may acquire habits of thought, ways of responding to new circumstances, higher or lower levels of trust of others, and so forth, in ways that influence their behavior in the broader society. The idea of an "organization man" falls in this category of influence. The organization influences the individual's behavior, not just through the immediate system of rewards and punishments, but through its ability to shape his/her more permanent social psychology.

There are only two fundamental causal paths identified here. The causal properties of the organization are embodied in the patterns of coordinated actions undertaken by the actors who are involved; and these orderly patterns create system effects for the organization as a whole that can be analyzed in abstraction from the individuals whose actions constitute the micro-level of the social entity.

The most obvious causal property of an organization is bound up in the function of the organization. An organization is developed in order to bring about certain social effects: reduce pollution or crime, distribute goods throughout a population, provide services to individuals, seize and hold territory, disseminate information. These effects occur as a result of the coordinated activities of people within the organization. When organizations work correctly they bring about one set of effects; when they break down they bring about another set of effects. Here we can think about organizations in analogy with technology components like amplifiers, thermostats, stabilizers, or surge protectors. This analogy suggests we think about the causal powers of an organization at two levels: what they do (their meso-level effects) and how they do it (their micro-level sub-mechanisms).

Monday, September 5, 2011

Low income and wellbeing

source: J. G. Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World

A recent post on Rawls's critique of capitalism closed with an intriguing mention of a contrast Rawls draws between economic growth and human wellbeing. He is particularly critical of the consumerism that is enmeshed in the social psychology of a growth-oriented market system. This point is worth focusing on more closely.

We seem to work on the basis of a couple of basic assumptions about income, lifestyle, and community in this country that need to be questioned. One group of these clusters around the idea that a high quality of life requires high and rising income. High income is needed for high consumption, and high consumption produces happiness and life satisfaction. Neighborhoods of families with high income are better able to sustain community and civic values. And symmetrically, we assume that it is more or less inevitable that poor communities have low levels of community values and low levels of the experience of life satisfaction.

All these assumptions need to be questioned. As any social service agency can document, there are ample signs of social pathology in the affluent suburbs of American cities. These suburban places aren't paragons of successful, happy human communities in any of the ways Robert Bellah talks about (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Good Society). And there is little reason to believe that the consumption-based lifestyles that define an American ideal of affluence really contribute consistently to life satisfaction and successful community.

But here I want to focus on the other end of this set of assumptions: the idea that non-affluent people and communities are necessarily less happy, less satisfied, and less integrated around a set of civic and spiritual values. So here is the central point: people can build lives within the context of low income that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. And communities of low-income people can be highly successful in achieving a substantial degree of civic and spiritual interconnection and mutual support. It doesn't require "affluence" to have a deeply satisfying human life and a thriving community.

There are many reasons for thinking these observations are likely to be true. One is the example of other societies. Consider village life in Spain or Italy, for example, where many families still live on incomes that are a fraction of American affluence, who incorporate gardens into their regular lifestyle and household economy, and who enjoy admirable levels of personal and social satisfaction. Or think of stable farming communities in India or Africa that have successfully achieved a balance of farm productivity, a degree of social equality, and a strong sense of community. Or consider examples of communities in the United States that have deliberately put together lives and communities that reject "affluence" as a social and personal ideal.

Of course it's true that extreme poverty is pretty much incompatible with satisfaction and community. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and untreated disease are counterparts of extrme poverty and destroy happiness and community. But "non-affluence" isn't the same as extreme poverty.

What everyone needs, at every level of income, is decent access to the components of a happy life: healthcare, nutrition, shelter, education, dignity, and security. These are what an earlier generation of development thinkers called basic needs. And it is self-evident how these fit into the possibility of a decent and satisfying life. But access to these goods isn't equivalent to the American dream of affluence.

So here is a fairly profound question: what steps can be taken to promote the features of personal wellbeing and robust community relations that can make "non-affluence" a sustainable social ideal? And how can we help poor communities to strengthen their ability to nurture these positive values according to their own best instincts?

This line of thought converges closely with the striking arguments made by James Gustave Speth in The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. The graphs at the top represent Speth's summary of the environmental catastrophe associated with the idea of permanent economic growth. Much of Speth's critique of consumerism and growth is summarized in this account of a talk he gave at McGill in 2008. Speth argues that a radical rethinking of well-being is necessary if we are to achieve a society that is environmentally sustainable.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Rawls on the EU

During the final preparation of The Law of Peoples: with "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" John Rawls had extensive interaction with Philippe van Parijs. Van Parijs was particularly interested in the political and legal circumstances surrounding the establishment of the legal structure of the European Union and the obligations states and their citizens would have to each other within the EU. A key question is whether a political body -- a state or confederation -- needs to encompass a single unified "people" (whether by language, traditions, or culture); or if, on the contrary, such a body can consist of multiple peoples who nonetheless have duties of justice to each other.

What turns on this from a moral point of view is the level of moral concern that members of this kind of union owe each other. Are their obligations limited to the domain of "concern" that gives rise to some obligations of charity? Or are they closely enough interconnected that they are subject to the demands of justice towards each other? If the latter then the difference principle applies to them when inequalities of life circumstances are apparent. If the former then only weaker principles of assistance apply.

For van Parijs this question is particularly acute in the case of Belgium, which was even then subject to fissional pressures along linguistic-cultural lines between Flemings and Walloons.

Van Parijs and Rawls exchanged several careful and thoughtful letters on these issues in 1998, and these letters were published in their entirety in Revue de philosophie économique in 2003 (link).

The disagreements between van Parijs and Rawls are very interesting to follow in detail. There is one aspect of the exchange that is particularly intriguing on the subject of Rawls's own assessment of modern capitalism. The passage is worth quoting. Here is an excerpt from Rawls's letter:
One question the Europeans should ask themselves, if I may hazard a suggestion, is how far–reaching they want their union to be. It seems to me that much would be lost if the European union became a federal union like the United States. Here there is a common language of political discourse and a ready willingness to move from one state to another. Isn't there a conflict between a large free and open market comprising all of Europe and the individual nation-states, each with its separate political and social institutions, historical memories, and forms and traditions of social policy. Surely these are great value to the citizens of these countries and give meaning to their life. The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, onwards and upwards, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly. If they speak about distribution, it is [al]most always in terms of trickle down. The long–term result of this — which we already have in the United States — is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can't believe that that is what you want.

So you see that I am not happy about globalization as the banks and business class are pushing it. I accept Mill's idea of the stationary state as described by him in Bk. IV, Ch. 6 of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). (I am adding a footnote in §15 to say this, in case the reader hadn't noticed it). I am under no illusion that its time will ever come – certainly not soon – but it is possible, and hence it has a place in what I call the idea of realistic utopia.
Several aspects of this passage are noteworthy. The first is a tentative skepticism about the goal of creating a European community in a strong sense -- a polity in which individuals have strong obligations to all other citizens within the full scope of the expanded boundaries. Rawls seems to equate this goal with the idea of creating a somewhat homogeneous and pervasive European culture, replacing German, French, or Italian national cultures. And he offers the idea that the traditions, affinities, and loyalties associated with national identities are important aspects of an individual's pride and satisfaction with his/her life.

What is surprising about these views is that Rawls seems to overlook the polyglot, poly-cultural character of the United States and Canada themselves. Both North American countries seem to have created some remarkable solutions to the problem of "unity with difference." It is possible to be a committed United States citizen but also a Chicago Polish patriot, a Los Angeles Muslim, or a Mississippi African American. Each of these is a separate community with its own traditions and values. But each can also embody an overlay of civic culture that makes them all Americans. It certainly doesn't seem impossible to imagine that Spaniards will develop a more complex identity, as both Spaniard and European. So Rawls's apparent concerns about homogenization and loss of collective meaning seem ill founded.

Even more interesting, though, are his several comments about globalization and capitalism. As we observed in a post about the property-owning democracy (link), Rawls has already expressed the idea that capitalism has a hard time living up to the principles of justice. Here he goes a step further and reveals a significant mistrust of the value system created by capitalism. He refers to the world the "bankers and capitalists" want to create -- one based on acquisitiveness and the pursuit of profit -- and he clearly expresses his opinion that this is incompatible with a truly human life.

The goal of perpetual growth expresses this ideology, and Rawls reveals his skepticism about this idea as well. He offers the opinion that the pursuit of growth by this class is no more than the pursuit of greater wealth and more meaningless consumption. And he clearly believes this is a dead-end. Instead, he endorses J. S. Mill's idea of a steady-state (link). (Interestingly, this position lines up well with current thinking of environmentalists; for example, James Gustave Speth and The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (link).)

Here Rawls seems to express a cultural critique of capitalism: the idea that the driving values of a market society induce a social psychology of consumerism that overrides the individual's ability to construct a thoughtful life plan of his/her own.

Finally, Rawls criticizes the neo-liberal dogmas about distribution of income that had dominated public discourse in the U.S. almost since the publication of A Theory of Justice: the theory of trickle-down economics. That theory holds that everyone will gain when businesses make more profits. And, of course, the data on income distribution in the U.S. since 1980 has flatly refuted that theory (link).

(Van Parijs' most recent book, Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (Oxford Political Theory), will be published in October. It is highly relevant to this debate with Rawls.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do organizations have causal powers?

An organization is a meso-level social structure. It is a structured group of individuals, often hierarchically organized, pursuing a relatively clearly defined set of tasks.  In the abstract, it is a set of rules and procedures that regulate and motive the behavior of the individuals who function within the organization.  There are also a set of informal practices within an organization that are not codified that have significant effects on the functioning of the organization (for example, the coffee room as a medium of informal communication).  Some of those individuals have responsibilities of oversight, which is a primary way in which the abstract rules of the organization are transformed into concrete patterns of activity by other individuals. Another behavioral characteristic of an organization is the set of incentives and rewards that it creates for participants in the organization. Often the incentives that exist were planned and designed to have specific effects on behavior of participants; by offering rewards for behaviors X, Y, Z, the organization is expected to produce a lot of X, Y, and Z. Sometimes, though, the incentives are unintended, created perhaps by the intersection of two rules of operation that lead to a perverse incentive leading to W. For example: a farm supervisor may ask peach pickers to discard the bruised peaches rather than placing them in the basket to be weighed. But if the laborers' salaries are determined solely by the weight of the baskets they present for weighing, they will have an incentive to include the bruised peaches (at the bottom!).

Examples of organizations include things like these:

  • the Atlanta police department
  • a collective farm in Sichuan in 1965
  • the maintenance and operations staff of a nuclear power plant
  • a large investment bank on Wall Street
  • Certus Corporation (discoverer of the PCR process)
  • the land value assessment process in late Imperial China

The organization consists of a number of things:

  • a set of procedures for how to handle specific kinds of tasks
  • a set of people with skills and specific roles
  • a set of incentives and rewards to induce participants to carry out their roles effectively and diligently
  • a set of accountability processes permitting supervision and assessment of performance by individuals within the organization
  • an "executive" function with the power to refine / revise / improve the rules so as to bring about overall better performance

Let's take the nuclear power plant staff as an example. The tasks of the organization are to control the complex technology and its instruments over an extended time; to conduct inspections of the physical infrastructure of the plant to discover failures before they occur; to conduct routine maintenance of machines and other physical systems; to respond quickly to failures, both large and small; and to sometimes conduct major upgrades on the hardware of the system. We may imagine that there are detailed, written procedures for each of these activities, as well as procedures for action during times of malfunction or breakdown. The people of the plant represent a range of specialized skills and specialized tasks. Wainwrights maintain and repair machinery; computer technicians maintain computer systems; nuclear technicians oversee the measured functioning of the system (pressures, temperatures, power production); safety workers inspect various system; and supervisors assign tasks and monitor performance.

Failures of the system arise for several different kinds of reasons: technical failure (a device fails for unexpected technical reasons, such as a faulty weld); operator failure (an operator disregards or misinterprets a pressure warning, and a pipe explodes before corrective action is taken); training failure (staff are technically or operationally unprepared for performing their tasks routinely or in exceptional circumstances); system failure (two or more sub-systems function as designed, but in an unusual circumstance may interact in such a way as to bring about an explosion, a computer crash, or a release of energy or heat); supervisory failure (procedures were good but supervisors permitted deviation from the procedures); venality failure (individuals in a position to control purchasing decisions authorize bad contracts for faulty materials for their personal profit).

The idea of a principal-agent problem is highly relevant within organizations, at every level. The executive expects the supervisor to faithfully perform his/her tasks of supervision. But since the executive does not directly monitor the performance of the supervisor, it is possible for the supervisor to shirk his/her duties and permit faulty performance by those he supervises. Likewise, the supervisor expects that the operator will continue to monitor and control the machine throughout the day; but it is possible for the operator to keep a solitaire window open on the screen. Each level of accountability, then, requires both formal expectations and a basis for trust in the good faith of the participants in the organization.

Now we are in a position to address the central question here: do organizations have causal powers? It seems to me that the answer is yes, in fairly specific ways. First, the rules and procedures of the organization may themselves have behavioral consequences that lead consistently to a certain kind of outcome.

Second, different organizational forms may be more or less efficient at performing their tasks, leading to consequences for the people and higher-level organizations that are depending on them. For example, two tax-collection systems may be designed for the same goal -- to collect 10% of the grain produced everywhere in the kingdom. If one system is 75% successful in this task and the other is 50% successful, the state depending on the second system will be starved for resources.

Third, the discrepancy between what the rules require of participants and what the participants actually do may have consequences for the outputs of the organization. Police department regulations may require that each piece of physical evidence is separately bagged and catalogued with appropriate information about its collection. If police operatives are careless in the cataloguing of evidence it may be more difficult to convict the accused; this may lead to a rising disregard for the likelihood of conviction and a rise in the crime rate. Corruption (venal failure to perform one's tasks faithfully) may lead to large consequences: the company is less profitable, the city is discredited to its citizens, the Church is delegitimated by the self-interested behavior of its clergy.

Fourth, the specific ways in which incentives, sanctions, and supervision are implemented differentiate across organizations. We may find that organizations with supervision system X are on average more productive or more effective than those with system Y.

Fifth, the organization has causal powers with respect to the behavior of the individuals involved in the organization. By presenting its rules, sanctions, and rewards to its participants, it changes their behavior in specific ways. Google and Apple have organized their internal procedures and rewards in such a way as to encourage creativeness, teamwork, and confidentiality. These organizations look quite different in their functioning and their products from a steel company or a shoe company.

This means two things. First, we can say with some confidence that the way an organization is structured makes a difference to its performance; this is a causal power all by itself. And second, we may be able to discover that there are broad characteristics that differentiate organizational types, and it may turn out that these distinct types also have different performance characteristics. We might discover, for example, that one system of oversight and employee motivation is significantly more likely to permit theft and corrupt behavior by its agents than another. In that case, we might say that these two systems differ in their propensities for generating corrupt behavior. (This is an argument that Robert Klitgaard makes in Controlling Corruption.)

So far we haven't mentioned the familiar subject of "microfoundations" at all; we have considered an organization as a complex social entity. It is easy to specify the microfoundations of the causal powers we have identified. The organization's performance is determined by the behaviors of the individuals who fall within it, and the aggregate individual behaviors are explained by the rules and procedures embodied in the organization. So the causal powers having to do with efficiency, effectiveness, and corruptibility can be disaggregated into the incentives and behaviors of typical individuals. But here is the key point: we don't need to carry out this disaggregation when we want to invoke statements about the causal characteristics of organizations in explanations of more complex social processes. This is a case illustrating the point of relative explanatory autonomy developed in a prior post, and it also illustrates the point that David Elder-Vass makes in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency.

These observations lay a basis for concluding that meso-level social entities have causal powers that can legitimately be invoked in social explanations.  Significantly, there are clear and convincing examples of sociological explanations that take the causal powers of organizations as fundamental to their explanations of important social outcomes -- for example, technology failure (Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies; link), corruption (Robert Klitgaard, Controlling Corruption), and the use of common property resources (Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action).