Sunday, March 22, 2009

Acting as a group

What is involved in acting as a group? What is the difference between a crowd of pedestrians crossing Mass Ave in Cambridge when the light changes and a group of students marching into Harvard Hall in an attempt to initiate a protest? How about the difference between a group of history graduate students pursuing research simultaneously but separately on early New England diseases in Widener Library, and a research group of scientists collaborating to discover the mechanism of HIV transmission at the cellular level?

The intuitive answer to these questions is pretty clear. A group activity requires some level of collective intentions and purposes on the parts of the participants towards each other and towards the group itself. A group is more than an ensemble of individuals performing a similar set of actions (pedestrians, independent researchers). Rather, we want to see some indication that the individuals regard themselves as members of the group; that they embrace some conception of the action that members of the group propose to perform; and that they individually choose their plans of action out of consideration of this group or collective purpose. In a group's actions, the individuals who make up the group are oriented towards the group and its goals and purposes. In other words, groups are constituted by some form of group-oriented intentionality on the part of individual members, and group actions are performed by individuals who have adopted a set of beliefs and attitudes towards other members of the group and its collective purposes.

There are quite a few complications that arise here, however. Here is one: many collective activities involve participants with a wide range of affiliation with the collective purpose. There are core members who explicitly and emphatically declare adherence to the collective goal and plan. There are some who are willing followers without a clear idea of the purpose or plan. There are opportunistic joiners who have their own private reasons for joining the group project. And there may even be a degree of disagreement within the group about goals, strategies, and tactics -- with the result that many committed members nonetheless differ from each other with respect to their collective intentions. And these aren't sharp distinctions in most cases -- so a given collectivity may consist of a deeply mixed group of individuals with respect to their understandings, purposes, and affinities for the collective action.

Several philosophers have focused on this set of problems surrounding "group intentions". Margaret Gilbert thinks there is a sharp distinction between group intentions and individual intentions (On Social Facts). More recently, Raimo Tuomela refers to "we" intentions and "I" intentions in order to explain the defining characteristics of group behavior in The Philosophy of Social Practices: A Collective Acceptance View. Both Gilbert and Tuomela seem to think that groups have intentions that are autonomous from the purposes and intentions of members of the group -- a sort of Durkheimian view of the autonomous reality of the mentality of groups. What these approaches have in common is a desire to postulate a strong distinction in levels between group intentions and individual intentions.

Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”. The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber, by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3).

I don't find this collectivist approach to "individuals behaving as groups" at all convincing, for several reasons. One is the point mentioned above about the heterogeneity of individual motivations and purposes within a group activity. This seems to imply that there couldn't be a coherent, univalent group intention that stands separate from the individuals who constitute the group. Instead, there are only the somewhat polyglot collective intentions within agents, with some degree of within-group communication and shaping about their shared collective purposes.

Second, there is the general skeptical point about "spooky" social entities -- entities that are thought to have an existence independent from the states of agency and mind of the individuals who make up the social world. How could one possibly imagine that there is a collective intention associated with the Burmese monks in 2007, standing separate and independent from the beliefs, assumptions, loyalties, and adherences of many individual monks and networks of monks?

And here is a third puzzle. We need to have some idea of the concrete social processes through which group-oriented intentions are created at the individual level in particular social circumstances. We need to know something about the microfoundations of group formation. It doesn't help to simply postulate "collective intentions"; we need to have a concrete sociology of the ways in which individuals come to have group-oriented beliefs, values, and motives.

Finally, the "autonomous collectivity" view doesn't work very well when we try to use it to interpret the practice of gifted social scientists who attempt to explain collective action. E. P. Thompson, James Scott, Chuck Tilly, Doug McAdam, and William Sewell all devote a lot of their effort to explaining how specific social collectivities came to define themselves as "groups" and came to act in a collective way. But their approaches are invariably based on understanding the many threads of mobilization, structure, and meaning at the disaggregated level that eventually build up to a movement. Thompson's metal workers, Scott's Southeast Asian peasant rebels, Tilly's Vendeans, McAdam's civil rights activists and followers, and Sewell's Marseillaise craftsmen all reflect the variation and concrete historical construction of individual consciousness within concrete political movements that confirms the variability and agentic nature of social movements and group identity.

That said, there is still a crucial role for group-oriented thoughts and purposes at the level of at least some of the participants in a group. Without these group intentions at the individual level, we couldn't say that there is a group at all -- only a collection of individually oriented individual actors. Something like this must be true for at least some of the members of a group action:
  • X regards a set of other individuals as constituting a group G to which he/she belongs;
  • X believes that G has a common interest or need N;
  • X is motivated to join in concert with others in G in such a way as to bring about N;
  • X believes that some significant number of other members of the group share these collective thoughts, purposes, and motives;
  • X believes that some significant number of G will act accordingly;
  • and X has a consequent motivation to engage in the collective action.
One additional condition seems to be pragmatically required in order for these conditions to arise: there must be some tangible process of communication and mobilization through which the group-oriented intentional states mentioned here are created in the various individuals.

So there are mandatory group-oriented states of mind that are part of the constitution of a group. But notice this key fact: these features of beliefs, intentions, and motives that I have mentioned are all located at the level of the individual actors. There is no higher-level collectivity that possesses an independent "group intention". So a group is constituted by the states of intentionality and belief of its members, and the concrete processes of communication and mobilization through which a degree of group-orientedness and coherence emerges within the states of mind of the participants. Weber was right after all! Fundamentally, there are only three social-intentional states postulated here: affiliation, mutual recognition, and solidarity. And there is a postulate about the micro-social processes through which these are cultivated: mobilization, communication, and embodied social networks.

And this analysis in turn is entirely compatible with the perspective of methodological localism that I've mentioned several times here.

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