Sunday, December 30, 2007

Impersonal social causes?

There is a substantial place in social causation for mechanisms that link the intentions of powerful actors to the specific features of the outcome. "The outcome came about because the powerful actor wanted it to." Why are there no petroleum refineries in mid-town Manhattan? Because zoning and planning boards have deliberately excluded such activities.

But what about causal mechanisms that are not the result of strategic choices by social actors? Are there impersonal social causes?

There are rare but real instances of social changes that occur without any intermediary of social action -- for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the extinction of Pompeii. But these events fall outside the scope of the social sciences. And there are important social explanations that begin in impersonal features of the natural environment -- for example, the configuration of rivers in China's early history. But what makes these into social explanations is the analysis of the social behavior through which agents adapt these conditions to their needs. (See Mark Elvin's truly excellent environmental history of China for more on this; The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.) But social explanations always involve actors -- and that means that intentional social action always comes into the picture in some way. So we might begin by saying that there are no impersonal social explanations, if by that we mean "explanations of social outcomes that do not involve the actions of persons."

It is important to observe that there are actually two distinctions that are relevant here. There is the "personal-impersonal" distinction, and there is the "intended-unintended" distinction. In an obvious sense all social causation is "personal", in the sense that social causal mechanisms are always embodied in the constrained actions of socially constituted actors or persons. So the actions of deliberate actors are part of all social causation. But the intentions of the actors are often unrelated to the social outcome we are trying to explain. So in these cases the outcome is not caused by actors' intention that it should come about. In the refinery example -- it may be that there is no regulation prohibiting this kind of activity, but the cost of real estate makes the proposition unattractive from a cost-benefit perspective. On this scenario we would have the result occurring as an unintended consequence of the choices of a large numbers of independent actors.

These are the most interesting social explanations: explanations of social patterns or outcomes that are not the result of design or intention, but that nonetheless emerge through the purposive actions of large numbers of agents. These are "unintended consequences" explanations or "aggregative" explanations. We can quickly identify dozens of such examples: the silting of river deltas as a result of flood-management strategies upstream; the expansion of black-market sales of cigarettes as a result of new taxes on tobacco; the expansion of traffic flows as a result of the opening of the third harbor tunnel in Boston; etc. These explanations are "aggregative" in the sense that they work by "aggregating" the lower-level choices and preferences of individual actors into a higher-level social pattern. (Thomas Schelling offers numerous intriguing examples along these lines in his book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior.)

So now we can answer our original question. There are no social causes that work entirely independently from social actors, and actors are purposive. So all social causation stems from "intentional" human behavior; persons are always involved in social outcomes. However, there are many social outcomes that are unintended and unrecognized by all the participants. The participants' intentions are local and parochial; whereas the social outcome is large and unforeseen. These instances are the most interesting problems for social inquiry. We might refer to these as "agency-based explanations of unintended and unforeseen outcomes."

This suggests a different way of classifying social causes: outcomes that are the intended result of specific powerful actors (conspiracy, leadership, dictatorship); outcomes that are the result of strategic interaction among a small group of purposive agents (bargaining, collusion, cooperation); outcomes that result from concerted collective action by large groups with some sense of collective goals (boycotts, strikes); and outcomes that are the aggregate result of uncoordinated but constrained choices by large numbers of independent agents (markets, habitation patterns).

This classification also makes it more apparent why the concept of power is central in social explanation. The first three categories imply a distribution of powers across specific agents and groups, in order to account for the postulated connection between the agent's purposes and the eventual outcome. And the fourth category implies the exercise of power by some other agency, to account for the observed constraints on choice that constitute the heart of this type of explanation.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Power: corporations

How do large corporations wield power? What are the kinds of outcomes that corporate leaders want to influence? What are the instruments available to them through which they can influence outcomes? And are there impersonal means through which corporations influence society -- i.e., wield power or exert causal influence?

Consider first the outcomes. Corporations are businesses with interests. These include first and foremost profitability -- short, medium, and longterm. Profitability is influenced by a number of economic, legal, and political factors: a favorable trading environment; a favorable environment for secure property and contract rights; a favorable regulatory environment; favorable and predictable relationships with the workforce and unions; and favorable attitudes from consumers and the public. So corporate officers are charged to do everything possible to bring about positive results for the company in all these spheres.

Lobbying is a central activity through which the corporation pursues its agenda. The corporation employs professionals at a range of levels whose job it is to persuade and influence political and agency actors -- legislators, staffers, agency officials, lower-level agency workers who can influence regulations and findings. Lobbying works through personal relationships, campaign support (including campaign gifts), and other forms of influence. (The subject of corruption and conflict of interest and commitment comes in here, but not all lobbying effort
falls in that category.)

Advertising, communications, and public relations are related efforts by the corporation through which the corporation exercises influence. The corporation expends substantial resources to "get its message out" -- and these expenditures have measurable effects. Targeted audiences change their opinions and behavior as a result of these efforts.

So far we have identified instruments of suasion and incentives -- persuading various actors to act in ways that are favorable to the corporation. And these efforts are substantially effective because of the weight of the resources the corporation can devote to the effort. Are there also more coercive means available to the corporation? There are. A company can threaten various constituencies through redirection of business activities to compel actions favorable to its agenda. For example, it can threaten to close a factory, or to lay off a group of workers, or to move production to overseas locations. These threats influence the behavior of municipalities, state governments, and unions.

In some historical circumstances corporations can also use violence and the threat of violence as part of its strategy for achieving its agenda. Examples of violence and intimidation can be found in China and Columbia today, and in the British and American business- labor struggles of the past. Violence and intimidation are among the tools through which strategic actors may pursue their goals.

This inventory indicates that businesses behave strategically in pursuit of their interests; that they have means of influencing powerful political and social actors through resources, organization, and intimidation; and that the results of this strategic action over time significantly influence the social space in which business activity, political rule-setting, and labor activism occur. In other words, corporations have significant causal powers in modern societies, and corporations constitute a significant locus of power in the contemporary world.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A non-naturalistic approach to social science

The most basic error that is conveyed by the naturalist framework into the premises of sociology—the folk epistemology—that was shared by Durkheim, Mill, and Comte, is the assumption that all phenomena are subject to laws; that the relevant laws are abstract and obscure; and that there is an orderly relationship between gross phenomena and a rising level of natural laws that embrace those observable phenomena. The task of scientific study is to discover this rising pyramid of regularities and laws (motions of planets ENCOMPASSED BY elliptical orbits ENCOMPASSED BY gravitational attraction ENCOMPASSING other phenomena such as tides). This model is then used to frame the sociologist’s expectations of the orderliness of sociological observations and regularities. The social world is assumed to be a system of phenomena governed by hidden regularities and causal laws; the task of social science research is to discover these governing regularities and laws. . However, this conception of the world does not fit the domain of the social at all.

We can provide an alternative social ontology—a better grounding for sociological research. The social sciences could have begun with a greater degree of agnosticism about the orderliness of social phenomena. We could have started with the observations that—

  • Social phenomena are created by human beings (deliberately, intentionally, or unknowingly)
  • Human beings behave as a result of their socially constructed beliefs, values, goals, attitudes, modes of reasoning, emotions, …
  • There is a wide range of variation that is visible among social arrangements and institutions, across cultures, across space, and across time (long duration and short duration)
  • Social institutions, organizations, and structures have a degree of observable stability across cohorts and generations of the human beings who make them up
  • There are social causes, and they are ordinary, observable, and mundane. They are variants of the agent-structure nexus.

These initial ontological observations would have led us to some framing expectations about the social and about the likely results of social science inquiry:

  • contingency of social outcomes
  • Variation of social trajectory
  • Plasticity of social institutions
  • Heterogeneity among instances of a “type” of social thing
  • No “laws of motion” for development or modernization

And we might have set several research objectives for the social sciences:

  • To study in some detail how various institutions work in different social settings (empirical, fact-driven observation and analysis)
  • To study human behavior, motivation, and action – again, with sensibility to variation, without the assumption that there is one ultimate human nature or governing mode of behavior.
  • To be as aware of variation and plasticity as we are attentive to the discovery of social regularities
  • To discover and theorize some of the causal mechanisms that can be observed within social processes
  • To identify weak regularities of behavior and institution through observation
  • To theorize these regularities in terms of agent-structure dynamics; aggregation of features of decision-making; unintended consequences. For example, free rider phenomena (economists) and self-regulating commons (common-property resource institutions)

We then might have arrived at a different conception of what a “finished” social science might involve: not a deductive theory with a few high-level generalizations and laws, but rather an “agent-based simulation” that embodies as many of the characteristics and varieties of behavior as possible into the simulation, and then projects different possible scenarios. The ideal might have been “sim-society” rather than deductive-nomological theory.

How does philosophy help guide the sciences?

Philosophy observes the sciences. But it has also played a role in the formation of the sciences. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

The idea here is an elusive one. It is that the founders of the social sciences – perhaps similar to all intellectual or creative founders – possessed framing assumptions, presuppositions, or intuitions about what their eventual product ought to look like. Various ideas capture some of this: presupposition, paradigm, guiding framework, tacit knowledge, or “style”. A style of technology or architecture is a “mindset” that guides the creator into affirming one set of choices and denying another; ruling out certain solutions to a problem while favoring others. And many of these ideas derived from philosophy -- for example, empiricism, rationalism, deductivism, atomism, or reductionism.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century founders of the social sciences had a set of intellectual interests that led them to ask questions about the way that society works. They were led to engage in careful, disciplined study of social phenomena. But how to proceed? What should the results look like? What modes of explanation should be pursued? What should they expect to find? None of the founders proceeded with a “blank slate”. Instead, they were guided by specific intellectual hunches and presuppositions about what a scientific treatment of a subject ought to involve. The histories of physics, chemistry, and biology were very well known to the founders, and the chief logical characteristics of the science of these domains were also well understood. The “stylized facts” about what a domain of inquiry is and what a scientific study of a domain involves were fairly specific. It turns out that these facts were misleading in deep and broad ways when applied to the social world. And contemporary sociology continues to bear the imprint of these early presuppositions.

We might be tempted to call these assumptions about domain, method, and theory a “paradigm”, but it is better to think of them as constituting a “proto-paradigm”. “Paradigm” describes a more advanced stage of the formation of a field of knowledge. The framing ideas that guided the founders were less specific; they represented high-level, abstract presuppositions about the nature of science and the nature of any subject matter that is amenable to scientific study and explanation. They constitute a framework of advanced commonsense about the subject matter. We might describe this framework as a “folk philosophy of knowledge” that is to some extent unexamined but that guides the pursuit of knowledge, the form that it takes, and the ways in which it is evaluated.

Given these historical circumstances, naturalism as a "proto-paradigm" for the social sciences is unsurprising—even though it is profoundly misleading. The strongest — really, the only — examples of scientific achievement in the nineteenth century were in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and biology. There was a developed “proto-theory” of nature that was the object of scientific study (the characteristics and metaphysics of law-governed natural phenomena). The natural world was conceived of as a system of law-governed events and processes. And the logical characteristics of natural science theory were reasonably well understood as well: induction, discovery of laws and regularities, explanation through assimilation within a set of natural laws, confirmation.

There is a fundamental problem with this set of "naturalistic" presuppositions: social phenomena are constituted by a fundamentally different ontology. "Agents in structures" are the fundamental "molecules" of social life -- and this ontology should not be expected to give rise to strong regularities. Instead, we should expect a substantial amount of heterogeneity and plasticity among social entities and processes, and we should expect contingency and path-dependency in the unfolding of social phenomena.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A "peasant" revolution?

The Chinese communist party became a peasant revolutionary party after the spectacular destruction of the urban basis of the movement by Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai in 1927. But who and what was a peasant, and how did this group become a revolutionary group?

In one sense the answer is obvious. China's population consisted of a majority of poor farmers at the time of the collapse of the Qing dynasty, under a variety of forms of land tenure. They were poor, had little land, and were subject to exploitation by landlords, lenders, and the state. So we might say that this answers both questions: peasants were poor farmers, they were a large majority throughout China, and they were potentially revolutionary as a result of their poverty and exploitation. All that was needed was a party that could mobilize and activate them.

This response is too simple, however, for several reasons. First, the concept of peasant is a social and political construction. A "farmer" is an agricultural producer; but this fact about production status tells us little about how rural people defined their own social realities or the way that others defined them.

Second, the mobilization of "peasants" along class lines requires an organized political effort by a party that aggressively makes for the salience of class over other affinities -- kinship, lineage, regional identity, or ethnicity. Marx expressed his assessment of the lack of solidarity of the French peasantry of the 1840s in these terms: "A small-holding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another small-holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a Department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes" (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). In order for a population to become a self-conscious identity group, it is necessary for a deliberate process of identity-formation to take place. The CCP worked single-mindedly to create this affinity with class identity throughout the 1920-30s in rural China. (Lucien Bianco, Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China; Odoric Wou, Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan.)

And third, it turns out that the politically defined status of "peasant" incorporated its own definition of internal inequality -- between rich, middle, and poor peasants. These terms of internal differentiation played a prominent role in the mobilization strategies and policies of the CCP in its drive to revolution. The CCP emphasized conflicts within the class of peasants as much as the conflicts between peasants and others.

The mobilization strategies of the CCP of the 1930s were aimed at creating a large and energized supporting population of poor and middle peasants. They pursued this goal by recruiting local cadres who could communicate the party message to their intended supporters and by offering a program of land reform and social reversal that would strongly appeal to this group. Their efforts were successful in several important base areas, and the CCP was in fact able to cultivate a loyal base among poor and middle peasants. Moreover, this group increasingly provided recruits for middle and higher positions of leadership in the military and political organizations of the party.

So we might say that the peasant movement was in fact created and shaped by CCP doctrines in the 1930s as a contingent but portentious social force in China. And for the first 30 years of the Chinese communist state serious efforts were made to retain the loyalties of this social segment.

Social causal explanations

To explain an outcome is to demonstrate what conditions combined to bring it about -- what caused the outcome in the circumstances, or caused it to be more likely to occur. The most fundamental aspect of an explanation is a hypothesis about what caused the circumstance we want to explain. So social explanation requires that we provide accounts of the social causes of social outcomes. (There may be non-social causes of social outcomes -- e.g. "The Roman Empire declined because of the high concentrations of lead in wine vessels"; but these extra-social explanations don't really fall within the social sciences.)

So we need to raise two sorts of questions. First, what kind of thing is a social cause -- how do social facts cause other social facts? And second, what kind of social research can allow us to identify the causes of a social outcome or pattern? (Notice that explaining an outcome is very different from explaining a pattern.)

Generally speaking, a cause is a condition that either necessitates or renders more probable its effect, in a given environment of conditions. (For the philosophers, this means that "C is sufficient in the circumstances to bring about E or to increase the likelihood of E.") Normally a cause is also necessary for the production of its effect -- "if C had not occurreD, E would not have occurred." (The probabilistic version: "If C had not occurred, the likelihood of E would have been lower.) (Wesley Salmon explores the intricacies in much greater detail -- Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World.)

This account depends upon something that Hume abhorred: the idea of necessity. For natural causes we have a suitable candidate in the form of natural necessity deriving from the laws of nature: "C and the laws of nature => necessarily E." However, there are no "laws of society" that function ontologically like laws of nature. So how can there be "social necessity"? Fortunately, there is an alternative to law-based necessity, in the form of a causal mechanism. A mechanism is a particular configuration of conditions that always leads from one set of conditions to an outcome. Mechanisms bring about specific effects. (So we might say that mechanisms are widgets of natural laws.) For example, "over-grazing of the commons" is a mechanism of resource depletion. And it is the case that, whenever the conditions of the mechanism are satisfied, the result ensues. Moreover, we can reconstruct precisely why this would be true for rationally self-interested actors in the presence of a public good. So we can properly understand a claim for social causation along these lines: "C causes E" means "there is a set of causal mechanisms that convey circumstances including C to circumstances including E."

Are there any social mechanisms? There are many examples. "Collective action problems often cause strikes to fail." "Increasing demand for a good causes prices to rise for the good in a competitive market." "Transportation systems cause shifts of social activity anad habitation."

So this provides an answer to the first question: explaining a social outcome or pattern involves providing an account of the social-causal mechanisms that typically bring it about, or brought it about in specific circumstances.

Now let us turn to inquiry. How would we detect social causation? Fundamentally there are only three ways. We can exploit the mechanism requirement and seek out particular or common social mechanisms. Both social theory and process-tracing can serve us here. Second, we can exploit the probabilistic implications of a causal claim by looking for correlations and conditional probabilities among the conditions associated with hypothesized causal mechanisms. This feature underpins standard "large-N" quantitative research methods in social science. And third, we can exploit the "necessary and sufficient condition" feature by using comparative methods like Mill's methods. In each case, we must keep fully in mind the centrality of causal mechanisms. A discovery of a statistical association between X and Y is suggestive of causation, but we need to be able to hypothesize the mechanism that would underly the association if we are to attribute causation. Likewise, the discovery that a study of multiple cases suggests that A is necessary for E and A&B are sufficient for E requires us to consider the question, what is the concrete social mechanism that links A, B, and E?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What is "understanding social life"?

There have been two very different approaches to social explanation since the nineteenth century, and they differ most basically over a distinction between "explanation" and "understanding" or "cause" and "meaning". This distinction divides over two ways of understanding a "why" question when it comes to social events. "Why did it happen?" may mean "What caused it to happen?"; or it may mean "Why did the agents act in such a way to bring it about?".

The verstehen approach holds that the most basic ontology of social life is the meaning of an action. Social life is constituted by social actions, and actions are meaningful to the actors and to the other social participants. Moreover, subsequent actions are oriented towards the meanings of prior actions; so understanding the later action requires that we have an interpretation of the meanings that various participants assign to their own actions and those of others. (Central exponents of this tradition include Weber, Dilthey, Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Gadamer.)

This approach places interpretation of meaning at the center of social inquiry. And it drew much of its methodology and tools of inquiry from the hermeneutic tradition -- the tradition of biblical and literary interpretation stemming from Dilthey and other nineteenth-century German thinkers. This tradition is adapted to the "human sciences" by using the metaphor of action as text. The interpreter (a biographer, for example) considers the many elements of the action, life, or complex of actions, and attempts to arrive at an interpretation that makes sense of the various parts.

A central problem that authors in this tradition wrestle with is the "hermeneutic circle" -- the fact that there is no neutral, external standpoint from which to objectively measure the meaning of a system of signs or actions. Instead, interpretation begins and ends with the given -- the text or the action -- and the only evidence available for assessing the interpretation is interior to the text itself. So it may appear that interpretations are self-confirming -- an unhappy conclusion if we think that social explanations ought to have rational justification and empirical support.

The hermeneutic approach got a large boost from the fertile field of interpretive anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s, especially through the work of Clifford Geertz and Turner. However, there is little evidence of a direct intellectual connection from hermeneutic philosophy to interpretive anthropology.

There are several valid insights that the verstehen approach depends on. Most important is the insistence on the point that social action is meaningful and intentional, and that it is both desirable and feasible to arrive at interpretations of these meanings. Moreover, being able to arrive at such interpretations is often essential to historical and ethnographic explanation. Geertz's interpretation of the Balinese cock-fight and Darnton's interpretation of the great cat massacre both illustrate this point: in neither case would we understand the behavior without a deep interpretation of the significances the participants attribute to their actions.

This said, it is incorrect to imagine that the verstehen approach is inconsistent with the causal approach. Rather, the two approaches are compatible and complementary. It is a fact that human action is meaningful and intentional, and all social science must take account of this fact. But it is also true that actions aggregate to larger causes and they have effects on social outcomes. Meaningful, deliberate action is often the mechanism through which a given set of institutional arrangements (a property system, say) cause a social outcome (slow investment in new technologies, say). So meanings are themselves causes and causal mechanisms (a point that Donald Davidson makes in the case of individual action).

Finally, a social science that restricted itself to hermeneutic interpretation would be radically incomplete. It would exclude from the scope of social science research the whole range of causal relationships, structural influences on action, and the workings of unintended consequences in social processes.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What is to explain about violent crime?

Every city has a crime rate -- the incidence of murders, assaults, car thefts, or burglaries per 100,000 residents. And there are very significant differences across cities and countries with respect to the incidence of violent crime. In particular, some cities in the world experience extremely high levels in the incidence of violent crimes (for example, Johannesburg, South Africa). Compare these national statistics describing "murders per 100,000 population": England/Wales, 1; USA, 6; Brazil and Russia, 21; Columbia, 58; South Africa, 59. Why is this? Why are some cities and countries so much more violent than others? What are the most important factors that cause a community to have a high (or low) rate of violent crime? Why do individuals in some societies have a higher propensity for violent crime than in others?

The study of the causes of violence and crime has been a part of western sociology since the beginning. A variety of causes have been suggested: the incidence of absolute poverty, the extent of inequalities, the phenomenon of relative deprivation, the drug trade, the breakdown of traditional community and family values, and the effects of racism, to name a few.

Notice that we can put the causal question in several ways:

  • What causes variation across communities with respect to crime rates?
  • What factors increase the likelihood of a particular individual becoming a violent criminal?
  • What social factors cause an increase or reduction in the crime rate?

That is, we can ask about explaining variation across cases; we can ask about explaining particular individuals' behavior; we can ask about "inducing" and "inhibiting" causes of changes in the crime rate; and there are other causal questions as well. The final pair of questions have to do with explaining variation within a case across time.

Consider this small set of possible causal factors that might influence behavior:

  • rational incentives (risk and gain calculation)
  • material circumstances (unemployment, education)
  • community cohesiveness
  • a broad sense of injustice (exploitation, unfair exclusion)
  • moral and religious values
  • alienation and disaffection
  • racial or ethnic polarization
  • imitation of the behavior of others
  • organizations (gangs, youth groups, social networks)
  • laws and policing

Now we might try to construct an agent-centered theory of violent crime based on these sorts of factors conjoined with a description of the social environment at the time -- and then predict variation across time and place as a behavioral result of the incorporation of these factors influencing action.

A very different approach -- and one that is probably closer to the quantitative-methodology mainstream in sociology today -- is to assemble a set of cases (a list of US cities, for example); measure a number of variables for each city (unemployment rate, index of social capital, level of education, degree of neighborhood segregation, presence/absence of mass transportation, ...); and then test the degree of correlation that one or more of these variables has with the observed variation in the crime rate. Do variations in the incidence of violent crime correlate with levels of unemployment? Then unemployment is a plausible causal factor in determining the level of the crime rate. Does some measure of social capital correlate negatively with variations in the crime rate? Then the social cohesion that is hypothetically linked to higher scores for social capital in a community is a negative causal factor in variations in the crime rate. And so forth.

Both these approaches are compatible with the research methodology associated with trying to identify causal mechanisms. If it is in fact true that a young person's disposition to engaging in violent crime is decreased if he/she is a member of a church -- then we ought to find at the macro-level that a higher index of church membership will be associated with a lower crime rate. Reciprocally, if we discover a positive correlation between "degree of neighborhood segregation" and the crime rate -- then we need to be able to disaggregate the story and discover the individual-level mechanisms through which segregation increases individuals' propensity for violent crime.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What kind of social knowledge does a football coach have?

I am struck by the difference between the football game that I watch, as a not-very-involved fan, and the one that the experienced coach or sportswriter sees. For me the game is a series of fast-moving passes, tackles, runs, interceptions, touchdowns, and athletic movements. But it doesn't make a lot of sense as a whole -- either within a single play or over an extended period of the game. Contrast that with the perceptions of the game by an experienced, expert observer. A football expert sees more than the individual movements; he sees an organized play unfolding; a missed assignment; an opportunistic change-of-plan by the quarterback; and a feature of a game plan that can gradually be inferred. In other words, the expert sees the movements of the players as a complex of strategic behavior, skilled performance, planning, and opportunistic adjustment.

What kind of cognition is this? What is the cognitive difference between the expert and non-expert observer? And how does this relate to social knowledge more generally?

Let's take the last question first. Observing the football game is a lot like observing many other kinds of complex relational social interactions: a political campaign, a disaster involving hundreds of victims and responders, or a riot. The football game involves coordination among an number of purposive actors; a degree of organizational structure; the design and implementation of plans; processes of communication (successful and unsuccessful); and the ability of actors to respond to each other's movements on the fly. (To change sports -- when Larry Bird stole the inbound pass from Isiah Thomas in the last seconds of a celebrated playoff game against the Pistons, his teammate Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket in anticipation of the possibility of a stolen pass; he then made an uncontested layup and won the game.) These are common features of complex social interactions. So the football game is a complex, structured, and layered social event that unfolds over time; and the meaning and causes of particular actions and events are obscure to the casual observer, whereas they are apparent to the expert.

Perceiving the football game as a social event unfolding in time requires more than simply registering the movements of the players on the field. It is necessary to frame these movements within an apperception of the strategies and intentions that lie behind the actions: the attempt to deceive the opponent (fast footwork, the hidden ball trick); the sudden break to the center of the field by the receiver; the quarterback's effort to buy time until a receiver becomes open. We need to have a basis for saying "what they are doing" that goes beyond a description of the movements and steps taken. And for the expert, a rich framework of understandings of actions, intentions, and strategies is brought to the observation of the particular play. The expert is able to place the actions of the quarterback, the left tackle, and the three receivers into a context of understandable actions and choices; and he is able to discern when something has gone wrong (receiver turned left rather than right, left tackle missed a block, quarterback panicked and threw the ball away ...).

I want to suggest that the expert's perception of the play on the field is a complex but veridical observation of a concrete relational social phenomenon; that it is more akin to perception than to theory formation; and that it reflects a complicated cognitive process through which the expert assembles a lot of knowledge about the game, about the habits and practices of players, about common strategies and tactics -- and that all of this gets sized up in a quick apperception of the specific play. Finally, I want to suggest that this apperception is enormously richer than the crude empirical observations that the non-expert makes: "the center seems to have slipped, the pass was complete".

If this analysis of the situation of the two observers -- expert and duffer -- is plausible, it has important implications for the knowledge that we have of other, less trivial forms of social interaction. Does the experienced labor organizer have a similar ability to size up a crowded shop floor and see where the stress points are, and who the likely leaders are? Does a field officer in the infantry have the ability to mentally organize the flow of the battle through the fog of war and arrive at a perception of how things are going -- and what might work as a tactic for the next day? Does the ethnographer have the ability to put together the social cues that permit him or her to conclude that "there is some angry disagreement among members of the village today"? In each case I suspect that there is a good basis for saying, "yes, this is how observation of complex social situations goes for the expert observer." And this implies that there is a kind of social knowledge that is analogous to perception even though it involves a very great amount of cognitive construction.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Empirical constraints on sociological theories

What makes sociology "scientific"? An important component of a reply is that assertions, hypotheses, and theories are subject to the test of empirical evidence. Hypotheses need to be evaluated in terms of observations of how the real world behaves. We should evaluate our assertions in terms of their fit with the empirical facts. This is the "empiricist" constraint.

Post-positivist philosophers of science have noticed that these simple ideas raise many of puzzles, however. Consider these points:

  • No set of observable facts guarantees the truth of a scientific assertion.
  • There is no sharp distinction between observation and theory; our observations of the empirical facts commonly depend upon the assumption of some elements of scientific theory. Observations are "theory-laden".
  • Even the empirical "facts" are subject to multiple interpretations; it is often possible to redescribe a set of observations in a way that appears to support contradictory hypotheses.

In the social sciences there are additional complexities about how to arrive at empirical observations and measurements.

  • Social observations require us to "operationalize" the empirical facts we want to observe. For example, we may want to observe the standard of living of the working class. But we cannot achieve this directly. Instead, we need to arrive at "proxies" that are plausibly indicative of the property in question. So the wage basket that can be purchased with a given average money wage may be the index we use for measuring the standard of living. But there are other defensible ways of operationalizing the standard of living, and the various criteria may yield results that behave differently in given times and places.
  • Social observation requires aggregation of measurements over a diverse group of individuals. We have to make judgments and choices when we arrive at a process for aggregating social data -- for example, the choice of using the gini coefficient rather than the share of income flowing to the bottom 40 percent as a measure of income inequality, or using the median rather than the mean to observe changes in income distribution. These choices must be made -- and there are no decisive empirical reasons that would decide the issue.
  • Social concepts are needed to allow us to break down the social world into a set of facts. But there are plausible alternative conceptual schemes through which we can understand the nature and varieties of social phenomena. So, once again, we cannot hold that "observation" determines "theory".

These are familiar logical difficulties with the basic requirement of empiricism. However, they are not fatal difficulties. At bottom, it remains true that there is such a thing as social observation. It is necessary to accept that observations are theory-laden; that no observation is uncontrovertible; and that empirical evaluation depends upon judgment. All this accepted, there is a range of social observation that is relatively close to the ground and to which we can attribute some degree of epistemic warrant. Finally, there is available to us a coherence epistemology that permits a holistic and many-sided process of conveying warrant.

My view, then, is that the situation of sociology is less like physics (highly dependent on long chains of reasoning in order to assess empirical warrant) and more like journalism (grounded in careful and reasoned constructions of observations of the social world). The social world is reasonably transparent. We can arrive at reasonably confident observations of a wide range of social facts. And we can provide a logical analysis of the degree of credibility a given sociological theory has, given a fixed set of (corrigible) observations. Much of sociology is closely tied to descriptive inquiry, and the epistemic challenges come in at the stage of building our observations rather than our theories.

Moreover, the common views that natural science theories are "under-determined" by all available evidence (so that multiple theories can be equally well supported) and that scientific theories can only be supported or undermined as wholes (with no separate confirmation for parts of theories) appear to be largely inapplicable to the social sciences. Rather, social theories are more commonly of the "middle range", permitting piecemeal observation, testing, and empirical evaluation.

This also means that the celebrated hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation is less crucial in the social sciences than the natural sciences. The key explanatory challenge is to discover a set of causal processes that might explain the observed social world. And sophisticated observation is often the bulk of what we need.

(See "Evidence and Objectivity in the Social Sciences" for a little more on this topic. Ian Shapiro's recent book, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences, is a tough critique of excessive formalism and theor-ism in the social sciences.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Area studies and social science knowledge

How do the social sciences complement the study of particular regions and cultures? How do the researches and theories of political science, sociology, or anthropology extend our understanding of China or Mexico?

There is one answer to this question that can be disposed of fairly quickly: many sociologists, economists, or political scientists are also specialists on China or Mexico. In this case the social scientist finds his/her empirical data in a particular place -- and the research findings produced through this specialized inquiry is a substantive contribution to understanding of the particular region. In this sense the specialist is a contributor to the area studies literature on China or Mexico (or Latin America and East Asia).

But area studies is more than simply the accumulation of knowledge of a region based on several distinct disciplines. Somehow we think that area studies researchers need to be inter-disciplinary experts. The scholar of East Asia needs to be able to synthesize the best
available insights from a range of disciplines. When we ask, what are the important processes underway in China today, we want to have a response that incorporates observations and judgments that include sociology, popular culture, economic policy, demography, and urban change. So an area specialist is not primarily a discipline specialist -- even though he/she normally has received primary training in one discipline or another. Instead, the area specialist is a specialist of the region, encompassing all its social and cultural aspects.

Put this way, are there any genuine area experts? There are some leading writers on China whose work is interdisciplinary in a meaningful way -- Ezra Vogel, for example. And there are journalists who have developed broad and deep knowledge about Africa, Latin America, or East Asia. However, as a general rule, the deck is stacked against the "discipline-generalist, region-specialist" combination. This has partly to do with the discipline-based standards of rigor that define scholarly excellence; partly the sheer difficulty of mastering multiple areas of disciplinary knowledge; and partly with the epistemic value that we associate with detail and precision over breadth and lower resolution.

So if a real "area specialist" is likely to be a rare creature, what should we look for when we want knowledge of a region or area? The most promising answer is the inter-disciplinary working group and the inter-disciplinary scholarly association. A center for Chinese studies is likely to include experts across the social sciences and humanities; and they are all likely to acquire new perspectives through their cross-discipline interactions. And perhaps the best knowledge we can reach about a region and culture is the multithreaded fabric that emerges from the research seminars and writings emanating from the area-studies working group. Certainly organizations like the Asian Studies Association and the Middle Eastern Studies Association have proven their worth in bringing together a variety of disciplines and perspectives on their regions; and arguably, the scholars who participate in these associations have come to a broader perspective on their own particular areas of research.

So, once again, what is the relation between knowledge of a region and knowledge of a social science discipline? The area specialist needs to be informed by the best social science knowledge of the region. Second, he/she needs to be fluent with the best models and theories being developed in the social sciences, in order to be able to use these theories in explaining various patterns or developments in the region of interest. But, third, the area specialist should keep always in mind the cross-disciplinary nature of the subject matter. It is important not to be seduced by the power of the hammer, into thinking everything is a nail.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Explaining large social formations: fascism

In a previous post I discussed the problem of explaining fascism. Let's return to this issue as a topic for historical and social inquiry.

There are clearly a number of different explanatory questions we might have in mind: why did fascist movements emerge and gain popular support in the first three decades of the twentieth century? Why did these movements prevail in several countries and not in others? (This version parallels Skocpol's question about revolutions.) Why did fascist states develop the political institutions they did in Germany, Italy, and Spain? How did fascist states and leaders exercise power? What prevented the rise of powerful fascist movements on France and Britain -- in spite of the presence of ultra-nationalist leaders and organizations?

These are all different questions -- even if there are relations among them. A particularly central question concerns the factors that were conducive to the emergence of extremist beliefs and organizations in certain periods and what factors favored the growth and power of some of these movements. This is a bundle of questions about the conditions that favor collective mobilization and ideological formation on a mass society. It is the sort of research question that Chuck Tilly and other scholars of popular mobilization have been concerned with.

Another set of questions about the course of fascism has more to do with institution building and state formation. Given the goal of creating powerful stare institutions within the general framework of fascist ideas and goals, what institutional and organizational possibilities existed? Here we might refer to the repertoire of mass organization that fascist "revolutionaries" brought to their movement, as well as the historical and practical options that existed. This area of inquiry may provide a basis for answering questions about the particular nature of fascist political institutions.

Finally, the distinct question of why it was that fascist movements and leaders were able to defeat democratic movements and states requires that we identify some of the circumstances that weakened democratic regimes. This may be a wide range of factors: challenges of war, ideological conflict with communists and other critics of the state, and the economic circumstances of the great depression. (These fall in the same category as the circumstances that Skocpol brings forward as being relevant to the success or failure of revolutions.)

It would appear that social scientists and historians have better tools for addressing the issue of successful mobilization than the institutional or causal conditions surrounding seizure of power and state building. Schematically, we might consider a causal narrative along these lines: Conditions that favor fascism include the presence of a marginalized group of young people who are subject to great economic insecurity; an ideology that combines nationalism, ethnic suspicion, and disaffection from established social institutions and values, and a compelling narrative of how and why this group ought to wield power. To this we might add a few propitious international conditions: the threat of war, a widening economic crisis, and a broad view that the modern state isn't up to handling these challenges.

This approach sketches out a view of what might be a basis for an explanation of the rise of fascist social movements. Here we have singled out several causal-social factors that facilitate popular mobilization and the politicization of social movements. What it doesn't yet explain is why and in what circumstances these movements are likely to grow powerful enough to challenge the existing state structure; this remains for another discussion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What is a "moral intuition"?

We have all had this experience: we hear of a complicated social or personal event, and we think inwardly, "that's wrong!" A co-worker tells us an embarrassing private story about another co-worker; we hear on the news that the number of children in poverty has increased; we read about a mining company that has dumped toxic chemicals into fishing rivers for years. And we have a moral intuition about what we hear -- not only a quick judgment about its goodness or badness, but also a sketch of reasons: "She shouldn't violate Frank's privacy that way"; "so much suffering of the innocent is awful"; "how can a company have such disregard for the people whose lives depend on those rivers." In other words, we have intuitions about complex situations that evidently rest upon some kind of reasoning -- but we haven't deliberated about the case.

What is the nature of such an intuition, and what kind of cognition does it represent?

As I've sketched it out, these "intuitions" are cognitively complex -- not just an inward "ugh!", but a sketchy representation of facts, assumptions, and relevant principles or rules. Our thought processes have somehow organized the description of the event into a story of sorts, along with some collateral judgments or principles about how people and institutions ought to behave. In the moment of intuition, we are also involved in judgment; and judgment involves something like reasoning and analysis. And yet the intuition itself is revealed in a moment -- not as a developing piece of analysis and deliberation, but an apparently instantaneous moment of moral perception.

If this description is phenomenologically correct, then moral intuitions are a feature of human judgment that involves complexity in something like the way that sizing up an auto accident occurs for the experienced investigator -- a quick cognition of the likely speeds and directions of the vehicles, the evasive action that appears to have occurred (skidmarks), etc. Following Kant, we might call this an act of "apperception", happening below the level of consciousness but bringing to bear quite a bit of analysis, knowledge, and principle in the construction of the resultant perception. And we might refer to an individual's overall set of interpretive frameworks as his or her "moral sensibility". Our moral sensibility provides us with a set of framing possibilities within the context of which we can begin to understand and represent the complicated human situations we encounter.

Now we can give a bit more content to the roles that moral analysis and principle play in this story. We are more or less forced to hypothesize that the person possesses a mental process of moral / social cognition that assembles a representation of a situation, including incorporation of a background set of principles or interpretive rules as well as a set of facts about the case, that eventuates in a morally tagged picture or narrative. The person is able to dig down into some of the underlying architecture of this picture if pressed; this accounts for the fact that we can give some analysis or explanation of our moral intuitions when asked, "why do you think this situation is wrong?". And the principles or rules that play an evaluative role are themselves learned through some concrete process of social development. (Though it is interesting to consider whether there might be a component of social cognition that is hard-wired through our evolutionary history; Alan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment).

So one's moral intuitions are not grounded in something like "direct apprehension of moral facts"; rather, they are the result of a complex, conditioned, and fallible process of sub-conscious reconstruction of the circumstances of a case. And for this reason we might suspect that there will be significant differences across individuals and across cultures in the contents of people's moral intuitions about cases.

(It is worthwhile to contrast the idea of a moral intuition with John Rawls's idea of a "considered judgment". Rawls's idea captures the conception of a full, deliberative consideration of a case in detail, considering all the relevant facts and principles, the fit between a given judgment and many other judgments we make, and a host of other constraints of coherence. This picture is one of full, transparent moral reasoning and deliberation. The account of moral intuition just provided is non-deliberative but not for that reason non-rational.)

(This treatment of moral intuitions converges somewhat with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Aggregating social trends

Would we say that discerning and aggregating social trends is an important kind of social knowledge? What about explaining social trends? What is a social trend, anyway?

Suppose people notice that crimes are getting less frequent but more violent; or that Thai restaurants are replacing Chinese restaurants at the bottom end in Chicago; or that young people are using instant messages more than telephone or email. Are these social trends? I suppose that, most simply, these are statements about changing frequencies of certain kinds of social occurrences over time. And "noticing" means counting and tracking the results of past observations. There are important conceptual and measurement issues here -- how we identify the kinds of events whose frequency is "important" or "of interest"? How do we assure that we are counting in a way that is accurate -- not over- or under-reporting? But the basic logic is fairly clear. To say that there is a trend for X is to say that the frequency of X relative to the population is changing in a sustained way.

Is the discovery of social trends an important effort for sociology? Probaby so, for several reasons. We are interested in knowing "how society is changing" -- and the frequencies of various kinds of social actions are themselves an important component of social change. So discovering and documenting changing patterns of social behavior -- "trend-spotting" -- is an important piece of sociological discovery.

But there are two other reasons to think trends are important for sociology. A trend (more Thai restaurants) may be an indicator of some other more important social change -- aging of the Chinese population in Chicago, or an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants in a certain time period. But, second, some social trends may function as causes of other future changes in social behavior. A rising trend in male-female sex ratios in China or India may be a potential cause of future social disorder; A rising frequency of soccer violence may be both an indication of rising youth alienation and a cause of future state action (more repression, more social welfare intervention). A trend towards longer sentences for non-violent crime may produce a rise in violent crime in the future (as non-violent criminals "graduate" to violent crime through longer exposure to violent criminals). Finally, discovery of trends can produce strategies of adaptive behavior -- trends in consumer taste may permit some businesses to create a whole new market for a product, trends in violent crime may produce new policing strategies, and trends in young voters using the web for communication may suggest new campaign tactics.

Finally, it should be noted that some "trends" may not be true features of social behavior at all, but rather the reslt of heightened awareness of certain kinds of social behavior. (Teachers often say "our students are getting worse every year" ... even though the statistics on performance say the opposite.)

We asked above what is involved in explaining social trends. Surely there must be a range of different social mechanisms that would produce change in the frequencies of various social behaviors: incentives, filters, external shocks, imitation, changes in the composition of the underlying population. For example, suppose we observe a trend towards fewer incidents of purse-snatching in Miami, and we observe as well that the median age of the population has
increased from 50 to 60. The change in the age structure may explain the trend. In this case, there may be no change at all in the behaviors of the various age groups -- no trend there -- but a change in frequency relative to the total population nonetheless.

(This discussion of "social trends" places the concept in the domain of "changing distributions of individual social behavior". Is there a structural counterpart about collective entities? Can we make true and justified statements about the trends of change among -- labor unions, states, churches, or universities?)

Friday, December 7, 2007

Explaining fascism

Kevin Passmore's short introduction to fascism comes out at a good time (Fascism: A Very Short Introduction). Passmore does a great job of framing the problem. He poses a definitional question -- what is fascism -- and demonstrates that this apparently semantic issue requires careful historical and theoretical analysis. Arriving at a good definition of fascism is itself an empirical and historical task. Passmore asks a set of causal questions: How do the fascisms of Europe relate to important social forces in the early twentieth century (for example, the role of great social classes in conflict)? And he addresses the issue of saying what is involved in explaining fascism (the role of analysis and theory). Passmore also presents a very sophisticated treatment of the variety and diversity of human institutions -- issues raised elsewhere under the topic of "heterogeneity".

Of special interest for us is the question, Is fascism a particular social system (dictatorship with such-and-so attributes)? Or was it first and foremost a historically distinctive political and social movement with characteristic values and ideology (violence, nationalism, anti-communism)? Is it a historically specific moment, or is it a systemic development stimulated by some structural feature of modern society (deadlocked conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie)? Crudely -- is fascism a social formation, an ideological complex, a social movement, or a type of government apparatus? And our efforts of explanation will depend on what sort of answer we give to these ontological questions.

These alternative definitions of fascism would give rise to very different explanatory challenges. And in fact, there is a wide variety of explanatory and causal questions that can be considered: Why did the fascist movements arise? Why did they gain a mass following? How did the social realities of capitalism affect the emergence and form of fascism? How important were the particular qualities and ideas of Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco in the evolution of fascism as a social system? Why did fascist dictatorships take the form they did? Why did official and affiliate group violence take the virulent forms that it did? How did fascist governments maintain power? Did these governments gain "legitimacy" and support in their populations? Is there a characteristic "pattern of development" for fascist regimes, or are their political histories deeply contingent on events and persons? Are Germany, Italy, and Spain variants of one social form, or are they simply independent social systems possessing some family resemblances in ideology, propaganda systems, and propensities for violence?

We might also consider whether explanation needs to occur at a lower level -- not "why fascism?" but rather, "why the Iron Guard in Romania", "why this or that feature of Italian fascism", "why this particular feature of Spanish state-military relations in Franco's fascism?". Here the point might be that there are no general or comprehensive explanations of the emergence and development of fascism in all the places it occurred; no common causes that were always or usually instrumental; but rather that each national history needs to be treated in its own terms. But, as Passmore demonstrates, this would be somewhat too skeptical; there certainly were some large international and national forces that facilitated fascist mobilization and seizure of power in many different countries.

The historical phenomena of fascism are interesting and important, because they represented powerful social forces (movements and governments that had great influence on events in the twentieth century). We would like for historical social science to have something substantive and illuminating to say about the causes and trajectory of fascism. And, of course, we would be well advised to notice the warning signs if there are any!

(Another excellent very short introduction from Oxford that is relevant to this topic is Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Social structures as causal factors

The continuing question here is this: how and through what mechanisms do various social entities exercise causal influence with respect to social outcomes? (This will also be relevant to the question: how does power work in a given society?) We think the Gulf Stream wields influence with respect to weather and climate change, but not the circulation numbers of the NYT. And we can specify a lot of detail about the climate-system micro-mechanisms through which this influence is conveyed. We need comparable insight into social causation and various putative social causes or influences.

In that spirit -- do social structures wield causal powers, and through what mechanisms do they do so?

Let's take one specific example -- a mid-size social structure such as the higher-education system found in various countries. This is a complex of institutions, funding arrangements, internal practices and organizational forms. Can the higher-ed system be called a structure? And can it exercise causal influence on the society in which it is embedded?

First, is it a social structure at all (as opposed perhaps to simply an agglomeration of miscellaneous lower-level institutions)? There is no doubt that this system is "heterogeneous" in the sense discussed in prior posts. There are many varieties of public universities, many types and strata of private universities, and many distinctive variations across individual universities. Moreover, these institutions are only somewhat loosely connected together. Nonetheless, British, Russian, French, Mexican, and US universities are different from each other, they have different institutions, values, and philosophies, and they serve in different ways to educate the post-high school populations of their countries. And these institutions have very important distributive consequences in their settings: the credential of baccalaureate gives the young graduate different opportunities than he or she would have otherwise. So it seems justified to describe these systems as "structures".

The causal influence of the higher education system in a given country is fairly easy to address. The features of the higher education system in a country determine the skill level of the educated population and the "culture" of educated people. Schooling systems that favor technical and vocational education will have one sort of influence on economic development, different from a system that favors a broader "general" education. Systems that provide broad and affordable access across social classes have an effect on the inequalities that the society will embody in the future; and these effects are different from those of systems that are class-exclusive. Universities are places where young people learn a lot of their political culture; so a system that embodies a culture of left-ism will have different political consequences than one that embodies quietism or consumerism.

The causal mechanisms of these influences are also easy to discern: effects on individuals (skills and political values) leading to the creation of new economic and political opportunities for society in the next iteration. Other effects are a bit more subtle -- for example, the influence that universities have through creation of a variety of social networks (on Wall Street, in Washington, in the military or intelligence world). In each case the causal powers of the institution are readily disaggregated into the microfoundations through which the institution shapes and constrains the individuals who pass theory the institution.

And we can also reason on first principles (to be tested through comparative research) that different national complexes of institutions, practices, and values in higher education will make for observable differences in those societies' institutions, performance, and collective behavior. This is the central point of the new institutionalism: different institutional complexes doing the same social work will have different outcomes for behavior and the further development of institutions.

So here is one medium-scale example that responds in the affirmative: concrete social structures do possess causal properties; these powers work through the features of constrained agency that they guide; and that we are likely to observe the different workings of these causal properties in different country settings.

(I believe we could work out similar analysis for other social institutions, such as social-property systems, kinship systems, or systems of media ownership and control.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Power: social movements

Social movements usually have to do with change rather than persistence. And they usually emerge from "under-class" groups who lack meaningful access to other official and institutionalized means of power. They are among the "weapons of the weak", and their effectiveness usually turns on the ability of a sub-population to mobilize in collective action with determination and courage. Examples include the American Civil Rights movement, the use of strikes and boycotts by coal miners in the Ruhr after World War I, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s.

The question here is, what are the scope, limits, and mechanisms of social power wielded through social movements? Is it possible for a social movement to cause change in basic structures, policies, and distributions of wealth and power in society? (I am not thinking primarily here of revolutionary movements, but rather more prosaic struggles for improvement of some set of conditions for the under-group.) 

The question arises because the terms of the problem essentially raise a social contradiction: a numerous but powerless group, advocating for a change of structure or distribution that harms the interests of the powerful, aligned against the most powerful forces in society. It would seem that this contest is inherently determined by the disproportion of powers held by the social actors. And yet we can provide memorable examples of success. So the question is, how does this work? 

The first factor that provides an obvious source of potential power for the under-class group, is the size and functional role of the group in society. Several of the most obvious tactics for a social movement depend on this structural fact -- the strike, boycott, and mass demonstration. By mobilizing, the group can interfere with the smooth workings of society, compelling other parties to negotiate. And it can demonstrate its broad, mass-based support. 

But the obstacles to these mass-based tactics are severe – classic collective action problems, problems of coordination and communication, and the need for competent organizations and leaders. And the tactics available to the powerful (the state, police, mine owners) are imposing: repression and intimidation, divide and conquer, co-optation, control of media, and a greater ability to wait out the struggle. 

Besides mass mobilization, there is the tactic of broadening the movement through alliances. This strategy requires "changing consciousness" in the broader society by the actions of the under-class group. The group (primarily through its organizations and leaders) can strive to broaden the base of its movement through alliances with other like-minded groups and with the general public. And this depends upon successful communication -- setting the terms of the struggle in such a way that it aligns with the moral values and material interests of other groups. 

Once again, the tactical options and advantages residing with the powerful are substantial. The powerful control the media; they have an advantage in setting the agenda; and they have an extensive ability to co-opt potential allies of the popular movement (side deals, special accommodations, playing off divisions within the mass population). But not all the face cards rest with the powerful. 

So here we have several kinds of tactics for the social movement -- direct mass mobilization, broadening of alliances, and a deliberate campaign to capture the moral discourse for the public. But let's push forward and consider what comes next. Suppose there is a social constituency for an important structural change. Suppose this group is fairly strongly mobilized (in terms of the engagement of members), that it has competent organization and leadership, and that its members collectively play a significant role in the economy. Let us further suppose that the group has now engaged in all the tactics above -- large peaceful demonstrations in several cities, a few successful boycotts, and a successful communications campaign that has strengthened public support for the movement. Now what, in a constitutional democracy? (The analysis will look different within a dictatorship -- for example, the situation of labor unions in pre-war Nazi Germany). 

It isn't implausible to conjecture that this scenario results in legislative action in support of the program. The public visibility and popularity of the struggle seem to lead to the inference that voters care about the issue, and legislators listen. So the social movement has won the day and has secured its objective. It has won the battle. But has it won the war -- is the change of policy a genuine and enduring change of structure in favor of the under-class? And here we can speculate again: the long, slow "tectonics" of power and privilege will turn back these gains in the future. The popular coalition cannot sustain its vigilance and mobilization forever; whereas the interests and strategic advantages of the powerful persist like great tectonic plates. 

So on this line of thought, we can come to a provisional assessment of the causal powers of social movements in democracies: they have a fighting chance of securing tactical victories, but the prospects for achieving enduring structural change seem more remote. Their ability to change the rules of the game in a sustainable way seems limited in the face of entrenched and enduring interests opposed to such a change. 

(Perhaps the Civil Rights movement is the rare exception to this statement. The rules of the game have plainly changed since 1953 with respect to race relations in the US -- in spite of the pressing need for further transformation.)

(There is of course a huge literature on social movements. A few interesting sources are Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Gary Marx and Douglas McAdam, Collective Behavior And Social Movements: Process and Structure, Peter Ackerman, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Social properties: Persistence, change, and stochastic social processes

How can we explain social change and social persistence?

Society is a complex, compositional entity. Both persistence and change require explanation in such entities. Because there is a third alternative condition of such an entity: chaos, randomness, and Brownian motion of individuals in interaction with each other. Succinctly -- the current state of the ensemble is simply the sum of the states of the lower-level units, and their states are in turn determined by a stochastic set of encounters with other individuals in the prior period. Both persistence and patterned change are non-random outcomes for a compositional system, and each demands explanation. (It is as if crystals formed periodically in boiling water among the micro-particles observed in the solution.) So if we observe either persistence or patterned change in spite of underlying stochastic processes, there must be causes of these non-random outcomes; so we want to be able to discover the causes of both.

To consider change and persistence, we need to answer a prior question: change and persistence of what? Logically, an ensemble demonstrates change and persistence with respect to some set of characteristics: features of organization, patterns of distribution of lower-level properties (e.g. income, attitudes), characteristics of "meso"-level behavior. In biological terms, the ensemble possesses structures, functions, and dynamics of development. And we need to be able to explain each of these gross features in a way that is consistent with the compositional nature of social entities.

We can easily produce examples of each type of condition in social life.

  • Persistence: The Federal Reserve Board retains its institutional form and its functional role within the US economy over a 50-year period. Baseball is still governed by the same basic rules as it was in the nineteenth-century (with minor variations).
  • Change: American attitudes about race shift measurably over 50 years. The percentage of workers in labor unions falls dramatically from 1970to 2000.
  • Stochastic: The frequency of the name "Harry" falls dramatically from 1950 to 1990. Traffic on Skype fluctuates from minute to minute.

Given that the ensemble is composed of lower-level elements (individuals), we want to know what it is that constrains, impels, and conditions the behavior of the individuals, such that the ensemble comes to have the observed features of persistence and change.

In order to explain either persistence or change in social arrangements, what do we have to work with? Only two sorts of things, fundamentally. We have the behavioral characteristics of the individuals who constitute the society; and we have the behaviorally relevant features that are embodied in current social institutions and practices (rules, incentives, opportunities, forms of social cooperation and social punishment). The latter "social" facts are themselves embodied in the behavioral characteristics of the persons who constitute them; but at any given time they function with apparent autonomy with respect to particular actors.

Fundamentally, then, the explanation of both persistence and change in society requires that we uncover the features of individual motivation that guide their behavior (interests, values, preferences, identities, practices); the features of the current social environment that empower and limit individual strategies; and the processes of aggregation through which the individuals' actions come together into collective behavior in either reinforcing or disrupting the social facts of current interest. This intellectual model for social explanation is what I refer to as "methodological localism."

(See "The Heterogeneous Social" for more on methodological localism.)

Wittgenstein on the science of psychology

Wittgenstein's comments about the science of psychology have some resonance with the current state of the social sciences:
“The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a “young science”; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings... For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion... The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1968, II xiv, 232e).

We need a philosophy of social science because the methods, concepts, and framing theories of the social sciences are not yet adequate. We haven't yet fully thought through what the central challenges of social inquiry are, and how to think about "the social" as a field of study.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Historical comparisons

Historians are sometimes interested in comparing two cases or events in order to discover something of historical importance -- common causal mechanisms, important institutional differences between the cases, or ways in which the cases illustrate some larger historical pattern. For example, Kenneth Pomeranz offers an extensive comparison of European and Asian economic development in The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Other examples of historical comparisons might include the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution; the build-out of railroads in Britain versus France; the collapse of the French Army in 1870 versus 1940; the colonial experience in Senegal versus Kenya; the development of London versus Tokyo; and many others.

The question to be considered here is this: what standards or heuristics ought to govern the choice and definition of units of comparison? Would it make sense to compare World War II with the war in Bosnia? Or the scientific cultures of Bologna in 1400 with that of London in 1960? Or the Spanish Civil War with the culture clash of the United States in the 1960s? What factors make for a historically insightful comparison?

Part of an answer is obvious at the start: there is no hard-and-fast answer to the question. It is always possible that there is a basis of comparison across apparently radically dissimilar cases. So the Spanish Civil War comparison with Madison SDS activism might seem to single out two cases that are too incommensurable to be valuable -- until a creative historian notices that each historical moment revealed deeply different political and moral worldviews and that these ideological differences led to substantial inter-group hostility and conflict in each case. And this comparison might then lead this historian to ask the productive question: why did one instance result in years of warfare and the second resolved into peaceful protest?

Further, it is evident that comparison depends upon the background set of questions that we want to answer; useful comparison is topic-dependent. Comparing Bologna 1400 with London 1960 might be useful if we are investigating the cultural transmission of ideas but useless if we are investigating the causes of urban unrest. And comparing Paris 2006 with Detroit 1967 might be valuable on the second topic but beside the point for the first.

Historically insightful comparison also requires that we not be dazzled by the fact that similar language is used to describe or categorize multiple events. The Chinese Revolution and the Russian Revolution might be described in very similar terms: revolutions resulting from the overthrow of a pre-modern state by a militant party of revolutionaries leading an emerging under-class population. But this description is misleading on its face and in what it conceals. These historical events were actually very different in their political composition, the role and behavior of parties, and the relations that existed among other social forces. The Russian Revolution might be re-described as an opportunistic seizure of power by a minor political party, and the Chinese Revolution might be described as a long, slow mobilization of a mass population in support of revolutionary change. Other descriptions are possible as well. The point is that the common label of "revolution" should not mask the possibility or likelihood of extreme differences in processes, politics, parties, and mobilizations in the two instances.

To get some guidance, we need first to reflect on what the goal of the comparison is. And there are numerous goals that a historian might have. For example --

  • discover "generalizations" about similar processes. ("Each of the revolutions studied contains "state crisis" as a causally necessary factor.")
  • identify concrete historical mechanisms that are at work in the cases -- whether or not they recur in other cases as well. ("Political mobilization in the first case proceeds through pre-existing religious organizations on the ground; in the second case it proceeds through control of the national media.")
  • identify causally salient differences across cases that explain divergence of outcomes. (Here the idea would be an argument something like this: cases A and B are similar in many ways. However, A leads to X, while B leads to Y. What explains this divergence of outcome?)
  • discover some of the substantial variety that exists underneath the surface in events that seem superficially similar. (We might pursue this "difference" strategy in urban history and choose a set of examples that will illustrate the many ways in which the world's cities have evolved and are organized and governed.)

Thus the selection of cases will depend on what the purpose of the comparison is. But in general, the only reason to engage in comparison is the likelihood that we will learn something from the comparison that we would not have learned from study of one of the individual cases.

All this said -- we might consider the heuristic that says that the cases need to be similar enough to permit comparison in terms of structures, processes, and causes; different enough to invite inquiry about the causes of the differences; and integrated enough to allow us to say that this level of unit of analysis possesses the complex set of historical characteristcs under study as a whole.

Let's flesh this heuristic prescription out by considering one specific historical question: How did "European economic development" compare with "Asian economic development"? Before we can begin to try to answer this question, we need to give a more thoughtful definition of the units of comparison. Should the comparison be between continents, between countries, between regions within countries, or between selected cities and villages? Kenneth Pomeranz and others argue that continents and nations are too large to serve as a basis of valuable economic comparison, in a very specific sense: they encompass too much variety of social and economic processes to permit valid comparison. Pomeranz argues instead that Eurasian comparison is most valid if we select integrated economic regions of roughly comparable size; large enough to encompass the range of economic, social, and political arrangements that plausibly influence economic development, but not so large that the scale obliterates distinctive patterns and outcomes. Based on these sorts of considerations, he argues that it is most useful to consider a comparison between the core economic regions of England and the Lower Yangzi Delta in China. (James Lee offers an even more disaggregated basis for comparison of demographic regimes; he argues for a comparison based on descriptions of populations at the community level, ignoring nations and large economic regions altogether; Life Under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900.)

(See Eurasian Historical Comparisons for more on one aspect of this issue.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is it an interesting sociological fact that "urban people are better educated than rural people"?

Let's suppose that this statement about urban-rural differences in educational levels summarizes census data by calculating the average number of years of formal schooling for people in cities and people in rural areas. Is this brute fact about two large populations a valid description of the two populations? Is it an important or illuminating sociological fact?

There are several types of questions we need to ask about this fact. First, there are questions to address about the statistical features of the data themselves. How are these two populations distributed around the mean? How wide is the variance around the mean? Do we get a different result if we measure the median number of years of schooling as opposed to the mean? Which of these measures is a more meaningful description of the population as a whole -- median or mean?

Consider a hypothetical set of results. If the rural population is quite homogeneous around a mean of 10 years of schooling, while the urban population is widely distributed in a range from 5 years to 20 years, the fact that the urban mean is 11 years is somewhat misleading; the majority of urban people in this hypothetical case have less than 9 years (so urban is less well educated), while at the same time 20 percent of urban people have at least 14 years (so urban population is better educated). The point is this: the brute fact of a difference in the means is not particularly insightful in estimating the educational resources of the two populations.

Second, there are important sociological questions about the internal differentiation of the population into groups with very different educational patterns. Do women and men show different profiles in the two large populations? How about members of ethnic or racial groups? How about groups identified by income, wealth, or home ownership? What about groups defined by whether a parent had attended college? Arriving at this set of questions requires sociological imagination. The investigator needs to consider what internal differentiations within the large population might affect the sub-group's educational characteristics.

Finally there is the question of finding possible causal explanations of the differences that are discovered across major populations (urban and rural) and within sub-populations (ethnic, gender, or class-defined groups), and tracing out some of the ways in which these patterns in turn cause other social outcomes (future inequalities of income, for example). Those causal mechanisms might be various: differences in the opportunities that are presented to members of different social groups (including the possibility of discrimination), differences in values and cultures, within families, differences in gender treatment, differences in religious traditions and practices, and differences in access to resources, to name a few.

Now suppose we have done quite a bit of empirical, theoretical, and causal analysis along these lines. Suppose we have found that the internal structures of eduational attainment statistics are quite different between urban and rural populations; that the taxonomy of sub-groups is different; and that the causes and social mechanisms of the differences in attainment across the rural-urban divide are substantially different as well. What salience does the original brute fact continue to have (that the means are different in the two populations)?

We might say that the brute fact is in fact a valid empirical observation; that it needs to be substantially further analyzed; and that the genuinely valuable and insightful sociological findings only emerge once we have further disaggregated the statistics across salient groups and have provided some hypotheses about the mechanisms that influence the educational attainment profiles of the various sub-groups. At that point we have some idea of the underlying sociology that produces the brute fact. But the brute fact itself is largely unilluminating.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Does historical materialism have a place in today's social sciences?

Marx's theory of historical materialism came with a few central concepts, a large hypothesis, and a heuristic for social research. The concepts include class, the forces and relations of production, the economic structure, the superstructure, and the idea of determination ("in the last instance", as Althusser and Poulantzas put it) between the economic structure and elements of the superstructure. The heuristic is, "Look to the circumstances of property and class -- the material circumstances of society -- in order to discover the causal relationships that exist in large social change across history." The large hypothesis is that the historical dynamic created by tension between the forces of production (the level of technology and labor skills) and the relations of production (the property relations) creates a set of imperatives and constraints for social change that leads to the formation and transformation of other social elements, such as the state, morality, or culture. Class and class conflict play a central role in mediating the effects of the economic structure on other aspects of society.

Are these elements of historical materialism still of value to sociology and historical explanation?

The concepts associated with the theory of historical materialism are legitimate macro-sociological tools for organizing and analyzing social institutions and structures within particular societies. Their utility depends on the degree to which they permit the historian to identify and explain in detail the real social processes that are underway in the society under examination. There is no a priori basis for judging that this conceptual scheme is superior to other alternatives (as Marx sometimes seems to suggest). Rather, we need to evaluate the materialist conceptual scheme through its fecundity in identifying causal mechanisms and processes within the empirical phenomena under study.

The heuristic too remains insightful -- as long as we keep in mind the fact that historical change has many causes. It is fair to say that material factors have historical influence -- levels of technology influence other social institutions such as the educational system, the property system creates a set of interests that have important political effects on mobilization, and struggle over the control of social wealth is plainly an important historical factor. And it is a productive strategy for historians to examine in details the ways in which material circumstances produce other kinds of social change through the actions of historically situated actors. Further, careful study of the material circumstances of a society shed important light on the circumstances of life for the almost invisible ordinary people.

The master hypothesis of historical materialism is the least enduring. Marx's reading of history within the lenses of historical materialism was simply too deterministic, too unidirectional, and too single-factored, to provide a credible basis for explaining historical change. The difficulty with the hypothesis is its comprehensiveness and its suggestion that there is only one major historical dynamic. But take any particular historical outcome of interest -- the dynamics leading to a rebellion in North China, for example. Material conflicts of interest are likely enough to be part of the motivations of the participants, and the powers associated with various groups derivative from their control of wealth and property are plausibly related to the ability of various groups to play an influential role in the developing events. However, there are plainly other social and causal factors that are unrelated to the property system -- for example, a history of drought or flooding in the region, the structure and tenacity of kinship systems, the nature of local morality and justice sensibilities, the degree of transportation interconnectedness of the region, and indefinitely many other factors.

It is implausible, then, to suppose that a single factor -- whether material class circumstances, ideology, or other social characteristics -- is the sole important causal factor in large historical processes. Historical processes are contingent and conjunctural, so the effort to discover a single key to explain all large historical processes and outcomes is futile. At the same time, it is plausible enough that the circumstances and institutions associated with technology and property have historical effects; and in fact, it is straightforward to describe the microfoundations through which these institutions interact with ordinary human behavior and choice to lead to social outcomes. This assessment suggests that historians and sociologists are well justified in including the concepts and heuristics of historical materialism in their tool kit, but that they would be well advised to reject the almost metaphysical certainty of the grand hypothesis.

(See Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History, for an analytic philosopher's pathbreaking treatment of historical materialism.)