Friday, February 27, 2009

Disaffected youth

Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth -- school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence -- youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I'm mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically -- why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here -- a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I'm more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story -- for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a "youth underclass" in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:
Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.
To use the term "disaffected" is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase "disaffected" (or its cognate, "demoralized") presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The "disaffected" no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one's parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society's expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their "demoralization" -- their failure, or society's failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. "Hopeless and angry" is a different state of mind than "disaffected."

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that "demotivates" young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs -- the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to "home" that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior -- even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various "breakdowns" -- breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden's Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for "understanding society"? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens -- children, teenagers, and youth -- is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If "disaffection," "anger," "demoralization," and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It's relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on "football hooliganism" prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sociologie de Paris?

What might be involved in creating a new sociology of Paris? Paris is a particularly good subject for a new urban sociology. It is a gritty, diverse, and dynamic city, and a city displaying unceasing chaotic surges and currents of social life. It is a global city, both in Saskia Sassen's sense (strong networked interconnection with other global cities) and in the sense of being a magnet for immigrants from every part of the world. It is an intellectual city, a conflictual city, a city with continuous poverty and deprivation, as well as conspicuous wealth, and a city with high unemployment and aggressive policing. And it is a city with ubiquitous transit (dozens of lines serving hundreds of stations), implying thorough urban mobility; but also invisible boundaries marking the edges of the social circuits of various social and ethnic groups.

If we were beginning anew, we might start with the racial and ethnic diversity the city contains and the circuits of social life that these many groups traverse. Ride the RER from Chatelet to Charles de Gaulle and you may get an impression of a great salad spinner of humanity -- everyone all mixed up on one long subway carriage. But this impression is probably mistaken -- Didier Lapeyronnie's analysis of the French ghetto puts stop to that thought (post) and highlights the very sharp separations that exist between immigrant neighborhoods and the rest of French cities. So a sociology of Paris needs to uncover the distinct social worlds it encompasses.

And we would want to map the terrain of poverty and deprivation in Paris. Who are the poor? How is poverty caused and reproduced in Paris? What groups are most likely to be homeless and hungry (SDF -- sans domicile fixe)? And how large a factor does immigration play in this question? Recall the deadly fires several years ago in Paris -- these were temporary housing facilities for homeless immigrants (story). A recent collaboration among sociologists and journalists picks up this thread in La France invisible. The creators of the project have undertaken to give voice to the many categories of poor and disempowered people in France: accidentés au travail, banlieusards, délocalisés, discriminés, disparus, dissimulés, drogués, ... These short pieces provide thumbnail descriptions of the circumstances of life of the people involved in these categories, often incorporating an interview or two. The hope here is to give a visceral glimpse to the reader of the life difficulties involved in these (alphabetically organized) categories.

A related subject for a new descriptive sociology of Paris has to do with the patterns of public health that the city embodies. What sorts of health disparities exist across different social groups? How are these differentials patterned socially across the city itself? Here is a very brief discussion of the issue of health disparities in France, presented at the "Congrès national des Observatoires régionaux de la santé 2008 - Les inégalités de santé" in Marseille, 16-17 octobre 2008. But this report is very brief and is not city- or region-specific. By contrast, a central focus of public health research in the U.S. is on the patterns of health disparities that can be found in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, or New York, often accompanied by detailed social mapping of the results.

And what about employment and education? What are the mechanisms through which education, social position, age, race, and ethnicity play out across social groups to create the specific patterns of employment opportunity that Paris presents? Jobs and education are highly volatile issues everywhere in France today -- witness the current waves of strikes and demonstrations about unemployment and education reform. What are the social mechanisms underlying these systems? (Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron addressed the social class aspects of the French educational system in Les héritiers (1964).) To what extent do the concrete institutions of training, education, and job recruitment work to reproduce significant inequalities across social groups?

Social mapping analysis would help in each of these areas. GIS maps of the city demonstrating the spatial distribution of poverty, crime, bad schools, police brutality, and 2-1-1 calls would tell us a lot about the social geography of the city. It would be enormously interesting to be able to have access to an interactive map of the city, combining many social variables of interest. In fact, that social map would help make sense of the long RER ride mentioned above. As you pass through neighborhoods ranging from affluent to graffiti-inscribed banlieue, you would be able to make the connection to some of the social realities that underlie these glimpses. Surprisingly, though, these sorts of spatial analyses and maps don't seem to exist yet for Paris or other French cities -- or at least, they are not easily located on the web. Is this a specific feature of the French sociological discourse -- with French researchers perhaps more attuned to discursive theory and less to spatial analysis and empirical study?

One might paraphrase the point here as saying that Paris deserves what Chicago received in the 1920s through 1940s in the form of the "Chicago School of Sociology" -- a focused, empirically rigorous, analytically astute series of efforts to come to grips with the complex social realities of the city, and to provide a better diagnosis of the social problems of the city in a way that supports more effective social policy. It's possible that this type of approach already exists within some of the social science research institutes of French universities. If so, I hope that readers will point us in the right direction.

(Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot have a recent book on the sociology of Paris. Here is an interview with Michel Pinçon in LeJournalduNet on the subject of the wealthy class in France and an interview on the "bourgeoisification" of Paris. And Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont offer a very good account of the recent development of French sociology in Les courants contemporains de la sociologie. Baptiste Coulmont maintains an interesting academic website and blog here.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Regional interconnectedness

Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit are part of a large economic region in the upper Midwest of the United States, which is sometimes referred to as the Great Lakes Region. There are hundreds of lesser cities within this regional system -- Erie, Toledo, Rockford, Grand Rapids, .... What are the economic interdependencies that exist among these cities? How important are these relationships in the overall pattern of economic development that each city demonstrates? And of critical practical importance, how much leverage exists for development planners in these major cities to enhance their city's progress through adroit use of these relationships? Is there a possible gain for Milwaukee in virtue of the net effect of its relationships to Detroit? Or is each metropolitan region mostly autarkic with respect to the other?

There seem to be several theoretical possibilities. One is that there are in fact major point-to-point economic interdependencies among cities within a large economic region and that these are significantly different across different pairs of cities. It might be that the growth or contraction of auto manufacturing in Detroit is tightly enough linked to supplier companies in Milwaukee that what helps Detroit also helps Milwaukee.

Another possibility is that the regional impact is systemic rather than point-to-point. Here the idea is that the great metropolitan regions within a regional economy contribute to the macroeconomic environment for the region -- labor demand, growth, consumer demand, and fiscal shares. The region sets the basic parameters -- transport cost, commodity prices, and the current distribution of population and talent. But the impact of, say, Milwaukee on Toledo is entirely mediated through the macroeconomic environment of the region. And to the extent that there are correlations of advance and decline, this is the result of regional "pulsing" of macroeconomic factors rather than specific city-to-city interactions.

A third possibility is that each metropolitan region is largely independent within the larger region, so that regional economic performance is simply the aggregation of the performance of the component metropolitan regions (cities). And if this is the case, then we would expect a low degree of correlation on economic development across the cities of a region. (But in this case it is more difficult to explain why we refer to the set of cities as an economic "region" at all, since this term implies a degree of economic similarity and interdependence.)

Let's look at the first possibility more closely. Logically, the possibility of this kind of interdependency appears to depend on the existence of directed flows of activities between the places that do not extend to other places. There must be some network reality to the region within which A and B are proximate nodes. What else could provide the mechanism of mutual causal influence upon which the postulated interdependence depends?

So what are the inter-city connections that might support tight point-to-point linkages? The direct industry-to-industry dependencies mentioned above are most obvious. More furniture manufacturing in Grand Rapids might stimulate a surge in business for the plastic mesh producers in Rockford, to complete those great Aeron chairs. The input-output tables measuring exchange activity between the two cities might be extensive or minimal.

Here is another possible connection -- the talent needs in some cities might lead to the growth of universities in cities in other parts of the region. In a hypothetical history of the Midwest, Chicago might extend its current concentration of research universities and become a "knowledge center" for the region, supplying the inventors, architects, accountants, and lawyers for the region. In fact, specialized education and research is more diffused than this; but isn't this essentially the role that Boston played for a century or so for the northeast?

A third possibility -- two cities might be tightly linked through the existence of particularly efficient transportation or communication systems between them. Are Seattle and San Francisco more tightly linked economically because they are both Pacific Ocean ports with low-cost transport between them? What about Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New Orleans, linked by the barges of the Mississippi River?

Historically there are fairly good measures of economic interconnectedness between places. We can examine the correlation of time series of prices, wages, and profits to measure the degree of economic integration that exists among A, B, and C. Likewise, we can examine the patterns of growth or contraction of employment over time; do Milwaukee, Toledo, and Detroit demonstrate synchronized patterns of growth and contraction in business activity and overall employment over long periods of time? And the transport links mentioned here are a particularly fundamental source of economic integration in 19th-century studies of China, France, or the United States. (It's possible that contemporary data would suggest that all U.S. cities are equally integrated by these measures, since market integration has increased dramatically through transport and communications improvements.)

The most compact basis for studies of regional integration derives from the original insights of central place theory -- William Cronon's analysis of Chicago and its hinterlands, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, is an outstanding example of this approach. And G. William Skinner's analysis of the urban hierarchies of late imperial China falls in this general approach. What these examples do not permit, though, is analysis of inter-city dependencies across a region. At a very different level, these are the kinds of questions Saskia Sassen is asking about "world" cities. She attempts to identify the linkages that exist among major cities with respect to financial flows, internet traffic, and telephone calls. See earlier posts on each of these approaches (post, post, post).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A crisis in sociology?

Alvin Gouldner thought there was a "coming crisis in sociology" -- but that was almost forty years ago, in 1970 (The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology). And in 1996 Immanuel Wallerstein closed out the century by chairing the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, issuing a report that called for some radical rethinking of the basic assumptions of the social sciences (Open the Social Sciences).

Both Gouldner and Wallerstein are pretty good at theorizing about the social world. So what can we learn from their worries? Does the twenty-first century demand some new thinking in the ways that we construct the social sciences?

I think it does. If we want to have a more adequate basis for understanding the rapid processes of social change that surround us globally and locally, we need to rethink the concepts and methods we bring to social theory. And if we want to have a basis for attempting to influence some of these processes through policy, so as to avoid some of the more awful outcomes that they seem to lead to, then we need to be more eclectic in our thinking about social causes and their interactions.

What are some of the considerations that lead Gouldner, Wallerstein, and other critics to the conclusion that sociology needs some rethinking?

Gouldner's concerns are focused on what he calls the Academic Sociology of the first half of the twentieth century. The first two-thirds of the book takes the form of a critique of the sociological theories that dominated sociology in the 1940s and 1950s -- theories of social order, structural development, the workings of the social system, functionalism, and the pervasive influence of Talcott Parsons in the middle decades of the century. So the crisis to which Gouldner refers is really the crisis of functionalist sociology (though he indicates that he thinks that Marxist sociology is heading towards its own crisis as well). It is a sociology that attempts to understand society as a system, that expects social phenomena to be lawlike, and that abstracts almost entirely from history as context or process.

Essentially Gouldner's critique is that functionalism implicitly assumes that social systems have reached some kind of optimum in the composition of institutions that govern social life. Social organizations bring about maximum social utility. But Gouldner points out that this theoretical mindset makes it inherently difficult to deal with change. And yet the United States in the 1960s was unmistakeably involved in a process of profound change in its social, economic, and political institutions. So functionalist sociology was ill-equipped to understand and explain the most basic features of American life in the post-Vietnam War era -- mass protest, racial inequality, extension of the welfare state, urban poverty, and maladaptive political structures.

This is roughly the point at which Julia Adams, Elisabeth Stephanie Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff pick up the story in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology. And their focus group of beacon social scientists is a promising one -- scholars such as Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, or Jack Goldstone, for example. Adams and her co-editors provide a much more hopeful interpretation of the promise that the methods of historical sociology have for improving our understanding of the society we live in. The sociology of social movements, conflict, and change replaced the sociology of systems and functional adaptations among the basic institutions of a society; change rather than stasis was the central thread. And along with this emphasis on change came a sociological spotlight on history. In fact, one might say that the crisis that Gouldner foresaw was actually resolved by the explosion of research within historical sociology, social mobilization theory, and mid-level studies of historically concrete social institutions and processes.

Now what about Wallerstein's worries about contemporary sociology? Several points are particularly salient. First, there is a critique of the "nomothetic" quest -- the idea that the social sciences should discover social laws. In fact, the commission report observes that this goal is even a bit challenged in the natural sciences when we consider the dynamics of non-linear dynamic systems:
Today many natural scientists would argue that the world should be described quite differently. It is a more unstable world, a much more complex world, a world in which perturbations play a big role, one of whose key questions is how to explain how such complexity arises. (62)
And social phenomena surely demonstrate this sort of complex non-linearity as well. So it is unlikely that we will discover robust "laws of society" that will serve to explain and predict social outcomes.

Second, there is praise for the reunion of social science and history, with social scientists recognizing that the phenomena they study always have a historical context, and with historians recognizing that the social scientists may have uncovered quasi-general processes that can assist them to arrive at explanations of puzzling historical outcomes. This converges a bit with Gouldner's critique of functionalism. Referring to a new generation of social scientists, Wallerstein writes:
Their criticism of "mainstream" social sciences included the assertion that they had neglected the centrality of social change, favoring a mythology of consensus, and that they showed a naive, even arrogant, self-assuredness in applying Western concepts to the analysis of very different phenomena and cultures. (44)
Third, Wallerstein notes that many of the large concepts of social science research in the 1960s are deeply questionable -- for example, the concept of modernization as a construct around which to understand the development processes of the post-colonial world. Much more satisfactory is research along the lines of that of Arturo Escobar, fundamentally questioning the assumptions of progress, development, and modernization that dominated a lot of development thinking in the sixties (Encountering Development).

And fourth, Wallerstein and the commission raise pointed questions about the adequacy of disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences, and they emphasize the value of stimulating social research across the boundaries of the various disciplines.

So what kind of sociology should we be looking for if we want to understand the big, complex changes that surround us -- big cities, globalization, social networks, terrorism, failing schools, economic transitions, or the transmission of pandemic illness?

Here's a possible vision: We should be eclectic in theory and in method. We should welcome large interdisciplinary collaborations. We should expect heterogeneity and plasticity in the phenomena we study. We should pay a lot of attention to historical process and historical context -- not because the past determines the future, but because it constrains it. We should look carefully for the concrete mechanisms that bring about the social outcomes of interest. We should be ready to disaggregate large social processes into their components. And we should be more than ready to settle our gaze on the middle range of phenomena rather than stretching for heroic generalizations that are intended to hold across time, space, and culture.

We will need the best social science we can create to handle the challenges of the twenty-first century. And the shards that remain of positivism, functionalism, and naturalism won't help us to arrive at the innovative intellectual frameworks that will be required.

(Here and here are posts on some related methodological disputes in sociology and political science.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Scientific misconduct as a principal-agent problem

How does an organization assure that its agents perform their duties truthfully and faithfully? We have ample evidence of the other kind of performance -- theft, misappropriation, lies, fraud, diversion of assets for personal use, and a variety of deceptive accounting schemes. And we have whole professions devoted to detecting and punishing these various forms of dishonesty -- accountants, investigative reporters, management consultants, insurance experts, prosecutors and their investigators. And yet dishonest behavior is common, in business, finance, government, and even the food industry. (See several earlier postings for discussions of the issues of corruption and trust in society.)

Here I'm especially interested in a particular kind of activity -- scientific and medical research. Consider a short but sobering list of scientific and medical frauds in the past fifty years: Cyril Burt's intelligence studies, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk's stem cell cloning fraud, the Anjan Kumar Banerjee case in Britain, the MMR vaccine-autism case, a spate of recent cases in China, and numerous other examples. And consider recent reports that a percentage of scientific photos in leading publications had been photoshopped in ways that favored the researcher's findings (link). (Here are some comments by Edward Tufte on the issue of scientific imaging, and here are some journal guidelines from the Council of Science Editors attempting to regulate the issue.) Plainly, fraud and misconduct sometimes occur within the institutions of scientific and medical research. And each case has consequences -- for citizens, for patients, and for the future course of research.

Here is how the editor of Family Practice describes the problem of research misconduct in a review of Fraud and Misconduct in Medical Research (third edition):
Fraud and misconduct are, it seems, endemic in scientific research. Even Galileo, Newton and Mendel appear to have fudged some of their results. From palaeontology to nanotechnology, scientific fraud reappears with alarming regularity. The Office of Research Integrity in the USA investigated 127 serious allegations of scientific fraud last year. The reasons for conducting fraudulent research and misrepresenting research in scientific publications are complex. The pressures to publish and to achieve career progression and promotion and the lure of fame and money may all play a part, but deeper forces often seem to be at work.

How important are fraud and misconduct in primary care research? As far as Family Practice goes, mercifully rare, as I pointed out in a recent editorial. Sadly, however, there are examples, all along the continuum from the beginning of a clinical trial to submission of a final manuscript, of dishonesty and deceit in general practice and primary care research. Patients have been invented to increase numbers (and profits) in clinical trials, ethical guidance on consent and confidentiality have been breached, and ‘salami’ and duplicate publication crop up from time to time.
The problem is particularly acute in the area of scientific and medical research because the public at large has very little ability to independently evaluate the validity of a research finding, let alone validate the integrity of the research. And this extends to science and medicine journalists in large part as well, since they are rarely given access to underlying records and data for a study.

The stakes are high -- dishonest research can cost lives or delay legitimate research, not to speak of the cost of supporting the fraudulent research in the first place. The temptations for researchers are large as well -- funding from drug and device makers, the incentives and pressures of career advancement, and pure vanity, to name several. And we know that instances of fraud and other forms of serious scientific misconduct continue to occur.

So, thinking of this topic as an organizational problem -- what measures can be taken to minimize the incidence of fraud and misconduct in scientific research?

One way of describing the situation is as a gigantic principal-agent problem. (Khalid Abdalla provides a simple explanation of the principal-agent problem here.) It falls within the scope of the more general challenge of motivating, managing, and supervising highly skilled and independent professionals. The "agent" is the individual researcher and research team. And the "principal" may be construed at a range of levels: society at large, the Federal government, the NIH, the research institute, or the department chair. But it seems likely that the problem is most tractable if we focus attention on the more proximate relationships -- the NIH, the research institute, and the researcher.

So this is a good problem to consider from the point of view of institutional design and complex interactive social behavior. We know what kind of behavior we want; the problem is to create the institutional settings and motivational processes through which the desired behavior is encouraged and the undesired behavior is detected and punished.

One response from the research institutions (research universities, institutes, and medical schools) is to emphasize training programs in scientific professional ethics, to more deeply instill the values of strict scientific integrity in each researcher and each institution. The hope here is that pervasive attention to the importance of scientific integrity will have the effect of reducing the incidence of misconduct. A second approach, from universities, research organizations, and journals, is to increase oversight and internal controls surrounding scientific fraud. One example -- some journals require that the statistical analysis of results be performed by a qualified, independent, academic statistician. Strict requirements governing conflicts of interest are another institutional response. And a third approach from institutions such as the NIH and NSF is to ratchet up the consequences of misconduct. The United States Office of Research Integrity (link) has a number of training and enforcement programs designed to minimize scientific misconduct. The British government has set up a similar organization to combat research fraud, the UK Research Integrity Office (link). Individuals found culpable will be denied access to research funds -- effectively halting their scientific careers, and criminal prosecution is possible as well. So the sanctions for misconduct are significant. (Here's an egregious example leading to criminal prosecution).

And, of course, the first and last line of defense against scientific misconduct is the fundamental requirement of peer review. Scientific journals use expert peers to evaluate the research to be considered for publication, and universities turn to expert peers when they consider scientists for promotion and tenure. Both processes create a strong likelihood of detecting fraud if it exists. Who is better qualified to detect a potentially fraudulent research finding than a researcher in the same field?

But is all of this sufficient? It's unclear. The most favorable interpretation would be the judgment that this combination of motivational factors and local and global institutional constraints will contain the problem to an acceptable level. But is there empirical evidence for this optimism? Or is misconduct becoming more widespread over time? The efforts to deepen researchers' attachment to a code of research integrity are certainly positive -- but what about the small percentage of people who are not motivated by an internal compass? Greater internal controls are certainly a good idea -- but they are surely less effective in the area of research than accounting controls are in the financial arena. Oversight is just more difficult to achieve in the area of scientific research. (And of course we all know how porous those controls are in the financial sector -- witness Enron and other accounting frauds. ) And if the likelihood of detection is low, then the threat of punishment is weakened. So the measures mentioned here have serious limitations in likely effectiveness.

Brian Deer is one of Britain's leading journalists covering medical research (website). His work in the Sunday Times of London established the medical fraud underlying the spurious claim that MMR vaccine causes autism mentioned above. Following a recent public lecture to a medical audience he was asked the question, how can we get a handle on frauds like these? And his answer was blunt: with snap inspections, investigative policing, and serious penalties. In his perception, the stakes are too high to leave the matter to professional ethics.

It perhaps goes without saying that the vast majority of scientific researchers are honest investigators who are guided by the advancement of science and medicine. But it is also apparent that there are a small number of researchers of whom these statements are not true. And the problem confronting the organizations of scientific research is a hard one: how to create the institutional structures where misconduct is unlikely to occur and where misconduct is most likely to be detected when it does.

There is one other connection that strikes me as important, and it is a connection to the philosophy of science. It is an item of faith for philosophers of science that the scientific enterprise is truth-enhancing, in this sense: the community of researchers follows a set of institutionally embodied processes that are well designed to enhancing the comprehensiveness and veridicality of our theories and weeding out the false theories. Our theories get better through the empirical and logical testing that occurs as a result of these socially embodied procedures of science. But if the corrupting influences mentioned above are indeed common, then the confidence we have in the epistemic value of the procedures of science takes a big hit. And this is worrisome news indeed.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Marx and the Taipings

It is interesting to observe how Europe's greatest revolutionary, Karl Marx (1818-1883), thought about China's greatest revolution in the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). We might imagine that this relentless advocate for underclass interests might have cheered for the poor peasants of the Taiping Heavenly Army. But this was not the case. Marx wrote about the Taiping Rebellion several times in the New York Daily Tribune and other newspapers, and his analysis and his sympathies are fascinating. His articles are as close to blog postings as one could get in the middle of the nineteenth century; they are topical, opinionated, and pretty revealing about his underlying assumptions.

The Taiping rebellion was enormous in every way: perhaps 20 million deaths, armies approaching a million soldiers, sustained Taiping control of large swatches of Chinese territory and cities, and an extended time duration of fighting (about fifteen years). The American civil war took place during roughly the same time period; and the Taiping rebellion was many times more destructive. It is a truly fascinating period of world history, and one that had important consequences in the twentieth century. (Mao and the Chinese Communists largely represented the Taiping rebellion as a proto-communist uprising.) So how did Marx respond to this social catastrophe? In a thumbnail -- his observations show a remarkable blindness to a contemporary historical event that seems tailor-made for the framework of his own theories of history and underclass politics.

In 1853 Marx wrote a piece for the Daily Tribune called "Revolution in China and in Europe" that encapsulates his own understanding of what the Taiping revolution was, and what brought it about. He lays the largest causal role on the effects of the Opium Wars a decade earlier. English cannons smashed the appearance of invincible power and authority of the Imperial Chinese state and imposed humiliating conditions on the Chinese nation. "Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces." And, simultaneously, trade and financial penetration by the European powers occurred in ways that were almost fatally deleterious to the Chinese economy and polity. Forced opium trade led to a rapid depletion of Chinese silver reserves; and the forced availability of English textiles led to severe dislocation for Chinese textile workers. "In China the spinners and weavers have suffered greatly under this foreign competition, and the community has become unsettled in proportion."

Nine years later Marx published another article on the Taiping rebellion, this time in the German newspaper, Die Presse. The article, "Chinese Affairs," begins with a pretty remarkable bit of Asiatic stereotyping:
Some time before the tables began to dance, China--this living fossil--started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure. (442)
In this piece he picks up a somewhat different theme from that of the earlier article. Here he offers an interpretation of the Taiping rebellion against the backdrop of Manchu colonialism: "Why should there not be initiated, after 300 years, a movement to overthrow it?" So the 1853 theory postulates the weakening of the Chinese social order as a chief cause, while the 1862 theory postulates a nationalistic motivation -- a desire of Han people to overthrow Manchu rule. (An irony here is that the Taiping movement emerged with key support from Hakka people, a cultural minority within the Han population.)

The interpretation that Marx offers for the occurrence of a vast rebellion in China, then, is largely an exogenous one: war, trade, and European intrusion led to a total disruption of China's social order; Manchu colonial rule created nationalistic unrest; and rebellion ensued.

Marx then goes on to a description of the nature of the rebellion and the rebels.
What is original in this Chinese revolution are only its bearers. They are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. It seems that their vocation is nothing else than to set against the conservative disintegration of China, its destruction, in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance. (443)
There are no agents in this description, no social program, and no agenda for change. Instead, there is only blind violence and destruction. Marx quotes with evident approval the dispatch of Mr. Bruce, the English Ambassador to Peking, who decries the violence and disorder of the Taiping armies. And Bruce's central observation is the violence and rapaciousness of the Taiping armies, stealing or destroying all property in the regions they controlled.

Notice what Marx's analysis does not do. It does not identify the class nature of the Taiping movement. It does not ask what were the social causes that led Chinese peasants to follow the Taiping armies. And it does not ask what was the social program of the Taiping movement. The Taipings are represented as a cipher -- just an irrational uprising of millions of passive followers.

So whatever happened to the tools of historical analysis that Marx recommended -- the forces and relations of production, the concrete circumstances of class relations, the intimate connection between material conditions of life and political behavior, and the emphasis on exploitation and rebellion? Why was Marx not disposed to ask the basic questions about the Chinese case: who are these people? What are the social relations from which they emerge? And what are they attempting to bring about in their rebellion? Why, in short, didn't we get something more akin to The Civil War in France, with an effort at a detailed social and political analysis of the uprising?

It is hard to escape the answer to this question: it is Eurocentrism in the extreme, and a consequent inability to see the implications of his own categories of analysis for this otherwise intriguing case. This isn't exactly news, of course. But it does underline the importance for today's historians of finding ways of treating world history without imposing the categories of European experience. A China-centered analysis of the Taiping rebellion has a very different look from the sketch we find in Marx's descriptions. (See an earlier posting on historical comparisons for more on this point.)

There is a great deal of very good contemporary historical research on the Taiping rebellion. Here are a handful of good contemporary treatments:

Cole, James H. 1981. The People Versus the Taipings: Bao Lisheng's Righteous Army of Dongan. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1970. Rebellion and its enemies in late imperial China, militarization and social structure, 1796-1864, Harvard East Asian series, 49. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1977. Origins of the Taiping Vision: Cross-cultural Dimensions of a Chinese Rebellion. Comparative Studies in Society and History 19 (3):350-66.
———. 1978. The Taiping Rebellion. In The Cambridge History of China v. 10, edited by D. Twitchett and J. K. Fairbank.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1996. God's Chinese son: the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wagner, Rudolf G. 1982. Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of Calif.

These histories bring out many different aspects of the Taiping story, and they don't all agree. They also bring out an element that is entirely missing in Marx's comments -- the influence of Christian missionaries on the formation of Taiping ideology. But what they all agree on is that the Taiping movement was socially complex, with a strong ideology, a very specific set of demands about property and social institutions, and pretty complex military relations. And they certainly agree that the relationship between Manchu rule, European colonialism, and internal social factors is far more complex than Marx's story allows.

Both articles discussed here (as well as a large number of postings on India) are included in Karl Marx on Colonialism & Modernization: His Despatches And Other Writings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa, a volume edited and introduced by Shlomo Avineri.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What is a norm?

The role of norms in social behavior is a key question for sociology. Is a norm a sociological reality? And do individuals behave in conformance to norms?

We can offer mundane examples of social norms deriving from a wide range of social situations: norms of politeness, norms of fairness, norms of appropriate dress, norms of behavior in business meetings, norms of gendered behavior, and norms of body language and tone of voice in police work. In each case we suppose that (a) there is a publicly recognized norm governing the specified conduct within a specific social group, (b) the norm influences individual behavior in some way, and (c) sanctions and internal motivations come into the explanation of conformant behavior. Norm-breakers may come in for rough treatment by the people around them -- which may induce them to honor the norm in the future. And norm-conformers may do so because they have internalized a set of inhibitions about the proscribed behavior.

Here are a number of key empirical and conceptual questions that are raised by norms.
  • What is a norm?
  • How are social norms embodied in behavior and structure?
  • How do individuals internalize norms?
  • How do norms influence behavior?
  • Why do individuals conform their behavior to a set of local norms?
  • What factors stabilize a norm system over time?
  • What social factors influence change in a norm system?
Before we can go much further into this issue, we need to have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by a norm. We might define a norm as --
a socially embodied and individually perceived imperative that such-and-so an action must be performed in such-and-so a fashion.
We can then separate out several other types of questions: First, what induces individuals to conform to the imperative? How do individuals come to have the psychological dispositions to conform to the norm? Second, how is the norm embodied in social relations and behavior? And third, what are the social mechanisms or processes that created the imperative within the given social group? What mechanisms serve to sustain it over time?

To the first question, there seem to be only three possible answers -- and each is in fact socially and psychologically possible. The imperative may be internalized into the motivational space of the individual, so he/she chooses to act according to the imperative (or is habituated to acting in such a way). There may be an effective and well-know system of sanctions that attach to violations of the norms, so the individual has an incentive to comply. These sanctions may be formal or informal. The sanction may be as benign as being laughed at for wearing a hawaiian shirt to a black tie ball (I'll never do that again!), or as severe as being beaten for seeming gay in a cowboy bar. Or, third, there may be benefits from conformance that make conformance a choice that is in the actor's rational self-interest. (Every time one demonstrates that he/she can choose the right fork for dessert, the likelihood of being invited to another formal dinner increases.) Each of these would make sense of the fact that an individual conforms his/her behavior to the requirements of a norm and helps to answer the question, why do individuals conform to norms?

The questions about the social embodiment of a norm are the most difficult. Does the embodiment of a given norm consist simply in the fact that a certain percentage of people in fact behave in accordance with the rule -- for whatever reason? Does the norm exist in virtue of the fact that people consciously champion the norm and impose sanctions on violators? Might we imagine that human beings are normative animals and absorb normative systems in the way that we absorb grammatical systems -- by observing and inferring about the behavior of others?

As for the third cluster of questions about genesis and persistence, there is a range of possibilities here as well. The system may have been designed by one or more deliberate actors. It may have emerged through a fairly random process that is guided by positive social feedback of some sort. It may be the resultant of multiple groups advocating for one set of norms or another to govern a given situation of conflict and/or cooperation. And, conceivably, it may be the result of something analogous to natural selection across small groups: the groups with a more efficient set of norms may out-perform competing groups.

For example, how should we explain the emergence and persistence of a particular set of norms of marriage and reproduction in a given society? Is it causally relevant to observe that "this set of norms results in a rate of fertility that matches the rate of growth of output"? How would this functionally desirable fact play a causal role in the emergence and persistence of this set of norms? Is there any sort of feedback process that we can hypothesize between "norms at time T", "material results of behavior governed by these norms at T+1", and "persistence/change of norms at time T+2"? The business practices of a company are consciously adjusted over time to bring about better overall performance; but what about spontaneously occurring sets of social norms? How do these change over time? Do individuals or groups have the ability to deliberately modify the norms that govern their everyday activities?

It seems inescapable that norms of behavior exist in a society and that individuals adjust their behavior out of regard for relevant norms. The microfoundations of how this works is obscure, however, in that we don't really have good answers to the parallel questions: how do individuals internalize norms? And how do informal practices of norm enforcement work? And what social-causal factors play a role in the emergence, persistence, and change of a system of norms at a given time?

(The photo of the ice rink at Rockefeller Center is intended to evoke several observations about social norms: the facts that the skaters are largely moving in a counter-clockwise direction, no one is carrying a hockey stick, and there are many children present all reflect one aspect or another of the norms governing skating in public arenas.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Analyzing peasant consciousness

painting: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

painting: Edward H. Corbould, Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs. Poyser's Dairy

James Scott is a scholar who has shed more light on the mentality and agency of rural people than almost any other since the reinvigoration of peasant studies in the 1970s. Scott's book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) tried to understand peasant political behavior in southeast Asia through the lens of the norms of justice that were embodied in traditional village societies. His Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987) further advanced his theorizing about the subjective side of class relations—the experience of subordination and the cultural vocabulary in terms of which subordination is lived in particular social circumstances. Here I'd like to reflect on one of his books that is less empirical but no less insightful into the consciousness of the subordinates -- Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1992). This is a book about the experience of domination and indignity that power relations impose upon the powerless. As such it is an important step forward in James Scott’s efforts to provide a language in terms of which to understand underclass politics. Scott takes a big step forward here in helping us find a vocabulary and a more of representation for understanding the mentality of peasants, serfs, and other subalterns. How do they understand their social world? Scott offers a strikingly different interpretation of the social knowledge of the subordinate.

Scott’s central innovation in this work is his distinction between public transcripts (“the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate;” p. 2) and hidden transcripts (“discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders;” p. 4). Scott observes that there is a sharp divide between the behavior, language, and customs that dominated groups assume in public, and the language, jokes, and criticisms that structure their lives within the back streets, slave quarters, or rice paddies of their within-group experience.

Both public transcripts and hidden transcripts have effects on the everyday politics of power. The public transcript is a conventional pattern of speech for the dominated, a stylized public performance through which they adopt the forms of deference and respect for the powerful that are needed to avoid conflict with the powerful. But Scott maintains that this performance is only skin-deep. The dominated are by no means taken in by their own affirmations of the justice and good manners of their masters, and behind the scenes we may expect to hear much raucous laughing, merciless lampooning, and bitter criticism.
Offstage, where subordinates may gather outside the intimidating gaze of power, a sharply dissonant political culture is possible. Slaves in the relative safety of their quarters can speak the words of anger, revenge, self‑ assertion that they must normally choke back when in the presence of the masters and mistresses. (p. 18)
Scott aims to shed light on this hidden transcript, with the idea that an understanding of this level of consciousness of the dominated is much closer to the reality of their lived experience and provides a better basis for understanding their political behavior.

In addition to a varied set of empirical and historical sources, Scott also makes genuinely innovative use of literary works to better understand the hidden transcript. Scott has identified dozens of texts—works by George Eliot, George Orwell, Euripedes, Brer Rabbit, Milan Kundera, Jean Genet, Emile Zola, and many others—in which the divide between the public and hidden transcripts is directly at issue in the novel. These sources have evidentiary value; for example, Scott writes of George Eliot, “Such were Eliot’s powers of observation and insight into her rural society that many of the key issues of domination and resistance can be teased from her story of Mrs. Poyser’s encounter with the squire” (p. 7). But more important is their interpretive value. They permit Scott to communicate to the reader a vivid understanding of the way the hidden transcript works.

Scott’s contention that the hidden transcript is an open-eyed appraisal of existing relations of domination inevitably comes into conflict with theories of ideology and hegemony. Classical Marxist or Gramscian ideas about ideology suggest that dominated groups come to share the values and perceptions of the dominant group. Scott argues that what is taken as hegemony of dominant-group ideas is in fact often only an uncritical observation of the performance of the public transcript. Rather, he suggests that the dominated are perfectly capable of formulat­ing their own criticisms of the social relations in which they find themselves. “A combination of adaptive strategic behavior and the dialogue implicit in most power relations ensures that public action will provide a constant stream of evidence that appears to support an interpretation of ideological hegemony” (p. 70). This interpretation gives a much greater degree of agency and knowledge to the dominated.

Scott is one of the relatively few social scientists of the past forty years who have consistently offered us new concepts and frameworks in terms of which to understand the social reality we confront. "Moral economy," "weapons of the weak," and "hidden transcripts" are all conceptual innovations that have significantly altered the ways we have for understanding and analyzing the social realities associated with domination and resistance. And this is a very important contribution to the intellectual challenge of describing and explaining these complex social realities.

(Scott's most recent book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999), is also a tour-de-force; more on that in a subsequent posting.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Institutions, procedures, norms

One of the noteworthy aspects of the framing offered by Victor Nee and Mary Brinton of the assumptions of the new institutionalism is the very close connection they postulate between institutions and norms. (See the prior posting on this subject). So what is the connection between institutions and norms?

The idea that an institution is nothing more than a collections of norms, formal and informal, seems incomplete on its face. Institutions also depend on rules, procedures, protocols, sanctions, and habits and practices. These other social behavioral factors perhaps intersect in various ways with the workings of social norms, but they are not reducible to a set of norms. And this is to say that institutions are not reducible to a collection of norms.

Consider for example the institutions that embody the patient safety regime in a hospital. What are the constituents of the institutions through which hospitals provide for patient safety? Certainly there are norms, both formal and informal, that are deliberately inculcated and reinforced and that influence the behavior of nurses, pharmacists, technicians, and doctors. But there are also procedures -- checklists in operating rooms; training programs -- rehearsals of complex crisis activities; routinized behaviors -- "always confirm the patient's birthday before initiating a procedure"; and rules -- "physicians must disclose financial relationships with suppliers". So the institutions defining the management of patient safety are a heterogeneous mix of social factors and processes.

A key feature of an institution, then, is the set of procedures and protocols that it embodies. In fact, we might consider a short-hand way of specifying an institution in terms of the set of procedures it specifies for behavior in stereotyped circumstances of crisis, conflict, cooperation, and mundane interactions with stakeholders. Organizations have usually created specific ways of handling typical situations: handling an intoxicated customer in a restaurant, making sure that no "wrong site" surgeries occur in an operating room, handling the flow of emergency supplies into a region when a large disaster occurs. The idea here is that the performance of the organization, and the individuals within it, will be more effective at achieving the desired goals of the organization if plans and procedures have been developed to coordinate actions in the most effective way possible. This is the purpose of an airline pilot's checklist before takeoff; it forces the pilot to go through a complete procedure that has been developed for the purpose of avoiding mistakes. Spontaneous, improvised action is sometimes unavoidable; but organizations have learned that they are more effective when they thoughtfully develop procedures for handling their high-risk activities.

This is the point at which the categories of management oversight and staff training come into play. It is one thing to have designed an effective set of procedures for handling a given complex task; but this achievement is only genuinely effective if agents within the organization in fact follow the procedures and protocols. Training is the umbrella activity that describes the processes through which the organization attempts to achieve a high level of shared knowledge about the organization's procedures. And management oversight is the umbrella activity that describes the processes of supervision and motivation through which the organization attempts to ensure that its agents follow the procedures and protocols.

In fact, one of the central findings in the area of safety research is that the specific content of the procedures of an organization that engages in high-risk activities is crucially important to the overall safety performance of the organization. Apparently small differences in procedure can have an important effect on safety. To take a fairly trivial example, the construction of a stylized vocabulary and syntax for air traffic controllers and pilots increases safety by reducing the possibility of ambiguous communications; so two air traffic systems that were identical except with respect to the issue of standardized communications protocols will be expected to have different safety records. Another key finding falls more on the "norms and culture" side of the equation; it is frequently observed that high-risk organizations need to embody a culture of safety that permeates the whole organization.

We might postulate that norms come into the story when we get to the point of asking what motivates a person to conform to the prescribed procedure or rule -- though there are several other social-behavioral mechanisms that work at this level as well (trained habits, well enforced sanctions, for example). But more fundamentally, the explanatory value of the micro-institutional analysis may come in at the level of the details of the procedures and rules in contrast to other possible embodiments -- rather than at the level of the question, what makes these procedures effective in most participants' conduct?

We might say, then, that an institution can be fully specified when we provide information about:
  • the procedures, policies, and protocols it imposes on its participants
  • the training and educational processes the institution relies on for instilling appropriate knowledge about its procedures and rules in its participants
  • the management, supervision, enforcement, and incentive mechanisms it embodies to assure a sufficient level of compliance among its participants
  • the norms of behavior that typical participants have internalized with respect to action within the institution
And the distinctive performance characteristics of the institution may derive from the specific nature of the arrangements that are described at each of these levels.

System safety is a good example to consider from the point of view of the new institutionalism. Two airlines may have significantly different safety records. And the explanation may be at any of these levels: they may have differences in formalized procedures, they may have differences in training regimes, they may have differences in management oversight effectiveness, or they may have different normative cultures at the rank-and-file level. It is a central insight of the new institutionalism that the first level may be the most important for explaining the overall safety records of the two companies, even though mechanisms may fail at any of the other levels as well. Procedural differences generally lead to significant and measurable differences in the quality of organizational results. (Nancy Leveson's Safeware: System Safety and Computers provides a great discussion of many of these issues.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The new institutionalism

The new institutionalism in sociology is a particularly promising prism through which to understand a lot of social behavior and change. Victor Nee and Paul Ingram define the approach in these terms in "Embeddedness and Beyond" in The New Institutionalism in Sociology:
Specifying the mechanisms through which institutions shape the parameters of choice is important to an adequate sociological understanding of economic action. These social mechanisms, we argue, involve processes that are built into ongoing social relationships -- the domain of network analysis in sociology. Yet, how institutions and networks combine to determine economic and organizational performance is inadequately theorized in the sociological study of economic life.

An institution is a web of interrelated norms -- formal and informal -- governing social relationships. It is by structuring social interactions that institutions produce group performance, in such primary groups as families and work units as well as in social units as large as organizations and even entire economies. (Nee and Ingram, p. 19)
The new institutional economics is essentially a marriage of the familiar assumptions of rational choice theory with the observation that “institutions matter”—that is, that the behavior of purposive individuals depends critically on the institutional constraints within which they act, and the institutional constraints themselves are under-determined by material and economic circumstances. So institutions evolve in response to the strategic actions of a field of actors. The paragraphs quoted above make it clear that the approach stipulates a very tight relationship between institutions and norms regulating behavior. The approach pays close attention to the importance of transaction costs in economic activity (the costs of supervision of a work force, for example, or the cost of collecting information on compliance with a contract). And it postulates that institutions emerge and persist as a solution to specific problems of social coordination.

Topics of central concern to the practitioners of the new institutionalism include principal-agent problems (the costs of assuring that one’s agents are performing their functions according to the interests of the principal); the design of alternative systems of property rights; collective action problems; and mechanisms of collective decision-making. In each instance the analysis is designed to illuminate the ways in which institutional arrangements have been selected (or have evolved) in such ways as to respond to an important element of transaction costs. It bears pointing out that this approach does not assume that “optimal” institutions emerge, since the actual institutions selected depend on the distribution of political power across groups and their antecedent interests. This point is richly born out in Robert Bates’s important arguments concerning government agricultural policies in other parts of Africa (Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies) and also in Jack Knight's efforts to frame the conflictual elements of institutions (Institutions and Social Conflict).

Here is a striking example of a new-institutionalist analysis of a concrete sociological phenomenon: Jean Ensminger's account of bridewealth in the cattle-herding culture of Kenya (Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society). First, some background. The cattle-herding economic regime of the Orma pastoralists of Kenya underwent substantial changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Commons grazing practices began to give way to restricted pasturage; wage labor among herders came to replace familial and patron-client relations; and a whole series of changes in the property system surrounding the cattle economy transpired as well. This is an excellent example for empirical study from a new-institutionalist perspective. What explained the particular configuration of norms and institutions of the earlier period? And what social pressures led to the transition towards a more impersonal relationship between owners and herders?

Ensminger examines these questions from the perspective of the new institutionalism. Building on the theoretical frameworks of Douglass North and others, she undertakes to provide an analysis of the workings of traditional Orma cattle-management practices and an explanation of the process of change and dissolution that these practices underwent in the decades following 1960. The book puts forward a combination of close ethnographic detail and sophisticated use of theoretical ideas to explain complex local phenomena.

How does the new institutionalism approach help to explain the features of the traditional Orma cattle regime identified by Ensminger’s study? The key institutions in the earlier period are the terms of employment of cattle herders in mobile cattle camps. The traditional employment practice takes the pattern of an embroidered patron-client relation. The cattle owner provides a basic wage contract to the herder (food, clothing, and one head of cattle per year). The good herder is treated paternally, with additional “gifts” at the end of the season (additional clothing, an additional animal, and payment of the herder’s bridewealth after years of service). The relation between patron and client is multi-stranded, enduring, and paternal.

Ensminger understands this traditional practice as a solution to an obvious principal-agent problem associated with mobile cattle camps. Supervision costs are very high, since the owner does not travel with the camp. The owner must depend on the herder to use his skill and diligence in a variety of difficult circumstances—rescuing stranded cattle, searching out lost animals, and maintaining control of the herd during harsh conditions. There are obvious short-term incentives and opportunities for the herder to cheat the employer—e.g. allowing stranded animals to perish, giving up on searches for lost animals, or even selling animals during times of distress. The patron-client relation gives the herder a long-term incentive to provide high-quality labor, for the quality of work can be assessed at the end of the season by assessment of the health and size of the herd. The patron has an incentive to cheat the client—e.g. by refusing to pay the herder’s bridewealth after years of service. But here the patron’s interest in reputation comes into play: a cattle owner with a reputation for cheating his clients will find it difficult to recruit high-quality herders.

This account serves to explain the evolution and persistence of the patron-client relation in cattle-camps on the basis of transaction costs (costs of supervision). Arrangements will be selected that serve to minimize transaction costs. In the circumstances of traditional cattle-rearing among the Orma the transaction costs of a straight wage-labor system are substantially greater than those associated with a patron-client system. Therefore the patron-client system is selected.

This framework would also suggest that if transaction costs change substantially (through improved transportation, for example, or through the creation of fixed grazing areas), that the terms of employment would change as well (in the direction of less costly pure wage-labor contracts). And in fact this is what Ensminger finds among the Orma. When villages begin to establish “restricted grazing areas” in the environs of the village, it is feasible for cattle owners to directly supervise the management of their herds; and in these circumstances Ensminger finds an increase in pure wage labor contracts.

New institutionalism is a particularly appealing sociological framework from the point of view of the philosophy of society involved here because it asks the right sorts of questions at the right level. The level of analysis is fairly close to the ground -- fairly proximate to the actions of socially embedded agents. And the questions that are posed are key: what social problems is a given set of institutions solving? How do these institutions relate to the purposive actions of individuals? And what are the social mechanisms that stabilize or destabilize a given institutional configuration at a certain point in time?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Norms and deliberative rationality

Why do people cooperate? That is, what motivates individuals to come together to share labor and resources in pursuit of a common good from which they cannot be excluded -- fighting fires, hunting marauding tigers, cleaning up a public beach? Standard rational choice theory, and its application to problems of individual rationality in group settings, implies that cooperation should be unstable in the face of free-riding. This was Mancur Olson's central conclusion in his classic book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Roughly, his conclusion was that cooperation would be possible only if there were excludable side benefits for participants, selective coercion to enforce cooperation, or privatization of the gains of collective action. Otherwise, it is prisoners' dilemmas all the way down. However, we know from many social contexts that individuals do in fact succeed in establishing cooperative relationships without any of these supporting conditions. So what are we missing when we consider social action from the narrow perspective of rational choice theory?

A part of the answer to this puzzle involves the role of norms in action. Here the criticism is that the rational-choice approach, by attending solely to calculations of self-interest, is blind to the workings of normative frameworks; but in fact norms are powerful factors underlying behavior in most traditional contexts. This perspective finds expression in the moral economy literature within peasant studies -- e.g. James Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. (This debate is sometimes referred to as one between formalists and substantivists. Karl Polanyi is another good example of the substantivist perspective (The Great Transformation), while Sam Popkin (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam) and Theodore Schultz (Transforming Traditional Agriculture) fall on the side of the formalists.)

According to the substantivist perspective, traditional societies are communities: tightly cohesive groups of persons sharing a distinctive set of values in stable, continuing relations to one another (Michael Taylor Community, Anarchy and Liberty). The central threats to security and welfare are well-known to such groups--excessive or deficient rainfall, attacks by bandits, predatory tax policies by the central government, etc. And village societies have evolved schemes of shared values and cooperative practices and institutions which are well-adapted to handling these problems of risk and welfare in ways which protect the subsistence needs of all villagers adequately in all but the most extreme circumstances. The substantivists thus maintain that traditions and norms are fundamental social factors, and that individual behavior is almost always modulated through powerful traditional motivational constraints. One consequence of this modulation is that many societies do not display a sharp distinction between group interest and individual interest that is predicted by collective action theory. (An important theoretical defense of this conclusion can be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom and her fellow researchers in their treatment of "common property resource regimes"; see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

There are, of course, well-known social and behavioral processes that may tend to undermine the working of a given set of norms. Normative systems are inherently ambiguous and subject to revision over time. Consequently we should expect that opportunistic agents will find ways of adapting given social norms more comfortably to the pursuit of self-interest. Consider the requirement that elites should provide for the subsistence needs of the poor in times of dearth. There are some grounds for supposing that such a requirement is in the longterm interest of elites--for example, by promoting social stability and establishing bonds of reciprocity with other members of an interdependent society. But it seems reasonable to expect that elites--already by their superior economic position able to exercise political and social power as well--will find ways of limiting the effect of such norms on their behavior. So it is insufficient to simply postulate a set of governing norms; we need to identify the mechanisms at the group and individual levels that make them behaviorally relevant and stable. But, significantly, some theorists have tried to show that rational self-interest may actually reinforce certain kinds of norms of fairness and reciprocity; thus Robert Axelrod's analysis of the dynamics of reciprocity demonstrates that cooperation is rational in relation to a variety of circumstances of face-to-face cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition.

These points notwithstanding, there remains a credible line of criticism of the rational-choice paradigm based on the role of norms in behavior. For it is clear that individuals pay some attention to normative constraints within the process of rational deliberation. The model of simple maximizing decision-making is overly abstract; instead, we need to have a conception of rational action that permits us to incorporate some consideration of normative requirements as well as purposes and goals. We need a broader conception of practical rationality that incorporates both means-end rationality and normative deliberation; we need a theory that embraces both Mill and Aristotle.

A number of social scientists have taken this point seriously. Particularly profound is the critique of pure rational choice theory offered by Amartya Sen in an essay called "Rational Fools" (jstor link; and here is the introduction to a recent symposium on the article in Economics and Philosophy). Sen criticizes the assumption of pure self-interest which is contained in the standard conception. Against the assumption of self-interested maximizing decision-making, Sen argues for a proposal for a more structured concept of practical reason: one which permits the decision-maker to take account of commitments. This concept covers a variety of non-welfare features of reasoning, but moral principle (fairness and reciprocity) and altruistic concern for the welfare of others are central among these. Sen believes that the role of commitment is centrally important in the analysis of individuals' behavior with regard to public goods, and he draws connections between the role of commitment and work motivation. He argues, therefore, that in order to understand different areas of rational behavior it is necessary to consider both utility-maximizing decision-making and rational conduct influenced by commitment; and it is an empirical question whether one factor or the other is predominant in a particular range of behavior. Thus Sen holds that an adequate theory of rationality requires more structure than a simple utility-maximizing model would allow; in particular, it needs to take account of moral norms and commitments.

These arguments are telling; the model of narrow economic rationality makes overly restrictive assumptions about the role of norms in rational behavior. Human behavior is the resultant of several different forms of motive--self-interest, fairness, and altruism; and several different types of decision-making processes--maximizing and deliberation. A more adequate model of broadened practical rationality therefore needs to incorporate a decision rule that represents the workings of moral constraints and commitments as well as goal-directed calculation. This rule should reduce to the familiar utility maximizing rule in circumstances in which moral constraints are not prominent -- e.g., in decision-making within a market. But in situations where important norms of behavior are in play, we need to try to reproduce the more complex deliberation processes that real human decision-makers undergo in order to combine their normative commitments and their goals and preferences.

This is not a small problem, however; for one of the chief merits of the paradigm of narrow economic rationality is its parsimony--the fact that it reduces rational choice to a single dimension of deliberation. Once we require that rational choice theory needs to take normative constraints and commitments into account as well as interests, it is much more difficult to provide formal models of rational choice. However, some progress has been made on this problem. For example, Howard Margolis (Selfishness, Altruism, and Rationality) attempts to formalize represent rational deliberation in the presence of public goods as the result of two utility functions, one representing the individual's private interests and the other the individual's appraisal of the public good; the two functions are then aggregated by a higher order decision rule. (John Harsanyi makes similar arguments.)

This broadening of the conception of individual rationality has important implications. For example, consider public goods problems. Once we consider a more complex theory of practical deliberation, formal arguments concerning freeriding problems in real social groups will be indeterminate. On a more complex, and more empirically adequate, account of practical reason, conditional altruism, cooperation, and reciprocity may be deliberatively rational choices; therefore we would expect a social group consisting of rational individuals to show signs of cooperation and conditional altruism. And the challenge for sociology is to identify the mechanisms of individual deliberation and social reinforcement that serve to stabilize the system of norms and the behaviors that conform to them. This is one of the tasks that the field of new institutionalism has taken on (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, eds., The New Institutionalism in Sociology).