Monday, July 28, 2008
China's many revolutions
If you consider these events in terms of age cohorts, the historical experience of almost every generation has been a traumatic one. Chinese men and women born in 1930 were teenagers during the Revolution and experienced famine, chaos, civil violence, and economic reform in the remainder of their lives. The generation born in 1950 experienced the GLF famine as children, they were the teen-aged militants in middle school who formed the Red Guards, they experienced years of rustication in the countryside in the 1970s, they returned to universities after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, they participated in or observed the tumult of Tiananmen Square as they approached their forties, and they participated in China's economic reforms in their forties and fifties. This is my own age cohort in the United States, and I am just amazed to consider the rapidity and depth of history this generation has lived through.
The children of the 1950 generation were born in 1970. These children largely escaped the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Tiananmen Square was a reality for them in their teens. Their generation has been at the center of the dynamism of entrepreneurial China, with broadened opportunities in education and business. They have some of the expertise and comfort with the Internet that allows them to bridge to the China if the twenty-first century. And their standard of living -- for urban people anyway -- is dramatically improved over that of the previous generation.
And of course the generation of 1990 is the youth generation of today. This is the generation that will set China's course for the next half century, and it appears to be quite different from previous cohorts. In a conversation with four graduate students at Tsinghua University I gained a very vivid sense of the generational change that is occurring today. Three were born in 1980 and one was born five years later. I asked them about some of the values and cultural expectations of young Chinese people. The three older students laughed and said, "we don't understand him at all! Even the music he likes makes no sense to us."
These generations surely created vastly different mentalities for themselves -- different ideas about politics, equality, morality, and social stability. The ideologies of each generation were shaped and burned by the super-heated political struggles through which they passed. And surely their thoughts about what China should become, what standards of fairness should be respected, and how they should live their lives, are very deeply affected by their generational experiences.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Rising income inequality in China
Allan Wheatley writes an important article in Reuters this week about the situation of rising income inequalities in China as part and parcel of the booming economic growth the country has witness for the past two decades. Several key facts emerge from the piece: While spectacular affluence is emerging at the top end of China's economic hierarchy, 204 million people lived on less than $1.25 per day in 2005. China's Gini coefficient of income inequality rose from 40.7 in 1993 to 47.4 in 2004, according to an Asian Development Bank report -- a remarkably steep and rapid rise. (This compares to a Gini coefficient of income inequality in India of only 36.2.) And inequalities of income between urban and rural people continue to rise. Wheatley indicates that some experts believe that this phenomenon is the result of both rapid economic growth and a set of policies by the Chinese government that favor efficiency over equity. And some experts believe that these rising inequalities are a significant source of risk for social stability in future decades.
Wheatley bases most of his article on the recent work of the World Bank's chief economist, Justin Yifu Lin, formerly a leading professor at Peking University. Lin and colleagues have published a collection of papers titled China's Dilemma, which attempts to identify the economic policies that have resulted in this sustained rise in income inequality. (The volume was co-published by Australian National University and Asian Pacific Press and the table of contents is available online.) As Wheatley summarizes the findings, the Chinese government's policies concerning economic growth have favored "efficiency" and corporations over "equity" and workers. And Lin argues that state policies actually protect and subsidize corporations, resulting in a massive transfer of wealth and income to the most affluent.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Action and its causes
There is a large philosophical arena that focuses on the first part of this question. And basically, it comes down to "persons intervening intentionally". Persons commit actions. Persons have beliefs, desires, intentions, plans, and goals; they have reasons for what they do; they have emotions and aversions; they have habits. Persons also have freedom: they have the ability to choose to act or not to act, in typical circumstances.
These components all support the idea of the agent as a conscious, intentional intervener: the agent intervenes in the world in some way, in order to bring about an outcome that he/she desires or intends, based on her beliefs about the causal relationships that exist between the intervention and the outcome. Purpose, beliefs, freedom to choose, and selected intervention fit together as an integrated ideal type of "action".
This construction fits together into the Aristotelian idea of purposive action, or rational-intentional action. But consider a few variations of individual behavior that seem to cut in a different direction: behavior following a script, reflexive or instinctive behavior, impulsive behavior, self-destructive behavior, self-deceptive behavior, possessed behavior, coerced behavior. In each instance we lose an element that plays a key role in the purposive/intentional description of action above: self-direction, intentionality, self-control, rational goals and purposes, and freedom. We might take these instances to describe cases of behavior that fall short of "action"; or we might hold that there is a range of degrees of intentionality associated with action, from fully free and deliberative choice to programmed or impulsive behaviors.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Literary tradition and social identity
One might speculate that the continuity of a literary tradition derives from two social factors: first, that authors directly and indirectly respond to the writings of other authors in their tradition; and second, that writers express themes in their work that derive from a cultural tradition that they hold in common with other writers in this literary tradition. If, for example, there is a long oral tradition of popular songs and poetry that would have been a formative part of most Irish writers' experience as children, then it would be understandable if the cadences and phrases of this oral tradition infused their literary writings. If there are historical moments in the history of the Irish people -- Easter 1916, perhaps -- that are focal points for cultural meanings and historical turning points for ordinary Irish people -- then, once again, we might expect that themes surrounding these historical moments will recur in the production of Irish literature. And, of course, once a Goldsmith, Joyce, Yeats, or Heaney has created his poetry -- this constitutes an exemplar within the literary tradition itself that influences other Irish writers.
So there are a couple of social mechanisms that we can cite as providing "microfoundations" for the production of a national literary tradition. However, there are dimensions of variation and dissent that make the idea of a coherent and guiding literary tradition more difficult to sustain. It is recognized within most literary traditions that there are different streams of influence, with diverging literary styles and presentations. It is also recognized at a point in time that some great writers offer a literature that is strikingly at odds with the tradition from which they emerge. And it must also be recognized that large literary traditions -- the literature of India, American literature, Caribbean literature -- represent the confluence of different voices and different cultural experiences. And often these voices are deeply at odds with each other and with the dominant social order -- Jack London's novels represent a very different perspective on the United States than those of Henry James.
Within the literature of the United States -- what is often called "American literature" in US college English courses -- we can find a diversity of influences at almost every level of scale: the New England novel, African-American songs and stories, women's novels and journals, ... And within each we can discern important variations with cross-cutting influences -- the African-American voice of the deep south is evidently different from that of Chicago or Harlem or Los Angeles.
So we would certainly want to recognize that great writers are more than simply an expression of their literary or social tradition; rather, they find their voice and perspective through a dense interaction with culture, history, daily experience, race, gender, poetry, song, and dozens of other influences. And their products are often both innovative and "traditional". The novels of James Baldwin capture and embody many aspects of African-American experience and literature; they in turn contribute to the meaning of African-American literature post-Baldwin; but in the end they transcend the framework of a fixed formula. Baldwin's novels are original and particular -- not simply an expression of "the African-American tradition."
So from this point of view it seems that the idea of a literary tradition recedes from the metaphor of a compact, tightly bunched set of texts, to a meandering confluence of many cultural traditions and voices. This suggests that we need a metaphor that captures the diversity of voice and influence better than the idea of a river or stream.
This set of questions is relevant to the idea of a social identity as well. First is the obvious connection: if there is such a thing as "Irish social identity," it is plausible that this identity plays into the production of Irish literature. But the points raised here about diversity of experience and the non-reducibility of one writer's literature to a formula are also valid when we consider ascriptions of social identities. Rather than imagining that a person embodies the social identity of her own group, we should recognize that each person's social identity is a complicated mix of influences and commitments. Rather than "Sally is catholic", we might be better to observe that: "Sally is a mid-western Catholic with a feminist bent and a taste for punk music."
This suggests to me that we encounter in both traditions and identities, a kind of social construct that in a sense disappears as we increase the resolution of study; through closer study we come to see the variations as much as the commonalities within a group of people or a group of texts. Does this imply that identities and traditions do not exist? It does not. Both function as real social causes and influences. But both need to be understood as fluid, heterogeneous compounds rather than as essential, abiding realities.
Friday, July 18, 2008
The volume begins with these words:
A l'heure oú l’on parle d’une communauté intellectuelle mondiale virtuelle, on pourrait croire que ce que la planète compte de penseurs originaux est connu de tous ou, à tout le moins, accessible et disponsible à tous. Et pourtant, le provincialisme intellectuel sévit un peu partout, ainsi qu’en témoigne chez nous le germanopratisme de la classe intello-médiatique. On continue d’écrire et de réfléxir ici dans l’ignorance la plus totale de ce que d’éminents penseurs étrangers ont produit là.A very strong impression of polyglot global intellect emerges from a reading of the whole issue. The collection as a whole is a great antidote to the various forms of parochialism to which the intellectual world is prone -- national assumptions, disciplinary assumptions, north-south assumptions. These thinkers are original, innovative, and usually boundary-crossing. And they are most frequently concerned with issues that are front and center in the task of understanding and improving the global world we collectively inhabit.
There are quite a few cross-cutting themes that recur across various groups of these thinkers. (It would be a very interesting exercise to "tag" each of these thinkers with a handful of topics and then map the relationships among them.) And certainly this is true: we will collectively do a better job of understanding and improving our global world, if we find ways of engaging with the thinking, issues, and frameworks of observers throughout the world. Sociology and philosophy both require new ideas -- and a deep and sustained international conversation can be a source of ideas and corrections to old ideas.
It is very interesting to take stock of the ways that the Internet can now facilitate these international conversations. YouTube is a good example; mixed among the millions of videos of pets and birthday parties are invaluable snippets of insight from the world's most innovative thinkers. Certainly it would be possible to conduct a transformative advanced seminar in social theory -- perhaps online! -- based on materials and videos available on YouTube. But it is interesting as well what we can't yet find on YouTube: selections from intellectuals and theorists from the developing world. It is substantially more difficult to locate web-based resources documenting the thinking of intellectuals from Africa, Latin America, or China.
Here are some YouTube resources on several of the thinkers included in the Nouvel Obs list. Roughly half of the people on the list are featured with snippets of lectures or interviews on YouTube. Think of this posting as a "mash-up" of great ideas and critical thinking.
Amartya Sen, March, 2005
Martha Nussbaum, 2006
Slavoj Zizek - Rules, Race, and Mel Gibson 2006 1/8, European Graduate School
Anthony Appiah, commencement speech at Dickinson College, 2008
Tony Negri, 2008
Stanley Cavell, 2002
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Safety as a social effect
Some organizations pose large safety issues for the public because of the technologies and processes they encompass. Industrial factories, chemical and nuclear plants, farms, mines, and aviation all represent sectors where safety issues are critically important because of the inherent risks of the processes they involve. However, "safety" is not primarily a technological characteristic; instead, it is an aggregate outcome that depends as much on the social organization and management of the processes involved as it does on the technologies they employ. (See an earlier posting on technology failure.)
We can define safety by relating it to the concept of "harmful incident". A harmful incident is an occurrence that leads to injury or death of one or more persons. Safety is a relative concept, in that it involves analysis and comparison of the frequencies of harmful incidents relative to some measure of the volume of activity. If the claim is made that interstate highways are safer than county roads, this amounts to the assertion that there are fewer accidents per vehicle-mile on the former than the latter. If it is held that commercial aviation is safer than automobile transportation, this amounts to the claim that there are fewer harms per passenger-mile in air travel than auto travel. And if it is observed that the computer assembly industry is safer than the mining industry, this can be understood to mean that there are fewer harms per person-day in the one sector than the other. (We might give a parallel analysis of the concept of a healthy workplace.)
This analysis highlights two dimensions of industrial safety: the inherent capacity for creating harms associated with the technology and processes in use (heavy machinery, blasting, and uncertain tunnel stability in mining, in contrast to a computer and a red pencil on the editorial offices of a newspaper), and the processes and systems that are in place to guard against harm. The first set of factors is roughly "technological," while the second set is social and organizational.
Variations in safety records across industries and across sites within a given industry provide an excellent tool for analyzing the effects of various institutional arrangements. It is often possible to pinpoint a crucial difference in organization -- supervision, training, internal procedures, inspection protocols, etc. -- that can account for a high accident rate in one factory and a low rate in an otherwise similar factory in a different state.
One of the most important findings of safety engineering is that organization and culture play critical roles in enhancing the safety characteristics of a given activity -- that is to say, safety is strongly influenced by social factors that define and organize the behaviors of workers, users, or managers. (See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and Nancy Leveson, Safeware: System Safety and Computers, for a couple of excellent treatments of the sociological dimensions of safety.)
This isn't to say that only social factors can influence safety performance within an activity or industry. In fact, a central effort by safety engineers involves modifying the technology or process so as to remove the source of harm completely -- what we might call "passive" safety. So, for example, if it is possible to design a nuclear reactor in such a way that a loss of coolant leads automatically to shutdown of the fission reaction, then we have designed out of the system the possibility of catastrophic meltdown and escape of radioactive material. This might be called "design for soft landings".
However, most safety experts agree that the social and organizational characteristics of the dangerous activity are the most common causes of bad safety performance. Poor supervision and inspection of maintenance operations leads to mechanical failures, potentially harming workers or the public. A workplace culture that discourages disclosure of unsafe conditions makes the likelihood of accidental harm much greater. A communications system that permits ambiguous or unclear messages to occur can lead to air crashes and wrong-site surgeries.
This brings us at last to the point of this posting: the observation that safety data in a variety of industries and locations permit us to probe organizational features and their effects with quite a bit of precision. This is a place where institutions and organizations make a big difference in observable outcomes; safety is a consequence of a specific combination of technology, behaviors, and organizational practices. This is a good opportunity for combining comparative and statistical research methods in support of causal inquiry, and it invites us to probe for the social mechanisms that underlie the patterns of high or low safety performance that we discover.
Consider one example. Suppose we are interested in discovering some of the determinants of safety records in deep mining operations. We might approach the question from several points of view.
- We might select five mines with "best in class" safety records and compare them in detail with five "worst in class" mines. Are there organizational or techology features that distinguish the cases?
- We might do the large-N version of this study: examine a sample of mines from "best in class" and "worst in class" and test whether there are observed features that explain the differences in safety records. (For example, we may find that 75% of the former group but only 10% of the latter group are subject to frequent unannounced safety inspection. This supports the notion that inspections enhance safety.)
- We might compare national records for mine safety--say, Poland and Britain. We might then attempt to identify the general characteristics that describe mines in the two countries and attempt to explain observed differences in safety records on the basis of these characteristics. Possible candidates might include degree of regulatory authority, capital investment per mine, workers per mine, ...
- We might form a hypothesis about a factor that should be expected to enhance safety -- a company-endorsed safety education program, let's say -- and then randomly assign a group of mines to "treated" and "untreated" groups and compare safety records. (This is a quasi-experiment; see an earlier posting for a discussion of this mode of reasoning.) If we find that the treated group differs significantly in average safety performance, this supports the claim that the treatment is causally relevant to the safety outcome.
Investigations along these lines can establish an empirical basis for judging that one or more organizational features A, B, C have consequences for safety performance. In order to be confident in these judgments, however, we need to supplement the empirical analysis with a theory of the mechanisms through which features like A, B, C influence behavior in such a way as to make accidents more or less likely.
Safety, then, seems to be a good area of investigation for researchers within the general framework of the new institutionalism, because the effects of institutional and organizational differences emerge as observable differences in the rates of accidents in comparable industrial settings. (See Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, The New Institutionalism in Sociology, for a collection of essays on this approach.)
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Texts, ideas, and "about"
Friday, July 11, 2008
Public versus hidden faces of organizations
Think of a range of complex organizations and institutions -- police departments, zoning boards, corporations, security agencies, and so on indefinitely. These organizations all have missions, personnel, constituencies, and policies and practices. They all do various things -- they affect individuals in society and they bring about significant social effects. And, in each case there are at least three aspects of their realities -- the ways they publicly present themselves, the ways their behaviors and effects are perceived by the public, and the usually unobservable reality of how they actually behave. Usually the public persona of the institution is benign, fair, and public- spirited. But how close is this public persona to the truth? In many of our basic institutions, the answer seems to be, not very. We are daily confronted with cases of official corruption, corporations that abuse their power, legislators who take advantage of insider status, and the like. So how can we conceptualize the task of getting a reasonably accurate perception of the hidden workings of our major institutions and organizations?
First, let's consider whether it is possible to specify a minimum charter of good organizational behavior in a democratic society. This would be a partial answer to a part of our question: what defines the conditions of a socially acceptable and publicly defensible organization? Consider these aspirations --
- The organization should have goals that are compatible with enhancing the public good.
- The organization should have appropriate policies about behavior towards employees and the public.
- The organization should genuinely incorporate a commitment of compliance to law and regulation.
- The corporation should embody a faithful commitment to exerting its efforts on behalf of its stated mission and stakeholders.
- The organization should be committed to transparency and accountability.
Bad business practices and corruption can often be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles. The most offensive practices by powerful organizations -- predatory behavior, asset stripping, the use of coercion and threat to achieve organizational goals, fraud, deception, illegal behavior, toxic waste dumping, evasion of regulations, and bribery -- all fall within the categories identified here.
So how are we to determine whether our existing organizations and institutions satisfy these minimal conditions? We might imagine a routine "scan" of major institutions and organizations that asks a small set of questions along these lines:
- What are the real operational goals and priorities of the organization?
- What are the operational policies that govern corporate action?
- How do agents of the organization actually treat members of the public in carrying out their tasks?
- To what extent are there discrepancies between policy and practice?
- To what extent do powerful leaders and managers use their positions to favor their own private interests? (conflict of interest)
- To what extent do business crimes occur -- accounting fraud, investor deception, evasion of regulations for health and safety?
- And, most generally, to what extent is there a discrepancy between the official story about the organization and its actual practices?
It is very easy to think of examples of bad organizational behavior illustrating each of these questions -- waste management companies fronting for organized crime groups, pharmaceutical companies producing defective generic drugs, police officers accepting bribes from speeding drivers, mining companies hiring "security workers" to evict "squatters." And it would be a very interesting exercise to try to provide brief but accurate answers to each of these questions for a number of organizations. Based on the answers to questions like these that we are able to establish, we could then make an effort to answer the question of how great a discrepancy there is between the benign public persona of major institutions and their actual workings.
In theory we might say that answering these questions is no more difficult than putting a man on the moon -- costly but straightforward. However, as was said twenty years ago in the context of anti-ballistic missile technology, the difference is that the moon doesn't fight back. Organizations -- particularly large governmental and corporate organizations -- are very adept at covering their tracks, concealing bad behavior, and re-telling the story in their own interests. So the investigative challenge is a huge one -- we might speculate that corruption multiplies geometrically, while investigative capacity multiplies arithmetically (a sort of Malthusian theory of misbehavior). Any given abuse can be uncovered in the New Yorker or on the 6 o'clock news -- but bad behavior outstrips investigative resources.
So the task of understanding this aspect of modern society amounts to finding effective ways of shining a light on the real practices and priorities of important organizations and institutions. And the practical interest we have in controlling bad organizations -- controlling corruption, ensuring good environmental and labor practices, eliminating coercion and violence -- comes down to the challenge of enhancing the ability of democracies to investigate, regulate, and publicize the standards and outcomes of behavior that are required.
(Earlier posts have addressed aspects of this issue, including comments on corruption and publicity.)
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Discipline, method, hegemony in sociology
Several interesting books that focus on some of these debates within sociology include George Steinmetz, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others; Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century; Craig Calhoun, Sociology in America: A History; and Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. Andrew Abbott's Chaos of Disciplines is also a very interesting treatment of the sociology of the social science disciplines and the mechanisms through which a discipline defines its boundaries and maintains "discipline".
In sociology it is possible to map the main fault lines within the discipline in several ways. First, we can distinguish quantitative-statistical research from both qualitative-ethnographic approaches and comparative-historical approaches. (It's worth observing that this results in a tripartite division of methods rather than the simpler bipolar "quantitative-qualitative" divide. Historical and comparative studies are distinct from statistical studies, but they are also distinguishable from ethnographic interpretations.) Or we can characterize this space in terms of "large-N, small-N, single-N" studies. And we can distinguish broadly among positivist and anti-positivist perspectives; causal and interpretive perspectives; realist and anti-realist perspectives; critical and orthodox perspectives; and there are probably other important dimensions of disagreement as well. In addition to these large divisions among methodological approaches, there are also a large number of frameworks of thought that involve a combination of method and theory -- for example, feminist sociology, post-structuralist sociology, critical theory, and post-colonial sociology.
The disputes between these methodological frameworks seem to continue to create large, fractious divides within graduate sociology departments, with advocates for one method or the other claiming virtually exclusive legitimacy. And this struggle for methodological primacy appears to extend to the editorial policies of major sociology journals, association programs, and tenure deliberations. Until fairly recently -- the 1990s, let us say -- the quantitative-statistical faction held sway as the hegemonic methodological doctrine. Inspired by positivism and the example of the natural sciences and perhaps guided by governmental and foundation funding priorities, quantitative studies were considered most scientific, most rigorous, most objective, and most explanatory. Historical and interpretive studies were treated as "ideographic" or anecdotal -- not well suited to discovering important social regularities. And yet it seems apparent that many problems of sociological interest are not amenable to quantitative or statistical research.
Let's consider for a moment how these issues ought to work -- how method, theory, and the world ought to be related. In any area of science there is a range of phenomena that we want to understand. So we need to have tools for investigating the real, empirical characteristics of this stuff, and we aim to arrive at theories that explain the more interesting features of this domain of real phenomena. Finally, we need some intellectual resources on the basis of which to arrive at the desired knowledge -- we need some methods of inquiry, some models of theory, and some ideas about the underlying ontology of the phenomena we are studying. So the world exists; we want to gain knowledge and understanding of this world; and we need some tools for investigating and theorizing this world.
But here is the key point: the central focus here is knowledge, not method. Method is a tool for helping us to arrive at knowledge. For any given empirical question there will be a variety of methods on the basis of which to investigate this problem. And ideally, we should select a set of tools that are well suited to the particular characteristics of the problem at hand.
In other words, analysis of the situation of knowledge producers would suggest methodological pluralism. We should be open to a variety of tools and methods, and should design research in a way that is closely tailored to the nature of the empirical problem. And therefore young sociologists -- graduate students -- should be encouraged to be eclectic in their reading and thinking; they should be exposed to many of the approaches, perspectives, and methods through which imaginative sociologists have addressed their problems of research and explanation.
This general recommendation in favor of pluralism in sociology is strengthened when we consider the fact of the inherent heterogeneity of the social world. (See an earlier posting on this subject.) There is not one single kind of social process, for which there might conceivably be a uniquely best kind of method of inquiry. Rather, the social world consists of a deeply heterogeneous mix of processes, some of which are better suited to an ethnographic or comparative approach, just as other processes may be best studied quantitatively. If one is interested in the topic of corruption, for example -- he/she will need to be informed about institutions, culture, principal-agent problems, social psychology, and many other potentially relevant sociological factors. And these researches may well require a combination of statistical analysis, comparison across a select group of cases, and ethnographic investigation in a small number of specific cases and individuals.
In other words, there are very deep arguments supporting the value and epistemic suitability of methodological pluralism. And this in turn suggests that sociology departments are well advised to incorporate a variety of methods and frameworks into their doctoral programs.
Fortunately, it appears that this rethinking is now taking place in a number of top sociology departments in the U.S., and the formerly hegemonic position of quantitative methods is now being challenged by a more pluralistic treatment of methods and frameworks. And this is all to the good: the result will be a better sociology and a better understanding of the heterogeneous, novel, and rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves.
Monday, July 7, 2008
"Moral economy" as a historical social concept
Here I want to highlight this concept by asking a few foundational questions. Fundamentally, what kind of concept is it? How does it function in social interpretation, description, or explanation? And how does it function as a component of empirical investigation?
The concept of moral economy was extensively developed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and an important essay, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," originally published in Past and Present in 1971 and included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. The concept derives from Thompson's treatment of bread riots in eighteenth century Britain. In MEWC Thompson writes:
In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons "above" or apart from he crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word "riot" suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people. (MTWEC, 62-63)
After describing a number of bread riots in some detail, Thompson writes, "Actions on such a scale ... indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief .... These popular actions were legitimised by the old paternalist moral economy" (66). And he closes this interesting discussion with these words: "In considering only this one form of 'mob' action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found" (68). And Thompson often describes these values as "traditional" or "paternalist" -- working in opposition to the values and ideas of an unfettered market; he contrasts "moral economy" with the modern "political economy" associated with liberalism and the ideology of the free market.
In "The Moral Economy of the Crowd" Thompson puts his theory this way:
It is possible to detect in almost ever eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimising notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and, in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. On occasion this popular consensus was endorsed by some measure of licence afforded by the authorities. More commonly, the consensus was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference. ("Moral Economy," CIC 188)
It is plain from these passages that Thompson believes that the "moral economy" is a real historical factor, consisting of the complex set of attitudes and norms of justice that are in play within this historically presented social group. As he puts the point late in the essay, "We have been examining a pattern of social protest which derives from a consensus as to the moral economy of the commonweal in times of dearth" (247).
So the logic of Thompson's ideas here seems fairly clear: there were instances of public disorder ("riots") surrounding the availability and price of food, and there is a hypothesized "notion of right" or justice that influenced and motivated participants. This conception of justice is a socially embodied historical factor, and it partially explains the behavior of the rural people who mobilized themselves to participate in the disturbances. He recapitulates his goal in the essay, "Moral Economy Reviewed" (also included in Customs in Common) in these terms: "My object of analysis was the mentalité, or, as I would prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and indeed, superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in actions in the market" (260). These shared values and norms play a key role in Thompson's reading of the political behavior of the individuals in these groups. So these hypotheses about the moral economy of the crowd serve both to help interpret the actions of a set of actors involved in food riots, and to explain the timing and nature of food riots. We might say, then, that the concept of "moral economy" contributes both to a hermeneutics of peasant behavior and a causal theory of peasant contention.
Now move forward two centuries. Another key use of the concept of moral economy occurs in treatments of modern peasant rebellions in Asia. Most influential is James Scott's important book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Scholars of the Chinese Revolution borrowed from Scott in offering a range of interpretations of peasant behavior in the context of CCP mobilization; for example, James Polachek ("The Moral Economy of the Kiangsi Soviet" (1928-34). Journal of Asian Studies 1983 XLII (4):805-830). And most recently, Kevin O'Brien has made use of the idea of a moral economy in his treatment of "righteous protest" in contemporary China (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). So scholars interested in the politics of Asian rural societies have found the moral economy concept to be a useful one. Scott puts his central perspective in these terms:
We can learn a great deal from rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation--their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry's vision of social equity, we may realize how a class "of low classness" came to provide, far more often than the proletariat, the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (MEP, 3-4)
Scott's book represents his effort to understand the dynamic material circumstances of peasant life in colonial Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Burma); to postulate some central normative assumptions of the "subsistence ethic" that he believes characterizes these peasant societies; and then to explain the variations in political behavior of peasants in these societies based on the moments of inconsistency between material conditions and aspects of the subsistence ethic. And he postulates that the political choices for action these peasant rebels make are powerfully influenced by the content of the subsistence ethic. Essentially, we are invited to conceive of the "agency" of the peasant as being a complicated affair, including prudential reasoning, moral assessment based on shared standards of justice, and perhaps other factors as well. So, most fundamentally, Scott's theory offers an account of the social psychology and agency of peasants.
There are several distinctive features of Scott's programme. One is his critique of narrow agent-centered theories of political motivation, including particularly rational choice theory. (Samuel Popkin's The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam is the prime example.) Against the idea that peasants are economically rational agents who decide about political participation based on a narrowly defined cost-benefit analysis, Scott argues for a more complex political psychology incorporating socially shared norms and values. But a second important feature is Scott's goal of providing a somewhat general basis for explanation of peasant behavior. He wants to argue that the subsistence ethic is a widely shared set of moral values in traditional rural societies -- with the consequence that it provides a basis for explanation that goes beyond the particulars of Vietnam or Burma. And he has a putative explanation of this commonality as well -- the common existential circumstances of traditional family-based agriculture.
One could pull several of these features apart in Scott's treatment. For example, we could accept the political psychology -- "People are motivated by a locally embodied sense of justice" -- but could reject the generalizability of the subsistence ethic -- "Burmese peasants had the XYZ set of local values, while Vietnamese peasants possessed the UVW set of local values."
This programme suggests several problems for theory and for empirical research. Are there social-science research methods that would permit us to "observe" or empirically discern the particular contents of a normative worldview in a range of different societies, in order to assess whether the subsistence ethic that Scott describes is widespread? Are peasants in Burma and Vietnam as similar as Scott's theory postulates? How would we validate the implicit theory of political motivation that Scott advances (calculation within the context of normative judgment)? Are there other important motivational factors that are perhaps as salient to political behavior as the factors invoked by the subsistence ethic? Where does Scott's "thicker" description of peasant consciousness sit with respect to fully ethnographic investigation?
So to answer my original question -- what kind of concept is the "moral economy"? -- we can say several things. It is a proto-theory of the theory of justice that certain groups possess (18th-century English farmers and townspeople, 20th-century Vietnamese peasants). It implicitly postulates a theory of political motivation and political agency. It asserts a degree of generality across peasant societies. It is offered as a basis for both interpreting and explaining events -- answering the question "What is going on here?" and "Why did this event take place?" In these respects the concept is both an empirical construct and a framework for thinking about agency; so it can be considered both in terms of its specific empirical adequacy and, more broadly, the degree of insight it offers for thinking about collective action.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Heterogeneity of the social
Let's start with some semantics. A heterogeneous group of things is the contrary of a homogeneous group, and we can define homogeneity as "a group of fundamentally similar units or samples". A homogeneous body may consist of a group of units with identical properties, or it may be a smooth mixture of different things, consisting of a similar composition at many levels of scale. A fruitcake is non-homogeneous, in that distinct volumes may include just cake or a mix of cake and dried cherries, or cake and the occasional walnut. The properties of fruitcake depend on which sample we encounter. A well mixed volume of oil and vinegar, by contrast, is homogeneous in a specific sense: the properties of each sample volume are the same as any other. The basic claim about the heterogeneity of the social comes down to this: at many levels of scale we continue to find a diversity of social things and processes at work. Society is more similar to fruitcake than cheesecake.
Heterogeneity makes a difference because one of the central goals of positivist science is to discover strong regularities among classes of phenomena, and regularities appear to presuppose homogeneity of the things over which the regularities are thought to obtain. So to observe that social phenomena are deeply heterogeneous at many levels of scale, is to cast fundamental doubt on the goal of discovering strong social regularities.
Let's consider some of the forms of heterogeneity that the social world illustrates.
First is the heterogeneity of social causes and influences. Social events are commonly the result of a variety of different kinds of causes that come together in highly contingent conjunctions. A revolution may be caused by a protracted drought, a harsh system of land tenure, a new ideology of peasant solidarity, a communications system that conveys messages to the rural poor, and an unexpected spar within the rulers -- all coming together at a moment in time. And this range of causal factors, in turn, shows up in the background of a very heterogeneous set of effects. (A transportation network, for example, may play a causal role in the occurrence of an epidemic, the spread of radical ideas, and a long, slow process of urban settlement.) The causes of an event are a mixed group of dissimilar influences with different dynamics and temporalities, and the effects of a given causal factor are also a mixed and dissimilar group.
Second is the heterogeneity that can be discovered within social categories of things -- cities, religions, electoral democracies, social movements. Think of the diversity within Islam documented so well by Clifford Geertz (Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia); the diversity at multiple levels that exists among great cities like Beijing, New York, Geneva, and Rio (institutions, demography, ethnic groups, economic characteristics, administrative roles, ...); the institutional variety that exists in the electoral democracies of India, France, and Argentina; or the wild diversity across the social movements of the right.
Third is the heterogeneity that can be discovered across and within social groups. It is not the case that all Kansans think alike -- and this is true for whatever descriptors we might choose in order to achieve greater homogeneity (evangelical Kansans, urban evangelical Kansans, ...). There are always interesting gradients within any social group. Likewise, there is great variation in the nature of ordinary, lived experience -- for middle-class French families celebrating quatorze Juillet, for Californians celebrating July 4, and for Brazilians enjoying Dia da Independência on September 7.
A fourth form of heterogeneity takes us within the agent herself, when we note the variety of motives, moral frameworks, emotions, and modes of agency on the basis of which people act. This is one of the weaknesses of doctrinaire rational choice theory or dogmatic Marxism, the analytical assumption of a single dimension of motivation and reasoning. Instead, it is visible that one person acts for a variety of motives at a given time, persons shift their motives over time, and members of groups differ in terms of their motivational structure as well. So there is heterogeneity of motives and agency within the agent.
These dimensions of heterogeneity make the point: the social world is an ensemble, a dynamic mixture, and an ongoing interaction of forces, agents, structures, and mentalities. Social outcomes emerge from this heterogeneous and dynamic mixture, and the quest for general laws is deeply quixotic.
Where does the heterogeneity principle take us? It suggests an explanatory strategy: instead of looking for laws of whole categories of events and things, rather than searching for simple answers to questions like "why do revolutions occur?", we might instead look to a "concatenation" strategy. That is, we might simply acknowledge the fact of molar heterogeneity and look instead for some of the different processes and things in play in a given item of interest, and the build up a theory of the whole as a concatenation of the particulars of the parts.
Significantly, this strategy takes us to several fruitful ideas that already have some currency.
First is the idea of looking for microfoundations for observed social processes; (Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences). Here the idea is that higher-level social processes, causes, and events, need to be placed within the context of an account of the agent-level institutions and circumstances that convey those processes.
Second is the method of causal mechanisms advocated by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, and discussed frequently here (Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics)). Put simply, the approach recommends that we explain an outcome as the contingent result of the concatenation of a set of independent causal mechanisms (escalation, intra-group competition, repression, ...).
And third is the theory of "assemblages", recommended by Nick from accursedshare and derived from some of the theories of Gilles Deleuze. (Manuel Delanda describes this theory in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)
Each of these ideas gives expression to the important truth of the heterogeneity principle: that social outcomes are the aggregate result of a number of lower-level processes and institutions that give rise to them, and that social outcomes are contingent results of interaction and concatenation of these lower-level processes.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Engels' sociology of the city
Published in German in 1845, Conditions represents Engels' attempt to offer a detailed and systematic description of the emerging industrial system in England, largely based on his experience as a young man in the textile firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. (Steven Marcus's book, Engels, Manchester & the Working Class, provides a good description.) The book is one of the classics of radical thought in the nineteenth century, and substantiates Engels' stature as a thinker whose perceptions and critiques developed independently from Marx's, in his early years anyway.
My question here is, what are some of the characteristics of this book as a work of social science? To what extent does the book serve to provide one of the founding sources of modern sociology? And, of course, we need to avoid anachronism when we ask this question; the book was published only two years later than John Stuart Mill's System of Logic (1843) -- one of the earliest efforts to frame an answer to the question of "social science", and the question of how best to understand the emerging world of industrial capitalism was a profoundly challenging one.
The book has several key features. First, Engels gives a great deal of effort to the task of observing and describing the facts of urban industrial life in the 1840s in Manchester and Birmingham. He is interested in recording the conditions of life that workers experienced; the nature and cost of their daily subsistence; the conditions of health and safety that they experienced; and the nature and size of the population of the towns, neighborhoods, and cities that he describes. Engels relies upon his own observations, but he also makes extensive use of the growing body of official reports that were being produced by English governmental agencies as well as travelers' reports, coroners' reports, and newspapers. He refers especially to investigations by the health authorities following the cholera epidemic of 1831-32.
Second, Engels does not attempt to assume the posture of a disinterested observer. He is plainly on the side of the worker and a radical critic of the bourgeois owner; he is making a case about exploitation and indifference against the emerging class of owners whose factories he describes.
Third, he is interested in resistance and mobilization, and he devotes chapters to strikes and other forms of organized efforts by workers and their families to improve their conditions. This is especially true in Chapter IX (Working-Class Movements), but these topics recur in many places in the book.
Fourth, quite a bit of the book might be classified as "ethnography" today: detailed, first-person description of conditions of life of a particular group of people, based on direct interaction with them by the observer.
Fifth, the book certainly falls in the category of descriptive urban sociology. Engels is very interested in describing living conditions, including crowding, squalor, and deprivation. He offers detailed description of the state of the environment -- rivers, waterways, roads, and buildings -- in the cities he describes, including the famous River Irk in Manchester. And there are numerous drawings of the layout of streets and neighborhoods, so that Engels can document his points about crowding and squalor. Here is a quick description of a neighborhood in Manchester:
Some four thousand people, mostly Irish, inhabit this slum. The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted by the stench and is darkened by the thick smoke of a dozen factory chimneys. ... The creatures who inhabit these dwellings and even their dark, wet cellars, and who live confined amidst all this filth and foul air -- which cannot be dissipated because of the surrounding lofty buildings -- must surely have sunk to the lowest leel of humanity. (71)
The organization of the book reveals an effort by Engels to engage in sociological classification. For example, he distinguishes among several groups of proletarians: industrial workers, miners, farm laborers, and the Irish workers (chapter II). Within industrial workers he further distinguishes workers by sector and division of labor. And he believes that the classification is explanatory: "the closer the wage earners are associated with industry the more advanced they are".
There are several large sociological processes that Engels articulates. The book puts forward an account of the dynamics of class formation through the development of the industrial system -- the process of centralization and increase of scale of production leading to the consolidation of a class of owners and a large class of proletarians. But the book also advances an analysis of urbanization and the growth of towns and cities, based on the dynamics of factory production and the need for larger volumes of labor. "Industry and commerce attain their highest stage of development in the big towns, so that it is here that the effects of industrialisation on the wage earners can be most clearly seen" (28). Consider his description of the slums of London:
It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)
And consider his commentary on the effects that slum life has:
In the circumstances it is to be expected that it is in this region that the inevitable consequences of industrialisation in so far as they affect the working classes are most strikingly evident. Nowhere else can the life and conditions of the industrial proletariat be studied in all their aspects as in South Lanacashire. Here can be seen most clearly the degradation into which the worker sinks owing to the introduction of steam power, machinery and the division of labour. Here, too, can be seen most the strenuous efforts of the proletariat to raise themselves from their degraded situation. (50)
And Engels makes some astute observations about the design of industrial towns:
Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter r coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct. (54)
These descriptions offer two things: a hypothesis about urban growth and the creation of slums, and an ethnographic interpretation of the lived experience of people who find themselves trapped in modern cities. (Notice how similar this description of the slum dweller's life is to the description that Marx offers in his elaboration of the theory of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)
Finally, there is plainly an effort to provide an explanation of the phenomena Engels describes, based on an analysis of an underlying causal process: the rapid development of a capitalist system of property ownership and factory production. Engels brings almost every aspect of the degrading social circumstances that he chronicles back to exploitation and the insatiable appetite of capital for profits at the expense of workers. This is a single-factor explanation of a process that was surely multi-dimensional. But it illustrates an important aspect of sociological explanation: the need to discover some of the underlying processes that give rise to the phenomena that have been discovered.
So -- is it sociology or is it radical propaganda? It's a mix of both. The sociology is of course only partially formed; the next century still had a lot of work to do in conceptualizing how a scientific perspective might be brought to the analysis of society. (And of course that work isn't finished yet.) But Engels' efforts here are noteworthy. And of course it is also a document of political advocacy, in line with writings of liberal and radical reformers elsewhere in Britain and Europe. It is also very interesting to me that the book is written by Engels largely prior to his substantial collaboration with Marx. And this goes some ways towards validating the idea that Engels himself was an important thinker and theorist of society.
(The documentary photography of the slums of New York by Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York) seems to have much of the same motivation as Engels' in Condition of the Working Class in England when it comes to a morally inspired desire to reveal the social reality of slums. See Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom's Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs for a book that is getting some justified attention.)
Global cities -- Saskia Sassen
Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 1
Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 2
Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 3
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
What is materialism?
Karl Marx was a materialist thinker. But what does this amount to? What is materialism as a way of thinking about historical and social reality? Is materialism an empirical theory, a philosophical theory, or perhaps part of a social-science paradigm?
Here is a statement of Marx's materialism from the German Ideology, written in 1845-46:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.
The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.
This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.
To start, Marx's words here are directed against "philosophy", and the Young Hegelians in particular. So Marx is advocating for a different form of reasoning -- not speculative philosophical reflection, but concrete analysis grounded in knowledge of the circumstances of human life. Marx is saying that we can understand certain important things -- for example, the development of ideas or religion -- by examining the "material" circumstances of life in which they emerge. And what are those circumstances? They are circumstances of material need and human labor: the fact that human beings satisfy their material needs on the basis of the transformation of nature through labor. So what is "material" in this setting is two characteristics: the material needs that human beings have (food, shelter, warmth) and the material-physical properties of the world in which human beings find themselves. Human beings as "producers" -- intelligent transformers of nature through individual and social labor -- this is the fundamental material fact in this passage.
History comes into this account through Marx's reference to the "nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence", because this is the social history of technology. Human beings create new tools and techniques over time. So materialism, when applied to human beings, has an inherently historical character; men and women transform the tools and knowledge they use in order to transform nature and satisfy needs. And, as the following paragraphs make clear, the social relations through which production takes place are themselves historical products, in a regular process of change and development. Social relationships are "material" insofar as they are the forms of cooperation through which labor and production take place; central among these material social relationships are the property relations of a given level of society.
These comments focus primarily on the conditions of production as a foundation for materialism. A related line of thought in Marx's writings is the idea of the social relations of production as the material foundation of society. Here is a famous passage from Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.Here the emphasis is on the social relations of production, not just the forces of production (tools, materials, technical knowledge). And on this approach, study of the class relations of a given society is a "materialist" study -- even though class relations are abstract and intangible. And we provide a materialist analysis of a circumstance when we show how that circumstance corresponds to or emerges from certain features of the social relations of production.
In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.
In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.
So far, then, we seem to have two things going on: first, an approach to the history of ideas ("place systems of ideas into the roles they play in the social arrangements through which human populations satisfy material needs"), and an approach to the unfolding of history more generally ("attempt to understand historical developments in terms of the role they play in production and the satisfaction of needs"). So materialism is a theory about historical causation: what kinds of circumstances cause what other kinds of circumstances. And, perhaps, it is a theory about knowledge: that knowledge proceeds from analysis of material facts, not pure philosophical speculation or imagination.
There seem to be several hazards built into this approach. One is the temptation of reductionism that the approach seems to invite: the impulse to reduce thought, theory, and philosophy to some compound of the "needs of the social system of production". But is it really compelling to imagine that the Young Hegelians were simply working out some of the contradictions of the system of property and factory manufacturing? No; Marx's rhetoric seems to be getting away from him here -- in ways in which later thinkers such as Mannheim perhaps allowed the sociology of knowledge to spin out of control as well. And the hazard of reductionism also raises the worry of a blindspot when it comes to the relative autonomy of politics or culture: human beings seem to be better at imagining and extending political or cultural inventions than a crude materialism would permit.
So a defensible contemporary materialism can't be as simple as this: "Material conditions determine the content of culture, politics, and thought." Rather, we might hold more modestly: "Material conditions constrain, influence, and stimulate the content of culture, politics, and thought." We can understand Aristotle's philosophy better when we understand something of its material and historical setting; but the fact remains that Aristotle was a creative and imaginative philosopher who transcended his time in a variety of ways.
So, once again, what sort of theory is materialism? Perhaps we could say this: it is a "meta" - framework, a philosophical premise about how the world works. In this respect it functions as a substantive metaphysical theory. And it is a premise about how a style of thinking, a recommendation about how we should reason about the world and what factors to subject to careful analysis. Here materialism serves as something like an applied epistemology -- a theory about how and what to investigate in order to arrive at valuable, justified knowledge. It falls in the general category of ideas such as idealism, monism, atomism, physicalism, or dualism: organizing ideas about the nature of reality, within the context of which more specific theorizing and investigating can take place.
There are many questions that remain. Do these two aspects of materialism hang together? Could one accept the metaphysics but reject the epistemology, or vice versa? Once we have rejected the reductionism associated with vulgar materialism, how much remains of the theory? And is there a continuing role for materialist thinking in the twenty-first century world?
(Courbet's Stonebreakers is a suitable companion to this topic. Painted in 1849-50, the painting illustrates several aspects of a materialist perspective on the world: an interest in conditions of life and work, an interest in the situation of ordinary working people, and, of course, the depiction of concrete labor -- all of these aspects of the painting complement the mentality of Marx's materialism. T. J. Clark's brilliant book on Courbet and his social context is well worth reading (Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution).)