Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rural studies in China

I spent a rewarding afternoon at the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University in Wuhan this week (link). The Institute is the leading center for research on China's rural population, and it has conducted research projects for decades on villages throughout China. It is an important resource for government officials as they design policies for rural transformation in China's rapidly changing countryside. And it has the capacity to provide reasonably detailed answers to questions about how peasants are doing in the new China. (Here is a publication that provides a description of some of the functions of the Institute.)

From a human welfare point of view, the status of rural society represents the largest set of problems that China is facing today and for the coming several decades. China's rural population is still vast, in spite of the rapid urbanization of the past two decades. As of 2011 just under half of China's population lived in rural locations -- over 650 million people (link).  And it is a population whose welfare has improved the least through China's rapid economic growth since 1980.

What are the kinds of questions we would like to have answers to when it comes to a large rural population dispersed over a wide range of ecological settings?

Demography. We would like to have some fine-grained data about the demography and demographic behavior of peasants in various regions. What is the size of the rural population in Shaanxi? How many villages and towns are there? What are the fertility and morbidity statistics for this people? What are the patterns of emigration and return that are observed in these regions?

Welfare. We certainly want to know some basic things about the standard of living of various rural populations. What are the longevity statistics? What diseases are prevalent? How much access do families have to health clinics, doctors, and hospitals? What is the status of HIV in the population? What is the educational level of the child, youth, and adult populations? What is the literacy rate?

Gender. What are the characteristic of gender and family relations? Do girls attend school at the same rates and as long as boys? What role do women play in household decision-making? Are there differentials across gender in health outcomes? What is the situation of gay people in rural society?

Economy. How do peasants earn their incomes? What is the distribution of income in various rural regions? What is the average income of peasant households in various regions? How much inequality is there? How has income improved in the past two decades?

Infrastructure and environment. How well served is the rural population by roads, trains, electricity, and clean water and sanitation? What are the environmental threats that are found in rural society? How far do families need to travel for marketing?

Culture. What are the religious and cultural values of the rural people of the region? Are there significant ethnic minorities in the region? Are there enclaves of peasant groups who have different cultural attachments from the Han majority? Is Buddhism making a comeback among rural people? What about Maoism?

Politics. A constant theme in peasant studies in the past forty years has been the question of collective action and resistance. What kinds of protests are occurring in various rural areas? How widespread and effective are they? What are the chief causes for protest -- rents, taxes, corruption, environmental problems, land seizures?

Governmental. How does the local population interact with the authorities -- government officials, army, police? How frequent is police presence in the village? How are the relations between locals and government officials?

Change processes. What are the major sources of change at the village level? Are new property arrangements emerging that have effects on peasant wellbeing? Is emigration a major source of change? What about technological change -- more mechanized tools, more chemical fertilizers and pesticides?How much influence does the availability of mass media make on the attitudes and behavior of rural people?

These are some important categories of questions we would like to answer. What methods of research might we want to employ to find some answers?

Certainly many of these questions require quantitative research. Surveys of public health, education, income, and opinions and values are all amenable to quantitative research designs. Opinion surveys need to be conducted; household surveys of consumption and income, health and literacy can be conducted. National surveys like the census and other government statistics can often be broken out by rural status and these findings need to be assimilated.

Other questions seem to be most amenable to the methods of qualitative research. Focus groups and interviews can shed light on attitudes and behavior. The qualitative researcher can get a picture of the mentality of the group and the variations that exist. Are youth increasingly disaffected in the countryside? Are villagers becoming disillusioned with the government? These questions can be investigated in several ways, but interviews and focus groups are an important avenue.

Then there is the problem of theory and conceptualization. How should we think about the processes of change we observe? What kinds of explanations seem plausible? For that matter, how should we think about the peasant him or herself?

There is also the question of comparison. How do the results found in China compare to the situation in India or Egypt? How do scholars of peasant societies and politics characterize their focus in other settings around the world? For example, agrarian studies in India seem to have a rather different focus (link).

Finally, what might some of the research products look like? How can we best convey the information we discover about the heterogeneous world of the peasant population?

Interactive statistical maps are one important tool. We can organize large data sets by seeing how they play out against geography. This means that data elements need to be geocoded so they can be aggregated and displayed spatially.

Extensive analytical reports summarizing and analyzing the findings on rural society are worthwhile, along the lines of the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All.

Narratives are an important way of telling the story of a large data set. The narrative of a region might introduce the main factors forcing change that were present in 1950 or 1980 and then draw out summaries of the impact these forces had.

Archives of interviews and other qualitative data are important to permit later researchers to gain some new insights into the concrete social processes that were observed through the extended research efforts of the field. Collections of databases summarizing past research projects -- the raw data of prior research -- are essential to provide reproducibility and research materials for other scholars (along the lines of the Institute of Politics at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research).

Collections of artifacts are also worthwhile, and it is significant that the Institute at Huazhong Normal University will soon be opening a museum of rural society in its building in Wuhan.

There is a point to this catalogue of questions and possible topics.  It suggests that it is very important to think carefully through the kinds of questions that need answering, as we undertake large research topics like the state of rural China.  The analytical thinking that goes into reports like the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All, World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development or the annual UNEP 2011 Annual Report: 1972-2012, Serving People and the Planet is very important to the quality and usefulness of the results.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Technical knowledge

There is a kind of knowledge in an advanced mechanical society that doesn't get much attention from philosophers of science and sociologists of science, but it is critical for keeping the whole thing running. I'm thinking here of the knowledge possessed by skilled technicians and fixers -- the people who show up when a complicated piece of equipment starts behaving badly. You can think of elevator technicians, millwrights, aircraft maintenance specialists, network technicians, and locksmiths.

I had an interesting conversation along these lines on the hotel shuttle at the Beijing airport recently. Tim was traveling from Milwaukee to someplace he described as being on the Russian-Mongolian border where there was a mine with a malfunctioning piece of heavy equipment provided by his US company. He expects to be on site for two months, and knows that whatever problems he encounters, they won't be in the users' manual.

This trip is routine for Tim. His company's equipment is used in mines all over the world, from Sweden to India to Brazil. And he is routinely dispatched with his 80-pound duffel, his hard hat, and a few essentials to try to correct the problem.

I said to him, you probably run into problems that don't have a ready solution in the handbook. He said in some amazement, "none of the problems I deal with have textbook solutions. You have to make do with what you find on the ground and nothing is routine." I also asked about the engineering staff back in Wisconsin. "Nice guys, but they've never spent any time in the field and they don't take any feedback from us about how the equipment is failing." He referred to the redesign of a heavy machine part a few years ago. The redesign changed the geometry and the moment arm, and it's caused problems ever since. "I tell them what's happening, and they say it works fine on paper. Ha! The blueprints have to be changed, but nothing ever happens."

I would trust Tim to fix the machinery in my gold mine, if I had one. And it seems that he, and thousands of others like him, have a detailed and practical kind of knowledge about the machine and its functioning in a real environment that doesn't get captured in an engineering curriculum. It is practical knowledge: "If you run into this kind of malfunction, try replacing the thingamajig and rebalance the whatnot." It's also a creative problem-solving kind of knowledge: "Given lots of experience with this kind of machine and these kinds of failures, maybe we could try X." And it appears that it is a cryptic, non-formalized kind of knowledge. The company and the mine owners depend crucially on knowledge in Tim's head and hands that can only be reproduced by another skilled fixer being trained by Tim.

In philosophy we have a few distinctions that seem to capture some aspects of this kind of knowledge: "knowing that" versus "knowing how", epistime versus techne, formal knowledge versus tacit knowledge. Michael Polanyi incorporated some of these distinctions into his theory of science in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy sixty years ago, but I'm not aware of developments since then.

In sociology and anthropology there has also been some beginning of work on the role that this kind of tacit or non-formalized knowledge plays in the modern technological system. In the early 1980s Xerox Parc commissioned an effort at business anthropology that studied the work practices of Xerox copier repairmen (link). This was part of a knowledge process called Eureka. The repairmen drive around with vans full of manuals on various models of copier. But it turns out that the bulk of their work depends on shared practical knowledge within the group of repairers at the time. Phone calls are made, interventions are tried, copy machines come back into service. But the manuals are never part of the process.

One of Tim's points seems entirely valid: it is a serious mistake for a company to create a system where engineers design things without ever dealing with their machines in the field. This feedback loop seems critical. The engineers lack access to the tacit technical knowledge that would be gained by practical immersion.

Chuck Sabel's research on machinists in Italy falls in this category of investigation. Interestingly, he too found some of the dissonance Tim reported between the university-educated engineers and the working fixers who actually interfaced with the machines (Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry). Another scholar who takes this kind of concrete knowledge seriously is historian of technology Phil Scranton in Endless Novelty and also in his research on jet engines.

It seems that there is an opportunity for a very interesting kind of micro research in the sociology of knowledge here: identify a specific technical repair community and interview them in detail to discover what they know, how they know, and how it all works. This knowledge system is difficult to categorize but seems crucial for an advanced technological society.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Political polarization?

Is the American electorate "polarized" with regard to sets of political issues? McCarty, Rosenthal, and Poole accept the common view that we have in fact become more polarized in our politics over the past twenty years, and they offer an interesting theory of what is causing this polarization in Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Walras-Pareto Lectures). This theory was discussed in an earlier post. Delia Baldassarri and Peter Bearman take a different perspective, however, in a 2007 article, "Dynamics of Political Polarization" (AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2007, VOL. 72 (October:784–811)). Here is how Baldassarri and Bearman frame their research:
In this article we provide a parsimonious account for two puzzling empirical outcomes. The first is the simultaneous presence and absence of political polarization—the fact that attitudes rarely polarize, even though people believe polarization to be common. The second is the simultaneous presence and absence of social polarization—the fact that while individuals experience attitude homogeneity in their interpersonal networks, these networks retain attitude heterogeneity overall. We do this by investigating the joint effects of personal influence on attitudes and social relations. (784)
Baldassarri and Bearman quote a range of studies that find that the mass of the US population is not polarized in the bulk of its political attitudes, and that it has not increased in polarization in the past decade. "The evidence suggests that, aside from a small set of takeoff issues, 'the policy preferences of different social groupings generally move in parallel with each other'” (784). They resolve part of the paradox by distinguishing between activist opinions and public opinion:
In the same vein, Fiorina and colleagues (2005) dispute “The Myth of a Polarized America” and suggest that the “culture war” commonly conjured up in the media is a fictive construction. According to their analysis, there is no popular polarization, but simply partisan polarization—“those who affiliate with a party are more likely to affiliate with the ‘correct' party today than they were in earlier periods” (p. 25). It is the political elite and a small number of party activists that are polarized.
This all seems a little paradoxical, so it's worth looking at the assumptions these two groups of researchers are making about "polarization".

To start, what is meant by polarization with respect to a given issue -- say gay marriage? Essentially the concept is a characteristic of a population's distribution across an attitudinal scale from strongly support to strongly oppose with respect to the issue in question. A population is homogeneous if the distribution of scores has a single peak and a small standard deviation, and is polarized if it has two (or more) peaks. Here is a diagram representing the results of their agent-based model of attitude diffusion. Each issue eventually shows a pronounced degree of polarization after several hundred iterations, with about half the population distributed around a positive attitude and the other half distributed around a negative attitude. Presumably we can define increase in polarization as a shift apart of the two peaks (kurtosis) and perhaps a decrease in the deviation around the peaks.

Theoretically a population could be segmented into three distinct groups -- perhaps one-third who cluster around the zero point of indifference and two extreme groups on the left and right.

The most original part of their work here is an effort to model the emergence of issue polarization based on a theory of how social interactions in networks and small groups influence individuals' attitudes. They offer a sociological theory of inter-personal influence to explain how attitude diffusion occurs within a population, and they report the results of network simulations to illustrate the consequences of this theory. They argue that this model explains how members of society can perceive polarity while actually embodying a high degree of homogeneity.
In more general terms, we show that simple mechanisms of social interaction and personal influence can lead to both social segregation and ideological polarization. (785)
Our goal has been to deploy a model of inter-personal influence sensitive to dynamics of political discussion, where actors hold multiple opinions on diverse issues, interact with others relative to the intensity and orientation of their political preferences, and through evolving discussion networks shape their own and others' political contexts. In the model, opinion change depends on two factors: the selection of interaction partners, which determines the aggregate structure of the discussion network, and the process of interpersonal influence, which determines the dynamics of opinion change. In the next section, we organize the description of the model around these two elements. Table 1 summarizes the simulation algorithm. (788)
The simulations are very interesting. The authors specify assumptions about the structure of interactions; they specify how an individual's attitude is affected by the interaction; and they creat an initial distribution of attitudes for the 100 actors in the simulation. They then run the set of actors and interactions through 500 iterations and observe the resulting patterns of distribution of attitudes.

The cases resolve into two large groups: non-takeoff, where polarization does not emerge and takeoff, where polarization does occur. The first group is much more common, validating the prior finding that public opinion is not becoming more polarized. The "takeoff" group is much less common but important. For some initial distributions of attitudes and interaction pathways the population does develop IMO two sharply divided sub-groups. These two diagrams illustrate these two possibilities.

In the second figure the population is moving strongly towards polarization around the issue, whereas the first figure represents a population with no pattern of polarization.

Several things are striking about this work. First is the degree to which it presents a picture of public opinion that seems highly counterintuitive in 2012. The first half of their paradox seems even more compelling today than five years ago -- the American public does seem to be very divided in its opinions about social and moral issues. The second striking thing is perhaps an omission in the foundations of their theory of attitude formation. Their model works through 1-1 interactions. But it seems evident that a lot of attitude formation is happening through exposure to the media -- television, radio, Internet, social media. There doesn't appear to be an obvious way to incorporate these powerful influences into their model. And yet these may be much more influential than 1-1 interactions.

This research is of interest for two important reasons. First, it is a sustained effort to account for how issue separation occurs in real social groups. And second, it provides an excellent and detailed example of a microfoundational approach to an important social process, using a variety of agent-based modeling techniques to work out the consequences of the theory of social influence with which they begin. The models allow Baldassarri and Bearman to carefully probe the assumptions of the theory of individual-level attitude dynamics that they postulate. So the work is both substantively and methodologically rewarding. It is analytical sociology at its best.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Social obligations and markets

The vice presidential pick for the Republican ticket is an extreme voice on the question of whether individuals have obligations to others in society that justify taxing them to maintain their basic human needs. Paul Ryan is a fan of Ayn Rand's philosophy, which is an extreme version of individualism against social obligations. According to the Randians, the state should be limited to the very most minimal tasks, and the idea that individuals have obligations to other people in society is anathema.

This Randian philosophy has at least two major components: individuals exclusively deserve what they earn through the market; and virtually everything should be allocated through private markets rather than through collective decisions about taxes and benefits. If you are poor, according to a Randian, you have only yourself to blame, and you have no moral claim on the rest of society. And if you are an investment banker with a $30 million bonus staring you in the face -- good for you! It's yours, enjoy!

This philosophy of the relationship between the individual and the rest of society may make sense to Paul Ryan and the Tea Party. But it doesn't make sense to much of the rest of the world. A society is a system of cooperation and mutual interdependence, and one person's wellbeing inevitably depends on the activities of countless other individuals in society. (This was the point of President Obama's line that "You didn't build this business alone.") Moreover, most of the cultures of the seven billion of us on planet earth recognize duties of compassion and mutual support. The fundamental humanity of the fellow citizen is reason enough to be concerned about his or her liberty, nutritional status, health, and personal safety.

It is logical to most of the world's population that a key role of the state, as the political embodiment of the whole of the society, is to establish a decent safety net for all its citizens and to take steps direct and indirect to ensure that its population has access to the basic necessities of life. It is precisely this moral idea that is under determined attack by the Tea Party movement and the ascendancy of politicians like Paul Ryan.

Michael Sandel's current book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, is an eloquent statement of some very basic moral convictions that many people share about the subject. His basic idea is that it is morally obnoxious to think of all goods as being best distributed through a market mechanism -- through a price, a seller, and a buyer. In an interview on NPR this week he made the point very eloquently: we are moving from a market economy to a market society; moving from looking at the market mechanism as an important social tool, to looking at it as the supreme social value. He argues that this movement in values and thought has the result of crowding out more substantive moral values. In the book he illustrates this point with a striking example:
Or consider baby selling. Some years ago Judge Richard Posner, a leading figure in the "law and economics" movement, proposed the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption. He acknowledged that more desirable babies would command higher prices than less desirable ones. But he argued that the free market would do a better job of allocating babies than the current system of adoption, which allows adoption agencies to charge certain fees but not to auction babies or charge a market price. (kindle loc 1375)
He comes back to this example with his own analysis of what's wrong with the idea.
Or consider children. It would be possible to create a market in babies up for adoption. But should we? Those who object offer two reasons: One is that putting children up for sale would price less affluent parents out of the market, or leave them with the cheapest, least desirable children (the fairness argument). The other is that putting a price tag on children would corrupt the norm of unconditional parental love; the inevitable price differences would reinforce the notion that the value of a child depends on his or her race, sex, intellectual promise, physical abilities or disabilities, and other traits (the corruption argument). (kl 1620)
Sandel's sociological insight is this: markets subvert many values by commercializing social relationships.
Many economists now recognize that markets change the character of the goods and social practices they govern. In recent years, one of the first to emphasize the corrosive effect of markets on nonmarket norms was Fred Hirsch, a British economist who served as senior adviser to the International Monetary Fund. In a book published in 1976 -- the same year that Gary Becker's influential An Economic approach to Human Behavior appeared and three years before Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister -- Hirsch challenged the assumption that the value of a good is the same whether provided through the market or in some other way. (kl 1760)
So Sandel calls upon us, as Karl Polanyi did almost seventy years ago in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, to re-tune our moral antenna, and to recognize that there are moral and social values that are far deeper and far more important than price and market.  As a society we possess a host of moral affinities and obligations that the market philosophy of Ayn Rand doesn't touch.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mobilizing the masses

One of the books on the Chinese Revolution that I particularly respect is Odoric Wou's 1994 Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan.  As noted in an earlier post, histories of the revolution have gone through several waves, and a general trend has been towards more focused regional studies.  Wou's book belongs in what I categorize as the third wave (along with Chen Yung-Fa's Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945). Here is how Wou characterizes this evolution:
Communist revolutionaries always operated under local conditions, were involved in certain local power politics, and addressed certain needs of the local peasantry. It is imperative to pay particular attention to localities, if possible at the county, the subcounty, and even the village level. Mass politics are invariably related to community issues and community politics. (14)
Here I want to focus on Wou's title itself: Mobilizing the Masses.   Both parts of the title are important: the idea that the Chinese revolution was a mass-based revolution, and the idea that the Chinese Communist Party succeeded because it pursued successful strategies of mobilization.  The Russian Revolution, by contrast, was not mass-based; Lenin's revolutionary group was able to seize power without mass support, and the Bolsheviks did not develop effective strategies of mass mobilization.  So the Chinese Revolution is different. We have historical examples of revolutions that did not involve the masses in contemporary society; and perhaps we could imagine a mass-based revolution that succeed without the deliberate strategies of mobilization that emanated from a revolutionary party.  (Lucien Bianco doubts the latter possibility, however; he argues that spontaneous uprisings by peasants or workers are doomed to failure (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China).)

So why was the committed support of the masses crucial to the success of the Chinese Revolution? Why is mass support difficult to achieve for an emerging revolutionary movement? And what were some of the strategies of mobilization that the CCP used in the 1930s and 1940s to bring about that mass support?

Mass support for a revolutionary movement is in one sense unlikely. The risks of being a supporter are great, and the a priori likelihood of success is small. The forces of order are generally powerful and pervasive, whether warlords or a central government. So peasants and workers are asked to assume great risks for little prospect of success.  As James Scott has emphasized in many writings, there are always options of everyday coping and everyday resistance that allow ordinary people to make do in the context of a repressive state and an exploitative society (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). (I particularly enjoy the scene that Scott describes of Malaysian villagers gathering and laughing as the hired mechanical harvester sinks inexorably into the flooded rice paddy.) These facts imply that mass support for a revolutionary movement will not arise spontaneously; rather, it is necessary for a revolutionary organization and a set of leaders to pursue an effective bundle of strategies aimed at mobilizing the masses.  This means possessing a compelling set of strategies, and it means developing a large and pervasive organization that will be capable of placing "brokers" or cadres in local settings where they can influence ordinary villagers to support the strategy.

So why was the CCP forced to turn to the peasant masses in the first place?  One part of the answer is Mao's own political theories of how revolution could succeed in China based on the support of the population; and the population was overwhelmingly rural and poor in the 1920s and 1930s.  (It is interesting that Mao's theories of peasant revolutionary potential continue to propel a large Maoist movement in India; post.) But a more material reason has to do with a stunning defeat suffered by the CCP at the hands of the Guomindang Republican forces in 1927 -- the massacre of the urban-based Communist organization in Shanghai.  From that point forward the strategy of bringing communist revolution to China on the strength of an urban revolutionary movement was untenable, and resort to China's peasantry was the only option available.

So how did the CCP attempt to mobilize the rural masses? What political ideologies did the CCP settle on as being the most promising for arousing the emotions and political commitments of ordinary peasants throughout rural China? How did the CCP use local organizations and cadres to effectively communicate those messages and solicit political engagement by peasants? More specifically, what were those strategies in Henan, the focus of Wou's book?

Two strands of mobilization ideologies have been emphasized by historians of the revolution. The first is class mobilization -- a deliberate attempt to emphasize the exploitativeness of rural land relations, and the conflicts that exist between landlords, rich peasants, and poor peasants. Here the idea is that poor peasants can be energized by a clear recognition of the ways in which their livelihoods are harmed by the social privilege of rich peasants and landlords, and they can be motivated to take on the risky business of revolution. The second is a nationalist appeal in the context of the Japanese occupation of China, and the claim that the Red Army was more effective than the Guomindang military in fighting the Japanese. Here the idea is that peasants of all strata can be motivated to defend their families, their villages, and their region against the imperialistic (and harsh) Japanese invaders.  Wou documents both strategies in Henan.

First the class-based strategy:
After three executive committee meetings, the Eyuwan party decided to reformulate and radicalize the land reform program. The new policy was to "use the agricultural laborers as the base. Form a solid alliance with the poor peasants. Stabilize the middle peasants. Shake up and eliminate the rich pesants." Politically, the new program called for the discharge of rich peasnts from all Communist mass organizations, including the Red Guards, Youth Vanguard, and Children's Corps. (125)
And here is the nationalist strategy:
It was during the Sino-Japanese War that the Communists began to revitalize their revolutionary movement. By skillfully playing the game of coalition politics, the party took steps to rebuild its bases and consolidate its power in eastern Henan. Japanese imperialistic intrusion into China offered the Communists a new political opportunity. The war eroded Guomindang state power, changed the political balance, and created a political vacuum in the region. In these favorable conditions, the Communists identified themselves with the nationalistic cause and issued a patriotic appeal to the people. (207)
Finally, Wou emphasizes throughout the necessity for political skill and compromise on the part of party leaders. It was necessary to form coalitions with other non-revolutionary organizations in order to carry forward the objectives of the party, and the CCP leadership in Henan was fully prepared to enter into such coalitions.

These details are of interest chiefly because they illuminate the nuts and bolts of radical social change in a large country.  It is plainly not enough to observe that a large group of people have interests that are in conflict with the policies and social relations of their country or region.  In addition, several things are needed: a sustained and locally implemented strategy of mobilization and a revolutionary organization that acts intelligently and opportunistically as the balance of forces shifts at various times.

These observations have implications for China's current realities as well.  It is evident that there are millions of Chinese people who have serious grievances -- work conditions, environmental pollution, corrupt officials, etc. But the Chinese government has been very adept at preventing the emergence of organizations that might attempt to mobilize that discontent into effective efforts to challenge the state's policies.  Without organizations, the current level of grievance in China is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the policies of the state.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Civil rights history

What is involved in assembling the history of a complicated period like the US civil rights movement?  This is a difficult question for any complex historical phenomenon, and there are many choices that the historian is forced to make.
  • When should we start the story?
    • End of the Civil War
    • Reconstruction
    • Jim Crow period
    • 1950s
    • 1960s
  • Which actors are we most interested in understanding -- 
    • ordinary citizens
    • political decision makers
    • civil rights organizations
    • White supremacist organizations
  • Are we interested in large social and economic structures or individual leaders and groups? 
    • How did new urban concentrations of African Americans affect the movement?
    • How did limitations on property rights and Jim Crow laws affect the struggle?
    • What role did state and Federal law play in creating the conditions for mobilization?
  • What is the point of the history?
    • to interpret the everyday experience of segregation and inequality
    • to understand the motivations and actions of the leaders and officials
    • to identify the factors that led to mobilization and resistance
    • to interpret the experience of organization and liberation
    • to better understand the politics of civil rights legislation
    • to highlight the contemporary challenges in racial inequalities that remain
    • or all of the above.
The question of when to start the story is certainly an important one.  If our interest in the movement is how it worked -- who were the important leaders, how did the key organizations get started, and so forth -- then perhaps beginning in the 1950s is the right choice. This would be to look at the movement through the eyes of a sociologist. But if we really want to know what the context and causes of racial inequality were, then we need to start much earlier.  On this framing of the problem, we are interested in longterm causes and contexts, not simply the particulars of the struggle.  In this case the realities of slavery and the Jim Crow south are crucial, and the starting point needs to be sometime following the end of the Civil War.

Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition takes its orientation from specific answers to several of these questions. His fundamental goal is to understand the Civil Rights period of the 1960s as a social movement.  He wants to understand the ordinary people who came to be mobilized in marches, demonstrations, and boycotts; he wants to understand the organizations that facilitated these acts of mobilization; and he wants to understand the legal and political context within which this mobilization took place.  He begins his account in the 1950s, taking the historical facts of racial inequality and oppression as a given. And he attempts to discover the factors that led to the successes and failures of this prolonged period of activism and protest.  There is not a great deal of narrative in McAdam's book -- he doesn't tell a lot of stories of the particulars of various moments of activism, and he doesn't attempt to give the reader a strong feeling for the experience of ordinary African American participants. Instead there is a sustained effort to quantify and understand the timing and location of various moments of public activism. And he wants to understand the national and international factors that were conducive to mobilization in those years.

Taylor Branch's trilogy on the history of the same period of time takes a very different point of view (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). Branch's narrative gives strong priority to giving the reader a vivid sense of the actors -- from leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., to ordinary African American participants who were inspired to great involvement in the movement.  His book is based on a wide range of primary sources, including FBI files, and it is committed to providing a detailed and accurate account of the events of the movement.  He organizes his narrative around key events (the Freedom Rides, Selma, the Memphis boycott) and key individuals (Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover). The trilogy is long and detailed; and yet it doesn't answer all the kinds of questions mentioned above.

Lance Hill's The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement pulls the screen into a tighter focus by concentrating on a smaller geography and a specific element of the movement -- the emergence of a grassroots organization that favored armed self-defense against organizations like the KKK.  Hill's narrative gives the reader a very strong sense of the places and people of this organization -- the circumstances in which they lived, the personal experiences that led them to this form of activism, and the ways in which this strategy played out in Louisiana and Mississippi.
In 1964 a clandestine armed self-defense organization formed in the black community in Jonesboro, Louisiana, with the goal of protecting civil rights activists from the Ku Klux Klan and other racist vigilantes. After several months of relatively secret operations, the group publicly surfaced in February 1965 under the name "Deacons for Defense and Justice." By the end of 1966, the Deacons had grown to twenty-one chapters with several hundred members concentrated in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Deacons guarded marches, patrolled the black community to ward off night riders, engaged in shoot-outs with Klansmen, and even defied local police in armed confrontations. (2)
The reader gets a vivid understanding of the human circumstances of white violence and organized efforts at self-defense, and the actors become real through the narrative.

These are just three examples of different approaches taken by historians and historically minded sociologists to the challenges of representing and understanding this crucial period in American history. They illustrate a basic point about historiography more generally: every historical topic admits of treatment from a wide range of perspectives and methods, and the stories that are told will provide very different insights into the history.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mayer Zald

I am sorry to share the news with readers that Mayer Zald passed away today in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Mayer was a brilliant sociologist, a founding contributor to the fields of organizational sociology and social movement theory, and a fertile and stimulating voice in conversation with scholars old and young until the final week of his life.  He helped to found the Social Theory Workshop at the University of Michigan out of his conviction that there was much to learn from the intersection of sociology and philosophy, and he was a regular and stimulating participant in the workshop. He was an exceptional and generous friend to a wide range of people, from graduate students to professors.  I will miss him.

Response to Little by Dave Elder-Vass

[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his recent book, The Reality of Social Construction (link). Elder-Vass is senior lecturer in sociology at Loughborough University and author as well of The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, discussed here.  Thanks, Dave!]

Social construction and the reliability of knowledge
by Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel, thank you for a very constructive and accurate post, as always! Rather than picking on some detail to disagree with, I’d like to add something, if I may. In addition to the larger argument you’ve covered in your post, my recent book The Reality of Social Construction seeks to apply this argument to various contentious questions of social theory, and it might be useful to illustrate one of these. Perhaps the example that fits best with your interests is the discussion of the social ontology of knowledge.

One of the big issues in late C20 social theory was generated by poststructuralism’s tendency “to challenge conventional assumptions about knowledge by exposing the dependence of knowledge claims on unacknowledged social influences” (207). But these challenges were knowledge claims themselves, and it was never clear “how they might attain some kind of reflexive equilibrium in which they contribute productively to our understanding of knowledge without undermining their own epistemic status” (207).

I try to resolve this by developing an ontology of knowledge that explores how it might simultaneously be socially constructed and also potentially reliable (though never absolutely indubitably certain) because it is also influenced by the phenomena that it is about.

The relevant chapter argues that knowledge is a kind of authorised belief: beliefs are accepted as being knowledge when they have been formed in accordance with knowledge forming practices that are socially approved (normatively endorsed) for the kind of knowledge concerned. We are prepared, for example, to accept knowledge claims about empirical facts when they are plausibly justified on the basis of observation reports. I know that a black car just went by my window because I saw it, and others would be perfectly willing to accept this claim (unless they had reason to doubt that I really did see it) because observation is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort: this is an epistemological norm, supported by an epistemological norm circle.

I began with a non-scientific example, as I wish to swim against the tide that sees scientific knowledge as the paradigm case of all knowledge; the assumption that it is may obscure important features of knowledge understood more generally. But scientific knowledge is also an important case, and a complex one, as there are several distinct but interrelated sets of knowledge forming practices implicated in it. A student may claim to know that biological species evolve because she has read this in a suitable textbook, and most of us would be willing to accept this claim because reading from reputable scientific books is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort. (There is also, in this case, a competing epistemological norm circle that supports the claim that species do not evolve on the grounds that this is an issue where reading from religious books is the appropriate knowledge forming practice). Practising scientists, on the other hand, who are generally engaged with less stable claims than those to be found in the textbooks, take a somewhat different approach. They tend to accept those claims that are endorsed by those individual scientists who are considered authorities in the area concerned. This, too, is a socially authorised knowledge forming practice. At a third level, we have those knowledge forming practices employed by the ‘authorities’ themselves; clearly these vary enormously depending on the object of study, but we may generalise and say that the critical element is that knowledge claims are ultimately to be judged by consistency with the observed empirical facts, although there are reasons, familiar from the work of Kuhn, Quine and others, why this may not be the case in the short term.

Knowledge is therefore dependent on the normative endorsement of specific practices as being appropriate for producing beliefs that may be labelled with the honorific ‘knowledge’. It is thus socially constructed and certainly dependent on social influences. But does that make it unreliable? That depends on how effective the practices concerned are in producing reliable knowledge claims. When the practices are such that their conclusions are strongly influenced by the causal impact of the objects that the resulting belief is about, I suggest they are more likely to produce accurate knowledge.

But knowledge forming practices are not only shaped by such considerations. Most significantly, perhaps, those with social power tend to enforce standards of belief that favour their own legitimacy. Knowledge forming practices in strongly patriarchal societies, for example, may tend to endorse knowledge claims that support the balance of gender power even though they fly in the face of other types of evidence, as numerous feminist writers on science have demonstrated. We are still too close to that kind of society to be complacent about the accuracy of all of our scientific knowledge claims, but at the same time the massive technological development of modern society indicates that in many respects our scientific knowledge-forming practices have been unprecedentedly accurate about the world they seek to explain.

The issue here is not that social influence undermines the reliability of knowledge: all knowledge by its very nature depends on social influence, in the sense that claims only come to be accepted as knowledge if they have been obtained in socially approved ways. But some kinds of knowledge forming practices (and thus some kinds of social influence) may produce more accurate knowledge than others. In strongly differentiated modern societies, there is perhaps space for more accurate knowledge forming practices to develop in some domains, such as the natural sciences and everyday empirical knowledge, even when those in others remain more contestable.

This leaves us with a perspective on knowledge that recognises it is always at risk of being wrong, but also accepts that some knowledge claims may be well founded. This is not a perspective that undermines itself, but it is certainly one that demands humility over the possibility of error.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What is the good of a university education?

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most exceptional voices in philosophy and public policy we have today, and she has contributed to a wide range of topics.  Her work on the ethics of development has proven to be a very important contribution (for example, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach), through which she has significantly deepened the theory of capabilities as a touchstone for measuring successful economic development.

One of Nussbaum's talents is to bring important issues of value and morality into engagement with the real world -- women in development, the role of ethical thinking in great fiction, and the ways in which the world's religions intersect with important value questions we face today. She rightly sees that purely philosophical reflection on these important issues will not take us as far as an approach that brings together analytic thinking with real historical and sociological inquiry.

Nussbaum's thinking about liberal education is especially important today. Her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education provided a fresh and vigorous defense of the value of liberal education when it appeared in 1997, and it has gone on to wield influence on faculty and administrators as they engaged in curriculum reform in subsequent fifteen years. The appearance of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is a welcome addition to this line of thought.  Her point of view is an urgent one: our collective philosophy of education has gone off the rails.
How is education for democratic citizenship doing in the world today? Very poorly, I fear. This is a manifesto, not an empirical study, so this chapter will not be filled with quantitative data, although the data support my concern. The disturbing trends I am describing must simply be summarized, and illustrated by telling and representative examples. (120)
The central thrust of her argument in Not for Profit is that universities need to own up to the social necessity of preparing young people for democracy -- not merely careers in the most lucrative possible industries at a moment in time.  She believes that the disciplines of the humanities, and the less quantitative disciplines in the social sciences, are crucial for this task.  But she also believes that these disciplines are increasingly perceived by policy makers, the public, and even some university leaders as being irrelevant, useless, and unnecessary at a time when universities are struggling for financial stability.  (She refers, for example, to the cancellation of a major conference on the future of the humanities at a leading university for reasons that seem suspiciously commercial; 4.) And she believes that this is a global trend -- not simply in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well. (One of the strengths of the book is Nussbaum's effort to compare the developments that are underway in India and various European countries.)

So what is it that is of such value in the humanities? Here is what she calls the spirit of the humanities:
... searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we life in. (7)
Education is not just about the passive assimilation of facts and cultural traditions, but about challenging the mind to become active, competent, and thoughtfully critical in a complex world. (17)
Nussbaum believes that through studying literature, philosophy, the arts, and other fields of the humanities, the student is led to cultivate each of these qualities. And she believes that these qualities are crucial for a successful democracy; citizens need to have these abilities if a democratic society is to flourish.
I shall argue that cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake. (9)
In fact, she articulates a specific set of abilities that the humanities help to cultivate and that are crucial for active and effective citizenship (25).

Moreover, she believes that it is crucial that these experiences and opportunities for development should be available to the widest possible slice of American society -- not simply the students in elite colleges and universities, but in the full range of colleges and community colleges in which the great majority of American young people receive their post-secondary educations.

Though she doesn't put the point this way, perhaps it amounts to a claim that there are two value systems within which education exists.  One is utilitarian and profit-oriented; the goal of education is to produce the most productive workers possible and to permit rapid economic growth.  The other is moral and political; it has to do with instilling the values of democracy, justice, and humanity in young people as they prepare themselves for leadership in their generation. And the crisis she delineates is the result of favoring the first value system while ignoring the second.  This is important for the way we structure our institutions; it is equally important for how young people come to think about their lives.

Why are these qualities so important for a democracy?  Nussbaum doesn't answer this question very specifically, but I think we can fill in the blanks. A modern society always embodies large group differences, competing interests, regional disagreements, religious and ethnic diversity, and other sources of strife.  If we don't work fairly intelligently to create citizens who have qualities of mutual understanding and tolerance, and who have some of the capacities that underlie collaboration and compromise, then a democracy has the potential of unleashing great conflict and polarization.  So building a compassionate and temperate citizenry is a necessary step towards creating a vibrant and flourishing democracy.

This is a book that educators and policy makers should read attentively.  It is pragmatic and clear, and it sets a very different agenda for the goals that we should pursue in designing a university education. Her own moral commitments come through clearly -- a commitment to social justice, a passionate recognition of universal human equality and worth, and a cosmopolitan view of our moral relations to people in other countries.  A decent society has shared commitments that extend beyond a desire for economic wellbeing; and these commitments are a great foundation for a successful democracy.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Many capitalisms?

Professor Luciano Segreto lectured in Michigan this week on the subject of a comparison between US and European capitalisms.  Segreto is professor of International Economic History, Financial History, and the History of Regional Economic Development at the University of Florence.  His lecture was fascinating in many ways, but of special interest here is whether there is one capitalism or many.  Segreto's view is that there are multiple capitalisms that have been implemented in various countries -- England, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Japan, to consider a short list; and that these systems of political economy differ in significant ways.  He identifies different structures of the markets, different relations between technology and economic development, and significantly different ways in which finance and banking systems have been implemented as important dimensions of difference across these systems of political economy.

The idea that there are distinct versions of capitalism is not a new one. Peter Hall and David Soskice's Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage looks at recent work on the important institutional variations that exist across existing forms of market economies.  Charles Sabel's historical investigations of alternative pathways of capitalist development represent one important line of thought on the question, and Frank Dobbin's investigation of the different ways that the technology of the railway were incorporated in Britain, France, and the United States represents another important line of thought.  For Sabel the distinctions have to do with the ways in which skilled labor and workers were incorporated into the political economy (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization (Studies in Modern Capitalism); link); for Dobbin it is the differences in political culture defining the role of state involvement in central economic institutions that made the largest difference (Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age; link).

In listening to Professor Segreto I was drawn to a different way of analyzing the differences across historically realized capitalisms in the past century and a half.  We might imagine that there are three "attractors" that define a modern capitalist political economy: the values associated with the market and independent decision making by corporations and entrepreneurs; the value associated with the establishment of regulations protecting the common good and the safety and health of the public; and the value associated with securing the welfare of the whole population, involving a social security system and a willingness to redistribute income and wealth through taxation. This suggests the following diagram:

 Graph of capitalisms

The graph is offered only for the purpose of illustration of the idea. I have included the country's 2011 HDI (link) and 5-year growth rate (link), but I don't have data to allow scaling of these economies according to the three dimensions mentioned here.  But I'm sure that a capable graduate student would be able to come up with some available measures to do a much more rigorous job of pacing national economies in this tri-polar graph.  Measures of regulation might include degree to which key industries like energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food are effectively regulated by independent agencies. Measures of welfare-state commitments would include breadth of health system coverage, unemployment coverage, old age coverage, and percentage of GDP devoted to social programs.  And measures of free markets might include the degree to which companies can make choices unencumbered by regulations on safety, labor relations, market concentration, etc., as well as the effective rate of corporate taxation.

The United States and the United Kingdom seem to be on the low side among OECD countries in terms of both effective regulation and commitment to social welfare principles; Russia and China seem to afford quite a wide scope of business freedom but limited regulation of environment and safety and limited commitment to a social safety net; Sweden, France, and Germany have substantially greater commitment to effective state regulation of industry and to a high social minimum; Greece seems to have had high social welfare commitments but relatively low regulation of industry; and so forth.

We might label the three extremes of the diagram as "unencumbered business/corporate system," "technocratic state," and "social welfare state."

It is significant that the political ideology of the right in the United States has for the past three decades waged a determined struggle against two of the poles of this analysis -- regulation and social welfare policies.  Under the legislative and executive influence of politicians with this "small government" ideology, the political economy of the United States has been pushed further and further into the corner of untrammeled free market activity by corporations and individuals. Along the way the idea that government serves as a key guarantor of the public good has dwindled in importance.

Is this a useful way of characterizing the political economies of the contemporary world? And how would readers readjust the locations of the twelve economies listed relative to the poles of the diagram?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Elder-Vass on social realism

Dave Elder-Vass's arguments for the real causal powers of social structures have been considered here several times (link, link).  Elder-Vass's recent book, The Reality of Social Construction, addresses this subject from a different point of view.  Here he is interested in the question of the collision of social realism and social constructivism, generally thought of as being incompatible perspectives on the nature of the social world.  E-V does not believe they are in fact incompatible, and the thrust of the current book is to make the case for this point of view.
This book, however, develops and substantiates the critical realist argument that social scientists should be both realists and social constructionists. (3)
Here are some of the ideas he offers as aspects of social constructionism:
If there is one claim that is definitive of social constructionism, it is the argument that the ways in which we collectively think and communicate about the world affect the way that the world is. (4) 
Social constructionisms derive their force from a further claim: that changing the ways in which people collectively think and/or communicate about the world in itself constitutes a change with significance for the social world. (5) 
Radical constructionists tend to deny any such distinction [between what depends upon how we think about it and what does not], on the grounds that everything depends on the ways in which we think about it, or at least to include in the socially constructed category things that realists would not. (6)
And here is social realism:
Realism … may be taken as the belief that there are features of the world that are the way they are independently of how we think about them. (6)
E-V rejects the exclusionary position, which holds that realism and constructivism are incompatible. Instead, he thinks there is a way of interpreting social ontology that makes the position of realist social constructionism a coherent one.
This book argues for a realist social constructionism -- or, if you prefer, a socially constructionist realism…. I hope this book will encourage more realists to embrace a moderate social constructionism and indeed to recognize that many of them already do so implicitly; that it will encourage social constructionists to recognize the value of realism and their own need for it; and that it will show those with no previous commitment to either tradition that they can be combined fruitfully. (7)
So what are the social items that need to be interpreted both as real features of the social world and as socially constructed? E-V highlights several fundamental kinds of things -- norms, language, meaning, cultural practices, and institutions, for example.

E-V's position requires that we answer two symmetrical questions: How is it that things like these can be thought to be socially constructed? And in what sense are they "real"?  Elder-Vass's most basic answer to the first question is to say that they are socially constructed because they depend unavoidably on intensional representations embodied in what he calls norm circles. Basically, a norm circle is a group of people who interact with each other and who reinforce each other's behavior with respect to one or more social rules of conduct (22). Demonstration of behavior that conforms to a certain norm, and positive or negative feedback to others depending on their conformance or deviance from the norm, creates a situation in which individuals come to internalize these rules of behavior into their own practical rationality.
I argue that a norm circle is an entity with the emergent causal power to increase the dispositions of individuals to conform to the norm endorsed and enforced by the norm circle concerned…. What norm circles produce in individuals is a set of beliefs or dispositions regarding appropriate behavior; the influence of the norm circle, we may say, is mediated through these beliefs or dispositions. (26, 27)
E-V believes that this construct helps to formulate the description of a wide range of social phenomena, including linguistic, cultural, and epistemic social behavior.

So what is "socially constructed" about a norm? And in what sense is there a person-independent social reality to a norm? The social construction part of the story seems straightforward. In order to have a normative expectation about a certain kind of behavior in a certain social context, it is necessary first to have a cognitive frame or representation for the behavior.  This is an intensional attitude on the part of the actor. To know how to behave when one is introduced to the Queen of England, we need to have a set of beliefs about royalty, monarchy, social roles, and particular persons.  Without mental frameworks involving these sorts of things, we cannot entertain the notion of a norm governing behavior in such a circumstance.  The situation of "being introduced to the Queen of England" is dependent on our conceptual system.

Having said this, it is also open to us to notice the relative stability and permanence of the patterns of behavior that surround this situation.  Most people observe the correct protocol, and those who do not are admonished by others for their breaches.  So "protocols of behavior surrounding introduction to the Queen" functions as a social reality that is independent from the individual.  The radical egalitarian who regards the concept of royalty as delusion and self-deception, is no less governed by the norm. So there is a crucial component of actor-independence that is possessed by the normative system as embodied in the norm circle. Here is how E-V summarizes this point:
Rules and norms, therefore, may still feature in our causal accounts of culture, but not as entities with causal powers, not as ideas that exist externally to the individual actors concerned, and not as beliefs that are completely and precisely homogenized across the norm circles concerned. Since it is not norms themselves but the norm circles that endorse and enforce them that are the bearers of the causal powers concerned, none of these constraints undermines the causal account of normatively outlined in this chapter and the previous one…. Culture, it has argued, is produced by norm circles, and indeed culture and normatively are one and the same. (53, 54)
So norm circles play a crucial role in E-V's social ontology.  If we were to distill the idea down to its simplest form, it seems to go along these lines: individuals have the capacity to form ideas, rules, and representations of various kinds. They reinforce their ideas and beliefs through interactions with other individuals who (approximately) share those mental representations. This is what makes a given norm system or conceptual framework a social feature rather than simply an individual feature. The representations are constantly tuned through interactions with other members of this representation-sharing group. These representations include ideas, conceptual frameworks, beliefs, and norms.  The groups of people who share these and interact on the basis of them constitute a norm circle.

This formulation brings Elder-Vass's view into parallel with those of Margaret Archer and her concept of "morphogenesis" (link). In thinking about the reality of social structures, E-V writes the following:
Over a period of time, individuals may act in ways that tend to reproduce the structure more or less unchanged, or they may act in ways that tend to transform it. In analysing how these structures work and how they develop, we must take account not only of the collective power that they have but also of the ways in which individual participation in them jointly produces and influences the collective outcome. (254)
And this in turn means that E-V is in a position to deny two distinct polarities: between social construction and realism, and between agent and structure.