Thursday, November 29, 2012

Veblen on universities


In 1918 Thorstein Veblen wrote a surprising short book about the administration and governance of American universities, The Higher Learning In America.  What is most surprising about the book is its date of publication. The critique he offers might have seemed familiar in 1968, whereas it seems precocious in 1918.

A key element of Veblen's diagnosis is his view that universities in the United States have been (in 1918!) overwhelmed by the values and accounting mentality of "business".
These others [other national university systems] have also not escaped the touch of the angel of decay, but the visible corruption of spiritual and intellectual values does not go the same length among them. Nor have these others suffered so heavy a toll on their prospective scholarly man power. (KL 1375)
Members of the governing boards are selected for their stature as successful businessmen; chief executives (presidents) are selected for their business-like qualities; and faculty are managed according to the principles of the consumer-driven market place. (He has a particularly low opinion of presidents of universities.) This is all catastrophic, according to Veblen, because business values and "accountability" are inimical to academic values.
As bearing on the case of the American universities, it should be called to mind that the businessmen of this country, as a class, are of a notably conservative habit of mind. In a degree scarcely equalled in any community that can lay claim to a modicum of intelligence and enterprise, the spirit of American business is a spirit of quietism, caution, compromise, collusion, and chicane. (KL 1831)
The idea of managing faculty effort and time in a bureaucratic way is particularly offensive and counterproductive to Veblen:
For this reason, and also because of the difficulty of controlling a large volume of perfunctory labour, such as is involved in undergraduate instruction, the instruction offered must be reduced to standard units of time, grade and volume. (KL 2738) 
The need of a well-devised bureaucratic system is greater the more centralized and coercive the control to which the academic work is to be subject; and the degree of control to be exercised will be greater the more urgent the felt need of a strict and large accountancy may be. (KL 2616)
Veblen has his own view of what the fundamental purpose of the university is: to provide a context for unconstrained and impractical pursuit of knowledge.  For both faculty and students alike, the university should be a place of untrammeled exploration, curiosity, creativity, and discovery. 
Typically, normally, in point of popular theory, the university is moved by no consideration other than "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." This is so because this profiles quest of knowledge has come to be the highest and ulterior aim of modern culture. (KL 1623)
And business values have no place in this system:
There is no similar bond of consanguinity between the business occupations and the scientific spirit; except so far as regards those clerical and subaltern employments that lie wholly within the mechanical routine of business traffic.  (KL 1989)
So the idea of "disciplining" the university by market principles -- ensuring faculty productivity, competing for students, marketing one's academic programs -- is antithetical to the central values of the university.
Such a system of accountancy acts to break the continuity and consistency of the work of instruction and to divert the interest of the students from the work at hand to the making of a passable record in terms of the academic "miner's inch." Typically, this miner's inch is measured in terms of standard text per time unit, and the immediate objective of teacher and student so becomes the compassing of a given volume of prescribed text, in print or lecture form, -- leading up to the broad principle: "Nichts als was im Buche steht" ["nothing but what is in the book"].  Which puts a premium on mediocrity and perfunctory work, and brings academic life to revolve about the office of the Keeper of the Tape and Sealing Wax. (KL 2785)
And Veblen is highly indignant at the idea of "student life" -- or the extra-curricular activities the university is obliged to provide for the entertainment of undergraduate students:
This contingent [of students], and the general body of students in so far as this contingent from the leisure class has leavened the lump, are not so seriously interested in their studies that they can in any degree be counted on to seek knowledge on their own initiative. At the same time they have other interests that must be taken care of by the school, on pain of losing their custom and their good will, to the detriment of the university's standing in genteel circles and to the serious decline in enrollment which their withdrawal would occasion. Hence college sports come in for an ever increasing attention and taken an increasingly prominent and voluminous place in the university's life; as do also other politely blameless ways and means of dissipation, such as fraternities, clubs, exhibitions, and the extensive range of extra-scholastic traffic known as "student activities". (KL 2713)
So Veblen's view is a sweeping one: the institutions of the American university have been corrupted by the values of the business community and the deference that the general public has to this elite group. And those values are antithetical and stifling to the true calling of the university's intellectuals, its faculty and students.

Here is an interesting article by Thomas Sowell in 1969, "Veblen's Higher Learning After Fifty Years" (link). Sowell closes with this interesting personal assessment of Veblen's animus on this subject.
The Higher Learning in America takes on a special significance when viewed against the background of Veblen's own checkered academic career, his own "domestic infelicities" which were so often "the subject of remark," his early difficulties because he "did not sufficiently advertise the university," his forced migrations from school to school, and his unpopular courses with low enrollments -- from which came a remarkable number of well-known economists. Yet it would be too facile to view this work simply as an apology for his own lack of academic success. Even if such motivation could be established, it would be irrelevant to the larger question of the validity of his arguments. If anything, the fact that the academic system selected out Veblen as unfit to survive should raise further grave suspicions about that system." (76)
One might say that Veblen offered cultural-institutional critique at its most incisive, and opened up lines of criticism of universities that have recurred ever since. What is most surprising is that these seams of failings in the university would have been visible to Veblen almost one hundred years ago.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marketing Wittgenstein


Who made Wittgenstein a great philosopher?  Why is the eccentric Austrian now regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers? What conjunction of events in his life history and the world of philosophy in the early twentieth century led to this accumulating recognition and respect?

We might engage in a bit of Panglossian intellectual history ("everything works out for the best!") and say something like this: The young man Wittgenstein was in fact exceptionally talented and original, and eventually talent rises to the attention of the elite in a discipline or field of knowledge. But this is implausible in even more ordinary circumstances. And the circumstances in which Wittgenstein achieved eminence were anything but ordinary. His formal training was in engineering, not philosophy; his national origin was Austria, not Britain; his early years were marked by the chaos of the Great War; his personality was prickly and difficult; and his writings were as easily characterized as "peculiar" as "brilliant".

The idea of a "field" introduced by Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production is particularly helpful in addressing this topic. (Here is a post that discusses the idea of a field; link.) The field of philosophy at a given time is an assemblage of institutions, personages, universities, journals, and funding agencies.  The question of whether an aspiring young philosopher rises or languishes is a social and institutional one, depending on the nature of his/her graduate program, the eminence of the mentors, the reception of early publications and conference presentations, and the like.  Indicators and causes of rising status depend on answers to questions like these: Are the publications included in the elite journals? Are the right people praising the work?  Is the candidate pursuing the right kinds of topics given the tastes of the current generation of "cool finders" in the profession? This approach postulates that status in a given profession depends crucially on situational and institutional facts -- not simply "talent" and "brilliance". And in many instances, the reality of these parameters reflexively influence the thinker himself: the young philosopher adapts, consciously or unconsciously, to the signposts of status.

Neil Gross's biography of Richard Rorty (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher) provides a great example of careful analysis of a philosopher's career in these terms (link). Gross provides a convincing account of how the influence of the field's definition of the "important" problems affected Rorty's development, and how the particular circumstances of the Princeton department affected his later development in an anti-analytic direction.  Camic, Gross, and Lamont provide similar examples in Social Knowledge in the Making, including especially Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming's study of the evolution of a conference paper.

So what was the "field" into which Wittgenstein injected himself in his visits to Frege and Russell?  Here is a point that seems likely to me from the perspective of 2012: the "field" of analytic philosophy in 1905 was substantially less determinate than it was from 1950 to 1980.  This fact has two contradictory implications: first, that this indeterminacy made it more possible for an "oddball" philosopher to make it to the top; and second, that it made it more unlikely that talent would be consistently identified and rewarded.  The relative looseness of the constraints on the field permitted "sports" to emerge, and also made it possible that highly meritorious thinkers would be overlooked.  (So the brilliant young metaphysician studying philosophy at the University of Nebraska in 1908 might never have gotten a chance to move into the top reaches of the discipline.)

What were some of the situational facts that contributed to Wittgenstein's meteoric rise? One element seems clear: Wittgenstein's early association with Bertrand Russell beginning in 1911, and the high level entrée this provided Wittgenstein into the elite circles of philosophy at Cambridge, was a crucial step in his rise to stardom. And Wittgenstein's status with Russell was itself a curious conjunction: Wittgenstein's fascination with Frege, aspects of Tractatus that appealed to Russell, and Wittgenstein's personal intellectual style.  But because of this association, Wittgenstein wasn't starting his rise to celebrity in the provinces, but rather at the center of British analytic philosophy.

Another element is one that was highly valued in Cambridge culture -- the individual's conversational skills. Simply being introduced into a circle of eminent thinkers doesn't assure eminence. Instead, it is necessary to perform conversationally in ways that induce interest and respect. LW was apparently charismatic in an intense, harsh way. He was passionate about ideas and he expressed himself in ways that gave an impression of brilliant originality.  He made a powerful impression on the cool-finders.

And then there are his writings -- or rather, his peculiar manuscript, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


One could easily have dismissed the manuscript as a mad expression of logicism run wild, with its numbered paragraphs, its dense prose, and its gnomic expressions. Or one could react, as Russell did, with understanding and fascination. But without the reputation created by the reception of TLP, Wittgenstein would never have gotten the chance to expose the equally perplexing and challenging thinking that was expressed in Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition).  In fact, almost all of LW's written work is epigrammatic and suggestive rather than argumentative and constructive. When there is insight, it comes as a bolt from the blue rather than as a developed line of thought.

So what if we test out this idea: a verbally brilliant man, a charismatic interlocutor, a person with original perspectives on philosophical topics and methods -- but also a figure who benefited greatly from some excellent marketing, some influential patrons, and some situationally unusual lucky breaks. Had Russell been less patient, had publishers found TLC too weird for their liking, had Moore been less open-minded about Wittgenstein's PhD defense -- then analytical philosophy might no longer remember the name "Wittgenstein". This interpretation of Wittgenstein's stature suggests something more general as well: there is an enormous dollop of arbitrariness and contingency in the history of ideas and in the processes through which some thinkers emerge as "canonical".

Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar provide an excellent introduction to Wittgenstein's philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pragmatist arguments for democracy


Jack Knight and Jim Johnson engage in a particular kind of political theory in their recent The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  They want to consider "democracies" as existing social systems embodying particular instances of various kinds of institutions. They want to know how those institutions are likely to emerge, and they want to know how they function in real social settings. Their work falls within the general methodology of "comparative analysis of political-economic institutions."

Here is how they describe the tasks of political theory:
The first analytical task requires that we identify the set of feasible social institutions, examine their respective features, and delineate the conditions necessary for the effective operation of different members of the set. (13)
The second task is explanatory: to account for how specific alternatives emerged over others to become the preponderant institutions in a given society.  And the third task is normative: to show how we can compare alternative institutions in terms of their contribution to the social good.

They offer a particularly succinct description of the situation of politics: diversity across a population and conflicts of interest within the population.
Politics, in large part, is a response to diversity. It reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition -- any imaginable human population is heterogeneous across multiple, overlapping dimensions, including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. The most important implication of this diversity is that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. This is, in part, not only because the individuals and groups who constitute any population are diverse in the ways just suggested but because that diversity is irreducible. There simply is no neutral institutional arrangement that will accommodate their competing demands and projects without leaving some remainder over which they still disagree. (1)
The challenge of politics is to create institutions that permit decision making for a whole society in light of this irreducible diversity, and avoiding dictatorship and violence in the process.

So what is pragmatist about the theory of democracy they offer? One feature is fairly straightforward; it owes a lot to John Dewey's ideas about democracy.  And Dewey thought that democracy should be justified on the pragmatic grounds that it created ways of resolving conflicts that were less costly than violence and coercion.  More fundamentally, a pragmatist justification for democracy is one that attempts to show that the effects of democratic institutions are overall better for society than those of any of the alternatives. "Pragmatists assess the value of their choices and actions in terms of the consequences of those choices and actions" (194). So the justification of an institution derives from its overall effectiveness (in conjunction with other institutions) in securing desirable outcomes.
We defend here a pragmatist justification of democracy. It is grounded in a set of claims about the fundamental importance of effective institutions for our ongoing social interactions. It rests on the vital role that democratic decision making plays in achieving and maintaining the effectiveness of those institutions. It attends to the different tasks of political theory -- the analytical, the explanatory, and the normative. (93)
Another aspect of the authors' view of pragmatism has to do with the anti-foundationalism that is associated with pragmatism.  Political theory cannot work on the assumption that there is a final truth about political institutions; rather, arguments and conclusions are fallible and contestable. But a steady point of reference is an assessment of how the institutions that a political philosophy advocates will actually work for the population governed by those institutions. We test the recipe by tasting the pudding.

A central part of their justification of the priority of democracy revolves around the idea of reflexivity.
What do we mean when we say that democratic institutions operate in a reflexive manner? The reflexivity of democratic arrangements derives from the fact that political argument -- again, increasingly so to the extent that it transpires under the appropriate conditions -- requires relevant parties to assert, defend, and revise their own views and to entertain, challenge, or accept those of others. It derives, in other words, from ongoing disagreement and conflict. (161)
This condition reflects the idea that debate functions at two levels: at a meta-level when political theorists consider the pro's and con's of various institutional arrangements; and at an object level, when parties within a democracy express their views and reasons about particular policies.

Knight and Johnson refer to a handful of types of institutions that seem to hang together in terms of the idea of governing and managing conflicts over resources and power in a modern society (7ff.). They refer to --
  • Economic exchange (markets)
  • Distribution of the franchise
  • Constitutional politics
  • Democratic decision making
  • Property rights and common pool resources
As they point out, each of these families of institutions encompasses a wide range of institutional alternatives; in fact, the constant fact of institutional diversity is one of their persistent themes.  A realized democratic society is one that has developed specific institutional arrangements in each of these areas. And it is their central argument that democratic institutions need to have priority in the process of choosing other institutional arrangements.

In particular, when Knight and Johnson argue for the priority of democracy, they are centrally concerned to show that democratic institutions have priority over market institutions.  They concede that there are many tasks where decentralized markets are more efficient ways of handling social and economic conflicts; but they argue that we are nonetheless better off overall to give priority to the institutions of democratic decision-making. Democracy protects the equal voice of all citizens in collective decisions, and markets do not.

So what are the most important beneficial consequences that make democracy a good idea? Here is their summary:
We contend that relative to the other existing institutional alternatives, democracy is better at (1) facilitating experimentalism on institutional choice, (2) monitoring and maintaining institutional effectiveness (particularly in regard to appropriate conditions), and (3) reflexively monitoring its own effectiveness. The capacity of democracy to better satisfy these fundamental requirements of modern, socially diverse societies provides an important reason for endorsing democracy as the best means of collective governance. It grounds our pragmatist case for the priority of democracy. (261)
In reviewing the arguments advanced by Knight and Johnson, it is striking to notice the virtual absence of the normative arguments offered by democratic theorists from Rousseau to Amartya Sen: Democracy is good because it respects the moral equality of all, it embodies the broadest realization of human freedom, and it conduces to greater human fulfillment and sociality.  By putting their eggs in the pragmatist and consequentialist basket, Knight and Johnson seem to have forsaken the reasons some theorists have found democratic principles most convincing -- their connection to a fully realized and socialized human life. How would we respond to their argument if the calculation had led to a different outcome: a benevolent all-powerful bureaucracy does a slightly better job than democracy at securing the social goods they are interested in counting? Would we then be forced to conclude that benevolent bureaucratic dictatorship is the better system after all?  Probably not, for most of us. And perhaps this casts some doubt on the pragmatist method in this instance.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Deliberation for activists


What is involved in deliberating within an activist group? This isn't quite as simple a question as it might appear. Deliberation has to do with a discussion among a number of people aimed at arriving at a degree of consensus about facts, policies, and strategies. But it grades off into several other collective activities: contention over power and influence, efforts to deceive or manipulate, efforts to mobilize people over emotional issues.

I am led to think about these questions by a very stimulating seminar by a colleague, Lara Rusch, in which she presented some of her current research on the specific features of collective decision-making by activist groups in Detroit. (Here is an article of Lara's on one aspect of the issue, the challenge of creating trust within a group of activists; link.)

What I'm interested in examining here is grassroots activist deliberation -- the kinds of decision-making and action that are associated with movements like the anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a variety of grassroots environmentalist movements. This kind of deliberation seems to be structurally different from those that are often highlighted within the literature of deliberative democracy. (Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fong's Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4) is a great statement of current thinking about deliberative democracy. Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy and here is another post on the Real Utopias project.)

Most examples in the deliberative democracy literature involve processes in which the task is simply to arrive at a majority recommendation about a fairly well defined issue, with the process increasing in persuasive force according to the strength of the majority. But a process like this doesn't have to cope with the issue of maintaining the coalition after this one action. Activist groups, by contrast, are not regulated by formal rules of voting leading to a single adopted resolution, they are not bound by majority vote, and they are not concerned about simply coming to a decision about a single resolution.

So let's consider one aspect of activist debate: the communicative effort by members of a group to sort out what they should do collectively, given the framing goals and values they share. The individuals and groups have come together because they share commitment to some purpose or goal. (Though there is always the possibility of uncommitted visitors and even provocateurs whose goals involve side-tracking the purposes of the rest of the group.) So how can individuals and sub-groups engage in a process that leads to a degree of consensus about future actions?

Here I take it for granted that activists share goals and values. But this is not wholly true. They may share a high-level concern -- ending racism, pushing for sustainability -- but may disagree sharply about finer details. So reaching consensus about action is often made more difficult by the fact of disagreement about important goals and values. For example, an environmental activist group may disagree about the scope of their collective efforts -- global sustainability or improvement of their own region's environmental quality.

Another important source of disagreement arises a step closer to action, deriving from differing theories of how social change works. One segment may think that the primary tactics should involve getting effective messages to the broader public through media coverage, whereas another group may think that it is essential to get the attention of policy makers through consequential and visible direct action. With broad disagreement about efficacy of various possible strategies, it is difficult to achieve consensus.

One option that exists in this case is for each camp to make an empirical or historical argument supporting its claims of efficacy; to the extent that opponents are open to rational assessment of evidence at this level, it is possible to narrow disagreement about efficacy.  In other words, rational persuasion based on evidence and inference is one possible avenue of communicative interaction within a group of similar-minded activists. But often partisan groups are as committed to their models of social action as they are to the ultimate outcomes.

The whole situation of activist deliberation is complicated by the fact that a social movement at any level of scale depends on the willing participation of individuals and sub-groups. So a degree of consensus is a practical necessity, if the movement is to maintain itself as an active and activist conglomeration capable of any form of collective action. To the extent that a proposed plan of action diverges substantially from the preferences and interests of a sub-group, there is the likelihood of defection of that group.

There are a couple of features of collective action that seem to make the problem of factions somewhat more manageable than it first appears. First,there is a degree of solidarity involved in almost every social movement; and a widespread feeling of solidarity provides some degree of motivation for each individual to join the collective action even if it is not one's first choice.  In other words, activists often have a degree of willingness to support the decisions of the group even if they are on the losing side -- unless the differences are sufficiently fundamental! Second, individuals and groups are capable of compromising: they can agree to an action plan in which Group A gets most of what it wants, but it promises to pursue part of what Group B wants as well.  And if there is a degree of inter-group trust, this may be sufficient to get both A and B to work together on the agree-upon plan.

David Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography is a fascinating ethnography of anti-globalization activists preparing for a complex series of actions at the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec. As Graeber makes clear, these loosely affiliated anarchist groups were effective at planning and coordinating action. Here is an earlier discussion of Graeber's book (link).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Assemblage theory



Deleuze's theory (metaphor?) of assemblage as a way of thinking about the social world is an intriguing one. Fundamentally the idea is that there does not exist a fixed and stable ontology for the social world that proceeds from "atoms" to "molecules" to "materials". Rather, social formations are assemblages of other complex configurations, and they in turn play roles in other, more extended configurations.

What is appealing to me about this way of talking about the social world is that it takes us away from the presuppositions we often bring about the social world as consisting of a range of discrete social objects or things. According to this static way of thinking, the state is a thing composed of other things; likewise Islam is an extended social thing; likewise Chicago; and so on. The assemblage approach suggests a different set of metaphors for the social world: mosaic, patchwork, heterogeneity, fluidity, transitory configuration. And this seems like a more realistic way of characterizing large extended social formation like states or regulatory agencies.

The downside of this way of talking and thinking about the social world is precisely the indefiniteness and indeterminacy it suggests for the composition relation. This poses a very hard problem for explanation. How are we to explain the properties and behavior of the composite entity if there is so much contingency in its parts and the ways in which they interact? The strategy of aggregative explanation seems to be a non-starter, since it is stipulated that composition is not a strongly rule-governed process. But so do the comparative and generalizing strategies. If the composites are indeed sui generis and unique configurations we can't generalize across instances and can't usefully compare them.

So how can we gain greater clarity? The concept of assemblage is expressed by Gilles Deleuze; but it is obscure. Here is a valuable blog post by Levi Bryant in LarvalSubjects that extracts several of Deleuze's statements about assemblage from an interview. This interview provides some description of the construct in Deleuze's own words.  Here is one of Bryant's efforts at clarifying Deleuze's meaning:
Assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements or objects that enter into relations with one another. These objects are not all of the same type. Thus you have physical objects, happenings, events, and so on, but you also have signs, utterances, and so on. While there are assemblages that are composed entirely of bodies, there are no assemblages composed entirely of signs and utterances.
It isn't easy to paraphrase Deleuze's thinking into a more analytical formulation (though Bryant's efforts are helpful). But the language remains metaphorical, suggestive, and elusive, rather than analytical and discursive. For this reason it is difficult to determine whether the concept has value for sociological theory.

The core ideas are spelled out in a somewhat more accessible form in Manuel DeLanda's A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. DeLanda tries to explain "assemblage" by saying what it is not.  First, assemblage theory is opposed to essentialism and reification (26ff.). DeLanda emphasizes that Deleuze's concept resists the "organismic" approach to conceptualizing the social, by which he means an approach that looks at the whole as an inextricable combination of interrelated parts. This implies that the parts are implicated in each other; the organismic perspective emphasizes the internal connectedness of a thing. (This has affinity to Bert Ollman's philosophy of internal relations in Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society.) DeLanda distinguishes between "interiority" and "exteriority" in conceptualizing the components of a thing. For assemblage theory, the relations among the parts are contingent, not necessary. And, crucially, parts can be extracted from one whole and inserted into another. "These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different. In other words, the exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy for the terms they relate" (10-11). Another aspect of the theory, according to DeLanda, is the fact that it does not privilege one level of organization over another. "Micro" is not more fundamental than "macro"; instead, social reality is "multiscaled" (38), with assemblages occurring at every level.

Truthfully, neither Deleuze nor DeLanda succeeds in making the concept of assemblage a very clear or analytically specific one. So let's consider a diluted version of assemblage theory that might nonetheless be useful for sociological theory while foregoing much of the metaphysical language characteristic of Deleuze's writings:
  1. Social entities are composed of components and lesser systems.
  2. The components of a social entity are heterogeneous.
  3. The components include both material factors and meaningful expressions.
  4. The components have their own characteristics and dynamics.
  5. The components may have very different temporal and spatial scales.
  6. The effects and interactions among components may be indeterminate because of complexity effects and probabilistic causal mechanisms.
  7. The behavior of the whole is difficult or impossible to calculate even given extensive knowledge of the dynamics of the components.
To illustrate this set of ideas, consider a city as an assemblage.
  1. A city consists of population, businesses, roads, organizations, government policies, political movements, disaffected youth, and slogans.
  2. Population dynamics have a temporal scale of decades, while businesses have a temporal scale of months.
  3. The interaction effects of gradual population change, the voting system, and gradual environmental change are difficult to calculate.
  4. We can nonetheless make efforts to disentangle the effects of population change, institutional design, and environment on things like land use and effective taxation rates.
This reformulation suggests that large social entities are "messy" but still amenable to analysis and study; and this is what sociology requires.

(Daniel Smith's article on Deleuze in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a readable exposition of Deleuze's philosophy; link. Another useful resource on assemblage theory is Nick Srnicek's masters' thesis; link. )

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How is "work" socially constituted?


How does "work" take shape in an advanced manufacturing and service economy? Is the division of labor a natural outcome of technology, or is it the result of a concrete set of social processes involving the strategies and interests of several groups? What kinds of social processes determine the bundle of skills, knowledge, and training that go together to represent a job classification? How is the suite of tasks and activities assigned to a given job arrived at?

Here is a brief description from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of one specific skilled job function within a factory environment, the millwright (link):
Millwrights install, dismantle, repair, reassemble, and move machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites. Millwrights typically go through a formal apprenticeship program that lasts about 4 years. Programs are usually a combination of technical instruction and on-the-job training. Others learn their trade through a 2-year associate’s degree program in industrial maintenance. Employment of millwrights is expected to decline 5 percent from 2010 to 2020. Despite declining employment, job opportunities should be good for those with a broad set of skills in machine maintenance.
Here is a description of a low-skill job function, the hand laborer and material mover (link):
Hand laborers and material movers transport objects without using machines. Some workers move freight, stock, or other materials around storage facilities; others clean vehicles; some pick up unwanted household goods; and still others pack materials for moving. Generally, hand laborers and material movers need no work experience or minimum level of education. Employers require only that applicants be physically able to do the work. Employment of hand laborers and material movers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, as fast as the average for all occupations. Job prospects should be good because the need to replace workers who leave the occupations should create a large number of job openings.
And here is a highly skilled industrial job, the mechanical engineer (link):
Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers design, develop, build, and test mechanical devices, including tools, engines, and machines. Mechanical engineers need a bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree is typically needed for promotion into managerial positions. Mechanical engineers who sell services publicly must be licensed in all states and the District of Columbia. Employment of mechanical engineers is expected to grow 9 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations. Job prospects may be best for those who stay abreast of the most recent advances in technology.
So how is it determined which tasks are assigned to which classifications? And what social processes determine which individuals receive the right kind of training to qualify for any of these jobs?

One researcher who has contributed a lot to this issue is Charles Sabel in Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry and The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities For Prosperity (with Michael Piore).  Sabel's work is particularly insightful in the light it sheds on the sociological processes and structures through which the bundles of skills needed in individual workers are determined and then transmitted through a training regime. Here is how Sabel frames the problem I'm interested in here:
This is an essay about the reasons industrialists create different kinds of factory jobs, about why workers put up with these jobs when they do, and about what they want when they do not. It shows how workers' ideas of self-interest, born of the principles of honor and dignity they bring to the factory, can be transformed by workplace struggles. And it shows how these struggles, colliding or combining with conflicts in the larger society and between nations, can reshape technologies, markets, and factory hierarchies. (Work and Politics, 1)
Notice the most fundamental idea being advanced here: that the natures of work, jobs, and implementation of technology are all the result of active back-and-forth negotiations over time between workers and owners.  The structure of work doesn't follow from a certain level or kind of technology; instead it is the result of an extended "game" in which the players seek out definitions of work and technology that suit them. Workplace struggles "reshape" technologies and jobs, and the division of labor is a socially mediated and historically conditioned reality.
This chapter argues that the capitalist organization of production creates clusters of jobs offering workers systematically different opportunities for the use and acquisition of skills, and for regular employment. The capitalists create jobs of various types, and the worker tries to find one suited to his ambition. (31)
Essentially the labor process is defined by several constraints, imperatives, and interests.  Products can be made for use and for sale in a market through a variety of combinations of tools, skills, and labor.  By subdividing tasks, economists and managers since Adam Smith have recognized that it is possible to increase efficiency or quality or both. And profit-oriented owners and managers have recognized that skilled workers can demand more for their services than unskilled workers.  So pursuing a combination of specialized tools and machines with repetitive, unskilled labor has been a profit-maximizing strategy since Henry Ford began experimenting with the assembly line.  "Fordism" is a specific economic and technological system, involving factory production for a mass market, specialized tools and machines, and mass unskilled labor.

There are many alternatives that exist for defining skill regimes that would get the job done for a given level of technology and organization. The Fordist regime separates workers into a low-skill group where only a minimal amount of training is required and the worker's activities are limited to a repetitive and simple set of actions, a smaller group of high-skill technicians, and a group of supervisors who oversee the activities of both groups. In this Fordist regime the low-skill workers are not expected to exercise independent judgment or to function as creative problem-solvers. The high-skill technicians are assigned a greater degree of independence and scope for problem-solving.

But, as Sabel observed in an important 1985 article with Jonathan Zeitlin ("Historical Alternatives to Mass Production"; link), the Fordist regime is not the only solution possible for advanced science-based production. There were alternatives. One such alternative is a high-skill, high-independence paradigm where ordinary production workers employ much more sophisticated skills and knowledge to carry out the production process. Here is how they describe their central argument:
Mass production -- the combination of single-purpose machines and unskilled labour to produce standard goods -- has been throughout this century the undisputed emblem of industrial efficiency. No more. Powerful currents of technological change are stirring up this sedimented lesson of the past. The development of numerically controlled machine tools which can be programmed to perform many different tasks automatically; the spreading use of such machines in highly competitive small firms in industries as diverse as engineering and textiles and regions as distinct as Baden-Wurtemberg and Emilia-Romagna; the increasing capacity of some large firms in Japan, West Germany, and the United states to switch production rapidly from product to product; the creation of new jobs which blur the distinction between skilled and unskilled work -- all these churn up established understandings of modern production methods. Engineers and managers take increasingly seriously the possibility that economic success in the future may depend on the flexible use of multi-purpose or universal machines and skilled labour to make an ever changing assortment of semi-customized products: a system that reverses the principles of mass production. (133)
The Volvo production system illustrates this regime. This approach bundles the market advantages associated with flexible production with a skills regime that focuses on teams of producers with advanced and flexible skills and an extensive degree of production independence.

These questions are pressing today for two important reasons. First, many of the "good" jobs that existed in the United States in manufacturing have either disappeared or have suffered major reductions in compensation. Moreover, the manufacturing jobs that are returning to the US are coming back at much lower rates of pay.  And jobs have disappeared for reasons that are very consistent with Sabel's argument: companies have made deliberate, strategic decisions to de-skill labor within their operations and to offshore some parts of the production process. Or in other words, companies have restructured work to increase profits. That is the logic of a capitalist economy.

Second, most observers accept the idea that worker productivity in the future -- and therefore worker compensation -- will be determined by the level of knowledge and skill the worker possesses. High skill and high knowledge production adds a lot of value to the product, and is compensated accordingly. But companies have a choice to make, whether they adopt production processes that depend on a smaller number of high-skill and high-pay workers, or processes that depend on a larger number of low-skill, low-pay workers.  And the company is of course aware of the terms of bargaining that exist with regard to these two groups; the high-skill group is more able to exercise influence in the bargaining process and thereby increase its compensation more rapidly.  Deskilling of the production process is therefore a tactical choice on the part of the employer.

This line of thought seems to have disjunctive consequences, neither of which is promising for the future of the American middle class: either companies will restructure their activities to incorporate a higher mix of high-skill workers in substantially smaller numbers; or they will continue to expand activities around a low-skill model while exercising substantial downward pressure on wages.  And this implies that employment growth will be slow, or else there will be more robust jobs growth in low-pay jobs leading to a falling standard of living for the majority of workers.

(Here is a post on Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio's version of this kind of analysis in The Jobless Future: Second Edition.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Five years of UnderstandingSociety


This week represents the end of the fifth year of the UnderstandingSociety blog. Writing the blog continues to be a source of great intellectual growth for me, not least because it has led me to read and discuss books and articles I wouldn't otherwise have encountered. Readers have often suggested sources I hadn't previously known about, and the result is often a new perspective on a new problem for me.  For example, this week I've been directed to Francis Haskell's History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past and John Dittmer's Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. New topics for me in the past year include polarization of the electorate, strategic action fields, neighborhood effects in cities, the market for ethnicity, the sociology of ideas, and identity economics.

The blog has now grown to almost 750 posts on a range of topics about social knowledge and the social world. (That amounts to about 750,000 words.) The range of topics has a certain amount of internal consistency over time; topics like Chinese history, microfoundations, historiography, meso-level causation, and the American civil rights movement recur over time, so it is possible to follow one set of ideas through a number of posts. At the same time, some topics that were extensively discussed in earlier years are no longer on the radar -- heterogeneity and plasticity of the social world, for example.

Each year the distribution of topics seems to change significantly. For a while there were a great many posts on the philosophy of history; then there were a number of posts on Rawls and political theory. Philosophy of social science topics have always been a frequent part of the blog, but other topics rise and fall in frequency.  In the past year the largest group of posts have been on various aspects of sociology and sociological theory (18%), followed by social critique of inequalities and racism (15%), philosophy of social science (10%), philosophy of history (6%), and China (6%).  The labels and categories help readers to find related posts on subjects of interest to them. And the search function helps to locate earlier discussions of a given point or author.

Readership has continued to expand -- thanks, readers! -- with about 2,800 subscribers and 2,600 followers on Twitter and Facebook. There are about 80,000-100,000 page views per month, or about one million page views per year. And the readership continues to be pretty international, with visits from over 160 countries in the past year. Readers from the US represent 60% of visits, UK (12%), Canada (7%), Australia (4%), India (4%), Philippines (3%), Germany (3%), France (2%), and the Netherlands (1.4%).

So thanks for reading, and please continue to comment occasionally and suggest other points of view and other sources that you think valuable! If I have one specific goal for the coming year, it is to find some ways of increasing the amount of engagement with readers that takes place on the blog and in the Twitter and Facebook streams. Facebook in particular is a good environment for creating some exchanges about ideas, applications, and examples of social phenomena from other places (link). It would be very interesting, for example, for readers in Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt, France, and Japan to offer their own descriptions of the systems of race and ethnicity that are at work in creating inequalities across social groups in those countries. This is what I tried to do in an entry on the racial system of Jim Crow in the United States (link); are there similar systems in other countries?


Deacons for Defense


Most of the story we remember of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s centers around the philosophy of non-violence espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the major civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC.  A few historians give emphasis to a very different part of the movement in the South, however -- a movement that was based on armed self-defense by local people.  An earlier post discusses the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, another organization that featured armed self-defense against white violence as part of the struggle for political and civil rights.  Here I will reflect on the Deacons for Defense and Lance Hill's history of this movement The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.

First, the silence surrounding armed self-defense.  The primary narratives of the Civil Rights movement do not give attention to the Deacons or the LCFO in the early years of the movement (the early 1960s).  Taylor Branch gives great attention to the civil rights struggles in Mississippi in Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63, including the extensive occurrence of Klan violence against civil rights workers and activists.  But the Deacons for Defense are not mentioned at any point.  There are occasional references to readiness for armed resistance to white violence; for example, following the cold-blooded murder of civil rights activist Herbert Lee, Branch notes that SNCC activist Bob Moses was uncomfortable with the guns stockpiled by E. W. Steptoe in Mississippi.
Steptoe continued to let Moses stay with him in his house across the highway from the Hurst home, but Moses felt uncomfortable there because of the guns. The Steptoe farm always had been a minor arsenal, and Steptoe had a reputation as a magician who knew how to conceal an extra pistol or two. Now, after the Lee murder, Moses kept finding new guns under pillows and in bedside tables. The atmosphere was thick with the anticipation of a frontier shoot-out. Moses, not wishing to impose his own nonviolence on Steptoe, nor to have his own presence ignite the violence, retreated briefly to McComb. The aftershock of the Lee murder was pervasive there too, and it added to the tension that was building over the continued jailing of the four young sit-in students. (511) 
But there is no discussion of the self-defense movement in Mississippi and the ideas that underlay the philosophy of self-defense that were the core of the Deacons for Defense. One possible reason for this has to do with how the narrative was framed at the time.  The mainstream civil rights movement itself did not approve of the self-defense movement, and its leaders shaped the narrative towards moral protest and the philosophy of non-violence.

Another possible reason for neglect of the self-defense organizations that emerged in the South early 1960s is the idea that these organizations were harmful to the progress of the struggle for political and civil rights, and that violent conflicts between police, national guard, klansmen, and deacons were likely to lead to a bloodbath throughout the black population.  (This is roughly the view that Doug McAdam offered when I asked him why there was no discussion of these movements in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition.) The idea here is that the balance of power so greatly favored the forces of white supremacy that armed self-defense was likely to produce horrible retaliation.

Lance Hill's view is different from both of these.  He believes that the Deacons had a measurable and positive effect on the struggle to break open the system of white supremacy in Mississippi and Louisiana, and that, absent this force, there is a likelihood that Jim Crow would have prevailed.
Real victories for the civil rights movement at the local level were scarce in the Deep South and virtually nonexistent in Louisiana up through 1964. Severe repression by local authorities and the Klan, combined with economic pressure by white business elites, made it difficult to end segregation and discrimination even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But at the beginning of 1965 the Deacons and the Jonesboro movement stood posed to accomplish something that no other local or national organization had done before in the Deep South: force a segregationist governor to directly intervene to the benefit of the civil rights movement. (63)
Hill refers to the "myth of nonviolence" in his conclusion. His point isn't that the strategies of nonviolence that were pursued by the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC were inherently ineffective; instead, his view is that they were fundamentally incomplete.  If the reality of armed self-defense didn't exist, then the moral authority of protest and civil disobedience would have been insufficient to change the political and economic realities of the Jim Crow South.
Nonviolence as the motive force for change became a reassuring myth of American moral redemption -- a myth that assuaged white guilt by suggesting that racism was not intractable and deeply embedded in American life, that racial segregation and discrimination were handily overcome by orderly, polite protest and a generous American conscience, and that the pluralistic system for resolving conflicts between competing interests had prevailed. The system had worked and the nation was redeemed. 
It was a comforting but vacant fiction. In the end, segregation yielded to force as much as it did to moral suasion. Violence in the form of street riots and armed self-defense played a fundamental role in uprooting segregation and economic and political discrimination from 1963 to 1965. Only after the threat of black violence emerged did civil rights legislation move to the forefront of the national agenda. Only after the Deacons appeared were the civil rights laws effectively enforced and the obstructions of terrorists and complicit local law enforcement agencies neutralized. (259)
Lance Hill's work is the primary source that other scholars use when writing about the Deacons; but what is at issue here is precisely the validity of Hill's overall judgment about the critical role played by this movement.  Other careful historians have come to the opposite conclusion -- that the force of the civil rights movement came from its effectiveness as a mass movement grounded in local mobilization and led by leaders committed to nonviolence. So how would we try to sort out the actual impact of the Deacons and other such movements?

The answer, it would seem, is that we need further detailed historical research by other historians to uncover more of this hidden story.  Annelieke Dirks makes an important contribution to this part of the story in "Between Threat and Reality: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Emergence of Armed Self-Defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi, 1960-1965" (link). Dirks focuses the account on local mobilization in Mississippi, which provides a vantage point from which to assess the relative importance of national leaders' commitment to nonviolence and local use of armed self-defense. Here is how Dirks puts the approach:
In what follows, I focus on how local branches of the NAACP in Mississippi used a combination of nonviolent protest, economic pressure, radical speech, and armed self-defense to further their political goals and defend their communities during the height of the modern civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1965. Two different towns, Clarksdale in the Delta in the Northwest and Natchez in the Southwest, and two different NAACP branches receive detailed attention. I show that the emergence and usage of informal and formal forms of armed self-defense in these towns was not just a question of violent or non- violent ideology within the civil rights movement, and that self-defense was not embraced only by organizations like SNCC or CORE. Ultimately the feasibility of armed self-defense was related to economic, political, social, and per- sonal factors in local communities, and its use was also considered or employed by NAACP chapters. By demonstrating this, I hope to counter the portrayal of the NAACP as a moderate, middle-class, and nonviolent civil rights organization, as well as stress the complex and localized dynamics of the modern civil rights movement. (75-76)
And Dirks argues that the armed self-defense posture of activists in these parts of Mississippi made a material difference to the outcomes:
The protection of the Deacons gave the civil rights campaign in Natchez a much needed boost because the Deacons also organized internal movement discipline. While the boycott in Clarksdale was enforced through calling out names of violators during mass meetings, the Deacons organized vigilante groups of Black women—and some men—who attacked shoppers and destroyed their groceries. These female vigilantes also beat up domestic workers who gave information to their white employers. This internal disciplining made the boycott almost completely effective. In December 1965, after just four months of boycotting and broad-scale community organizing, city govern- ment and local businessmen decided to give in and agreed to all of the demands of the Black community. Evers called it “the greatest concession” of the civil rights movement, and he was right as far as Mississippi was concerned. While the movement in Clarksdale quietly phased out and needed federal intervention to open voter registration to African Americans, Natchez had managed to exert enough—armed—pressure on the white power structure to create a total collapse of Jim Crow. “The Natchez campaign was the single greatest community victory for the civil rights movement in Mississippi, though historians have never given it the credit it deserves,” asserts Lance Hill. “The organizers united and inspired a community to courageous action . . . and secured dramatic legal and economic reforms. In comparison, the projects in McComb, Clarksdale and Jackson failed to win any significant demands and frequently left the black community demoralized and in disarray.” (91)
 There is a clear logic to the idea that the non-violent movement needed support from men and women who were willing to face armed attackers with their own guns, and Hill offers a number of strong examples of incidents where klan and police thugs were forced to back off. But the question of whether, all things considered, we need to reassess the way the civil rights movement succeeded in cracking Jim Crow really needs more detailed and careful research, to follow on upon the groundbreaking case that Lance Hill has made.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Intellectual history as history?


How do fields like the history of art or the history of philosophy relate to history simpliciter? Are there similar problems and methods in the history of ideas to those facing social or economic historians? Or is the idea of examining a series of events possessing temporal order the only thing these fields have in common?

Take the history of philosophy as an example. When philosophers analyze and present the history of their discipline for undergraduates, there is a fairly standard narrative in Anglo-American philosophy. The narrative begins with the pre-Socratics, with a set of questions about the nature of reality and some examples of how to reason about such questions. It moves then to classical ancient philosophy and considers the questions, theories, and methods of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Here a broader range of questions come into play, including the nature of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the nature of virtue and justice. The medieval philosophers come next, including Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and perhaps Maimonides. Theological questions are center stage. Sometimes the Islamic world is given credit for maintaining knowledge of the ancients, especially Aristotle, through the upheavals of the post-Roman Empire dark ages. Then we come to "modern" philosophy, including the empiricists (English-speaking) and the rationalists (Continental).  Kant generally gets a page of his own, seeking to reconcile these two traditions, and then we hurtle into Hegel and the nineteenth century philosophers.

This narrative is largely structured around topics, theories, and methods, and the named philosophers are characterized in terms of their distinctive contributions to these items. When the historian of philosophy invokes change or dynamics, it is founded on the dialectic of the ideas and theories. Empiricism developed through as series of intellectual problems and inadequacies in earlier treatments. So in a typical history of philosophy, the narrative takes an internalist perspective -- an argument about how one set of theories and methods led logically or dialectically to another. The biography and historical setting of the philosopher is considered to be irrelevant, with occasional exceptions. (The setting of civil war is sometimes considered relevant to the development of Hobbes's theory of the state.)

An externalist approach to the history of philosophy would take a different tack.  The historian of philosophies might look at philosophy as a grounded intellectual practice, thoroughly embedded in a certain set of social and political activities. The philosopher's system of ideas would not be viewed as a purely autonomous intellectual activity, but rather a set of formulations that are responsive both to earlier arguments and social and political realities and assumptions. The circumstances and settings of particular philosophers would be highly relevant for the historian on this approach. This approach might look at the systems of thought created by philosophers as ideologies -- idealized expressions of more widespread systems of social ideas that serve the interests of various powerful groups. This is roughly speaking the approach taken by CB McPherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (link). And it would be a variation of the approach taken by current work within the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link).

The internalist approach to the history of philosophy doesn't really seem to have much to do with history in any genuine way. And perhaps this applies to internalist approaches to other fields as well -- literature, painting, cuisine. And yet ideas do play important roles in history -- they have consequences and they ate influenced by social and material conditions. The challenge for the historian is how to make these connections through careful investigation while at the same time giving systems of thought and creativity the degree of autonomy they also possess.

Here are a few threads that are relevant to these questions. First, in the history of ideas we can always ask questions about the social conditions or influences on ideas. We might argue, as TJ Clark does in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, that social conditions in the 1830s in rural France made the realism of Courbet possible.  This brings social and intellectual history onto the same canvas.

Second, we can use tools of sociological analysis to provide a framework for thinking about art and philosophy. Bourdieu's concept and theory of field are relevant: an art tradition develops within a field of artists and a set of cultural institutions (The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field). This too provides a social and material context for the history of ideas.

Third, it is both legitimate and necessary for social historians to take the development and currency of ideas seriously. Certain instances of popular politics, for example, may not make sense unless we explicate the religious or cultural ideas of the population.

So a truly insightful history of ideas and thought shouldn't be either purely internalist or purely externalist. Rather, the historian needs to be able to both respect the discipline while at the same time tracing the material processes through which it develops. An in fact, we do have examples of scholars who have managed to do both; a good example is Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Methodological individualism today

Is it possible to draw a few conclusions on the topic of methodological individualism after dozens of years of debate? (Lars Udehn's Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning is a great study of the long history of the debate over this issue. It is unfortunate there isn't an affordable digital edition of the book. Joseph Heath's entry on the subject in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a very good overview; link.) Here is Jon Elster's formulation of the concept in Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (1989):
The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action. To explain social institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the result of the actions and interaction of individuals. This view, often referred to as methodological individualism, is in my view trivially true. (13)
Max Weber is often identified as the modern originator of theory of methodological individualism. (Weber's student Joseph Schumpeter was the first to use the concept in print.) Weber's reason for advocating for MI derived from his view of action as purposive behavior, and his view that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the purposive actions of the individual actors who constitute them. So MI began with a presupposition about the unique importance of rational-intentional behavior in social life. Weber insisted on a rational actor foundation for the social sciences. And this prepared the ground for a joining of forces between methodological individualism and rational choice theory.

The emphasis on methodological individualism sometimes reflected a strong disposition towards eliminative reductionism with respect to social entities and properties: the early twentieth century exponents like J.W.N. Watkins wanted to find logical formulations through which social terms could be eliminated in favor of a logical compound of statements about individuals. And what was the motivation for this effort? It appears to be a version of the physicist’s preference for reduction to ensembles of simple homogeneous "atoms" transported to the social and behavioral sciences. This demand for reduction might take the form of conceptual reduction or compositional reduction. The latter takes the form of demonstrations of how higher level properties are made up of lower level systems. The conceptual reduction program didn't work out well, any more than Carnap's phenomenological physics did.

In addition to this bias derived from positivist philosophy of science, there was also a political subtext in some formulations of the theory in the 1950s. Karl Popper and JWN Watkins advocated for MI because they thought this methodology was less conducive to the "collectivist" theories of Marx and the socialists. If collectivities don't exist, then collectivism is foolish.

Another phase of thinking was more ontological than conceptual. These thinkers wanted to make it clear that social things, causes, and structures depended on the activities of individuals and nothing else. Another way of putting the point is to say that social entities are composed of ensembles of individuals and nothing else. Their concern was to avoid the social analogue of vitalism -- the idea in the life sciences that there is some special "sauce" of life activity that is wholly independent from the molecular and physical structures that make up the organism. Essentially this crowd wants to hold that the properties of the whole are fixed solely and completely by the physical structures that make it up. The theory of supervenience pretty well captures this ontological position: no differences at the upper level without some difference at the lower level. (This position doesn't imply its converse statement: if two physical systems differ then their upper-level systems must differ too. This is the point of multiple functional realizability.) The position does rule out some forms of emergentism, however. The idea of microfoundations comes into this line of thought. If we make a claim about the structural or causal properties of an upper-level thing, we need to be confident that there are microfoundations that would show how this feature comes about. In the strongest case, we need to actually provide the microfoundations.

There is another important stream of MI thinking that derives from a set of ideas about how higher-level facts ought to be explained: they should be explained on the basis of demonstrations of how the upper-level entity is given its properties by the organized system of elements from which it is comprised. This is essentially what the analytical sociologists seem to demand, by insisting on the logic of Coleman's boat. This approach privileges a certain kind of explanation--constructive or compositional explanations.

There is one aspect of the tradition that I haven't mentioned yet: the idea that we can carve out the individual as separate from and prior to the social -- a view sometimes referred to as "atomistic". In classical physics the analogous claim is supportable. Sodium atoms are homogeneous and interchangeable. But it is not plausible in the human world. Social facts intertwine with the mind and actions of individuals all the way down. So from the start, it would seem that the program of MI should be formulated in terms of reduction from the big-social to the small-social, not the non-social.

So what kinds of social claims do these various formulations rule out?

All of them rule out spooky holism, those social theories that claim that social entities exist that are wholly independent of the features of individuals.

Several of them rule out strong emergentism -- the view that there are social properties that could not in principle be derived from full knowledge about the states and properties of the constituent individuals.

They by and large rule out explanatory autonomy for the social level. This is the idea that there might be fully satisfactory causal arguments that proceed from statements about the properties of one set of social factors and the explains another set of social outcomes on this basis. (The ontological thesis does not have this implication.)

As Heath argues in his SEP essay, they rule out macro-level statistical explanations and what he calls micro-level sub-intentional explanations.

In my view, the only claims about methodological individualism that seem unequivocally plausible today are the ontological requirements -- the various formulations of the notion that social things are composed of the actions and thoughts of individuals and nothing else. This implies as well that the supervenience claim and the microfoundations claim are plausible as well.

But to concede that x's are composed of y's does not entail the need for any kind of reductionism from x to y. And this extends to the idea of explanatory reduction as well. So methodological individualism does not create valid limits on the structure of social explanations, and meso-level explanations are not excluded.

So it seems as though we can now draw several conclusions about the field of methodological individualism. The ontological thesis is roughly true, but it is compatible with a range of different ideas about within- and cross-level explanation. So reductionism doesn't follow. The micro-level can't be a hypothetical pre-social or non-social individual. Finally, there is no reason to associate the plausible core of MI theory with one specific theory of action, the rational-intentional theory. As pragmatist sociologists are now arguing, there are compelling theories of the actor that do not privilege the model of conscious deliberative choice.