Saturday, January 31, 2009

Modernism and social life

painting: Georges Braque, Woman with a Guitar (1913)
Image: Mexico City slum
Modernity is remarkably hard to define or capture. We might try this ostensive definition: it is the culture, mental framework, and social reality of the world created by the industrial revolution, mass society, urban life, and mass literacy and communication. It is the world of anonymous social relations, the market as a central social reality, the rational-bureaucratic state, and mass public opinion. It is what came after "the world we have lost" (Peter Laslett's evocative phrase in The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age) -- the pre-modern world of direct, face-to-face social relations, powerful religious beliefs, traditional regulation of village society, and very low levels of mobility for the individual. Stability, continuity, locality, and legible social relations capture the pre-modern world. And the modern world overturns each of these. English critic (and blogger before his time) Thomas Carlyle saw it coming -- and he didn't care for it. Here are some of his descriptions of the social reality coming to England in the 1820s in Past and Present:
The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvests; thick-studded with work-shops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers, understood to be the strongest, the cunningest, and the willingest our Earth ever had ... and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, "Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master-idlers; none of you can touch it, no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!" (Book I, ch. 1) But, it is said, our religion is gone: we no longer believe in St. Edmund, no longer see the figure of him "on the rim of the sky," minatory or confirmatory? God's absolute Laws, sanctioned by an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell, have become Moral Philosophies, sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss, by weak considerations of Pleasures of Virtue and the Moral Sublime. (Book III, ch. 1)
And in fact, I think the task of making sense of a rapidly changing social reality was as stunning in the 1840s as it is today -- Karl Marx, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Herzen, Friedrich Engels, and Mikhail Bakunin all turned their imaginations and their critical abilities to the task of conceptualizing the changes that were sweeping across Europe and the globe in the first part of the nineteenth century. (Steven Marcus does a good job of capturing the cognitive and imaginative challenge faced by reflective observers in the early nineteenth century in Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class.) So how can sociologists, historians, or artists and poets help us understand the nature of modernity? The cacophony of the modern city is one powerful metaphor for the nature of the social modern. So the sociology of the city is a good place to start. And the jangled, fractured canvases of modernist painting evoke the conflicting, overlapping mentalities of the modern world; so perhaps we can learn something about the nature of modernity from reflective art historians. Here is how art historian T. J. Clark reflects on the meaning of "modernity" in his spectacular book, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism.
"Modernity" means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future -- of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information. This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitizing of the imagination. Without ancestor-worship, meaning is in short supply -- "meaning" here meaning agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding, implicit orders, stories and images in which a culture crystallizes its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the reality of pain and death. The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, "the disenchantment of the world," still seems to me to sum up this side of modernity best. (7) "Secularization" is a nice technical word for this blankness. It means specialization and abstraction; social life driven by a calculus of large-scale statistical chances, with everyone accepting (or resenting) a high level of risk; time and space turned into variables in that same calculus, both of them saturated by "information" and played with endlessly, monotonously, on nets and screens; the de-skilling of everyday life (deference to experts and technicians in more of the microstructure of the self); available, invasive, haunting expertise; the chronic revision of everything in the light of "studies." I should say straightaway that this cluster of features seems to be tied to, and propelled by, one central process: the accumulation of capital, and the spread of capitalist markets into more and more of the world and the texture of human dealings. (7) Is it not the case that the truly new, and disorienting, character of modernity is its seemingly being driven by merely material, statistical, tendential, "economic" considerations? We know we are living a new form of life, in which all previous notions of belief and sociability have been scrambled. And the true terror of this new order has to do with its being ruled -- and obscurely felt to be ruled -- by sheer concatenation of profit and loss, bids and bargains: that is, by a system without any focusing purpose to it, or any compelling image or ritualization of that purpose. It is the blindness of modernity that seems to me fundamental, and to which modernism is a response. (8)
painting: Pablo Picasso, The Poet (1911)
And what about the city? How does the sociology of the city shed light on the cultural reality of the modern world? The modern city represented a coming-together of many of the currents of social change that constituted the heterogeneous mix of "modernity." A large and disconnected population, substantial inequalities, civic anonymity, alienation, bureaucratic administration, modern policing and public services, street cars, and a virtual absence of overarching social solidarity conjoined to create a jangled social configuration with the angular properties of a modernist portrait. An earlier posting focused on Engels's sociology of the city. But here is how Georg Simmel puts it in "The Metropolis and Modern Life":
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. This antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man's freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression of all competition -- but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being leveled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.
The Chicago School of sociology is particularly on target when it comes to understanding "modernity", given its strong emphasis on understanding the social reality of Chicago as a turbulent, jangled social reality. (See Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Clemens and Ann Shola Orloff, eds., Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology (Politics, History, and Culture), for some very thoughtful discussions of the study of "modernity" by contemporary historical sociologists.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

France as a "nation"

source: Emmanuel Todd, The Making of Modern France: Politics, Ideology and Culture (Blackwell, 1991)

Is France one nation? What makes it so? And what are the large socio-cultural factors that led to modern France? These are the questions that Emmanuel Todd raises in The Making of Modern France: Ideology, Politics and Culture. Todd is one of this generation's leading historians in France, and his conception of the challenge of history is worth studying. I would call him a "macro-historian", in that he is interested in large processes of change over extended stretches of space (for example, the extension of industry across the map of France from 1850 to 1970, or the patterns of religious dissent from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries), and he singles out characteristics of family structure, demography, literacy, and religion as a set of causal factors that explain the patterns of historical change that he uncovers.

Todd's starting point seems exactly right to me: the "nation" is not a particularly salient level of analysis for making sense of large historical change. Social, economic, and political developments should not be presumed to unfold at the level of the nation. He puts forward a simple but apt criterion for choosing a level of analysis for historical inquiry: "one has to observe the social and economic behaviour of the human beings in question and discover their scale in order to define closed and homogeneous groups which then can be called society X or economy Y" (7). And in fact, he argues that "France" is better understood as a configuration of regions and zones than as an integrated national system. As he puts the point, "one can represent France as a heterogeneous and open area in which social, economic and political forces emerge, spread and establish themselves quite independently of the central power and of the overall national structure" (8). And: "Notions of 'French society', 'French economy', 'French industry', 'French working class' are to some extent myths" (7). (It is interesting to observe that this is one of G. William Skinner's central insights into Chinese history as well, especially in his analysis of the historical relevance of "macroregions" in China. Here's an earlier post on Skinner's work.)

So what are the patterns and causal factors that have given rise to "modern France" in Todd's reckoning? Crudely, Todd argues that there are large regional patterns of culture, demography, and property that created distinct dynamics of change across eight centuries of French history. The southern half of France is characterized by complex family systems with several generations in the same household and a low rate of reproduction, in contrast to the nuclear families of the north and their higher rate of reproduction. The family values of the southern region gave greater importance to literacy and education than the nuclear (and larger) families of the north. And family structure, patterns of inheritance, and land tenure are in turn highly relevant to the formation of large patterns of ideology. (A similar logic is expressed in another of Todd's books, The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems (Family, Sexuality and Social Relations in Past Times).)

The central analytical device in Todd's argument is a fascinating series of maps of France coding the 90 départements of France by such variables as the percent of women holding the baccalauréat, the percentage of priests accepting the serment constitutionnel (revolutionary loyalty oath) in 1791, or the percentage of workers in a given industrial sector. The maps display striking geographical patterns documenting Todd's interpretation of the large historical patterns and their underlying anthropological and geographical causes. At the largest scale, he argues for three axes of historical causation: a north-south axis defined by family structure that creates differentials of literacy and population growth; an east-west axis defined by the diffusion of industry from northern Europe into eastern France and across the map from east to west; and a political pattern different from both of these, extending from Paris at the political center to the periphery in all directions. The following is a great example; Todd is interested in observing the degree of "religiosity" across France around the time of the Revolution, and he uses the percentage of priests who accepted the oath of allegiance demanded by the Revolutionary government as a measure. The resulting map reveals conspicuous patterns; the periphery and the south stand out as non-conformist.

Todd also argues that there is a causal order among the large social factors he singles out. Family structure is causally relevant to literacy and education level; literacy is relevant to religious dissent and the emergence of Cathars, Waldensians, and Protestants; family structure is relevant to reproductive rates which are in turn relevant to the spread of industry; and traditions of inheritance are relevant to a region's receptiveness to the ideology of the Revolution. And the patterns created by these causal processes are very persistent; so the southern belt of high-literacy départements of the twelfth century coincides almost exactly with the pattern of high incidence of baccalauréats and doctors in the late twentieth century.

A particularly interesting part of Todd's analysis for me is his effort to map out the agrarian regimes of pre-revolutionary France (the ancien régime). He observes that this hasn't been done by existing studies of French rural society, and that there is no suitable statistical data on the basis of which to do so for the eighteenth century in any case. However, he makes use of the first census in 1851 to infer back a century in order to arrive at an analysis into four categories: large estates with hired labor, peasant proprietorship, tenant farming, and share-cropping. And using the mid-nineteenth century census data he constructs this map:

Note that the large estates are concentrated in the center of France, including Paris; while peasant proprietorship (sometimes combined with share-cropping) predominates in the southern tier. Note as well how closely these patterns conform to the distribution of family structure and fertility at the top of the posting. And Todd argues that these patterns showed substantial continuity before and after the Revolution (61). In other words, there is a very substantial overlap between agrarian regimes and the anthropological-demographic patterns discussed earlier. Todd then uses these geographical patterns to explain something different: the pattern of de-christianization that took place over the century following the Revolution. Basically, de-christianization is associated with the regions involving a large number of landless workers, whereas this cultural process was least virulent in regions of peasant proprietorship. Todd summarizes this way:
The link between family and agrarian system will help us to understand why dechristianization gained ground, from 1791 onwards, in regions of large farms and share-cropping, and met with resistance in provinces where tenant farming and peasant proprietorship were predominant. This proposition can, moreover, be reformulated thanks to equivalences between family types and agrarian systems. Dechristianization spread in regions where the family structure was egalitarian nuclear or community, but failed in provinces where the family was stem or absolute nuclear.
In other words -- an explanation of ideology and religion in terms of a set of demographic and social characteristics that are distributed differentially across regions.

I haven't touched on the dynamics of politics at all here, which is an important piece of Todd's work. But these comments suffice to illustrate the pattern of historical thinking represented by Todd's work. It is striking for its effort to cross genres, incorporating geography, anthropology, and sociology into the formation of large interpretations of French history. And it is striking for the scale of the canvas that he attempts to paint.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Great structures?

The scholars of the Annales school of French history characteristically placed their analysis of historical change within the context of the large structures -- economic, social, or demographic -- within which ordinary people live out their lives. They postulate that the broad and enduring social relations that exist in a society -- for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system -- constitute a stable structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure create the conditions that set the stage for historical change in the society. (The recently translated book by André Burguière provides an excellent discussion of the Annales school; The Annales School: An Intellectual History.)

The Annales school also put forward a concept that applies to the temporal structure of historical change: the idea that some historical changes unfold over very long periods of time and are all but invisible to participants -- the history of the longue durée. So large enduring structures, applying their effects over very long periods of historical time, provided a crucial part of the historical imagination of the Annales school.

Marc Bloch's own treatment of French feudalism illustrates a sustained analysis of a group of great structures enduring centuries over much of the territory of France (Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence), as does Le Roy Ladurie's treatment of the causes of change and stasis in Languedoc in The Peasants of Languedoc. Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life represents another clear example of historical research organized around analysis of great structures. And though not a member of the Annales school, I would include M. I. Finley's treatment of the ancient economy as another important example (The Ancient Economy); Finley attempts to trace out the features of property, economy, and political and military power through which ordinary life and historical change proceeded in the ancient world. But there is an important difference among the several works: Bloch, Braudel, and Finley represent an analysis of these structures as a whole, while Le Roy Ladurie's work largely attempts to explain features of life over a very long time that show the imprint of such structures. One is macrohistory, while the other is microhistory.

What are some examples of putative “great structures”? There are several that readily come to mind: a nation's economic system, its system of law, legislation, and enforcement; its system of government, taxation, and policy-making, its educational system, religious organizations and traditions, the composite system of organizations that exist within civil society, and the norms and relations of the family.

The scope of action matters here; the background assumption is that a great structure encompasses a large population and territory. (So we would not call the specific marriage customs that govern a small group of Alpine villages but extend no further a "great structure.") And it is further assumed that the hypothesized structure possesses a high degree of functional continuity and integration; there are assumed to be concrete social processes that assure that the structure works in roughly the same way throughout its scope to regulate behavior.

The idea of a "great structure" thus requires that we attend to the contrast between locally embodied institutions showing significant variation across time and space, and the supposedly more homogeneous workings of "great structures." We need to be able to provide an account of the extended social mechanisms that establish the effects and stability of the great structure. If we cannot validate these assumptions about scope, continuity, and functional similarity, then the concept of a "great structure" collapses onto a concatenation of vaguely similar institutions in different times and places.

To fit the bill, then, a great structure should have some specific features of scope and breadth. It should be geographically widespread, affecting a large population. It should have roughly similar characteristics and effects on behavior in the full range of its scope. And it should be persistent over an extended period of time -- decades or longer.

The most basic question is this: are there great structures? On the positive side, it is possible to identify social mechanisms that secure the functional stability of certain institutions over a large reach of territory and time. A system of law is enforced by the agents of the state; so it is reasonable to assume that there will be similar legal institutions in Henan and Sichuan when there is an effective imperial government. A system of trading and credit may have centrally enforced and locally reinforcing mechanisms that assure that it works similarly in widely separated places. A normative system regulating marriage may be stabilized by local behaviors over a wide space. The crucial point here is simply this: if we postulate that a given structure has scope over a wide range, we need to have a theory of some of the social mechanisms that convey its power and its reproduction over time.

So the existence of great structures is ambiguous. Yes—in that there are effective institutions of politics, economics, and social life that are real and effectual within given historical settings, and we have empirical understanding of some of the mechanisms that reproduce these structures. But no—in that all social structures are historically rooted; so there is no “essential” state or economy which recurs in different settings. Instead, political and economic structures may be expected to evolve in different historical settings. And a central task of historical research is to discover both the unifying dynamics and the differentiating expressions which these abstract processes take in different historical settings.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Everyday social interactions

It is apparent that there are patterns in the ordinary social interactions between individuals in various societies. Whether and how to greet an acquaintance or a stranger, how close people stand together, how loudly people speak, what subjects they turn to in idle social conversation, how conflict is handled -- all of these topics and more seem to have specific and nuanced answers in various specific social environments. And it seems likely enough that there are persistent differences at this level of social behavior across cities, gender, race, and class.

So is there room for social science in this domain of social behavior? And what sorts of concepts and theories help us in trying to characterize this type of social behavior?

On the first question, there is no doubt that there are researchers and traditions that have addressed exactly these sorts of questions. Erving Goffman's writings are most directly relevant (for example, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings), and urban anthropologists and sociologists are often interested in micro-descriptions of social behaviors as well -- for example, William Foote Whyte's Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum or Elliott Liebow's Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men.

Here is one of Goffman's descriptions of his goals:
By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life -- that of behavior in public and sempublic places. Although this has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.

Sociology does not provide a ready framework that can order these data, let alone show comparisons and continuities with behavior in private gathering places such as offices, factory floors, living rooms, and kitchens. To be sure, one part of "collective behavior" -- riots, crowds, panics -- has been established as something to study. But the remaining part of the area, the study of ordinary human traffic and the patterning of ordinary social contacts, has been little considered. ... It is the object of this report to try to develop such a framework. (Behavior in Public Places, 3-4)
The school of ethnomethodology also attempts to provide this kind of detailed observation and description. This approach is illustrated, for example, by Harold Garfinkel's descriptions of the procedures embodied in the practices of professional accountants or lawyers in Studies in Ethnomethodology. A major objective of the method is to arrive at an interpretation of the rules that underlie everyday activity and thus constitute part of the normative basis of a given social order. Research from this perspective generally focuses on mundane forms of social activity--e.g. psychiatrists evaluating patients' files, jurors deliberating on defendants' culpability, or coroners judging cause of death. The investigator then attempts to reconstruct an underlying set of rules and ad hoc procedures that may be taken to have guided the observed activity. The approach emphasizes the contextuality of social practice--the richness of unspoken shared understandings that guide and orient participants' actions in a given practice or activity.

So there is quite a bit of work in anthropology and sociology that chooses to provide careful observation and description of concrete social behavior.

But there is a more fundamental question to ask: in what sense is this research scientific? What would a scientific study of the patterns of face-to-face social behavior need to provide? And why would this subject be of genuine interest from a scientific point of view?

One feature that stands out in the work of Goffman, Whyte, Liebow, or Garfinkel is the commitment of these observers to careful, detailed observation and description of social behavior. They are interested in capturing the nuances of ordinary behavior, and their research reports give a great deal of emphasis to the importance of providing detailed descriptions of ordinary social interactions. And in fact, it seems very reasonable to say that this body of descriptions is itself scientifically valuable and intellectually challenging, perhaps in some of the ways that the careful observations and descriptions produced by Darwin or Wallace in the Galapagos or Malaysia are scientifically important. Here the standard of scientific value is empirical: it is very important for the observer to "get it right" -- to accurately observe and record the fine differences in behavior that are embedded in the social contexts that are observed. (See an earlier posting on the subject of descriptive social science.)

But we can also discern a second scientific objective at work in these kinds of writings, either directly or indirectly -- the goal of arriving at an explanation of the patterns of behavior that are uncovered through this micro-descriptive work. Any body of phenomena that demonstrates consistent patterns over time is potentially of scientific interest, because the observable patterns imply an underlying causal order that ought to be discoverable. And this is the more true if there are stable differences in the patterns across contexts. If there are very specific patterns of behavior in these mundane situations of social encounter, how are we to explain that fact? What sort of structure or fact could count as a cause of these patterns of behavior?

One particularly appealing approach to explanation in these circumstances is to make an inference from behavior to rules that is familiar from Chomsky's view of generative linguistics -- from patterned behavior to the underlying "grammar" or system of rules and mental paradigms that produces it. So we might go a bit beyond Goffman's own description of his work, and say that his detailed descriptions of social behavior invite him to reconstruct the underlying and psychologically real set of rules that "generate" the behavior. Here we are invited to consider the social actor as possessing a "grammar" of ordinary behavior that guides the production of actions in specified circumstances. And in fact this interpretation of the intellectual project of this work seems pretty consistent with Garfinkel's approaches.

There is a third angle that one might take on this work -- that it is a part of "interpretive" social science; that the descriptive work is an effort to provide an interpretation of the meanings of the actions described. This doesn't seem quite right in application to the works mentioned here, however. Goffman's work or Whyte's descriptions aren't exactly hermeneutic; instead, they are guided by an effort to discern and capture the smallest nuances of behavior, with an eye to discovering the underlying rules that appear to generate the behavior. The orientation of the work is not so much directed to underlying meanings as it is to underlying rules.

In short, it seems to me that the careful observation and description of the subtle complexities of ordinary social behavior is in fact a valuable contribution to a scientific understanding of the social world -- even though it is primarily descriptive. The patterns of behavior that Goffman, White, or Liebow document are a genuine and novel contribution to our knowledge of the concrete social world. And these contributions to descriptive sociology can be fitted into next-generation efforts to provide explanatory contexts that would make sense of the patterns that these researchers document.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Habits, plans, and improvisation

How does thought figure in our ordinary actions and plans? To what extent are our routine actions the result of deliberation and planning, and to what extent do we function on auto-pilot and habit?

It is clear that much of one's daily activity is habitual: routine actions and social responses that reflect little internal deliberation and choice. Habitual behavior comes into all aspects of life -- daily morning routines (exercise, shower, choose a tie, make a fast breakfast), routine work activities (turn on the computer, check the email account, riffle through the paperwork in the inbox, review the morning's business reports), and routine social contacts (greet the co-worker in the parking lot, gossip about the local news with the admin assistant, laugh about a lopsided weekend football score with a faculty colleague).

Particularly interesting is the last category of behavior -- the fairly specific modes of interaction we've learned in response to typical social situations. What do you do if you bump into a person with your shoulder at a buffet line? How do you respond to a person who greets you familiarly but whom you don't know? How do you interact with your boss, your peer, and your subordinate? How do you queue with other passengers when exiting a crowded airplane? When do you make a joke in a small group, and when is it better to keep quiet? In these and hundreds of other stereotyped social encounters we have learned stylized ways of behaving, so when the occasion arises we slip into habitual gear. And it seems certain that there are highly patterned differences in the repertoires of social habits associated with different cultures and sub-cultures -- how to greet, how to handle minor conflicts, how to comport oneself. These repertoires of habits and stereotyped behavioral scenarios are an important component of the "culture" we wear.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on how habits are socially and psychologically embodied, and to consider whether this is an avenue through which social differences among groups are maintained. (This topic parallels earlier postings on local cultures and practices.)

What is "habitual" about these forms of behavior is the idea that they seem to be learned patterns of response, involving little reflection or deliberation. They become small "programs" of behavior that we have internalized through past experience; and they are invoked by the shuffling of the cards of ordinary experience. It is as if the "action executive" of the mind consults a library of routines and deploys a relevant series of behaviors in the context of a particular social environment.

But of course, not all action is habitual. The opposite end of the spectrum includes both deliberation and improvisation. These categories themselves are different from each other. Deliberation involves explicit consideration of one's goals, the opportunities that are currently available within the environment of choice, and the pro's and con's of the various choices. Deliberation results in deliberate, planned choice. This represents the category of agency that is partially captured by rational choice theory: deliberate analysis of means and ends, and a calculating choice among possible actions. Planning is an extended version of this process, in which the actor attempts to orchestrate a series of actions and responses in such a way as to bring about a longterm goal.

Improvisation differs from both habit and deliberation. Improvisation is a creative response to a current and changing situation. It involves intelligent, fluid adaptation to the current situation, and seems more intuitive than analytical. The skilled basketball player displays improvisational intelligence as he changes his dribble, stutter-steps around a defender, switches hands, and passes to a teammate streaking under the basket for the score. At each moment there are shifting opportunities that appear and disappear as defenders lose their man, teammates slip into view, and the shot clock winds down. This series of actions is unplanned but non-habitual, and it displays an important aspect of situational intelligence. Bourdieu captures a lot of this aspect of intelligent behavior in his concept of habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Unintended consequences

International relations studies offer plentiful examples of the phenomenon of unintended consequences -- for example, wars that break out unexpectedly because of actions taken by states to achieve their security, or financial crises that erupt because of steps taken to avert them. (The recent military escalations in Pakistan and India raise the specter of unintended consequences in the form of military conflict between the two states.) But technology development, city planning, and economic development policy all offer examples of the occurrence of unintended consequences deriving from complex plans as well.

Putting the concept schematically -- an actor foresees an objective to be gained or an outcome to be avoided. The actor creates a plan of action designed to achieve the objective or avert the undesired outcome. The plan is based on a theory of the causal and social processes that govern the domain in question and the actions that other parties may take. The plan of action, however, also creates an unforeseen or unintended series of developments that lead to a result that is contrary to the actor's original intentions.

It's worth thinking about this concept a bit. An unintended consequence is different than simply an undesired outcome; a train wreck or a volcano is not an unintended consequence, but rather simply an unfortunate event. Rather, the concept fits into the framework of intention and purposive action. An unintended consequence is a result that came about because of deliberate actions and policies that were set in train at an earlier time -- so an unintended consequence is the result of deliberate action. But the outcome is not one of the goals to which the plan or action was directed; it is "unintended". In other words, analysis of the concept of unintended consequences fits into what we might call the "philosophy of complex action and planning." (Unlikely as this sub-specialty of philosophy might sound, here's a good example of a work in this field by Michael Bratman, Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Robert Merton wrote about the phenomenon of unintended consequences quite a bit, based on his analysis of the relationships between policy and social science knowledge, in Social Theory and Social Structure.)

But there is also an element of paradox in our normal uses of the concept of an unintended consequence -- the suggestion that plans of action often contain elements that work out to defeat them. The very effort to bring about X creates a dynamic that frustrates the achievement of X. This is suggested by the phrase, the "law of unintended consequences." (I think this is what Hegel refers to as the cunning of reason.)

There is an important parallel between unintended and unforeseen consequences, but they are not the same. A harmful outcome may have occurred precisely because because it was unforeseen -- it might have been easily averted if the planner had been aware of it as a possible consequence. An example might be the results of the inadvertent distribution of a contaminant in the packaging of a food product. But it is also possible that an undesired outcome is both unintended but also fully foreseen. An example of this possibility is the decision of state legislators to raise the speed limit to 70 mph. Good and reliable safety statistics make it readily apparent that the accident rate will rise. Nonetheless the officials may reason that the increase in efficiency and convenience more than offsets the harm of the increase in the accident rate. In this case the harmful result is unintended but foreseen. (This is the kind of situation where cost-benefit analysis is brought to bear.)

Is it essential to the idea of unintended consequences that the outcome in question be harmful or undesirable? Or is the category of "beneficial unintended consequence" a coherent one? There does seem to be an implication that the unintended consequence is one that the actor would have avoided if possible, so a beneficial unintended consequence violates this implicature. But I suppose we could imagine a situation like this: a city planner sets out to design a park that will give teenagers a place to play safely, increase the "green" footprint of the city, and draw more families to the central city. Suppose the plan is implemented and each goal is achieved. But it is also observed that the rate of rat infestation in surrounding neighborhoods falls dramatically -- because the park creates habitat for voracious rat predators. This is an unintended but beneficial consequence. And full knowledge of this dynamic would not lead the planner to revise the plan to remove this feature.

The category of "unintended but foreseen consequences" is easy to handle from the point of view of rational planning. The planner should design the plan so as to minimize avoidable bad consequences; then do a cost-benefit analysis to assess whether the value of the intended consequences outweighs the harms associated with the unintended consequences.

The category of consequences of a plan that are currently unforeseen is more difficult to handle from the point of view of rational decision-making. Good planning requires that the planner make energetic efforts to canvass the consequences the plan may give rise to. But of course it isn't possible to discover all possible consequences of a line of action; so the possibility always exists that there will be persistent unforeseen negative consequences of the plan. The most we can ask, it would seem, is that the planner should exercise due diligence in exploring the most likely collateral consequences of the plan. And we might also want the planner to incorporate some sort of plan for "soft landings" in cases where unforeseen negative consequences do arise.

Finally, is there a "law of unintended consequences", along the lines of something like this:
"No matter how careful one is in estimating the probable consequences of a line of action, there is a high likelihood that the action will produce harmful unanticipated consequences that negate the purpose of the action."
No; this statement might be called "reverse teleology" or negative functionalism, and certainly goes further than empirical experience or logic would support. The problem with this statement is the inclusion of the modifier "high likelihood". Rather, what we can say is this:
"No matter how careful one is in estimating the probable consequences of a line of action, there is the residual possibility that the action will produce harmful unanticipated consequences that negate the purpose of the action."
And this statement amounts to a simple, prudent observation of theoretical modesty: we can't know all the possible results of an action undertaken. Does the possibility that any plan may have unintended harmful consequences imply that we should not act? Certainly not; rather, it implies that we should be as ingenious as possible in trying to anticipate at least the most likely consequences of the contemplated actions. And it suggests the wisdom of action plans that make allowances for soft landings rather than catastrophic failures.

(Writers about the morality of war make quite a bit about the moral significance of consequences of action that are unintended but foreseen. Some ethicists refer to the principle of double effect, and assert that moral responsibility attaches differently to intended versus unintended but foreseen consequences. The principles of military necessity and proportionality come into the discussion at this point. There is an interesting back-and-forth about the doctrine of double effect in the theory of just war in relation to Gaza on Crooked Timber and Punditry.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Image: Artillery, 1911. Roger de La Fresnaye. Metropolitan Museum, New York

In general I'm skeptical about the ability of the social sciences to offer predictions about future social developments. (In this respect I follow some of the instincts of Oskar Morgenstern in On the Accuracy of Economic Observations.) We have a hard time answering questions like these:
  • How much will the first installment of TARP improve the availability of credit within three months?
  • Will the introduction of UN peacekeeping units reduce ethnic killings in the Congo?
  • Will the introduction of small high schools improve student performance in Chicago?
  • Will China develop towards more democratic political institutions in the next twenty years?
  • Will American cities witness another round of race riots in the next twenty years?
However, the situation isn't entirely negative, and there certainly are some social situations for which we can offer predictions in at least a probabilistic form. Here are some examples:
  • The unemployment rate in Michigan will exceed 10% sometime in the next six months.
  • Coalition casualties in the Afghanistan war will be greater in 2009 than in 2008.
  • Illinois Governor Blogojevich will leave office within six months.
  • Germany will be the world leader in solar energy research by 2020 (link).
  • The Chinese government will act strategically to prevent emergence of regional independent labor organizations.
It is worth exploring the logic and function of prediction for a few lines. Fundamentally, it seems that prediction is related to the effort to forecast the effects of interventions, the trajectory of existing trends, and the likely strategies of powerful social actors. We often want to know what will be the net effect of introducing X into the social environment. (For example, what effect on economic development would result from a region's succeeding in increasing the high school graduation rate from 50% to 75%?) We may find it useful to project into the future some social trends that can be observed in the present. (Demographers' prediction that the United States will be a "majority-minority" population by 2042 falls in this category (link).) And we can often do quite a bit of rigorous reasoning about the likely actions of leaders, policy makers, and other powerful actors given what we know about their objectives and their beliefs. (We can try to forecast the outcome of the current impasse between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas by analyzing the strategic interests of both sets of decision-makers and the constraints to which they must respond.)

So the question is, what kinds of predictions can we make in the social realm? And what circumstances limit our ability to predict?

Predictions about social phenomena are based on a couple of basic modes of reasoning:
  • extrapolation of current trends
  • modeling of causal hypotheses about social mechanisms and structures
  • reasoning about strategic actions likely to be taken by actors
  • derivation of future states of a system from a set of laws
And predictions can be presented in a range of levels of precision, specificity, and confidence:
  • prediction of a single event or outcome: the selected social system will be in state X at time T.
  • prediction of the range within which a variable will fall: the selected social variable will fall within a range Q ±20%.
  • prediction of the range of outcome scenarios that are most likely: "Given current level of unrest, rebellion 60%, everyday resistance 30%, resolution 10%"
  • prediction of the direction of change: the variable of interest will increase/decrease over the specified time period
  • prediction of the distribution of properties over a group of events/outcomes. X percent of interventions will show improvement of variable Y.
Here are some particular obstacles to reliable predictions in the social realm:
  • unquantifiable causal hypotheses -- "small schools improve student performance". How large is the effect? How does it weigh in relation to other possible causal factors?
  • indeterminate interaction effects -- how will school policy changes interact with rising unemployment to jointly influence school attendance and performance?
  • open causal fields. What other currently unrecognized causal factors are in play?
  • the occurrence of unpredictable exogenous events or processes (outbreak of disease)
  • ceteris paribus conditions. These are frequently unsatisfied.
So where does all this leave us with respect to social predictions? A few points seem relatively clear.

Specific prediction of singular events and outcomes seems particularly difficult: the collapse of the Soviet Union, China's decision to cross the Yalu River in the Korean War, or the onset of the Great Depression were all surprises to the experts.

Projection of stable trends into the near future seems most defensible -- though of course we can give many examples of discontinuities in previously stable trends. Projection of trends over medium- and long-term is more uncertain -- given the likelihood of intervening changes of structure, behavior, and environment that will alter the trends over the extended time.

Predictions of limited social outcomes, couched in terms of a range of possibilities attached to estimates of probabilities and based on analysis of known causal and strategic processes, also appear defensible. The degree of confidence we can have in such predictions is limited by the possibility of unrecognized intervening causes and processes.

The idea of forecasting the total state of a social system given information about the current state of the system and a set of laws of change is entirely indefensible. This is unattainable; societies are not systems of variables linked by precise laws of transition.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A better social ontology

I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions – states, for example, or labor unions. (W. V. O. Quine’s metaphor of the bushes shaped to look like elephants comes to mind here; Word and Object.)

So the rule for the social world is – heterogeneity, contingency, and plasticity. And the metaphysics associated with classical thinking about the natural world – laws of nature, common, unchanging structures, and predictable processes of change – do not provide appropriate metaphors for our understandings and expectations of the social world. Nor do they suggest the right kinds of social science theories and constructs.

Instead of naturalism, I suggest an approach to social science theorizing that emphasizes agency, contingency, and plasticity in the makeup of social facts. It recognizes that there is a degree of pattern in social life – but emphasizes that these patterns fall far short of the regularities associated with laws of nature. It emphasizes contingency of social processes and outcomes. It insists upon the importance and legitimacy of eclectic use of social theories: the processes are heterogeneous, and therefore it is appropriate to appeal to different types of social theories as we explain social processes. It emphasizes the importance of path-dependence in social outcomes. It suggests that the most valid scientific statements in the social sciences have to do with the discovery of concrete social-causal mechanisms, through which some types of social outcomes come about.

And finally, this approach highlights what I call “methodological localism”: the view that the foundation of social action and outcome is the local, socially-located and socially constructed individual person. The individual is socially constructed, in that her modes of behavior, thought, and reasoning are created through a specific set of prior social interactions. And her actions are socially situated, in the sense that they are responsive to the institutional setting in which she chooses to act. Purposive individuals, embodied with powers and constraints, pursue their goals in specific institutional settings; and regularities of social outcome often result.

How does this perspective fit with current work in the social sciences? There are several current fields of social research that are particularly well suited to this approach. One is the field of comparative historical sociology, in its use of fairly detailed studies of similar cases in order to identify common causal mechanisms. Kathleen Thelen’s astute studies of different institutions of skill formation in Germany, UK, US, and Japan are an excellent case in point; she asks the twin questions, what causal processes give stability to a set of institutions? And what causal processes lead to a process of transformation in those institutions? The research methods of comparative historical sociology, then, are particularly well suited to the ontology of contingency, plasticity, and causal mechanisms (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan).

Ethnography gives us a different angle on this same ontology. Ethnographers can give us insight into culturally specific mentalities—the “socially constructed individuals”. And they can give concrete analysis of the institutions that both shape individuals and are in turn shaped by them. More generally, qualitative research methods can offer a basis for discovery of some of the features of agency, mentality, and culture within the context of which important social processes take place. A good current example is Leslie Salzinger's Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico's Global Factories, a study of the social construction of femininity in the factories of the maquiladoras. C. K. Lee's sociology of Chinese factory protests is also a model of a study that combines qualitative and quantitative methods; Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

The new institutionalism is a third theoretical perspective on social analysis and explanation. This approach postulates the causal reality of institutions; it highlights the point that differences across institutions lead to substantial differences in behavior; and it provides a basis for explanations of various social outcomes. The rules of liability governing the predations of cattle in East Africa or Shasta County, California, create very different patterns of behavior in cattle owners and other land owners in the various settings. (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, The New Institutionalism in Sociology; Jean Ensminger, Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.) It is characteristic of the new institutionalism that researchers in this tradition generally avoid reifying large social institutions and look instead at the more proximate and variable institutions within which people live and act.

What kind of social science research and theory corresponds to these assumptions about social ontology? Here are some chief features--
  • They make use of eclectic multiple theories and don't expect a unified social theory that explains everything
  • They are modest in their expectations about social generalizations
  • They look for causal mechanisms as a basis for social explanation
  • They anticipate heterogeneity and plasticity of social entities
  • They are prepared to use eclectic methodologies -- quantitative, comparative, case-study, ethnographic -- to discover the mechanisms and mentalities that underlie social change
We need a better sociology for the twenty-first century. If social scientists continue to be captivated by the scientific prestige of positivism and quantitative social science to the exclusion of other perspectives, they will be led to social science research that looks quite different from what would result from a view that emphasizes contingency and causal mechanisms. And if there are strong, engaging, and empirically rigorous examples of other ways of conducting social research that can come into broad exposure in the social sciences—then there is a greater probability of emergence of a genuinely innovative and imaginative approach to the problem of social knowledge.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Social agency and rational choice

One of the reasons that rational choice theory (RC) is appealing is that it is an agent-centered approach to social explanation: explain the social outcome on the basis of an analysis of the beliefs, intentions, and circumstances of the individual agents who make up the social setting. What rational choice theory adds to this description is a specification of the decision-making processes that are attributed to the individual agent -- typically, that the agent has a consistent set of preferences among accessible alternatives and that he/she chooses in such a way as to maximize the satisfaction of this set of preferences. This can be paraphrased as a "utility-maximizing" model of decision-making.

Many objections have been offered against rational-choice theory as a basis for social explanation -- for example, that it overlooks social motivations, that it presupposes egoism, that it over-simplifies the logic of practical reasoning, or that it fails to correspond to typical human behavior. (See Green and Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science, for a developed set of critiques.)

Two points are worth underlining here. First, rational-choice theory has a major theoretical advantage precisely because it is an agent-centered framework. RC theory is one possible way of articulating a set of hypotheses about how individuals reason and act. This is a major advantage in comparison to explanatory frameworks that essentially assume programmed behavior on the part of participants in a social event. Moreover, the assumption of preference-satisfaction lines up pretty well with a somewhat broader conception of human action in terms of goal-directedness and purposiveness. If we believe that individuals have goals and purposes that underlie their choices and actions, then it is an appealing simplification to represent their actions as the outcome of deliberation about goals, strategies, and circumstances. In other words, RC theory can be seen as a specification of a philosophical idea of human action that is at least as old as Aristotle: the idea of individuals as deliberative, purposive agents. And this is in fact a credible and empirically defensible theory of action.

But a second point is equally important: RC theory and its model of utility maximization is only one out of a range of possible specifications of the idea of deliberation and purposiveness. There are important alternative specifications that can be offered. For example, we might say, along with Kant, that individuals possess a set of moral rules as well as a set of specific goals, and that they deliberate among possible choices of action on the basis of both considerations. How do the various possible actions conform to the moral rules? And how do they do from the point of view of accomplishing my goals? This process of reasoning is "deontological" -- that is, it cannot be subsumed under a simple model of maximizing rationality. It is, nonetheless, an intelligible interpretation of what rational human decision-making involves. (Mark Johnson's Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics is interesting in its effort to bring cognitive science into dialogue with ethical theory.)

Another possible interpretation of the basic idea of deliberativeness that diverges from RC theory is one that illustrates some themes that Amartya Sen (On Ethics and Economics), James Scott (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia), and Doug McAdam (Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930 -1970) have emphasized: that real human social behavior is a complex mix of commitments, loyalties, emotions, solidarities -- as well as purposes and goals. So a theory of action that isolates "goal-directedness" and its associated framework of utility maximizing, is one that already overlooks a set of motivational factors that are crucial to explaining real social behavior. It is as if we imagined modeling wine-tasting judgments by experts but "erased" their sense of smell. Given that smell is a crucial ingredient of the experience of tasting wine, our reduced theory won't do a very good job of explaining discrimination across samples by the experts.

Instead, when we undertake to explain an individual's action in the context of a spontaneous rent strike, we need to ask a series of questions: what does he/she expect to get out of the action? What loyalties does he/she have to the organization or other participants? What principles does he/she endorse that are relevant to the context of proposed action? What forms of social identity does he/she embody, and how are these strands relevant to the decision to participate or not? How do the emotions created by the words and actions of others influence one's behavior?

What makes RC theory useful in spite of these complexities of actual motivation is the fact that there are many important situations of choice where other sources and structures of motivation are of minimal importance. When a person chooses a new toaster, it is likely enough that solidarity, emotion, principle, and identity drop away, and the choice is based on perceived value and price. So the market in toasters behaves pretty much as neoclassical economics predicts. But the market for shoes is probably more complicated: emotion, status, style, identity, and a preference for "fair-trade" products may influence one person to buy the more expensive and less functional pair of shoes, while another person will go for the good buy. Likewise, the decision to join AARP is likely to be a fairly simple calculation -- what are the side benefits of membership, how much importance do I attribute to being part of an organization that represents the public good of people over 50, and how much can I gain from there being a successful AARP? This is simple in comparison to the situation of a rent strike or a street demonstration, where one's face-to-face relations with other potential participants may have a very large impact on the decision to participate or not.

So we might say that RC theory represents a special case of the more general category of deliberative action, which is itself a sub-category of intentional action. And RC theory will be most successful in generating explanations in social circumstances where the other sources of social motivation are largely silent -- for example, anonymous market transactions, isolated decisions about participation or non-participation in collective action, and decisions about portfolio investments.

What we really need is a more developed and adequate theory of social agency -- a better account of how the various factors mentioned above fit together into one scheme of deliberation and decision-making. This might be called a full theory of practical rationality. And it would be a more general specification of the situation of agent-based social action than RC is able to provide.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Economic history analyzed

The history of a region or people encompasses a multitude of aspects of social life: culture, religion, political institutions, social movements, environmental change, technology, population—and the circumstances and processes of economic change that the region undergoes. One does not need to be a reductionist in order to observe that the economic circumstances a society experiences, and the processes of change that these circumstances undergo, have a profound influence on other aspects of social and cultural change. Improved agricultural productivity can support population growth; it can enhance the coercive power of state institutions; and it can make possible the flourishing of intricate institutions of religion and education. Likewise, the constraints created by slow or negative economic productivity growth in a region can stifle the development of other important social processes. So economic history, as a discipline within history more broadly, is a crucially important field of historical inquiry.

Yet the foundations of the discipline of economic history are controversial. Economic historians do not yet agree on the role of mathematical economic theory within their discipline, or the relationships that should obtain between quantitative and qualitative data, or the role of social theories of causal factors in explaining economic change, or the connections that should be established between economic historical research and other fields of social or cultural history.

What is the intellectual task of an “economic history” of a region or country? To start, we might say that it is to provide an evidence-based description of the main economic characteristics of the country or region over a defined period of time: the kinds and levels of agricultural and manufacturing products that are produced, the technologies and institutions through which production and distribution occurs, the size of the population, and the level of material well-being that is experienced by the population. And, second, the task of economic history is to arrive at causal hypotheses that may serve as explanations of some of the patterns of economic change that are discovered.

Consider the variety of questions that need to be addressed by an economic history of a region or country:
  • Demography. What was the absolute population size and distribution at various time points during the period? What were the trends of population growth during the peri¬od? How much urbanization occurred during the period?
  • Inputs and technology. How much land was under cultivation? What crops and products were in production? What fertilizer technologies were in use? How much irrigation was available, and what was the trend of extension of land and irrigation?
  • Property relations and control of labor. What forms of tenancy and land ownership were in place? How were these arrangements changing during the time period? What forms of labor control were in use? Was there a tendency of change in the conditions and extent of wage labor?
  • Productivity. What was the absolute size of the production of central commodities—rice, wheat, cotton? What were the factor productivities for land, labor, capital, or animal power? What trends existed in these quantities?
  • Prices and market conditions. How much agricultural activity took place within functioning markets for crops, grain, textiles, and handicraft goods? What were the prices of these goods over time? How sensitive were farmers to changing market conditions?
  • Human welfare. What were the income levels and food security of various groups: landless workers, smallholding peasants, tenants and other groups? How extensive were income inequalities within the economy? Where were economic surpluses going? What was the trend of real welfare and inequalities?
  • Causal factors. What are the causal relationships that obtain between various large factors: technology, social relations, property systems, state, demographic regimes, and international relations?
Explanation requires a theory of underlying causal mechanisms. What theoretical resources are available to the economic historian to explain patterns and singularities of economic change? It is evident that economic outcomes are the result of human behavior within the context of environmental circumstances and institutional settings. Human behavior, however, is not rigidly segregated into “economic,” “cultural,” and “social” behavior; rather, behavioral outcomes are influenced by all these kinds of factors. So economic history cannot be restricted to the theories associated with neoclassical economics. Rather, the economic historian needs to examine the economic phenomena under study within the broader social and environmental context in which this behavior takes place. And that means that the economic historian must be as much a social historian, a sociologist, or an ethnographer as he is an economist; he needs to pay as much attention to the social and political context of economic trends as he does to the mathematics of equilibrium or the idealized workings of a market.

Marc Bloch’s history of medieval French agriculture (1931) offers a good illustration of the value of a broadly contextualized approach to a region’s economic history (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). Bloch surveys the main social institutions and technologies that were in use, and attempts to explain some of the large patterns that became evident (for example, field shape and the geographical diffusion of the wheeled plough). Bloch’s explanation invokes such varied factors as the nature of the soils across France, the availability and timing of technical innovations in the design of the plough, and the nature of village communities in different parts of France. And he makes ingenious use of a wide range of historical sources to permit him to come to assessments of various economic and institutional facts.

Well-developed social theories give us a basis for demonstrating how various factors could be causally relevant. It is then the task of empirical, historical, and theoretical research to arrive at justified conclusions about causation. But theories don't provide scripts for "necessary" processes of economic development. In fact, it is entirely possible that different combinations of causal factors are of primary importance in different historical settings. Historical change is conjunctural and contingent. The general point is that institutions and circumstances matter, and that institutional arrangements in different times and places may impose limits or opportunities that discourage or favor some pathways of development over others. Instead of expecting one grand course of development, we ought to expect a shifting fabric of contingent, fluctuating path-dependent processes.

Two current economic historians whose work I particularly admire are Bozhong Li, whose careful and deep empirical studies of the economic history of the lower Yangzi delta provide a foundation for a much more finegrained economic history of China (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850, link); and Robert Allen, whose careful studies of the English farm economy and the standard of living in the early modern period are a paradigm of excellent empirical and analytical work in economic history (link, link).

(There is more on this topic on my research webpage, including Epistemological Issues in Economic History and Eurasian Historical Comparisons.)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Technology and culture

Photo: Charles Sheeler, "Power, wheels", 1939; MFA, Boston

Technology is sometimes thought of as a domain with a logic of its own -- an inevitable trend towards the development of the most efficient artifacts, given the potential represented by a novel scientific or technical insight. The most important shift that has occurred in the ways in which historians conceptualize the history of technology in the past thirty years is the clear recognition that technology is a social product, all the way down. And, as a corollary, historians of technology have increasingly come to recognize the deep contingency that characterizes the development of specific instances or families of technologies.

Thomas Hughes is one of the most important and prolific historians of technology of his generation. His most recent book, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture, is well worth reading. It looks at "technology" from a very broad perspective and asks how this dimension of civilization has affected our cultures in the past two centuries. The twentieth-century city, for example, could not have existed without the inventions of electricity, steel buildings, elevators, railroads, and modern waste-treatment technologies. So technology "created" the modern city. But it is also clear that life in the twentieth-century city was transformative for the several generations of rural people who migrated to them. And the literature, art, values, and social consciousness of people in the twentieth century have surely been affected by these new technology systems.

This level of analysis stands at the most generic perspective: how does technology influence culture? (And perhaps, how does culture influence technology?) What Hughes has demonstrated in so much of his work, though, is the fact that the most interesting questions about the "technology-society" interface can be framed at a much more disaggregated level. Consider some of the connections he suggests in his earlier book on the history of electric power (Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930):
  • Invention (by individuals with a very specific educational and cultural background)
  • Concrete development of the artifacts within a laboratory (involving specific social relationships among various experts and workers)
  • "Selling" the innovation to municipal authorities (for lighting and traction) and to industrial capitalists (for power)
  • Finding investors and sources of finance for large capital investments in electricity
  • Building out the infrastructure for delivery of electric power
  • Government regulation of industry practices
  • Development of an extended research capability addressing technology problems
Each part of this complex story involves processes that are highly contingent and highly intertwined with social, economic, and political relationships. And the ultimate shape of the technology is the result of decisions and pressures exerted throughout the web of relationships through which the technology took shape. But here is an important point: there is no moment in this story where it is possible to put "technology" on one side and "social context" on the other. Instead, the technology and the society develop together.

Hughes also explores some of the ways in which the culture of the machine has influenced architecture, art, and literature. He discusses photography by Charles Sheeler (whose famous series on the Rouge plant defined an industrial aesthetic), artists Carl Grossberg and Marcel Duchamp, and architects such as Peter Behren. The central theme here is the idea that industrial-technological developments caused significant cultural change in Europe and America. Hughes's examples are mostly drawn from "high" culture; but historians of popular culture too have focused on the impact of technologies such as the railroad, the automobile, or the cigarette on American popular culture. See Deborah Clarke's Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America for a discussion of the effect of automotive culture. And Pam Pennock's examination of the effects of alcohol and tobacco advertising on American culture in Advertising Sin And Sickness: The Politics of Alcohol And Tobacco Marketing, 1950-1990 is also relevant.

Hughes doesn't consider here the other line of influence that is possible between culture and technology: how prevailing aesthetic and cultural preferences influence the development of a technology. This has been an important theme in the line of interpretation referred to as the "social construction of technology" (SCOT). Wiebe Bijker makes the case for the social construction of mundane technologies such as bicycles in Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. And automobile historian Gijs Moms argues in The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age that the choice between electric and internal combustion vehicles in the early twentieth century turned on aesthetic and lifestyle preferences rather than technical or economic efficiency. (Here is a nice short discussion of SCOT.) This too is a more disaggregated approach to the question. It proceeds on the idea that we can learn a great deal by examining the "micro" processes in culture and society that influence the development of a technology.

It seems to me that the conceptual framework of "assemblages theory" would be useful in discussing the history of technology. (See Manuel DeLanda's A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity for a review of the theory, and Nick Srnicek's blog at accursedshare, which makes frequent use of the framework.) The framework is useful here because technology is a social phenomenon that extends from one's own kitchen and household to the cities of Chicago or Berlin, to the global internet and the international system of manufacturing and design. And similar processes of shaping and conditioning occur at the micro, meso, and macro levels. In other words -- perhaps we can understand "technology" at the molar level, as a complex composition of activities and processes at many levels closer to the socially constructed individual. And the value-added provided by the sociology and history of technology is precisely this: to shed light on the mechanisms at work at all levels that have an influence on the aggregate direction and shape of the resulting technology.

Since we're thinking about "technology and culture" -- it's worth noting that Technology and Culture is the world's leading journal for the history of technology, emanating from the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT, established in 1958). The journal has played a significant role in the definition of the discipline over the past thirty years or so and is an outstanding source for anyone interested in the questions posed here.