Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Philosophy of X?

When philosophers do their thinking within a field called "the philosophy of X", there is always a natural question that arises: how will philosophical reflection about X be helpful or constructive for the practitioners of X? For example, how might the philosophy of science be helpful for working scientists? How can the philosophy of biology or economics be helpful to biologists or economists? And, for that matter -- why isn't there a philosophy of plumbing or long-distance bus driving?

As for the last question, there seem to be two separate reasons for this gap in the spectrum -- a dearth of difficult conceptual problems and a lack of potentially useful consequences. First, philosophy finds traction when it deals with subject matter that raises difficult conceptual or inferential issues. Philosophers are particularly good at untangling unclear concepts; they are experienced at the task of formulating problems clearly and logically; they are ready to unmask the hidden presuppositions underlying a particular formulation. This is the kind of work Wittgenstein describes as "letting the fly out of the fly bottle"; it is what J. L. Austin does so well in "Three ways of spilling ink" (link). Drawing distinctions and formulating ideas clearly -- these are core intellectual tools, and they lie at the root of philosophy.

Another core intellectual tool is the commitment to providing justification for the things we believe, and raising reflective questions about the nature of rational justification. What is the evidence that supports a given belief? What degree of warrant does this evidence create? Why do statements like these make it more likely that P is true? Questions like these too are foundational for philosophy -- from Plato to Locke to Quine. And philosophers have a developed and nuanced set of frameworks and vocabularies in terms of which to interrogate them.

Both these types of intellectual work are doubly cognitive. They represent cognitive effort directed at examples of cognitive effort -- efforts to explain the workings of nature, the behavior of other people, or the workings of social institutions. Putting the point very simply -- philosophers are good at helping us think clearly about thinking. And, at their best, they can help us think more clearly and coherently.

So now we have part of an answer for why there is no philosophy of plumbing: plumbing is a routine activity with few conceptual puzzles and a secure base of practical knowledge. There just isn't any room for philosophical analysis in this realm. And, second, there is the pragmatic point: it is very hard to see how the plumbers might benefit from philosophical analysis. If Deleuze were to write a treatise on plumbing, how could that possibly enhance the practical discipline of plumbing? The plumbers' effective ability to control the water and waste systems of our buildings would not be enhanced by conceptual or epistemic analysis. Their conceptual and theoretical problems are well-mapped; all that remains is to discover the source of the leak. And this does not require philosophy.

Why, then, do we need other philosophies of X's? What is it about economics, evolution, or the mind that makes it intellectually and practically valuable to have a philosophy of economics, biology, or psychology? The answer proceeds along the lines sketched here. All these disciplines confront huge problems of concept formation, theory construction, and inference and justification. The most basic questions remain unsettled: does capitalism exist? How are theories and models related to the empirical world? Is there such a thing as group selection? How do emotions intersect with reasoning? What is consciousness? And in all these fields, there is the problem of inference and method -- again, unresolved. So there is ample room for philosophical thinking in these fields.

But more importantly, philosophy can help to improve the intellectual practices of the cognitive-empirical disciplines. By working productively in tandem with creative scientific researchers, with a focus on the conceptual and methodological problems that matter the most, philosophers can help contribute to real progress in the disciplines. This requires the philosopher to engage with the discipline in depth. But the fruits of this sort of synergy can be highly productive. It is sometimes complained that philosophy brings only "logic chopping" and dry conceptual analysis. But this is a caricature; the conceptual issues faced by the special sciences are deeply challenging, and sustained dialogue with philosophers can potentially lead to meaningful progress in the science. And reciprocally, quite a few traditional concerns of philosophy --in ontology, epistemology, and the theory of the mind, for example -- can be significantly deepened through close engagement with current scientific work. There need not be a sharp line of demarcation between philosophy and empirical research.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Correspondence, abstraction, and realism

Science is generally concerned with two central semantic features of theories: truth of theoretical hypotheses and reliability of observational predictions. (Philosophers understand the concept of semantics as encompassing the relations between a sentence and the world: truth and reference. This understanding connects with the ordinary notion of semantics as meaning, in that the truth conditions of a sentence are thought to constitute the meaning of the sentence.) Truth involves a correspondence between hypothesis and the world; while predictions involve statements about the observable future behavior of a real system. Science is also concerned with epistemic values: warrant and justification. The warrant of a hypothesis is a measure of the degree to which available evidence permits us to conclude that the hypothesis is approximately true. A hypothesis may be true but unwarranted (that is, we may not have adequate evidence available to permit confidence in the truth of the hypothesis). Likewise, however, a hypothesis may be false but warranted (that is, available evidence may make the hypothesis highly credible, while it is in fact false). And every science possesses a set of standards of hypothesis evaluation on the basis of which practitioners assess the credibility of their theories--for example, testability, success in prediction, inter-theoretical support, simplicity, and the like.

The preceding suggests that there are several questions that arise in the assessment of scientific theories. First, we can ask whether a given hypothesis is a good approximation of the underlying social reality--that is, the approximate truth of the hypothesis. Likewise, we can ask whether the hypothesis gives rise to true predictions about the future behavior of the underlying social reality. Each of these questions falls on the side of the truth value of the hypothesis. Another set of questions concerns the warrant of the hypothesis: the strength of the evidence and theoretical grounds available to us on the basis of which we assign a degree of credibility to the hypothesis. Does available evidence give us reason to believe that the hypothesis is approximately true, and does available evidence give us reason to expect that the hypothesis's predictions are likely to be true? These questions are centrally epistemic; answers to them constitute the basis of our scientific confidence in the truth of the hypothesis and its predictions.

It is important to note that the question of the approximate truth of the hypothesis is separate from that of the approximate truth of its predictions. It is possible that the hypothesis is approximately true but its predictions are not. This might be the case because the ceteris paribus conditions are not satisfied, or because low precision of estimates for exogenous variables and parameters leads to indeterminate predictive consequences. Therefore it is possible that the warrant attaching to the approximate truth of the hypothesis and the reliability of its predictions may be different. It may be that we have good reason to believe that the hypothesis is a good approximation of the underlying economic reality, while at the same time we have little reason to rely on its predictions about the future behavior of the system. The warrant of the hypothesis is high on this account, while the warrant of its predictions is low.

Whatever position we arrive at concerning the possible truth or falsity of a given economic hypothesis, it is plain that this cannot be understood as literal descriptive truth. Economic hypotheses are not offered as full and detailed representations of the underlying economic reality. For a hypothesis unavoidably involves abstraction, in at least two ways. First, the hypothesis deliberately ignores some empirical characteristics and causal processes of the underlying economic reality. Just as a Newtonian hypothesis of the ballistics of projectiles ignores air resistance in order to focus on gravitational forces and the initial momentum of the projectile, so an economic hypothesis ignores differences in consumption behavior among members of functional defined income groups. Likewise, a hypothesis may abstract from regional or sectional differences in prices or wage rates within a national economy. Daniel Hausman provides an excellent discussion of the scope and limits of economic theories in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics.

Another epistemically significant feature of social hypotheses is the difficulty of isolating causal factors in real social or economic systems. Hypotheses are generally subject to ceteris paribus conditions. Predictions and counterfactual assertions are advanced conditioned by the assumption that no other exogenous causal factors intervene; that is, the assertive content of the hypothesis is that the economic processes under analysis will unfold in the described manner absent intervening causal factors. But if there are intervening causal factors, then the overall behavior of the system may be indeterminate. In some cases it is possible to specify particularly salient interfering causal factors (e.g. political instability). But it is often necessary to incorporate open-ended ceteris paribus conditions as well.

Finally, social theories and hypotheses unavoidably make simplifying or idealizing assumptions about the populations, properties, and processes that they describe. Consumers are represented as possessing consistent and complete preference rankings; firms are represented as making optimizing choices of products and technologies; product markets are assumed to function perfectly; and so on.

Given, then, that hypotheses abstract from reality, in what sense does it make sense to ask whether a hypothesis is true? We must distinguish between truth and completeness, to start with. To say that a description of a system is true is not to say that it is a complete description. (A complete description provides a specification of the value of all state variables for the system--that is, all variables that have a causal role in the functioning of the system.) The fact that hypotheses are abstractive demonstrates only that they are incomplete, not that they are false. A description of a hockey puck's trajectory on the ice that assumes a frictionless surface is a true account of some of the causal factors at work: the Newtonian mechanics of the system. The assumption that the surface of the ice is frictionless is false; but in this particular system the overall behavior of the system (with friction) is sufficiently close to the abstract hypothesis (because frictional forces are small relative to other forces affecting the puck). In this case, then, we can say two things: first, the Newtonian hypothesis is exactly true as a description of the forces it directly represents, and second, it is approximately true as a description of the system as a whole (because the forces it ignores are small).

This account takes a strongly realist position on social theory, in that it characterizes truth in terms of correspondence to unobservable entities, processes, or properties. The presumption here is that social systems generally--and economic systems in particular--have objective unobservable characteristics which it is the task of social science theory to identify. The realist position is commonly challenged by some economists, however. Milton Friedman's famous argument for an instrumentalist interpretation of economic theory (Essays in Positive Economics) is highly unconvincing in this context. The instrumentalist position maintains that it is a mistake to understand theories as referring to real unobservable entities. Instead, theories are simply ways of systematizing observable characteristics of the phenomena under study; the only purpose of scientific theory is to serve as an instrument for prediction. Along these lines, Friedman argues that the realism of economic premises is irrelevant to the warrant of an economic theory; all that matters is the overall predictive success of the theory. The instrumentalist approach to the interpretation of economic theory, then, is highly unpersuasive as an interpretation of the epistemic standing of economic hypotheses. Instead, the realist position appears to be inescapable: we are forced to treat general equilibrium theory as a substantive empirical hypothesis about the real workings of competitive market systems, and our confidence in general equilibrium hypotheses is limited by our confidence in the approximate truth of the general equilibrium theory.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Class in America

Are there social classes in America?

In order to answer the question in the affirmative, we would need to determine whether there are major social groups that are defined by their position within the economy, who share --
  • some degree of a common perspective on the world
  • some degree of a common culture
  • a set of distinctive economic interests
  • the potential of engaging in collective political action in support of their interests.
Does American society possess groups with these characteristics? Or, in the negative, is the American population so homogeneous (or possibly, so heterogeneous) in values, interests, culture, and politics, that the concept of class has no bearing today?

There are certainly occupational groupings in the American workforce. The United States Department of Labor makes use of a hierarchical classification of jobs in the U.S., with 23 major groups. These include management occupations, business and financial operations, computer and mathematical operations, architecture and engineering operations, food preparation and serving occupations, community and social service occupations, legal occupations, education, training, and library occupations, healthcare support occupations, and, eventually, production occupations. Within production occupations there is a further differentiation of jobs among supervisors, production workers, assemblers, fabricators, food processing workers, and so on for dozens of other sub-categories. So there is certainly a very clear occupational structure to the American economy, and the sociological pathways that convey an individual into a particular location within this structure are well-defined and impactful on the future quality of life of the individual.

So we might consider classifying these occupations according to some higher-level categories and then constructing a theory of social classes around them: management, unskilled labor, skilled labor, professional labor, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, manufacturing, service, agriculture. (See a prior posting for an effort along these lines.) And we might consider whether some of these groupings have the cohesion and sociological interconnectedness to constitute a "class". Are unionized, blue-collar, industrial workers a "class"? Are non-unionized service workers a class? Are accountants, architects, and engineers a social class? Are nurses and other healthcare workers a class? Are mid-sized family farmers a social class? And for that matter, are the owners and top managers of banks, investment companies, and financial firms a class? These are fruitful questions, and they begin in a recognition of the complex occupational structure of the U.S. economy. Occupations have large impact on worldview, values, quality of life, and political behavior.

Second, there is certainly a great deal of persistent social stratification in the U.S. The probability of a child's remaining in the quintile of the income distribution where his parents found themselves is high; so the position of a family within the distributive system is fairly stable over time. And position within the income distribution has major consequences for a family's level of consumption and quality of life. Being persistently "near-poor" is a situation of deprivation and insecurity that is sharply different from the life situation of the moderately affluent. So we might consider several large social groups based on income -- the extremely poor, the working poor, the middle-income, the rich, and the super-rich. Within each of these categories of society defined by income we are likely to find some characteristic features of lifestyle, values, and existential dilemmas. So the basic structure of stratification of social goods such as income, health status, and education might serve to define large social "classes."

Third, it would appear that there are clusters of values, styles, and mental frameworks that correspond to different economic segments of American society. This is the cultural dimension of the social reality of class. Patterns of use of leisure time, attitudes towards education, membership in different kinds of civic organizations, and attitudes towards other nations seem to distinguish social groups in America. So we might attempt to delineate social classes on the basis of clusters of values and mental frameworks. And this approach can certainly be approached empirically, through administration of instruments such as the World Values Survey and domestic equivalents. To what extent do studies like these demonstrate significant inter-group differences within the United States?

Fourth, it seems likely that there are differentiating patterns among various social groups based on the patterns of social relationships that exist within the group, that would be revealed by maps of social networks. And it seems probable that the distinct groups that emerge will have important economic relationships in common. (Here is an interesting slide presentation by Valdis Krebs that illustrates some suggestive applications of social network analysis.) Here is a hypothetical study that couldn't really be performed but may be interesting as a thought experiment. Suppose we ask everyone in an urban population for the names of 5 non-family members upon whom they could call in an emergency to perform an important favor. Now draw the network map that results from this survey. Are there "islands" of separate sub-populations that can be discovered, where the great majority of links fall within the island and only a small number extend across to another island? And are these islands related in some important way to economic situation and status of the individuals who are included? Would this study map out groups that could be identified as "social classes"? It seems likely that the answers to these questions are affirmative.

Each of these is a different starting-place for a sociological analysis of social class in America. And if the theory of class is correct, we would expect that these different starting places would begin to converge around the same large social formations: occupations, incomes, cultures, and social networks may all call out the same large social groups.

Ultimately, the theory of class has to do with collective interests. We might say that the fundamental interests of a group involve income, job security, healthcare, opportunities, and pensions. A more intangible set of interests have to do with a demand for fair treatment in economic decision-making and a need for a sense of self-determination. And it is plain that there are business decisions and public policy decisions that are being made today that affect these interests very differently for different groups. This suggests that there are in fact large groups in American society whose members have shared interests with each other and who can be mobilized in political action in support of these interests. And this begins to suggest that class remains a social reality in America -- and one that may become more politically salient rather than less in the coming decade or so.

What cannot be forgotten, though, is the fact that economic structures are only one aspect of the social mechanisms of distribution and control through which individuals' status is determined. The mechanisms of race, ethnicity, migration, and gender all affect individuals' core interests in ways that are somewhat independent from the structures of property and class we've been highlighting. And this has important consequences for political mobilization as well; it means that political affinities and action may be organized around race and ethnicity as readily as they are around wage labor and capital -- witness the massive immigration rallies that took place in 2007, pictured above in the third image.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A diagram of class structure

Consider this schematic representation of several variables defined by circumstances of work, income, and occupation. The diagram proposes a classification of income earners according to a series of distinctions about their economic situation.

The diagram captures a handful of separate dimensions of a person's economic location -- one's class. These include:
  • source of income (profits, wages, partner's shares)
  • level of skill and education
  • function as manager or staff
  • income level (high, medium, low)
  • sector of economy (manufacturing, service, agriculture)
These are important economic characteristics that serve to define a person's status, quality of life, and opportunities in American society. (All but income are designated in the dashed boxes on the diagram.)

We might hypothesize that the large groups that are defined by this diagram have the makings of a class: unskilled farm laborers; unskilled industrial workers; skilled salaried industrial professionals; skilled salaried professors, teachers, and librarians; professionals in firms with partner status and income; and owners of property. Moreover, we are led to ask whether there are likely to be linkages across sectors: are unskilled farm workers and factory workers likely to see themselves as members of a large class? Are salaried professionals in the industrial sector and the service sector likely to have affinity with each other? What about salaried accountants and their counterparts in partner-governed firms? What about salaried professors and temporary instructors?

Each of these categories of classification makes a difference in one's life circumstances. The source of income defines a basic set of interests for the members of each group; for example, owners of industrial firms have an economic interest in reducing labor costs, whereas wage and salaried workers have an interest in increasing salaries and benefits. The criterion of skill and education influences one's productivity and value to the employer; and it highlights an abstract social resource that one owns (specialized knowledge). The category of "manager/staff" defines the individual's power and influence within the workplace -- whether he/she is a "boss" or a "worker". The sector one works in makes a difference because it establishes a set of distinctive characteristics of the workplace (a factory is different from a factory farm), and it locates the individual's fortunes within a part of the economy that itself has specific interests and advantages. (More free trade is good for farmers because it boosts grain exports, but bad for industrial workers because it creates more competition around labor costs.)

It is also worth pointing out that the diagram provides a crude theory of income distribution: incomes are higher for more skilled workers, for executives, managers, and supervisors, and in more productive industries.

What the diagram leaves out are social characteristics like race, ethnicity, or gender, that substantially influence where one will end up within this structure. And it is intriguing to consider whether there might be a similar diagram that plots out the workings of race, immigration status, gender, or ethnicity in life outcomes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Causal difference

Source: Federica Russo, Causality and Causal Modelling in the Social Sciences, p. 164

I've recently read a very interesting recent book by Federica Russo, Causality and Causal Modelling in the Social Sciences: Measuring Variations (Methodos Series) on the philosophical issues that arise in causal reasoning about social phenomena. Russo is obviously a talented and dedicated philosopher, and the book is a highly interesting contribution.

Explanation is at the center of scientific research, and explanation almost always involves the discovery of causal relations among factors, conditions, or events. This is true in the social sciences no less than in the natural sciences. But social causes look quite a bit different from causes of natural phenomena. They result from the choices and actions of numerous individuals rather than fixed natural laws, and the causal pathways that link antecedents to consequents are less exact than those linking gas leaks to explosions. Here as elsewhere, the foundational issues are different in the social sciences; so a central challenge for the philosophy of social science is to give a good, compelling account of causal reasoning about social phenomena that does justice to the research problems faced by social scientists. Federica Russo has done so in this book. The book focuses on probabilistic causation and causal modeling, and Russo offers a rigorous and accessible treatment of the full range of current debates. Her central goal is to shed more light on the methods of causal modeling, and she succeeds admirably in this ambition. Causality and Causal Modelling in the Social Sciences makes an important and original contribution.

Her approach to problems in the methodology and philosophy of social science is what she calls the “bottom-up” approach. She works from careful analysis of specific examples of social science reasoning about causation, and works upward to more general analytical findings about causal reasoning as it actually works in the hands of skilled social scientists. She uses five concrete case studies as a vehicle for teasing out the logic of causal inference that is at work: smoking and lung cancer, mother's education and child survival, health and wealth in a population, farmers' migration patterns, and factors causing job satisfaction. She looks at the causal arguments advanced in studies in each of these areas as a way of discovering some of the fundamental logical features of causal inference. The examples are drawn from a wider range of the social and behavioral sciences than is usually the case -- demography, public health, and migration, for example. Her insight is that we can learn a great deal about social science research by looking at good examples of empirical and theoretical reasoning about social changes. I think this is exactly right: it is much better to discover the problems that percolate out of the practice of social inquiry rather than imposing a framework of philosophical expectations onto social science practice.

Russo focuses her attention on the problem of explaining variation: what causes the variation of a certain characteristic over a population of individuals or events. This focus on “variation” rather than “regularity” is very convincing; it provides an appropriate and insightful alternative approach to framing problems for social science research and explanation. She offers a very adept discussion and interpretation of the meaning of causal statements and causal reasoning in the social sciences. The book provides a rigorous contribution to the large literature on the logic of quantitative reasoning about causes of population characteristics. Her case studies are well selected and well done. The book is founded on a deep and rigorous understanding of the most recent philosophical and methodological work on causal modeling.

The author does a very good job of positioning her understanding of the meaning of causal modeling and causal judgments in the social sciences. She honestly addresses the position of “causal realism” and the view that good explanations depend on discovering or hypothesizing causal mechanisms underlying the phenomena. Her chapter on causal mechanisms is a significant contribution to this growing debate within the philosophy of social science; she correctly observes that we need to have greater precision in our discussion of what a causal mechanism is supposed to be.

The book will be of substantial interest to the social scientists, psychologists, demographers, and philosophers who are interested in current debates about the mathematics and philosophy of causal inference. Social scientists and philosophers such as Skyrms, Cartwright, Woodward, Pearl, and Lieberson have developed a very deep set of controversies and debates about the proper interpretation of causal inference. Russo’s book is a substantial contribution to these debates and will engage much the same audiences.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The sociology of class

According to the traditional definition, a class is defined in relation to the broad structure of the property system. A group of people belong to the same class when they occupy the same position within the property system governing labor, physical assets, and perhaps intangible assets such as knowledge or money. This is a structural definition of the concept of class. In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth).

Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income -- from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. (That's Pierre-Joseph Proudhon pictured above by Courbet, an intellectual in artisanal garb.)

So we might capture nineteenth-century French social reality from this point of view along these lines:

Of course, things can be classified according to any principle we might offer. So the value of a particular classification must be justified in terms of the explanatory or causal work that it does. The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness -- a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation -- a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together.

This is where the substantive sociology of class comes in; in order to provide credibility for this set of expectations about class consciousness and political motivation, we need to have some ideas about the concrete sociological mechanisms that might plausibly lead from "common position in the property relations" to "common forms of consciousness and political motivation." And here there are quite a few things that can be said -- both by Marx in the 1850s and contemporary observers in the 2000s. First, a common position in the property relations often implies a number of concrete similarities of experience across individuals -- common features of the workplace, common neighborhoods in cities, common experiences in the system of schooling that is in place. These kinds of shared social positions suggest two things: first, a common process of shaping through which perceptions and motivations develop in each individual; and second, a common reality that individuals who experience these environments are likely to be able to perceive. It is highly plausible that a group of men and women who have spent their lives in a nineteenth century textile factory while living in a concentrated workers' slum, will have developed a similar consciousness and social style from the discipline and work processes of the factory and their shared social associations in their neighborhoods.

So miners in Wales or northern Michigan are exposed to similar work environments; similar firms and styles of management; and similar life outcomes that might be expected to create a "miner's consciousness" and a miner's political mentality. Smallholding wine growers across the landscape of nineteenth century France are exposed to similar natural, social, and economic circumstances that are likely to shape the development of their personalities and worldviews, that are in turn likely to create an ideal-typical "wine grower" who fairly accurately represents the worldview and behavior of wine growers.

Second, there is a fact that is more apparent today than it was to nineteenth-century sociological observers, that has to do with what we now understand about social networks and social capital. Common locations of work and residence make it highly likely that occupational groups (miners, architects, professors) will fall within sharply distinguished sets of social networks, and they will have access to different combinations of social capital (civic organizations, religious groups, secret societies). And the consciousness and political behavior of an individual is surely influenced in very profound ways by each of these social categories -- networks and social capital. So the fact of similarities in these respects is likely to give rise to similarities in consciousness and action as well.

And, of course, there is the fact of the social reality of exploitation in each of these circumstances: miners and wine growers are subject to coercive social relations that succeed in separating them from a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors. Coal miners will identify the profit-driven mine owners as the source of their exploitation and wine growers may identify the wine jobbers who buy their product cheaply and sell it dearly in the cities as the source of their exploitation. But each group comes to recognize the social reality of the property relations through which their productive labor is "expropriated" by other powerful forces. Recognition of the fact of exploitation is a key component of the process of the formation of class consciousness.

So it seems plausible to suppose that there are identifiable social mechanisms through which occupational groups come to have shared worldviews and similar political behaviors. But the theory of class asserts more than this; it asserts that wage laborers in many occupations will come to recognize themselves as fundamentally similar to workers in other occupations. The theory of class postulates a sociology of "escalation" of class identity, from the particular occupation, work group, and neighborhood to the larger (and more abstract) class that encompasses many occupations and work groups in widely separated locations. So, it is postulated, fast food workers, auto workers, and air traffic controllers will come to identify together, not simply as a set of occupational groups, but as an extended group of "persons who are forced to sell their labor to capital in order to satisfy life needs." And, further, the theory postulates that it will be possible for a strong form of group solidarity to emerge across this fairly heterogeneous and physically separated set of occupational groups.

It isn't entirely clear what the sociological mechanisms are supposed to be that facilitate this escalation of class identity, however. Classical Marxism depends heavily on the idea of a party and a group of activists who do the "class education" that leads workers from a narrowly parochial view of their situation to one that encompasses the common situation of wage labor. But this depends on a fairly sizable historical coincidence -- the emergence of a militant and disciplined class-based party. And it is very hard to see how non-planned forms of sociological change might lead to this escalation -- hard to see, that is, how air traffic controllers, McDonalds workers, and steel workers might spontaneously come to regard each other as belonging to a single class subject to exploitation by another abstractly defined class.

Moreover, it is very apparent today that there are multiple axes around which collective identities can form. Kinship relations in southern China cut across structural class relations, and it is certainly possible that the Li clan will have a stronger sense of identity than the landless workers -- even though the Li clan contains both landlords, peasant farmers, and landless workers. Religious affinities may be mobilized as a source of collective identity -- again, with the likelihood of creating groups that cut across class lines.

So this line of thought suggests that there is a fairly large gap in the theory of class in even its application to the nineteenth-century case: the problem of how to explain the postulated escalation of consciousness from the particular work group and occupation to the more general category, "working class."

This leaves for another posting the most important question: to what extent is the theory of class relevant to 21st-century society? To what extent can American political conflicts, perceptions, parties, and movements be explained on the basis of occupational and class identities? To what extent do the most important fissures in our society derive from economic conflicts that can be assimilated to the theory of class?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Power and class in the 21st century

We could say that power and class are the two most important determinants of everyday life in the 21st century. Class relations – determined by the property system and the basic economic institutions within which we live – determine our opportunities, health, quality of life, and sometimes our basic freedoms. Power relations influence our careers, our opportunities, our freedoms, and very basic aspects of our behavior and choice. It is reasonable to think that the system of power and class within which we live constitutes the basic framework within which our lives and purposes unfold.

Further, the two schemata of post-modern life are interrelated. The property system within which we live is like a medieval cathedral – it cannot stand without the buttresses of power that retain its structure in the face of countervailing pressures. And the relations of power that exist in a society often derive much of their voltage from the structure of property that exists. Property holders need, want, and gain power; holders of power gain property.

But post-modern life is not so simple. There are multiple cross-cutting identities and positions that influence personal outcomes, not simply class or power. Race, ethnic group, gender – these are social systems that have quite a bit in common with class, and they have relationships to power as well. Race, ethnicity, and gender are also “social processing systems” – one’s status within the system of race or gender immediately influences one’s opportunities, status, prestige, and – yes, power. And one’s position within these ascriptive systems also has implications for the class system; thus black workers faced a different working environment than white workers in the Detroit auto industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and female workers earn less than male workers in many businesses.

We might define power in these terms: "access to social and material resources that permit an individual or group to control or influence social outcomes, including the behavior of other individuals and groups, the distribution of things, and the configuration of social institutions." And we can give a simple schematic description of the chief mechanisms and tactics through which control and influence are exercised in contemporary society: coercion, threat, manipulation of the agenda, manipulation of information and thought, and positional advantage. These are almost all relational characteristics -- they have to do with the relationships of influence that exist among individuals and groups.

We can also provide a simple definition of social class: “position within a system of property relations, defining one’s location with a structure of domination, control, and exploitation.” The group of people who share a similar position within the property relations of a society constitute a class. Their circumstances, resources, and opportunities are similar to those of others in the class, and they have common interests that are in opposition to members of some other classes. So class works as a social sorting process: individuals are tracked into one class or another through specific sociological mechanisms (schooling, parental attitudes, neighborhood). And it works to assign very different ranges of material outcomes to members of the various groups; working class families wind up more poorly educated, less healthy, and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than their counterparts in the landlord class, the financial elite class, or the capitalist class. Part of the challenge of developing a sociology of class involved identifying some of the concrete pathways of difference created by class with respect to specific opportunities – education, health, adequate nutrition, access to creative work, .…

Status and consciousness are also part of the sociology of class. Individuals develop specific features of mentality out of the experience they have in the class environments of their parents, their schools, and their workplaces. And these differences in turn give rise to differences in behavior -- consumer behavior, political behavior, and inter-group behavior. And members of a class may acquire a common perspective on their situation -- they may come to diagnose the social relations around them in a similar way, they may come to a common "class consciousness" that leads them to engage in collective action together.

Further, the system of class relations also creates specific features in the social networks that exist in a society. A highly democratic and egalitarian society would be expected to have a social network graph that is widely and evenly distributed across the population. But in our society, it is likely that a social network map of Chicago would be highly differentiated along class lines: business people tend to know business people, manufacturing workers tend to know other manufacturing workers, and so forth. (I am sure there is some good research on this topic, though I can't put my hands on it.) This in turn implies that there will be significant differences across classes with respect to social capital -- the ability of people to call upon their social relationships and associations in pursuit of their goals and interests. (See Nan Lin, Social Capital: Theory and Research.) (This point comes up in a different context in the earlier posting about segregation in France.)

The concepts of power and class are often linked. However, it strikes me that the two concepts or theories are not parallel; they do different work within our analysis of the society in which we live, and they require different kinds of ontologies in order for us to explicate them. “Class” is a situational feature for individuals; it defines a set of circumstances and opportunities that fundamentally influence the shape of their lives. In this respect the theory of class evokes structures first and agency and consciousness second. “Power” is a fluid characteristic of individuals within social relationships. As such, it evokes social relationships and social resources wielded by individuals and groups against other individuals and groups. “Power” is a feature of the individual's position within a set of social networks and relationships, not a social structure. Class is more akin to "the mass of the earth", whereas power is akin to "the ability to fly". The mass of the earth determines the most basic feature of life on earth -- gravity. The ability to fly is a complex and variable capacity that permits specific organisms and artifacts to accomplish flight within the general influence of gravity. What is complicated about this analogy is the fact that there are several sources of social "gravity" -- including the structures of race, gender, and religion that pull, push, and constrain us in multiple directions.

Maps, narratives, and abstraction

It is obvious that maps are selective representations of the world. They represent an abstraction: a representation of a complex, dense reality that signifies some characteristics while deliberately ignoring other aspects. The principles of selection used by the cartographer are highly dependent on the expected interests of the user. Topography will be relevant to the hiker but not the motorist. Location of points of interest will be important to the tourist but not the long-distance trucker. Location of railroad hubs will be valued by the military planner but not the birdwatcher. So there is no such thing as a comprehensive map -- one that represents all geographical details; and there is also no such thing as a truly "all-purpose" map -- one that includes all the details that any user could want.

We also know that there are different schemes of representation of geography -- different projections, different conventions for representing items and relationships, etc. So there is no objectively best map of a given terrain. Rather, comparing maps for adequacy, accuracy, and usefulness requires semantic and pragmatic comparison. (Here the word "semantic" is used in a specialized sense: "having to do with the reference relationship between a sign and the signified.") Semantically, we are interested in the correspondence between the map and the world. The conventions of a given cartography imply a specific set of statements about the spatial relations that actually exist among places, as well as denoting a variety of characteristics of places. So there is a perfectly natural question to ask of a given map: is it representationally accurate? This sort of assessment leads to judgments like these: This map does a more accurate job of representing driving distances than that one, given the rules of representation that each presupposes. This map errs in representing the relative population sizes of Cleveland and Peoria. These are features that have to do with the accuracy of the correspondence between the map and the world.

The pragmatic considerations have to do with how well the representation or its underlying conventions conform to how various people want to use it. Maps are particularly dependent on pragmatic considerations. We need to assess the value of a map with respect to a set of practical interests. How well does the map convey the information about places and spatial relationships that the user will want to consult? How have the judgments about what to include and what to exclude worked out from the point of view of the user? Pragmatic considerations lead to judgments like these: this mapping convention corresponds better to the needs of the military planner or the public health official than that one. The pragmatic questions about a map have to do with a different kind of fit -- fit between the features and design of the map and the practical interests of a particular set of users. Do the conventions of the given cartography correspond well to the interests that specific sets of users have in the map?

Here is the point of this discussion: are there useful analogies between the epistemology of maps and the cognitive situation of other representational constructs -- for example, historical narratives and scientific theories? Several points of parallel seem particularly evident. First, narratives and theories are selective too. It is impossible to incorporate every element of a historical event or natural process into a theory or narrative; rather, it is necessary to select a storyline that permits us to provide a partial account of what happened. This is true for the French Revolution; but it is also true for the trajectory of a hockey puck.

Second, there is a parallel point about veridicality that applies to narratives and theories as much as to maps. No map stands as an isolated representation; rather, it is embedded within a set of conventions of representation. We must apply the conventions in order to discover what "assertions" are contained in the representation. So maps are in an important sense "conventional." However, given the conventions of the map, we can undertake to evaluate its accuracy. And this is true for narratives and theories as well; we can attempt to assess the degree of approximate truth possessed by the construction. Are the statements about the nature of the events and their sequence approximately true? (Given that an account of the French Revolution singles out class interests of parties within the narrative, has the historian correctly described the economic interests of the Jacobins?)

And third, the point about the relevance of users' interests to assessment of the construction seems pertinent to narratives and theories as well. The civil engineer who is investigating the collapse of a building will probably find a truthful analysis of the thermodynamics of the HVAC system unhelpful, even though it is true. The detective investigating a robbery of a party store will probably become impatient at a narrative that highlights the sequence of street noises that were audible during the heist, rather than the descriptions and actions of the visitors during the relevant time.

When it comes to narratives and theories, there is another value dimension that we want to impose on the construction: the idea of explanatory adequacy. A narrative ought to provide a basis for explaining the "how and why" of historical events; it ought to single out the circumstances and reasoning that help to explain the actions of participants, and it ought to highlight some of the environmental circumstances that influenced the outcome. A scientific theory is intended to identify some of the fundamental causal factors that explain a puzzling phenomenon -- the turbulence that occurs in a pot of water as it approaches the boiling point, for example. So when we say that a narrative or a theory is an abstraction, part of what we're getting at is the idea that the historian or natural scientist has deliberately excluded factors that don't make a difference, in order to highlight a set of factors that do make a difference.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Comparative life satisfaction

We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life -- for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 -- or 200, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world -- Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent 21st-century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries -- with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life -- life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement is not high-tech, but rather takes the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children's ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world's knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn't reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen's economic theory of "capabilities and realizations" supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill's theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it's not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied -- nutrition, shelter, health -- the opportunities for realizing one's talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes -- obviously. The creative product of Mill's or Hugo's generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life's work than does the programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.

So we might say that the only unmistakeable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics -- secure nutrition, decent education, and improved health during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Contingent historical development

Here's a relatively limited historical puzzle to solve. A powerful new technology -- the railroad -- was developed in the first part of the nineteenth century. The nature and characteristics of the technology were essentially homogeneous across the national settings in which it appeared in Europe and North America. However, it was introduced and built out in three countries -- the United States, Britain, and France -- in markedly different ways. The ways in which the railroads and their technologies were regulated and encouraged were very different in the three countries, and the eventual rail networks had very different properties in the three countries. The question for explanation is this: can we explain the differences in these three national experiences on the basis of some small set of structural or cultural differences that existed among the three countries and that causally explain the resulting differences in build-out, structure, and technical frameworks? Or, possibly, are the three historical experiences different simply because of the occurrence of a large but cumulative number of unimportant and non-systemic events?

These are the questions that historical sociologist Frank Dobbin poses in his book, Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. He argues that there were significantly different cultures of political and industrial policy in the three countries that led to substantial differences in the ways in which government and business interacted in the development of the railroads. "Each Western nation-state developed a distinct strategy for governing industry" (1). The laissez-faire culture of the United States permitted a few large railroad magnates and corporations to make the crucial decisions about technology, standards, and routes that would govern the development of the rail system. The regulated market culture of Great Britain favored smaller companies and strove to prevent the emergence of a small number of oligopolistic rail companies. And the technocratic civil-service culture of France gave a great deal of power to the engineers and civil servants who were charged to make decisions about technology choice, routes, and standards.

These differences led to systemic differences in the historical implementation of the railroads, the rail networks that were developed, and the regulatory regimes that surrounded them. The U.S. rail network developed as the result of competition among a small number of rail magnates for the most profitable routes. This turned out to favor a few east-west trunk lines connecting urban centers, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. The British rail network gave more influence to municipalities who demanded service; as a result, the network that developed was a more distributed one across a larger number of cities. And the French rail network was rationally designed to conform to the economic and military needs of the French state, with a system of rail routes that largely centered on Paris. These differences are evident in the maps at the top of the posting.

This example illustrates the insights that can be distilled from comparative historical sociology. Dobbin takes a single technology and documents a range of outcomes in the way in which the technology is built out into a national system. And he attempts to isolate the differences in structures and cultures in the three settings that would account for the differences in outcomes. He offers a causal analysis of the development of the technology in the three settings, demonstrating how the mechanism of policy culture imposes effects on the development of the technology. The inherent possibilities represented by the technology intersect with the economic circumstances and the policy cultures of the three national settings, and the result is a set of differentiated organizations and outcomes in the three countries. The analysis is rich in its documentation of the social mechanisms through which policy culture influenced technology development; the logic of his analysis is more akin to process tracing than to the methods of difference and similarity in Mill's methods.

The research establishes several important things. First, it refutes any sort of technological determinism, according to which the technical characteristics of the technology determine the way it will be implemented. To the contrary, Dobbin's work demonstrates the very great degree of contingency that existed in the social implementation of the railroad. Second, it makes a strong case for the idea that an element of culture -- the framework of assumptions, precedents, and institutions defining the "policy culture" of a country -- can have a very strong effect on the development of large social institutions. Dobbin emphasizes the role that things like traditions, customs, and legacies play in the unfolding of important historical developments. And finally, the work makes it clear that these highly contingent pathways of development nonetheless admit of explanation. We can identify the mechanisms and local circumstances that led, in one instance, to a large number of firms and hubs and in the other, a small number of firms and trunk lines.

Objectivity in the social sciences

What is objectivity in social science? What might be meant by the claim that a given theory represents an objective scientific analysis of a range of social phenomena? Debate over the objectivity of social science has often combined a variety of separate theses:
  1. There are social facts that are independent of the concepts and theories of the scientist which the theory is intended to uncover--that is, that there is an objective social world. (ontological objectivity)
  2. It is possible for a theory of a given range of social facts to be well-grounded on the basis of the right sorts of reasons (empirical and theoretical adequacy). (epistemic objectivity)
  3. Social facts are independent of the states of consciousness of participants.
  4. Scientific inquiry can be value-free and interest-neutral.
  5. Scientific inquiry tends to converge around a consensus among all researchers over the properties of the world as a result of further empirical and theoretical research.
Thesis (1) contradicts conceptual relativism. Thesis (2) contradicts a family of underdetermination arguments within the philosophy of science. Thesis (3) divides materialist social science from interpretation theory and verstehen sociology. Thesis (4) upholds the position that it is possible to exclude value commitments from the conduct of science. And thesis (5) asserts that science progresses towards a higher degree of agreement among researchers.

We may dispense quickly with (4). It is unquestionably true that scientific research is interest-relative: what particular features of the social system, what aspects of action, and what causal processes, are selected for scrutiny and explanation, are dependent on the interests--both intellectual and moral--of the investigator. Further, it is plain that scientific reasoning presupposes a set of normative commitments--for example, to the primacy of empirical evidence over religious authority. But Weber's treatment of this issue is convincing; these points do not diminish the objectivity of science in "'Objectivity' in Social Science" (The Methodology Of The Social Sciences). Once having defined the program of research, it is still possible to arrive at an objective analysis of the subject matter.

Thesis (1) represents a general metaphysical view of the social world, in that it asserts the mind-independence of various kinds of social processes, structures, etc. Scientific researc attempts to identify underlying processes, structures, mechanisms, and the like, whose properties explain the observable data. This goal presupposes that social phenomena are the result of a set of causally ordered, objective social processes which the social scientist can discover and map out. (Call this the realism component.) (It might be noted that (1) does not commit one to methodological holism. The objective social facts referred to may well supervene upon facts about individual actions.)

Thesis (2) represents the view that scientific theories are put forward as being justified on the basis of a "scientific method" and not simply personal advocacy, political bias, or one's value perspective. There need to be objective procedures in terms of which to compare competing theories and to provide empirical and logical arguments favoring one such theory over its competitors. (Call this the justification component.)

Thesis (5) represents the view that scientific inquiry progresses towards consensus among members of a given research community, and that this consensus is best explained on the hypothesis that the consensus theory is true, and has been arrived at through reliable procedures of scientific inquiry. (Bernard Williams describes this view briefly in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chapter 8.)

Various combinations of these components of objectivity in social science are possible. For example, Weber appears to affirm (1) and hold that there are social facts; he denies (3), asserting that these facts are "subjective" in the sense that they depend essentially on the states of mind of the persons whose meaningful behavior constitutes them; and he accepts (2), holding that it is possible to offer theoretically and empirically well-grounded descriptions of these facts (Weber, Methodology, chapter 2). Nelson Goodman appears to contradict (1), maintaining that there are as many social worlds as there are schemes of concepts in terms of which to organize and describe experience (Ways of Worldmaking). Such a view is forced to reject (2) as well, since it maintains that there is no uniquely best theory of the world. It would be possible to reject (1) while maintaining (2)--that is, to hold that there is a best social scientific theory of a given range of social phenomena, but deny that such a theory describes an independently existing set of social facts. (For example, Hilary Putnam's anti-realist arguments might illustrate this combination.)

The form of objectivity of social science that I want to defend affirms (1) and (2). Concerning thesis (3), I hold that there is no need to choose between "material" and "subjective" features of the social world. Some social facts may be constituted by the meanings attributed to them by participants, while others may be meaning-independent. And finally, I maintain that the procedures internal to various social science disciplines are sufficient to produce the sort of convergence of theoretical beliefs described in thesis (5) in most concrete historical and social science debates.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Why "philosophy of social science"?

The subject of the philosophy of social science is important but poorly understood. The field considers the most foundational questions about the possibility of scientific knowledge about the social world. What are the scope and limits of scientific knowledge of society? What is involved in arriving at a scientific understanding of society? What are the most appropriate standards for judging proffered social explanations? A philosophy can guide us as we construct a field of knowledge, and it can serve as a set of regulative standards as we conduct and extend that field of knowledge. Philosophy has served both intellectual functions in the past century or two.

The importance of the philosophy of social science derives from two things: first, the urgency and complexity of the challenges posed by the poorly understood social processes that surround us in twenty-first century society, and second, the unsettled status of our understanding of the logic of social science knowledge and explanation. It is as if we were passengers on a technologically complex spacecraft whose propulsion and life support systems we do not fully understand; and further, we have only a limited understanding of the systems of science and engineering on the basis of which these technologies were designed and maintained. We would have a very lively interest in learning the science that explains the workings of the technologies, and in learning the limitations and areas of uncertainty that the relevant sciences include. Likewise, it is important for us to come to a better and more well-grounded understanding of the social, political, and behavioral phenomena that constitute the modern social world. And there are large and unresolved philosophical questions about the logic of social science knowledge and theory on the basis of which to arrive at that understanding.

Contemporary philosophies of social science have focused primarily on contemporary, “mature” social science research and theory. However, philosophies of social science were also relevant in the emergence of the social sciences in the nineteenth century, as idealized schemata for setting the scientific goals that the founders set for themselves. Philosophical ideas about the nature of knowledge and the nature of the social world guided or influenced the founding efforts by such early social researchers as Weber, Durkheim, or Spencer in the formulation of their highest-level assumptions about social processes and their most general assumptions about what a scientific treatment of society ought to look like. So there has been an important back-and-forth between philosophy and the social sciences from the start.

It is useful to attempt to reconstruct the guiding assumptions about the "scientific study of society" that were in the minds of the founders of the social science disciplines and the several generations of philosophers who shaped so much of our current understanding of social science; to expose some of the chief contemporary problems in social science inquiry and explanation today; and to show how this line of intellectual development also suggests some new ways of thinking about social science research and theorizing. The goal is to treat the philosophy of social science, not simply as a sub-discipline of philosophy, but as an active and guiding area of intellectual work intimately bound up in the development of the social sciences.

Philosophy, then, played an active role in the intellectual work done by the creators of sociology as they attempted to frame a "science of society" in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Durkheim, Weber, Marx, the Chicago school of sociology, and the first generation of ethnographers). And I believe we can learn a great deal about how better to understand the contemporary world by attempting to identify the leading assumptions about social scientific knowledge held by the founders of the social sciences. What assumptions about social science knowledge were held by the philosophers who initiated the field, including Comte, Mill, Spencer, and others? How did the development of theories of the "human sciences" within the continental tradition of hermeneutics relate to positivist theories of the social sciences from the Vienna Circle through Popper, Hempel, and Nagel? How did the praxis philosophy of the Frankfurt School change some of the ways we think about the social sciences?

The leading philosophical ideas that have been applied to the social sciences emerged out of these early efforts to make sense of the social world: for example, positivism, naturalism, realism, hermeneutics, individualism, holism, reductionism, falsifiability, materialism, verstehen methodology, feminist epistemology, and causal explanation. Reflection on the leading ideas about the "what and how" of social scientific knowledge will also give us an idea of some of the rethinking that needs to occur in the way that we think about the social sciences in the modern world.

A better understanding of the nature and logic of the social sciences has great practical importance. Just think of the complexity and magnitude of the processes that have been underway in the past fifty years: rapid change in youth culture, ethnic hatred and conflict, full incorporation of most countries into the global economy, terrorism, the emergence of East Asia as a manufacturing super power, population movements, the re-emergence of significant social inequalities within and across countries, new social networks created by the internet, and so on. And these processes are not well understood. We do not have comprehensive theories for which these contemporary processes are a special case—whether “modernization theory,” “world systems theory,” “rational choice theory,” or “theory of exploitation.”

In fact, it is a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the social, to imagine that there might be such theories. Rather, social change is a contingent, multi-threaded social congeries of behavior, institutions, and contingent events, and no single set of comprehensive theories can be expected to explain all these phenomena. These changes are as deep, rapid, and perplexing as those associated with the process of industrialization in nineteenth-century England—and consider how profoundly the experience of Manchester and Birmingham stimulated new sociological thinking in the hands of Engels, Tocqueville, Marx, and the other founders of modern western sociology. So the complexity and opacity of the contemporary social world demands a better understanding of the logic and methods of the social sciences.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Historical populations

Historical demography concerns itself with two families of questions -- factual description of population behavior and explanation of the patterns that are observed. On the descriptive side, historical demographers are concerned with estimating the absolute population size of a group or region -- Tuscany in 1400, New England in 1700, the Anasazi in 1000. And they are interested in measuring the underlying demographic rates -- for example, natality, mortality, age of marriage, nutritional and health status, or sex ratios.

And, to make useful comparisons, these measurements need to be linked to the same variables over time and comparable populations over the same time period. This set of observations permits the discovery of trends and patterns -- steady population growth in group A simultaneous with flat population size in group B; high rate of growth for C during 1700-1750 followed by slow growth in the next 50 years; high population density in agricultural region D compared with low density in agricultural region E.

The descriptive task is a difficult one. But it immediately raises a host of explanatory questions. What are the social mechanisms that conjoin to bring about the complex observed demographic outcomes? Population outcomes are the result of myriad choices by anonymous individuals; and yet the outcomes are highly patterned. The task of explanation arises when we try to make sense of the demographic behavior and outcomes that are discovered. What are the material and social circumstances that explain the trends we observe and the differences that emerge across populations?

Thomas Malthus offered an explanation of large population trends based on both material and social factors: the food-production capacity of the land inhabited and the norms and institutions regulating family formation and child-bearing. Malthus's theories suggest relating population size and growth rates to measures of economic prosperity -- for example, measures of the real wage for farm laborers over time, measures of the fluctuations in availability of jobs, or measures of available land per unit of population. The classic Malthusian argument predicts that population growth will lag economic fluctuation: rising wages encourage higher fertility and falling wages discourage fertility. And if population continues to rise in declining economic circumstances, then eventually mortality will rise -- again suppressing population growth.

Source: Massimo Livi Bacci, A Concise History of World Population, P. 70.

The simple Malthusian theory, then, postulates that population expands to the limit created by available sources of food. So increases in farm productivity and increases in arable land should give rise to an increase in population, whereas a rising population density on a given territory will eventually lead to the "negative" checks of famine and nutrition-based mortality if not pre-empted by the preventive checks of reduced natality.

The question of scale, both temporal and regional, makes a large difference in the explanatory quest. We can frame the question of group demographic behavior from the micro- to the macro-levels -- from a handful of Alpine villages in the 16th century (population 5000) to the Yangzi delta in the 18th century (population 300 million). Micro-trends may have a different explanations than macro-trends.

It might be maintained that the Malthusian theory is only well-suited to the largest scale: large territory and long timeframe. In the longterm it is almost tautological to observe that a population will expand to the limits created by environmental resources. But long before those limits are approached, there is ample space for the workings of social arrangements to modulate population behavior. Alternative economic and demographic institutions create different demographic profiles. Birth spacing (reflecting family choices and cultural values) can dramatically influence total fertility. Technologies of birth control -- both traditional and modern -- can move a population from high-fertility to medium- or low-fertility. So historical demography requires social explanation based on discovery of concrete and specific institutions in local circumstances, not simply broad-brush hypotheses about resource limits.

Recent studies of population behavior across the expanse of Eurasia confirm this point. The Eurasian Demography Project finds that there is a wide range of demograhic patterns across the locales of Eurasia, from Finland to Italy to China to Japan. And the Malthusian picture works only at the coarsest level; in particular, it turns out that the Chinese population did not teeter on the edge of Malthusian crisis.

(See Eurasian Historical Comparisons for more on the Eurasian Demography Project.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A range of causal questions

In considering important issues in the philosophy of the special sciences, I think it is always helpful to consider a variety of the kinds of intellectual challenges that arise in the area. This gives the philosopher something to work with -- not simply an apriori specification of an issue, but a nuanced set of examples.

So if we are interested in causal reasoning in the social sciences, we ought to pay attention to the kinds of causal questions that social scientists actually want to answer. Let's consider a range of causal questions that have arisen within historical and comparative sociology. In considering these examples, we should reflect on the types of analysis that would provide a satisfactory response to the question, and also the modes of research that would support an empirical response to the question.
  • What causes ethnic violence (Horowitz 1985)?
  • What caused ethnic violence in Rwanda?
  • What caused twentieth-century revolutions (Wolf 1969)?
  • What caused the Nicaraguan revolution?
  • Why did revolution unfold as it did in the Canton Delta in 1911 (Hsieh 1974)?
  • What factors enhance the likelihood of successful democratization (Przeworski 1991; Przeworski et al. 1996)?
  • What causes urban residential segregation (Schelling 1978)?
  • What causes political corruption (Klitgaard 1988)?
  • What factors explain the success or failure of anti-corruption reforms (Klitgaard 1988)?
  • What factors explain the East Asian economic miracle (Vogel 1991)?
  • Why are there more violent crimes per 1000 in the US than Western Europe?
  • Why was the political party of labor more successful in the UK than the US (Przeworski 1985)?
  • Why is infant mortality significantly lower in Sri Lanka than Brazil or Egypt (Drèze and Sen 1989, 1995)?
  • Why do millenarian cults occur in the post-colonial world (Adas 1979)?
  • Why was agricultural technology stagnant in late imperial China (Elvin 1973)?
  • Why are rural people more politically conservative than urban people?
  • Why do social tastes and styles change as they do (Lieberson 2000)?
  • Why did the name “Joshua” lose frequency in the United States in the 1990s (Lieberson 2000)?
  • Why did the New England Patriots win the 2003 Super Bowl (Lieberson 1997)?
  • Why did the political culture of corporations remain powerful among French workers in the 19th century (Sewell 1980)?
  • Why did the heavy wheeled plough diffuse in the geographical pattern that it did in medieval France (Bloch 1966)?
  • How did the socialist and republican parties of Spain mobilize the lower working class in support of their programs?
  • How did the Solidarity Movement in Poland preserve its organization in face of state repression in the 1980s?
  • Was the fact of skewed sex ratios in rural China a necessary condition for the occurrence of banditry and rebellion? Was this fact a contributing condition?
  • Why was there no broad-based militant movement of the poor in the United States during the Great Depression?
  • Why do restaurants commonly add a gratuity of 18% for parties of 6 or more?
We can learn a great deal about causal inquiry by reflecting briefly on a number of these examples. There is a common thread among these examples, in that each topic directs inquiry towards the question, “What are the causal conditions that give rise to a given social or historical outcome?” But there are a number of important differences among these examples as well. Some are about a category of outcome (“twentieth-century revolution” or “ethnic violence”), whereas others are about a historically specific outcome (the Nicaraguan revolution, the Rwandan genocide, the 2003 Super Bowl). Some are about large and publicly salient events, structures, and mentalities (states, revolutions, political cultures); others are about small-scale and unnoticed social characteristics (the frequency of first names). And there are numerous other nuances that emerge from consideration of these examples.

In each case it is a promising research strategy to attempt to discover the underlying social mechanisms that give rise to the outcome -- none of these examples suggests a purely statistical approach to the problem. So inquiry into the "microfoundations" of the causal relations that are uncovered is needed. And second, many of these examples suggest research approaches that make use of the methods of comparative historical sociology and case-study methodology. The techniques of "process-tracing" and small-N comparison of cases should help to arrive at empirically supportable theories of the causal relations that underlie these groups of phenomena.

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