Thursday, January 31, 2008

Innovative social science research

What are some ways in which the community of social science researchers can arrive at useful innovations in theory and method in order to do a better job of understanding society? This is a central topic in the conversation I had with David Featherman this week at the University of Michigan. David is professor of sociology at Michigan and the founding director of the Center for Research and Solutions for Society (CARSS). David has been a national leader in the development of the social sciences as a previous president of the Social Science Research Council and as a former director of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. CARSS is a genuinely original collaborative effort at stimulating new thinking in the social sciences, and the interview gives a good exposure to some of the thinking that gave rise to the center. (The interview is posted on YouTube and iTunes.) The goal of CARSS is to serve as an incubation place for collaborative research aimed at contributing to solutions to some large social problems -- for example, more effective K-12 education, sustainable transportation systems, and responses to pandemic diseases. In each case there is a prominent role that is played by complex human behavior in the unfolding of the issue, and the solutions that policy makers attempt to design need to be well informed by the best thinking about how behavior is motivated and influenced.

Two threads in the conversation were particularly significant for me. First was David's emphasis that CARSS projects are interdisciplinary and usually involve practitioners as well as academic scientists. We discussed the forms of knowledge that experienced practitioners bring to a discussion of a complex social problem -- in the genre of expert local knowledge -- and some of the intellectual challenges involved in trying to integrate theoretical and local knowledge into a solution. And we talked about the challenges associated with bringing widely separated forms of academic research into a single conversation -- engineers, lawyers, and sociologists attempting to understand the transportation systems of the future, for example.

A second important thread was the idea of engagement of the social sciences with social issues and problems. This was very much the case with the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s through 1940s. But David makes the point early in the conversation that the social sciences made a turn in the 1960s towards greater disciplinary narrowness and a sharper separation between theory and practice. The social sciences became more narrowly confined to the academy and its disciplinary institutions.

But David and I agreed that two things were true: that the sciences ought to be shaping their disciplines and research programs with an eye to helping to solve some of society's problems -- for the good of society; but more deeply, that perhaps the quality of the science itself would increase as a result of this engagement. These are important ideas that we need to talk about as we consider the directions the social sciences should take in the coming decades.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What is global about globalization?

Of course we live in a globalizing world. But what does that really mean?

One point that might be made emphasizes the local and the regional rather than the global. This is the observation that every part of the world is undergoing its own process of social change in a distinctive way. China, Brazil, and Nigeria are experiencing very different processes of economic growth and change. Mexico, Kenya, and Sri Lanka are coping with different forms of insurgency and ethnic conflict. India, Spain, and Guatemala witness very different social processes affecting peasants and rural society. So we might say that the whole world is changing -- but with different processes and dynamics everywhere. On this line of thought, the global world is really just a patchwork of the many peoples, regions, and processes that are found in various countries.

What is genuinely global is the working of a handful of large social processes of change that have effects in virtually every part of the globe. These mechanisms serve to convey causation rapidly throughout the globe -- sometimes with integrative effects and sometimes with the effect of creating new sources of conflict. International trade and investment, and the international institutions that support these, are the most obvious such processes. But the cultural interconnections that are facilitated by new technologies of communication, transportation, and entertainment represent another factor with global influence. The fact that people in virtually every country on the planet can interact in the blogosphere is one manifestation of the global reach of the internet. The fact that missionaries, revolutionaries, and executives can travel easily from Los Angeles to Seoul and La Paz is a token of the rapid transmission and diffusion of ideas. And the transmission of the carriers of violence and aggression is likewise a global phenomenon -- from Pakistan to London and from Washington to Baghdad. And the websites that serve as the nucleus of extremist groups demonstrate the global reach of small groups of violent activists.

Another source of global integration is the seriousness of the problems the world faces as a whole: climate change, new epidemic diseases, financial system insecurity, social violence, and warfare. Global warming and avian flu pandemic will plainly demonstrate interdependence -- even as these disasters will predictably have very different consequences in different parts of the world.

So there are real strands of social connection that justify us in saying the world is becoming more global. But still we might say that the language of globalization is sometimes overdone. It is true that there are significant international forces that operate to bring the peoples of the world into closer contact and interdependency. But it is also true that cultures, societies, and peoples are historically situated and particular. And if we are to understand these particular processes, we need to consider the particular social fabric in which they unfold.

The power of the authoritarian state

If any collective entity possesses power, surely it is the state in a dictatorship – the Burmese military dictatorship or the single-party states of Cuba or China. So how does an authoritarian state exercise power?

It is common to equate power with the ability to coerce and threaten in order to compel behavior. And certainly force and repression play a crucial role in authoritarian politics. But even within a dictatorship the instruments of coercion are less than total. When the priests and young people of Burma went into the streets of Rangoon a few months ago, the military rulers were able to use a mix of violence and restraint that permitted them to prevail against a budding democracy movement in Burma. But in the past twenty years rulers in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, and Tbilisi have found that their arsenal of water cannons, secret police, and truncheons have not sufficed to silence the streets. Plainly, then, control of the forces of repression is an important component of the power base of an authoritarian dictatorship; but its scope is not unlimited.

As was true in other postings about power, we have to begin by asking about the relational situation of the relevant actors. What is the will of the state? What is the scope of behavior that the state wishes to control? Who are the agents who are subjects to the state's power? We might put the geometry of state power into a simple diagram: goals and priorities => levers of influence (repression, persuasion, bribery, cooptation, horse trading) => varied actors (civil servants, military officers, community leaders, bandits, citizens) => behavior. From the dictator’s point of view, there are two sets of actors over whom power needs to be exerted: intra-state actors – persons charged within the government to carry out the dictator’s will; and actors in civil society – the citizens and organizations that make up mass society. Intuitively, the power of a state is measured by its ability to constrain the behavior of a set of actors in ways that permit it to achieve its goals.

Let’s look first at the intra-state actors. A state is a bureaucratic entity with decision-makers at a range of levels. Ministries and organs of the state -- the police and military for example -- have their own sources of power and domains of influence that are not fully within the control of higher authority. So the highest authority -- president or general – has only a limited ability to directly impose his will upon lower levels. In the extreme case the executive can discipline or remove the lower-level director. But this lever is imprecise; it leaves the agency director a certain amount of undetectable freedom of action. So we can readily envision the situation where the executive has announced a certain priority for his government, and where two important ministries come into conflict over what to do. And one or both may be motivated by local interests rather than the priorities of the state. (This seems to be an important clue in explaining some current developments in China. Central policies enacted in Beijing are ignored or reconsidered in regional government offices.) In this instance we need to ask, what levers of power and influence does the executive have within the government itself through which it can compel compliance by both agencies?

At this level we find the familiar processes of cooptation, alliance, inducement -- as well as threat -- found in all organizations. Perhaps a singular difference is that the use of violence is closer to the surface in dictatorship than in other political organizations. But the task facing the fascist dictator has much in common with that of the executive of other large organizations with multiple agendas. The 20th century confronts us with some extreme cases -- Stalin's terrorism extended within his government as well as towards Soviet society at large, and Stalin used purges and executions to compel bureaucratic compliance. But it is an important question in organizational studies to assess the degree to which force and violence can effectively run a complex organization. And it seems likely that more ordinary mechanisms of persuasion and cooperation must usually be invoked.

So much for the problem of exercising power within the state. Now consider the larger and more interesting question of power used against civil society and ordinary citizens. The issue of power arises only when the state wants a certain kind of behavior and citizens don’t want to behave in this way. Take the large issues over which states want to exercise their will over citizens: taxation, conscription, and delivery of agricultural products. There is, first, the use of the threat of punishment to compel conformance. Draft dodgers can be hunted down and punished, villages can be threatened with violent retaliation if villagers avoid taxes, and food can be withheld from non-compliant regions (for example, Stalin's war on the kulaks; see Lynne Viola, ed. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside). Moreover, if the state can establish a pervasive network of police and informants, it can make its threats credible -- with the result that compliance with law and dictum is reasonably high. So the organs of repression are certainly an important element of power for the authoritarian state.

Beyond violence, beyond effective enforcement, what other levers of behavior modification exist for the state? Two come to mind immediately: propaganda and the market. States often have a substantial degree of control over the instruments of thought formation -- schooling, media, and communications technology. And experience has made it clear that there is a substantial degree to which a population's behavior can be altered through these tools. Markets and other impersonal social mechanisms are another important mechanism for shaping behavior. China's one-child policy was successful in altering the reproductive behavior of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. And these policies turned on a combination of coercion, enforcement, and financial incentives.

So perhaps the question of how authoritarian states exercise power is somewhat straightforward to answer: through organized repression, through artful command of a bureaucracy capable of acting cohesively, through the development of alliances with actors inside and outside of government, through cooptation of some actors to the disadvantage of other actors, through management of large social structures such as the market, and through the ability to set the terms of political behavior through the media and schooling.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Social science history and historical social science

I talked recently with Tom Sugrue about his approach to historical research, and he had quite a few interesting things to say. (Tom is professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. The interview is posted on YouTube.) One topic we discussed was the relationship between historical research and social science research -- especially those areas of social science research that take history seriously. Tom's central observation is that historians pay very close attention to the empirical and historical data that they work with -- the surprises and gritty texture that will be encountered in the archives. But historians sometimes lose track of the larger questions that ought to give focus to their work. This is where historical social science can be helpful; the social scientists are interested in large questions such as power, class, race, or economic structure. But the social scientists have their own symmetrical weakness -- they often give too little attention to the empirical details of the cases or events they include in their analysis. So Tom seems to be saying that history and social science can both contribute most strongly when the macro-disciplines work together, bringing theoretical vision and factual specificity into play.

This contrast has come up quite a bit in the past twenty-five years. Barrington Moore and Theda Skocpol offered social science theories of the causes of large political upheavals such as dictatorship and revolution. Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World was pathbreaking in the way it defined the intellectual challenge of explaining fascism and dictatorship. In Skocpol's important book States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China she offered a comparative treatment of the Russian, French, and Chinese Revolutions, in an effort to tease out the social causes that brought about successful revolutions in these cases. This is an important and compelling question for social scientists, and Skocpol's analysis has been highly influential. But historians of each of those revolutions often complained that her treatment wasn't historical enough: it wasn't based on her own archival work, it was more abstract than a good history of the French Revolution would be, and it was offered as an effort to arrive a some causal generalizations -- rather than an account of this one specific messy historical complexity. So there was a macro-disciplinary difference of perspective between the comparative historical sociologists (Moore, Skocpol, Goldstone) and the historians.

I am inclined to think that the tension between the two disciplines is inherent and healthy; the historians and the comparative sociologists are trying to accomplish fairly different intellectual tasks. The comparative sociologist is looking for some sort of causal or structural similarity across cases -- instances of dictatorship, revolution, or labor union -- and necessarily reduces the historical complexity of the cases to an analytical framework. This means putting aside much of the messy complexity of the actual cases -- the particular strategies used by the Chinese Communist Party in a base area, the rhetoric of competition between the Parisian parties in 1790, the accidents of history that intruded into the particular cases. The historian, on the other hand, is primarily interested in the particulars. How did the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans proceed in this city in this time period?

We might push the question a little bit deeper and ask, what resources can the social sciences offer working historians? One part of the answer is conceptual: social scientists have framed a number of conceptual frameworks in terms of which to characterize and interrogate historical reality. Marx's theory of class, Durkheim's theory of anomie, Tocqueville's highlighting of civic associations -- these are all instances of an effort by a social theorist to formulate a concept and a set of correlative theories in terms of which to analyze the historically given. Second, social theorists devote much of their intellectual energy to discovering and analyzing common social mechanisms -- free-rider problems, class conflict, collective action, ethnic violence. Historians can benefit by borrowing from each of these areas of knowledge. And third, some people think that social scientists aim to discover laws or regularities that govern social phenomena. If this were so, then the task of the historian would be very simple: go through the relevant social science literature, dredge up the pertinent laws, and explain the particular in terms of the workings of the laws. Unfortunately, no such laws exist; there are no "laws of motion" of modern society. So the historian's intuition -- that every historical event has its own individuality -- is born out. At the same time, the social sciences can provide concepts and mechanisms on the basis of which the historian can do a better job of formulating and explaining the historical event of interest.

As Tom Sugrue says in the interview, both these perspectives benefit from deep immersion in the findings and research efforts of the other. But I'm inclined to think that they are not simply different ends of a spectrum. Rather, they are different kinds of intellectual activity, and the criteria of success are different as well.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Was Alexis de Tocqueville a social scientist?

Alexis de Tocqueville is sometimes counted among the founding influences in modern sociology -- one of the intellectual progenitors of the discipline in the 1830s-50s.  An aristocrat in post-revolutionary France, de Tocqueville played several roles  in his life: historian, politician, traveler, and social observer.   My question here is a specific one: in what ways did Tocqueville's writings and thinking make an important contribution to sociology?  And is there anything in his writings that can serve as an important angle of view today as we consider new approaches to sociology?

Tocqueville's relevance to sociology derives from at least three features of his thinking: his enormous interest in social observation -- in France, in Britain, in Algeria, and in America; his historical approach to understanding society -- the importance of placing contemporary changes into a historical context; and his causal and comparative imagination -- his desire to discover the causes of some of the patterns and differences he discerned in comparable societies.  

I suppose that the books that brought him the greatest recognition reflect these three features of his intellectual persona.  Democracy in America combines his appetite for discovering and describing the small but telling details of a society -- the features that mark it as an individual distinct from other contemporary societies, along with an interest in discovering the causes and effects of large features of the societies he observed.  This is an intriguing combination of the particular and the general, the small and the large in a modern society.  (This feature of his sociological imagination makes me think most of Simon Schama's historical writing -- for example, in Landscape And Memory.)  On the side of explanation, Tocqueville was interested in finding the ways in which environment, morality, and civic arrangements combined to produce distinctive patterns of behavior and modes of thought; these become large causal factors in his writings, to which he attributes some of the distinctive features of American values and behavior. And he singled out large features of American society for special study -- democracy, town and village life, the relations among the classes of society, the workings of education, and the workings of American market institutions. 

The Ancien Regime and the Revolution illustrates Tocqueville's historical imagination and his effort to place the largest event of the century -- the French Revolution -- into a context of moral and civic factors that combined to make the revolution inevitable.   And other lesser books, such as his Recollections of 1848, reflect a combination of these interests in the particular details of a social event with an effort to provide a causal analysis of the way in which it unfolds -- the revolutionary upheavals in Paris in 1848.  (These are, of course, the same upheavals to which Marx referred in the Communist Manifesto as the "spectre that is haunting Europe.")  It is very interesting to contrast Tocqueville's first-hand observations of the June days of the revolution of 1848, including especially the bloodshed against the workers of Paris, with Marx's more theoretical writings about the same short period of time in The Civil War in France.  And it is interesting as well to note that Tocqueville was by no means a neutral observer of these events -- any more than Marx was.  Tocqueville was a partisan, supportive of the repression inflicted by the state in the name of order.  This too is of some interest when we consider Tocqueville's relation to the founding of sociology.

But in the end, I think it is not a mistake to conclude that Tocqueville brought an important set of ideas to contemporary sociology -- the effort to create a scientific understanding of the modern world.  All of the features identified here -- a passion for close observation and description, an interest in the discovery of social causes, an imagination that proceeds through comparison and contrast, and a framework of thought that emphasizes the importance of history -- are in fact useful intellectual components for contemporary sociology.  Tocqueville's conservative view of the world certainly interacted with his observations and recommendations.  His was certainly not "dispassionate" or value-free social science. But at the same time, we might consider whether a Tocqueville in Shanghai today might not discover some pretty interesting details, processes, and mechanisms that could contribute a deeper sociology of China.  And the fact that Tocqueville's thinking did not proceed from the naturalism that motivated others of the founders -- Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim, for example -- is on the positive side of the balance sheet as well.  Tocqueville did not operate on the assumption that there must be a single underlying law that explains the processes that he observed in Manchester, Boston, or Algiers; instead, he was content to observe the diversity of the social phenomena he discovered and to tease out some possible, historically limited causal hypotheses about how these historically specific phenomena might work.  

So as we reconsider the intellectual composition of the discipline of sociology, it is worthwhile reconsidering Tocqueville.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Social construction?

It is common to say that various things are "socially constructed". Gender and race are socially constructed, technology is socially constructed, pain and illness are socially constructed. I am inclined to think that these various statements are reasonable -- but that they mean substantially different things and are true in very different ways. So it is important to be more explicit about what we mean when we refer to social construction.

There is one broad distinction that is most fundamental in this context -- the distinction between the construction that happens in the formation of knowledge and that which occurs in the social process involving self- and other-representing agents. The distinction is one between the observer and the observed, and it is not absolute. Participants are themselves knowledge producers, and what we will recognize as their social construction involves their creation of schemes of representation. Nonetheless, there is an important line to draw between the constructions of the observer and the participant.

The crux of the issue is whether social reality is the creation of the men and women who make it up, or whether the reality is shaped and created by the conceptual lenses through which the observer frames the social phenomena. As a social realist, I want to maintain the separation between the social reality as constituted and experienced by the actors and the conceptual schemes of the observer. This position implies rejection of the epistemological version of social constructivism, the view that the observer's concepts determine social reality.

There is a complication that needs to be addressed but that doesn't change the basic perspective of realism. This is the point that in some unusual circumstances it is the case that scientific concepts and theories feed back into behavior and thought of participants. The definition of some mental illnesses is a good example, as is the form of a variety of human institutions such as the factory or the prison: concepts constructed by social theorists and critics feed back into the design of the institution with the result that the next iteration of the institution is indeed partially the construction if the theorist. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

So in what sense are gender, race, or technology instances of social construction from a realist perspective? It is a social reality that societies embody identities for various groups of individuals and these identities are framed by the thoughts, behavioral, and strategies of people in society. Moreover, these thoughts and behaviors change over time as a result of the contestation that occurs around the identities. So the formulation of the identity of "African-American professional," "Jewish garment worker," or "gay Texan" is ultimately the result of a process of contestation, repression, and interactive social behavior. It is socially constructed through visible social processes and mechanisms. And it is constructed, not by the external observer, but by the active and subjective participants.

And what about technology? In what sense is the evolution of a technology like the bicycle or automobile socially constructed? (Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change) What historians of technology usually mean by this assertion is a denial of the idea that there is an inherent pathway of technology change that is implied by efficiency and the natural properties of materials and designs. Against this inevitable-ism of function, historians note that the actual path of technology development is most commonly driven or constrained by cultural preferences and expectations. Young men wanted an exciting adventure in their automobile in the 1910s -- and so the boring electric car was doomed (Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age). Weapons designers shared a culture of precision -- and so inertial navigation superceded radio-guided systems (the predecessor of GPS) (Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance). In other words -- technologies are socially constructed by the imperatives of culture in the surrounding society.

So there is a sense in which social constructivism is true and informative -- and thoroughly consistent with social realism. And there is another sense in which the phrase is extreme, philosophical, and inconsistent with an empirical and realist study of social reality.

(Ian Hacking has an interesting take on these issues in The Social Construction of What?.)

Interview with Mayer Zald

This week I completed an interview and discussion with Mayer Zald in the department of sociology at the University of Michigan. (The interview is part of an ongoing project of mine and is posted on my webpage and on YouTube.) Mayer's career has been a long and productive one -- his first publication was over fifty years ago, and his ideas have shaped quite a bit of the discussion in the past several decades in the fields of social movements and the sociology of organizations. Mayer did his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan in 1961, and has taught at Michigan and Vanderbilt during a long and distinguished career. Mayer was very much influenced by some of the ideas and approaches of the Chicago school of sociology, and these influences persist in his thinking today. As he puts it in the interview, "I was trained as a social psychologist, and George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley were the founding fathers for American social psychology."

Mayer surprised me at the beginning of the interview by defining social phenomena in terms of "signifying" and communicating -- rather than in terms of rationality, purposive behavior, and collective action. Given how important collective action and social movements have been in Mayer's research, I had expected that strategic behavior and purposive choice would be the organizing concept, but it wasn't. (He pointed out that rational choice theory doesn't have a lot of credibility in sociology, though there is a difference between the formalisms of rational choice theory and the more general concept of social action as guided by purposive, intentional agents.)

Like all creative thinkers -- in the social sciences and in other fields as well -- Mayer continues to think freshly about the puzzles and processes that the social world confronts us with. He continues to wonder whether there are new approaches that might be taken to shed more light on the sociological processes that we observe. For example, Mayer has paid a lot of attention in the past several years to the question of how the methods and approaches of the humanities might be valuable in sociological research.

Mayer also has a very reflective perception of the way in which sociology has developed over the past fifty years, and the ways in which the sub-disciplines have proliferated. And he has taken a fresh look at the question of what counts as "progress" or cumulativeness in the social sciences.

What I find fascinating and valuable about doing these interviews is the insight that comes from talking with a smart, innovative and experienced researcher with a long view of the social science disciplines. Somehow this level of discussion seems very different from reading the scholar's published work. It is possible to probe into issues that don't necessarily come into central focus in the published work, and it is possible to watch the gifted scholar's mind at work. And it is possible to get past the big headlines of the person's work and dig more deeply into the intellectual challenge of understanding society.

Alienation and anomie

It is interesting to compare Durkheim and Marx on their ideas about modern consciousness. Durkheim focused on social solidarity as one of the important functions of a social order: individuals had a defined place in the world that was created and reinforced by the social values of morality, religion, and patriotism. He observed that these strands of solidarity are stronger or weaker in different societies, and he also observed that some modern social forces tend to break down these moral strands of social cohesion -- the creation of large cities, for example. In his theory of suicide, he highlights the situation of "anomie" to refer to the circumstance of individuals whose relationship to the social whole is weak, and he explains differences in suicide rates across societies as the result of different levels of solidarity and its opposite, anomie.

Marx's concept of alienation involves a somewhat different kind of separation and breakdown -- separation of the person from his/her nature as a free producer and creator, and separation of the person from his/her natural sociality. Marx thinks of affirming social relations as founded on equality and freedom. So modern capitalist society is destructive of true sociality.

What is interesting in this comparison is that both Durkheim and Marx appear to be diagnosing a similar feature of modernity. In Durkheim's case there is an implicit contrast between a pre-modern world in which individuals have a well-defined social and moral place and the contemporary world in which these strands of solidarity are breaking down. In Marx's case the contrast is forward-looking. Marx compares the present -- the factory -- with the future -- a society of free, equal, social producers. But in each case the theorist is grappling with an absence in modernity -- an absence of a social and moral setting that gives the individual a basis for self-respect and sociable collaboration with others. The social itself is breaking down. (This is a theme with other social theorists as well; for example, in Tönnies' distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Peter Laslett's title The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age captures some of the same idea.)

Coming forward to the social theories of the late twentieth century, these issues continue to fascinate some social observers. Robert Putnam's work on trying to measure the changing density of civic involvement (social capital) is a different perspective on Durkheim's concept of solidarity. (Another great title -- Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Sociologists who focus on disaffected young people are raising similar issues. And the New Left sociology and theory of workers' alienation from society picks up where Marx left off on this issue.

Is the time right for a new round of thinking about the nature of social consciousness and social solidarity? Do we need some new concepts of how ideas and identities contribute to a social whole? Is the study and theorizing of social subjectivity an important aspect of the challenge of sociology?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Alienation and subjectivity

Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation -- interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers' subjectivity -- their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.

What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one's social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from "species-being" (the worker's essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.

There are several other concepts in Marx's work that get some grip on subjectivity -- the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity -- the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one's experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are "determined" or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx's was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.

There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task -- that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People's thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that "the hand mill gives you the feudal lord". The theory of ideology is one such effort -- a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.

Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances -- the social relations of production and the factory system -- produce a subjective effect -- the worker's alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).

The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to -- understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx's early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Charting inequality

Inequality is a central and familiar topic for sociological research (as it is for social and political philosophy). But it is worth probing what kinds of inequality may exist in society and what kinds of explanations might serve to account for these various social processes and outcomes. What do we want to know about social inequalities?

Most evidently we can observe inequalities across individuals and groups with respect to the level of attainment of various important social goods: income, wealth, home ownership, health status, educational attainment, and employment, to name several. It is trivial to observe that there are differences across individuals with respect to these goods -- John has higher income and better health than Phil. What is less trivial is the discovery that members of a group, defined in terms of one or more socially significant properties, show differences with respect to these outcomes: inequalities of income between men and women, inequalities of incidence of diabetes across white and black adults, differences in educational attainment across rural, suburban, and urban residence, and so forth. Once we have identified inequalities like these across social groups, we want to have a causal explanation of the differences. What are the social processes through which these differences in outcome arise?

A related kind of inequality is somewhat less tangible. It has to do with unobservable social properties like status, power, or privilege. We can't directly measure this person's total social power or that person's social status. But we can arrive at comparative judgments about the relative level of status and power for various individuals, and we can likewise make comparative judgments about these qualities as exhibited by various social groups. Once again the question of social causation arises: what are the social processes that give rise to different levels of power, status, or privilege for various social groups?

In each instance we want to know what the social processes and mechanisms are that proliferate outcomes differentially across groups defined by such characteristics as race, gender, income status, etc. What factors and processes cause the occurrence of inequalities with respect to a social good across social groups defined by a socially salient property (race, gender, age)? If there is a measured difference with respect to the social property across two groups, there must be a causal factor that distinguishes the groups. A natural hypothesis is that human talents and personalities are randomly distributed across all human beings. On this assumption, we should expect that there will be no differences of outcome across social groups that are purely based on differences of talent, since by hypothesis there is no difference in the distribution of talents across randomly selected groups. So if there are observed differences in outcome, we need to find a social process that would explain the differences across groups. There must be a causal factor that explains the difference.

We might say that there are only a few basic possibilities. Members of the groups might possess personal characteristics differentially that causally produce the good. This might be the result of filtering or differential recruitment into the group. Second, the mechanisms assigning the good to individuals might discriminate on the basis of the property or a correlated property. Third, membership in the group might give members differential access to resources or opportunities that are themselves productive of the good.

So far we have formulated the problem as one of explaining inequalities across groups defined by some other feature. But there is a separate issue about inequalities that sociologists address. Suppose we notice that the “rich” are gaining a higher percentage of income over time and the “poor” a falling percentage. These two groups are defined with respect to the very property with which they are measurably unequal. Formulated from this perspective, the question is this: what are the causal factors possessed by the group of “rich” that accounts for their high income, and conversely for the “poor”? Upon investigation we might find that the two groups are different in a variety of ways: amount of higher education, place of residence, race, age. This might lead us to ask the question, are some of these factors causal with respect to income; are other factors collateral effects of high income; and are yet others simply the non-causal correlates of the truly causal factors?

This suggests two angles of approach on the question of inequalities across groups. One is to single out the two populations at opposite ends of a particular spectrum of difference and examine their various characteristics. The other is to single out a socially salient property (race, for example) and investigate whether there are differences with respect to the social good (income). The first cut raises the question, what factors distinguish the high-achieving and low-achieving groups that might explain the observed differences; the second asks, why is the property causally relevant to the distribution of the good?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Coverage of the social sciences

Suppose we took the view that the social sciences ought to provide sufficient conceptual and methodological tools to analyze and explain any kind of social behavior. This would be a certain kind of completeness: not theoretical or explanatory completeness, in the sense of having a finished set of theories that can explain everything, but conceptual completeness, in the sense that there are sufficient conceptual resources to give a basis for describing every form of social behavior, and methodological completeness, in the sense that for every possible research question there are starting point for inquiry in the social sciences. And, finally, suppose we stipulate that there are always new hypotheses to be discovered and new theories to be invented.

If this is one of the ultimate aspirations for the social sciences, then we can ask -- how close is the current corpus of social science research and knowledge to this goal?

One possible answer is that we have already reached this goal. The conceptual resources of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology serve as a "fish-scale" system of conceptual coverage that gives us a vocabulary for describing any possible configuration of social behavior. And the most basic ideas about empirical research, causal reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and interpretation of meaning give us a preliminary basis for probing and investigating any of the "new" phenomena we might discover.

Another possible answer goes in the opposite direction. The concepts of the social science disciplines are parochial and example-based. When new forms of social interaction emerge we will need new concepts on the basis of which to describe and represent these social behaviors. So concepts and empirical knowledge must go hand in hand, and new discoveries will stimulate new concepts as well.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose the social sciences had developed to this point minus micro-economics. The reduced scheme would involve many aspects of behavior and thought, but it would have omitted the category of "rational self-interest." Is this a possible scenario? Would the reduced set be complete in the sense described above? And what kind of discovery would be required in order for these alternative-world social scientists to progress?

The incompleteness of alternative-world social science is fairly evident. There would be important ranges of behavior that would be inscrutable without the concept of rational self-interest (market equilibria, free-rider problems). And the solution would appear fairly evident as well. These gaps in explanatory scope would lead investigators to ask, what is the hidden factor we are not considering? And they would be led to discover the concept of rational self-interest.

The moral seems to be this: it is always possible that new discoveries of anomalous phenomena will demonstrate the insufficiency of the current conceptual scheme. And therefore there is never a point at which we can declare that science is now complete, and no new concepts will be needed.

At the same time, we do in fact have a rough-and-ready pragmatic confidence that the social sciences as an extended body of theories, concepts, and results have pretty well covered the primary scope of human behavior. And this suggests a vision of the way the social sciences cover the domain of the social as well: not as a comprehensive deductive theory but rather as an irregular, overlapping collection of concepts, methods, and theories -- a set of fish-scales rather than an architect's blueprint for all social phenomena.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Is there such a thing as capitalism?

Marx's central theoretical concept is "capitalism." He wanted to provide a theory of the capitalist mode of production; he wanted to discover the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production; and he believed that there was a compact structural identity that is shared by capitalist economies. Later Marxist economists refined the concept somewhat by distinguishing among various stages of capitalist development, with thinkers such as Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy focusing on "late capitalism".

My question here is a simple one. From the point of view of social ontology and concept formation in sociology -- does it make sense to think of capitalism as a single thing with multiple instances across time and space? Is there a reason to think that "England, 1880," "Germany, 1910," "Japan, 1960," "United States, 1980," and "France, 2000" are all instances of a single economic system?

Consider briefly Marx's account of the core features of capitalism. It is an economic system based on a particular and distinctive property system: private property in the means of production (capital) and private ownership of labor by the worker (labor). The worker is free to sell his/her labor power to multiple owners of capital; but, having been separated from all other forms of access to means of production, the worker is not free to withhold his/her labor altogether. So the worker is dependent on the capitalist for access to the means of subsistence; and the capitalist is dependent upon the worker as the creator of surplus value. It is a system that is premised on surplus extraction by owners of capital from the producers of value (workers). It is a system based on accumulation: constant growth and expansion of the appropriation of surplus value (profits). And it is a system based on accumulation rather than consumption. And, finally, Marx believes that these social institutions create an institutional logic for capitalist economies that is different from other modes of production -- a tendency towards technological innovation, a tendency towards a falling rate of profit, the creation of an "industrial reserve army," and the creation of a tendency towards economic crisis. It is this claim that permits Marx to assert that he has produced a theory that encompasses a whole class of social formations, rather than being simply a description based on a single case, British capitalism of mid-nineteenth century.

In order to carry this concept through, we would need to postulate that there is a core set of economic features and institutions that constitute the "essence" of capitalism; that these core features recur across multiple historical social formations; and that the differences that exist across historical cases are non-essential, accidental, epiphenomenal, or super-structural.

And differences there are, of course. One important dimension of difference is the degree and nature of state involvement in the economy. But other differences are equally important: the subtle but distinctive differences in property systems that exist in England, Germany, Japan, or the United States; the differences that exist in regulatory regimes (such as those documented by Frank Dobbin); the cultural differences that exist across "capitalist" societies with respect to attitudes towards wealth, the environment, or inequalities; and so on for a continuing and broad range of differences across societies.

Given this fact of sociologically important differences across historical instances of capitalism, we appear to have two theoretical choices. The first is to postulate that the common, core institutions of capitalist societies impose a logic of development on capitalist societies that is more fundamental than any of the evident differences across instances. The other is to judge that the concept of capitalism is simply a nominal social category, grouping together a number of societies which have some similarities and also important differences. Or, following Weber, we might say that capitalism is an ideal type, an organizing and idealized concept that singles out a set of features that often hang together, but recognizing that no particular society perfectly exemplifies all these features.

It seems to me that Marx fell into a fetishim of his own in reifying the capitalist mode of production as a general historical category. We are better off following the lead of the new institutionalists, recognizing that every society has a somewhat different configuration of basic institutions; and acknowledging that these differences make a difference in the development and historical trajectory of these societies. There are important commonalities across many or most of the societies that Marx would call "capitalist" -- a deep conflict of interest between capital and labor, a likelihood that economic property ownership will support political power and influence, and other common features. But to judge that "every capitalist society develops in the same way" goes well beyond what history or theory would support. Instead, we need to have specific, factual analysis of each of the societies we are interested in, and should highlight the differences that exist as well as the commonalities that recur. This finding takes us further down the road of emphasizing particularity and difference as much as generalization and regularity in social science theorizing.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Collective behavior and resource mobilization theory

The study of collective behavior and social movements has been a central sub-discipline of sociology since the 1970s. This is understandable for several reasons -- first, because collective behavior is inherently an important sociological process, and second, because the 1960s and 1970s witnessed particularly significant social movements in the US and other parts of the world. The US civil rights movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement, Czechoslovakia and France in 1968, and a variety of anti-colonial struggles in Asia, Latin America, and Africa made social movements particularly salient for sociologists in the 70s and 80s.

There are several different kinds of research questions that can be posed about social movements. One line of inquiry is descriptive and ethnographic. Researchers could immerse themselves in the concrete details of specific examples of social movements, discovering some of the specific characteristics and processes that were to be found in specific examples. Moreover, researcher could recognize the importance of failure and provide a similar level of description and narrative for failed social movements as well. This kind of descriptive research is very important in the study of any complex social phenomenon.

Second, given the interest that sociologists have in the explanation of social processes, it would be natural for sociologists to attempt to discover the causes of successful social mobilization. Comparative sociologists might approach this task by trying to discover some macro-social factors that would appear to distinguish successful from unsuccessful mobilizations. In other words, they might isolate a handful of examples of successful and unsuccessful social movements, and then use sociological theory and imagination to identify a set of macro-factors that might be thought to be conducive to (or inhibiting of) successful social mobilization. This strategy suggests use of Mill's methods to sort out necessary and/or sufficient conditions for the outcome. And it would issue in pronouncements like "successful social movements require X, Y, and Z as necessary conditions."

A third possible approach combines some features of both of these. This third approach acknowledges that each social event embodies a great deal of particularity and contingency -- thus requiring a substantial amount of descriptive research. But this third approach also postulates that there are causes of successful and unsuccessful mobilization and that these take the form of concrete social-causal mechanisms. So this approach directs the researcher to engage in concrete research with the goal of discovering some of the concrete social mechanisms that appear to have been critical. This research in turn has some promise in providing the basis for some limited generalizations in the study of social movements. If we find that there are some common challenges that efforts at social mobilization confront, this is a beginning of a more general treatment. And if we find that there are a handful of key mechanisms that recur in many cases, this further supports the development of more generalized statements about mobilization. (This is roughly the approach that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly take in Dynamics of Contention.)

Now let's return to the role that resource mobilization theory plays in the study of social movements. This concept is said to be one of the primary theories of social movements. Its primary competitor on the 1980s was "political process theory." My question here is a simple one: in what sense do either of these concepts function as theories of social movements? If they are intended to serve as nouns in sentences like these -- "Social movements always occur in circumstances where there is more X in the social context" -- then I want to say that neither concept is likely to serve well and neither really functions as a theory of collective behavior. This usage is attempting to fulfill the second project above, namely, offering an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions of mobilization. However, given the contingency and heterogeneity of social events, it is unlikely that there are any such conditions. But the situation is much better if we take the view that both "resource mobilization" and "political process" theories serve to describe social mechanisms that are found in many different instances of social movements -- though often in different forms and levels of importance. On this approach, "resource mobilization" is a theory of a social process or circumstance that is a relevant causal mechanism in many different instances of social movements. But it does not function as a general theory of social movements; instead, it is a developed description of a social mechanism that can be recognized in a variety of contexts (not all of which involve social movements).

In other areas of science a theory of a domain is thought to be a compact set of hypotheses that explain all the phenomena of the domain. "Resource mobilization" and "political process" cannot function in this way. However, each of these concepts can function as a description of a limited but real social mechanism; and in this way they each can play a constructive role in explaining important instances of collective mobilization and social movements.

What does rational choice theory explain?

Rational choice theory could be advanced as a pure set of axioms embodying a formal representation of individual choice under circumstances of uncertainty and strategic interaction. Decision theory incorporates the idea of maximizing utility under circumstances of uncertainty and risk. The basic rule is that the decision-maker could collect information about the utility and probability of each feasible choice, and choose the option that affords the maximum expected utility. (Here the decision-maker is playing against nature.) Game theory expands the range of decision-making situations by giving a representation of strategic interaction: situations in which the actor's outcome depends upon the choices or strategies made by one or more rational opponents. Mathematical game theorists have demonstrated that this problem too admits of rational solution. The actor needs to discover the choices available to him/her and each other player and he/she needs to assign utilities for each possible outcome for each player. It is then demonstrable, for both zero-sum and non-zero-sum games, that there are one or more equilibrium sets of strategies for each player. This means that there is a single strategy or a mixed set of strategies with the property that, given rational choices by the opponent, there is no other strategy available to self that would produce a higher utility for self. (It may be observed that for games with many strategies for each player, discovery of the equilibrium set may not be practical.) Certain two-person games have received a great deal of analysis, including the prisoners' dilemma, the game of chicken, and a range of cooperative games.

So much for the formal theory. In what sense does rational choice theory or game theory provide a basis for an explanation of real social outcomes?

We might begin a response to this question by saying that the axioms have empirical content as descriptions of real human decision-making. Real decision-makers do consider alternative choices in terms of the value and probability of the outcome. Moreover, actors who systematically break the expected utility rule will do less well than those who act according to the rule. So non-expected-utility actors will either learn or disappepear if the stakes are high. Likewise, in strategic situations (those depending on the independent actions of other deliberative agents), actors try to choose their strategy based on an analysis of the future choices of other players. So, once again, rational choice theory appears to capture an important dimension of real human decision making.

As noted in a prior posting, it goes without saying that human reasoners are not entirely conformant to the axioms -- norms intervene, computational limits interfere, and the assesment of risky situations appears to be systematically divergent from the expected-utility model. In fact, these deviations create the subject matter for experimental or behavioral economics. (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.)

But given that there is some degree of correspondence between RC axioms and real human reasoning, we might say that RC theory provides an empirically grounded way of modeling certain real situations of decision making and strategic interaction. The pressing question is whether the empirical failures of the axioms as a description of real actors are sufficient to thoroughly invalidate the models. And it would appear that there are specific social settings that are likely to represent something like the pure case of rational decision-making as hypothesized by RC theory.

This implies in turn that there is a realistic basis for treating RC theory as a possible source of real empirically grounded explananations of observed social behavior. For example, suppose we are interested in the distributive features of WTO treaties or the incidence of peasant rebellions in late imperial China. We might model the WTO problem by treating nations as rational actors, attributing a set of utilities and probabilities to them, and using the findings of bargaining theory to predict the nature of the distribution of benefits and burdens in a series of agreements. Or we might regard the occurrence of a rebellion as a choice situation for each potential rebel that involves multiple outcomes, each with a utility and a probability. And we might hypothesize that rebellions will be most frequent in situations where the costs of participation are lowest and the rewards are greatest (James Tong, Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty).

In each case we have taken an abstract mathematical system, used it to create a model of the actual social situation of interest, and have then solved the terms of the model. This solution can then be interpreted as a prediction or post-diction of the actual situation, and we can compare the model's results with empirical and hisistorical facts.

(A very negative assessment of the empirical utility of rational choice theory is offered in Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. Their skepticism is taken on by many authors in Jeffrey Friedman's edited volume, The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered.)

Friday, January 4, 2008

How can race be a cause of something like asthma?

Though I've posed this posting around the question of "race and asthma," the question here isn't really about public health. It is rather concerned with the general question, how can a group characteristic be a causal factor in enhancing some other group characteristic?

Suppose the facts are these: that African-Americans have a higher probability of developing asthma, even controlling for income levels, education levels, age, and urban-suburban residence. (I don't know if the facts support this statement, but it is the logic that I am concerned with here.) And suppose that the researcher summarizes his/her findings by saying that "being African-American causes the individual to have a higher risk of developing asthma." How are we supposed to interpret this claim?

My preferred interpretation of statements like these is to hypothesize a causal mechanism, presently unknown, that influences African-American people differentially and produces a higher incidence of asthma. Here are a few possibilities:

  • (a) African-Americans as a population have a lower level of access to quality healthcare and are more likely to be uninsured. Asthma is a disease that is best treated on the basis of early diagnosis. Therefore African--Americans are more likely to suffer from undiagnosed and worsening asthma. This hypothesis is inconsistent with the assumed facts, however, in that the assertion is that the pattern persists even when we control for income.
  • (b) Asthma is an inner-city disease. It is stimulated by air pollution. African-Americans are more likely to live in inner-city environments because of the workings of residential segregation. So race causes exposure which in turn causes a higher incidence of the disease. (Again, this hypothesis is inconsistent with the stated facts that stipulate having controlled for residence.)
  • (c) There might be an unidentified gene that is more frequent in people with African ancestry than non-African ancestry and that makes one more susceptible to asthma. If this were correct, then we would expect the discrepancy to disappear if we control for frequency of this gene. Groups of white and black people randomly selected but balanced so that the frequency of the gene is the same in both groups should show the same incidence of asthma.
  • (d) It could be that there is a nutritional component to the onset of asthma, and it could be that cultural differences between the two communities lead the African-American population to have higher levels of exposure to the nutritional cause of the disease.

And of course we could proliferate possible mechanisms.

In each case the logic of the account is similar. We proceed by hypothesizing a factor or combination of factors that increase the likelihood of developing asthma; and then we try to determine whether this collalateral factor is more common in the African-American community. Some of these stories would amount to spurious correlations, while others would constitute stories in which the fact of race (as opposed to a factor with which race is accidentally correlated) plays an essential role in the causal story. (Reduced access to healthcare and inner city air pollution fall in this category, since it is institutional race segregation that causes the higher-than-normal frequency of urban residence for African-Americans.)

So this is a potential interpretation of the causal meaning of a statement like "race causes an increased risk of X." But is this now a fact about individuals or groups? Do the causal interpretations here disaggregate from group to individual? Does "higher incidence in the population" disaggregate onto statements about the factors that influence the individual's separate risk? It appears that this causal mechanism interpretation does in fact disaggregate to the individual level, since each describes a factor that pertains to the individual and that directly influences his/her likelihood of developing the disease.

What would be most perplexing is if there were multiple sets of causal mechanisms, each independent of the others and each creating a race-specific difference in incidence of the disease. For example, it might be that both exposure to air pollution and lack of health insurance lead to a higher incidence of the disease; and further, it might be that inner-city residents do in fact have adequate healthcare but exposure to inner-city pollution; while suburban African-Americans might have less healthcare and limited exposure to air pollution. In this set of facts, both African-American populations would display higher-than-normal incidence, but for different and unrelated reasons.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Biography and personality psychology

Think about the relationship between researching a biography of a complex individual and compiling a set of theories about personality development. The individual, Mr. X, is a particular person whose life and personality took shape through a long series of contingent happenings. The biographer's task is to arrive at some insights into Mr. X's motivations and desires; his features of character (courage, magnanimity); his weaknesses; as well as providing an illuminating account of some of the shaping events and choices that Mr. X made along the way. Mr. X's actions and choices are comprehensible -- but in order to understand them we need to know what he thought, wanted, intended, resisted, and chose, and why. In other words, we need a fairly detailed profile of Mr. X's personality, preferences, and vanities. We need to know Mr. X as a particular and unique person.

Now it is worth commenting that this biographical description is itself a generalization. When we write that "Mr. X was concerned about how his actions were perceived, and often acted out of a desire to put his actions in a good light" -- we are making a generalization across Mr. X's lifetime of choices. And we are also hypothesizing something not directly observable -- a persistent feature of Mr. X's subjective world of choosing, his self-consciousness. In the course of the biography we might make statements such as "Mr. X chose to stay in his job at the New York Times because it was very prestigious; whereas Ms. Y was more adventurous in her career and moved to" This comparison implies that both X and Y have persistent traits of personality -- traits that led them to make different choices under similar circumstances.

So a biography is a compilation of several different kinds of assertions or observations: some of the things that happened to the subject, some of the actions and choices the subject made, some hypotheses about the subject's personality and motivational system, and an interpretation of the causes and reasons of some of these choices. The biography asserts a degree of consistency over time -- Mr. X can be counted on to behave similarly in circumstances that raise the same intra-personal issues -- even as it documents the particularity and uniqueness of Mr. X in contrast to other persons in similar circumstances. So a biography combines particularity and a certain kind of generality.

Now consider a textbook in personality psychology. The textbook too is interested in explaining why people behave as they do. But it approaches the problem from the point of view of taxonomy, causal analysis, and generalized explanations. The taxonomy part comes in through the effort to describe a handful of personality "types" -- individuals sharing a cluster of personality characteristics that make them similar in action to each other and different from others. The causal analysis comes in through the door of a set of hypotheses about what constitutes a personality; how features of personality are embodied in the individual; how they are cultivated or shaped through development; and how they manifest in patterns of action. And the generalized explanations enter in the form of statements about groups of people sharing common personality features: "Ethnic massacres often occur as a result of manipulation of group emotions through the media." The task of the theories of personality psychology is to provide a basis for explaining behavior; but unlike biography, personality psychology singles out the common features of personality that are found in a whole group of actors.

Now, if the classification exercise could be done in a really successful way -- so that we conclude that there are personality types A, B, and C, and here are the behavioral dispositions of the three types -- then biography would be unnecessary. All we need to know is whether Mr. X is an A, a B, or a C. In fact, however, we know that people are more varied than this. At best the small handful of personality types associated with personality theory can be construed as ideal types, pure versions of the various hypotheses; but we will also understand that very few people exactly embody exactly one of these ideal types. Instead, people's motivations and personalities are a blend of numerous currents; and the role of biography is to identify these particular confluences in the subject of interest.

This is an interesting contrast for the social sciences, because there is a parallel distinction in the description and analysis of social particulars. Sometimes social scientists are primarily interested in stripping the "individuals" they consider (wars, revolutions, cities) down to a small list of characteristics about which they attempt to arrive at generalizations. And sometimes they are interested in treating the "individual" as a complex particular with its own life history and personality. The urban geographer may want to consider all United States cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants as a group, and then to arrive at some hypotheses and generalizations about this set of cities. This is analogous to the personality psychology of the distinction. Or the urban geographer may want to focus in on the particular identity and persona of one city -- Chicago -- and treat it as a biographer might treat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both approaches are legitimate. The second, however, is perhaps undervalued in the social sciences because of its particularity. As discussed in the previous posting, however, there are good reasons for thinking that understanding the richness of empirical detail of a city like Chicago is itself a worthwhile sociological task.

Social description as science

Descriptive research and writing in the social sciences is generally looked at with a degree of condescension. The complaint is that science should be explanatory, and descriptive work is both shallow and trivial. We can almost hear the doctoral supervisor responding to the candidate who has spent a year in primary research in the field and in tax offices in Indonesia, producing a finely detailed descriptive study of how the fiscal institutions actually work across levels and regions: "That's well and good, but what do you make of your findings? What patterns have you discovered? Why do the variations you've documented occur as they do? Where's your theory?"

The "shallow and trivial" criticism is unfounded and unjust. Our talented field researcher will have found an enormous and surprising range of variation among the institutions and practices he has studied. And these variations cannot be inferred from some general theory of fiscal institutions. They must be discovered and documented on the ground. Further, we can't come up with any useful theory of institutions in the absence of some rigorous, concrete, and particular descriptions of a variety of institutions. We need the complexity and texture of good, rigorous description to help produce genuinely explanatory theories. (Robert Klitgaard's treatment of corruption fits this description nicely; Controlling Corruption.)

So detailed descriptive research is important -- because the social world is unruly and varied, and there is no single rule or law that generates this diversity; and it is difficult, in that it requires extensive and disciplined efforts at observation and discovery. Moreover, descriptive research is theoretical in one important respect: deciding upon the features of the phenomena that are worth recording is itself the result of preliminary hunches about what is salient or significant. (Of course there is no such thing as pure description.)

At the same time, the critic is right in one important respect: having documented variation in practices and local implementation of the basic fiscal institutions, it is quite reasonable to expect the researcher to try to find some explanations of this variation. Our graduate student now needs to reconsider the manuscript and try to determine whether any of the variation and particularity makes sense from the point of view of known social mechanisms. Why did the Indonesian fiscal system evolve into the variegated structure it now consists of? And this is where social theory is most useful -- not as a grand explanatory scheme, but as many small bits of theory capturing some relevant features of behavior and institution-building in these particular circumstances. So, for example, our graduate student may notice that principal-agent problems are endemic in fiscal institutions. Given that taxes are being assessed and paid, all the participants have some motivation to subvert the process. So it may be that some observed variants can be explained as strategic efforts to solve principal-agent problems. Or as another example -- limited and unreliable forms of communication may exist in some parts of the country under study, and features of the fiscal system in these under-served regions may have been selected because they are less reliant on swift, accurate communication.

Maybe this gives a basis for assessing the role of descriptive inquiry in the social sciences.

  • Because social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic, there is an important and enduring role for careful descriptive inquiry. The task of discovering and documenting the variety and diversity of social phenomena is both important and intellectually challenging.
  • Because social phenomena emerge from purposive human agency, there are an open-ended number of social mechanisms that are potentially relevant to the diversity that is discovered.
  • And because we are ultimately interested in explaining as much variation as we can, it is desirable to bring those theoretical widgets to bear on various elements of the diversity that is discovered in the descriptive research.

And, finally, it is unrealistic to imagine that either description or theorizing can be conducted solely independently. Instead, description requires theorizing and conceptualizing, and theorizing requires some accurate descriptions of the world to work with. As Kant wrote in a different context, "Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind."

(As I imagine the hypothetical example above I think of Alfred Russel Wallace's fine and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Malay archipelago, and the role that this detailed natural history played in the formation of his own and Darwin's theories of natural selection. The purpose of the theory was to find some degree of order in the intricate diversity of the biological domain. But the biology of species had a major advantage over the sociology of institutions and practices: there was in fact only one governing mechanism, random variation and selection, so it was possible to encompass the full range of observed diversity under a single ecological theory. The case is different in the social world because there are multiple independent causes leading to social differentiation.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Social "laws" and causal mechanisms

Are there social regularities? Is there anything like a "law of nature" that governs or describes social phenomena?

My view is that this is a question that needs to be approached very carefully. As a bottom line, I take the view that there are no "social laws" analogous to "laws of nature", even though there are some mid-level regularities that can be discovered across a variety of kinds of social phenomena. But care is needed because of the constant temptation of naturalism -- the idea that the social world should be understood in strong analogy with the natural world. If natural phenomena are governed by laws of nature, then social phenomena should be governed by "laws of society." But the analogy is false.

Of course there are observable regularities among social phenomena. Urban geographers have noticed a similar mathematical relationship in the size distribution of cities in a wide range of countries. Durkheim noticed similar suicide rates among Catholic countries -- rates that differ consistently from those found in Protestant countries. Political economists notice that there is a negative correlation between state spending on social goods and the infant mortality rate. And we could extend the list indefinitely.

But what does this fact demonstrate? Not, I want to argue, that social phenomena are "law-governed". Instead, it results from two related facts. First, there are social-causal mechanisms; and second, there is some recurrence of common causes across social settings.
Take the mechanism of "collective action failures in the presence of public goods." Here the heart of the mechanism is the analytical point that rationally self-interested decision-makers will take account of private goods but not public goods; so they will tend to avoid investments in activities that produce public goods. They will tend to become "free riders" or "easy riders." The social regularity that corresponds to this mechanism is a "soft" generalization -- that situations that involve a strong component of collective opportunities for creating public goods will tend to demonstrate low contribution levels from members of affected groups. So public radio fundraising will receive contributions only from a small minority of listeners; boycotts and strikes will be difficult to maintain over time; fishing resources will tend to be over-fished. And in fact, these regularities can be identified in a range of historical and social settings.

However, the "free rider" mechanism is only one of several that affect collective action. There are other social mechanisms that have the effect of enhancing collective action rather than undermining it. For example, the presence of competent organizations makes a big difference in eliciting voluntary contributions to public goods; the fact that many decision-makers appear to be "conditional altruists" rather than "rationally self-interested maximizers" makes a difference; and the fact that people can be mobilized to exercise sanctions against free riders affects the level of contribution to public goods. (If your neighbors complain bitterly about your smoky fireplace, you may be incentivized to purchase a cleaner-burning wood or coal.) The result is that the free-rider mechanism rarely operates by itself -- so the expected regularities may be diminished or even extinguished.

What I draw from this is pretty simple. It is that social regularities are "phenomenal" rather than "governing": they emerge as the result of the workings of common social-causal mechanisms, and social causation is generally conjunctural and contingent. So the regularities that become manifest are weak and exception-laden -- and they are descriptive of outcomes rather than expressive of underlying "laws of motion" of social circumstances.

And there is a research heuristic that emerges from this discussion as well. This is the importance of searching out the concrete social-causal mechanisms through which social phenomena take shape. We do a poor job of understanding industrial strikes if we simply collect a thousand instances and perform statistical analysis on the features we've measured against the outcome variables. We do a much better job of understanding them if we put together a set of theories about the features of structure and agency through which a strike emerges and through which individuals make decisions about participation. Analysis of the common "agent/structure" factors that are relevant to mobilization will permit us to understand individual instances of mobilization, explain the soft regularities that we discover, and account for the negative instances as well.