Friday, March 30, 2012

Hempel after 70 years

Carl Hempel published his sole contribution to the philosophy of history in 1942, almost exactly 70 years ago. The article is "The Function of General Laws in History" (link), and it set the stage for several fruitless decades of debate within analytic philosophy about the nature of historical explanation. Hempel argued that all scientific explanation has the same logical structure: a deductive (or probabilistic) derivation of the explanandum from one or more general laws and one or more statements of fact. Explanation, in Hempel's view, simply is "derivation of the explanandum from general laws." Here is the opening paragraph of the essay.
It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contra-distinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. (35)
And here is the logical structure of such a "covering law" explanation, according to Hempel:
(1) a set of statements asserting the occurrence of certain events C1, . . . C, at certain times and places,
(2) a set of universal hypotheses, such that
          (a) the statements of both groups are reasonably well confirmed by empirical evidence,
          (b) from the two groups of statements the sentence asserting the occurrence of event E can be logically deduced. (36)
He is emphatic, moreover, in insisting that valid explanations in history must have this form:
We have tried to show that in history no less than in any other branch of empirical inquiry, scientific explanation can be achieved only by means of suitable general hypotheses, or by theories, which are bodies of systematically related hypotheses. (44)
Hempel concedes the point that few existing historical explanations actually look like this, with explicit law statements embedded in a deductive argument; but he argues that this shows only that existing explanations are elliptical, incomplete, or invalid. And often, he finds, what is offered as a historical explanation is in fact no more than an "explanation sketch" (42), with placeholders for the general laws.

What kinds of general laws does Hempel think that historians have in the back of their minds when they offer elliptical explanations? He refers to regularities of individual or social psychology (40), regularities of collective behavior ("groups migrate to regions which offer better living conditions"), or at the macro level, regularities linking growing discontent to the outbreak of revolution (41). Further:
Many of the universal hypotheses underlying historical explanation, for instance, would commonly be classified as psychological, economical, sociological, and partly perhaps as historical laws; in addition, historical research has frequently to resort to general laws established in physics, chemistry, and biology. (47)
This set of assumptions leads to big trouble for historical explanation if we accept Hempel's account, however, because it is hard to think of a real historical research question where there might be a set of social or individual regularities sufficient to deductively entail the outcome. Bluntly, the social and behavioral sciences have never produced theories of individual or collective behavior that issue in statements of general laws that could be the foundation for a covering law explanation. And given that social phenomena are formed by actors with a range of features of agency and decision-making, we have very good reason to think that this lack of regularities is inherent in the social world. The social world is simply not governed by a set of social or individual laws. Let's look at that point at several levels.

Individuals. The social sciences provide a good basis for advancing theories of agency, which in turn support certain generalizations about action. For example: People act out of self interest. People act morally. People pay attention to the example of others. People care about their families and friends. People follow charismatic leaders. People follow the precepts of their religious beliefs. People are emotional and short-sighted. People make decisions based on specific heuristics and rules-of-thumb. Each of these statements takes the form of a generalization. And each is true -- of some delimited groups of agents some of the time. But there is no generalization about agency that is true of all agents all the time. Rational choice theory attempts to provide a single theory of agency and decision making that replaces all of these variant grounds of action. But rational choice theory has proven notoriously unsuccessful as a foundation for explanation of a large and complex event -- war, revolution, economic crisis.

Groups. Here too we can identify some partial regularities: Groups tend to coalesce in action when they have prominent shared characteristics.  Groups are more prone to panic than individuals. Groups tend to fail to accomplish collective purposes. Groups are hyper-sensitive to racial and ethnic markers.  And so forth. It is evident that these are partial, tendential, exception-laden, and inexact; not at all like the generalizations that characterize metals, liquids, or proteins.

Organizations and institutions. What about mid-level social arrangements like labor unions, congregations, and terrorist cells? It's not that there aren't any generalizations to be had concerning items at this level; it is that there are too many, and they are highly contingent, conditioned, and contradictory. Certain types of organization are more prone to accidents than others.  This is true; but we have more confidence in our analysis of the most important features of the high-safety organization than we have in the corresponding generalization.  So there isn't a stockpile of laws that might be produced to apply to a social situation and then turn the crank and derive the deductive consequences.

Finally, what about large-scale events and structures -- wars, revolutions, civil conflict? Here too there are some generalizations that social scientists have asserted. For example: Democracies don't go to war with each other. War is made more likely when two powers have conflicts of interest over important resources. Wars create propaganda.  Revolutions don't happen when the general population is satisfied. But generalizations about these sorts of social entities too are bounded and unreliable. They are conditional, we recognize immediately that they have exceptions, and they don't permit prediction.

So the strong, governing generalizations that would be needed for a covering law explanation do not exist. As I argued a number of years ago, social regularities are phenomenal, not governing (link); they reflect characteristics of the actors rather than governing the behavior of the ensembles.  Does this mean that historical explanation is impossible?  No.  But we need to turn our attention from regularities to causal mechanisms and powers in order to see what a good historical explanation looks like.  A good historical explanation identifies a number of independent mechanisms and processes that are at work in a particular circumstance, and then demonstrates how these mechanisms, and the actions of the actors involved, lead to the outcome.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly advanced a boldly different approach to analyzing and explaining complex historical phenomena, with special application to social contention.  They rejected the idea that there might be "laws" of revolution, civil unrest, or ethnic cleansing. They argued instead that there are a number of recurring "social mechanisms" of contention that can be identified in many instances of contention, and whose influences can be traced out to result in the observed outcomes.  Here is how McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention.

We begin with a question: What led normally accepting accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights? Recall from Chapter I that in the "classical social movement agenda" the following factors come into play: 
  • Social change processes initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments. 
  • Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger. Though challengers habitually face resource deficits and are excluded from routine decision making, the political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time. These variations shape the ebb and flow of a movement's activity. 
  • Forms of organization (informal as well as formal) offer insurgents sites for initial mobilization at the time opportunities present themselves and condition their capacity to exploit their new resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary (Piven and Cloward 1977), a large body of evidence finds organizational strength correlated with challengers' ability to gain access and win concessions (Gamson 1990). 
  • Framing, a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action. At a minimum, people must both feel aggrieved at some aspect of their lives and optimistic that acting collectively can redress the problem (Snow, et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). Movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants. 
  • Repertoires of contention offer the means by which people engage in contentious collective action. These forms are not neutral, continuous, or universally accessible; they constitute a resource that actors can use on behalf of their claims (Traugott, et al. 1995). The use of transgressive forms offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty, but contained forms of contention have the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks.
That classical agenda made three enduring contributions to the study of social movements. First, it made strong claims regarding the close connection between routine and contentious politics, helping to reframe the study of social movements as the proper province of both sociology and political science. Second, calling attention to the role of "mobilizing structures," it represented a powerful challenge to the stress on social disorganization and breakdown in the older collective behavior paradigm. Third, it produced a credible picture of mobilization into social movements that was supported by a good deal of empirical evidence correlating the factors outlined above with increases in mobilization.

There are low-level generalizations offered throughout this series of statements. But all those generalizations are soft and exception-laden.  What MTT are interested in doing when they attempt to explain what they call "episodes of contention" is rather to identify the occurrence and interaction of a number of common mechanisms of contention.  And in fact, they explicitly repudiate the covering law model:
Our emphasis on recurring mechanisms and processes does not mean that we intend to pour all forms of contention into the same great mold, subjecting them to universal laws of contention and flattening them into a single two-dimensional caricature. On the contrary, we examine partial parallels in order to find widely operating explanatory mechanisms that combine differently and therefore produce different outcomes in one setting or another. To discover that third parties influence both strikes and ethnic mobilization by no means amounts to showing that the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of strikes and ethnic mobilization are the same, any more than identifying similarities in memory processes of mice and men proves mice and men to be identical in all regards. To discover mechanisms of competition and radicalization in both the French Revolution and in the South African freedom movement is not to say that the Jacobins and the African National Congress are the same. We pursue partial parallels in search of mechanisms that drive contention in different directions. Only then, and in Part III, do we examine how mechanisms combine in robust political processes.
Seventy years after Hempel's classic article, the covering law theory is now generally regarded as a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about historical (and social) explanation.  Logical positivism is not a convenient lens through which to examine the social and historical sciences.  There is too much contingency in the social world. Rather than being the result of law-governed processes, social outcomes proceed from the contingent and historically variable features of the actors who make them.  So the attention of many people interested in specifying the nature of historical and social explanation has focused on social mechanisms constituted and driven by common features of agency.

(Renate Mayntz's discussion of causal mechanisms represents one of the best current treatments of the subject; link.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Culture or jobs?

Stephen Steinberg contributed a provocative but important piece to Boston Review a year ago on current academic thinking about race and poverty. The piece is titled Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn't Explain Poverty, and it is now available as a short Kindle publication. The topic Steinberg focuses on is deeply important -- fundamentally, how to explain and remediate the persistent fact of poverty in the African American population in the United States. And anyone who is paying attention to urban America knows that the economic and social situation of much of the African-American population of the United States is bad, and in many respects barely improved over the past 40 years.

Putting the point most bluntly: is the primary explanation of persistent urban African American poverty the cumulative workings of a set of racially discriminatory economic and social structures? Or is it some set of factors that have been internalized within African American culture and values, persisting long after discrimination has disappeared?

Steinberg's polemic is a response to a special 2010 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on "new" approaches to the role of culture in poverty in a racialized America.  The old approach was stimulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan's assertions about the black family offered in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965. Moynihan's position paper for the Johnson administration provoked a firestorm of criticism when it was leaked, and some observers believe that the ensuing divisiveness, between progressives and conservatives and within the progressive movement itself, contributed to the failure of the Johnson administration to seriously address the structural issues of race that our country faced then (and now). One version of the view attributed to Moynihan is that it is difficulties with the African American family that are the root cause of persistent African American poverty. This is the "culture" end of the story. (I'll note below that most of the contributors do not agree with this reading of Moynihan.) The "jobs" end is the view that the key issue of racial disadvantage in American society was (and is) the lack of economic opportunities and jobs for many millions of young African Americans, and that cultural and family characteristics are shaped by this basic fact.

Steinberg takes a very sharp stand against the "culture" stream of research on the question of persistent African American poverty:
These myths add up to something -- a perverse obfuscation of American racial history.
Instead, he believes our attention needs to be directed to the structural disadvantages created for African Americans within our economic and social system:
Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?
And he maintains that the "culture" myth originated with Moynihan's report in 1965:
Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect. Although he acknowledged that past racism and unemployment undermined black families, he held that the pathology in "the Negro American family" had not only assumed a life of its own, but was also the primary determinant. 
Steinberg's central conviction here and elsewhere in other writings is surely correct: the root cause is the political economy of race and the persistent limitation of economic opportunities for African Americans. American society continues to present very high obstacles to African American young people when it comes to gaining admission to the job system, including residential segregation and chronically poor schooling.  And as a society and a generation of commentators, we don't pay nearly enough attention to these facts about the political economy of race in America. In particular, Steinberg faults the sociologists and ethnographers included in the 2010 Annals collection for this reason:
Aren't we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?
Against this background, the ballyhooed "restoration" of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.
So Steinberg harshly faults anyone, including especially conservative commentators, who put the primary causal role on culture.  But Steinberg also attributes this blindness about the structural causes of racial inequality and poverty to the current poverty and race research community as represented by this Annals collection, and I'm not persuaded this is justified.

In fact, it doesn't seem to be true to say that Moynihan himself disagreed with Steinberg about which factor is most important. Rather, Moynihan described the problems with the African American family that he identified as endogenous -- caused by the facts of racial discrimination and economic disadvantage -- rather than exogenous -- an independent cause of poverty. The original cause, persisting into the present, is the structural circumstance of high unemployment and limited economic opportunities for African American young people.

The 2010 Annals volume was followed by a second collection in 2012, edited by Douglas Massey.  Massey's volume, The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections after Four Decades (link), is also focused on the Moynihan report and is a contribution of at least equal importance.  This collection too focuses on the contrast between culture and structures as explanations of persistent poverty.  But unlike the 2010 collection, this collection gives greater attention to structural factors that appear to be at work.

Massey and Robert Sampson point out in their introduction to the 2012 volume that Moynihan's original argument invoked both family and jobs; and in fact, Moynihan got the arrow of causation going in the same direction as Steinberg wants it to go.  They claim that Moynihan's argument was that it was necessary to break the cycle of poverty by creating abundant opportunities for jobs for young African American men. The logical implication of his argument was establishment of a massive Federal jobs program to break the logjam of African American unemployment.  Massey and Sampson paraphrase his theory: "If full employment for black males—especially young black males—could be achieved, he thought, then family stability could be restored and government would be in a better position to attack more entrenched problems such as discrimination and segregation."

The 2012 volume focuses on more of the structural causes at a range of levels of African American poverty and reduced opportunity.  Harry Holzer reviews current research on the ways in which young African-American men are incorporated (or not) into the labor market.  Devah Pager and Diana Karafin examine the workings of discrimination and stereotypes in employer decisions about hiring. Andrew Cherlin et al attempt to assess the effects of welfare reform on African American and Hispanic families in the 2000s. In "Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality" Robert Sampson reviews empirical work on the ways in which residential neighborhoods influence behavior and outcomes.  Sampson finds that Moynihan offers some ideas that are very consistent with current thinking about the "ecological" influences on poverty and the characteristics of poverty in an urban location.  Almost all these authors give credit to Moynihan for accurately perceiving the reality of racial inequality and African American poverty in the 1960s, and they confirm that Moynihan emphasized the primacy of jobs as an instigating cause of these outcomes.

So it seems that the current wave of social science research on race and poverty is doing a much better job of addressing the causal factors involved than Steinberg allows.  To me, anyway, it seems that Steinberg's critique confuses two things: the urgency of addressing structural racism (yes!) and the value of attempting to better understand the cultural systems through which poor communities navigate their lives (also yes!).  Steinberg puts it forward that we need to choose one to the exclusion of the other; but that is unconvincing to me.  When Al Young offers an empirical and theoretical account of the role of "framing" in the choices made by poor people in the 2010 volume, he is adding something of real value to our understanding of the workings of economy, culture, and race within the circumstances of urban poverty. This understanding can then be deployed in the design of a variety of policy efforts, including programs aimed at improving the health status of young African American men.  But Steinberg dismisses this work:
Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a "good job" when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? 
Rhetoric aside, I'd say that the analysis of the experience of poverty and the repertoires employed to survive in that environment is indeed important; it really does matter.

In short, it seems to me that Steinberg's criticisms are properly addressed to conservative commentators on African American poverty who do indeed blame the victim; but that virtually none of the scholars included in either of these Annals volumes are guilty of this injustice.

(Steinberg spells out more of his critique in Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Philosophy and social knowledge


Throughout this blog I’ve addressed a very large subject: what is involved in understanding society? What sorts of ontological assumptions do we need to make as we attempt to analyze and explain social processes? What is involved in explaining some of the social outcomes we are most interested in? How do we provide empirical confirmation for our hypotheses and theories about the social world? What help or hindrance can be derived from the legacies of positivism and naturalism? Finally, how can philosophy contribute to the creation of a better approach to the social sciences for the twenty-first century?

The philosophy of social science is a group of research traditions that are intended to shed light on various aspects of the intellectual effort of understanding and explaining social phenomena. In brief, it is the study of the social sciences from the point of view of the quality of knowledge they offer, the types of explanations they advance, and the important conceptual problems that are raised in the course of social science research. Core questions include: What are the scope and limits of scientific knowledge of society? What is involved in arriving at a scientific understanding of society? What are the most appropriate standards for judging proposed social explanations? Is there such a thing as social causation? How are social theories and assertions to be empirically tested? How do social facts relate to facts about individuals?

The philosophy of social science is in one sense a “meta” discipline—it reviews and analyzes the research of other, more empirical researchers. But in another sense the philosopher is a direct contributor to social science research; by discussing and reflecting upon the methods, assumptions, concepts, and theories of working social scientists, the philosopher is also contributing to the improvement of social science research. On this perspective it is arbitrary to draw a line between the theoretical and conceptual inquiry of the applied social scientist, and the similar studies of the philosopher.

A philosophy can guide us as we construct a field of knowledge, and it can serve as a set of regulative standards as we conduct and extend that field of knowledge. Philosophy has served both intellectual functions for the social sciences in the past century and a half. Philosophical ideas about the nature of knowledge and the nature of the social world guided or influenced the founding efforts by such early social researchers as Weber, Durkheim, or Spencer in the formulation of their highest-level assumptions about social processes and their most general assumptions about what a scientific treatment of society ought to look like. So there has been an important back-and-forth between philosophy and the social sciences from the start. John Stuart Mill and William Whewell framed many of the assumptions about the social sciences that would govern the development of many areas of the social sciences in the English-speaking world; whereas European philosophers such as Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Dilthey articulated a vision of the “human sciences” based on the idea of meaningful action that would have great influence on European social science development. At its best, philosophy can function as an equal collaborator with the creators and practitioners of the social sciences, helping to arrive at more durable and insightful theories and methods. At its worst, philosophical doctrines can blind social researchers to more fertile and innovative avenues of theory and explanation.

The importance of the philosophy of social science derives from two things: first, the urgency and complexity of the challenges posed by the poorly understood social processes that surround us in twenty-first century society, and second, the unsettled status of our current understanding of the logic of social science knowledge and explanation. We need the best possible research and explanation to be conducted in the social sciences, and current social science inquiry falls short. We need a better-grounded understanding of the social, political, and behavioral phenomena that make up the modern social world. Moreover, the goals and primary characteristics of a successful social science are still only partially understood. What do we want from the social sciences? And how can we best achieve these cognitive and practical goals? There are large and unresolved philosophical questions about the logic of social science knowledge and theory on the basis of which to arrive at that understanding. And philosophy can help articulate better answers to these questions. So philosophy can play an important role in the development of the next generation of social science disciplines.

It is important to underline the point that this inquiry is not of merely academic concern. Understanding society better is an urgent need for all of us in the twenty-first century. Our quality of life, our physical security, our ability to provide for greater social justice globally and locally, and our ability to achieve the sustainability of our natural environment all depend upon social processes and social behavior. The better we understand these processes and behavior, the better we will be able to shape our futures in ways that serve our needs and values. And currently our understanding of important social processes is highly limited. We need better theories, better research methodologies, and better conceptions of the basis nature of social phenomena, if we are to arrive at a more realistic understanding of the social world. The philosophy of social science can contribute to these important tasks.

Several particularly central ideas emerge from large threads of thought provided here. First is a point about social ontology. Social research should be based on a realistic understanding of the fact that social phenomena are constituted by socially embedded individuals in interaction with each other. Higher-level social entities—states, organizations, institutions—are real enough, but they must be understood as being composed of individuals in interaction. So social science must avoid the error of reification—the assumption that social entities have some kind of abiding permanence independent of the individuals who constitute them. This is the approach I describe as “methodological localism.”

This ontology should in turn lead social researchers to expect a substantial degree of contingency and plasticity in the phenomena they study. Given that institutions and organizations are constituted by the social individuals who make them up, we should expect that they will mutate over time—that is, we should expect plasticity of social entities. And we should anticipate contingency. Rather than the iron laws of history that Marx hoped to find, we should not define “science” as the discovery of law-governed regularities among a set of phenomena.

Finally, it is affirmed here that there is a credible basis for finding a degree of order among social phenomena, in the form of causal relationships between various social facts. The discovery of social causal mechanisms is the foundation of social explanation. Moreover, there is a very consistent relationship between the idea of a social causal mechanism and the social ontology of “socially-situated individuals” that is offered here. Social causation flows through the structured social actions of individuals. And empirical social research can inform us about various aspects of the processes of social causation: the social institutions within which individuals act; the historical processes of development through which individuals came to have their current mental models, moral ideas, and preferences; and the powers and constraints that are embodied in a set of social relationships at a given time.

A recurring theme throughout the blog is attention to the nature of “social causal mechanisms.” The causal mechanisms approach is the most promising way of addressing the idea of explanatory relations among social circumstances, in my view. So it is worthwhile looking carefully at the ways in which social scientists have sought to explain the social outcomes and processes that most interest them and the kinds of causal mechanisms they have identified in a broad range of areas of research.

Another recurring thread in the past several years of the blog is concerned with the mental frameworks within which we attempt to make sense of the social world.  This has to do with conceptual frameworks, definitions, theories, and presuppositions. Both ordinary actors and social scientists bring organizing concepts and beliefs to their representations of the social worlds they encounter, and those frameworks themselves are not directly open to empirical examination.

A final perspective found frequently in this blog that seems particularly important for philosophers to acknowledge is a point about methodological pluralism. Sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, geographers, and public health specialists make use of a very wide range of methods of inquiry, explanation, and justification. And it is often clear that the choices made by a particular investigator or tradition are in fact well adapted to the particular circumstances of the field of research he/she is confronting. So philosophers need to be wary of philosophical positions that seem to imply the need for a single unified theory, method, or system of justification. Rather, the diversity of the social world requires a comparable range of research approaches and theories.

Here is a short video in which Michael Sandel offers his views of the relations that ought to exist between philosophy and the social sciences, especially economics.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Amartya Sen's commitments


A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen's arguments about "commitments" in "Rational Fools" (link).

Sen's essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe real human deliberative decision-making. He chooses Edgeworth as a clear expositor of the narrow theory: "the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self interest" (Sen 317, quoting Mathematical Psychics). Sen notes that real choices don't reflect the maximizing logic associated with rational choice theory: "Choice may reflect a compromise among a variety of considerations of which personal welfare may be just one" (324). Here he argues for the importance of "commitments" in our deliberations about reasons for action. Acting on the basis of commitment is choosing to do something that leads to an outcome that we don't subjectively prefer; it is acting in a way that reflects the fact that our actions are not solely driven by egoistic choice.  "Commitments" are other-regarding considerations that come into the choices that individuals make.

Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment:
The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one's own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. (326)
The characteristic of commitment with which I am most concerned here is the fact that it drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare, and much of traditional economic theory relies on the identity of the two. (329)
Sen thinks that John Harsanyi made an advance on the narrow conception of rationality by introducing discussion of two separate preference orderings that are motivational for real decision-makers: ethical preferences and subjective preferences. (This is in "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility".)  But Sen rightly points out that this construction doesn't give us a basis for choosing when the two orderings dictate incompatible choices.  Sen attempts to formalize the idea of a commitment as a second-order preference ordering: a ranking of rankings.  "We need to consider rankings of preference rankings to express our moral judgments" (337).
Can one preference ordering do all these things? A person thus described may be "rational" in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (335-336)
Here is an example.  "I wish I liked vegetarian foods more" is an example of a second-order preference ranking: it indicates a rational preference for the first-order ranking in which the vegetarian option comes ahead of the lamb option over the ranking in which these options are reversed.  And Sen's point is an important one: the second-order ranking can be behaviorally influential.  I may choose the vegetarian option, not because I prefer it, but because I prefer the world arrangement in which I go for the vegetarian option.  Or in other words, one's principles or commitments may trump one's first-order preferences.

Significantly, Sen's thinking on this subject was developed in part through a conference organized by Stephen K├Ârner on practical reason in the 1970s (Practical Reason: Papers and Discussions).  This is significant because it focuses attention on a very basic fact: we don't yet have good theories of how a variety of considerations -- ethical principles, personal identities, feelings of solidarity, reasoning about fairness, and self-interest -- get aggregated into decisions in particular choice circumstances.

Other economists might object to this formulation on the basis of the fact that second-order preference rankings are more difficult to model; so we don't get clean, simple mathematical representations of behavior if we introduce this complication.  Sen acknowledges this point:
Admitting behavior based on commitment would, of course have far- reaching consequences on the nature of many economic models. I have tried to show why this change is necessary and why the consequences may well be serious. Many issues remain unresolved, including the empirical importance of commitment as a part of behavior, which would vary, as I have argued, from field to field. I have also indicated why the empirical evidence for this cannot be sought in the mere observation of actual choices, and must involve other sources of information, including introspection and discussion. (341-342)
But his reply is convincing.  There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don't make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility.  Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one's capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make.  And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions.  So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.  This isn't the only way that moral and normative commitments can be incorporated into a theory of rational deliberation; but it is one substantive attempt to do so, and is more satisfactory (for me, anyway) than the construction offered by Akerlof and Kranton.

(I also like the neo-Kantian approach taken by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism as an effort to demonstrate that non-egoistic reasoning is rational.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mundane knowledge: Toronto street people


There is a lot of interesting stuff we encounter every day, if we stop to think. Often we don't have the knowledge necessary to make sense of it, so it remains interesting but opaque. And plainly each vignette has a dense set of social facts standing behind it that need to be teased out if we are to understand the vignette.

Here is an example. I'm in Toronto this morning and I've seen something here I haven't seen in other cities -- young people, mostly men, sleeping on the sidewalk at busy intersections. They look comfortable in down sleeping bags -- as if they were camping out. But they aren't camping; they're sleeping in full daylight, with pedestrians and drivers passing in the hundreds every hour. Here is a specific guy sleeping on Bay St Sunday morning.


He looks to be in his twenties, lightly bearded. And, by the way, he's got a plastic St Patricks Day hat near his head. As pedestrians walk by they take a curious look and then pass on. No one stops. It doesn't look like a safe place to sleep -- cars are passing in the street on the turn from Queen St, and just a slight mistake takes them onto the curb and onto the guy.

Now here's an interesting development -- a real homeless guy, over sixty, heavily bearded, dressed warmly, happens by. He takes a close look, then walks around the sleeping guy to check him out; stands and thinks for a minute, then moves on.

Why are they here? There was an Occupy Toronto demonstration in City Hall Park nearby yesterday -- is this young guy an Occupy protester? The Old City Hall and green space is just across Queen St. Why hasn't this guy chosen to locate himself on the grass somewhere more secluded? Perhaps because the police would make him move on; perhaps because more secluded space is also more vulnerable space. And why not in a city shelter? They exist, so why has this young guy chosen the street?

This one sleeping guy is perplexing enough; but in the past few days I've seen several other similar instances within ten blocks of City Hall. So it's not an isolated example. Why does this take place here in Toronto but not Boston or Chicago? (I mean sleeping right in the middle of the sidewalk; of course there are homeless people in all those cities.)


But here is another interesting point to me: I'm observing this scene without any special background knowledge. What would a social worker, a street activist, or a policeman see that I don't notice in this scene? The policeman might quickly have registered the fact that the green spaces across Queen St aren't actually that attractive for sleeping because the police patrol them and evict sleepers. The activist might notice some features of the guy allowing her to identify the political statement he might be making. The social worker would have a much clearer idea about the shelter system.

But now I get a chance for a little clarity. A block away I encounter two young guys (20s) sitting on the street, right at the curb, panhandling on Queen St. They greet me. I stop and talk to them. I ask why the guy down the street is sleeping right there on the sidewalk. G1 said that he sleeps there too sometimes. I asked why not in the park. He says because Mayor Ford has ordered that people be ticketed for sleeping in the park. He himself has been banned from City Hall grounds because of panhandling. And if you go near the Marriott entrance just down the block, Marriott security make you move. I asked why they don't choose more secluded spots. G2 says you need to sleep near a vent for the warmth. The good secluded spots are taken. Sometimes these two guys find a spot under a structure down the street.

I ask about Occupy Toronto. G1 is enthusiastic. He says he was welcomed into the biggest tent, the Communist tent, and slept there while Occupy was going on. It was a 12-person tent. But the guys say the demonstration that I heard yesterday wasn't Occupy, it was a demo about Syria. G1 says, why demonstrate against Syria when people here are suffering?

I ask if it is safe sleeping on the street. G1 says he'd been robbed recently. The thief ripped his inside pocket out and took a bag with 35 cents, a tooth brush and toothpaste. G1 says indignantly, "You're going to rob a man for his toothpaste?" They say people have been killed down the street a ways.

I ask about the city shelters. Neither of them wanted to go there: they refer to bedbugs, diseases, and seriously crazy people who might hurt you.

I ask about their educations. G1 says he'd failed 9th grade 5 times. G2 says he was close to graduating high school. G2 says people on the street sometimes have parents they can go back to, but G1 says his parents are both dead. G2 says it's hard to get together "first and last" to get a place to live, but he's trying. (First and last month rent for a lease.)

G1 gives me some advice about street people. He holds out his jacket, which is clean and in good shape aside from the ripped-out inner pocket. He says, when you see a guy who's all dirty, bad clothes, bad teeth, that's a crack-head. Whatever you give him he'll just turn around and buy crack. He then grins to show me his teeth, all in good condition.

Both guys are friendly and very willing to talk. (Is there a personality type that does best as a panhandler? Are the same attributes of gregariousness that work well in business also good in this part of the street?) I liked these young guys, and it's painful to know that there's nothing for them in Toronto or in their futures.

Toronto people -- what am I missing here? How do you understand this scene?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Interdisciplinarity at the AAS

I'm attending the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Toronto, and it's a good working example of a non-discipline that brings together a wide range of disciplines and topics. But what is it that creates an affinity among all these scholars? It's certainly not methodology. There are financial specialists in attendance alongside of experts on Ming-Qing funerary practices. And it's not topicality in any obvious sense. Rather, what brings these scholars together is a region of the world, encompassing a very wide range of cultures, languages, traditions, and functioning social systems. Some parts of that region are of immediate interest to almost everyone who reads a newspaper -- China's growth path and international intentions, for example. And other parts are obscure and little known -- the culture and politics of Kachin region in Burma, for example. In a practical sense it's not entirely clear what these many scholars gain from the annual convening in various cities in North America.

So why is there an Association of Asian Studies anyway, and why does it need an annual conference? There are of course many scholars passionately interested in Asia. But Asia is a large place with a long history. Is "Asia" a construct of a Eurocentric view of the world? Why should we assume that a single association can fruitfully serve this range of academic and regional interests?

One reason is proximity. If you are a historian of Indonesia or Burma, the history and politics of China are of deep importance to you. This is true historically, and it is true in the present. The policies of Ming China towards its southwestern periphery had major effects on the polities now sectioned as Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And if you're interested in the environmental prospects for the Irrawaddy River basin, likewise you will be interested in China.

Another is methodological. It seems valuable on first principles for a China specialist trained in anthropology to have a stimulating exposure to a well-conducted study of evolving CCP policies. Social activity is always located in a large social and political context; so even the most localistic ethnographer can gain new ideas and questions by considering how the large context influences the local. It is useful for an historian of China to be exposed to subaltern histories of South Asia, since the perspectives of the subaltern school have little traction in the China field. It is useful for a scholar of the Congress Party of India to have a more engaging exposure to pre-colonial India.

Another practical function of the AAS annual meeting is its role in the job market for new PhDs in fields subsumed within Asian Studies. Mentors are introducing their students to other senior faculty at universities that may be hiring in Asian history, politics, or culture. And there are lots of presentations by late-stage graduate students and recent PhDs introducing their dissertation research to a broader audience. It is often very interesting work, following new topics and sometimes new methods. For example, I heard a paper by Ke Li on Friday describing her fieldwork in China observing the strategies pursued by rural women to gain divorce from unhappy marriages. (The deck is stacked against them.) This is a function that Andrew Abbott emphasizes in his discussions of disciplines and interdisciplinary; generally speaking, he is doubtful about the ability of interdisciplinary associations to help secure appointments for new PhDs. But this doesn't seem to be true of AAS.

A somewhat different take on Asian Studies is to view it as a loose amalgam of area fields that have greater coherence considered by themselves. The field of China studies, for example, is much more tightly integrated than Asian studies as a whole. China historians are usually familiar with the work of political scientists, anthropologists, and economists who are working on China, and the intellectual networks in this field seem substantially more integrative. And this seems to be true in the fields of Southeast Asian studies, South Asia studies, and Japan studies. So perhaps one answer to the questions above is to concede the point: Asian Studies is a fictional intellectual field, but China studies is not.

Does the AAS fulfill its promise of offering a broad and transdisciplinary exposure of ideas and methods? Some people I've talked to have felt that AAS needs to try to do a better job of bringing the social sciences into the program, and finding some ways of encouraging comparative research. AAS is very good on highlighting the particular, but some participants would like to see greater efforts at an integrative view as well. That said, I myself have always found AAS to be a particularly stimulating conference, and one that succeeds in creating suggestive links among varied approaches to the study of a diverse place.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Are mechanisms complex?

Source: D. Little, "Causal explanation in the social sciences" (link)

How can we distinguish between causal mechanisms and extended causal processes? Is the difference merely a pragmatic one, or is there some reason to expect that mechanisms should be compact and unitary in their workings? Is the children's story leading from the "want of the nail" to the loss of the kingdom a description of an extended mechanism or a contingent causal process?

My preferred definition of a social causal mechanism runs along these lines (“Causal Mechanisms in the Social Realm” (link)):
A causal mechanism is (i) a particular configuration of conditions and processes that (ii) always or normally leads from one set of conditions to an outcome (iii) through the properties and powers of the events and entities in the domain of concern. 
This captures the core idea presented in 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)
There is also an ontological side of the concept of a mechanism -- the idea that there is a substrate that makes the mechanism work. By referring to a nexus between I and O as a "mechanism" we presume that there is some underlying ontology that makes the observed regularity a "necessary" one: given how the world works, the input I brings about events that lead to output O. In evolutionary biology it is the specifics of an ecology conjoined with natural selection. In the social world it is the empirical situation of the actor and the social and natural environment in which he/she acts.

So mechanisms reflect regularities of input and output. In this respect they correspond to pocket-sized social regularities: observed and sometimes theoretically grounded conveyances from one set of circumstances to another set of circumstances.  Take free riding as a mechanism arising within circumstances of collective action:
When a group of individuals confront a potential gain in public goods that can be attained only through effective and non-enforcible collective action, enough individuals will choose to be free riders to ensure the good is not achieved at the level desired by all members of the group.
This states a regularity (conditioned by ceteris paribus clauses): groups of independent individuals are commonly incapable of effective collective action. And it is grounded in a theory of the actor; rational individuals who pay attention to private costs and benefits but not public costs and benefits can be predicted to engage in free riding.

Now consider the mechanism described in social psychology as "stereotype threat" (link):
When subjects are exposed to signs of negative stereotypes of their group with respect to a given kind of performance, the average performance of the group declines.
This is a mechanism that can be identified in a number of different settings, both observational and experimental; and it can be combined with other mechanisms to bring about complex results. The substrate here is a set of hypothetical cognitive structures through which individuals process tasks and influence each other. 

Now consider an instance of concatenation. Suppose we are interested in military mistakes -- weighty decisions that look in hindsight to be surprisingly poor given the facts available to the decision makers at the time. Our theory of the case may involve three separate mechanisms that interfere with good reasoning: stereotype threat, inordinate hierarchicalism, and the effects of agenda setting. These are independent social cognitive mechanisms that impair group decision making. And our theory of the case may attempt to document the workings of each on the eventual outcome and the ways they aggregated to the observed decision. 

Are mechanisms thought to be simple, or can we consider composite mechanisms -- mechanisms composed of two or more simpler mechanisms? Our definition above required that a mechanism should link I to O with a sufficiently high probability to count as "likely". This puts a practical limit on the degree to which simple mechanisms can be composed into composite mechanisms. Take the sequential case: iMj (prob=.90) and jNk (prob=.90). Then let V be the sequential composite mechanism "M then N". Then we have iVk (prob=.81). The probability of the final endstate given the initial starting condition drops with each additional mechanism that we insert into the composite mechanism.  So eventually concatenation will bring the probability of an antecedent leading to a consequence below the threshold of likelihood required by the definition of a mechanism. 

McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly refer to a concatenation of mechanisms in a concrete instance as a process, not a higher-level mechanism.  The reason for this, it would seem, is that processes are highly contingent in their workings precisely because they incorporate multiple mechanisms in series and parallel, all of whose causal properties are probabilistic.  So there is no reason to expect that processes describe reliable associations between beginnings and endings.

So this implies that mechanisms should be conceived at a fairly low level of compositionality: to preserve the likelihood of association between antecedent and consequent, we need to identify fairly proximate mechanisms with predictable effects.  This doesn't mean that a mechanism has little or no internal structure; rather, it implies that the internal structure of a mechanism fits together in such a way as to bring about a strong correlation between cause and effect.  The mechanism of stereotype threat mentioned above presumably corresponds to a complex set of functionings within the human cognitive system. The net effect, however, is a strong correlation between cause (expressing a stereotype about performance to an individual) and effect (suppressing the level of performance of the individual).

Friday, March 9, 2012

Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics

George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton have collaborated for over ten years on a simple idea: is it possible to introduce the concept of social identity into the formal mechanics of mainstream economics? Can "identity" complement "interest" in the calculation of rational individual behavior? Their ideas were developed in several important articles: "Economics and Identity" (link), "Identity and the Economics of Organizations" (link), and "Identity and Schooling" (link).  These earlier articles are all available on the Internet.  Much of their thinking is pulled together in a recent book, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being.

So what is their theory of identity and rational behavior?  "Economics and Identity" (2000) is a good place to begin. Akerlof and Kranton argue that there are common social phenomena that are not well explained by the assumption of narrow economic rationality, but that are more amenable to treatment with a theory of individual choice that incorporates the factor of social identity. They include "ethnic and racial conflict, discrimination, intractable labor disputes, and separatist politics" as examples of social behavior that "invite an identity-based analysis" (716).

Here is how they incorporate the behavioral mechanism of identity into an actor model, using the example of gender identity:
Everyone in the population is assigned a gender category, as either a ‘‘man’’ or a ‘‘woman.’’ Following the behavioral prescriptions for one’s gender affirms one’s self image, or identity, as a ‘‘man’’ or as a ‘‘woman.’’ Violating the prescriptions evokes anxiety and discomfort in oneself and in others. Gender identity, then, changes the ‘‘payoffs’’ from different actions. (716-717)
In other words, they incorporate identity into the rational-actor model by hypothesizing that one's identity alters one's utility function or preferences:
In the next section we propose a general utility function that incorporates identity as a motivation for behavior. (717)
And here is the utility function they produce (719):
We propose the following utility function: 
(1) Uj = Uj(aj,a_j,Ij). 
Utility depends on j’s identity or self-image Ij, as well as on the usual vectors of j’s actions, aj, and others’ actions, a_j. Since aand a_j determine j’s consumption of goods and services, these arguments andUj(·) are sufficient to capture the standard economics of own actions and externalities. 
Following our discussion above, we propose the following representation of Ij: 
(2) Ij = Ij(aj,a_j;cj,epsilonj,P). 
A person j’s identity Ij depends, first of all, on j’s assigned social categories cj. The social status of a category is given by the function Ij(·), and a person assigned a category with higher social status may enjoy an enhanced self-image. Identity further depends on the extent to which j’s own given characteristics match the ideal of j’s assigned category, indicated by the prescriptions P. Finally, identity depends on the extent to which j’s own and others’ actions correspond to prescribed behavior indicated by P. We call increases or decreases in utility that derive from Ij, gains or losses in identity.
What this comes down to, in my reading, is the idea that one's "identity" creates a new set of payoffs for some actions, depending on whether the action confirms and enhances one's identity fulfillment or whether it decreases one's identity fulfillment. If I am a Welsh miner and strongly subscribe to the idealizations associated with miners -- then I will take utility in the actions that express solidarity and thereby buttress my status as a good miner, even when the self-regarding utilities of the action would dictate anti-solidarity.  Crudely, identity-consonance is a plus utility, while identity-dissonance is a minus utility, and actors balance first-order utilities and identity-consonance utilities in their ultimate choice of action. So this construction doesn't deviate from standard rational choice reasoning much, if at all. Rather, it extends the cost-benefit calculation to include a new category of effect that the agent is hypothesized to value or disvalue--consistency / inconsistency with self concept.

This is a pretty limited conception of how identities work.  A more adequate treatment of identity as a substantive feature of social psychology ought to pay attention to a number of dimensions of practical rationality that are not included in this analysis.  (i) Cognitive frameworks.  Individuals with a specific identity may have distinctive ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the world.  These differences may affect behavior through mechanisms that are quite distinct from calculation of costs and benefits. (ii) Normative motivations. It is possible that people make decisions on the basis of their normative commitments, and that this process is to some degree independent from calculations of costs and benefits.  Moreover, it is possible that different groups have significantly different normative commitments. In this case individuals from different "identities" may behave significantly differently when confronted with apparently similar situations of choice. (iii) Group affinities / identifications.  It is possible that there is a social psychology of "solidarity" that has its own dynamic and behavioral consequences; and that this affective or motivational system has different characteristics in different groups. (iv) Emotional frameworks. It is possible that individuals absorb behaviorally important systems of emotions and feelings through their development within a specific cultural group; and it is possible that differences across groups lead to different patterns of behavior in common scenarios of action and choice.

So I think that Akerlof and Kranton are right to think that the theory of action associated with narrow economic rationality doesn't do justice to ordinary decision making in a range of important cases.  They are right as well in thinking that the social psychology of identities and normative commitments is relevant to behavior in ways that cannot be pushed aside as "extra-rational." But I don't find their solution based on incorporating identity "utilities" into a larger utility function to be an adequate way of incorporating these broader considerations for action into a theory of the rational actor.

(It is worth observing that the descriptions offered by Akerlof and Kranton of the prescriptions surrounding gender identity are quite jarring: for example, "the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress". Here is another set of gender stereotypes that they weave into their exposition:
Female trial lawyer, male nurse, woman Marine—all conjure contradictions. Why? Because trial lawyers are viewed as masculine, nurses as feminine, and a Marine as the ultimate man. People in these occupations but of the opposite sex often have ambiguous feelings about their work. In terms of our utility function, an individual’s actions do not correspond to gender prescriptions of behavior. (721-22)
These assumptions aren't crucial to their argument, but they are difficult to overlook.  It is hard to read these expository paragraphs without thinking that Akerlof and Kranton have built some very basic negative stereotypes into their description of gender identities. So it's worth noting how a very good gender theorist might react to these descriptions.  Here is a very good, nuanced analysis by Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker on "Black and White Women's Perspectives on Femininity" that does a much more adequate job of describing gendered identities (link).)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Coleman on the elementary actor


James Coleman's work has had a major influence on an important strand of thinking in the social sciences since the publication of Foundations of Social Theory in 1990.  He was a somewhat iconoclastic sociologist, in that his approach to social theory was grounded in an actor-centered view of the social world. He was a rational-choice theorist in a world of sociologists who usually have a lot of skepticism about rational-choice models of social action.

Here is how Coleman describes two basic approaches to sociology in "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital" (link; 1988).
There are two broad intellectual streams in the description and explanation of social action. One, characteristic of the work of most sociologists, sees the actor as socialized and action as governed by social norms, rules, and obligations. The principal virtues of this intellectual stream lie in its ability to describe action in social context and to explain the way action is shaped, constrained, and redirected by the social context.  The other intellectual stream, characteristic of the work of most economists, sees the actor as having goals independently arrived at, as acting independently, and as wholly self-interested. Its principal virtue lies in having a principle of action, that of maximizing utility. This principle of action, together with a single empirical generalization (declining marginal utility) has generated growth of neoclassical economic theory, as well as the growth of political philosophy of several varieties: utilitarianism, contractarianism, and natural rights. (S95)
Coleman indicates here that his distinctive approach to sociology attempts to combine both streams; but this isn't quite accurate.  Really, his treatment of norms, rules, and organizations is grounded in the rational-choice framework; he seeks to incorporate normative behavior into the orbit of rational choice.  Fundamentally, then, Coleman's social theory is a microfoundational attempt to show how a range of social patterns, institutions, and organizations can be explained in terms of the rational choices of the actors who are involved in those patterns.

The fundamental construct on which Coleman depends is the idea of an "elementary actor." Here is how he characterizes the “elementary actor” in Foundations of Social Theory.
The elementary actor is the wellspring of action, no matter how complex are the structures through which action takes place. For the theory of this book, the elementary actors as described so far constitute extraordinarily simplified abstractions of human individuals. They are hedonic creatures, who experience satisfaction to differing degrees from the outcomes of various events and from the acquisition or consumption of various resources. The expectancy of such satisfaction leads an individual actor to act in a way intended to increase it. (Coleman 503)
This description is aggressively weighted towards a “thin” theory of action, and it is difficult to see where the ideas of socialization and norms can come into the picture.  It is a remarkably sketchy theory of human action; it is designed to permit mathematical modeling rather than to provide a language in terms of which to describe ordinary human behavior.  It is wholly non-contextualized; it provides no nuance in terms of other factors that might influence thought and action; and it erases all that is concrete and historical from human action.

A distinctive aspect of Coleman's view is his willingness to countenance corporate actors as actors.  Natural, biological actors are one particularly kind of agent; but in Coleman's model of social action, there are actors at a range of levels of social aggregation.
A natural person encompasses two selves, object self and acting self, or principal and agent, in one physical corpus. A minimal corporate actor is created when principal and agent are two different persons. With this same minimal structure, the principal may be a corporate actor, or the agent may be a corporate actor, or both may be corporate actors (as when a corporation owns another corporation). (421)
In each case an actor is defined in terms of a set of interests and goals, a set of beliefs about the environment of choice, and a decision rule.  These assumptions permit the theorist to reason about choices and interactions in complex social settings.  These actors can then be introduced into an aggregative model to simulate the consequences of their choices.

So what about norms?  How do norms play into Coleman's conception of social action?
The concept of a norm, existing at a macrosocial level and governing the behavior of individuals at a micosocial level, provides a convenent device for explaining individual behavior, taking the social system as given. ... 
Durkheim began with social organization and in a part of his work asked, "How is an individual's behavior affected by the social system within which he finds himself?" Answering this requires not the three components of social theory that I outlined in the first chapter of this book but only one -- the transition from macro to micro. (241)
Coleman's inclination is to explain norms as conventions that are in some sense advantageous over the long term for those who adopt them.  Norms have a substantial rational or prudential core; they depend on something like a social consensus about their value.
I will say that a norm concerning a specific action exists when the socially defined right to control the action is held not by the actor but by others. (243)
A norm may be embedded in a social system in a more fundamental way: The norm may be internal to the individual carrying out the action, with sanctions applied by that individual to his own actions.  In such a case a norm is said to be internalized. (243)
The emergence of norms is in some respects a prototypical micro-to-macro transition, because the process must arise from individual actions yet a norm itself is a system-level property which affects the further actions of individuals. (244)
It is hard for me to see that this construction could provide a promising framework for doing substantive sociological research.  The theory is ideal for the purpose of modeling stylized interactions and complexes of social actions.  It provides a malleable basis for simulation of social situations.  But it abstracts from the rich complexity of human agency in a way that seems assured to lead to failure when applied to real social phenomena.  Virtually every theory of agency acknowledges the importance of "purposiveness" within a theory of action.  So rational choice has a role to play within an adequate theory of the actor.  But the deficiency of this hyper-abstract rational-choice axiomatization of action is precisely that it assumes away the complexity and multi-dimensionality of real human action.  Here is an earlier post that sketches some of the other factors that need to be included in a messy theory of the actor.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ordinary and theoretical knowledge of capitalism


John Levi Martin argues in The Explanation of Social Action, among other things, that we need to understand the social world through the ways it is experienced by participants. "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). He thus criticizes sociological theorizing because it is third-person and aims to explain social arrangements in terms foreign to the participants.

But this is really what the act of "theorizing" always involves, and why it is important. The social world always exceeds the vision of the participants, and though Levi Martin cringes at the thought, there are in fact distant, unseen structures and systems that constrain local experience. The role of theory -- one role, anyway -- is to discover in thought what some of those systemic processes and forces are. "Capitalism," "trading system," "sugar-cotton-slave nexus," "finance capital," and "bourgeois ideology" are all theoretical formulations designed to connect the dots -- to draw attention to the systems within which everyday experience takes place. And those systems exist and have consequences for individuals at all levels of agency -- beliefs, assumptions, purposes, incentives, and constraints.

It is of course true that social entities at every level require microfoundations. So it isn't quite right to say that social entities convey effects through something other than flesh-and-blood individuals. But this does not mean that they do not convey effects onto individuals and local arrangements that are beyond the ken of the local actors.

Take the complex of ideas associated with Marx's conception of materialism as an example, and put yourself in a particular historical setting--say British factory expansion in the 1830s and 1840s. Participants at every location had perceptions and ways of talking about their experiences. The recently "freed" factory worker in Manchester had his perspective; the dockworker in London had his; the "putting-out" spinner had hers; the Caribbean slave had his and hers; and likewise the baker, the tailor, and the candlestick maker. For that matter, Marx, Engels, and Carlyle were participants too, and they made their own efforts to conceptualize and explain their experience. They wanted to say what was going on.

But here is the crucial point; none of them really got it. They got parts of the story -- the harsh conditions in the factory, the swirl of new finance activity, the overseers' whip, the living conditions in slums in Birmingham, Manchester, and London, the stench of the River Irk, and much else. But none was in a position to perceive the relationships among these social locations.

These are all fragments of the picture, and as Marx insisted in Capital when he discussed commodity fetishism -- some of these perspectives conceal rather than expose the system of social relations that was emerging. It took something else in order to cognize "emerging capitalist urban industrial society". Carlyle did his part (he coined the phrase, the "cash nexus"); so did Engels and Marx; and so have Gramsci and Wallerstein. Theorizing was necessary in order to transform the partial and sometimes mystifying bits of ordinary experience into a more revealing system-level understanding. The worker perceives the temporal coercion of the factory; but he and she do not perceive the larger social structures that explained that system of organization.

Is the participant-level even the right perspective from which to try to identify an explanation? I don't think so. Were conditions in this factory harsh because this owner was hostile or cruel towards these particular workers? No, rather because the competitive environment of profitability and accumulation created an inexorable race to the bottom. So we can't explain this factory's working conditions by referring to specific features of this factory and its owner. This logic is spelled out very clearly in Capital, and it is a system-level characteristic.

Here is what Levi Martin has to say about this line of argument, early in ESA. He paraphrases the argument in these words:
Actors may see the little picture -- particularities that while undeniable are still ignorable -- but they do not produce the sweeping abstractions that have important implications across many domains of social life. It is these general abstracts that, when linked in some system, deserve the credit of behing "theory, and the more surprising the implications -- the less they agree with the particular, everyday knowledge of actors -- the more brilliant the theory is if confirmed. (kl 104).
It is plain that L-M does not accept this move from the particular local knowledges to a more abstract "theory" that connects the dots. He favors instead a mode of theorizing that derives from phenomenology:
Phenomenology in this sense is the study of how every-day people orient themselves to the world and how they determine what needs to be done. (kl 152)
But it is likely that no one within the emerging factory system in Manchester or Birmingham would have experienced the system-level factors that shaped the emergence of that system. The self-conception of the capitalist factory owner is "modernizer," "bringer of better life prospects to immigrant Irish peasants," or "contributor to a new Britain" -- not "cog in a system of profit-maximizing competition where to lose one's footing in pushing costs down is to drown."

So how do distant, impersonal social forces impinge on local experience? This is the nexus that draws the greatest skepticism from Levi Martin. But it isn't particularly difficult to answer. Take the rapid development of tenements and slums that Engels describes in The Condition of the Working Class in England. The expansion of trade, rapidly rising demand for finished goods, and the workings of financial markets are the distal causes that shaped the choices of capitalists, city fathers, and legislators, and these choices compounded to the misery described by Engels. This is the value of Immanuel Wallerstein's work; he helps demonstrate these distal relations and systemic interrelationships (The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, With a New Prologue).  And I don't think that Wallerstein's work is at all incompatible with an actor-centered, microfoundational view of social causation.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Response to Little by John Levi Martin

[John Levi Martin accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his Explanation of Social Action (link).  John is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of Social Structures in addition to ESA.  Thanks, John!]

Response to Little
by John Levi Martin

The Explanation of Social Action (henceforward, ESA) is a book about the explanation of social action. It argues that there are fundamental instabilities in what seems to be the dominant approach to such explanation in the social sciences, which it terms explanation via third person causality (TPC). TPC is when we attempt to explain the action of persons (say, they vote for a Republican) using entities that are not themselves persons, and attribute causal power to such entities (say, income and authoritarianism cause Republican voting). Examinations of TPC are wrecked if the recipients of the causal force willfully “select” themselves to be exposed to causes. ESA is not the first book to point to the instabilities that result, but previous arguments do not seem to have affected the progression of the social sciences, which operate on the Warner Brothers’ principle that even if you have run off a cliff and there is nothing under your feet, you will not actually fall so long as you do not look down.

As said above, ESA is a book about the explanation of social action—it does not claim to cover everything that social scientists find interesting and important. However, one of the problems with the contemporary approach to the social sciences is that cases of social action are disguised in ways that lead to confusion. Thus Little writes that ESA’s scope fails to include “‘Why?’ questions [that] involve understanding the workings of institutions and structures.” Such questions—e.g., “why did the decision-making process surrounding the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger go so disastrously wrong?”—Little says, “admit of causal explanations. And they are not inherently equivalent to explanations of nested sets of social actions.”

Were this the case, the arguments of ESA would indeed be less damaging. But it is not at all obvious that such “workings of institutions and structures” are not “equivalent to…sets of social actions.” While “workings of institutions and structures” is a fine figure of speech for approximate purposes, speaking more exactly, institutions do not work, or cause, or act, or think. Institutions are nothing other than sets of actions—“patterns of repeated conduct.” When we ignore this, we produce unstable explanations.

Indeed, Little’s example is enlightening. Consider Vaughan’s justly famous The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. This is a wonderful piece of research. But when Vaughan boils things down to a (general) sociological conclusion, it seems of the form “institutional culture caused this decision to be of this sort.” As I am sure a number of people have pointed out, as institutional culture is itself nothing other than the pattern of social action that takes place in the institutional setting, this is to take the pattern of action, pull out one part, put it by itself, draw a line from the rest of the pattern to this one part, and write “causes” on the line. This is a very confusing way of proceeding and formally like the case (treated in ESA) of explaining someone’s favoring of an authoritarian policy by saying that it was “caused” by his authoritarianism. It is taking a tautology and adding a mystical confusion in the form of “causality.” Vaughan’s arguments in detail are important, but we would do better to return to Peirce, James and Dewey and to examine the formation of habits than to posit some new realm of “institutions and structures” with their own causality.

The problems with our desperate belief in causation even where it adds nothing but confusion is best seen in the line of work emphasized by Little on causal “mechanisms.” I did not devote any of ESA to a critique of these ideas in part because I believed that my general points were best made without “going negative,” because I believed that Tilly’s approach to explanation was an improvement over most others, and because of my great admiration for and gratitude to Charles Tilly. This opened space for confusion.

Tilly identifies recurring patterns of social action and calls these “mechanisms” because they can be envisaged as discrete parts of a clockwork that, assembled in a certain way, will produce a certain result. In itself, this is a laudable endeavor; the word “mechanism” to describe the pattern nicely highlights the modular nature of these explanatory nuggets, at the cost of some misleading imagery. But to call these accounts “causal” and to argue that this demonstrates the stability of TPC seems very puzzling. For the mechanisms themselves are nothing other than patterns of action. They do not explain the action, they are it.

For example, Tilly lists “coalition formation between segments of ruling classes and constituted political actors that are currently excluded from power” (henceforward, CFBSORCACPACEFP) as a “mechanism” tending to “cause” democratization. Speaking loosely, this is all well and good, but it cannot be seen as a successful form of TPC. For this requires us to imagine some form of CFBSORCACPACEFP that is forced upon persons as opposed to arising from their own actions (a relation between CFBSORCACPACEFP and democracy interpreted in motivational terms would not support the doctrine of the existence of TPC). Certain cases are more like this extreme scenario and others less like, but no case can perfectly satisfy this vision, because it requires action without action. The more seriously we take the causal language, the sillier or crazier our thoughts become.

In sum, our “run fast and don’t look down” strategy has led us to take outcomes (what happens) and reify them into causes (these are “constraints” and “structures”), and to take patterns of actions and claim that they are not patterns of action at all, but something else that in fact causes these actions. We are akin to meteorologists unwilling to abandon the idea that there really are Winds (e.g., the Zephyr) with their own causal properties, and who abuse any colleagues so simplistic as to insist that to make any scientific progress, they will need to produce accurate models for compressible gasses and then scale up. ESA is about how we might start.