Monday, February 27, 2012

Levi Martin on explanation

John Levi Martin's The Explanation of Social Action is a severe critique of the role of "theory" in the social sciences. He thinks our uses of this construct follow from a bad conception of social explanation: we explain something by showing how it relates (often through law-like processes) to something radically different from the thing to be explained. But Levi Martin adopts one strand of Weber's conception of sociology -- "the science of meaningful social action" (kl 92) -- and advocates a fundamentally different conception of sociological thinking. Let us explain why social things happen in terms of the ways that ordinary people understand their actions and meanings. Levi thinks the usual approach is Cartesian, in that it presupposes a radical separation between the individual who acts and the considerations that explain his/her action.
Sociology and its near kin have adopted an understanding of theoretical explanation that privileges "third-person" explanations and, in particular, have decided that the best explanation is a "causal" third-person explanation, in which we attribute causal power to something other than flesh-and-blood individuals. (kl 75)
His own approach is anti-cartesian -- explanans and explanandum are on the same level.
The main argument of this book may be succinctly put as follows: the social sciences (in part, but in large part) explain what people do, and they explain what it means to carry out such an explanation. (kl 14)
Rather than drawing on examples from the law-based natural sciences, he prefers to understand actors in their own terms, and he offers the example of three antecedent theories:
But there are alternatives. I trace three, all of which dissented from the Cartesian dualism underlying the Durkheimian approach. These are the Russian activity school (with Vygotsky the prime example), the German Gestalt school (with Kohler the prime example), and the American pragmatist school (with Dewey the prime example). All point to a serious social science that attempts to understand why people do what they do, a science that while rigorous and selective (as opposed to needing to "examine everything") is not analytic in the technical sense of decomposing unit acts into potentially independent (if empirically interrelated) components. (kl 147)
I like Levi Martin's work quite a bit, and wrote earlier on his approach to social structures in his Social Structures (2009). But here I do not finding his reasoning as persuasive.

First, his account leaves out a vast proportion of what many social scientists are interested in explaining -- why did fascism prevail in Germany and Italy, why were East Coast dock worker unions corrupt while West Coast dock workers were political, why do young democracies fall prey to far-right nationalist movements, why did the decision-making process surrounding the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger go so disastrously wrong? These Why questions involve understanding the workings of institutions and structures, and they admit of causal explanations. And they are not inherently equivalent to explanations of nested sets of social actions.

Second, L-M's polemic against current ideas of social explanation assumes there are only two choices in play: correlational studies of associated variables and actor-level explanations of why people behave as they do. But this is incorrect. The new institutionalism in sociology, for example, explains outcomes as the result of a socially embedded system of rules that produce a characteristic set of actions on the part of participants. Institutional differences across settings lead to significantly different outcomes. And the causal-mechanisms approach to explanation (Tilly) identifies meso-level social mechanisms that can be seen to aggregate into identifiable social processes. L-M's polemic against "causalism" is, in my perception, directed against an untenable regularity-based theory of causation; but the causal-mechanism approach provides a far more defensible theory of social causation and explanation.

Third, his current account is mono-thematic: the only thing that counts is what is in the head of the participant. But this seems wrong in two ways: first, we are often interested in social facts that are not social actions in Weber's sense. And second, sometimes factors that the individuals themselves have not conceptualized are critical to understanding what is going on.

I also find that Levi Martin gives the causal mechanisms approach a wholly unfair dismissal. The CM approach is actually an alternative way of disaggregating social explanations and de-dramatizing the quest for unifying theories of the social world. The CM approach brings forward a heterogeneous view of the workings of a social world that is itself heterogeneous and multi-factoral. It is a mid-level theory of explanation, not a generalization-worshipping theory of explanation. So I believe that much of what Levi says in favor of his own approach can be said with equal force about the CM theory.

Moreover, CM theory too is an actor-centered approach to social explanation. The mechanisms to which sociologists in this tradition appeal work through the choices and actions of individuals. But CM also recognizes that there are relatively stable structures and relations that influence individual action and that have consequences for yet other meso-level factors. The CM approach asks a great fundamental question: through what processes and mechanisms did the social phenomenon in question take place? And crucially, there is no reason to expect the participants to conceptualize or understand these mechanisms and institutions. So there is a proper place for the hypotheses and constructs of the observer and theoretician after all.

One way to put these criticisms is to suggest that the book is mis-titled. The title offers a comprehensive theory of social explanation, but it doesn't in fact succeed in providing any such thing. And it gives the impression that there is only one legitimate mode of social explanation -- something that most sociologists would reject for good reasons.

In fact, the book is not so much a theory of explanation as it is a theory of the actor: what she knows, what she wants, how she chooses, and how she acts. It is a theory that draws upon American pragmatism and phenomenology. And the implication for "explanation" is a very simple lemma: "Explanations of social actions need to be couched in terms of the real experiences and cognitive-practical setup of the actors." Here is the title I would have preferred: "Towards a More Adequate Theory of the Human Actor".

Here, then, is the heart of my assessment of The Explanation of Social Action: L-M reduces the many explanatory tasks of the social sciences to just one -- the explanation of meaningful social actions by individuals. There is more to sociology than that, and identifying causal structures and mechanisms is a legitimate sociological task that has no place in L-M's conceptual space here. But as a contribution to the topic to which it is really directed -- the attempt to formulate a more adequate theory of the actor -- I believe it is a major contribution.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Conversational implicatures and presuppositions

There was in the 1960s a theory of the understanding of language that portrayed the process as a formal act of decoding. Language was described as a system of syntax and semantics, and understanding a sentence involved beginning with the meaningful elements (words), applying the generative rules of syntax and semantics, and arriving at a formal representation of the meaning of the sentence as a formal object. Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz perhaps went furthest down this road. (Katz's Semantic theory laid out the perspective well in 1972.)

What John Searle contributed to this picture in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language was what we would now call a pragmatist twist. Understanding a sentence is not simply a formal algorithmic process. Rather, it is an ongoing social process, in which the listener actively forms interpretations of the utterance on the basis of a number of cues from the social environment. In particular, Searle emphasized the importance of "conversational implicatures" -- the tacit understandings that the listener and speaker bring to the linguistic exchange. Absent those forms of background knowledge, the exchange would be unintelligible.

So comprehension is a social and pragmatic act. And here is a consequence: when a population know on the basis of widely different presuppositions, there is a deep possibility of radical mutual misunderstanding. And when those differences in presuppositions are importantly socially valenced, those misunderstandings may be of great social significance.

These kinds of misunderstandings are most evident when it comes to stylized interpersonal behavior. (This is the arena studied by Goffman, Garfinkel, and other micro sociologists.) Each party to an interaction comes with a framework of ideas of what the situation is and means; what kinds of behavior are called for and which are not; what counts as a joke, an insult, or an insensitive gaffe; etc. Take as an example the Super Bowl quarterback meeting the distinguished university expert on global economic crisis. Each comes to the interaction with a sense of his own importance and a reduced sense of the significance of the accomplishments and station of the other. And each may offend the other by making light of something the other takes with solemn seriousness. If the scholar starts off with a joke about golf, the conversation may be off on the wrong foot. And if the quarterback opens with a comment about what idiots economists are, likewise.

But how do these examples of the cognitive-practical background of action and interaction show any similarity to the example of attempting to understand the speech acts of another? How do implicatures and presuppositions come into the process of reconstructing the meaning proffered by the other?

Consider this stretch of dialogue from The Great Gatsby between Nick (the first-person narrator) and Gatsby (chapter 5):
“Your place looks like the World’s Fair,” I said.
“Does it?” He turned his eyes toward it absently. “I have been glancing into some of the rooms. Let’s go to Coney Island, old sport. In my car.”
“It’s too late.”
“Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming-pool? I haven’t made use of it all summer.”
“I’ve got to go to bed.”
“All right.”
He waited, looking at me with suppressed eagerness.
“I talked with Miss Baker,” I said after a moment. “I’m going to call up Daisy tomorrow and invite her over here to tea.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said carelessly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“What day would suit you?”
“What day would suit you?” he corrected me quickly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, you see.”
“How about the day after tomorrow?” He considered for a moment. Then, with reluctance:
“I want to get the grass cut,” he said.
This is of course fictional dialogue. But it makes clear how much background knowledge and presupposition are required for the two participants to make sense of each others' speeches. We get a few clues from the narrator: "reluctance," "absently," "suppressed eagerness," and "quickly" give the reader some idea of the emotional timbre of the conversation. But the sense of each sentence requires reconstruction based on background knowledge; and the "why" of the conversation needs yet another level of shared knowledge. What is Gatsby's interest in having Daisy produced for tea? This is the point of the interaction; and if one or the other party doesn't get it (or the reader sticks to closely to an effort at literal reading) then the passage will have been misconstrued and misunderstood.

Here are some of the factual bits of knowledge that are needed:
  • The World's Fair was a garish, wild location.
  • A "sport" is a pal, not a game or contest.
  • Gatsby emphasizes his own car to flaunt its opulence or as a gesture of hospitality.
  • Coney Island is a place with an amusement park, not a hot dog restaurant.
  • The swimming pool has water in it suitable for swimming.
  • "I don't want to put you to any trouble ..." is a social lie.
The listener needs these bits of knowledge to even make sense of the words. But the meaning of the interaction, including the speeches, goes beyond this level. Beyond the more or less literal meaning of the utterances, we need to understand what the speeches are intended to convey to the other. This is a bit of meaning intermediate between straight semantics and speech act analysis. For example, what is the function of "I want to get the grass cut."? Semantically we understand what Gatsby is saying: but what move is he making in the emotional-practical interaction with Nick? Is it coyness, second thoughts, insecurity, practical concern about the state of the lawn, etc.?

(If one wants to get seriously lost in an ocean of presuppositions, try this speech at the beginning of chapter 4:
"He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”
What in the world do the young ladies mean?

Friday, February 24, 2012

SSHA Call for Papers

Call for Papers: 37th Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association

Vancouver, British Columbia, 1-4 November, 2012
Submission Deadline: 1 March 2012

"Histories of Capitalism"


The 2012 Program Committee seeks panel proposals that focus on Histories of Capitalism. But it also encourages, as usual, papers and panels on all aspects of social science history.

Dramatic developments in the contemporary world – including the current world economic crisis; the rapid economic growth of China; the shocking rise of income inequality in the United States, or the looming danger of climate change – argue strongly for putting the history of capitalism at the center of our agenda in social science history. These contemporary developments point to capitalism’s enduring enigma: it promises the utopian possibility of overcoming material want but creates barriers, inequalities, and dystopian disasters en route.

Features or aspects of capitalism often figure as causes or effects in studies of a wide range of topics close to the heart of social science historians: urbanization, labor struggles, cultural change, the demographic transition, gender and racial inequalities, migration, agrarian movements, or economic growth, to cite a few key examples. Yet capitalism usually figures as a context – either avowed or unavowed – of the phenomena we are attempting to grasp. Only occasionally do we reflect explicitly about the specific dynamics of capitalism as an evolving system or about how these dynamics shape possibilities for social and political action.

As the plural ‘histories’ in our theme’s title affirms, there are various kinds of histories of capitalism: macro and micro histories; Marxian, neo-classical, Weberian, Schumpeterian, Polanyian, and neo-institutionalist histories; cultural, economic, political, and social histories; histories informed by anthropology, political science, literature, geography, economics, sociology, philosophy, and of course history itself; histories of capitalism’s fundamental movements and of its manifold effects. Perhaps new histories will emerge at these meetings…

The Social Science History Association, with its rich tradition of interdisciplinary research, is an ideal forum for exploring all aspects of the history of capitalism both as an enduring intellectual problem and as a burning issue of contemporary politics and culture.

How Do I Participate in the 2012 SSHA Program?

Starting in December 2011, proposals for individual papers and complete sessions will be accepted at, which provides instructions for submission. The deadline is 1 March 2012; we prefer the submission of complete sessions. If you want to organize a session, we recommend that you first contact a network representative. Network representatives – who are open to all possibilities – screen all papers and panels in their areas. (Current networks, with their representatives' e-mail and web addresses, are listed on the SSHA website.) If you are not certain which network your paper proposal best fits, just ask the representatives of the networks closest to your interests.

SSHA will continue to make competitive grants for graduate student travel, now with additional help from theCharles and Louise Tilly Fund for Social Science History, which also supports a graduate student paper prize.

SSHA President for 2011-12
William H. Sewell, Jr., University of Chicago,

Program Committee Co-Chairs for the 2012 Conference:
Tessie Liu, Northwestern University (History),
David Pedersen, University of California San Diego (Anthropology),
Dan Slater, University of Chicago (Political Science),

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Race and the Chicago School

The Chicago School of sociology has often gotten a fair amount of credit for bringing the study of race into the academic discipline of sociology in the early decades of the twentieth century. Robert Ezra Park, in particular, is taken as a pioneer with his theories of a "race relations cycle", his work with Booker T. Washington, and his sponsorship of some of the first African American PhD students in American sociology. But Stephen Steinberg gives this history a very different interpretation in Race Relations: A Critique. His book provides a basis for a different "sociology of sociology" from that offered by Andrew Abbott in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.

Steinberg begins his account with the presidential address of Everett Hughes in 1963 at the American Sociological Association -- a momentous year in civil rights history. This was the central question posed by Hughes:
Why did social scientists -- and sociologists in particular -- not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate full integration into American Society? (kl 119)
How indeed, did sociology miss these key features of American life and inequality in its formative years in the early part of the twentieth century? This is an important core question for the sociology of knowledge: how did theorizing about race enter American sociology? And what social and institutional factors influenced the shape that theorizing took?

Steinberg believes there were very powerful forces within leading American universities, including historically black universities, that shaped the discourse away from "radical" views of the facts of racial oppression in the United States. Boards of trustees were populated by members of the business elite, and significant funding flowed to universities through foundations whose officers had their own views of how the facts of race should be presented. Radical and strident views of endemic racial inequalities were unwelcome, and "unwelcome" could mean the end of an academic career.  Steinberg draws attention to the case of Edward Bemis, a young economist who was critical of the power of the private owners of utility companies. "The Chicago gas trust retaliated by denying the university cut-rate prices so long as Bemis remained on the faculty" (kl 496) -- an example of the use of economic power to shape the intellectual content of the university.

Essentially, Steinberg's argument amounts to a severe critique of the orientation towards race in the formative framing of the topic of race in Chicago sociology, including especially Robert Park. The core phrase was "race relations."
While the term "race relations" is meant to convey value neutrality, on closer examination it is riddled with value. Indeed, its rhetorical function is to obfuscate the true nature of "race relations," which is a system of racial domination and exploitation based on violence, resulting in the suppression and dehumanization of an entire people over centuries of American history. (kl 203)
To frame the topic of race around "race relations" is to de-dramatize the situation of discrimination, exploitation, violence, domination, and racism that characterize race in the United States -- including Chicago in the 1910s. The frame of "race relations" suggests that the issue is fundamentally one of separate racial and ethnic communities whose relations need to be guided and managed. And this framework leads the sociologist's eye away from the underlying facts of oppression and discrimination that set the stage for life for African Americans, from slavery through reconstruction and through Jim Crow. These conditions of inequality, discrimination, and violence were visible to the common observer; but they became invisible in sociology. Steinberg refers to this as an epistemology of ignorance (kl 518).

Much of Steinberg's account takes the form of a sociological biography of Robert Parks, in some ways similar to Neil Gross's treatment of Rorty (link). Steinberg wants to understand how the fiery voice that Park expressed in his pre-academic journalism in support of the Congo Reform Association was transformed into the quietistic, non-engaged sociologist of Hyde Park. And his theory is a combination of personal calculation and institutional constraint: calculation about what kinds of theoretical expressions would forward his career, and institution constraint about how a more engaged and truthful Park would have fared within the discipline of sociology (not well!). The collateral idea of "objectivity" in social science comes into the story as well. It gives an apparently scientific basis for rejecting activist or radical scholarship, on the grounds that the researcher is advocating rather than observing.

An important formative influence on Park was his seven-year service as publicist and speech writer for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. Steinberg believes that Washington's ameliorativist view of the situation of African Americans was fundamental to the framing that Park would give to race at the University of Chicago.
Did Park give scholarly exposition to Washington's accommodationist logic, whose central feature was the avoidance of conflict and acceptance of the racial status quo? Is this why sociology failed to confront, much less oppose, racial oppression? Does this bring us closer to understanding why sociology failed to anticipate the Civil Rights Revolution? (kl 355)
It is important to note that Steinberg does not maintain that more truthful perspectives were unavailable or unimagined.
Whether black scholars remained behind or in front of the veil, there emerged a black radical tradition--sometimes muffled, at other times assertive--that has challenged the main currents of thought on race and racism among mainstream sociologists. (kl 163)
There were such voices -- W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver Cox, or C.R.L. James, for example -- but they did not come to set the stage for race analysis in sociology because of their activism and their association with Marxism.

Steinberg believes that Park was influential within sociology, not because of the originality of his ideas about race, but because those ideas fit with the assumptions of the powerful men and institutions who governed universities:
It is not my contention that, minus Park, the historiography of race would have been fundamentally different. After all, Park was hired precisely because he was in sync with the prevailing intellectual and ideological currents, and and without Park, some other person would have emerged to serve as the exemplar of the race relations school. A likely prospect was W. I. Thomas, who had staked out a position similar to Park's in his paper on "Education and Cultural Traits" at the conference on the Education of Primitive Man. (kl 436)
Steinberg notes this great historical irony: Hughes had written a negative review of Cox's Caste, Class, and Race in 1948; and the same issue of Phylon included a recollection of Du Bois by Herbert Aptheker, writing "We must agitate, complain, protest and keep protesting against the invasion of our manhood rights; we must besiege the legislature, carry our cases to the court and above all organize these million brothers of ours into one great fist which shall never cease to pound at the gates of opportunity until they fly open" (kl 168). So Hughes had in fact been exposed to the elements of sociological thinking that a more realistic approach to race in America would require; he had simply not recognized it.

(Tom Sugrue has a very good review of Steinberg and several other recent books in The Nation.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Social subjectivities

What role do subjectivities play in the composition of society? How does subjectivity influence social functioning, social structure, and social relationships?

By subjectivity I mean considerations that have to do with the mental state of an observer or participant: for example, stereotypes about race or religion, propositional attitudes, attitudes towards other people, understandings of social situations and rules, representations of others' states of minds, and so on. Essentially, people come to the world with ideas, attitudes, expectations, and understandings that are "in their heads."  These are abstract, intangible, personal, and private.  And yet these forms of subjectivity also have concrete intersubjective social effects.

Here is an example. Suppose individuals in a society have expectations about how people ought to behave in certain circumstances, and also have expectations about how some subgroups -- teenagers, people of other religions or races, people from other parts of the country -- are likely to misbehave relative to those expectations. These expectations are all subjective in the sense that they are embedded in the individuals' cognitive and affective systems. And they are then projected onto the local world of social interaction. The individual perceives the activities of others, and he/she behaves, in part, out of consideration of the attitudes and preconceptions that he/she possesses. So these representations are subjective; they are internal to the individual's cognitive-affective system.

This kind of interaction among actors, perceptions, and frames is closely related to the kinds of phenomena that Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel study in many works. Each of these micro-sociologists approaches the problems of social action and structure from the perspective of the practices, thoughts, and frameworks that the actors bring to the social interaction.  And they try to discern how the practices reveal frameworks, and how the frameworks drive conduct.  When we recognize that human actors are sensitive to and reactive to even minor cues from the actors around them, we also recognize the complexity of behavioral evolution that can occur in a small group.  (I tried to think about this complexity in a post about modeling interactive behavior.)

These subjective features are often intersubjective as well, in the sense that some or most other members of the surrounding society may share these representations. So presuppositions about behavior, expectations about talent and performance, and stereotypes about other groups may be broadly shared across the individuals in a society. But intersubjectivity is still subjectivity: the fact of agreement in attitudes doesn't imply the correctness of the attitudes or expectations as a description of objective, external facts.

How do these subjective and sometimes intersubjectively shared attitudes come to have external, objective effects? How do subjective experiences and attitudes get transformed into persistent social realities? There are a couple of pathways or mechanisms that are fairly obvious. One is the fact that the individual's attitudes and presuppositions affect his/her behavior and concrete interactions with other individuals. Take racial stereotypes as an example: that fact that an individual has a set of racial stereotypes affects his/her interactions with other people, both same-group and other-group. These influences are complex: behaving in a racially polarized way presumably evokes other sets of behaviors from other individuals, and a complex dynamic of racially-valenced pattern of behavior that would not have emerged absent the subjective racial stereotypes that a certain number of the individuals brought to the arena. So this is an example of a strong effect from the subject's inner experience to the structure of a social environment.

The work done by Claude Steele and colleagues on "stereotype threat" is a good example of how attitudes can be expressed in subtle ways through behavior and words, and result in very significant changes of behavior and performance by other people (link).

Moral frameworks and assumptions about justice are also subjective, in the sense that they are features of the individual's cognitive-affective system.  These moral ideas and presuppositions too have social consequences.  Peasants who frame the landlord's behavior as fundamentally unjust are likely to behave differently from those who lack this set of ideas about justice.  And if it is widely understood that certain kinds of behavior are quick to press the "injustice" button, this may lead the powerful towards a more accommodating set of strategies with respect to the disadvantaged people in their orbit.

So it seems fairly clear and direct to say that human subjectivity is itself an important cause of a variety of forms of social patterns: forms of collective behavior, the shaping of social practices, and the adjustment and accommodation of the behavior of other actors in society.  This seems to have a fairly striking consequence, however: it seems to imply that the ways that we think about society and social relations actually has a substantial effect on the ways in which society plays out.  This is a fundamentally different situation from the natural sciences; it doesn't matter how we think about gravity, since the inverse square law applies irrespective of our beliefs.

(There is, of course, a direction of causation that proceeds in the opposite direction, from persistent social institutions to subjective states of mind. People gain their cognitive-affective tools and presuppositions through concrete, recurring social experiences. So the local society is an objective force in shaping the subjectivities of the individuals in society.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Neighborhood effects as meso-causes

A very interesting and current sociological study of "meso"-social causation can be found in the literature on neighborhood effects over the past 15 years or so. Robert Sampson and various colleagues have offered striking new analyses and arguments that establish the importance of geo-social neighborhoods on the occurrence of a variety of important social behaviors.  And their thinking represents a concrete, empirically rigorous and theoretically well developed effort to probe the effects and mechanisms that link neighborhood to resident.

Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley provide a review of this literature in "Assessing 'Neighborhood Effects': Social Processes and New Directions in Research" (link). Sampson's contribution to the Demeulenaere volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, makes explicit the connection of this line of argument to issues about causation and methodological individualism that have been important to the analytical sociology movement.

Here is the preliminary definition of "neighborhood" upon which Sampson et al depend:
Robert Park and Ernest Burgess laid the foundation for urban sociology by defining local communities as “natural areas” that developed as a result of competition between businesses for land use and between population groups for affordable housing. A neighborhood, according to this view, is a subsection of a larger community—a collection of both people and institutions occupying a spatially defined area influenced by ecological, cultural, and sometimes political forces (Park 1916, pp. 147–154). Suttles (1972) later refined this view by recognizing that local communities do not form their identities only as the result of free-market competition. Instead, some communities have their identity and boundaries imposed on them by outsiders. Suttles also argued that the local community is best thought of not as a single entity, but rather as a hierarchy of progressively more inclusive residential groupings. In this sense, we can think of neighborhoods as ecological units nested within successively larger communities. ("Assessing," 445)
What Sampson and his co-authors want to discover is how sociologists have begun to identify and measure features of "neighborhoods" that are not simply aggregate features of individual behaviors, and how they have attempted to identify causal relations between these meso-level neighborhood characteristics and individual-level behaviors and outcomes.  They are particularly interested in health outcomes and other forms of disadvantage for children and adolescents, or what they term "problem-related or health-compromisingbehaviors among children and adolescents" (448): "infant mortality, low birthweight, teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, child maltreatment, and adolescent delinquency" (446).

A key fact about neighborhoods and larger communities in the United States is the salience of race and poverty in residential patterns; neighborhoods are usually characterized by a concentration of racial groups and income groups.  And high-poverty, high-racial-minority neighborhoods are frequently characterized by high-negative-health outcomes.  But this is a mere correlation; what are the causal linkages between a neighborhood's characteristics and the health and behavioral outcomes of its residents?  In other words, they want to know something about the mechanisms through which these meso-level properties influence the individual resident:
During the 1990s, a number of scholars moved beyond the traditional fixation on concentrated poverty and began to explicitly theorize and directly measure how neighborhood social processes bear on the well-being of children and adolescents. Unlike the more static features of sociodemographic composition (e.g., race, class position), social processes or mechanisms provide accounts of how neighborhoods bring about a change in a given phenomenon of interest (Sorensen 1998, p. 240). (447)
A more recent contribution from Sampson appears in the Demeulenaere volume discussed in several earlier posts, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.  The essay is called "Neighborhood effects, causal mechanisms and the social structure of the city," and it makes an explicit attempt to line up the neighborhood-effect literature with some of the issues of analytical sociology.  Most important is the fact that neighborhood effects are thought to be "emergent" or autonomous with respect to the individual characteristics of the people who make up the population.

Sampson's effort in this essay is to give a satisfactory definition of "neighborhood," to indicate some ways of measuring or describing neighborhood-level properties (what he refers to as "ecometrics", in analogy with "psychometrics"), and to reflect on some possible mechanisms that might work from this level of analysis to the individual level of the people who make up the neighborhood.

Here is how Sampson characterizes "neighborhood" in this piece:
I begin with a general definition of neighborhood as a variably interacting population of people and institutions in a common place. Neighborhoods form a mosaic of overlapping ecological units (e.g. blocks, streets) that vary in size, boundaries and social organizational features. (228-229) 
It is the intersection of practices and social meanings with spatial context that is at the root of neighborhood effects. (230)
And he offers a somewhat different definition of social mechanism from those provided in the existing literature:
I conceptualize a social mechanism as a plausible contextual process that accounts for a given phenomenon, in the ideal case linking putative causes and effects. (230)
Sampson has quite a bit of interesting perspective on the topic of "levels" of social analysis and social causation.  Neighborhood effects are fairly proximate -- local social facts influencing local individual behavior. But Sampson believes that there are plausible mechanisms linking much more distant social conditions or circumstances to the local level as well. For example:
It is not just city-level processes that are at stake -- national and global forces can influence place stratification…. How do we go about documenting the extra-local layers of this kind of "macro-level" neighborhood effect?  … Even calls for analytical sociology are not terribly helpful, focused as they are on the relation of micro and macro (in this case neighborhood) levels, as opposed to higher order structures. What is needed is a truly systemic approach that seeks to theorize and study empirically the "articulation" function of the local community vis-a-vis the larger social world -- how organizations and social networks differentially connect local residents to the cross-cutting institutions that organize much of modern economic, political and social life. (235)
Sampson explicitly parts company with "Coleman's boat", offering a multi-level and multi-dimensional causal model of "neighborhood structure, social-spatial mechanisms, and crime rates" (Figure 11.1; 236).
Unlike most research intentions on neighborhood effects to claim a hierarchical or "top down" primacy of neighborhoods over the individual, I have considered "side to side," "bottom up" and "bird's eye" orientations along with issues of measurement, social causality, methodological individualism, extra-local spatial processes, percepts as causation, and selection bias all as a way to address what I consider a modified analytic sociology "Coleman project". (244) 
Despite the real promise of analytical sociology, I conclude that methodological individualism would do well to grant social context and macro-level factors an equal forum in theories of neighborhood effects. (245) 
Ultimately, then, higher-order processes that induce structure at the neighborhood level require a different way of thinking than the individualist and largely micro-level approaches of existing experimental paradigms. (245)
Sampson's work, with a handful of different collaborators, is a very impressive example of the possibility of bringing together very rigorous quantitative methods with a social realist's interest in causal mechanisms and a non-reductionist's willingness to assign causal powers to supra-individual structures and conditions.  The systematic effort to introduce methods for observing and measuring "neighborhood-level" characteristics -- what they call ecometrics -- is a valuable addition to the toolbox for sociological analysis at a range of levels of social activity.

I'm looking forward to reading Sampson's very interesting forthcoming book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. The book should be available later this month.

(Incidentally, I find it interesting that Sampson highlights some of the same difficulties of defining a concept like "neighborhood" that I discussed in an earlier post on definitions in social theory (228-229); link. Here is a particularly apt statement: "I thus define neighborhoods geographically and leave the nature and extent of social relations problematic. This conceptualization opens the door for empirical research to proceed without tautology and a menu of ecological units of analysis from which to choose depending on the theoretical constructs or social phenomenon under study" (229).)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Microfoundations and meso causation

I take the view that social causation requires microfoundations. And I hold that meso causal explanations are legitimate. How are these two views compatible?

The key is the role that we expect reasoning about micro-level events to play in the explanation itself. The various versions of methodological individualism -- microeconomics, analytical sociology, Elster's theories of explanation, and the model of Coleman's boat -- presume that explanation needs to invoke the story of the micro level events as part of the explanation. The microfoundations-meso explanation perspective requires that we be confident that these micro-level events exist and work to compose the meso level; but it does not require that the causal argument incorporates a reconstruction of the pathway through the individual level in order to have a satisfactory explanation.

Putting the methodological individualist model of explanation crudely, we get something like this:
Institution {I} shapes individuals' desires, beliefs, and passions {Ai}; individuals with these features of agency constitute the micro level; the tools of game theory, agent-based modeling, microeconomics, etc., allow us to aggregate the behavior of these individuals back to the macro level, in a new state of the macro level {O}.
The" meso-causal with microfoundations" view goes something like this.
Institution {I} has causal power P to influence future states of social aggregates; {I} occurs leading to P.
And, outside the explanation itself, we have:
[Institution I's causal powers have micro foundations along these lines: ...]
So when Michael Mann describes the effects of paramilitary organizations in Germany in the 1920s, he relies on a number of assertions about the causal powers of these organizations when introduced into the social circumstances of the 1920s. He is prepared to say how these effects work--so he satisfies the microfoundations requirement. But his explanation is a meso-level one, proceeding from the meso-level causal properties of paramilitary organizations to another set of meso-level effects (link).

When we explain why the tea kettle begins to whistle, we provide a meso-level explanation and we recognize the microfoundations that each step rests upon:
The kettle is filled with water.
The kettle is subject to a hot flame.
Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade.
Steam is produced at higher pressure than one atmosphere.
Steam exits through the spout, creating the whistle.
This is a meso level physical explanation with very well understood microfoundations, at the level of the molecular properties of H2O, its phase transitions, etc. And, of course, that molecular explanation itself has microfoundations. But here is the key point: the explanation at the level of heat, liquid, boiling point, and steam is perfectly satisfactory for many purposes. And it is scientifically satisfactory because we are confident that we understand the micro mechanisms that underlie each step of the argument. But we are not obliged to provide a molecule-level simulation of the situation in order to be satisfied that we have explained the whistling tea kettle.

Working sociologists offer explanations like Mann's on a regular basis. They identify what they take to be causal properties of social structures and institutions, and then draw out causal chains involving those causal properties. And often they are able to answer the follow-on question: how does that causal power work, in approximate terms, at the micro level? But answering that question is not an essential part of their argument. They do not in fact attempt to work through the agent-based simulation that would validate their general view about how the processes work at the lower level.

This account suggests an alternative diagram to Coleman's boat.

The diagram represents the meso-level claim that E1 and E3 jointly cause the occurrence of E2. The meso causal relation is represented as a single-directional orange arrow. The green arrows represent the microfoundations of each meso factor. These causal relations are bidirectional: individual actors are influenced by the meso factor, and their actions have influences on the meso factor. The yellow arrows, finally, represent inter-actor influences at the micro level: network relationships, alliances, communications channels, exemplary behavior, mobilization efforts, etc.

The diagram represents each of the causal linkages represented in the Coleman boat. But it calls out the meso-meso causal connection that Coleman prohibits in his analysis. And it replaces the idea that causation proceeds through the individual level, with the idea that each meso level factor has a set of actor-level microfoundations. But this is an ontological fact, not a prescription on explanation.

And, finally, it is self-evident that we can always ask a different question that looks more like Coleman's: how does the causal property of the meso factor work at the level of the actor? But this is a different question, and we aren't required to incorporate the resulting story into the meso-meso explanation.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Definitions in social theory

When social theorists undertake to define something, what are they doing from a conceptual point of view? I'm thinking of "big" social concepts, like capitalism, feudalism, fascism, democracy, or nationalism. How are the concepts the social theorists put forward thought to relate to the social world and its history?

Here are a few conceptual attitudes that might be taken. First is an instance of ostensive definition. Pointing to the political and social experiences of Germany and Italy between 1930 and 1945, the theorist might say: "This is what I mean by fascism. These social formations, and any other historical examples that resemble them in important ways, are what I mean by 'fascism'." On this stance, nothing we discover about the cases becomes part of the definition of fascism. But these discoveries may become part of a social theory of violent social movements and political formations, and they will contribute to a causal understanding of these cases.

A second possibility is what we might call an operationalizing strategy, restricting ourselves to a thin and preliminary definition of the phenomenon of interest. The theorist looks at the case or cases that are the primary examples. He/she notes a few prominent characteristics -- use of violence against political enemies, an ideology based on resentment, and a vitriolic nationalism aimed against domestic minorities, perhaps, and might then say: "Operationally, I will classify societies [social movements, states, ideologies] as fascist based on these three criteria." And when it turns out that there are a very wide range of otherwise different examples that fall under these criteria, the theorist says: "I don't assert that all fascist societies, states, ideologies, or movements are fundamentally similar. If they share these 3 characteristics, they are fascist in my analysis."

A third approach might be an ordinary language approach: What are the connotations and presuppositions that "we" ordinarily have in mind when we use the word "fascist" in application to political behavior and structure? What do we mean by the language of "fascism"? A variant: how has the concept been used historically by earlier writers?

A fourth approach begins with a somewhat more reflective approach. The theorist notices that there were a number of rather similar but independent movements in the 1930s in Europe and Asia. He/she puts it forward that "Something similar was going on here." These parallel cases are instances of something -- call it fascism. My task is to ferret out what the real features of fascism are, as partially illustrated by these cases." This approach is essentialist. It assumes there is a hidden social reality that is pure fascism; that these cases imperfectly express that reality; and that the task of definition is to identify those underlying essential features. "This is what fascism really is; and once we've spelled out this theory of essential fascism, we will also understand the cases and their differences better."

A fifth possible perspective: These examples in Europe in the 1930s have many suggestive similarities. Take it as given that there is no "essence of fascism". But surely there were some similar forces, events, structures, and processes that combined conjuncturally to bring about the intertwining similarities witnessed in Germany, Romania, Italy, Spain, and (with different outcomes) Britain and France. The theorist expresses herself this way: "I will formulate an articulated representation -- model -- of my best thinking about the causal and social features that seem most important in these processes. That model is my "definition" of fascism. It is an "ideal type." But it doesn't pretend to capture the underlying essence. It instead serves as a guide for empirical and historical research. It is a substantive set of hypotheses about how these complex examples worked. It is intended to guide careful historical comparisons and, eventually, corrections and revisions of my current thinking about how fascisms worked."

A sixth perspective might downplay the importance of framing a specific concept of fascism altogether. This is the "no definition" approach. The historian-sociologist might say: "Violent, anti-democratic, and surprising things happened in Europe between the wars. I want to put together some best-thinking from the social sciences to identify and understand the processes and structures that were underway in those years that combined to create these violent and anti-democratic political developments. Call it the period of fascisms if you like; my goal is to understand lower-level political and social processes and structures that created this conjuncture." These processes may have to do with resource mobilization and social movements; theories of class politics; theories of reactions to crisis; theories of communication; theories of political opportunism; theories of economic structure, trade, colonial policies, etc. And comparison across the positive and negative cases will help to refine our understanding of how those processes worked and what their limits and conditions were.

Several of these approaches are essentialist: they presuppose that fascism is a discrete phenomenon that can be specified in a carefully drawn set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Several other approaches are nominalistic, in that they do not presuppose that the term really refers to a coherent underlying social reality. Our understanding of reality is limited to concrete ideas about processes, structure, and forms of agency that we can study and analyze; the "big" concepts only pull together related sets of those processes and structures into loose configurations. And one, the ordinary language strategy, is purely semantic. It simply tries to explicate the concept of fascism as it is used by competent users of the term. What do they mean to convey?

Several things seem clear to me. First, we can't capture a complex social reality like fascism or democracy through a definition. The definition serves only to focus our attention on a particular range of social phenomena. But to actually know anything about those phenomena we have to investigate them historically and empirically. Second, historical concepts like fascism do not single out parts of the social world in the way that natural kind terms single out discrete parts of the natural world. Fascism is not a natural kind that is fundamentally the same through its many instances. Third, theoretically and historically developed models of fascism are genuinely useful. Call these detailed historical constructs; or perhaps, call them ideal types. But these constructs are empirically based: they are fallible; they reflect the researcher's hunches or stereotypes about how this sort of stuff works; and we must recognize from the start that we will encounter instances that don't fit the theoretical construct. This kind of historically detailed and articulated construct of fascism is useful precisely because it leads us to examine non-standard cases carefully. The non-standard case can point up exactly the ways in which the construct is a heuristic organizing device, rather than a way of organizing every thing we know about fascism.

So here is the introductory paragraph I'd like to see in a comparative historical study of European fascisms:
The inter-war period saw a number of social movements, conflicts, and power regimes that emphasized nationalism, violence, and interpersonal resentment. Some of these countries went on to form authoritarian states; others did not. My goal in this study is to search out the causes, conditions, and structures that appear to have played an important role in the rise of these movements in some countries; the factors that helped these movements to seize power in several countries; and the factors that prevented the seizure of power in yet other countries. There is variation across all the cases, in ways that may be more or less important. The societies where these movements seized power are often characterized as "fascist", but not much turns on the name. My purpose here is simply to identify the large currents that seem to have been influential in this turbulent time. In this way I agree with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in their studies of contentious politics: it is not the high-level concepts like war and revolution that shed light, but rather the specific meso-level causal and ideological processes where we can really learn something important about how societies come to embody and change with these kinds of politics.

Social mechanisms and scientific realism

From Social Epistemology ...

(Editor’s Note: Johannes Persson’s article “Mechanistic Explanation in Social Contexts”, to which Daniel Little replies, appears in Social Epistemology 26.1 available through Taylor & Francis Online.)

The social mechanisms approach to explanation (SM) has filled a very important gap in the theory of social explanation in the past twenty years, between the covering-law model and merely particularistic accounts of specific events. The SM approach is particularly prominent in the emerging programme of analytical sociology, but has made its mark in comparative historical sociology and other areas of the social sciences as well. But what exactly do various contributors mean by a “social mechanism”? And how does reference to hypothesized mechanisms help in explaining social outcomes? The literature is still not very specific in its responses to these questions. James Mahoney includes some 24 definitions of mechanism in “Beyond Correlational Analysis: Recent Innovations in Theory and Method” (Mahoney 2001), and it is not clear to me that the field has settled on a shared definition in the subsequent ten years.


Read more at Social Epistemology

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Berger and Luckmann on conceptual relativism

image: The Bargeman, Fernand Léger (link)

In their The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge Berger and Luckmann are interested in the ways that human beings cognitively represent the events, structures, and behaviors of "everyday life." They want to shed light on the cognitive frames in terms of which people organize the social world that confronts them. How variable and different are these frames? What do Berger and Luckmann have to say about them?  And what is "everyday life"? Here is their definition:
Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world. (19)
And they suggest repeatedly that the belief systems we form about everyday life are relative to our own needs and social experiences:
What is 'real' to a Tibetan monk may not be 'real' to an American businessman. The 'knowledge' of the criminal differs from the 'knowledge' of the criminologist. (2)
We can construe these points about the differences that exist between the Tibetan monk and the businessman in very different ways. First, we might take the point to mean simply that the domain of knowledge is different for these distinct socially located "knowers", which is really a point about relativity of knowledge to cognitive interest. Or more radically, we might take it to mean that these differently situated human beings conceptualize the same topics very differently -- which is a more radical point about relativity to incomparable conceptual systems.

The first point is a pragmatist one about the role that "interests" play in the construction of our knowledge about something; the surgeon has a different body of knowledge about the spine than the physical therapist does. The second point is a much deeper kind of relativism. It starts with the Kantian point that we need a conceptual system in order to organize any body of empirical experience; but it then proceeds to a sort of post-Kantian observation that there are alternative conceptual systems that would do the job equally well. (This is a bit similar to the discovery by Poincare of the logical consistency of non-Euclidean geometries.)

B-L explicitly make the point about the "pragmatic" conditions on a given person's body of knowledge about the everyday world:
Since everyday life is dominated by the pragmatic motive, recipe knowledge, that is, knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performances, occupies a prominent place in the social stock of knowledge. (41)
And later:
My knowledge of everyday life is structured in terms of relevances. Some of these are determined by immediate pragmatic interests of mine, others by my general situation in society. (44)
So which interpretation do Berger and Luckmann have in mind? I think there is evidence supporting both views: that different knowledge communities have different systems of factual beliefs and presuppositions; and that different knowledge communities may also sometimes have "grammatical and conceptual" differences that lead them to organize the social world differently.

Start with the "different beliefs" view. The points noted above about the pragmatic focus of our everyday knowledge are certainly an expression of a "different beliefs" view.  But B-L offer more theoretical considerations as well.  For example, they make use of a term that is not familiar in the philosophy of mind or language, the idea of "typification."
I apprehend the other by means of typificatory schemes even in the face-to-face situation, although these schemes are more "vulnerable" to [the other's] interference than in "remoter" forms of interaction…. I apprehend the other as "a man," "a European," "a buyer, "a jovial type," and so on. All these typifications longingly affect my interaction with me, as, say, I decide to show him a good time on the town before trying to sell him my product. Our face-to-face interaction will be patterned by these typifications as long as they do not become problematic through interference on his part. (30)
So what are these "typificatory schemes"? It seems to have to do with singling out a set of traits or behavioral patterns as "typical" of something. Here is what they say about "typification" a few pages later:
Language also typifies experiences, allowing me to subsume them under broad categories in terms of which they have meaning not only to myself but also to my fellowmen. As it typifies, it also anonymizes experiences, for the typified experience can, in principle, be duplicated by anyone falling into the category in question. (38)
It appears that typifications are bundles of beliefs or presuppositions, adding up to stereotyped expectations about the other -- what his/her preferences, style, or behavior are likely to be. In other words, these are stereotypes that can be bundled together to provide a basis for anticipating the behavior and thoughts of the other.

But it seems to me that what they are referring to here are not alternative conceptual frameworks, as represented by Davidson or Whorf, but rather different sets of stereotyped beliefs or rules of thumb. "When dealing with a European be sure to comment on the quality of the wine;" "when dealing with an Englishman don't laugh too loud;" etc. So far I don't see a basis for thinking that there are fundamental differences at the level of the concepts we use to analyze the social world, but rather differences in the presuppositions or stereotypes that we carry that are assembled out of those concepts.

This point about "typification," then, seems to have to do with a stock of common beliefs that one sub-culture shares and that others do not. Canadian stereotypes about "bankers" may include a different set of stereotyped beliefs than English stereotypes do; or in B-L's terms, Canadians typify bankers differently than English people do.

But here is a basis for a "conceptual relativist" possibility as well. B-L provide some specific set of ideas about how we use language to "parse" our everyday social world:
Language builds up semantic fields or zones of meaning that are linguistically circumscribed. Vocabulary, grammar and syntax are geared to the organization of these semantic fields. Thus language builds up classification schemes to differentiate objects by "gender" (a quite different matter from sex, of course) or by number; forms to make statements of action as against statements of being; modes of indicating degrees of social intimacy, and so on. …
Or, to take another example, the sum of linguistic objectifications pertaining to my occupation constitutes another semantic field, which meaningfully orders all the routine events I encounter in my daily work. Within the semantic fields thus built up it is possible for both biographical and historical experience to be objectified, retained, and accumulated. (40)
Here they are talking about grammar and vocabulary, or in other words, the basic structure of language.  And here we can see the possibility of substantial differences across linguistic/cultural communities.

Take the vocabulary point first.  The wine connoisseur has a wide range of terms he/she can use to characterize the taste and consistency of the wine; whereas the weekend consumer has only a few terms ("sweet", "dry", "makes me sneeze").  And this implies that the wine connoisseur experiences the wine differently as well; by making discriminations, we refine experience.  So discrimination through a more specialized vocabulary differs across linguistic communities; and this suggests a very basic kind of conceptual relativism.  We can also see how to apply this point to social perception: the satirist and the mimic have an ability to discern and verbalize the subtle behaviors of ordinary people that most of us lack.

The grammatical point also seems important.  If one grammar permits its users to express "action" or "being" differently from another linguistic community, this suggests as well a difference in the way that the two groups perceive and represent the world.  This point too can be illustrated in our ability to represent and cognize the everyday social world; it may be that the Russian language represents comic or heroic behaviors differently than the Chinese language.

What might count as a major difference in conceptual schemes when it comes to conceptualizing one's own society? Geertz offers one example in his treatment of Bali in Local Knowledge; he asserts that the western concept of the "unified self" does not play a role in Balinese ideas about actors and situations. If this is born out, it serves as a good example of a very basic conceptual difference in the ordinary conceptual frames used by Europeans and Balinese in analyzing ordinary human action.

There is one more aspect of B-L's view here that I find interesting.  It is the idea that knowledge is "socially distributed" (45) -- that one person has only limited knowledge of most subjects and depends on the more expert knowledge of others to guide much of his/her actions and choices.  This idea is very similar to a view of meaning that Hilary Putnam developed several decades later in "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" (link). On this view, our knowledge, and even perhaps our conceptual schemes, are not entirely "in our heads", but are socially distributed across a society of experts and knowers.

On the whole, I think that Berger and Luckmann are generally thinking about the topicality and interest-ladenness of bodies of ordinary knowledge, not the more fundamental point about conceptual relativism.  Theirs is a pragmatist's theory of everyday knowledge, not so much a relativist's theory.  And this may help to explain the comments that Berger makes about Foucault and Derrida in Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.  He wants to sharply distinguish his views (and those of Luckmann) from what he perceives to be the extreme relativism of postmodernism.
Our concept of the social construction of reality in no way implies that there are no facts. Of course there are physical facts to be determined empirically, from the fact that a particular massacre took place to the fact that someone stole my car. But the very concept of objectivation implies that there are social facts as well, with a robust reality that can be discovered regardless of our wishes.... Reality indeed is always interpreted, and power interests are sometimes involved in some interpretations. But not all interpretations are equal. If they were, any scientific enterprise, not to mention any medical diagnosis or police investigation, would be impossible. As to the most radical formulation of this "post-modernism"--that nothing really exists but the various "narratives"--this corresponds very neatly with a definition of schizophrenia, when one can no longer distinguish between reality and one's fantasies. (94-95)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Causal pathways through Coleman's boat

image: illustration in Luiz Carlos dos Santos Azevedo, "Developing a Performance Measurement System for a Public Organization: A Case Study of the Rio de Janeiro City Controller’s Office" (link)

A key talisman in discussions about the relation between "macro" and "micro" is a famous diagram by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory.  The diagram is often referred to as "Coleman's boat." Here are two versions involving different examples (8, 10):

Macro is at the top; micro is at the bottom; and the arrows indicate possible pathways of causal influence.  Coleman illustrates his idea with the example of a simulation game.
Such a game is composed of the following: 
A set of roles that players take on, each role defining the interests or goals of the player
Rules about the kinds of actions that are allowable for players in each role, as well as about the order of play
Rules specifying the consequences that each player's action has for other players in the game
It is this structure which corresponds to the two transitions I have described: macro to micro and micro to macro. The first of these transitions is mirrored in the player's interests, given by the goal established by the rules; the constraints on action, which are imposed by other rules; the initial conditions, which provide the context within which action is taken; and after the game is in play, the new context imposed by others' actions. The second transition is mirrored by the consequences of the player's action: how it combines with, interferes with, or in any other way interacts with the actions of other ..., thus creating a new context within which the next action takes place.
There is no tangible macro level. The answer is that the macro level, the system behavior is an abstraction, nevertheless an important one. (11-12)
In his detailed and insightful discussion in Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning Lars Udehn labels the arrows this way, with three forms of causal connection that are valid for Coleman (300):

Type 4 connections -- macro to macro -- are ruled out ("the macro level is an abstraction, nevertheless an important one"; Coleman 12); so causal influence for macro factors can only work through disaggregated effects at the micro level.  We might refer to Type 3 connections as aggregative, and Type 2 as formative; Type 3 represents the composition of the macro-level effect through the activities of individuals at the micro-level.  And Type 2 represents the "shaping" or "forming" of individuals that occurs when a macro-level entity affects them -- schools, norms, institutions.  Type 1 are connections within the individual's psychology and agency.

Udehn characterizes Coleman's position as "structural individualism" (304).  What does he mean by this?  Here is a brief explanation. He begins by characterizing "institutional individualism," which is itself a loosening of methodological individualism away from the strictures of psychological individualism.  Here the distinctive idea is that "the behavior of the social system is the aggregated result of the actions of individuals, or the resultant of their interaction." He then characterizes structural individualism in these terms.
In structural individualism, on the other hand, actors are occupants of positions, and they enter relations that depend upon these positions.  The situations they face are interdependent, or functional related, prior to any interaction. the result is a structural effect, as distinguished from a mere interaction effect. In addition to natural persons, then, there are social positions and corporate actors made up of social positions. The behaviour of social systems is, at least in part, determined by the structure of those systems. (304)
So according to Udehn's interpretation, Coleman diverges from strict methodological individualism in that he admits the "structural" effects of organizations and positions within them: that these system-level characteristics have effects on social behavior at the individual level that are different from the mere aggregation of independent interests among individuals.  Further, Udehn highlights the fact of socialization: the fact that individuals are socialized by macro-institutions, with the result that their behavior at the micro level is already conditioned by features of the macro value system -- ways of thinking, ways of valuing, ways of interpreting. "Every individual living in society is socialised and internalises, in varying degrees, the values and beliefs prevailing in the society, or group, to which he/she belongs" (301).

Let's try to illustrate this inter-levels explanation problem with a fairly simple example.  Suppose we notice that a certain country has chronic fiscal crises surrounding its effort to fund a naval expansion.  We also observe that this country has an abnormally high rate of tax evasion. As a consequence, government revenues are lower than they would otherwise be.  We would like to explain this collective fact of high tax evasion.  We might consider three possibilities:
  1. The population shares disdain for the value of government and is unresponsive to calls for "paying your fair share."  This value set may derive from various features of the country's past, or its religious communities, or something else. (individual-level fact)
  2. The country has gotten itself into a low-trust, no-cooperation trap: citizens who would pay their taxes if they were confident that others will do so, no longer believe that others will in fact do so; and they refrain as well. (social interaction effect)
  3. The institutions of tax collection are ineffective, with little supervision of collectors and weak enforcement of compliance.  Therefore rational citizens refrain from paying taxes. (system-level fact)
Hypothesis 1 supports a Type 2 explanation: the moral system of the population as a whole forms the consciousness and moral sensibilities of individuals to become tax evaders; their individual actions aggregate to a low tax collection rate.

Hypothesis 3 suports a Type 3 explanation: institutions set the incentives and punishments for all citizens; citizens behave rationally; their choices aggregate to a low tax collection rate.  But it also supports a Type 4 explanation: a poor enforcement regime leads to low tax collections, which leads to weak ability to fund naval expansion.

What I have objected to in this picture, without formulating it very clearly, is that it seems to require social explanations to proceed through the actions of individuals.  Essentially it seems to imply that only agent-based simulations will provide acceptable explanations of "macro-macro" effects; which means that we are compelled to give up the Type 4 (macro-macro) explanation in favor of a trip through Coleman's boat, formalized with an agent-based simulation.

The position I would like to defend is two-fold and is a defense of Type 4 explanations. First, macro entities (organizations, institutions, normative systems) have stable characteristics with behavioral consequences. Second, those entities must have microfoundations; we must be confident that there are individual behaviors at lower levels that support these macro characteristics.  But third, it is legitimate to draw out the macro-level effects of the macro-circumstance under investigation, without tracing out the way that effect works in detail on the swarms of actors encompassed by the case.  I've referred to this possibility as "relative explanatory autonomy" of the meso-level (link, link, link).  And the requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on explanation; it does not require that our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level.  Rather, it is a condition that must be satisfied on prima facie grounds, prior to offering the explanation.

(Another important exponent of the programme of methodological individualism is Jon Elster.  Here is Udehn's paraphrase of Elster's version of MI:
Elster is not only a proponent of rational choice, but of methodological individualism as well, and he seems to share the common presumption that the two are inseparably linked. By 'methodological individualism', Elster means 'the doctrine that all social phenomena -- their structure and their change -- are in principle explicable in ways that only involve individuals -- their properties, their goals, their beliefs and their actions. Methodological individualism thus conceived is a form of reductionism.
 As Udehn points out, this puts Elster much closer to the "narrow individualism" end of the spectrum than Coleman.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

I've treated several approaches to the sociology of knowledge in the past month.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe their book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, as fundamentally a contribution to this subject as well.  So this post will examine the assumptions they make about the topic.  Berger and Luckmann link their theorizing to George Herbert Mead and the "so-called symbolic-interactionist school of American sociology" (17).  This is a very suggestive link, and a promising starting point for an analysis of ordinary commonsense knowledge.  My complaint will be that Berger and Luckmann don't in fact carry it off.

Berger and Luckmann want to show that reality is socially constructed.  This can mean two things: that the objective features of the world have assumed the shape they have as a result of social action; and the features of the objective world can only be understood through one or another conceptual schemes that are both incommensurable and irrefutable.  What they actually show pertains to the first interpretation, not the second. The most enduring contribution they make is to work out the case for this proposition: We as persons, and the social relations and processes within which we act, are iteratively created by previous social processes and individual actions.  So the book isn't about knowledge; it's about social reality.

It is apparent from page 1, that Berger and Luckmann have a non-standard conception of "knowledge".  They define knowledge as "the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics."  This definition has more to do with the degree of subjective confidence that persons have in their beliefs, and less to do with the nature of those beliefs themselves. And yet the topic of knowledge, whether philosophical or sociological, is really only interesting if it sheds light on the ways in which cognitive entities arrive at and formulate representations of the world around them.

Berger and Luckmann want the sociology of knowledge to focus on commonsensical beliefs, not specialist or scientific knowledge.  "The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people 'know' as 'reality' in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives" (15).  This is a perfectly legitimate point.  But it doesn't erase the need for conceptual analysis: what is the structure of commonsense knowing?  How do ordinary people "parse" their daily experiences into an organized representation of their worlds?  These questions are just a much of a philosophical issue for commonsensical knowledge as they are for Kant in his consideration of all empirical knowledge.

Much of the social world that we confront and about which we form beliefs has to do with institutions. Berger and Luckmann have a particular and narrow definition of an institution. "Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution" (53).  The examples they give of institutions are practices that have grown up organically -- e.g. conventionalized ways that a traditional village may have come to have organized the annual stag hunt.  But it would seem that there are many things that we would call "institutions" that fall outside this paradigm.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service is an institution. It consists of hundreds of thousands of employees, organized by a set of rules, disciplinary processes, and oversight mechanisms.  It is true that this institution specifies regular forms of conduct by the various people who are part of the institution.  But it certainly didn't come about as the "sedimentation" of simpler forms of practice. More generally, their definition of an institution doesn't seem to do justice to the social realities represented by organizations.

That said, this definition of an institution gives concrete meaning to one sense in which Berger and Luckmann mean to say that "social reality is a construction": the institution itself is socially created by a group of people. "It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity" (60).  This is certainly correct.  But it doesn't support or convey the other important implication of "social construction" -- the idea that the world we experience is fundamentally constructed in terms of the concepts that we impose upon it.  This is the sense implied by Whorf and other conceptual relativists; but it doesn't find expression in B-L's analysis.

My overall assessment of the arguments offered by Berger and Luckmann here is somewhat negative: I don't think they are offering a "sociology of knowledge" at all.  Instead, they are offering an interpretation of the actor (constituted by processes of socialization before biology is even completely finished) and of the social world in which we act (created by the practices, actions, and habits of concrete human beings over time).   It is essentially a sociological theory of the actor-in-social-context.  The discussions of primary and secondary socialization are empirically useful, in that they help steer us towards the concrete situations through which individuals learn about the roles and values they "should" recognize.  Seen from that perspective, the key chapters (II and III) are interesting and helpful.

But the book has very little to do with the problem of mental representation; and it doesn't have much to say about social cognition.  And the recurring theme, that there are alternative social realities, needs to be understood as relating to the social-stuff side rather than the knowledge side: social relations, habits, and patterns of social behavior could have unfolded differently.  There is nothing inevitable about the specific forms of interaction "our" society has codified.  We could have created different institutions.  But given the institutions and practices we've got, the task of knowledge is determined: we need to discover through participation and practice how they work.

So I'm not too excited about this book as one that contributes to a better understanding of cognition -- I don't find Berger and Luckmann's analysis of knowledge and the social world very helpful.  The problem is, that they don't have anything like a nuanced analysis of the relationship between thought and the world: the nature of conceptual schemes, the relationship between concepts and observations, and something like a naturalized analysis of evidence and belief acceptance.  In other words, they aren't doing enough of the philosophical work that is needed in order to have a genuinely insightful basis for talking about the social construction of beliefs.  We need to know what goes into beliefs about the world before we can get very specific about how those belief systems are socially conditioned or constructed.  They acknowledge this limitation of their approach:
We therefore exclude from the sociology of knowledge the epistemological and methodological problems that bothered both of its major originators. By virtue of this exclusion we are setting ourselves apart from both Scheler's and Mannheim's conception of the discipline, and from the later sociologists of knowledge (notably those with a neo-positivist orientation) who shared the conception in this respect. (14)
They don't seem to think this avoidance of philosophical issues reduces their ability to shed light on the topic.  Unfortunately, I think they were mistaken.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the kind of analysis I'm looking for isn't wholly absent.  Here is a statement that comes closer to the kind of analysis that I find generally lacking in their book:
I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. … In this manner language marks the co-ordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects. (21)
This is the beginnings of a philosophy of knowledge.  It provides place-holders for some of the chief aspects of cognitive representation: the identification of permanent "objects", a field of inter-related objects and relations, and a language in terms of which these items are represented and in terms of which one's beliefs about them can be formulated.  Or in other words: this paragraph postulates concepts, a conceptual system, and an intensional orientation of the  subject towards the world (applying language to the "objects" around him or herself). And this world is "intersubjective" -- other people share concepts and language with me, and are in similar relationships of interaction with the stuff of the world we inhabit (22).

So we have a start on the more conceptual side of the problem.  Unfortunately, this strand of thought is not further developed throughout the rest of the book.