Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Throughout much of our social experience we expect continuity: tomorrow will be pretty similar to today, and when changes occur they will be small and gradual. We expect our basic institutions -- economic, social, and political -- to maintain their core characteristics over long periods of time. We expect social attitudes and values to change only slowly, through gradual evolution rather than abrupt transformation. And we expect the same of a range of social conditions -- for example, highway safety, crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, and similar social features.

It is evident that this expectation of gradual, continuous change is not always a valid guide to events. Abrupt, unexpected events occur -- revolutions, mass cultural changes like the 1960s, sweeping political and legislative changes along the lines of the Reagan revolution. And of course we have the current example of abrupt declines in financial markets -- see the graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the week of September 23-30, 2008 below. So the expectation of continuity sometimes leads us astray. But continuity is probably among our most basic heuristic assumptions about the future when it comes to our expectations about the social world and our plans for the future.

The deeper question is an ontological one: what features of social causation and processes would either support or undermine the expectation of continuity? We can say quite a bit about the features of continuity and discontinuity in physical systems; famously, "non-linearities" occur in some physical systems that lead to singularities and discontinuities, but many physical systems are safely linear and continuous all the way down. And these mathematical features follow from the fundamental physical mechanisms that underlie physical systems. But what about the social world?

Take first the stability of large social and political institutions. Is there a reason to expect that major social and political institutions will retain their core features in face of disturbing influences? Consider for example the SEC as a financial regulatory institution; the European Union as a multinational legislative body; or a large health maintenance organization. Here institutional sociologists have provided a number of important insights. First, institutions often change through the accumulation of a myriad of small adaptations in different locations within the institution. This is a process that is likely to give rise to slow, continuous, gradual change for the institution as a whole; and this is continuous behavior. Second, though, institutional sociologists have identified important internal forces that work actively to preserve the workings of the institution: the stakeholders who benefit from the current arrangements. Stakeholders are given incentives to actively reinforce and preserve the current institutional arrangements -- the status quo. Both of these factors suggest that institutional change will often be slow, gradual, and continuous.

Consider next the ways in which attitudes and values change in a population. Here it is plausible to observe that individuals change their attitudes and values slowly, through exposure to other individuals and behaviors. And the attitudes and values of a new generation are usually transmitted through processes that are highly decentralized -- again suggesting a slow and gradual process of change. So this suggests that changes in attitudes and values might behave analogously to the spread of a pathogen through a population -- with a slow and continuous spread of "contagion" resulting in a gradual change in population attitudes.

Consider last the example of social measures such as crime rates or teen pregnancy rates. If we take it as a premise that crime and teen pregnancy are influenced by social factors that in turn influence the behavior of individuals, and if we take it that these background social factors change slowly and continuously -- then it is credible to reason that the aggregate measures of the associated behaviors will change slowly and continuously as well. The reasoning here is probabilistic: when large numbers of people with a specified set of background social psychologies are exposed to common environmental circumstances, then it is plausible to predict that the average rate of teen pregnancy will remain fairly steady if the background circumstances remain steady.

These are all reasons for expecting a degree of stability and continuity in social arrangements and social behavior. But before we conclude that the social world is a continuous place, consider this: We also have some pretty clear models of how social phenomena might occur in a dis-continuous fashion. Critical mass phenomena, tipping points, and catastrophic failures are examples of groups of social phenomena where we should expect discontinuities. The behavior of a disease in a population may change dramatically once a certain percentage of the population is infected (critical mass); a new slang expression ("yada yada yada") may abruptly change its frequency of useage once a certain number of celebrities have adopted it (tipping point); a civic organization may be stretched to the breaking point by the addition of new unruly members and may suddenly collapse or mutate. (The hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium brings this sort of discontinuity into Darwinian theory of evolution.)

So there are some good foundational reasons for expecting a degree of continuity in the social environment; but there are also convincing models of social behavior that lead to important instances of discontinuous outcomes. This all seems to lead to the slightly worrisome piece of advice: don't bet on the future when the stakes are high. Stock markets collapse; unexpected wars occur; and previously harmonious social groups fall into fratricidal violence. And there is no fool-proof way of determining whether a singularity is just around the corner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Equilibrium reasoning

A system is in equilibrium with respect to a given characteristic when there is a system of forces in play that push the system back to the equilibrium state when it is subjected to small disturbances or changes. This is referred to as a homeostatic system.

The temperature in a goldfish bowl is in equilibrium if the bowl is provided with a thermostatically controlled heater and cooler; when the external temperature falls and the water temperature begins to fall as well, the thermostat registers the change of temperature and turns on the heater, and when the external temperature rises, the thermostat turns on the cooler. A population of squirrels in a bounded forest may reach an equilibrium size that is balanced by excess reproductive capacity (pushing the population upwards when it falls below the feeding capacity of the environment) and by excess mortality from poor nutrition (pushing the population downwards when it rises above the feeding capacity of the environment).

These examples embody very different causal mechanisms; but each represents a case in which the variable in question (temperature or population size) oscillates around the equilibrium value determined by the features of the environment and the features of the adjustment mechanisms.

There are other physical systems where the concept of equilibrium has no role. The trajectory of a fly ball is not an equilibrium outcome, but rather the direct causal consequence of the collision between bat and ball. And if the course of the baseball is disturbed -- by impact with a passing bird or an updraft of wind -- then the terminus of the ball's flight will be different. The number of telephone calls between Phoenix and Albany is not an equilibrium outcome, even if it is fairly stable over time, but simply the aggregate consequence of the contingent telephone behavior of large numbers of people in the two cities. So systems that reach and maintain equilibrium are somewhat special.

It is also interesting to observe that there are other circumstances that produce a stable steady state in a system besides equilibrium processes. We may observe that elevators in a busy office building most frequently have 10 passengers. And the explanation for this may go along these lines: 10 is the maximum number of adults who can be squeezed into the elevator car; there are always many people waiting for an elevator; so virtually every car is at full capacity of 10 persons. This is an example of a pattern that derives from a population of events that demands full utilization, and a limit condition in the location where activity takes place. In this example, 10 passengers is not an equilibrium outcome but rather a forced outcome deriving from excess demand and a logistical constraint on the volume of activity. A large city may show a population history that indicates a trend of population increase from 4 million to 6 million to 10 million -- and then it stops growing. And the explanation of the eventual stable population size of 10 million may depend on the fact that the water supplies available to the city cannot support a population significantly larger than 10 million.

To what extent are social ensembles and processes involved in equilibrium conditions? The paradigm example of equilibrium reasoning in the social sciences arises in microeconomic theory. Supply and demand curves are postulated as being fixed, and the price of a good is the equilibrium position where the quantity produced at this price is equal to the quantity consumed at this price. If the price rises, demand for the good falls and the price falls; if the price falls below the equilibrium position, producers manufacture less of the good and consumers demand more of it, which induces a price rise.

Another important example of equilibrium analysis in social behavior is the application of central place theory to economic geography. The theory is that places (cities, towns, villages) will be positioned across the countryside in a way that embodies a set of urban hierarchies and a set of commercial pathways. The topology of the system and the size of the nodes are postulated to be controlled by social variables such as transport cost and demand density. And individuals' habitation decisions are influenced in a way that reinforces the topology and size hierarchy of the central place system.

However, even in these simple examples there are circumstances that can make the equilibrium condition difficult to attain. If the supply and demand curves shift periodically, then the equilibrium price itself moves around. If the price and production response characteristics are too large in their effects, then the system may keep bouncing around the equilibrium price, from "too high" to "too low" without the capacity of finetuning production and consumption. The resulting behavior would look like a graph of the stock market rather than a stable, regular system returning to its "equilibrium" value. And, in the case of habitation patterns, some places may gain a reputation for fun that offsets their disadvantages from the point of view of transport and demand density -- thereby disrupting the expected equilibrium outcomes.

So if the conditions defining the terms of an equilibrium change too quickly, or if the feedback mechanisms that work to adjust the system value to current equilibrium conditions are too coarse, then we should not expect the system to arrive at an equilibrium state. (The marble rolling on a rotating dinner plate will continue to roll across all parts of the plate rather than arriving at the lowest point on the plate and staying there.)

I'm inclined to think that equilibria are relatively rare in the social world. The reasons for this are several: it is uncommon to be able to discover homeostatic mechanisms that adjust social variables; when quasi-homeostatic mechanisms exist, they are often too coarse to lead to equilibrium; and, most fundamentally, the constraints that constitute the boundary conditions for idealized equilibria among social variables are often themselves changing too rapidly to permit an equilibrium to emerge. Instead, social outcomes more often look like constrained random walks, in which social actions occur in a fairly uncoordinated way at the individual level and aggregate to singular social outcomes that are highly path-dependent and contingent. Social outcomes are more often stochastic than being guided by homeostatic mechanisms.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Turning points

Are there turning points in history? How would we know if we're in the midst of one? Does the current financial crisis represent a turning point in the development of the US economy? Did the election of Ronald Reagan represent a turning point in American politics and government?

Often what is announced as a turning point eventually seems like a change without a difference -- an example of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, of changing drivers but not direction. Nguyen van Thieu takes office in Vietnam in 1967 and a new era is announced; but then the same old policies persist and Vietnam slides ever further towards Communist victory.

A turning point might be defined as an event, action, or choice, that profoundly alters the direction of a whole series of subsequent events. The New Deal is perhaps a candidate in the development of the political-social culture of the United States -- a new set of policies, laws, and strategies that set the United States on a new direction and that substantially constrained later choices by government. The notion of a turning point conveys the situation of contingency -- up until T things might have continued within the existing pattern P, but after T things shifted to P'. And it conveys the idea of path dependency as well -- now that the turning point has occurred and P' is embodied, it is much more difficult to return to P. So a turning point results from some contingent event that occurs within a system at a particular time and substantially inflects the future dynamics of development of the system. The idea turns on the background assumption that there are mechanisms or forces that sustain the development of the system, and that contingent events can "push" the system onto a different course for a while.

What sorts of things can have turning points? Can an individual have one? What about a family or a marriage? How about a business or a university? And how about a nation or a civilization? We might say that anything that has a recognizable and somewhat stable pattern of development can display a turning point. So each of these orders of human affairs can do so. An individual may be influenced by a traumatic event or a charismatic person and may change his ways; from that point forward he may behave differently -- more honestly, more cautiously, more compassionately. The event was a turning point on his development. A "velvet revolution" may be on a course that gives great importance to non-violent tactics. Then something happens -- a violent repression by the state, the emergence of a new clique of leaders more open to violence. The velvet revolution undergoes a turning point and becomes more violent in its strategies.

Schematically, the idea of a turning point involves an ontology something like this: system properties in a state of persistence > singular event > new system properties in a state of persistence.

So how could we know that we're at a turning point? The answer seems to be: we can't. Only the larger course of history can indicate whether contemporary changes will be large and persistent, or cosmetic and evanescent.

The idea of a "turning point" is perhaps one of the analytical categories that we use to characterize and analyze the sweep of history. It is a narrative device that highlights persistence, contingency, and direction. And, it would appear, we've got to wait until the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings before we can say with confidence when they occur.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What social science can do

Quite a few postings here emphasize the limits of social science knowledge. Prediction of the behavior of large social wholes is difficult to impossible. There are few strong regularities among social phenomena. Social entities and processes are heterogeneous, plastic, and path-dependent. So the question arises: what can the social sciences do that takes them beyond the realm of description and reportage of the blooming, buzzing confusion of social comings and goings, to something that is more explanatory and generalizable?

I think there is an answer to this, and it has to do with identifying mid-level mechanisms and processes that recur in roughly similar ways in a range of different social settings. The social sciences can identify a fairly large number of these sorts of recurring mechanisms. For example --
  • public goods problems
  • political entrepreneurship
  • principal-agent problems
  • features of ethnic or religious group mobilization
  • market mechanisms and failures
  • rent-seeking behavior
  • the social psychology associated with small groups
  • the moral emotions of family and kinship
  • the dynamics of a transport network
  • the communications characteristics of medium-size social networks
  • the psychology and circumstances of solidarity

Further, the social sciences can attempt to discover the circumstances at the level of individual agents that make these mechanisms robust across social settings. They can model the dynamics and features of aggregation that they possess. And they can attempt to discover the workings of such mechanisms in particular social and historical settings, and work towards explanations of particular features of these events based on their theories of the properties of the mechanisms. Finally, they can attempt to find rigorous ways of attempting to model the effects of aggregating multiple mechanisms in a particular setting.

What this comes down to is the view that the main theoretical and generalizing contribution that the social sciences can make is the discovery and analysis of a wise range of recurring social mechanisms grounded in features of human agency and common institutional and material settings. They can help to constitute a rich tool box for social explanation. And, in a weak and fallible way, they can lay the basis for some limited social generalizations -- for example, "In circumstances where a group of independent individuals make private decisions about their actions, the public goods shared by the group will be under-provided."

This approach affords a degree of explanatory capacity and generalization to the social sciences. What it does not underwrite is the ability to offer general, comprehensive theories about any complex kind of phenomenon -- cities, schools, revolutions. And it does not provide a foundation for confidence about large predictions about the future behavior of complex social wholes.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Social surprises

The near meltdown of the US financial system this week came as a surprise to most of us -- experts, legislators, and citizens alike. That isn't to say that the components of the disaster were unknown -- the subprime crisis, the earlier financial undoings of Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns this summer, and the sudden collapse of Lehman Brothers last week. But what has come as a surprise is the severity of the warnings by the Federal Reserve and Treasury that the entire financial system is only a few steps from seizure and collapse. This is a catastrophic system failure -- and no one would have anticipated its possibility six months ago.

Think of a few other surprises in the past thirty years -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Iranian Revolution, or the emergence of China as a roaring engine of market-based growth. In each case the event was a discontinuous break from the trajectory of the past, and it surprised experts and citizens alike. (The photo above depicts the surprising Yeltsin standing on a tank in 1991.)

So what is a surprise? It is an event that shouldn't have happened, given our best understanding of how things work. It is an event that deviates widely from our most informed expectations, given our best beliefs about the causal environment in which it takes place. A surprise is a deviation between our expectations about the world's behavior, and the events that actually take place. Many of our expectations are based on the idea of continuity: tomorrow will be pretty similar to today; a delta change in the background will create at most an epsilon change in the outcome. A surprise is a circumstance that appears to represent a discontinuity in a historical series.

It would be a major surprise if the sun suddenly stopped shining, because we understand the physics of fusion that sustains the sun's energy production. It would be a major surprise to discover a population of animals in which acquired traits are passed across generations, given our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. And it would be a major surprise if a presidential election were decided by a unanimous vote for one candidate, given our understanding of how the voting process works. The natural world doesn't present us with a large number of surprises; but history and social life are full of them.

The occurrence of major surprises in history and social life is an important reminder that our understanding of the complex processes that are underway in the social world is radically incomplete and inexact. We cannot fully anticipate the behavior of the subsystems that we study -- financial systems, political regimes, ensembles of collective behavior -- and we especially cannot fully anticipate the interactions that arise when processes and systems intersect. Often we cannot even offer reliable approximations of what the effects are likely to be of a given intervention. This has a major implication: we need to be very modest in the predictions we make about the social world, and we need to be cautious about the efforts at social engineering that we engage in. The likelihood of unforeseen and uncalculated consequences is great.

And in fact commentators are now raising exactly these concerns about the 700 billion dollar rescue plan currently being designed by the Bush administration to save the financial system. "Will it work?" is the headline; "What unforeseen consequences will it produce?" is the subtext; and "Who will benefit?" is the natural followup question.

It is difficult to reconcile this caution about the limits of our rational expectations about the future based on social science knowledge, with the need for action and policy change in times of crisis. If we cannot rely on our expectations about what effects an intervention is likely to have, then we can't have confidence in the actions and policies that we choose. And yet we must act; if war is looming, if famine is breaking out, if the banking system is teetering, a government needs to adopt policies that are well designed to minimize the bad consequences. It is necessary to make decisions about action that are based on incomplete information and insufficient theory. So it is a major challenge for the theory of public policy, to attempt to incorporate the limits of knowledge about consequences into the design of a policy process. One approach that might be taken is the model of designing for "soft landings" -- designing strategies that are likely to do the least harm if they function differently than expected. Another is to emulate a strategy that safety engineers employ when designing complex, dangerous systems: to attempt to de-link the subsystems to the extent possible, in order to minimize the likelihood of unforeseeable interactions. (Nancy Leveson describes some of these strategies in Safeware: System Safety and Computers.) And there are probably other heuristics that could be imagined as well.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Power as influence

We've looked at power as the socially embodied ability of some people to compel the behavior of other people. But this isn't the whole of what we would want to include within the scope of the uses of power. Other important aspects of power are more impersonal, having to do with influencing outcomes rather than controlling behavior. Powerful agents have the ability to set the agenda; to influence the rules of the game (whatever game one is involved in, including the state); to influence the flow of resources; and to make decisions that will have important consequences for other people.

Consider a few examples.
  • A large employer is concerned about rising health care costs. The compensation team lays out several choices: eliminate higher-cost insurance plans; eliminate subsidy for dependents; or shift more costs to employees through a higher premium copay formula. The CEO has the ability to choose one option over others; he/she exercises this authority in favor of option 3. This is an exercise of power.
  • The vice president of the United States wants to see a reduction in the rate of the capital gains tax. He quietly lobbies with legislators to incorporate this provision into upcoming tax legislation. He prevails. This too is an exercise of power -- an ability to bend outcomes to the VP's will. And it proceeds through the ability to influence other decision-makers.
  • The mayor of a small city is in a position to influence which development projects will be permitted. He/she exercises this power to give the nod to A and to deny B. A receives a substantial business benefit and B is left out.
  • A faculty reappointment committee considers the case of Assistant Professor X. It considers his/her dossier of research and teaching in relation to the standards. The case is not clear-cut. The committee has the power to end X's career at the university. It chooses not to support reappointment. It thereby exercises its power with respect to X's continuing employment. It emerges that one member had an animus against X and spoke persuasively against X. This member used a private form of power and influence against X and in furtherance of his own wishes.

These examples illustrate much of what C. Wright Mills hoped to capture in his theory of the "power elite" -- a relatively compact group of people who are in a position to shape social outcomes to their liking by influencing the agenda, the rules, or the decisions (The Power Elite).

And it goes with this social empowerment of small groups, that the possibilities of self-serving and self-interest arise. When individuals are in a position to determine the way social outcomes will occur, we have to consider the likelihood that they will have favored outcomes that serve their own interests best. So power in this circumstance has a lot to do with distributive outcomes -- who wins and who loses. And it had a lot to do with setting the rules of the game in ways that favor some people and disfavor others.

These aspects of power are tremendously important in a complex society. People in positions to influence important decisions -- private, corporate, or governmental -- have a greatly amplified ability to shape outcomes to their own will. And this in turn permits elites to shape the social environment in ways that best serve their private interests. (Stephen Lukes's book, Power: A Radical View, is particularly useful.)

And this in turn makes the strongest possible case for democratic transparency. We want the decisions that affect us to be made fairly, with full consideration of the impact they have on everyone affected by them. The decisions that influence everyone's well-being need to be made within a culture of openness and transparency. But all too often, this expectation is frustrated.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Non-coercive power?

The most visible exercise of power involves the direct use of force or the threat of violence. Demonstrators are cleared from the streets by police with truncheons and water cannons. Storekeepers are compelled to pay protection money by the example of a few mysterious fires. But are there also instruments and tactics of power that do not ultimately depend on force?

Recall a familiar definition of power. A wields power over B if A can bring it about that B behaves in such-and-so a way against B's will, desire, or choice. There are several mechanisms we might consider that involve the imposition of another's will without recourse to the threat of violence.

Consider beach-front property owners who prefer that the public should not stroll on their bits of beach. If the property owners have the political clout needed to install "residents-only" gates on all the points of access, then they have succeeded in controlling the behavior of the strolling public -- without having to hire a private security company to threaten the public with violence if they trespass. They have used power and influence to block certain kinds of behavior. But of course the enforcement of law brings with it the threat of force -- so the private power identified here is actually effective only because it can leverage the coercive power of the state.

So here's another strategy the private group might consider: deception. They might suborn the publishers of the local maps, disguising the points of access to the beach. Public picnic-seekers set off for an afternoon at the beach, only to fall into confusion because of the misleading maps. The private property owners have used their power to alter behavior -- without the trouble of threat of force. (And it is in fact difficult to find some if the exclusive resort communities that have cropped up in the American west!)

And how about this: a well-financed program of disinformation designed to bring the public to believe that the beaches are unsafe, unhealthy, or uncool. The public loses its taste for beaches -- and the property owners once again get their way. No random strollers on the beach. They've exercised power non-violently, by shifting the beliefs and wants of the public. Here the media can be an instrument of power.

And we might imagine, finally, that the property owners exercise their will by "log-rolling" with the community groups who are interested in gaining access to the beachfront -- "our support for your issues X, Y, Z is contingent upon your dropping this issue. You may prevail on this issue, but then you'll lose on X, Y, and Z." The tradeoff is severe, and the property holders prevail.

We might refer to these strategies of power generically as "manipulating institutional outcomes," "manipulating knowledge and belief," and "manipulating preferences and desires."

Where does Marx's quip that "religion is the opiate of the people" come into this analysis? It's relevant in several ways. First, it has to do with preferences. If a religious system leads a group to favor its spiritual redemption over its material improvement, its behavior will change. But it is also relevant to something not yet mentioned: the strength of motivation an individual or groups have to bring about the changes they favor. Strategies that blunt the effective motivation of a group to carry out its purposes are themselves an important avenue of power. And this is suggested by the "opiate" part of the statement, suggesting as it does the image of torpor. So when religion functions as an opiate, it serves to reduce the motivation for action by the group; it is demobilizing.

These examples suggest that elites can effect their will through a variety of means that do not depend upon threat of violence, but that nonetheless work effectively to constrain the actions of other groups.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Innovation in social research

The social sciences are charged to arrive at a good empirical understanding of the social world around us. They are charged to provide hypotheses and theories on the basis of which to explain the outcomes and patterns they discover. And they are charged to help design policies and interventions that will contribute to durable solutions to important social problems.

This is a big agenda, and it will only be achieved, I believe, if the next several decades witness a substantial burst of creative new thinking in all the social sciences. The disciplines, the inter-disciplines, and the social science institutions need to stimulate a lot of innovative thinking, if we are to arrive at a better understanding of the social world and a better ability to solve social problems.

Why should we think this is true? What makes us think that the current theories and research methodologies are not sufficient? And what kinds of innovation should we be aiming at?

The need for innovation results from several points. First is the tendency of the social science disciplines to give excessive primacy to a few methodologies and theories as the preferred wisdom. Quantitative methods, survey methodology, rational choice theory, and formal modeling techniques have defined "cutting-edge" social science research for several decades in several disciplines. When we take full measure of their specific limitations, these are perfectly useful components of social science research. But we should never imagine that they suffice for every research problem. The problems confronting the social sciences need a broader palette, a larger tool box.

Second, social phenomena almost always involve a mix of processes and behaviors that fall within the boundaries of distinct disciplines. This means that the hypotheses and theories of a single discipline will not capture the dynamics of the given body of phenomena. This in turn means that it is essential for social scientists to approach research problems with an interdisciplinary spirit; they need to welcome a somewhat eclectic mix of approaches.

Third, there is a need for some new thinking about causal processes and the reasoning we use to investigate causation in the social realm. The turn to causal mechanisms is an important step in this direction, but more new thinking is needed as well.

Fourth, it is important to find better ways of incorporating the study of agency and concrete individual behavior into social science theories. The cultural turn and the willingness to attempt to make use of some of the tools of ethnography and social psychology within structural and quantitative approaches is a good start, and we need to go further.

Fifth, we need some new ideas about how separate social processes aggregate and interact. The basic idea of a social agglomeration as a composition of lesser processes seems very compelling; so a better set of tools for modeling and analyzing these compositional processes is needed.

Much of this has to do with a particular kind of innovation: finding ways of borrowing across disciplines to permit the construction of analyses that are more sufficient. But there is also a need for a more fundamental form of innovation as well, at the level of the concepts and theories we use to characterize the social world. Could we arrive at a new concept of social identity that captures more of the fluidity and variability of the ways social identities actually work in a complex social world? Could our concept of social class be replaced by a different construct that was more friendly to the many strands that are involved in the phenomena of social class? Could we arrive at a better conceptual scheme for analyzing the institutions of government power and the exercise of state power?

Here is a short list of innovative social theorists whom I would recognize in the past several decades: Albert Hirschman, Ben Anderson, James Scott, Charles Sabel, Seyla Ben-Habib, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Schelling, Edward Said, Charles Tilly, Pierre Bourdieu, G. William Skinner, Elizabeth Perry, Robert Bates, Stephen Greenblatt, Robert Brenner, Mark Elvin. Each brought forward some genuinely novel ideas that shed new light on some aspect of the social world. And in many instances those ideas have demonstrated their staying-power. And, with almost no exceptions, none of these thinkers is narrowly defined by a single discipline.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What is social scientific knowledge?

The social and behavioral sciences endeavor to describe, explain, and interpret the range of the social and behavioral facts that surround us. To refer to this body of findings as “science” is to claim a set of epistemic values about the nature of the methods of inquiry and evaluation that are used to arrive at and assess the conclusions offered about this domain. The label “science” brings with it a set of presuppositions about rigor, evidence, generalizability, logical analysis, objectivity, cumulativeness, and the likelihood that the assertions that are made are true.

Consider a few assumptions that are often made about scientific knowledge—some valid and some not. Science is based on a set of rationally justified methods of inquiry and testing. Scientific knowledge progresses, in scope, in detail of understanding, and in reliability. Science is performed by specialists, working within equally exacting communities of peers and competitors and subject to a demanding set of standards of evaluation—peer-reviewed journals, university review processes, national laboratories, and international associations and conferences. The result of these processes of testing and evaluation, we expect, is an expanding body of hypotheses, experimental findings, observations, theories, and explanations that have substantial credibility—and substantially higher credibility than the writings of casual observers of a given range of phenomena. We come to know the nature of the world better through the institutions and methods of science.

In addition to these reasonably valid assumptions about scientific knowledge, there is another group of more questionable ideas that derive from assumptions drawn from the natural sciences. Science permits generalizations; it permits us to systematize otherwise apparently separate domains of phenomena (planetary motion, the tides; rational choice theory, behavior of the family) and to demonstrate that apparently heterogeneous sets of phenomena are in fact governed by the same general laws. Science permits predictions; if the fundamentals are thus-and-so, then the compounds will behave thusly. Science aims at unification: the discovery of unitary systems of forces and entities whose aggregate properties represent the whole of nature.

Notice that these latter expectations are derived from the successes and specific characteristics of certain of the natural sciences. And this marks the first of many opportunities for error in the philosophy of social science. There is no reason to expect that the social domain possesses the underlying nature and orderliness that would make it possible to achieve some of these characteristics (in particular, uniformity, generalizability, unification, simplicity). Consider some other areas of possible empirical research—for example, animal behavior. We should not expect there to be comprehensive theories of animal behavior. Instead, we should expect many threads of research, corresponding to many dimensions of animal behavior: cognition, memory, instinct, social behaviors, migratory behavior. And these many strands of research would reach out to different kinds of causal backgrounds: evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, intra-group learning. Likewise with the domain of social behavior. There is no single unified “theory of human motivation”—whether rational choice theory, social psychology, or any other unified theory. And this is so, because there is no unified reality of motivation and action; rather, there is a heterogeneous range of motives, errors, impulses, commitments, and habits that together constitute “dispositions to behave.”

What underwrites the claim of truthfulness for scientific knowledge? What gives us a rational basis for believing that the results of the socially constructed activities of science lead to true hypotheses about the nature and workings of the phenomena that scientific inquiry considers? There is, first, the basic argument of empiricism: we can observe some features of the world and establish certain statements as being probable. And we can use a collection of tools of inference to establish credibility of other non-observational statements (deductive and inductive logic, statistics, the experimental method, causal modeling).

This simple empiricist epistemology underwrites the strongest claims for veridicality and justification for the social sciences. The discovery of empirical facts about the social world is possible but challenging; this is what much of social science methodology attempts to under-gird. And hypotheses about the causal relationships that exist among social entities and processes can be tested using a variety of methods of inference that themselves possess strong epistemic justification. We have learned from the writings of philosophers of science since the 1960s to emphasize corrigibility and anti-foundationalism in our interpretation of scientific knowledge; but a coherentist epistemology and a perspective of causal realism provides a philosophically powerful grounding for social science knowledge. (See articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on coherence epistemology and scientific realism by Kvanvig and Boyd).

In addition, in some areas of the natural sciences, there is the fact that cumulative scientific research leads to the invention of technologies that work as they were designed to do: new materials are invented in the electronics industry, new designs are created for large structures (buildings, aircraft, electron microscopes), and these materials and artifacts perform as expected on the basis of the underlying theories. So scientific theories of materials, structures, and natural systems are supported by the effectiveness of the technologies that they give rise to. If the theories and hypotheses were fundamentally untrue about the parts of the natural world that they describe, then we would expect the technologies to fail; the technologies do not fail; so we have some additional reason to believe the scientific theories that underlay these technologies. (This is a version of Richard Boyd’s argument of methodological realism.)

Is there anything analogous to the relationship between the natural sciences and technology, for the social and behavioral sciences? On the whole, there is not. Social predictions are notoriously unreliable; public policies based on social-science theory commonly give rise to unanticipated consequences; and the twists and turns of deliberate social processes (war, alliance, efforts to address global warming) continue to surprise us. This unpredictability in the social world derives from the nature of social action. Human behavior and social processes are plainly subject to an open-ended range of causes, motives, and influences. The construction of various areas of science with the goal of understanding and explaining this multiplicity is therefore a profoundly challenging task.

Here, then, is a very elliptical description of a plausible interpretation of social science epistemology: There are empirical foundations for knowledge in the form of social observation (empiricism); there are social causes that influence social behavior, processes, and outcomes (causal realism); there is no a priori reason to expect strong generalizations across social phenomena, “regulating” the social world; and there is no reason to expect unified master theories of social phenomena, suggesting instead a preference for theories of the middle range.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


The word of the day is "change" -- the political conventions are blaring it out, and apparently the voting public is ready for it.

It's worth thinking about what "change" amounts to. Things change in many ways -- by accident, by the inevitable workings of natural processes, or as a result of the actions of people and groups. The eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in 1883 changed many things in the world, for better or worse. But this isn't what "change" means in this context.

When people talk about "change" in a political or social context, they are referring to outcomes that can be influenced by human agency and choice. We want to change the pace of global warming -- that is, we want to take deliberate steps that will result in a slowing of the buildup of greenhouse gases globally. We want to change the "pay to play" mentality that many city governments have permitted to develop between contractors and politicians -- that is, we want to create a new set of regulations and laws that do a better job of controlling corrupt practices in city government. We want to change the level of threat of terrorist attack that the United States faces -- that is, we want our leaders to design a set of strategies for diplomatic, military, and intelligence agency actions that will reduce the motivation of potential attackers or interfere with the execution of their plans. We want to change the degree of disparities of income and quality of life that is found among Americans in this century -- that is, we want a set of government and economic policies that have the effect of increasing income and quality of life for the least-well-off.

So the relevant meaning of "change" has to do with actions, goals, and strategies. Calls for change in this sense generally mean one of three things: we need to change direction -- the things we're aiming at aren't quite the right mix. We need to change strategies -- our plans for intervening in the world on the basis of which we are pursuing our goals aren't working well enough. Or we need to change the way we operate -- to embody greater transparency, greater allegiance to human rights, greater honesty. Change is about agency in the world -- the things we aim at, the means we use, and the principles we adopt.

Government -- its policies, its strategies, its priorities -- is at the center of what people are concerned about when they call for change. This is true primarily because governments have the greatest ability to influence the outcomes that we care about the most; but it is also true because governments have badly disappointed us at various junctures in our history, by pursuing the wrong goals or bungling their efforts to achieve the right goals. So it's not a bit surprising that a debate about the need for change would crop up around the moment of this critical election in the United States.

People are calling for change today because they are dissatisfied with the outcomes, trends, strategies, and manner that current public actors are achieving. They see outcomes that are the result of deliberate policies -- but that are highly undesirable. They see policies that are intelligently related to the achievement of certain goals -- but the goals are the wrong ones. They see policies and initiatives that are ill-conceived and bungled. And, often enough, they see public actions that are morally defective in a variety of ways -- dishonest, devious, illegal, anti-democratic, self-interested, or hateful.

So when people call for change, it would appear that they're asking for one of several possible kinds of change: a change of goals, a change of strategies, a change in the manner in which a government or corporation behaves, and perhaps a change in the personnel carrying out these actions. They want to see public action to be aimed at goals that the majority in society can support when honestly conveyed. They want to see policies and strategies that are well suited to achieving these goals, and supported by facts and analysis. They want to see coordinated efforts by their governments that will lead to better outcomes and will put the trends onto a more acceptable course. And they want to see a manner of action that respects the law and the requirements of a civil democracy.

Let's hope that the next several months of political debate can really focus on these core questions: what problems do we most urgently need to solve in the next ten years in this society and this world? What strategies and initiatives do the candidates propose to address these problems? What evidence can we marshall to assess the likelihood that they will follow through with their stated intentions? These are exactly the right debates; and once we think clearly about the goals and priorities we have as a nation, perhaps the choice we make among candidates will be less about personality and more about confidence in the program and the team that will implement it.