Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Key premises of analytical sociology

Image: residential segregation by race, NYC 2010

In Dissecting the Social Peter Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms: 

Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach. They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (Dissecting the Social, kl 113) 

And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology

Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts -- an exercise that does not provide an explanation -- but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about. In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (Hedström and Bearman, eds. 2009 : 3-4) 

Peter Demeulenaere makes several important points to further specify AS in his extensive introduction to Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. He holds that AS is not just another new paradigm for sociology. Instead, it is a reconstruction of what valid explanations on sociology must look like, once we properly understand the logic of the social world. He believes that much existing sociology conforms to this set of standards -- but not all. And the non-conformers are evidently judged non-explanatory. For example, he writes, “Analytical sociology should not therefore be seen as a manifesto for one particular way of doing sociology as compared with others, but as an effort to clarify (“analytically”) theoretical and epistemological principles which underlie any satisfactory way of doing sociology (and, in fact, any social science)” (Demeulenaere, ed. kl 121). So this sets a claim of a very high level of authority over the whole field, implying that other decisions about explanation, ontology, and method are less than fully scientific. 

Analytical sociology rests on three central ideas. 

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals. Hedstrom, Demeulenaere, and their colleagues refer to this position as methodological individualism. It is often illustrated by reference to "Coleman's Boat" in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Coleman, 1990, 8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena (link). The boat diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior). Here are a few of Hedström's formulations of this ontological position: 

In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (Dissecting, kl 106) 

To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals' actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (Dissecting, kl 143) 

In other words: according to analytical sociologists, a good explanation of a given social outcome is a demonstration of how this outcome is the aggregate result of structured individual actions. In particular, an explanation should not make reference to meso or macro level factors. 

In his introduction to Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms Demeulenaere provides an analysis of the doctrine of methodological individualism and its current status. He believes that criticisms of MI have usually rested on a small number of misunderstandings which he attempts to resolve. For example, MI is not "atomistic", "egoistic", "non-social", or exclusively tied to rational choice theory. He prefers a refinement that he describes as structural individualism, but essentially he argues that MI is a universal requirement on social science. Demeulenaere specifically disputes the idea that MI implies a separation between society and non-social individuals. That said, Demeulenaere fully endorses the idea that AS depends upon and presupposes MI: “Does analytical sociology differ significantly from the initial project of MI? I do not really think so. But by introducing the notion of analytical sociology we are able to make a fresh start and avoid the various misunderstandings now commonly attached to MI” (Demeulenaere ed. kl 318). 

A theory based on the individual needs to have a theory of the actor. Hedström and others in the AS field are drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory -- what Hedström calls the "Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory". This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor's choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. (It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.) 

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incentivized by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism; link.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not atomistic about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they refer to their position as “structural individualism”: 

Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals’ actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (Hedström and Bearman, 2009, 4). 

Demeulenaere explicates the term by referring to Homans’ distinction between individualistic sociology and structural sociology; the latter “is concerned with the effects these structures, once created and maintained, have on the behaviour of individuals or categories of individuals” (Demeulenaere, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, 2011, introduction, quoting Homans, 1984). So “structural individualism” seems to amount to this: the behavior and motivations of individuals are influenced by the social arrangements in which they find themselves. 

This is a direction of thought that is not well developed within analytical sociology, but would repay further research. There is no reason why a methodological-individualist approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual's cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks. These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions. 

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in hypotheses about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research. This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (link). 

Here is Hedström's statement of the position:

The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences. The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (Dissecting, kl 65) 

A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181) 

Demeulenaere also emphasizes that AS depends closely on the methodology of social causal mechanisms. The "analytical" part of the phrase involves identifying separate things, and the social mechanisms idea says how these things are related. Causal mechanisms are expected to be the components of the linkages between events or processes hypothesized to bear a causal relation to each other. And, more specifically to the AS approach, the mechanisms are supposed to occur at the level of the actors--not at the meso or macro levels. So this means that AS would not countenance a meso-level mechanism like this: "the organizational form of the supervision structure at the Bhopal chemical plant caused a high rate of maintenance lapses that caused the accidental release of chemicals." The organizational form is a meso-level factor, and it would appear that AS would require that its causal properties be unpacked onto individual actors' behavior. (I, on the other hand, will argue below that this is a perfectly legitimate social mechanism because we can readily supply its microfoundations at the behavioral level. So this suggests that we can legitimately refer to meso-level mechanisms as long as we are mindful of the microfoundations requirement. And this corresponds as well to the tangible fact that institutions have causal force with respect to individuals. Here is an earlier discussion; link.) 

In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned. This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation. So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.  These techniques offer tractable methods for aggregating the effects of lower-level features of social life onto higher-level outcomes. If we represent actors as possessing characteristics of action X, Y, Z, and we represent their relations as U, V, W -- how do these actors in social settings aggregate to mid- and higher-level social patterns? This is the key methodological challenge that sociologists like Gianluca Manzo have explored (Agent-based Models and Causal Inference), and it produces very interesting results. 

This brief summary of the central doctrines of AS provides one reason why AS theorists are so concerned to have adequate and tractable models of the actor -- often rational actor models. Thomas Schelling's work provides a particularly key example for the AS research community; in field after field he demonstrates how micro motives aggregate onto macro outcomes (Schelling, 1978, 1984). And Elster's work is also key, in that he provides some theoretical machinery for analyzing the actor at a "thicker" level -- imperfect rationality, self-deception, emotion, commitment, and impulse (Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens). 

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes. It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the "aggregation dynamics" research program. There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain. And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components. However, the framework of analytical sociology should not be mistaken for a general approach to all sociological research and explanation. It is well suited to some problems, and less so to others.

(Here is an earlier post summarizing Peter Demeulenaere's account of analytical sociology; link.)

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Meso-foundational explanations

One of the catechismal ideas of analytical sociology is the microfoundations model of explanation: to explain a social fact we should provide an account of the microfoundations that produce it. That means identifying the facts about individual motivations and beliefs that lead them to behave in such a way as to bring about the social fact in question. Here I want to ask a deliberately provocative question: is it ever legitimate to look for a meso-foundational explanation?

There is an almost trivial answer to this question that is already implied by Coleman’s famous boat diagram (link): when we want to understand how actors came to have the motivations and beliefs that we have observed.

The local prevalence of Catholic values and practices is the causal factor that explains the distinctive mentality of French Catholic young people in Burgundy in the 1930s. Here we are proposing to give a meso- or macro-level account of a micro set of facts. As another example, we might account for the low percentage of stocks in the retirement plans of men in their 50s in 1970 by the mistrust of the stock market created in people who reached adulthood in the Great Depression. This too is a meso- to micro- explanation.

Are there other kinds of meso-foundational explanations? Can we provide satisfactory meso-level explanations of meso- or macro-level facts? Consider this possibility. Suppose we find that S&L institutions are less likely to become insolvent than large commercial banks. And suppose we find that the regulatory regimes governing S&Ls are more strict than those for commercial banks. The mechanism leading to a lower likelihood of insolvency is conveyed from "strict regulations" to "low likelihood of insolvency". (We can provide further underlying mechanisms, of the traditional microfoundational variety: officers of S&Ls understand the requirements of the regulatory regime; they prudently miminize the risk of civil or criminal penalties; and their institutions have a lower likelihood of insolvency.) This is a meso-level causal explanation of a meso-level fact, representing a causal relationship between one meso-level factor and another meso-level factor.

What about meso-foundational explanations of macro-level features? And symmetrically, what about macro-foundational explanations of meso- and micro-level features? Each of these pathways is possible. Consider a macro-level feature like “American males have an unusually strong identification with guns”. And suppose we offer a meso-level explanation of this widespread cultural value: “The shaping institutions of masculine cultural identity in a certain time and place (mass media, high school social life, popular fiction) inculcate and proliferate this feature of masculine identity.” This is a meso-level explanation of a macro-level feature. Moreover, we can also turn the explanatory lens around and explain the workings of the meso-level factors based on the pervasive macro-level factor: the prevailing male obsession with guns reinforces and reproduces the meso-level influences identified here.

The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is a bit disorienting. The examples imply that there is no “up” and “down” when it comes to explanatory primacy. Rather, social factors at each level can play an explanatory role in accounting for the features of facts at every level. Explanation does not necessarily proceed from “lower level” to higher level entities. "Descending", "ascending", and "lateral" causal explanations all have their place, and ascending (microfoundational) explanations have no special priority. Rather, the requirement that should be emphasized is that the adequacy of any explanation of a social fact depends on whether we have discovered the causal mechanisms that give rise to it. And causal mechanisms can operate at all levels of the social world.

The diagram at the top of the post, originally prepared to illustrate the idea of a "flat" social ontology, does a good job of illustrating the multi-directionality of social-causal mechanisms as well.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

New thinking about how authoritarian rule works

image: Russian police arrest Moscow anti-war protester

The risk to democracy in the United States is more serious than it has ever been (link, link, link). Unabashed strongman wannabes like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have made it very clear that they have no allegiance to the principles and values of a liberal democracy, and their social goals would require autocratic rule in order to be achieved. This is plain when we consider the mismatch that exists between public opinion and extreme-right social policies and values. The majority of the US population favors some level of rights to abortion, sensible gun regulation, and the freedom to think, speak, and associate as they wish; whereas the political program of the GOP is opposed to each of these goals. So it is important for all of us to have a more detailed understanding of what autocratic rule involves, how it comes about, and how it maintains power.

Johannes Gerschewski's The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule tries to answer several of those questions. Gerschewski is Research Associate in the Global Governance Department, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Socialforschung (WZB), as well as academic coordinator of the "Theory Network" of the Cluster of Excellence "Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)", Freie Universität Berlin (link). The book represents some excellent "next generation" thinking about the nature of authoritarianism and dictatorship, following upon theorizing by Hannah Arendt in the 1950s (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Juan Linz in the 1970s (Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes).

The question of regime stability is crucial: how does an autocracy maintain power, given that its actions will find favor and disfavor among diverse constituencies over a period of time? After all, Franco was not universally beloved by all segments of Spanish society from his ascension to power in 1936 to his death in 1975. So how did the Franco state maintain its stability throughout that 39-year period?

Gerschewski addresses this question by considering what counter-forces exist in an authoritarian society, and what strategies can be used to prevent successful resistance. He identifies the primary constituencies of an autocratic government in these terms:

In this book, I argue that the threats to the survival of autocratic regimes can emanate from three sides: from ordinary citizens, from the opposition, and from within the elite. (kl 299)

These are the sources of power that might endanger the survival of an authoritarian government. Gerschewski argues that authoritarian regimes pursue three distinct strategies in order to contain these threats to authoritarian rule: repression of the opposition, cooptation of elites, and legitimation of the regime to the masses of ordinary citizens. And he notes that the resources available to the authoritarian regime are always limited, so a "configuration" of strategies must be chosen. Even dictatorships face a "hard budget constraint". He finds that, broadly speaking, there are two distinctive configurations of strategies that can be chosen, and they have different logics -- hence the title of the book. These configurations are identified as "over-politicization" and "de-politicization" of issues.

Here is how he describes the over-politicization configuration of strategies:

I argue by employing the work of Carl Schmitt that politicization is the process of inflating a contrast, a societal cleavage, be it of ideological, religious, nationalistic, moral, cultural, economic, or ethnic couleur, into an absolute distinction, constructing so a friend-foe distinction (Schmitt [1932] 2002). As such, the over-politicizing logic attempts to politicize even previously unpolitical issues and to create an internal foe of such magnitude that repression against this foe seems to be even justifiable. (kl 337)

The over-politicization configuration is visible in US politics today; the use of racism, xenophobia, Christian nationalism, and the "war on woke" illustrates the politicization configuration chosen by the GOP today.

The de-politicization configuration is aimed at creating a culture of passivity among citizens, a willingness to accept the dictates of the state without protest.

The de-politicizing logic, in turn, focuses on the regime’s social or economic performance, images of law and order, internal security, and material well-being to keep the people satisfied with the regime’s output. (337)

This is the "chicken in every pot" strategy. And, strangely enough, de-politicization also seems to be a part of GOP strategy today. Many US citizens are strangely passive when it comes to Donald Trump's shameless lies, his well-known pattern of sexual harassment, his brutal mistreatment of immigrant children, and his scoffing indifference to the rule of law.

Here is a diagram representing the factors involved in Gerschewski's analysis (kl 554).

The relevance of Gerschewski's treatment of the chief strategies of authoritarian regimes (and aspiring authoritarian parties) to contemporary US politics is evident. But it is also interesting to consider the applicability of Gerschewski's theory to Vladimir Putin's Russia. Repression, legitimation, and cooptation all have visible roles in Russia today. Opponents of the war against Ukraine are treated harshly in the streets; massive propaganda efforts are made to legitimate Putin's goals through appeal to "Russian nationalism and destiny"; and cooptation is plainly an important ongoing process in managing military, political, and oligarch circles. As Gerschewski puts the point,

Coups remain the most frequent way that an autocracy ends. To maintain intra-elite unity, therefore, has been, for good reason, at the core of the most recent explanations of autocratic regime stability. (524)

Gerschewski offers a theory of authoritarian regime stability; but he also wants to test this theory. This he attempts to do by considering a wide range of cases. In particular, he examines authoritarian regimes in East Asia to assess whether the strategies and constituencies he hypothesizes are to be found empirically in these heterogeneous cases of authoritarian rule. This work involves a comparativist methodology. Gerschewski provides "individual case narratives" for forty-five regimes. Each case attempts to estimate the "stability" of the authoritarian regime in question, and Gerschewski methodically examines each case with regard to the strategies chosen for managing conflict and destabilization from citizens, opponents, and elites.

The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule is an important book on several levels. Methodologically, it makes a strong effort to provide empirical evaluation for a broad theory of autocratic regime stability, using the methods of comparative research. Substantively, it can be seen as a sort of converse to Levitsky and Ziblatt's book How Democracies Die, in that Gerschewski's topic is "how autocracies survive". And finally -- though this is not an application pursued by Gerschewski himself in this book -- it can be seen as a field guide for understanding many of the political choices of anti-democratic far-right parties within functioning liberal democracies like the GOP today.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Sources of technology failure

A recurring theme in Understanding Society is the topic of technology failure -- air disasters, chemical plant explosions, deep drilling accidents. This diagram is intended to capture several dimensions of failure causes that have been discussed. The categories identified here include organizational dysfunctions, behavioral shortcomings, system failures, and regulatory dysfunctions. Each of these broad categories has contributed to the occurrence of major technology disasters, and often most or all of them are involved.

System failures. 2005 Texas City refinery explosion. A complex technology system involves a dense set of sub-systems that have multiple failure modes and multiple ways of affecting other sub-systems. As Charles Perrow points out, often those system interactions are "tightly coupled", which means that there is very little time in which operators can attempt to diagnose the source of a failure before harmful effects have proliferated to other sub-systems. A pump fails in a cooling loop; an exhaust valve is stuck in the closed position; and nuclear fuel rods are left uncooled for less than a minute before they generate enough heat to boil away the coolant water. Similar to the issue of tight coupling is the feature of complex interactions: A influences B, C, D; B and D influence A; C's change of state further influences unexpected performance by D. The causal chains here are not linear, so once again -- operators and engineers are hard pressed to diagnose the source cause of an anomalous behavior in time to save the system from meltdown or catastrophic failure.

And then there are failures that originate in problems in the original design of the system and its instruments. Nancy Leveson identifies many such design failures in "The Role of Software in Spacecraft Accidents" (link). For example, the explosion at the Texas City refinery (link) occurred in part because the level transmitter instrument for the splitter high tower only measured column height up to the ten-foot maximum permissible height of the column of flammable liquid in the high splitter. Otherwise it only produced an alarm, which was routinely ignored. As a result the operators had no way of knowing that the column had gone up to 80 feet and then to the top of the column, leading to a release and subsequent fire and explosion (CSB Final Report Texas City BP) -- an overflow accident. And sometimes the overall system actually had no formal design process at all; as Andrew Hopkins observes,

Processing plants evolve and grow over time. A study of petroleum refineries in the US has shown that “the largest and most complex refineries in the sample are also the oldest … Their complexity emerged as a result of historical accretion. Processes were modified, added, linked, enhanced and replaced over a history that greatly exceeded the memories of those who worked in the refinery. (Lessons from Longford, 33)

This implies that the whole system is not fully understood by any of the participants -- executives, managers, engineers, or skilled operators.

Organizational dysfunctions. Deepwater Horizon. There is a very wide range of organizational dysfunctions that can be identified in case studies of technology disasters, from refineries to patient safety accidents. These include excessive cost reduction mandated by corporate decisions, inadequate safety culture embodied in leaders, operators, and day-to-day operations; poor inter-unit communications, where one unit concludes that a hazardous operation should be suspended but another unit doesn't get the message; poor training and supervision; and conflicting priorities within the organization. Top managers are subject to production pressures that lead them to resist decisions involving a shutdown of process while anomalies are sorted out; higher-level managers sometimes lack the technical knowledge needed to know when a given signal or alarm may be potentially catastrophic; failures of communications within large companies about known process risks; and inadequate oversight within a large firm of subcontractor performance and responsibilities. Two pervasive problems are identified in a great many case studies: relentless cost containment initiatives to increase efficiency and profitability; and a lack of commitment to (and understanding of) an enterprise-wide culture of safety. In particular, it is common for executives and governing boards of high-risk enterprises to declare that "safety is our number-one priority", where what they focus on is "days-lost" measures of injuries in the workplace. But this conception of safety fails completely to identify system risks. (Andrew Hopkins makes a very persuasive case for the use of "safety case" regulation and detailed HAZOP analysis for a complex operation as a whole; link.)

Behavioral shortcomings. Bhopal toxic gas release, Texas City refinery accident. No organization works like a Swiss watch. Rather, specific individuals occupy positions of work responsibility that may sometimes be only imperfectly performed. A control room supervisor is distracted at the end of his shift and fails to provide critical information for the supervisor on the incoming shift. Process inspectors sometimes take shortcuts and certify processes that in fact contain critical sources of failure; or inspectors yield to management pressure to overlook "minor" deviations from regulations. A maintenance crew deviates from training and protocol in order to complete tasks on time, resulting in a minor accident that leads to a cascade of more serious events. Directors of separate units within a process facility fail to inform each other of anomalies that may affect the safety of other sub-systems. Staff at each level have an incentive to conceal mistakes and "near-misses" that could otherwise be corrected.

Regulatory shortcomings. Longford gas plant, Davis-Besse nuclear plant incidents, East Palestine Norfolk Southern Railway accident. Risky industries plainly require regulation. But regulatory frameworks are often seriously flawed by known dysfunctions (link, link, link): industry capture (nuclear power industry); inadequate resources (NRC); inadequate enforcement tools (Chemical Safety Board); revolving door from industry to regulatory staff to industry; vulnerability to "anti-regulation" ideology expressed by industry and sympathetic legislators; and many of the dysfunctions already mentioned under the categories of organizational and behavioral shortcomings. The system of delegated regulation has been appealing to both industry and government officials. This is a system where central oversight is exercised by the regulatory agency, but the technical experts of the industry itself are called upon to assess critical safety features of the process being regulated. This approach makes government budget support for the regulatory agency much less costly. This system is used by the Federal Aviation Administration in its oversight of airframe safety. However, the experience of the Boeing 737 MAX failures has shown that the system of delegated regulation is vulnerable to distortion by the manufacturing companies that it oversees (link).

Here is Andrew Hopkin's multi-level analysis of the Longford Esso gas plant accident (link). This diagram illustrates each of the categories of failure mentioned here.

Consider this alternative universe. It is a world in which CEOs, executives, directors, and staff in risky enterprises have taken the time to read 4-6 detailed case studies of major technology accidents and have absorbed the complexity of the kinds of dysfunctions that can lead to serious disasters. Instructive case studies might include the Longford Esso gas plant explosion, the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, the Boeing 737 MAX failure, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant incidents. These case studies would provide enterprise leaders and staff with a much more detailed understanding of the kinds of organizational and system failure that can be expected to occur in risky enterprises, and leaders and managers would be much better prepared to prevent failures like these in the future. It would be a safer world.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Authoritarian steps in Red state legislatures

Is it so hard to picture a United States that has succumbed to authoritarianism and the sacrifice of our basic democratic rights? Not really, because we can see this process at work in a handful of Republican-dominated state governments already. Here are just a few examples of states in which governors and legislatures are using the power enabled by "super-majority" status to limit the rights and liberties of their citizens with impunity. These are just a few examples, and it would be very useful for a trusted organization like the ACLU to do a full audit of these kinds of actions in the states.

  • Florida -- legislation limiting freedom to teach about "uncomfortable" subjects in public schools and universities; ideological takeover of a public university by the governor and hack politicians; banned books in school libraries; a declared war on a private corporation using the power of the state to punish Disney
  • North Carolina -- new Republican majority on North Carolina supreme court reverses prior supreme court decision on racially suspect gerrymandering and voter ID requirements
  • Tennessee -- expulsion of democratically elected representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee House of Representatives
  • Montana -- Montana Republicans bar duly elected transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr for "decorum"
  • Idaho -- legislation prohibiting people in Idaho from helping pregnant minors leave the state to obtain abortions; similar efforts in other Republican super-majority states
  • Texas -- legislation enacted to permit the Texas secretary of state to overturn elections in the state's largest county; legislation prohibiting "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" programs at universities moves forward; ban on use of FDA-approved mifepristone to effect medical abortion; other states and conservative Federal court rulings abet this effort
  • Multiple states -- near-total abortion bans in twelve states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia)

It is a terrible picture, if you care about the equal worth of all citizens, and a commitment to full and extensive liberties for all. Reproductive rights are suddenly limited; rights of freedom of thought and expression are limited; groups of citizens are singled out for punitive treatment, including LGBTQ and trans people; voting rights for urban people and people of color are deliberately limited; teachers, librarians, and faculty are intimidated from teaching and speaking independently.

How are we to understand all of these regressive uses of state power? Here is a very plausible thought: They represent an incipient authoritarian imposition of Christian nationalist ideology on the whole of our society. And what is this, if not an early stage of Orbánism in America? It seems evident that numerous Republican-dominated states have already taken clear steps in that direction. Is the soft authoritarianism of today's Hungary the future of political life in the United States? What will it take to restore democratic freedom and equality in our country?

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Analytical sociology and contentious politics

Analytical sociology is, as its proponents say, a meta-theory of how to conduct social research. In their contribution to Gianluca Manzo's Analytical Sociology: Actions and Networks Peter Hedström and Petri Ylikoski offer these core principles:
  1. provide explanations of social outcomes of interest based on the mechanisms that produce them;
  2. identify mechanisms at the level of the actors who make up those outcomes
  3. strive for realism in assumptions and hypotheses
  4. be pluralistic about theories of actor motivation and decision making processes; and
  5. build explanations from individuals to social outcomes.
Further, the framework is not offered merely as an abstract philosophy of social science, but rather as a heuristically valuable set of recommendations about how to approach the study of important problems of sociological interest.

So let's take that idea seriously and ask how the study of contentious politics would look from within a rigorously applied AS approach.

The subject matter of contentious politics is a large one: how are we to explain the "dynamics of contention" through which challengers succeed in mobilizing support among ordinary people and elites to mount a significant challenge to "incumbents" -- the wielders of political power in a given set of circumstances? Here is how Chuck Tilly and Sidney Tarrow encapsulate the field in their introduction to Contentious Politics. Referring to two important cases of contention (opposition to the slave trade in 18th-century England and Ukraine's protest movement against Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency in 2013-2014), they write:

Although we can identify many differences, these were both episodes of what we call contentious politics. In both, actors made claims on authorities, used public performances to do so, drew on inherited forms of collective action (our term for this is repertoires ) and invented new ones, forged alliances with influential members of their respective polities, took advantage of existing political regime opportunities and made new ones, and used a combination of institutional and extrainstitutional routines to advance their claims. Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on other actors’ interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties. Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (introduction)

There is, of course, a large and vigorous literature within the field of contentious politics, and much of that research falls within the methodological umbrella of comparative historical sociology. There is a great deal of emphasis on the study of case histories, a thick conception of agency, and special interest in social movements and the dynamics of mobilization. And especially in the version offered by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention, there is explicit emphasis on explanations based on discovery of causal mechanisms and processes; and there is a principled rejection of "macro" theories of war, civil war, or revolution in favor of "meso" theories of component mechanisms and processes.

Let's take Doug McAdam's treatment of the US civil rights movement in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 as a good example of empirical and theoretical studies in contentious politics. McAdam treats the origins and growth of the civil rights movement in the South as a case of contentious politics. In his account, it was an insurgency that was broadly based, passionately pursued, supported by effective regional and national organizations, and largely successful in achieving its most important goals. Here are a few of McAdam's central points as he formulates them in the 1999 second introduction:

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action. These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

Or in short: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes (viii-ix). Here are brief descriptions of each of these axes of analysis.

[Expanding political opportunities.] Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests.... But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life. Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time. It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

[Extant mobilizing structures.] By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action. This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

[Framing or other interpretive processes.] Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings -- including a shared collective identity -- that people bring to an instance of incipient contention. At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)

How might a researcher firmly committed to the core principles of analytical sociology assess McAdam's work in this book? And how would such a researcher approach the problem himself or herself?

One possibility is that all of McAdam's key theoretical statements in Political Process and the methodology that he pursues can be reformulated in analytical-sociology terms. McAdam was, perhaps, an analytical sociologist before his time. And it will turn out that this is almost true -- but with an important proviso.

Mechanisms (1) and microfoundations (5):

McAdam's approach to the civil rights movement gives central focus to the social mechanisms that contributed to the raising of grievances and the mobilization of groups in support of their claims. And, with a qualification mentioned below, he is receptive as well to the idea that "people make their own history" -- that is, that the processes he is considering are embodied in the actions, thoughts, emotions, and mental frameworks of socially situated human actors.

And while I think [rational choice theory] is a truncated view of the individual, I nonetheless take seriously the need for such a model and for the articulation of mechanisms that bridge the micro, meso and macro dimensions of contentious politics. I do not pretend to deliver on a formal model of this sort in this Introduction. For now, I want to make a single foundational point: in my view a viable model of the individual must take full account of the fundamentally social/relational nature of human existence. This is not to embrace the oversocialized conception of the individual that I see informing the work of most structuralists and some culturalists. (1999 introduction)

Actor-centered approach to social change (2):

McAdam's "actor-centered" view of social movements is evident in the preceding quotation. It is likewise evident in his approving quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Time and action are the teachers. (kl 4359)

Pluralistic theory of the actor (4):

McAdam advocates for a thick theory of the actor. He is critical of the narrow view of "purposive actors" associated with rational choice theory, and he takes "framing", "culture", and "identity" seriously as features of the individual's motivational space.

3. Framing or other Interpretive Processes. If a combination of political opportunities and mobilizing structures affords the group a certain structural potential for action, these elements remain, in the absence of one final factor, insufficient to account for collective action. Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings—including a shared collective identity—that people bring to an instance of incipient contention. At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. The affective and cognitive come together to shape these two perceptions. (kl 138)

In particular, he gives explanatory importance to black culture and identity in the choices about involvement made by potential participants during the struggle for civil rights in the South:

Black culture—represents a concern for the preservation and perpetuation of black culture. Implicit in this concern is the belief that the black cultural heritage has been systematically suppressed and denigrated by the dominant white society and that blacks must recover their lost heritage if they are to maintain a sense of collective identity. (kl 5760)

Realism of assumptions (3):

McAdam's focus on the mechanisms and processes of mobilization and contention is fundamentally realist. He is interested in identifying the actual forces, circumstances, and actor-level considerations that explain the success of mobilization in one historical circumstance and failure in another. He uses the term "model" frequently, but in context it almost always means "explanatory framework". He is not interested in offering an abstract, formal model of mobilization; rather, he is interested in tracing out the circumstances, actions, and responses that jointly led to successful mobilization in some but not all circumstances. Further, McAdam and other researchers in the field of contentious politics pay a great deal of attention to the causal influence of social networks -- another important thread in common with analytical sociology.

Meso-level causation and the role of organizations

The primary tension between McAdam's approach in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency and the idealized meta-theory described above is the AS assumption that all explanations must ascend from individuals to collective outcomes (#5). The AS meta-theory gives primary emphasis to explanations located on the rising strut of Coleman's boat -- the aggregation dynamics through which individual properties and actions interact and bring about changes at the macro-level. By contrast, McAdam gives ineliminable causal importance to structures at the meso- and macro-levels throughout the account he offers, and he invokes these structures in his explanations. The circumstances of Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union represent a macro-level structural factor that influenced the course of the civil rights struggle, according to McAdam (kl 422). And intermediate-level organizations like CORE, the NAACP, the SNCC, and the SCLC play key causal roles in the account he offers of success and failure of specific efforts at mobilization and collective action. The social movement he describes cannot be analyzed in a way that ignores the activity and coordinating capabilities of organizations like these, and these organizations cannot be exogenized as fixed and unchanging conditions setting part of the environment of mobilization. Rather, McAdam describes a dynamic process in which individuals, neighborhoods, leaders, regional organizations, and national organizations react to the actions of others and respond strategically. So McAdam's account does not conform to the explanatory dictum associated with analytical sociology -- the idea that explanations must proceed from features of individual choice and action to the higher-level outcomes we want to explain. Instead, McAdam's explanations typically involve both individual actors and groups, intermediate political organizations, and higher-level structural factors like the Cold War.

But at the moment, I see this final point as a friendly amendment to the AS manifesto. It is evident that meso-level organizations (labor unions, civil rights organizations, student organizations, racist organizations like Citizens Councils and the KKK, ...) played a causal role in contentious action against the Jim Crow state; and it is evident as well that it is entirely possible and fruitful to offer actor-centered accounts of how these organizations work. So there is no fundamental incompatibility between McAdam's explanatory framework and the AS meta-theory. It seems open to analytical sociologists from Peter Hedström to Delia Baldassarri to embrace Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency as a welcome contribution to a substantive sociological problem, and one that is largely compatible with the AS manifesto.

Agent-based modeling as an approach to contentious politics

There is an important final qualification, however. Agent-based modeling techniques find a natural home within analytical sociology because they strictly embody the "generativist" paradigm: explanation must proceed from facts about individuals to derived facts about social ensembles (#5). In a series of posts, I have argued that ABM models do a poor job of explaining social unrest and contention (link, link, link). This finding derives directly from the methodological restrictions of ABM -- only individual actors and standing constraints can be considered in construction of an agent-based model. ABM models are "localistic". But this means that it is hard to see how an agent-based model can incorporate the causal effectiveness of a spatially distributed and dynamic organization. ABM techniques are relevant to one limited part of the analysis of contentious politics offered by McAdam -- the person-to-person processes of mobilization that occur during a period of activism. But ABM techniques do not seem applicable to explaining the contributions of organizations like the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980, the UAW's struggle for labor rights in the 1930s, or the role of SNCC as catalysts for activism in the 1960s. So on this point we might conclude that McAdam's multi-level analysis of the large, complicated case of the US civil rights movement is superior to a methodology restricted to the generativist's credo, that seeks to explain outcomes in the US South strictly on the basis of stylized assumptions about individual actors in different locations.

This implies a nuanced conclusion about the relationship between analytical sociology and the field of contentious politics. McAdam's methods and explanations in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency are largely compatible with the premises of the AS meta-theory, with the proviso that McAdam legitimately gives a causal role to organizations and other meso-level entities. This suggests that AS needs to think again about how it will handle the causal role of meso-level entities -- not an impossible task. But one of the main explanatory tools of AS, the methodology of agent-based modeling, does not provide a credible basis for understanding the dynamics of the civil rights movement or other social movements of contention. So even if one judges that AS can be formulated in a way that welcomes nuanced multi-level case studies like that provided by McAdam, the explanations offered by McAdam cannot be replaced with agent-based models. And this supports the view argued elsewhere in the blog as well, that ABM fundamentalism must be rejected (link, link).

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Psychology of "comradeship" in Hitler's armies

What motivates violence, sacrifice, and atrocity among members of the military and other armed units in times of war and occupation? Christopher Browning asks this question for the members of Order Police Battalion 101 in Ordinary Men (link), and Thomas Kühne asks similar questions in The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler's Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century. Kühne notes the parallels and contrasts between the two books in these terms:

Unaffected by military sociology, the Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, in his 1992 book on the German Police Battalion 101, nevertheless illuminated how group pressure, a basic feature of comradeship, enabled the perpetration of the Holocaust. While not explicitly addressed in Browning's book, comradeship again does not appear as the epitome of altruistic solidarity but as the engine of evil per se, deeply ingrained in the machinery of Nazi terror. Widely praised in Germany just as in America and other parts of the world, the book's argument thus yet raised concerns among readers who still appreciated comradeship as a core virtue of soldiers. An officer of the German Bundeswehr, for instance, warned about generalizing Browning's findings. The social psychology of Himmler's murder troops had nothing to do with the military virtue of comradeship, he clarified. Instead, he said, Himmler's men had “completely perverted this concept of dedicated commitment between soldiers.” (4)

Kühne's research depends on a very engaging combination of relevant sociological theory and careful analysis of letters and interviews of soldiers and veterans. He regards "comradeship" as both myth and sociological reality -- myth, in that its themes of heroic masculinity were romanticizations of the realities of a soldier's life, and reality, in that some core values of "comradeship" served both to motivate and to constrain the conduct of individual soldiers in the Wehrmacht. The value system of comradeship implied a strong degree of compliance with the group:

The benefits of comradeship were reserved for those who surrendered their Selves, their individual desires and their agency, to the group of comrades. The myth of comradeship leveled the ground for a conformist ethics that honored only what served group cohesion and denounced the concept of individual responsibility. (11)

And Kühne emphasizes the moral ambiguity of the concept of comradeship:

Once widely accepted as the epitome of altruistic solidarity and cooperation, of moral goodness, of humaneness per se, the concept came, by the end of the twentieth century, to be seen as a euphemism for criminal complicity and cover-ups – for collectively committed, clandestine evil. (12)

The hard question here is the question of motivation: to what extent did the meanings and values of "comradeship", solidarity with one's comrades, lead to both courage and atrocity? And to what extent was the value system of comradeship a coercive social order for soldiers in the Wehrmacht, creating a powerful set of pressures to conform even when the actions of the unit were atrocious?

Here is a passage that captures much of the psychology and mental state/identity that Kühne identifies with “comradeship” from the Wehrmacht.

A few weeks before the Third Reich collapsed, Kurt Kreisler, a thirty-three-year-old NCO fighting in the East against the Red Army, seemed to be in the best of moods. Most of his comrades had been killed in action, but there was something that made up for mass death all around him, he wrote in a letter to his parents in Baden. Social life trumped physical death. Only recently the shrunken battalion — merely 150 soldiers — had successfully defeated a Soviet detachment of 1,000 men. The mood of his outfit “couldn’t be better,” he wrote. Although assembled only shortly before, they got along splendidly. Immediately becoming “the best of friends” with men one had never known before induced a feeling of great community that became stronger the more devastating the nation’s future looked. Kreissler’s conclusion in February 1945 was: “We want to stick together, we want to fight together, or we want to get wounded together — that’s what we are longing for.” (107)

(Kühne notes a few pages later (114) that Kreisler was not typical or ordinary at all; he had been a salaried Hitler Youth leader, and had volunteered for the army at the advanced age of 28.)

Kühne links the thoughts expressed in Kreisler's letter to the work of Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz in their sociological explanation of small-group cohesion in combat units. They quote CH Cooley’s earlier ideas about small group identities: the theory that intimate face-to-face associations of primary groups enable “a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole so that one’s very self … is the common life and purpose of the group … a ‘we’ that is built on ‘sympathy,’ ‘mutual identification’ and ‘intimacy.’”. But, as Kühne notes, this theory paradoxically cleanses the typical Wehrmacht soldier of a Nazi or racist identity; it is loyalty to the small group rather than devotion to Nazi ideology that motivated the typical soldier, they imply. The Shils-Janowitz interpretation was challenged by Omer Bartov, who attributed soldierly solidarity to other factors: “the racist demonization of the enemy in the East; the harsh discipline; and ‘de-modernization of the front’ — the animal-like material conditions of the soldiers — which brutalized and barbarized them…. In Bartov’s view, the Wehrmacht was by no means an apolitical, ‘normal’ army but exactly the opposite: deeply Nazified, a crucial engine of the Nazis’ genocidal project” (109).

Kühne prefers an approach that includes both the psychological processes of “primary group solidarity” and the macro-institutional processes of military discipline, patriotic symbols, and virulent anti-semitism to explain the “fighting spirit” of Wehrmacht soldiers even after all hope of victory had vanished. And he suggests that the concept of “comradeship” encompassed both levels: “Comradeship as understood by many Germans in the interwar and Nazi period aligned and reconciled primary group bonding and secondary symbols of national unity” (111).

The Wehrmacht united 17 million German men of different, though mostly younger, ages; of urban and rural backgrounds, and of all social classes; of all political and ideological camps, from Nazis to conservatives, liberals, Social Democrats, and even communists; of all religious and non-religious creeds (including some Jews, who managed to hide in the Wehrmacht); and of course of enormously different personalities; men who had embraced the Hitler Youth or other sections of the German youth movement, and those who would have preferred to pursue their own careers and enjoy their private lives as husbands and fathers. To whom did comradeship matter, and in what ways? (113)

Kühne emphasizes the sociological observation that “communities” often depend on a clear definition of “others” to whom they are antagonistic — the role played by anti-Semitism and anti-Slav ideology within the Nazi ideological system.

Comradeship was a set of concentric circles, pulling men into face-to-face communities and into “secondary,” anonymous and imagined groups such as the entire army, the mystic community of fallen soldiers, and the Volksgemeinschaft. The military discourse on social relations and social cohesion in interwar Germany had supported this idea of comradeship. (134)

Comradeship in combat is one thing; but Kühne links the social motivations of comradeship to atrocity and genocide as well.

Without the Wehrmacht’s support, the Einsatzgruppen the SS and the police — often in conjunction with local collaborators, could not have killed more than a million Jews. Wehrmacht headquarters registered the Jews of a conquered region or city, forced them to wear visible identification, and concentrated them in ghettos. Wehrmacht units rounded them up and herded them to the execution sites, which the soldiers then shielded from public view, or they took bizarre pleasure in watching the spectacle. Individual soldiers or entire units joined in when the shootings started…. Some Wehrmacht soldiers took pleasure in murdering civilians, or at least they carried out the tasked they had volunteered for as cynically and cold-bloodedly as SS men, police officers, and local collaborators did. (142)

But Kühne suggests that Nazi ideology never achieved the total domination it sought of the inner lives of the millions of soldiers under arms:

Despite all indoctrination efforts by the regime, this ideological, political, and cultural diversity [across individual soldiers] still survived in Third Reich society, and subsequently also in the Wehrmacht, which reflected society. (142)

Nonetheless, he suggests that Nazi ideology held by officers was a decisive factor in determining whether a given Wehrmacht unit engaged in murder of Jews:

When it came to taking action against Jews or other civilians, it was often the ideological disposition of the commanding officers and the choices they made that decided whether or not a Wehrmacht unit collaborated in mass murder. (143)

Two opposing value systems directed the Wehrmacht soldiers’ choices: on the one hand, the universal virtues of human compassion and pity for the weak, enjoining mercy for the unarmed civilian and a defeated enemy; on the other hand, the harsh racist ideology that denounced the idea of universality and demanded, as Himmler put it, an “ethics” that complies “solely with the needs of our people. Good is what is useful for the people, evil is what damages our people.” (143)

He notes that some soldiers and officers acted on the basis of compassion. For example:

When the commanders of three parallel companies of Infantry Regiment 691 … were ordered by their superiors to kill the Jews in their respective districts, only one of them, Reserve Lieutenant Sibille, a forty-seven-year-old teacher, refused to carry out the order, explaining that he “could not expect decent German soldiers to soil their hands with such things” as the killing campaigns of the Einsatzgruppen. Asked by his superior when he would finally become “hard,” Sibille answered: “in such cases” — when it was to murder Jewish civilians including women and children — “never.” (142-143)

So far comradeship was joined with military success. But the Barbarosa campaign soon turned into a disaster for the German armies. How did comradeship survive during the collapse of the Wehrmacht?

In the last two years of the war, comradeship did not vanish but it was altered. Solidarity, humanity, and tenderness in the face of mass death gave way to a new, Nazified idea of collective identity. there may still have been a few efforts by soldiers to preserve humanity in the midst of the violence but this kind of comradeship was increasingly overshadowed by a new type of bond, one that was driven by cynicism rather than care and tenderness…. Comradeship denoted inclusion, belonging, solidarity, and togetherness, but its reality depended on its opposite, the Other, the foe — exclusion. The Other could be the overwhelming enemy soldier or the denigrated enemy civilian. (170-171)

Earlier posts have considered some of the themes that have been prominent within empirical psychology of morality. How do Kühne's findings relate to those themes? As noted above, there are suggestive parallels between Kühne's research and that of Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men. But there are a number of important convergences with the literature in moral psychology as well. Here are a few:

  • identity was important to soldiers' motivations -- identity as a man, as a Protestant, as a German, as a patriot
  • pre-war identities and value systems (political, religious, ethical) persisted in the private moral universes of many millions of Wehrmacht soldiers
  • the moral emotions stimulated by intense experiences within small groups created unusually strong motivations of solidarity, loyalty, affection, and sacrifice for fellow soldiers within the group
  • worldview (ideology) was an important factor in creating a willingness to kill the innocent
  • preserving a preferred self-conception was an important part of the space of judgment and action or inaction for many soldiers
  • for most soldiers, there was at least a degree of conflict between their human impulses of pity, compassion, and reluctance to harm the innocent, on the one hand, and the brutalized actions demanded by their Wehrmacht roles
  • Nazi ideology and dehumanization of Jews, Slavs, and other non-Aryan peoples played an important role in the willingness of some soldiers to commit mass murder

These observations can be tied back to the primary areas of research in moral psychology identified in Ellemers et al review of the field of moral psychology (link): moral reasoning; moral judgments; moral behavior; moral emotions; and moral self-views.

Finally, Kühne's research complements the work of Kristen Monroe in "Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust" (link) in its detailed use of first-person documents created by Wehrmacht soldiers and veterans. These letters, diaries, and other personal writings give important insight into the mentalities of the diverse men who served in Hitler's armies -- from the former Hitler Youth leader Kurt Kreisler to the refusenik Reserve Lieutenant Sibille -- and who served in Hitler's genocidal wars. It is worth considering whether Monroe's theory of the mentalities of genocider, bystander, and rescuer finds support in Kühne's account.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Psychology of morality

Morality is a part of everyday life and personal experience. It is also, of course, the subject of a large field of philosophy -- philosophical ethics. What principles should I follow in action? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I owe to other people in a range of circumstances? 

We can also study moral thinking and action from the point of view of empirical psychology. Several areas of method and theory have been developed in psychology for the study of moral reasoning and behavior, including cognitive studies of moral thinking, social-psychological studies of the influence of external social factors on moral behavior, evolutionary studies of the evolutionary development of moral emotions, and ethnomethodological studies of "morality in interaction".

So it is worth asking how much we can learn about real everyday moral behavior from the empirical research psychologists have done on these questions to date. What insights can we gain from empirical research into the question, “why do people behave as they do in ‘morally’ salient circumstances”? And of particular interest — are there findings that are useful for understanding the behavior of “ordinary people” in times of catastrophe?

Naomi Ellemers, Jojanneke van der Toorn, Yavor Paunov, and Thed van Leeuwen's "The Psychology of Morality: A Review and Analysis of Empirical Studies Published From 1940 Through 2017" (link) provides a large literature review of research in the psychology of morality since 1940. Based on content analysis of almost 1,300 research articles. published since 1996, they have classified research topics and empirical methods into a small number of categories. Here is a cluster graph of their analysis.

Their analysis permits them to categorize the field of moral psychology around several groups of research questions and empirical approaches.

Research questions: The authors find that the roughly 2,000 articles considered permit identification of five large areas of research: moral reasoning; moral judgments; moral behavior; moral emotions; and moral self-views. These categories complement each other, in the sense that findings in one area can serve to explain findings in another area.

Empirical approaches and measures: The authors find several fairly distinctive empirical approaches to problems in moral psychology. Most of these approaches primarily make use of self-reports and questionnaires by subjects in response to morally relevant questions. Topics include —

  • hypothetical moral dilemmas
  • lists of traits or behaviors,
  • endorsement of abstract moral rules, and
  • position on specific moral issues (Table 1).

The bulk of these studies rely on correlational analysis. Some of the research papers reviewed make use of controlled experiments in which a set of controlled laboratory circumstances or a series of questions are presented to the subject, and the researcher hopes to discover causal relationships based on variations in behavior resulting from changing experimental conditions. (It is striking that neither of the most famous experiments on moral behavior are mentioned or placed within the conceptual structure of the authors' findings: the Milgram experiment and Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment.)

Ellemers et al further differentiate studies of morality according to the level of mechanism that is the primary object of investigation: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup mechanisms. Here is their brief summary of these levels of mechanisms:

(a) research on intrapersonal mechanisms, which studies how a single individual considers, evaluates, or makes decisions about rules, objects, situations, and courses of action; (b) research on interpersonal mechanisms, which examines how individuals perceive, evaluate, and interact with other individuals; (c) research on intragroup mechanisms, investigating how people perceive, evaluate, and respond to norms or behaviors displayed by other members of the same group, work or sports team, religious community, or organization; and (d) research on intergroup mechanisms, focusing on how people perceive, evaluate, and interact with members of different cultural, ethnic, or national groups. (342)

Here is their tabulation of "number of publications" classified by mechanism and research theme.

"Intrapersonal" mechanisms are the predominant object of research in all research areas except "Moral judgments", and "Intragroup" mechanisms are least frequently examined across the board.

The authors identify three "seminal publications" in the field of the psychology of morality: Haidt 2001, Greene et al. 2001, and Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway 2003. They also provide the top three seminal publications for each research area. These are selected based on the total number of citation each article received. 

This article succeeds in providing an abstract map of topics, methods, and levels of analysis across a reasonably comprehensive set of research articles published between 1960 and 2017. The extensive list of references the authors provide is a course in itself on the current state of empirical moral psychology. (Interested readers will also find much relevant discussion in Hellemers' monograph, Morality and the Regulation of Social Behavior: Groups as Moral Anchors.)

Two other articles are worth considering on the question of how we should go about trying to understand "human morality and moral behavior" using empirical methods.

Kristen Monroe's "Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust" (link) is particularly interesting in connection with the problem of understanding how "ordinary people" can commit evil actions. Her article provides both a useful survey of a large literature of social-psychology studies of individual genocidal behavior, and her own original research based on close analysis of extensive interviews with genociders, bystanders, and rescuers. Especially important among the sources included in Monroe's literature review is The Courage to Care (Rittener, C., & Myers, S. (1986)), which provides a large collection of Holocaust-era survivor interviews from each category. Monroe's 2012 monograph Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice goes into more extensive detail on the main findings of "Cracking the Code of Genocide" concerning what we can learn from interviews with participants about the nature of moral conduct.

Most interesting is Monroe's own work in which she performs detailed analyses of 100 interviews in order to identify underlying themes and psychological factors. She uses "narrative interpretive analytic methodology" (706) to sort out factors of psychological importance. Monroe's analysis finds that there are distinctive differences in self-images, worldview, and cognitive classifications (700) across these three groups of participants.

A narrative interpretive analysis of in-depth interviews with bystanders, Nazis, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust reveals the intricate but critical importance of psychological factors in explaining behavior during genocides.... Bystanders see themselves as passive people, lacking in control and low in efficacy. The Nazi self-image is as victims who need to protect themselves and their community. Rescuers consider themselves connected to all human beings through bonds of a common humanity. The rescuers' idealized cognitive model of what it means to be a human being is far more expansive and inclusive than the model employed by bystanders or Nazis. (700)

She offers six major findings:

  1. Self-image is the central psychological variable
  2. Identity constrains choice for all individuals
  3. Character and self-image are not all. A critical ethical aspect of identity is relational
  4. The ethical importance of values works through the fashion in which values are integrated into the speaker's sense of self and worldview
  5. Personal suffering, in the form of past trauma, heightens awareness of the plight of others for rescuers; for bystanders and Nazis, however, it increases a sense of vulnerability
  6. Speakers' cognitive categorization systems carry strong ethical overtones. (711)

Gabriel Abend looks at the field of moral psychology from the other end of the telescope in "What the Science of Morality Doesn’t Say About Morality" (link). He provides a literature review the current research area in moral psychology that aims to discover a neuroscience analysis of morality. This field of research program attempts to provide neurophysiological correlates with moral judgments. "What brain areas are “activated,” “recruited,” “implicated,” “responsible for,” or “associated with” making moral judgments?" (162). Abend's article provides a sustained critique of the assumptions in use in this field, and what he regards as its over-emphasis on one small aspect of "morality in everyday life": the question of moral judgment. Against the idea that this line of research constitutes the whole of a "new science of morality", Abend asks for methodological and theoretical pluralism. "I call for a pluralism of methods and objects of inquiry in the scientific investigation of morality, so that it transcends its problematic overemphasis on a particular kind of individual moral judgment" (abstract).

The approach to empirical research in moral psychology that appeals most to me is one that begins with a rich conception of the human moral subject — the human being capable of reflective thought and imagination, the person possessed with a social identity and self-image, the person situated within a set of meaningful social relationships, the person embodying a range of moral emotions. With a rich conception like this underlying the research agenda, there is ample space for empirical study of the causal and meaning-laden processes that influence action in difficult circumstances. And this approach brings empirical research into closer dialogue with philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Susan Neiman.

*     *     *     *     *

The topic of explaining brutal and violent actions in times of social upheaval is directly relevant to the violence of China's Cultural Revolution represented in the photograph above. Here is a brief description of the violence by students against teachers and administrators in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution.

1966; August 5: Ms. Bian Zhongyun, the deputy principal of the Beijing Normal University Female Middle School, along with four other school educators, was attacked by the Red Guards on groundless charges. Bian died after several hours of humiliating treatment and brutal beating. This was the first case of the killing of educators in China by the Red Guards and other militant students. Many more cases followed, and the brutality escalated rapidly. Thousands of educators were publicly denounced and physically abused in “struggle sessions” by the rampaging students in Beijing’s secondary schools and universities. This includes 20 documented cases of killings y the Red Guards (Wang, 2004: 3-16 and Guo, 2006: 12) ***. The mass violence soon spread off campus, as the Red Guards beat seven residents of the same middle school to death in the city’s neighborhoods. In the District where this school was located, 333 residents were killed by the Red Guards at middle schools in August 1966 alone (Wang, 2004: 16) ***. [Yongyi Song, "Chronology of mass killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)"; link.)

Song summarizes a wide range of estimates of persons killed during the Cultural Revolution and settles on an estimate in excess of two million people. Many of the participants in these acts of cruelty, violence, humiliation, and murder were ordinary Chinese men and women, as well as teenagers and sub-teenagers. How are we to explain their behavior against their fellow citizens and even their teachers? Here are several earlier posts about the Cultural Revolution (link).

(Also of interest are several earlier posts in Understanding Society reviewing empirical work in psychology on the topic of character as a factor influencing behavior and action; linklink, link, link.)

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Social science study of the Holocaust

image: "Mapping the SS Concentration Camps," Geographies of the Holocaust (Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, eds.)

The complex realities of the Holocaust are now more than seventy-five years in the past. And yet the history, causes, and variations of this nightmare period have not yet been adequately understood (link). An excellent recent volume makes the case that social scientists -- political scientists, sociologists, demographers, economists -- potentially have much more to offer than they have done to date. In Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust, Jeffrey Kopstein, Jelena Subotić, and Susan Welch have assembled a rich collection of articles from current social-science research that illustrates the value that social science perspectives can bring to understanding the complex events that make up the Holocaust. (Here is an earlier post summarizing historians' silence about the Holocaust following the end of World War II; link.)

The editors' introduction provides an analysis of the incentives of the disciplines of the social sciences to account for the relative neglect of questions surrounding the Holocaust in political science, sociology, and demography in the 1960s through the 1980s and 1990s. The topic was likely to be considered an "area study", far from the methodological and theoretical orthodoxies of the established social science disciplines. It was a "special case" and not amenable to the large-scale generalizations preferred by social-science methodologies at the time.

Within political science in particular, perhaps nothing illustrates the delay in taking up the Holocaust as an object of study more poignantly than the fact that the first panel in the history of the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association devoted entirely to the subject appeared in the program only in 2011. (p. 19)

What can social scientists bring to contemporary Holocaust research? A key underling theme that runs across many of the essays is the idea that we should approach the Holocaust, not as a single unified event, but as a series of parallel and geographically and nationally separated events and processes. Here is a formulation of this idea by the editors in their introduction:

Charles King elaborates on his idea that the Holocaust is best seen by social scientists as a series of events, shaped in large part by local actors attuned to their own circumstances and institutions alongside the state strategies of the occupying power. He also highlights the Holocaust as a product of interstate collaboration and competition, the dynamics of which greatly affected outcomes in different nations. (p. 30)

Here is King's own formulation of the idea:

The macrohistorical phenomenon is so large and multilayered that a social science of it seems meaningless, or perhaps too meaningful. The Holocaust is thus best seen not as a single “case” but as a macrohistorical matrix of highly variable forms of mass killing, resistance, and survival. Recent work within Holocaust studies and an emerging literature offering social scientific insights on the Holocaust itself have revealed a vast field of variation—from the identity of perpetrators, to the possibility of resistance and survivorship, to the evolution of mass killing as state policy. (p. 43)

And Daniel Ziblatt summarizes this approach in his concluding essay in these terms:

Recently, historians have pushed back against this narrative with more fine-grained attention to local and decentered unfolding of events (Gross 2001; Bartov 2018). This volume represents a sustained effort of social scientists to join this conversation. This happens at a moment when not only social scientists but also historians have moved to the micro. At the core of this intellectual convergence is the proposition that the Holocaust is not simply to be thought of as a single “case” or “singular event” that occurred between 1933 and 1945, directed by the hierarchical German Nazi war machine. Instead, King (chapter 1) and the other authors suggest that the Holocaust should be conceived of as a process of (1) disparate events—mass killings, pogroms, forced migration, resistance, and survival; in which (2) multiple types of actors—perpetrators, victims, and bystanders— participated; all in (3) multiple locations—far from Berlin, and outside of German-directed concentration camps, and instead spread across the diverse landscape of both urban and rural communities in Central and Eastern Europe. (pp. 454-455)

The idea here is that it is valuable and insightful to examine the regimes of killing encompassed by the Holocaust at a range of levels -- macro, meso, micro; geographical; bureaucratic/military/organizational; gender; and other dimensions as well. And contributors argue that this strategy of disaggregation permits comparison across cases that sheds light on the behaviors, capacities, and outcomes that were present in different locations -- Lithuania, Hungary, or Denmark, for example.

This approach is similar to an important stream of research in historical sociology: comparative historical sociologists and new institutionalists who seek to understand the meso-level social arrangements that differentiate across apparently similar cases. This preference flows from an assessment of where the causal action is to be found: not at the grand level of macro-structures, but at the intermediate and contingent level of meso-level social processes and arrangements. It is a methodology that directs our attention to the social mechanisms through which outcomes of interest have arisen, and also account for the variations across episodes that we can observe. (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly make this point in Dynamics of Contention.)

The thrust of King's chapter, echoed in many other contributions, is that we can fruitfully seek out causes of mass killings in the borderlands (Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania) by understanding the chronology, location, and population details of various episodes, and then engaging in careful comparison across cases to sort out what appear to be operative social influences (or what we might also call social mechanisms). How did mass killings by civilians vary across instances in ways that can be associated with factors like religious affiliation, existence of inter-group relationships, ideology, economic duress, and other factors?

This approach affirms that there were certainly macro-level causes at work -- German state policy and military decision-making -- but that these macro-level actions did not uniquely determine the outcomes. Both Eugene Finkel and Jeffrey Kopstein argue in their chapters for the importance of episode-specific factors in seeking to understand the ways that different locations displayed different patterns of resistance and mass murder. Kopstein's comparison of the occurrences of pogroms in 1941 in Lithuania and Ukraine illustrates the point. He asks:

What, then, was the meaning of the pogroms of summer 1941? Why engage in these exercises in public humiliation and brutality? Let us return to the simple statement made at the outset of this chapter: pogroms occurred in less than 10 percent of the localities in Western Ukraine where Jews resided. In other places, pogroms either were stopped, in many cases by local Ukrainian heroes, or never got off the ground in the first place. What distinguished these two very different kinds of localities? (p. 180)

Jan Burzlaff's contribution offers an historian's appreciation for the importance of finding a level of analysis that is neither too general nor too particular:

The second chief benefit for historians stems, I believe, from the close attention that social scientists pay to variations, paving the way for a middle ground between law-like regularities and historians’ attention to specificity. It is a truism that the Holocaust unfolded very differently across various countries, regions, even cities—hence the importance of understanding both Nazi policies and social processes on the ground (Bloxham 2009). The combination of different scales of analysis not only allows for a more careful understanding of how local and communal factors played a role in the Holocaust’s unfolding, but also dismisses one-size-fits-all approaches to the origins and variety of Nazi violence and—above all—the absence of neighbor-on-neighbor violence in specific communities (Bartov 2018). (p. 100)

In addressing the facts of the Shoah, it is crucial for historians and social scientists to fully recognize the depth of the human catastrophe that the Holocaust represented. This is one reason why there has been a continuing debate over the question of whether it is ever legitimate to compare the Holocaust to other horrific instances of genocide (link). King addresses the issue of comparability in an appropriate way:

It is fully possible to accept the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a world-historical event while also fruitfully comparing each of its myriad components with their cognates elsewhere: the relationship between ideology and purposeful killing, the origins of genocidal state policy, collaboration and denunciation, the politics of military occupation, rescue and resistance, the dehumanization of noncombatants, the political economy of violence, and survivorship and the politics of memory, among many others. (p. 57)


The problem with this view is that it too easily glides over the ethics of comparison, the morality of “modeling” human suffering, and the ultimate purposes for which scholars willingly delve into awfulness. After all, the comparison of discrete human experiences is never a cavalier exercise, especially in the realm of violence, loss, and death. The systematic and thorough nature of Nazi practice still places the Holocaust in a peculiar moral category. Its scale was gargantuan. It involved the purposeful killing of millions of individuals as well as the extinguishing of an entire civilization—the culture of the East European borderlands rooted in Jewish religiosity and the Yiddish language. It flowed from an ideology that was not just distasteful but fundamentally abhorrent, one that marshaled science and history to condemn an entire human population to elimination—in theory, anywhere its members happened to live on the entire planet. It produced social, political, cultural, and economic consequences that are still unparalleled. The Holocaust can still be a moral category of one even when specific episodes of violence, the tactics of perpetrators and heroism of resisters, and importantly the social scientific patterning within this world-historical event turn out not to be unique. The sum of every massacre, pogrom, shooting, and gassing within the Holocaust still does not quite equal the Holocaust. (pp. 79-80)

Politics, Violence, Memory provides a valuable demonstration of the importance of confronting various aspects of the Holocaust using methods and theories from the social sciences. One can only hope that it will help to bring studies of the Holocaust into the mainstream of the social sciences. It is a vast and tragic reality that we have not yet adequately understood or internalized.

(Here are two other interesting and innovative contributions to new social science research on the Holocaust: Geographies of the Holocaust, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, and Morality in the Making of Sense and Self. Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience’ Experiment and the New Science of Morality, edited by Matthew Hollander and Jason Turowetz (forthcoming).)