Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wealth inequality

When we talk about inequality in the United States, we usually have a couple of different things in mind. We think immediately of income inequality. Inequalities of important life outcomes come to mind (health, housing, education), and, of course, we think of the inequalities of opportunity that are created by a group's social location (race, urban poverty, gender). But a fundamental form of inequality in our society is a factor that influences each of these: inequalities of wealth across social groups. Wealth refers to the ownership of property, tangible and intangible: for example, real estate, stocks and bonds, savings accounts, businesses, factories, mines, forests, and natural resources. Two facts are particularly important when it comes to wealth: first, that wealth is in general very unevenly distributed in the United States, and second, that there are very striking inequalities when we look at the average wealth of major social groups.

Edward Wolff has written quite a bit about the facts and causes of wealth inequality in the United States. A recent book, Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, Second Edition, is particularly timely; also of interest is Assets for the Poor: The Benefits of Spreading Asset Ownership. Wolff summarizes his conclusion in these stark terms:
The gap between haves and have-nots is greater now--at the start of the twenty-first century--than at anytime since 1929. The sharp increase in inequality since the late 1970s has made wealth distribution in the United States more unequal than it is in what used to be perceived as the class-ridden societies of northwestern Europe. ... The number of households worth $1,000,000 or more grew by almost 60 percent; the number worth $10,000,000 or more almost quadrupled. (2-3)
The international comparison of wealth inequality is particularly interesting. Wolff provides a chart of the share of marketable wealth held by the top percentile in the UK, Sweden, and the US, from 1920 to 1992. The graph is striking. Sweden starts off in 1920 with 40% of wealth in the hands of the top one percent, and falls fairly steadily to just under 20% in 1992. UK starts at a staggering 60% (!) in the hands of the top 1 percent in 1920, and again, falls steadily to a 1992 level of just over 20%. The US shows a different pattern. It starts at 35% in 1920 (lowest of all three countries); then rises and falls slowly around the 30% level. The US then begins a downward trend in the mid-1960s, falling to a low of 20% in the 1970s; and then, during the Reagan years and following, the percent of wealth rises to roughly 35%. So we are roughly back to where we were in 1920 when it comes to wealth inequalities in the United States, by this measure.

Why does this kind of inequality matter? Partly because significant inequalities of wealth have important implications for such things as the relative political power of various groups; the opportunities that groups have within and across generations; and the relative security that various individuals and groups have when faced with economic adversity. People who own little or nothing have little to fall back on when they lose a job, face a serious illness, or move into retirement. People who have a lot of wealth, by contrast, are able to exercise a disproportionate amount of political influence; they are able to ensure that their children are well educated and well prepared for careers; and they have substantial buffers when times are hard.

Wolff offers a good summary of the empirical data about wealth inequalities in the United States. But we'd also like to know something about the mechanisms through which this concentration of wealth occurs. Several mechanisms come readily to mind. People who have wealth have an advantage in gathering the information necessary to increase their wealth; they have networks of other wealth holders who can improve their access to opportunities for wealth acquisition; they have advantages in gaining advanced professional and graduate training that increase their likelihood of assuming high positions in wealth-creating enterprises; and they can afford to include high-risk, high-gain strategies in their investment portfolios. So there is a fairly obvious sense in which wealth begets wealth.

But part of this system of inequality of wealth ownership in the United States has to do with something else: the workings of race. The National Urban League publishes an annual report on "The State of Black America." One of the measures that it tracks is the "wealth gap" -- the differential in home ownership between black and white adults. This gap continues to persist, and many leaders in the effort towards achieving equality of opportunity across racial groups point to this structural inequality as a key factor. Here is a very good study on home ownership trends for black and white adults done by George Masnick at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard (2001). The gap in the 1990s fluctuated around 28% -- so, for example, in 1988-1998 about 52% of blacks between 45 and 54 were home owners, whereas about 80% of non-Hispanic whites in this age group were homeowners (figure 5). Historical practices of mortgage discrimination against specific neighborhoods influence home ownership rates, as do other business practices associated with the workings of residential segregation. Some of these mechanisms are illustrated in Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue's The New Suburban History, and Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age provides an absorbing account of how challenging "home ownership" was for professional black families in Detroit in the 1920s.

So what are the remedies for the very high level of wealth inequality that is found in the United States? Wolff focuses on tax remedies, and certainly these need to be a part of the story. But remedying the social obstacles that exist for disadvantaged families to gain property -- most fundamentally, disadvantages that derive from the educational opportunities that are offered to children and young people in inner-city neighborhoods -- is crucial as well. It seems axiomatic that the greatest enhancement that can be offered to a young person is a good education; and this is true in the question of wealth acquisition no less than the acquisition of other socially desirable things.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Scale" in history: micro, meso, macro

Doing history forces us to make choices about the scale of the history with which we are concerned. Take the analogy suggested by the maps above. Are we concerned with Asia, China, or Shandong? Or in historical terms, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution; the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the 1940s? And given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes a big difference to the findings (post).

Historians differ fundamentally around the decisions they make about scale. William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village – a collection of a few hundred families (Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village). The book covers a few years and the events of a few hundred people. Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time (Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error). Diane Vaughan offers a full study of the fateful decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA). She hopes to shed light on high-risk technology decision-making through careful study of a single incident. These histories are limited in time and space, and they can appropriately be called “micro-history.”

At the other end of the scale spectrum, William McNeill provides a history of the world (A World History) and a history of the world’s diseases (Plagues and Peoples); Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world’s population (A Concise History of World Population); Jared Diamond offers a history of the interrelationships between the Old World and the New World through the medium of weapons and disease (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies); and Goudsblom and De Vries provide an environmental history of the world (Mappae Mundi: Humans and their Habitats in a Long-Term Socio-Ecological Perspective: Myths, Maps and Models). In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time. These histories can certainly be called “macro-history.”

Both micro- and macro-history have important shortcomings. Micro-history leaves us with the question, “how does this particular village shed light on anything larger?”. And macro-history leaves us with the question, “how do these grand assertions about causality really work out in the context of Canada or Sichuan?”. The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes.

There is a third choice available to the historian, however, that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional – for example, G. William Skinner’s analysis of the macro-regions of China (post). It might be national – for example, a social history of Indonesia (M. C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200). And it might be supra-national – for example, an economic history of Western Europe. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

Here are a few works that represent the best of meso-history: R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience; Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy; and Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 - 1992. Wong and Tilly define their scope in terms of supra-national regions. Pomeranz argues for a sub-national scale: comparison of England's agricultural heartland with the Yangzi region in China. Each pays close attention to the problem of defining the level of scale that works best for the particular task. And each does a stellar job of identifying the concrete social processes and relationships that hold this regional social system together.

Both macro- and meso-history fall in the general category of "large-scale" history. So let's analyze this conception of history. Large-scale history can be defined in these terms.
  • The inquiry defines its scope over a long time period and/or a large geographical range;
  • the inquiry undertakes to account for large structural characteristics, processes, and conditions as historical outcomes;
  • the inquiry singles out large structural characteristics within the social order as central causes leading to the observed historical outcomes;
  • the inquiry aspires to some form of comparative generality across historical contexts, both in its diagnosis of causes and its attribution of patterns of stability and development.
Large-scale history falls in several categories.
  • History of the “long durée”—accounts of the development of the large-scale features of a particular region, nation, or civilization, including population history, economic history, political history, war and peace, cultural formations, and religion
  • Comparative history—a comparative account, grounded in a particular set of questions, of the similarities and contrasts of related institutions or circumstances in separated contexts. E.g. states, economic institutions, patterns of agriculture, property systems, bureaucracies. The objective is to discover causal regularities, test existing social theories, and formulate new social theories
  • World history—accounts of the major civilizations of the world and their histories of internal development and inter-related contact and development
The choice of scale is always pertinent in historical analysis. And in many instances, I believe that the most interesting analysis takes place at the meso-level. At this level we get explanations that have a great deal of power and breadth, and yet that are also closely tied to the concrete historical experience of the subject matter.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How good is deliberative democracy?

The basic idea of deliberative democracy is an appealing one. Suppose we are faced with this basic problem of social choice. There is an important issue facing a community. There are a small number of policy options that might be chosen. The community wants to choose among these options "democratically." There are several ways in which this task might be approached. First, the options might simply be rank-ordered by a referendum. It takes an hour, the votes are counted, and a decision is reached. "The ayes have it." Or, second, the options might be the subject of an extensive community-based forum, involving substantial debate and discussion of each option. Then, at the end of the period of debate, the community might be asked to select its preferred option -- this time, however, in a context in which voters have adjusted their thinking according to the facts and values that were involved in the discussion. Citizens have learned from each other, and many have changed their prior beliefs and preferences.

The approach that starts and ends with voting among alternatives has a major shortcoming: no one gets a chance to make persuasive arguments to other citizens; no one has the opportunity of having his/her own beliefs challenged; no one is exposed to new facts or novel considerations that might make a difference in the choice. In other words, the "vote first" approach simply takes people's preferences and beliefs as fixed, and looks at the problem of choice as simply one of aggregating these antecedent preferences.

The deliberative approach, by contrast, looks at belief formation as itself a cumulative and reasonable process; one in which the individual needs to have the opportunity to think through the facts and values that surround the choice; and, crucially, one in which exposure to other people's reasoning is an important part of arriving at a sound conclusion.

Notice how different this process is by comparison with the talk radio paradigm -- short blasts of opinion by people whose opinions are already fully cast in concrete; no opportunity for "listening for learning" among the participants; no willingness to keep an open mind in consideration of a factually and morally complex issue.

It seems intuitively persuasive that a belief in democracy ought to lead to a belief in deliberative democracy: informed and reflective preferences expressed by citizens who have taken the time to listen to the views of their fellow citizens. The advantages of deliberative democracy might include several good things:
  • a greater likelihood of a good decision (because citizens do a more adequate job of canvassing the facts and values that ought to guide the decision);
  • a deeper understanding of the idea of rational deliberation about what to do; and
  • a greater likelihood of mutual understanding and consensus among citizens.
The first point is a version of the idea of the wisdom of the crowd; by surfacing the beliefs, values, and perspectives of numerous people we are enabled to arrive at a more adequate understanding of the complexities of the problem at hand. The second point expresses the intuition that rationality doesn't concern itself merely with finding the best means of accomplishing a given end, but also in deliberating about the ends themselves. The third point is a version of Rousseau's idea of the general will or Rawls's idea of reflective equilibrium: the idea that citizens will come to a shared understanding of each other's reasoning and to something closer to agreement, by engaging in spirited dialogue with each other. So a political community is one that has engaged in deep and respectful dialogue. And a deliberative community will be a stable community with bonds of civility that sustain it through rancorous issues. This appears to be Rawls's view in Political Liberalism. (Though for a contrary view about the value of deliberative democracy, see Ian Shapiro's The State of Democratic Theory.)

James Fishkin has written quite a bit on the subject of deliberative democracy, from the level of pure normative theory to the level of practical implementation. See When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation and Debating Deliberative Democracy. On the practical end of the spectrum, Fishkin has developed a technique he refers to as "deliberative polling" -- "a technique which combines deliberation in small group discussions with scientific random sampling to provide public consultation for public policy and for electoral issues" (link). Here is how the technique is described:
Deliberative Polling® is an attempt to use television and public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues. link
The goal of this method is to allow the researcher to infer to a hypothetical result: what values, judgments, or choices would a group of citizens have arrived at if they had undergone an extensive process of deliberation about the issue? For example, the technique has been applied to the question of Vermont's energy future:
The Deliberative Poll® questioned an initial random sample of Vermonters, recruited them to spend a weekend deliberating the issues of how Vermont should meet its future electricity needs, and then questioned them again at the conclusion of the weekend sessions. The results addressed a large number of policy issues: for example, what reliance should be placed on energy efficiency and on energy from various sources like wind, nuclear, and hydro in meeting Vermont’s future electricity needs; whether the state should continue to buy energy from existing suppliers and whether the state should rely more on a few large central facilities or a larger number of smaller and more geographically distributed ones. (link)
The approach offers several things: first, a concrete tool for approximating a deliberative process; but second, and more important, some concrete empirical evidence permitting assessment of the foundational question -- does a process of deliberation change citizens' attitudes, beliefs, and preferences? And the answer appears to be "yes": deliberation influences ultimate choices. (It is worth visiting the website for the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.)

Here is another interesting example -- a current effort to gain more insight into informed public opinion about a highly complex issue: the principles on the basis of which U.S. citizens make judgments about what health conditions ought to be included in healthcare coverage. The Center for Healthcare Decisions in California (link) recently released the results of a study on citizens' values surrounding healthcare policy. The study is "What Matters Most: Californians' Priorities for Healthcare Coverage," and it is an effort to get a more nuanced understanding of the considerations that citizens appeal to in trying to sort out issues of health policy. The study involved interviews with hundreds of respondents, based on a number of vignettes describing healthcare needs. The respondents were asked to recommend rate the priority of the vignette for inclusion within the list of conditions covered by a health plan. For example:
Scenario: A 24-year-old woman has long- standing asthma that prevents her from being active. With an inhaler and medications, she can live a more normal life.
Questions: 1) On a scale of 1 to 10, what priority would you give to cover this if you were designing a health plan for a general population in California? 2) Given that the more that health insurance covers, the more the plan may cost you and others, would you want health insurance to cover this service or not?

Researchers then followed up with focus group discussions of the same vignettes in order to arrive at a better understanding of the underlying reasoning that seemed to be at work. The results are fascinating; there is a nuanced but principled set of values that seem to guide most people's judgments about the vignettes. The executive summary is here.

Both these approaches are interesting for much the same reason: they provide a basis for delving more deeply into the reasoning and values that citizens use when they arrive at judgments about complex and important issues. And they suggest ways in which some of the guiding intuitions underlying the theory of deliberative democracy might be introduced into practical political processes.

Is it realistic to imagine that deliberative democracy might become more of our customary way of making decisions about complex issues?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Power elites after fifty years

When C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956, we lived in a simpler time. And yet, with a few important exceptions, the concentration of power that he described continues to seem familiar by today's standards. The central idea is that the United States democracy -- in spite of the reality of political parties, separation of powers, contested elections, and elected representation -- actually embodied a hidden system of power and influence that negated many of these democratic ideals. The first words of the book are evocative:
The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.
And a page or two later, here is how he describes the "power elite":
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.
Mills offers a sort of middle-level sociology of power in America. He believes that power in the America of the 1950s centers in the economic, political, and military domains -- corporations, the state, and the military are all organized around networks of influence at the top of which stands a relatively small number of extremely powerful people. (It seems that Mills's description of the military is less apt today; perhaps not surprising, given that Mills was writing in the middle of the Cold War.) Power is defined as the ability to achieve what one wants over the opposition of others; and the levers of power are the great institutions in society -- corporations, political institutions, and the military. And the thesis is that a relatively compact group of people exercise hegemony in each of these areas. Moreover, power leads often to wealth, in that power permits firms and individuals to gain access to society's wealth. So a power elite is often also an economic elite.

The central thrust of the book stands in sharp opposition to the fundamental assumption of then-current democratic theory: the idea that American democracy is a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others (Robert Dahl (1959), A Preface to Democratic Theory). Against this pluralistic view, Mills postulates that members of mass society are dominated, more or less visibly, by a small group of powerful people in the elite. (See an earlier posting on power as influence for discussion of how power works.)

So what is Mills's theory, exactly? It is that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

And, of course, there needs to be a theory about recruitment and the social mechanisms of steering given individuals into the elite group. Is it family background? Is it the accident of attendance at Yale? Is it a meritocracy through which talented young people eventually grasp the sinews of power through their own achievement in the organizations of power? We need to have an account of the social means of reproduction through which a set of power relations is preserved and reproduced throughout generational change.

What is interesting in rereading Mills's classic book today, is how scarce the empirical evidence is within the analysis. It is not really an empirical study at all, but rather a reflective essay on how this sociologist has been led to conceptualize American society, based on his long experience and study. The most empirical chapter is the section on chief executives of corporations; Mills provides an historical and quantitative narrative of the rise and consolidation of the corporation over the prior 75 years. But overall, there is quite a bit of descriptive assertion in the book; relatively little analysis of the social mechanisms that reproduce this social order; and very little by way of empirical validation of the analysis as a whole.

So how does it look today? To what extent is there a compact set of powerful people in contemporary America who have a disproportionate ability to bend the future to their interests and desires? One thing is strikingly clear: the concentration of wealth in America has increased significantly since 1956. Edward Wolff provides a summary graph for the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% of wealth holders since 1920 in Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. In 1955 the top 1% held 30% of the nation's wealth; from 1970 to 1980 this percent declined to about 22%; and from the Reagan administration forward the percentage climbed past its previous highs to about 38% in 2000. So plainly there is an economic super-elite in the United States. This is a group that benefits from durable privileges and inequalities of access to wealth and income.

But this isn't exactly what Mills had in mind; he was interested in a power elite -- a fairly compact group of people who had the ability to make fundamental decisions in the three large areas of modern life that he highlights. And though he doesn't say very much about this point, he implies that it is an interconnected group -- through interlocking directorships in corporations, for example. So how can we assess the degree to which contemporary society in the United States is run through such a system? Is there a power elite today?

In one sense it is obvious what the answer is. Corporations continue to have enormous influence on our society -- banks, energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, food corporations. In fact, the collective power of corporations in modern societies is surely much greater than it was fifty years ago, through direct economic action and through their ability to influence laws and regulations. Their directors and CEOs do in fact constitute a small and interlocked portion of the population. And these leaders continue to have great ability to determine social outcomes through their "private" decisions about the conduct of the corporation. Moreover, as we have learned only too well in the past year, there is very little regulative oversight over their decisions and choices. So the existence of a "power elite" is almost a visible fact in today's world.

But to get more specific -- and to make more precise comparisons over time -- it seems that we need some way of identifying and quantifying the idea of a sociologically real "power elite." One way of trying to do that is by making use of the tools of social network analysis. For example, here is a network graph of corporate America compiled by kiwitobes. What the graph demonstrates is that the boards of America's largest corporations are populated with directors who overlap substantially across companies; there is a high degree of interconnectedness across the boards of directors of major corporations. So this bears out part of Mills's thesis in today's corporate social reality.

But even more compelling would be a study that doesn't exist yet -- a social network map that represents something like the whole population of a community, linking individuals to the institutions in which they occupy a position of power. The vast majority of the population would exist in single points at the bottom of the map; most people don't have a position of power at all. But, if Mills is right, there will be a small subset of people who are interconnected through many relationships to institutional sources of power: memberships in boards, offices in corporations, directorships of banks, trustees of universities. And we might give our thought experiment one additional feature: we might look at snapshots of the same data for each generation identified by families. Now we have Mills's hypothesis in a nutshell: at a given time there is a small subset of the population who occupy most of the positions of power; and the probability is great that the sons and daughters of this group will occupy similar positions of power in the next generation. And in fact, it is perfectly visible in our society that the likelihood of occupying a position of power in one generation is highly influenced by the power status of the antecedent generation.

Regrettably, we don't have a direct ability to carry out this experiment. But we might consider a test case invoking an important decision and a large number of "stakeholders", large and small: the current effort to reform the health care system in the United States. Will this issue be resolved in a fully democratic way, with the interests of all elements of society being represented fairly in the outcome? Or will a relatively small group of corporations, political interests, and professions be in a position to invisibly block reforms that would be democratically selected? And if this is in fact the case, then doesn't that speak loudly in support of the power elite hypothesis?

With the advantage of fifty years of perspective, I think two observations can be made about Mills's book. First, he seems to have diagnosed a very important thread in the sociological reality of power in America -- albeit in a way that is more intuitive and less empirical than contemporary sociologists would prefer. And second, he illustrates a profoundly important ability to exercise his sociological imagination: to arrive at a way of looking at contemporary society that allows us to make sense of many of the observations that press upon us.

(Another important voice on this subject is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967). Domhoff has a very nice web version of his theory on his web page.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Running a dictatorship

What is involved in running a military dictatorship in a large country like Burma? Simply having a lot of military force is obviously not enough. It is necessary to organize and manage a number of complex processes in order to manage the basic "metabolism" of the government and society. Even a dictatorship requires a political administration that is capable of solving problems and implementing policies on a broad basis. And this means decision-makers, a bureaucracy, rules and procedures, agents at the local level, etc. There are several tasks that simply must be attended to; if not, the state would collapse:
  • maintaining the nuts and bolts of a military organization -- command, discipline, recruitment, training;
  • monitoring, co-opting, and repressing internal opposition groups;
  • monitoring telecommunications and internet activity;
  • controlling borders and potential military threats across borders;
  • negotiating with and controlling internal armed groups;
  • collecting revenues for use by the government and its officials;
  • maintaining a minimum level of civil amenities (routine policing, sanitation, provision of electricity, water, and fuel).
Not essential but certainly in the interest of long-term stability are functions such as these: a plan for national and regional economic development, a plan for development of stable institutions for civil society, and a plan for transition to civilian rule. If it is possible to demonstrate that ordinary life is improving for the mass of ordinary people, the state is more likely to gain a degree of acceptance.

Almost none of the positive functions of government seem to be available in Burma today. Corruption is rampant. Brutality and mistreatment of civilians by soldiers appear to be rampant as well, especially in peripheral states. (Examples of brutality by soldiers drawn from the twitter feed include beatings, rapes, forced marriages, and forced labor.) And economic prospects for typical citizens are not improving; the country's wealth is being exploited for the benefit of military and political elites almost exclusively.

Burma's generals have done everything possible to keep their regime inside a black box. It turns out, however, that we know a little bit about how the Burmese military goes about a number of these tasks. Mary Callahan's 2005 book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma provides quite a bit of detailed information and analysis of the organization and goals of the Burmese military. The Epilogue provides an extensive description of the strategies and actions of the military in the past decade. She notes the apparent stability of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime, indicating that it was necessary to rebuild the military state substantially after the elections and riots of 1988. Stability and order were the highest priority, and the military went about building the institutions and organizations that it needed in order to suppress threats against its survival. Callahan highlights a number of important steps that have occurred since then -- all of which fall under the general heading of "military dictatorship state-building" (211 ff.):
  • Ministry of Defense reorganized
  • Substantial rearmament
  • New army garrisons in towns and villages throughout the country
  • Expansion of military industrial base
  • Expansion of system of education, health, and welfare facilities for members of the military
  • Office of Strategic Studies takes charge of policy -- ethnic areas, drug trade, economy, foreign relations
  • State-building and civil administration delegated to (corrupt) regional commanders
  • Funding derived from taxes and fees; profits of drug trade; control of natural resources (gems, forestry, tourism) controlled by Myanmar Economic Corporation
  • Development of severe discipline problems in the ranks and corruption problems in the officer corps
So what does this suggest about Burma and its current subjection? Several things. First, the Burmese military state appears to have a very secure grasp on power; the opposition has little real leverage to force change. The ethnic armies have either come to cease-fire agreements with the regime, have been crushed (Karen National Union), or have settled into an acceptable status quo. Even the more active Kachin Independence Army poses no realistic threat to military rule. The National League for Democracy (NLD) may have widespread support in Rangoon and London; but it is hard to see how it can lead a movement that would seriously challenge the military and police system. Even mass demonstrations appear to be ineffectual in forcing change on the SLORC -- this was one of the lessons of 2007. The regime has adequate access to revenue, through its control of Burma's natural wealth. The junta's willingness to use overwhelming brutal force against civilians is entirely credible -- witness the past forty years. And internationally, only China appears to have real economic leverage with the Burmese junta -- and the Chinese are doing a great deal of investment in Burma. Western sanctions have not had economic effect on the junta or the military, and it appears that ASEAN censure is harmless as well.

So it's hard to see how this is going to turn out well for the forces of democracy in the medium term. A democracy movement needs a certain amount of space in order to act effectively on a mass scale; and the junta seems to be all too capable of ensuring that this doesn't happen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

MacIntyre and Taylor on the human sciences

There is a conception of social explanation that provides a common starting point for quite a few theories and approaches in a range of the social sciences. I'll call it the "rational, material, structural" paradigm. It looks at the task of social science as the discovery of explanations of social outcomes; and it brings an intellectual framework of purposive rationality, material social factors, and social structures exercising causal influence on individuals as the foundation of social explanation. Rational choice theory, Marxian economics, historical sociology, and the new institutionalism can each be described in roughly these terms: show how a given set of outcomes are the result of purposive choices by individuals within a given set of material and structural circumstances. These approaches depend on a highly abstracted description of human agency, with little attention to deep and important differences in agency across social, cultural, and historical settings. "Agents like these, in structures like those, produce outcomes like these." This is a powerful and compelling approach; so it is all the more important to recognize that there are other possible starting points for the social sciences.

In fact, this approach to social explanation stands in broad opposition to another important approach, the interpretivist approach. On the interpretive approach, the task of the human sciences is to understand human activities, actions, and social formations as unique historical expressions of human meaning and intention. Individuals are unique, and there are profound differences of mentality across historical settings. This "hermeneutic" approach is not interested in discovering causes of social outcomes, but instead in piecing together an interpretation of the meanings of a social outcome or production. This contrast between causal explanation and hermeneutic interpretation ultimately constitutes a major divide between styles of social thinking. (Yvonne Sherratt provides a very fine introduction to this approach; Continental Philosophy of Social Science.) Max Ringer, one of Weber's most insightful intellectual biographers, places this break at the center of Weber's development in the early twentieth century (Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences). (See earlier discussions of two strands of thought in the philosophy of social science; link, link, link.)

On this approach, all social action is framed by a meaningful social world. To understand, explain, or predict patterns of human behavior, we must first penetrate the social world of the individual in historical concreteness: the meanings he/she attributes to her environment (social and natural); the values and goals she possesses; the choices she perceives; and the way she interprets other individuals' social action. Only then will we be able to analyze, interpret, and explain her behavior. But now the individual's action is thickly described in terms of the meanings, values, assumptions, and interpretive principles she employs in her own understanding of her world.

Most of the arguments in support of interpretive approaches to the human sciences have come from the continental tradition -- Dilthey, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Habermas. So let's consider two philosophers who have made original contributions to the historicist and interpretivist side of the debate, within the Anglo-American tradition. Consider first Alasdair MacIntyre's discussion of the possibility of comparative theories of politics ("Is a science of comparative politics possible?" in Alan Ryan, ed., The Philosophy of Social Explanation). MacIntyre poses the problem in these terms: "I shall be solely interested in the project of a political science, of the formulation of cross cultural, law-like causal generalizations which may in turn be explained by theories" (172). And roughly, MacIntyre's answer is that a science of comparative politics is not possible, because actions, structures, and practices are not directly comparable across historical settings. The Fiat strike pictured above is similar in some ways to a strike against General Motors or Land Rover in different times and places; but the political cultures, symbolic understandings, and modes of behavior of Italian, American, and British auto workers are profoundly different.

MacIntyre places great emphasis on the densely interlinked quality of local concepts, social practices, norms, and self ascriptions, with the implication that each practice or attitude is inextricably dependent on an ensemble of practices, beliefs, norms, concepts, and the like that are culturally specific and, in their aggregate, unique. Thus MacIntyre holds that as simple a question as this: "Do Britons and Italians differ in the level of pride they take in civic institutions?" is unanswerable because of cultural differences in the concept of pride (172-73).
Hence we cannot hope to compare an Italian's attitude to his government's acts with an Englishman's in respect of the pride each takes; any comparison would have to begin from the different range of virtues and emotions incorporated in the different social institutions. Once again the project of comparing attitudes independently of institutions and practices encounters difficulties. (173-74)
These points pertain to difficulties in identifying political attitudes cross-culturally. Could it be said, though, that political institutions and practices are less problematic? MacIntyre argues that political institutions and practices are themselves very much dependent on local political attitudes, so it isn't possible to provide an a-historical specification of a set of practices and institutions:
It is an obvious truism that no institution or practice is what it is, or does what it does, independently of what anyone whatsoever thinks or feels about it. For institutions and practices are always partially, even if to differing degrees, constituted by what certain people think and feel about them. (174)
So interpretation is mandatory -- for institutions no less than for individual behavior. So MacIntyre's position is disjunctive. He writes:
My thesis . . . can now be stated distinctively: either such generalizations about institutions will necessarily lack the kind of confirmation they require or they will be consequences of true generalizations about human rationality and not part of a specifically political science. (178)
Now turn to Charles Taylor in another pivotal essay, "Interpretation and the sciences of man" (Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences). Taylor's central point is that the subject matter of the human sciences -- human actions and social arrangements -- always require interpretation. It is necessary for the observer to attribute meaning and intention to the action -- features that cannot be directly observed. He asks whether there are "brute data" in the human sciences -- facts that are wholly observational and require no "interpretation" on the part of the scientist (19)? Taylor thinks not; and therefore the human sciences require interpretation from the most basic description of data to the fullest historical description.
To be a full human agent, to be a person or a self in the ordinary meaning, is to exist in a space defined by distinctions of worth. . . . My claim is that this is not just a contingent fact about human agents, but is essential to what we would understand and recognize as full, normal human agency. (3)
Thus, human behaviour seen as action of agents who desire and are moved, who have goals and aspirations, necessarily offers a purchase for descriptions in terms of meaning what I have called "experiential meaning". (27)
One way of putting Taylor's critique of "brute data" is the idea that human actions must be characterized intentionally (34 ff.) in terms of the intentions and self understanding of the agent and that such factors can only be interpreted, not directly observed.
My thesis amounts to an alternative statement of the main proposition of interpretive social science, that an adequate account of human action must make the agents more understandable. On this view, it cannot be a sufficient objective of social theory that it just predict . . . the actual pattern of social or historical events. . . . A satisfactory explanation must also make sense of the agents. (116)
Taylor's discussion of ethnocentricity is important, since it provides a way out of the hermeneutic circle. He believes it is possible to interpret the alien culture without simply covertly projecting our categories onto the alien; and this we do through meaningful conversation with the other (124-25). This is a point that seems to converge with Habermas's notion of communicative action (The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society).

It isn't entirely clear how radically Taylor intends his argument. Is it that all social science requires interpretation, or that interpretation is a legitimate method among several? Is there room for generalizations and theories within Taylor's interpretive philosophy of social science? What should social science look like on Taylor's approach? Will it offer explanations, generalizations, models; or will it be simply a collection of concrete hermeneutical readings of different societies? Does causation have a place in such a science? (He says more about the role of theory in "Neutrality in political science"; Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 63.)

Both MacIntyre and Taylor are highlighting an important point: human actions reflect purposes, beliefs, emotions, meanings, and solidarities that cannot be directly observed. And human practices are composed of the actions and thoughts of individual human actors -- with exactly this range of hermeneutic possibilities and indeterminacies. So the explanation of human action and practice presupposes some level of interpretation. There is no formula, no universal key to human agency, that permits us to "code" human behavior without the trouble of interpretation.

This said, I would still judge that the "rational, material, structural" paradigm with which we began has plenty of scope for application. For some purposes and in many historical settings, it is possible to describe the actor's state of mind in more abstract terms: he/she cares about X, Y, Z; she believes A, B, C; and she reasons that W is a good way of achieving a satisfactory level of attainment of the goods she aims at. In other words, purposive agency, within an account of the opportunities and constraints that surround action, provides a versatile basis for social action. And this is enough for much of political science, Marxist materialism, and the new institutionalism.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Schama's revolution

Quite a number of previous posts have focused on historical cognition: how does the historian conceptualize a complex bit of history? Let's reflect a bit on Simon Schama’s conceptualization of the history of the French Revolution in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). Schama is a highly original thinker when it comes to conceptualizing history -- witness his motif of landscapes as a way of thematizing swatches of European history (Landscape And Memory), or his crossing of history and fiction in Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. So what is distinctive about his history of the French Revolution?

To begin, his history breaks radically from earlier approaches to the Revolution. Schama distances his account from both materialist accounts like that of Albert Soboul (The French Revolution 1787-1799) and more orthodox approaches such as that of de Tocqueville (The Old Regime and the French Revolution). Schama doubts the reality of large, impersonal historical forces; he doubts the historical reality of the concept of great classes in society; and he focuses instead on the thoughts and actions, often barely rational, of the individuals great and small who contributed to the period. He puts several of these points very clearly in the introduction:
The ‘bourgeoisie’ said in the classic Marxist accounts to have been the authors and beneficiaries of the event have become social zombies, the product of historiographical obsessions rather than historical realities…. Continuities seem as marked as discontinuities. Nor does the Revolution seem any longer to conform to a grand historical design, preordained by inexorable forces of social change. Instead it seems a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences (not least the summoning of the Estates-General itself). (xiv)
Schama resists the totalizing impulses of other narratives, the intellectual tendency to characterize the Revolution in the most general and comprehensive terms. For Schama, the grand locales (France, Paris, and the countryside) and great actors (monarchy, bourgeoisie, peasantry) are less important than the “local passion and interests” of the regions, provinces, and villages. The upshot of this preference is clear: rather than aggregating the events of the period into a single grand process of Revolution, Schama emphasizes the separateness and particularity of the component processes and local realities. In the extreme: France did not have a revolution, but instead the territory encompassed a number of parallel social and economic processes in different places, experienced differently by individuals in those places. (But of course this strategy of disaggregation can be applied at each lower level as well: instead of a "counter-revolution" in the Vendée, there were actions, church-burnings, massacres, and other kinds of organized violence in the various villages and towns of the region.)

It is also worth pointing out that the sorts of events that Schama pays attention in the book to are very different from those highlighted by Soboul and de Tocqueville. Schama focuses on things like commemorations, ceremonial elephants, public memories, and bits of architecture. It is the particular but revealing element or action that Schama finds most interesting. He pays attention to philosophy, theatre, the Comédie-Française, paintings, leaders (potted and sane), and extravagant events (the lofting of a balloon by Etienne Montgolfier to a crowd of 100,000 comes in for a few paragraphs). And he is uninterested in constructing a logical narrative according to which events A, B, and C are constitutive of the Revolution, and this event led to that event, which led in turn to the final event.

So Schama’s ontology consists of actors, cultural meanings, shifting circumstances, and contingent outcomes. He gives little attention to “structures,” organizations, and forces of history, and pays much more attention to the individuals whose states of mind and action constituted the period of violence and upheaval we refer to as the “French Revolution.” It is a sort of cultural commentary on the moments of the time period – rather than a sustained effort to make sense of it all, to provide an explanation in terms of causes, classes, or structures. In fact, the Revolution as an integrated event largely disappears from his account, in place of a congeries of happenings and productions.

The overall impression of this approach to historical analysis is that it amounts to a "deconstruction" of the Revolution in favor of a large number of interesting and contingent but inherently lesser processes and events. Schama dissolves the Revolution as a grand historical event, and uses the noun simply as a handy label in terms of which to refer to a heterogeneous and sometimes disparate and confusing series of processes.

It is a fair question to ask, what precisely does Schama's account allow us to do? What intellectual insights does the reader gain? What kind of historical question is it intended to answer?

Citizens certainly doesn't amount to an explanation of the events of the French Revolution, if by that we mean a narrative that identifies specific causes that brought about the outcome. In fact, it is hard to find examples of causal reasoning or causal attribution in the book at all. So causal explanation, based on discovery of large social structures and forces, is not the goal of the book.

Further, it doesn't seem to try to answer a question about the coherence of the period: "How did these events hang together?", since quite a bit of the narrative is intended to demonstrate precisely how incongruous were many of the various events, symbols, and actions. So the book isn't intended to let the reader say to himself or herself, "So that's what it was all about; that's the kind of thing the French Revolution was." The book certainly doesn't attempt to boil the Revolution down to a few simple formulas.

Somewhat more persuasive is the idea that perhaps it is intended as a work of cultural interpretation, more analogous to art criticism than to orderly, logical story-telling. Here the historian undertakes to locate a few specific moments and artifacts that bring to light some of the features of mentality of the participants within the tangled skein of actions. (This would bring it into a parallel with Darnton's history of the Great Cat Massacre -- interpretive ethnography of the moment rather than causal explanation of a large historical event (link).)

But finally, maybe the aim is more radical than any of these possibilities. Maybe Schama is interested most fundamentally in leading the reader to think very differently about the task of the historian and the content of historical knowledge. (This seems to be the goal of others of Schama's books -- for example, Dead Certainties with its pointed skepticism about fact-based narratives.) Maybe Schama's most basic point is ontological: there is no such thing as coherent, logical, orderly, causally structured human history. Instead, all there is, is a congregation of separate threads, processes, contingencies, actions, choices, ideologies, and freakish accidents that ultimately do not add up to a coherent whole.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Opaque Burma

It is striking how ignorant we are about the most basic facts about Burma. I don't mean simply that the western public is poorly informed; I mean that a lot of the basic facts about contemporary Burma are simply unknown, to scholars, journalists, and other expert observers. The experts don't know what is going on in Burma, in quite a few important areas of life.

Take the junta itself. How does it work as a government? how does information get collected, how do goals get set, how are policies arrived at, and how are policies implemented over the expanse of control that the Burmese army exercises? It seems that there is very little factual knowledge about these very basic questions. The general impression that the media present of the Burmese military is that it is reclusive, corrupt, and irrational. The first two features are probably true; but "irrational" is a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that the army has successfully preserved its rule for decades. And there appear to be relatively clear strategies in place for controlling the armed ethnic populations and for securing economic development relationships with China and other non-western states. (This is where the corruption comes in; the army appears to use its control of Burma's natural resources for its own benefit and the benefit of its allies in the ethnic organizations.) We hear a lot about the junta's war with Aung San Suu Kyi, but very little about other aspects of its organization and behavior.

Or take everyday life in villages and towns in peripheral states. What is ordinary life like in the countryside? How visible is the central government and the Burmese army? What state or municipal entities provide services and collect taxes? How do people earn their livings? What is the state of public health in rural areas? What organizations and community-based groups are active?

Or consider the realities of the ethnic armies; how do the Kachin or the Karen armies preserve their organization and mobilization over time? What is the infrastructure that provides supplies, weapons, and money? How are young people recruited into these movements? What are the strategies and motives that guide decisions -- whether to continue the cease-fire or return to active armed conflict?

Or consider, finally, the circumstances of the monks' rebellion of 2007. Where are the detailed studies of this uprising in terms of motivations of participants, organization, mobilization strategies, and repression?

I suppose the explanation for this level of ignorance is fairly obvious: Burma is essentially closed to outside scholars and journalists, so it is difficult to impossible to do social-science fieldwork in Burma today. The observers who are able to gain a snapshot of insight are mainly occasional travelers and writers who manage to make their way to remote and often dangerous places. And organized social-science research is difficult or impossible to carry out under these circumstances. And there is very little by way of independent journalism within Burma -- we are dependent on emigree services that do their best to provide some of the news from the periphery. (It would appear that the situation of research in Burma is orders of magnitude more limited than in Thailand or Malaysia.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ontology of the French Revolution

How does the historian need to think as he or she formulates a discursive representation of a complex period of history? What assumptions does the historian make about the structures and entities that make up the social world? And what sorts of conceptual systems are needed in order to permit the historian to do his or her work of analysis, comparison, and explanation? These questions lead us to a philosophical version of the problem: what forms of ontology do historians employ in analyzing history?

Consider a concrete and familiar example of historical conceptualization: historians confronting the realities of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. What are the historical entities to which historians need to refer in constructing a history of these events? Consider, to start, Albert Soboul’s construction of the making and carrying out of the French Revolution (A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799 and The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon).

Soboul begins his short history with a chronology of “principal events” – roughly 150 events from February 1787 to November 1789. He refers to happenings at a variety of levels of scale in this chronology, from actions by a small number of individuals to events encompassing hundreds of thousands over a dispersed geography. Here is a partial list:
Assembly of the Notables, Calonne dismissed, abortive reform of Parlements, “Day of the Tiles” in Grenoble, rural and urban unrest increases, riot in the Baubourg St.-Antoine, fall of the Bastille, The Great Fear, Assembly moves to Paris from Versailles, Church lands nationalized, mutiny and repression of garrison at Nancy, Louis XVI’s attempted flight from the country, foundation of the Feuillants Club, massacre of the Champ de Mars, mounting unrest caused by food prices, uprising at Paris overthrows the Monarchy, massacre of prisoners in Paris, execution of Louis XVI, murder of Marat ...
... and so on through crowd violence, state action, military movements, rise and fall of revolutionary leaders, political factions, ideologies, and bloodshed.

Some of these items are events in a specific time and place enacted by a small group of people (mutiny, storming of the Bastille); others are regionally diffuse collections of such local actions (the Great Fear, for example); and others are actions of officials, leaders, and generals. So clearly Soboul’s historical ontology includes “events”, which perhaps we can define as “actions by individuals and groups, both large and small.” (This definition captures most but not all the items in Soboul’s chronology.)

What about social entities beyond the level of actions by individuals? Here are some of the sorts of higher-level structures to which Soboul refers in his account: the Revolution itself, as a thing that exists in history, has causes, and has a “nature”; but also a larger category within which the French Revolution is one instance – "revolution". He refers to earlier social orders (the seigneurial system and the privileged orders of feudal society); a new social order (liberal democracy, bourgeois economy); large historical structures such as feudalism and capitalism; and a specific category of revolution (bourgeois revolution). Several of these concepts fall in the general category of a “type of social and economic organization” – what Marx refers to as a “mode of production.” (Here is Soboul’s paraphrase of the idea of feudalism: “a concept of social and economic history, defined by a particular form of property ownership and by a system of production based on landed property, preceding the modern system of capitalist production” ((Soboul 1977) : 3).)

He refers to different forms of the social management of labor (corvée labor, slave labor). He refers to specific periods of governance in French history – for example, the Capetian monarchy; and he refers to a type of governance – the absolutist monarchy. He refers to classes – the bourgeoisie, the landlord class, the peasant class. It is apparent that Soboul’s historical ontology incorporates large stretches of Marx’s social theory of the structures that constitute society: forces and relations of production, property systems, modes of production, superstructures such as the state and the church.

There is also an ontology of social institutions in Soboul's writing about the Revolution. He refers to subordinate social organizations within existing society – the officer corps, the Church. He refers to economic and demographic processes – population increase, trends of price movements for grain. He refers to features of political consciousness on the part of various social actors – hopes, fears, revolutionary spontaneity (38). And he refers to political groups and clubs – the Girondins (“spokesmen of the commercial bourgeoisie”; 87), Montagnards and Jacobins (bourgeois but appealing to common people; 88), and Sans-Culottes (the organized representatives of the common people; 100).

So Soboul’s historical vocabulary is a rich one, in that he refers to historical things and structures at a variety of levels. We might paraphrase Soboul’s historical ontology in these terms: the French populace of the 1770s consisted of a geographically dispersed collection of persons enmeshed social, economic, and political structures. The circumstances of life and opportunity created for different people by these structures in turn defined them as “classes” with interests and motivations. Peasants, artisans, landowners, lawyers, and government officials had very different views of the social world, and their political behavior was accordingly different as well. The political struggles that constituted the turmoil of the years of revolution derived from contests over power among different groups of people, mobilized by different organizations with different social, economic, and political interests.

In other words, Soboul works with a “proto-theory” of what a society is, how it works, and how individuals are influenced in their ordinary conduct; within the context of this scheme, the task of the historian is to discover some of the specific features of those social relations and features of consciousness, and explain the small and large events that combined to bring about “the Revolution”.

Combining the results of a similar survey of a number of historians -- de Tocqueville, Soboul, Schama, Darnton, Cobb, Sewell, Tilly, and others -- we can arrive at something like an inventory of ontological concepts of the French Revolution – events, individuals, structures, mentalities, processes, conditions, patterns, and technologies. These categories of historical "things" encompass what begins to look like a comprehensive list of the types of entities to which historians refer when conceptualizing France's revolution. Or in other words: it is possible for us as readers of these historians to sketch out a large historical ontology, from which different historians borrow in varying proportions in their analysis of the events of the late eighteenth century in France.