Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Why are English majors disappearing?

Many universities have witnessed a decline in students pursuing majors in the humanities, including English literature. Why has this happened? 

This sounds like a fairly simple and parochial subject -- why are students and families losing interest in liberal arts majors like philosophy, literature, or history? But this impression is misleading. The subject is not simple: there are multiple causal processes at work, at multiple levels. Many of these have to do with shifts in cultural assumptions and norms, others concern the ways in which the media have influenced parents about what contributes to a young person's success in life, and yet others have to do with the workings of several thousand complex organizations called "universities". So in order to begin to answer the question we need to be prepared to confront diverse levels of social life, diverse systems of meaning and value, and diverse actors within university administration and faculties. 

And the topic is not parochial either. It may sound as though it only concerns university planners who are having to deal with declining enrollments and revenues in important areas of curriculum, but in fact it illustrates a very general methodological problem. This is the problem of arriving at an explanation of a social outcome that is inherently associated with the complexities of conjunctural causation, multi-level social processes, influences on the mentalities of the individuals and groups of individuals within a population, and and analysis of the strategies and actions of university leaders and faculty members, at a huge range of colleges and universities. 

In other words, the question is a good example of the difficulties associated with answering apparently simple questions about multi-layered and multi-causal social processes.

Let's simplify a bit in order to identify some of the actors whose beliefs and actions have contributed to the "decline of the English major". We can identify a handful of major players: parents whose advice and financial support to their children have a great deal of influence on the student's goals and educational choices; media critics who have an axe to grind with universities and their leaders; politicians who are actively hostile to the liberal arts precisely because of the independent thinking fostered by disciplines like philosophy, history, and anthropology; university leaders who are too quick to try to solve financial problems by reducing resources to liberal arts departments and faculty members; and sometimes faculty members in the liberal arts themselves who have failed to make the case for the deep value offered by a liberal education in these disciplines. 

Add to that the priorities often expressed in research universities that place great weight on publication records and little weight on successful engagement with students, and we have something like a perfect storm for the liberal arts: a public that no longer believes in the "career" value of a liberal arts degree, university administrators who are willing to shift teaching resources to more "practical" fields, and some elements of faculty culture that express a lack of concern for broad intellectual and personal growth in their classes. Demand falls, supply shrinks, and, in the worst case, the quality of the product from the perspective of the sophomore or junior student declines as well.

We must also consider some threads of American popular culture that cast suspicion on "pointy-headed intellectuals" and the universities who cultivate them -- what a particularly venal US vice president called "nattering nabobs of negativism". A strident (and often highly insincere) version of anti-elitism is a feature of right-wing populism. (We can say insincere, because leading right-wing populist firebrands like Donald Trump (Wharton), Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale), and Elise Stefanik (Harvard) are all graduates of elite institutions.)

I raise this question to illustrate a deep feature of the general problem of "explaining social events and outcomes". In chemistry or biology there are many unsolved problems needing scientific explanation. But in a fairly routine sense we know what to look for in seeking an explanation of a puzzling natural phenomenon: the properties of the constituents and the causal relations that exist among them. The domain of sociological puzzles seems to be vastly more complex,  disorderly, and uncategorizable than that of natural phenomena. Social outcomes are vastly more diverse and heterogeneous than the universe of natural phenomena. Wherever we look we find new puzzles, and only rarely do the new questions yield explanations based on paradigm answers to other questions. Rather, we are forced to provide substantial descriptive detail and then piece together multi-level explanations that depend unavoidably on the specifics of the case. Causal influences emerge at a range of levels -- just as we have seen in the case of declining enrollments in the humanities. Many of those influences are conjunctural -- they depend upon the simultaneous occurrence of other independent causal influences -- and the occurrence of the outcome itself is highly contingent. 

This understanding of the variety of sociological research questions has some affinity with Karl Popper's "situational logic". Explanations begin with historically contingent situations, within which actors both individual and collective act and interact. However, Popper's account is hampered by its commitment to methodological individualism: for Popper it is individual rational actors who confront "situations". On the view taken here, it is the total situation and the actions and responses of both individual and collective actors (organizations, movements) that constitute a sociological explanation of the outcome. 

(Here is a thoughtful piece from the Harvard Crimson in 2022 that treats the fortunes of the humanities at Harvard in detail; link.)

Saturday, June 1, 2024

"Rigorous" sociology

There is sometimes an inclination within the social sciences to unify and "improve" the methodologies of the social sciences to allow them to be "fully scientific" in the way that chemistry or physics were thought to be in the neo-positivist phase of the philosophy of science. With something like these ambitions Klarita Gërxhani, Nan D. de Graaf, and Werner Raub's recent Handbook of Sociological Science: Contributions to Rigorous Sociology (2022) purports to be a "handbook for rigorous sociology" of all stripes.

Thomas Voss puts the perspective of the "scientific sociology" framework in these terms:

The core features of a scientific approach to sociology as described in this Handbook (see the chapter by Raub, De Graaf & Gërxhani) are as follows: sociology and social science in general is an explanatory empirical science – at least it is the goal to establish such a science. The aim of science is the explanation of regularities that have been established by systematic observation. Theories specify causal relationships and in conjunction with boundary conditions imply testable hypotheses. There are obviously some contrasts between the natural and the social sciences. However, scientific sociology is based on the idea of the unity of science, the conviction that there are no fundamental differences with respect to the methodological rules and criteria of evaluating theories between the sciences, such as physics or biology, and the social sciences. (492)

The preferred model of the structure of sociological knowledge expressed here is familiar from the philosophy of science of the 1950s and the writings of Carl Hempel. It is the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge, explanation, and confirmation. Scientific knowledge (in a given area of research) ideally consists of a set of abstract hypotheses about the way the world works in this area; logical-mathematical deductions from those hypotheses, along with supporting statements of boundary conditions, leading to "testable" predictive consequences for observable social facts. A social outcome or regularity is "explained" when the scientist succeeds in deducing its occurrence from a set of empirically supported theoretical hypotheses. This is familiar within the philosophy of science; it is the view of scientific knowledge that emerged when the verificationist and radical empiricist versions of philosophy of science associated with the Vienna Circle collapsed. Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, and Richard Rudner were central voices of this approach (link). And invoking "the unity of science" is harmful, since it brings with it a host of assumptions -- including reductionism -- that are positively harmful for our framework of thinking about the intellectual work needed in sociology. The social world is not unified, and neither are the sciences (link, link).

Another component of their view of core tools for "rigorous sociology" is the use of sophisticated statistical techniques to sort out large data sets of sociological data. They are also favorable towards computational social science and the use of tools like agent-based models and simulations.

Excessive empiricism is one shortcoming of the "rigorous sociology" framework. There is a second shortcoming of the conception of sociological knowledge that emerges from the volume. In spite of the statements of openness to theoretical and methodological diversity, the editors and many of the contributors are in fact committed to very specific theoretical and methodological ideas. The introduction of the volume is explicit: the best explanations in the social sciences conform to the assumptions of methodological individualism; and the editors clearly prefer micro- to macro-explanations as "most scientific". Coleman's boat is a central tool for their philosophy of science: explanations proceed down the strut from "social context" to "individuals acting and interaction", and up the strut from "individuals" to "macro-conditions". From these assumptions, the priority of rational-choice sociology, analytical sociology, and other individual-grounded approaches is all but unavoidable. John Goldthorpe, James Coleman, and Peter Hedström are cited repeatedly as examples of "good sociology". 

There is an obvious and important relationship between these ideas about rigorous sociology and the manifestos of analytic sociology. Gianluca Manzo draws out this close connection in his contribution to the volume, "Analytical sociology". The editors emphasize that they don't mean to propose that the social sciences should reflect a unified set of foundational theories or research methods; they are all for "diverse approaches" to the study of the social world. But they emphatically advocate for a core commitment to an agreed-upon core of methods of evaluation for scientific hypotheses in the social sciences. On their view, only such a core set of commitments about confirmation and falsification can provide a basis for "cumulative knowledge formation in the social sciences".

More interesting than general calls for "rigorous" verification of sociological claims is Ivan Ermakoff's contribution to the volume, "Validation strategies in historical sociology". Ermakoff's work falls broadly within the fields of historical sociology, and his views about the use of evidence and validation are specific and helpful. He considers a number of works in historical sociology, including Michael Mann's Dark Side of Democracy, and his perspective is a long way from the apparent positivism of the introductory essay. He considers a range of techniques used by historical sociologists to empirically evaluate their hypotheses and theories about mid-level social processes. He uses the umbrella term of "validation" rather than the loaded ideas of confirmation and verification as the crucial link between hypothesis and evidence. He writes, 

Validation is the linchpin of scientific rigor. Claims relying on arguments by seeing, embedding themselves in self-validating discursive serious, or dodging critical assessments undercut the prospect of sound and cumulative knowledge. A significant stake of therefore attached to clear-cut validation yardsticks. (196)

Ermakoff proposes seven different kinds of validation strategies for evaluating hypotheses in historical sociology. (He doesn't suggest the list is exhaustive.)

  1. Descriptive fit
  2. Probing observable implications of casual hypotheses
  3. Counterfactuals
  4. Natural experiments
  5. Inductive comparisons
  6. Process tracing
  7. Simulation 

This is a much more diverse set of ideas about how to consider the relation between hypothesis, evidence, and inference than is often offered by empiricist theorists, and deserves careful study. The implications of the idea of "conjunctural causation" comes in for very useful discussion. And he emphasizes the importance to having a clear and coherent set of working ideas about social causation as well.

Descriptive claims are especially important in historical sociology, just as they are within the discipline of history itself. Consider the strategy of analysis and argument pursued in McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly's Dynamics of Contention. Their goal is to discover some important mid-level generalizations about social contention in a range of settings. However, they do not seek to establish generalizations about the high-level categories of social contention -- civil war, ethnic violence, inter-state war, or riots, which they believe to be unattainable in principle. Instead, they purport to identify an open-ended list of "mechanisms of contention" that occur and recur in a variety of instances and episodes.  ("We search for mechanisms that appear variously combined in al these forms of contention and in others as well. A viable vision of contentious politics, we claim, begins with a search for causal analogies: identification of similar causes ni ostensibly separate times, places, and forms of contention" (74).) In Dynamics they consider a range of episodes of contention from many places and times and seek to describe them in sufficient detail to allow them to identify some of the mechanisms of mobilization, escalation, and repression that occurred in some of these cases. 

The three sequences sketched in Chapters 1 and 2 represent distinctive and well known varieties of contentious politics in the western tradition. Our treatment of them raised standard questions concerning mobilization, actors, and trajectories. In the course of contentious politics: (1) What processes move people into and out of public, collective claim making, and how? (2) Who's who and what do they do? (3) What governs the course and outcomes of contentious interaction? In each case, we found that the standard social movement agenda -- social change, mobilizing structures, opportunity -- provided a disciplined way of asking questions about the events, but pointed to unsatisfactory answers. The answers were unsatisfactory because they were static, because they provided accounts of single actors rather than relations among actors, and because at best they identified likely connections rather than causal sequences. (72)

McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly are equally interested in asserting the causal efficacy of various kinds of social mechanisms, based on their analysis of the episodes. What would be involved in "validating" or empirically supporting the account provided in Dynamics? Ermakoff's seven approaches provide a good beginning to answering this question, and it would appear that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly have done a credible job of providing the right kinds of evidence and arguments that would serve to support their account. We would like to know whether the authors have provided reasonably accurate synopses of the episodes they have considered, and whether their accounts  are based on substantiated historical evidence (primary or secondary). Have they taken appropriate steps to avoid the kinds of biases in historical accounts about which Ermakoff warns us? Second, we would like to know whether the social mechanisms (issue escalation, for example) that they attribute to the episodes under review are reasonably clear and well defined. And third, we would want to explore the degree to which their claims of causal relevance for these mechanisms are justified by the available historical record. Here the techniques associated with process tracing and paired comparisons are most relevant to their arguments; they attempt to show in historical detail how various mechanisms worked in the given historical circumstances. This also makes "natural experiments" a credible basis for their causal reasoning as well. If, for example, the mechanism of issue escalation requires a moderate to high level of density in local social networks, and if it emerges that cases A, B, and C had the causal preconditions of issue escalation but showed substantial variation of network density, then the fact that low-density C did not experience issue escalation while high-density A and B did experience issue escalation, then this looks a lot like a natural experiment evaluating the causal efficacy of issue escalation.

MTT do not use other methods mentioned by Ermakoff. They do not use statistical measures to validate claims they make about the contentious episodes they consider. And they do not show any interest in computational simulations or "generative systems" that would permit them to predict outcomes. "Will current popular unhappiness in China about environmental degradation develop into organized demonstrations and demands against the state for greater environmental regulation?" -- this is not the kind of question that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly would find interesting or fruitful, because they are fundamentally aware of the contingency and path dependency that characterizes the emergence of unrest in most settings.

In short, Ermakoff's analysis of descriptive rigor and justification of causal claims seem to be rich enough to provide a basis for classifying the empirical practices of historical sociologists McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly. And, significantly, these historical sociologists measure up: their work should be classified as "rigorous sociology".

Friday, May 31, 2024

Assessing causes in the past (Kreuzer)

Quantitative social scientists have something of a catechism when it comes to providing evidence for causal assertions. If we want to assert that A is a contributing cause to B (for example, living in a neighborhood with many sub-standard housing units is a cause of higher rates of delinquency), we need to conduct a study involving a reasonably large number of cases and then assess whether cases with high-A values are also found to have high B-values. And in order to avoid well-known problems of spurious correlation, we are advised (when possible) to attempt to arrange some kind of experiment -- a field experiment, a natural experiment, or a controlled experiment -- in which the value of A is changed and we observe whether the value of B changes as well. And some quantitative social scientists urge the importance of identifying a possible causal mechanism that would convey influence from A to B.

But this "catechism" gives no credence at all to other forms of causal inference that have been long practiced within the historical social sciences. Mill's methods of similarity and difference offered one such example. Likewise, process-tracing (Bennett), comparative studies of similar cases (Skocpol), case-study methods (Hopkins), and other approaches have been used in comparative historical sociology to formulate and defend hypotheses about causation in history. 

In The Grammar of Time Marcus Kreuzer undertakes to bring these forms of historical-causal reasoning together under the rubric of comparative historical analysis (CHA). He describes the ambitions of CHA in these terms:

Like historians, CHA scholars use the past to formulate research questions, describe complex social processes, and generate new inductive insights. And, like social scientists, they compare those patterns to formulate generalizable and testable theories. (1)

A notable feature of Kreuzer's account is his view that comparative historical analysis permits both exploration (hypothesis formulation) and assessment (hypothesis evaluation). This point corresponds to a distinction of longstanding, the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. Kreuzer takes the view that we can analytically separate the two contexts, but in practice the researcher needs to be involved in both activities. "CHA makes such exploration an integral part of the research process, because studying a constantly changing world requires continuously updating your research questions" (4).

Kreuzer uses the terms "induction" and "patterns" frequently, but it is worth questioning whether historical research supports either term. Induction means discovering persistent regularities; patterns are the regularities that are discovered by induction. But does history really support "induction"? This seems to imply that there is an unchanging underlying order to history, that produces recurring patterns of outcomes. But why should we believe this? In other places Kreuzer emphasis the "chaos" and unpredictability of history, the contingency of historical processes; but this seems to seriously undercut the idea of underlying order that appears to be crucial for an ontological justification of induction. So perhaps the idea of "historical induction" is unfounded.

The title of Kreuzer's book -- The Grammar of Time -- is intriguing, and it requires that we think carefully about what Kreuzer means by the phrase "grammar of time". Kreuzer briefly explains the metaphor in the introduction:

The grammar analogy is meant to highlight several features of CHA. Grammars analyze cultural phenomena – language – that emerged independently of one another in different places. The same goes for CHA. It established itself in different disciplines independent of one another and therefore sub- sumes different traditions that are distinct without necessarily being unique. Grammars also incorporate time to capture change. The conjugation of verbs differentiates degrees of the past and their relationship to the present and the future. And the past perfect tense even makes the past come alive by identify- ing activities that were ongoing in the past rather than having just occurred in the past. Grammars also consider geography, since their rules vary with each language. And etymology, a cognate discipline of grammar, recognizes that language itself is a changing and hence historical phenomenon. Finally, learn- ing grammars is peculiar because it involves understanding more systematic- ally what we already mastered intuitively. It requires paying attention to the scaffold of language, which neither is particularly elegant nor serves many uses after we have learned a language. (2)

However, the features mentioned there do not capture much of what we mean by "grammar" in post-Chomsky linguistics. Making the metaphor of grammar central to this style of analysis suggests that CHA offers the kind of abstract analysis offered by "syntax" (as distinguished from "semantics" or meanings), which in turn suggests that CHA offers an abstract and general way of "parsing" historical moments and changes. A sentence can be grammatically parsed into "noun", "verb", "state-term". And perhaps Kreuzer means to suggest that historical events can be parsed into abstract elements that combine to instantiate a moment of historical change. A second association created by reference to grammar is the idea of a "generative" grammar: the idea that, once we have a correct analysis of a string of words, we can generate a full representation of the state of affairs represented by the string. We might take a further step and follow Chomsky's distinction between "surface grammar" and "depth grammar", and postulate that there is a common structure of events that underlies the apparent diversity of event-types in the historical flow. (This idea is not discussed in the book.) 

An idea that Kreuzer uses frequently is "unfreezing": 

While unfreezing geography and history constitutes the first step in historical thinking, comparisons guide the explorations of this newly unfrozen temporal and geographic terrain. (10) 

It isn't clear what this means, however. It has something to do with putting aside the theoretical categories in terms of which a social scientist characterizes an event. But why "unfreezing"? He contrasts "types of comparison" in these terms in Table 1.1: 

  • Frozen (Thin) (Single or multiple moments without dates)
  • Unfrozen (Thick) (Multiple moments with specific date)

But the point of the contrast is not obvious. Perhaps a clue is offered in "thin" versus "thick"; this seems to be a reference to the idea that one set of observations is contextualized, whereas the second set is abstracted from context. But this does not have much to do with the physical processes of "freezing" when we think of ice and water. So the concepts of "frozen" and "unfrozen" history seem too flimsy to provide clarity about how to think about historical processes, historical change, and historical contingency. And table 2.1 (Varieties of historical time) doesn't do much to clarify the concepts or to demonstrate their meaning and value. The ideas of "solidly frozen", "partially thawed", "fluid, thick", and "fully fluid" don't seem to shed light on different "phases" of historical process, and it isn't clear how they are thought to correspond to the "types of comparison" listed in the final row of the table: "cross-sectional", "contextual", "serial", and "historical".

In Figure 1.1 (CHA's genealogy) Kreuzer suggests that CHA aims at discovering large differentiated processes of change and transformation in world history. 

One of the more interesting chapters is Chapter 5, a detailed review of the evolution of research on proportional representation systems of voting in Europe. Here Kreuzer tries to illustrate the way that a research effort guided by the assumptions of comparative historical analysis might proceed. He holds that this case illustrates the assumptions of "eventful history".

All in all, I'm not sure the metaphor of "grammar" works well for Kreuzer's interpretation of the methodology provided by CHA. Do historical events reflect an underlying syntax, so that we can see the "structural similarity" that exists between the Russian Revolution, the Copernican Revolution, and the Black Lives Matter movement? Do "time" or "history" possess an underlying set of rules that generate all possible outcomes? Surely the answer is no. Compare a technical analysis of the idea of a grammar with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly's alternative in Dynamics of Contention. MTT suggest that episodes of contentious politics can be grouped under descriptive categories -- "revolution", "uprising", "riot", "civil war"; but they insist that these categories do not reveal much about the events that they embrace. Instead, MTT argue, it is useful to examine an open-ended set of mechanisms and processes at the meso-level that can be found to recur across the various instances of revolutions or riots; and that the mechanisms of social contention are more explanatory than the high-level categories. This approach is not syntactic; it is more analogous to evolutionary biology, which seeks to identify proximate mechanisms (and one large mechanism) through which populations differentiate into distinct groups.

The book is a welcome contribution to discussions of methodology in historical sociology, and a refreshing alternative to more narrow approaches to the problem of empirically supporting causal claims about historical processes.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Popper and Parfit: the minds of philosophers

Derek Parfit hit the philosophy firmament in the early 1960s, while Karl Popper arrived on the Vienna scene three decades earlier. David Edmonds' biography of Parfit provides a careful and detailed account of Parfit's main philosophical preoccupations and some details about his life in Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Popper's autobiographical essay in Paul Arthur Schilpp, The Philosophy of Karl Popper Part I and Part II (published separately as An Unended Quest) offers a deeply reflective account by Popper of the evolution of his philosophical thinking. It is very interesting to read the two books side by side, in order to consider two styles of thinking and imagination in the doing of philosophy. Both were analytical philosophers, but their intellectual frameworks and their philosophical approaches were markedly different. Both thinkers are well known in analytic philosophy, and each has energetic admirers and a handful of critics. On balance, I find that I greatly prefer Popper to Parfit.

I read Parfit's Reasons and Persons within a year or so of its publication in 1984, and I never shared the astoundingly flattering assessment of Parfit's brilliance and impact that Edmonds offers. Edmonds closes his book by suggesting that Parfit ranks with Kant and Sidgwick as the greatest moral philosophers of the past three centuries. And he suggests that Parfit's work may have greater longterm impact than Rawls's Theory of Justice. This suggests something bordering on "Oxford hero worship" rather than sober philosophical assessment. And in fact the biography has some of the flavor of "inside baseball" in the world of the Oxford common room, the fellowships, the dons, and the rivalries that defined the context for much of Parfit's career. (Edmonds himself holds a PhD in philosophy, and is certainly well qualified to offer his own assessments of various philosophers. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he has had fairly close personal connections with Parfit over the past thirty years.)

For myself, I have generally found Parfit's philosophical ideas as being annoyingly dependent on clever thought experiments, rather than substantive and sustained analysis of serious issues and principles that matter. (Ironically, the title that Parfit chose for his final work -- and what he believed would be his most important book -- is On What Matters (in three volumes).) The title is ironic because so few of Parfit's chains of argument actually do seem to matter much in the world. To give one example, pertaining to the question of personal identity: what are we to make of a breakdown in the Star Trek teleportation system, where Derek winds up in both the destination cubicle and the source cubicle? Which is which? If Derek committed a crime before entering the booth, which "person" deserves to be punished? (Edmonds makes it clear in another place that the question is doubly difficult, because Parfit doesn't believe that anyone "deserves" punishment for any act; but that's a different point.) Reasons and Persons seems to consist mostly of logical puzzles, conceptual conundrums, and refutations of existing philosophical answers to traditional problems and questions. But in the end, it all seems sort of trivial, and almost a caricature of what good philosophy should be. It has a kind of obsessive character that prevents Parfit from moving forward. (How could a set of Tanner Lectures morph into a three-volume set of books?)

Edmonds refers to quite a few philosophers who became close colleagues and sometimes friends with Parfit. Among them include thinkers whom I would certainly rank as being more insightful and more important to the progress of philosophy on issues that matter than Parfit: for example, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and especially Amartya Sen.

Edmonds closes the biography with some commentary on Parfit's remarkably peculiar lack of interpersonal skills -- no small talk, no special loyalty to the romantic partners in his life, no understanding of the ways in which most people conduct their relationships with colleagues, lovers, friends, and random strangers. Edmonds explores the question of a possible diagnosis of autism in the case of Derek Parfit. This seems like a very reasonable question to ask about Parfit's social ineptitude, but perhaps it is relevant to the obsessiveness of his philosophical preoccupations as well.

So what about Popper's account of his intellectual development since his beginnings as a cabinet-maker's apprentice in Vienna? Popper's autobiography An Unended Quest is simply fascinating, and it sheds important light on the circumstances, questions, and influences through which Popper's philosophical ideas took shape. Anyone trained in analytic philosophy knows the outlines of Popper's most famous theories -- falsifiability, the demarcation criterion, his rejection of historicism, his rejection of Vienna Circle positivism, his critique of Marxism. What is deeply interesting to me in reading his autobiography is how much more there is to his intellectual and philosophical life beyond these familiar ideas. He seems to have been very deeply interested in music, the visual arts, the breakthroughs in physics of the 1920s and 1930s, recent thinking about cognitive psychology, and the political events of the 1930s, and he thought deeply about each of these topics. Chapters 11-14 of Unended Quest offer a highly interesting and informed discussion of classical western music, polyphony, and innovation in composition. (Here is Chapter 12 where Popper discusses the invention of polyphony.)

Two important features of Popper's autobiography include --

  • a very genuine impression of modesty and generous praise for other thinkers -- in contrast to Parfit's view of his own stature in philosophy as a deserving super-star
  • a serious, learned, and deeply reflective philosophical mind.

Unended Quest makes it clear that there is much more to Karl Popper than falsifiability and his critique of historicism. This was a philosopher who thought creatively, seriously, and deeply about a wide range of issues that matter in the world. Further, Popper was a philosopher who believed that he saw important analogies across apparently disparate sets of questions -- for example, the serious analogy that he finds between "learning through trial and error" by children and animals and "dogmatic hypothesis and critical evaluation" in science. If Edmonds proposes ranking Parfit with Kant and Sidgwick, I'll propose ranking Popper with Kant and Poincaré for his contributions to better understanding scientific ideas and cognitive frameworks. In spite of having criticized Popper strongly in The Scientific Marx, I now think it would have been wonderful to have had him as a teacher.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Limitations of Hobsbawm's historical writing

A defining component of Eric Hobsbawm’s historical writings is the quartet of “Age” books: Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These are synthetic works, offering a narrative of the long nineteenth century and the short twentieth century. They give primary attention to developments pertaining to economic, political, and social change in Britain, Europe, and North America, with occasional commentary on the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, and South America). Perhaps the most interesting of these is the first of them, Age of Revolution. Hobsbawm’s central interest – the central story he tries to tell – is the unfolding of the “dual revolutions” – the industrial revolution and the French Revolution – and the consequences these revolutions had for the lives, political identities, and historical agency and activism of working people. These revolutions formed “modernity”, whether in technology, in political forms, or in conditions of material life. And they gave rise to the central social formations (“great classes”) and political ideologies (nationalism, socialism, fascism) that continue to orient our world today.

These books are highly detailed. But we should observe that they are almost entirely grounded in secondary scholarship – Hobsbawm seems to have read almost everything written on this two-century period, and has undertaken to crystallize the main currents of research and interpretation into a reasonably coherent and connected narrative. But very little of the Age of Revolution depends upon Hobsbawm’s own primary research as a social historian. And though the tone of the narrative is even-handed and calm, the impression emerges over the 350-plus pages of the book that it is very deeply informed by the narrative of the Communist ManifestoConditions of the Working Class in England. This is a coherent narrative; but there are other stories that might be told of the nineteenth century, and other organizing themes that might be the hinges of the story.

Hobsbawm’s own primary scholarship focused on “indigenous” class movements and uprising, largely in England. He was a labor historian, and he was interested in uncovering documents and narratives that shed light on the ways that ordinary working people in the 18th and 19th centuries lived, how they conceived of the social relations around them, and how they rebelled. Key works here include Labour’s Turning Point 1880-1900 (1948), Primitive Rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries (1959), Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), and Captain Swing (1969; co-authored with George Rudé). The recurring theme of these earlier works was the topic of resistance and popular identities among “working people”. In “Captain Swing: A Retrospect” (link) Adrian Randall describes Hobsbawm’s orientation in these terms:

Hobsbawm’s earlier work, mainly concentrated on the labour history of later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was steeped in the well- established Marxist interpretation of economic and social history which saw the years from the later eighteenth century as marking an industrial revolution which had transformed economic, and thence social and political, relations into a more clearly class-divided form. The displacement of a peasantry and the degradation of agricultural labourers formed part of that narrative. (Randall 2009: 421)

But even here Hobsbawm’s role seems to be synthetic rather than primary. The division of labor in Captain Swing seems to divide sharply between Rudé’s primary scholarship on eighteenth-century uprisings (Randall 2009:421) and Hobsbawm’s synthetic historical imagination, guided by Marx’s conceptualization of history. Here too, then, Hobsbawm works as a theoretically-minded historical narrativist rather than as a primary historical researcher.

Might we say, then, that we need less from a historian than what Hobsbawm gives us? Hobsbawm paints a consistent, detailed picture of the evolution of social unrest. But it is fundamentally just an extensive interpretation based on a reading of secondary sources, and it may even be a caricature – certain features may be over-drawn and others minimized, in order to make the coherent and consistent Marxist story plain. But we don’t want our knowledge of history to be “pre-digested” according to a prior plan; we want a reasonable, evidence-based account that is open to contingency, unexpected developments, and details that do not fit the model.

In my mind I contrast Hobsbawm’s Ages books with Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which provides an account of the history of the United States that is not wedded to any particular trope. Instead, Lepore seeks to document and discuss the many themes that enter into US history, without bending the edges to make the facts fit the frame. And I think of more regional and local historians, such as William Sewell (Work and Revolution in France), whose analysis of the “working-class consciousness” of working people of Marseille breaks many stereotypes of the Marxist hymnal. And Sewell’s work, unlike Hobsbawm’s, is deeply grounded in his own research on primary documents and sources. Here is how Lynn Hunt describes Sewell’s primary research in Work and Revolution (link):

Sewell’s sources are eclectic: they range from a philosophical tract by Diderot to the statutes of mutual-aid societies, from artisanal and working-class newspapers to quasi-official reports on the conditions of the working poor, from intellectual tracts on socialism to workers’ poetry. All these comprise “a set of interrelated texts that demand close reading and careful exegesis” (11-12). Sewell rereads and reinterprets these texts with an eye for their linguistic and historical logic. The “socialist vision of labor” was a logical development of certain fundamental Enlightenment concepts, but that logic was pushed forward not so much by intellectual as by social and political developments, in particular, by the revolutionary “bursts” of 1830-34, 1839-40, and 1848-51 (278). In attempting to explicate this “dialectical logic,” Sewell synthesizes an extensive published literature on French labor, and he effectively underlines the importance of paying very close attention to what people in the past said, sometimes indirectly, about what they were doing.

Perhaps this suggests that we need another category of historical misrepresentation beyond the two offered by Andrus Pork (link). In addition to “direct lies” and “blank-page lies”, we need “interpretations of history cut to order by an antecedent interpretation of history”.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

EP Thompson's break with Stalinism

E. P. Thompson was one of the great social historians of the twentieth century (link, link). He was also a committed socialist from youth to the end of his life. His 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class”, and it was one of the formative works of "history from below". Thompson was a member of the British Communist Party (CPGB) until 1956, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev"s "secret speech" revealing some of Stalin's crimes. Thompson remained a staunch advocate of English socialism throughout his life. But as a Communist, he showed an unwelcome degree of intellectual and political independence, and he broke with the CPGB very publicly in 1956 with a manifesto criticizing the party leadership, “Winter wheat in Omsk” (Thompson 1956) and “Socialist humanism” (Thompson 1957). Christos Efstathiou describes Thompson (along with John Saville and Lawrence Daly) in these terms:

What united these three men, and, at the same time distinguished them from other Communist dissidents, was that they did not hesitate to fight the Party’s policies. (Efstathiou 2016: 29)

Consider Thompson’s break with Stalinism in “Socialist humanism” (1957; link). The essay is decisive in rejecting Stalin’s “ideology” and his bureaucratic dogmatism and domination of the whole of society. Thompson writes eloquently about the need within socialism for open debate and discussion. But the essay does not give primary emphasis to the crimes of the Stalinist state: the Holodomor, the purges, the Show Trials, the Gulag, or the pervasive totalitarianism created by the Soviet state. Thompson does refer to “monsters of iniquity like Beria and Rakosi” and mentions their crimes – “destroying their own comrades, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, deporting whole nations”. And he gives a short summary of the show trial of the Bulgarian Communist leader Traicho Kostov. (The narrative is worthy of Koestler in Darkness at Noon.) Here is how Thompson writes about travesties like the trial of Kostov (and, presumably, the better known trials of Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders):

We feel these actions to be wrong, because our moral judgements do not depend upon abstractions or remote historical contingencies, but arise from concrete responses to the particular actions, relations, and attitudes of human beings. No amount of speculation upon intention or outcome can mitigate the horror of the scene. Those moral values which the people have created in their history, which the writers have encompassed in their poems and plays, come into judgement on the proceedings. As we watch the counsel for the defence spin out his hypocrisies, the gorge rises, and those archetypes of treachery, in literature and popular myth, from Judas to Iago, pass before our eyes. The fourteenth century ballad singer would have known this thing was wrong. The student of Shakespeare knows it is wrong. The Bulgarian peasant, who recalls that Kostov and Chervenkov had eaten together the bread and salt of comradeship, knows it is wrong. Only the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist” thinks it was – a mistake. (119)

Elsewhere in the text Thompson refers to "British socialists who see men who claim ‘Marxism’ as their guide, banner, and ‘science’ perpetrating vile crimes against their own comrades and gigantic injustices against many thousands of their fellow men". By "British socialists" he means primarily the group of former communist intellectuals who left the British communist party in 1956 and contributed to efforts to create a new Left labor movement in Britain through the New Reasoner and various new organizations. And here he is explicit in mentioning the "crimes and gigantic injustices" committed by the Stalinist state. 

But these points about Stalin's crimes are incidental, not focal to Thompson’s critique of Stalinism. Thompson’s actions and words in 1956 reflect a revolt against “dogmatism” and the effort of the Party to control thought and debate. But his critique does not extend to a thorough-going indictment of the crimes committed by the Stalinist state. The murders and injustices to which Thompson refers here seem to encompass the terror and show trials of the 1930s, though Thompson is not explicit. But I do not find anywhere in his writings an explicit recognition of the atrocities of collectivization and the Holodomor in 1932-33. Reference to the Gulag appears in later writings (for example, in a passage quoted below from "The Poverty of Theory"). But, once again, Thompson does not provide a sustained and thorough critique of these crimes against individuals and groups by the Soviet state. Rather, the central focus of his critique of Stalinism in "Socialist Humanism" is the dogmatism and ideological purity demanded by the Stalinist state.   

This is – quite simply – a revolt against the ideology, the false consciousness of the elite-into-bureaucracy, and a struggle to attain towards a true (“honest”) self-consciousness; as such it is expressed in the revolt against dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism which feeds it. Second, it is a revolt against inhumanity – the equivalent of dogmatism in human relationships and moral conduct – against administrative, bureaucratic and twisted attitudes towards human beings. In both sense it represents a return to man: from abstractions and scholastic formulations to real men: from deceptions and myths to honest history: and so the positive content of this revolt may be described as “socialist humanism.” It is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, the Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism. It is socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism, faith in the revolutionary potentialities not only of the Human Race or of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but of real men and women. (Thompson 1957: 108)

Thompson framed his critique of Stalinism somewhat more pointedly two decades later in his polemical essay against Althusser, “The Poverty of Theory” (1978) .

We are not only (please remember) just talking about some millions of people (and most of these the ‘wrong’ people) being killed or gulaged. We are talking about the deliberate manipulation of the law, the means of communication, the police and propaganda organs of a state, to blockade knowledge, to disseminate lies, to slander individuals; about institutional procedures which confiscated from the Soviet people all self-activating means (whether in democratic modes or in forms of workers’ control), which substituted the party for the working class, the party’s leaders (or leader) for the party, and the security organs for all; about the confiscation and centralisation of all intellectual and moral expression, into an ideological state orthodoxy — that is, not only the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of ‘individuals’: ... it is not only this, but within the confiscation of individual ‘rights’ to knowledge and expression, we have the ulterior confiscation of the processes of communication and knowledge-formation of a whole people, without which neither Soviet workers nor collective farmers can know what is true nor what each other thinks. ("The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors", Thompson 1978: 328-29) 

Here Thompson is more explicit in naming the crimes of the Stalinist state -- mass murder, the Gulag. But here too Thompson seems most concerned about the dogmatism and thought control of the Stalinist state, "the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of 'individuals'".

Stalinism, in its second sense, and considered as theory, was not one ‘error’, nor even two ‘errors’, which may be identified, ‘corrected’, and Theory thus reformed. Stalinism was not absent-minded about crimes: it bred crimes. In the same moment that Stalinism emitted ‘humanist’ rhetoric, it occluded the human faculties as part of its necessary mode of respiration. Its very breath stank (and still stinks) of inhumanity, because it has found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures (kulaks) and history as a process without a subject. It is not an admirable theory, flawed by errors; it is a heresy against reason, which proposed that all knowledge can be summated in a single Theory, of which it is the sole arbitor and guardian. It is not an imperfect ‘science', but an ideology suborning the good name of science in order to deny all independent rights and authenticity to the moral and imaginative faculties. It is not only a compendium of errors, it is a cornucopia out of which new errors ceaselessly flow (‘mistakes’, ‘incorrect lines’). Stalinism is a distinct, ideological mode of thought, a systematic theoretical organisation of ‘error’ for the reproduction of more ‘error.’ (331)

These passages seem to capture the heart of Thompson's conception of socialist humanism: that socialism must ensure that its institutions are designed for real, free human beings -- not for the abstract theoretical assumptions of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. And a genuine commitment to freedom of expression and thought is both a means and an end in this effort: freedom of expression and thought is necessary (as John Stuart Mill too argued) in order to allow the socialist order to progress; and free and equal human beings are the ultimate good of a socialist society.

Certainly Thompson was aware of Stalin's vast crimes by 1956. There was a great deal of information publicly available in the 1930s about the most important crimes of Stalin’s dictatorship, including the Holodomor, the Terror, the show trials, and the Gulag. Malcolm Muggeridge's reporting about the Ukraine devastation was widely available during 1933. And Welsh journalist Gareth Jones traveled through Ukraine and reported the facts of starvation as he observed them firsthand in articles in the Cardiff Western Mail and the London Evening Standard in 1933 as well as a published letter to the Manchester Guardian on May 8, 1933, corroborating Malcolm Muggeridge’s reporting on the famine in that newspaper. 

Thompson's independence of mind as a historian is unquestionable, and his willingness to follow his conscience in his relationship to communism was manifest in his actions and writings of 1956 and following years. He rejected the moral authority of the CPGB and the ultimate authority of the party line. But unlike other observers like Orwell, Koestler, or Muggeridge, Thompson seems not to have fully addressed the atrocious crimes of the Stalinist period. He did not squarely confront the atrocities represented by the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the pervasive and repressive use of the security apparatus (NKVD, KGB) to maintain totalitarian control over the citizens of the USSR. 

So we are left with a question: why did E.P. Thompson fail to clearly and unequivocally address the Holodomor, the Gulag, and the regime of terror established by Stalin's state?

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Defining disciplinary research in the social sciences

The "historical turn" in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s gave most of its attention to the development of the physical sciences -- especially physics itself. (See Tom Nickles' essay "Historicist Theories of Scientific Rationality" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a detailed account of this development in the philosophy of science; link.) Historian-philosophers like Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos studied the development of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as research communities involving complex social arrangements -- networks of practitioners, training institutions, laboratories, journals, and universities and research institutes -- and shifting but shared cognitive frameworks. They argued that scientific research and knowledge always proceeds through organized research communities that regulate the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Kuhn emphasized the specificity and contingency of the cognitive frameworks (disciplinary matrix or paradigm) that guided a research community, insights that in part reflected his own reading of Ludwik Fleck's earlier work on the history of biology and medicine and the idea of a "denkkollektiv" (link, link).  Here is Alexander Bird's description of Kuhn's view in his essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

He claims that normal science can succeed in making progress only if there is a strong commitment by the relevant scientific community to their shared theoretical beliefs, values, instruments and techniques, and even metaphysics. This constellation of shared commitments Kuhn at one point calls a ‘disciplinary matrix’ (1970a, 182) although elsewhere he often uses the term ‘paradigm’. Because commitment to the disciplinary matrix is a pre-requisite for successful normal science, an inculcation of that commitment is a key element in scientific training and in the formation of the mind-set of a successful scientist. (link)

Well and good for astronomy and fundamental physics. But what about the social sciences? How should we think about the sub-disciplines of fields in the social sciences like sociology? The idea is sometimes expressed, including by Kuhn himself, that the social sciences are not yet "mature sciences" precisely because they lack strong and definitive paradigms. Here is Bird again in the SEP:

The claim that the consensus of a disciplinary matrix is primarily agreement on paradigms-as-exemplars is intended to explain the nature of normal science and the process of crisis, revolution, and renewal of normal science. It also explains the birth of a mature science. Kuhn describes an immature science, in what he sometimes calls its ‘pre-paradigm’ period, as lacking consensus. Competing schools of thought possess differing procedures, theories, even metaphysical presuppositions. Consequently there is little opportunity for collective progress. (link)

This view perhaps once had a seductive appeal, but it is no longer convincing. The social sciences are different from the natural sciences because social phenomena are different from the phenomena of the world of chemistry and physics, and the unity of science was a dogma from logical positivism that we are well rid of (link, link). Here is how I've tried to formulate the differences that exist between the social sciences and the physical sciences:

Rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible. Instead of theoretical unification we might rather look for a more and more satisfactory coverage, through a range of disciplines and methods, of the aspects of the social world we judge most interesting and important. And these judgments can be trusted to shift over time. And this means that we should be skeptical about the appropriateness of the goal of creating a unified social science. (Understanding Society; link)

This view of the social world suggests that sociological research does not require strict paradigms or dogmatic commitment to a "disciplinary matrix" of theory and methodological commitments in order to make progress. Instead, sociology should embrace a pluralistic range of research approaches and cognitive frameworks that can address different aspects of the social world. We gain insight and understanding of the social world through overlapping and pluralistic methods and theoretical frameworks.

That said, it is plain enough that there are distinct (sometimes overlapping) research families within sociology. Any large sociology department at a research university will have members who identify with different approaches and methodologies. Social movement researchers disagree with large-N quantitative researchers in many important ways, and an ethnomethodologist might find the work of both these sets of colleagues to be somewhat foreign. How should we characterize these differences across extended research groups within sociology? 

Several ideas are available. Weakly, a group of researchers might be said to belong to a research tradition if they share a number of common assumptions about the nature of the social world, the methodology that is most suitable to sociological research, and some core examples of sociological explanation. Most commonly this situation would arise from the fact of a common genealogy for a group of researchers -- a founder (Durkheim or Tarde, let's say), and a few generations of researchers who followed in their footsteps. But notice how weak this account is. It does not refer to shared research institutions, social networks of researchers, or definitive processes of research evaluation.

A stronger conception of a research community may begin with the weak conception, but then provide a specification of how research proceeds in this field or that. This stronger analysis aims to describe the institutional framework within which "X sociology" is carried out, evaluated, disseminated, and incorporated into the training of the next generation of sociologists in the X approach. What is added here is an account of the institutional infrastructure of the sub-discipline, the institutions and actor networks through which sociological research is carried out and shared. This more elaborate description is one of the guiding assumptions of the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (link).

But this specification remains incomplete in a crucial way: it says little about the intellectual content of the target sociological sub-field, the cognitive frameworks and theoretical ideas to which practitioners within the field adhere and that guide their research. This is the aspect that is the most novel and interesting feature of Kuhn's theory of the paradigm and Fleck's conception of the thought-collective. Kuhn, Fleck, and others in this line of thought emphasize that scientific research is not "blue-sky" theory, but rather proceeds on the basis of a contestable set of beliefs about the nature of the phenomena under investigation. According to this line of thought, the scientist's imagination is framed and directed by a set of assumptions about the world from which the discipline itself discourages deviation. The sub-discipline is indeed "disciplined" to conform to the existing paradigm. 

In the case of the social sciences, the role of "paradigm beliefs" is complicated and ambiguous. On the one hand, various areas of the social sciences are notorious for their rigid adherence to certain methodological principles -- the primacy of large-N quantitative studies, the value of formal models, lack of respect for case studies and comparative studies. (This was the point of the Perestroika debate in political science some years ago, and subsequent methodological debates in sociology more recently; link, link.) On the other hand, there is a very wide range of different assumptions (ontological beliefs) about social entities and processes in the social world across the social sciences and within each discipline. And it is rare to find a high level of consensus about these issues within a social science discipline. (Economics departments in research universities in the United States are an exception, but an unrewarding one: a high level of commitment to a specific set of methods, but a low level of empirical or policy success.) It seems, then, that the full-blooded idea of a "paradigm" as a unified cognitive framework spanning a broad network of researchers is not to be found in the social sciences. So perhaps our assessment of this topic in the social sciences might be: yes to research communities and networks, no to paradigm-driven research communities.

My interest in this question is fairly specific. I've been thinking about the emerging sub-discipline of analytical sociology over the past twenty years, and it would be useful to provide an analysis of the field in terms of the ideas sketched above. Do the manifestos of important advocates like Hedström and Demeulenaere constitute a "disciplinary matrix" in something like the sense that Kuhn had in mind? Do new areas of computational sociology (agent-based modeling, for example) represent something analogous to the body of laboratory techniques and procedures that Kuhn or Hanson included in the disciplinary matrix of physics? Do the strict assumptions of structural individualism advocated by the primary voices constitute a component of a "paradigm" for sociological research that helps to guide productive investigation and theory formation? In short, is analytical sociology a reasonably well-defined research community unified by a specific disciplinary matrix that is enforced by the regulative institutions of allied journals and institutes?

It is useful to compare the field of analytical sociology with other families of research in sociology today. For example, we might consider 

  • "processual sociology" described by Andrew Abbott (link
  • "field sociology" inspired by Pierre Bourdieu (link)
  • "ethnomethodology and microsociology" inspired by Goffman (link) and Garfinkel (link)

Abbott offers a vision of the nature of the social world -- an alternative social ontology -- and his writings provide quite a bit of methodological advice for sociologists interested in exploring these kinds of social phenomena. But it is hard to find the "processual sociology network" of researchers that is carrying out detailed empirical research under this banner. So it is hard to say that processual sociology constitutes a research community at present. The Bourdieu case is different. Many young sociologists make use of Bourdieu's ideas and theories about cultural fields. Bourdieu has a great deal of influence. But it is not obvious that there is a cumulative body of work that "Bourdieu-theory" can claim credit for as a research framework, and it is difficult to articulate the premises of a disciplinary matrix for conducting sociological research for this approach. So here too, perhaps we are forced to conclude that Bourdieu-theory too is less than a research community, in spite of its influence and the frequency of citations of Bourdieu in sociology journals. (According to a table titled "Most referenced authors in 42 sociology journals" reproduced by Gerardo Munck on X (link), Bourdieu is #1 with 9853 citations, and Weber is #2 with 6135 citations!) And though Goffman and Garfinkel are still part of the corpus of "theory" in sociology, it is hard to find instances of research networks proceeding along the lines described by ethnomethodologists fifty years ago. So analytical sociology seems to be a live candidate for an example of a research community organized by an active research matrix, whereas the other examples do not.

(This topic is an appropriate subject for study within the "new sociology of knowledge"; link.) 

Monday, December 18, 2023

Mistakes by organizations

In 1964 Jim Marshall, a defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings, committed a mistake by recovering a fumble by the San Francisco 49ers and running it into the end zone – at the wrong end of the field. In the early 1990s the US Congress made a mistake by ordering continued development of the Osprey VTOL aircraft. Did these two “actors” do the same sort of thing? Is an organization’s mistake similar to an individual’s mistake? At a superficial level it is easy enough to agree that these are the same kinds of things. The wrong outcome resulted from a series of apparently intentional and calculated actions. But a closer look makes it clear that they are not so similar after all.

Making a mistake by an individual arises in situations of quasi-rational actors deciding on an action based on the consequences the actor hopes to bring about. The actor is “intentional” — he or she has a plan for bringing about a desired consequence or benefit, has calculated a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, and has estimated the circumstances within which he/she acts over time. A mistake happens when the actor miscalculates something that he/she should have correctly calculated — the way one action can be expected to lead to an intermediate outcome, the features of the environment in which the action is to be carried out, the predictable events that might interfere with the sequence of actions and their intended outcome. Miscalculation is the essence of individual mistakes. The actor is a unified perceiver and observer who chooses a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, but miscalculates some part of the underlying assumptions guiding the action.

Is miscalculation the primary source of mistakes when a complex organization’s strategy goes awry? Sometimes. Lyndon Johnson miscalculated the goals and reasoning of Ho Chi Minh and escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War. But the most interesting causes of organizational mistakes have little to do with miscalculation. The reason for this is that organizations, unlike individuals, are not unified perceivers, planners, and actors. Instead, organizations are loose configurations of lower-level actors who are only weakly coordinated by a single managing intelligence – a top level executive. Loose linkages across sub-units of an organization raise the possibility that each sub-unit is approximately rational, and yet the aggregate result of the complex interaction is quite different from what was intended by the key executive. In the case of the design of the Ford Pinto, the top corporate executive did not intend to release a vehicle design that endangered vehicle safety, and yet a series of loose linkages across units led to exactly that outcome.

Several key organizational dysfunctions have been identified that contribute to organizational mistakes … even though each sub-unit is acting rationally. Dysfunctions that have been discussed in earlier posts can all lead to organizational failures: principal-agent problems, conflicting cognitive frameworks, conflicting local priorities, external pressures on decision makers, poor communication and information-sharing. (A New Social Ontology of Government discusses these dysfunctions in greater detail.)

It is clear, then, that an organization’s mistakes are often quite different from the mistakes made by a reasonably rational individual. They often derive from dysfunctions that appear to be systemic in organizations, and from the important fact that organizations are unavoidably dis-unified. Intentions, information, belief formation, cognitive framing, coordination of underlying assumptions all depend on separate teams of decision makers and actors, and large organizations often miss the mark with their decision processes precisely because of this fact. Sources of bad collective or corporate decisions include problems of conflicting priorities and interpretations of the action environment, principal-agent problems, imperfect communication and information sharing, slow “updating” of knowledge of the action environment, and unintended consequences of one line of action that interfere with other actions. In the end the organization fails to accomplish its action goal, and from the outside it looks like a series of incomprehensible blunders.

The public diagnosis of governmental and corporate "mistakes" is often a simple one: “Mistakes were made”, with the implication that more intelligent or experienced managers would have been more successful. But this impression is often mistaken. Intelligent people in different parts of the organization made resourceful and resilient efforts to carry out their part of the plan. And yet the compound of these sub-actions is something that turns out to be stunningly ineffective. Dien Bien Phu was a military disaster for the French army in Indochina. And yet there were reasons for each intermediate decision that led to the eventual debacle.

This suggests that citizens and policy makers need to think about organizational errors differently from mistakes made by individuals. Organizations need to be more “disaster-resistant”, so that the dysfunctions mentioned here have less likelihood of resulting in a catastrophic failure. “Be more careful” is not useful advice. Instead, organizational designers and leaders need to take specific measures to soften the potential impact of information failure, conflicting cognitive frames, and conflicting priorities in different parts of the organization. Redundancy is one potential source of resilience. Better training in procedures and cognitive frameworks is another. (For example, accidents have occurred in nuclear fuel processing plants because workers were not taught about the importance of the geometry of holding vessels on the critical mass of liquids with dissolved radioactive materials; Atomic Accidents.) And we need to bear in mind always that the loose linkages and weak forms of intentionality that are unavoidable features of large organizations pose permanent risks for effective organizational action.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Brecht on Galileo on science

Bertolt Brecht composed his play Life of Galileo (1939) (link) while on the run in Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1938. Brecht was a determined anti-Nazi, and he was an advocate of revolutionary Marxism. It is fascinating to read one of the longest speeches he composed for Galileo at the end of the play, in which Galileo reflects on his recantation of the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. Rather than celebrating "pure science" over the oppression of the Church, Brecht has Galileo reflect bitterly on the corruption of science and its subservience to the powerful. This speech occurs in scene 14, near the end of the play. Galileo's disciple Andrea Sarti is interested in showing that Galileo's recantation was a wily move, allowing him to pursue the higher truths of science. And he is delighted to learn that Galileo has been secretly writing his Discorsi (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), which demonstrates to him that Galileo continues to pursue the highest values of science. Galileo disagrees, and offers a harsh criticism of the role of science in society altogether. The whole scene is worth reading carefully, but here is an important excerpt.

A large room with table, leather chair and globe. Galileo, old now and half blind, is carefully experimenting with a bent wooden rail and a small ball of wood. In the antechamber sits a monk on guard. There is a knock on the door. The monk opens it and a peasant comes in carrying two plucked geese. Virginia emerges from the kitchen. She is now about forty years old.


Andrea: You gained the leisure to write a scientific work which could be written by nobody else. If you had ended up at the stake in a halo of flames the other side would have won.

Galileo: They did win. And there is no scientific work that can only be written by one particular man.

Andrea: Why did you recant, then?

Galileo: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

Andrea: No!

Galileo: They showed me the instruments.

Andrea: So it wasn't planned?

Galileo: It was not.


Andrea loudly: Science makes only one demand: contribution to science.

Galileo: And I met it. Welcome to the gutter, brother in science and cousin in betrayal! Do you eat fish? I have fish. [a] What stinks is not my fish but me. I sell out, you are a buyer. O irresistible glimpse of the book, the sacred commodity! The mouth waters and the curses drown. The great whore of Bablylon, the murderous beast, the scarlet woman, opens her thighs and everything is altered. Blessed be our horse-trading, whitewashing, death-fearing community!

Andrea: Fearing death is human. Human weaknesses don't matter to science.

Galileo: Don't they? -- My dear Sarti, even as I now am I think I can still give you a tip or two as to what matters to that science you have dedicated yourself to.

A short pause

Galileo professorially, folding his hands over his stomach:

In my spare time, of which I have plenty, I have gone over my case and considered how it is going to be judged by that world of science of which I no longer count myself a member. Even a wool merchant has not only to buy cheap and sell dear but also to ensure that the wool trade continues unimpeded. The pursuit of science seems to me to demand particular courage in this respect. It deals in knowledge procured through doubt. Creating knowledge for all about all, it aims to turn all of us into doubters. [b] Now the bulk of the population is kept by its princes, landlords, and priests in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws which cloak what these people are up to. The poverty of the many is as old as the hills, and from pulpit and lecture platform we hear that it is as hard as the hills to get rid of. Our new art of doubting delighted the mass audience. They tore the telescope out of our hands and trained it on their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests. [c] These selfish and domineering men, having greedily exploited the fruits of science, found that the cold eye of science had been turned on a primaeval but contrived poverty that could clearly be swept away if they were swept away themselves. They showered us with threats and bribes, irresistible to feeble souls. But can we deny ourselves to the crowd and still remain scientists? [d] The movements of the heavenly bodies have become more comprehensible, but the peoples are as far as ever from calculating the moves of their rulers. The battle for a measurable heaven has been won thanks to doubt; but thanks to credulity the Rome housewife's battle for milk will be lost time and time again. Science, Sarti, is involved in both these battles. [e] A human race which shambles around in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws, too ignorant to develop its own powers, will never be able to develop those powers of nature which you people are revealing to it. To what end are you working? Presumably for the principle that science's sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. [f] If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge's sake, then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. You may in due course discover all that there is to discover, and your progress will nonetheless be nothing but a progress away from mankind. The gap between you and it may one day become so wide that your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. -- As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. [g] In my day astronomy emerged into the market place. Given this unique situation, if one man had put up a fight it might have had tremendous repercussions. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. [h] As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose. What's more, Sarti, I have come to the conclusion that I was never in any real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed my knowledge to those in power for them to use, fail to use, misuse -- whatever best suited their objectives.

Virginia has entered with a dish and come to a standstill.

Galileo: I betrayed my profession. A man who does what I did cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.


What are the messages here about the relationship between science and society, between science and class? The view is unequivocal: science has been corrupted. Against the idealism offered by Sardi, Galileo asserts that science has come to serve the interests of the powerful, and it might have been different. Galileo's long speech here (plainly expressing Brecht's own social criticisms) offers a harsh and negative assessment of the role of science in society. And much of this speech derives, not from an unexpectedly radical sixteenth-century mathematician, but from the Marxist theories that Brecht had studied in the early 1930s.

[a] Galileo begins this diatribe with self-contempt. He looks at his work as a scientist as "selling out" -- offering the products of his intelligence and creativity for sale to the highest bidder. Science has been commodified, like the woolen-good trade. Galileo stinks like a rotten fish.

[b] Society is divided into rich and poor, powerful and powerless; and the rich and powerful dominate and exploit the poor and powerless. This fundamental reality is obscured by the "fog" of myth and misconception, or what Marx refers to as ideology. "Good" science can tear through the mystifications of popular beliefs and myths; but all too often the scientists refrain from providing the tools needed (the microscopes and telescopes) to penetrate the mists of common misconception about the social world.

[c] Science could have been a revolutionary force; it could have helped to "sweep away" the mystifications of the rich and powerful. Instead, the rich and powerful have bought and intimidated the scientists. The poor Roman housewife's quest for milk will be permanently difficult because the Roman proletariat has failed to see the necessity of sweeping away the class oppression of patrician and plebian social life.

[d] The point here is that Galileo has allowed human beings to see the real motions of the planets, but they still have not discovered the "laws of motion" of the social world. They continue to live in a world of illusions about how the social world works (like the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic conceptions of the planetary system). From Marx's Capital, Preface to the German Edition: "Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

[e] When ideology and mystification are allowed to persist, exploitation, domination, and poverty will persist as well.

[f] Science is distorted when it is put to service in the interests of the powerful. It no longer serves to benefit humanity, but rather only the landlords and the priests. And without science, ideology and mystification will continue to mislead the poor.

[g] Galileo seems to believe that the struggles with the Church over the Copernican Revolution during the Inquisition represented turning points for human emancipation, and there was a choice. Science could have become a permanent force for progress, or it could become a tool of enrichment for the powerful. Because scientists (including Galileo) lacked the courage to stand up, science became a tool of exploitation. The chance to orient science towards its own "Hippocratic oath" of allegiance to progress to humanity was lost.

[h] Here Galileo (Brecht) is contemptuous of scientists and inventors who do their work for commercial and monetary gain -- the smart people who put their imagination and intelligence to work for the highest bidder. And almost always the highest bidder is the exploiter -- the capitalist and the landlord who uses the products of science to enhance his wealth.

In this section of the play, then, Brecht breaks with a common narrative about the Galileo story: the pure and rational scientist who is forced to change his beliefs by an unthinking and authoritarian Church. In that story the scientist is the isolated individual courageously pursuing the truth for its own sake, and the Church is an authoritarian structure which is the antithesis of intellectual freedom. Instead, Brecht tells a more complicated story. It is not just the question of recanting "unacceptable" beliefs; it is the question of devoting one's scientific talents in service to the rich and powerful. Galileo's [Brecht's] fundamental critique is that "science" is allied with "the ruling class".