Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Michigan job loss tsunami

The whole country knows that unemployment is very high in Michigan, and most people also know that the automotive manufacturing industry has taken a nose dive in the past five years. But the situation is even worse than most people imagine. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate several important facts. In 2000 the total private sector employment in the United States was 110,798,000; by August 2009 this number had dropped to 109,540,000 -- a net loss of 1,258,000 jobs nation-wide. This is a 1.1% drop. In 2000 the number of private sector jobs in Michigan was 3,996,000; this number dropped to 3,213,000 by August 2009 -- a drop of 783,000 jobs (19.6%). This is a shocking number -- one out of five jobs in Michigan has disappeared since 2000.

Other Midwestern manufacturing states also had significant job losses during the period. Ohio lost 9.8% of its 4,840,000 jobs since 2000, and Illinois lost 6.6% of its 5,205,000 jobs since 2000. But Michigan's losses dwarf every other state by a large margin. Among the fifty states and the District of Columbia there were winners and losers; 25 states gained private sector jobs during these years, with Texas the big winner (700,000 new jobs). Altogether 1,952,000 new jobs were created in 25 states and 3,207,000 jobs were lost in 25 states and DC. But consider this: fully 24% of all private sector job losses nation-wide occurred in Michigan during this time period. Think of that: one out of four of all private-sector job losses in the country during these years occurred in one state, Michigan. This could reasonably be called a one-state depression. It is as if a slow-moving Katrina had hit the state, and no one noticed.

So what is needed in order for Michigan to regain its economic wellbeing?

Plainly a 20-30% unemployment rate is unacceptable. So if the state maintains its current population, then the communities, businesses, and government of the state need to stimulate substantial job growth. And we can put some numbers on this obvious truth. If the population remains constant then it would take eight years for the state to recover to the 2000 level if jobs grow at 3% per year. And this would require the creation of about 100,000 new private sector jobs each year.

What would be needed in order to get to 100,000 new jobs per year in Michigan? Here is one pathway: succeed in attracting or creating --
  • two large firms of 5,000 workers,
  • 10 firms of 1000 workers,
  • 50 firms of 500 workers,
  • 400 firms of 100 workers,
  • 1500 small businesses of 10 workers, and
  • 2000 small businesses that expand by three workers.
That gets us to 106,000 new jobs. And it means creating or attracting two large firms, almost 2,000 small and medium businesses, and expanding another 2,000 small businesses. And this needs to happen every year for eight years.

Is this feasible? Is it possible for a state of about 10 million people to create new businesses and jobs on this scale? That is the crucial question for the state of Michigan. And there are many organizations and incubators devoted to this goal in the state of Michigan -- Ann Arbor SPARK, TechTown, Automation Alley, Detroit Renaissance, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Detroit Regional Chamber, to name a few. Further, the universities are doing everything possible to help provide the talented graduates and the new innovations that will be needed for the creation of successful new businesses. But ultimately it is very hard to see how this kind of business creation and job growth can occur year after year.

So Michigan's problem is also a crucial challenge for the nation as a whole. The plain truth is that Michigan has born the largest burden of the decline of manufacturing jobs in the past decade, and the solutions may be beyond the grasp of the state itself. This situation may require intelligent and substantial Federal solutions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alternative economists

Traditional neoclassical economics has missed the mark quite a bit in the past two years. There is the financial and banking crisis, of course; neoclassical economists haven't exactly succeeded in explaining or "post-dicting" the crisis and recession through which we've traveled over the past year and more. But perhaps more fundamentally, neoclassical economics has failed to provide a basis for understanding the nuance and range of our economic institutions -- nationally or globally. Contemporary academic economics selects a pretty narrow range of questions as being legitimate subjects for economists to study; so topics such as hunger, labor unions, alternative economic institutions, and the history of economic thought generally get fairly short shrift. Don't expect to see the perspectives of Steven Marglin or Samuel Bowles in Economics 101 in most U.S. universities! The profession has a pretty narrow conception of what "economics" is.

And yet, when intelligent citizens think about the key problems of economics in a broader sense -- the problems that we really care about, the problems that will really influence our quality of life -- we certainly think of something broader than the mathematics of supply and demand or the solution of a general equilibrium model. We're ultimately not as interested in the formalisms of market equilibrium as we are in an analysis of the institutions that define the context of economic activity. We want to know more about the ways in which features of economic organization and the basic institutions of our economy influence individual behavior; we are curious about how our institutions create distributive outcomes that fundamentally affect people's lives differently across social groups. We would like to have a clearer understanding of some of the ways that non-economic factors -- race, gender, age, city -- influence people's economic outcomes. We want to know how the institutions and incentives defined by our economic system bring about effects on the natural environment. And we are often curious about how it might be possible to reform our basic economic institutions in ways that are more favorable to human development. In other words, we are often brought to think along the lines of some of the great dissenters in the economics tradition -- Polanyi, Dobb, Marx, Sen, McCloskey, and Dasgupta (An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution), for example. (In a very contemporary and topical way, Richard Florida takes on a lot of these issues; see his blog, the Creative Class.)

It is therefore pleasing to find that some publishers like Routledge are bringing out serious academic works in what they refer to as "social economics". The Routledge series, Advances in Social Economics, has a list of titles representing recent work that is rigorous and insightful but that explores other points of the compass within the field of political economy. I certainly hope that university libraries around the world are paying attention to this series; these are titles that can add a lot to the debate.

One book in the series in particular catches my eye. My colleague Bruce Pietrykowski raises an important set of "alternative" economic issues in his recent book, The Political Economy of Consumer Behavior: Contesting Consumption. (Here is a preview of the book from Routledge.) The book is a valuable contribution and very much worth reading.

Pietrykowski has two intertwined goals in the book. First, he wants to provide a broader basis for understanding consumer behavior and psychology than is presupposed by orthodox economists. And second, he wants to help contribute to a broader understanding of the scope, methods, and content of political economy than is provided by mainstream economics departments today.

Here is his preliminary statement of his goal:
I argue that in order to arrive at a more compelling account of consumer behavior we need to transform the discipline of economics by opening up the borders between economics and sociology, geography, feminist social theory, science studies and cultural studies. (2)
The fact of consumption is a crucial economic reality in any economy. How do individuals make choices about what and how to consume? Pietrykowski makes the point that consumption behavior shows enormous heterogeneity across groups defined in terms of ethnicity, gender, region, and time -- a point made here as well (post). So a single abstraction representing the universal consumer won't do the job. The standard economic assumption of the rationally self-interested consumer with consistent and complete preference rankings is seriously inadequate; instead, we need to develop a more nuanced set of views about the psychological and social factors that influence consumer preferences and choices.

So it is important to develop alternative theoretical tools in terms of which to analyze consumer psychology. Here Pietrykowski draws on ideas from Karl Marx (fetishism of commodities), Amartya Sen, and other political economists who have attempted to provide "thick" descriptions of economic behavior. The point here is not that we cannot usefully investigate and theorize about consumer behavior; rather, Pietrykowski is looking for an analytical approach that operates at the "middle range" between complete formal abstraction and the writing of many individual biographies.

Second, Pietrykowski is interested in contributing to a "re-mapping" of the knowledge system of economic thought, by exploring some of the alternative constructions that have been bypassed by the profession since World War II. (These arguments are largely developed in Chapter Two.) Pietrykowski begins with the assumption that the discipline and profession of economics is itself socially constructed and contingent; it took shape in response to a fairly specific set of theoretical and methodological ideas, it was subject to a variety of social and political pressures, and there were viable alternatives at every turn. Here is how he formulates the social construction perspective:
The claim that economic knowledge is socially constructed allows for an understanding of the field as the outcome of interpretation, negotiation and contestation over the constituents of economic knowledge and the legitimacy of particular practices, methods, and techniques of analysis. (19)
Like Marion Fourcade, Pietrykowski argues that there is a great deal of path dependence in the development of economics as a discipline and profession; and there are identifiable turning points where we can judge with confidence that themes that were eliminated at a certain time would have led to a substantially different intellectual system had they persisted. Pietrykowski's analysis of the fifty years of development of professional economics in the first half of the twentieth century is a very nice contribution to a contemporary history of science, and very compatible with Fourcade's important work in Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s.

The discipline of "home economics" in the 1920s and 1930s is the example that Pietrykowski examines in detail. "This task ... of defining economics as a distinct professional discipline involved both recruitment and exclusion" (28). Here is how Pietrykowski describes home economics:
Departments of home economics were quite diverse in the early twentieth century. Commonly associated with maintaining and preserving the cult of domesticity, home economics programs emerged from multiple sources including progressive political reform of public health, labor conditions, and household management. (35)
And, of course, home economics did not long remain a part of the professional discipline of economics. Pietrykowski looks in detail at the way in which home economics developed as an academic discipline at Cornell University; and he documents some ways in which the discipline of economics was constructed in a gendered way to exclude this way of understanding scientific economics: "The decision was made that women involved in the emerging field of home economics were to be excluded from the AEA.... Economics was to be concerned neither with women's activities in the home nor with women's activities in the workplace" (28-29).

Pietrykowski develops his full analysis of consumption by focusing on three heterodox approaches to understanding consumption: home economics and feminist analysis, psychological and behavioral research on consumer behavior (George Katona), and Fordism and the theory of mass consumption. He also gives some attention to the emerging importance of experimental economics as a tool for better understanding real economic decision-making and behavior (20-25).

After discussing these heterodox theories, Pietrykowski illustrates the value of the broader framework by examining three fascinating cases of consumption: the complex motivations that bring consumers to purchase the Toyota Prius, the motivations behind the Slow Food movement, and the choice that people in some communities have to engage in a system of alternative currency. These are each substantial examples of arenas where consumers are choosing products in ways that make it plain that their choices are influenced by culture, values, and commitments no less than calculations of utilities and preferences.

Between the theories and the cases, Pietrykowski offers a remarkably rich rethinking of how people choose to consume. He makes real sense of the idea that consumption is socially constructed (drawing sometimes on the social construction of technology (SCOT) literature). He demonstrates that models based on the theory of the universal consumer are not likely to fit well with actual economic outcomes. And he makes a strong and persuasive case for the need for academic economics to expand its horizons.

I find it interesting to notice that Pietrykowski's account of the ascendency of neoclassical economics since the 1950s converges closely with prior postings on positivist philosophy of science. One of the explicit appeals made by neoclassical economists was a methodological argument: they argued that their deductive, formal, and axiomatic treatments of economic fundamentals were more "scientific" than case studies and thick descriptions of economic behavior. So many of the failings of mainstream economic thought today can be traced to the shortcomings of the positivist program for the social sciences that was articulated in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neo-positivist philosophy of social science

The 1960s witnessed the development of a second generation of analytic philosophy of science inspired broadly by logical positivism and the Vienna Circle (post, post). The "received view" of the 1950s and 1960s, as expressed by philosophers such as Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, and Israel Scheffler (and others pictured above), presented a view of scientific knowledge as consisting of theories, general laws, observational predictions, and a logic of confirmation according to which theories are evaluated by their observational consequences (Patrick Suppes, The Structure of Scientific Theories). There was a largely unquestioned assumption that all scientific theories have the same logical structure (the unity of science doctrine; post); so physics, economics, or evolutionary biology could equally be represented as a system of theoretical terms and statements, a set of general laws, and a set of observational or experimental consequences that can be empirically evaluated. Here is an illustration of the idea in the natural sciences; the black line is the theoretical calculation of ferromagnetic properties, and the colored lines are the observed behavior of metals under difference conditions.

This general view of the logic of scientific knowledge was applied to the social sciences by some philosophers of science, and the result was a neo-positivist philosophy of social science. Richard Rudner was an important player in the formation of the received view in the 1960s, and he served as editor-in-chief of the core journal, Philosophy of Science, from 1959 to 1975. (His collected papers are held at Washington University, and the breadth of his correspondence gives some idea of his centrality in discussions of neo-positivist philosophy of science.) His 1966 textbook, Philosophy of social science, represents the high-water mark of neo-positivist philosophy of social science. So let's review the main features of Rudner's representation of social-scientific knowledge. (May Brodbeck's 1968 Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences is a fairly direct complement to Rudner's book, in that it provides a fairly definitive representation of the philosophy of social science in the late 1960s.)

Several core assumptions about the social sciences are advanced in Rudner's book.
  • unity of science and naturalism; all sciences should resemble physics
  • emphasis on the distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification
  • insistence on the symmetry of explanation and prediction
  • insistence on the essential role of lawlike generalizations in explanation
  • fundamental reliance on a strict distinction between observation and theory
  • advancement of "formalizability" as a desirable characteristic of a theory
Here is Rudner's definition of a theory:
A theory is a systematically related set of statements, including some lawlike generalizations, that is empirically testable.... Accordingly, to the extent that a theory has been fully articulated in some formulation, it will achieve an explicit deductive development and interrelationship of the statements it encompasses. (10-11)
This formulation doesn't yet make explicit the notion that "theory" is non-observational, or that theoretical concepts lack direct criteria of application to observational experience. Rather, Rudner emphasizes the characteristic of formalizability and deductive consequences. And this takes him in the direction of non-observational concepts; they are the concepts that are introduced into a scientific system as formal "place-holders" without explicit definition. Instead, their meaning is determined by the deductive consequences that the sentences in which they appear give rise to. The intended analogy here is with the axioms of geometry; the concepts of "point," "line," and "plane" are introduced as primitives without further definition, and their meaning is defined simply by the role they play in the full deductive system of geometry. So, notably, Rudner treats the problem of theory formation in the sciences as entirely analogous to the problem of creating a formal mathematical system -- number theory or topology, for example. All concepts are either primitive -- introduced without definition; or defined -- introduced with strict logical definitions in terms of other concepts that already exist in the theoretical vocabulary. (It is interesting to note that Carl Hempel's contribution to the Vienna Circle International Encyclopedia of Unified Science is on this subject; Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol 2 No 7) .)

Notice how foreign this approach is to actual theoretical work by social scientists. Weber or Durkheim do not attempt to strip away "connotation" or ordinary associations from their theoretical concepts; rather, they make full use of the complexity and open-endedness of concepts like capitalism or solidarity as a way of allowing them to describe and theorize complex social realities. Rudner's approach seems to reflect the program of logical positivism, attempting to utilize the apparatus of formal logic to clarify scientific reasoning. But it misses the mark in application to the actual reasoning of path-breaking social thinkers such as Durkheim, Weber, Tocqueville, or Marx.

Rudner turns to the observation-theoretic distinction in short order. First, he describes observational concepts or predicates in these terms: "One set of primitives should be comprised of observational, or as we shall sometimes say, experimental terms (i.e., that such predicates should refer to observable features of the universe)" (21). And second, he introduces theoretical concepts: "The latter refer to nonobservable or nonmanifest characteristics of nonobservable entities. Thus, theoreticals include terms such as 'electron,' 'superego,' 'institutional inertia,' 'cultural lag,' which do not or are not (when the appropriate theories come to be formulated) likely to apply to observable entities at all" (23).

This is the standard view of the observation-theoretic distinction within the "received view" of neo-positivist philosophy of science. It was recognized that it is not possible to achieve the scientific goals of physics or chemistry if we are restricted to a purely observational vocabulary. We evidently need to refer to hypothetical entities and forces if we are to be able to explain observable phenomena. So hypothetical constructs must be permitted. But their "empirical content" is exhausted by their observational consequences.

Rudner attempts to provide a positivistic interpretation of Weber's concept of ideal types. He writes, "Our concern is with the logical character of idealizations and their methodological uses. In this latter respect, concepts that happen to be idealizations have, as we shall see, no special methodological role--regardless of the heuristic or suggestive value they may have in leading theorists to form hypotheses or frame theories about related phenomena" (56). This is a surprising exercise, since it involves the requirement that the social scientist provide a precise specification of the scope and implications of the term. I've always understood Weber's emphasis to be on the open-endedness of ideal-type concepts; and certainly Weber's use of ideal-type concepts did not remotely resemble the axiomatic, formalistic use that Rudner attributes to scientific concepts generally.

So what is the logic of scientific explanation in the social sciences, according to Rudner? His answer is straight from Hempel's covering law theory:
The formal structure of a scientific explanation of some particular event has three parts: first, a statement E describing the specific event to be explained; second, a set of statements C1 to Cn describing specific relevant circumstances that are antecedent to, or otherwise causally correlated with, the event described by E; third, a set of lawlike statements L1 to Ln, universal generalizations whose import is roughly 'Whenever events of the kind described by C1 through Cn take place, then an event of the kind described by E takes place.' (60)
Perhaps the key philosophical assumption that Rudner defends is the idea that the logic of science is everywhere the same. Concept formation, deduction, confirmation, and explanation all involve the same formalizable operations. A theory should be formalized as a first-order deductive system with primitive terms and defined terms; some of its terms should have criteria of application to observable outcomes; explanation proceeds by deriving a description of the explanandum from the theory; and the theory should be tested by evaluating the truth or falsity of its observational consequences.

In addition to these extended discussions of the putative logic of social-science reasoning, Rudner also addresses the topics of "objectivity" in social-science research and the concepts of functionalism and teleology in the social sciences.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to the philosophy of the social sciences? The strength of the book is also its debilitating weakness: it is an exceptionally clear exposition and development of the central ideas of logical positivism in application to social-science theorizing. Unfortunately, this approach proves to be singularly unhelpful when it comes to actually understanding and criticizing the social sciences as they actually exist. It has the effect of attempting to force a style and form of reasoning onto social researchers that deforms the ways in which they attempt to theorize and explain the social world.

Key weaknesses include these points.

First, this formulation pays virtually no attention to the actual content and methods of existing social science disciplines. The foundational premise is that all sciences have the same fundamental logic. So it isn't necessary to examine sociology, political science, or economics in detail in order to trace out the particular characteristics of inquiry, explanation, and theory in these disciplines. Either the social-science disciplines conform to the received view, or they do not and for that reason show themselves to be defective as science. So the philosophy of a special science is simply the special case of the more general theory of scientific knowledge represented by the received view. This is a bad way of beginning the philosophical study of any science, whether the social sciences or the biological sciences.

Second, by highlighting the issues that are central to the exposition of the received view -- for example, the observation-theoretic distinction -- the neo-positivist philosopher of social science is drawn away from consideration of other, more substantive problems to which philosophers could make a useful contribution. For example, the assumptions of purposive rationality underlie many explanations in areas of political science and economics; and it turns out to be very productive to examine the intricacies that arise when we try to give a careful explanation of the concept of rationality and to link this assumption to particular areas of social explanation. The intellectual disposition created by the neo-positivist view is to reduce this question to a simple matter of "concept formation." "Rationality" becomes simply another theoretical construct to be introduced into scientific theories. But as Sen, Harsanyi, Margolis, and dozens of other philosophers and social scientists have demonstrated, we need to spend quite a bit of intellectual energy to the task of unpacking the theory of rationality if it is to be of use in the social sciences.

Third, this approach imposes an inappropriate simplification on the social sciences when it comes to empirical evaluation of social-science hypotheses. It presupposes the comprehensive generality of the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation theory. Once again, the intellectual error derives from the assumption that the logic of scientific reasoning must be the same in every area of science. The social sciences sometimes involve the sorts of theoretical systems that are found in physics; but more commonly a social science analysis is comprised of a number of relatively independent models and mechanisms -- theories of the middle range -- that are amenable to piecemeal evaluation. Social science analyses are not generally not unified theoretical systems along the lines of the theory of thermodynamics or genetics. And there are other ways of providing empirical evaluation and support for these sorts of analyses -- for example, process-tracing, piecemeal empirical evaluation, and applying the logic of comparative causal analysis.

In hindsight, the neo-positivist paradigm for analyzing the social sciences just didn't go very well. It pushed an esoteric theology of logical analysis onto the enterprise of understanding society that really didn't conform very well to the reasoning and explaining that talented sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists were creating for themselves. And it did not succeed in focusing productive attention by philosophers on the difficult problems of theory construction and explanation that social scientists really confronted.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Neurath on sociology

Otto Neurath was one of the central figures in the Vienna Circle in the 1930s and 1940s. And he was the most important figure in the group to consider the social sciences within the "unified sciences" of the twentieth century. As noted in an earlier post, the Vienna Circle set the stage for a powerful tradition of "logical empiricism" as the received view in the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s; and many of these ideas played back into the explicit methodologies of various areas of the sciences as well (physics and behaviorist psychology, for example).

Here I want to focus on the assumptions that some of the Vienna Circle thinkers made about the social sciences. Neurath contributed an article to the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science on the foundations of the social sciences (Foundations of the Social Sciences; 1944), and this is the most extensive commentary on social science methodology that was issued by Vienna Circle thinkers. So it warrants a close reading. Neurath was trained in political economy, and he served as a centralized economic planning official in the German Social Democratic Party in Munich. He was also a key member and leader of the Vienna Circle, and his writings and editorial work for the group were highly influential.

So how does Neurath understand the social sciences? And what does he recommend by way of methodology? Neurath begins by treating the subject matter of sociology empirically rather than definitionally: what do social scientists actually study?
I shall speak of sociological statements as members of one big family of statements which may be found in volumes filled with results of research on the behavior of tribes, on the behavior of customs and languages as they spread through mankind, on the behavior of whole nations, on the growing-up of the fine arts in human societies, on the behavior of human groups and representative individuals (e.g., of artists, priests, statesmen, pirates, peasants, workers, and other people in various societies), on the patterns of cities, on the behavior of markets and administration, and on the various ways of personal life within various societies. (1)
In other words, Neurath is taking the content of a wide range of existing social-science studies of human behavior and society as constituting the domain of "social science" -- rather than beginning with an abstract or theoretical definition of the scope and methods of the social sciences. This approach is consistent with the over-arching Vienna Circle attitude of respect for the content and conduct of the various areas of science as they were currently practiced.

And what does he take to be the scientific goal of such research? He isn't entirely explicit, but here is a preliminary statement:
All the techniques for making well-arranged descriptions, finding correlations, and preparing predictions belong to the field of scientific practice with which I have to do here. ... Up to now we have met an overwhelming number of expressions dealing with social matters. (1-2)
So a fundamental goal of social-science research and thinking, on this approach, is providing a conceptual system -- a vocabulary -- in terms of which to describe social matters. Social scientists then use those concepts to describe the social data that they discover, and they attempt to discover correlations and make predictions based on the statements they have arrived at. Along the lines of Vienna Circle thinking about "criteria of significance," Neurath suggests that sociological concepts need to have clear and specific criteria of application to observable behavior. He refers to this kind of work as "terminological analysis." And the goal, evidently, is to create a uniform and logically specified language for the conduct of social science research and analysis: "Not only the unification of the sociological language is at stake, but a much more comprehensive unification and orchestration, which leads us to a lingua franca of unified science" (2). The resulting concepts need to have "observation content" -- that is, the researcher needs to be able to specify the connection the concept has to the observation of behavior. It is necessary to provide criteria of application based on observation.

But this is where Neurath's criticisms come in. Not all writings in the social or historical sciences conform to this ideal of conceptual clarity and empirical applicability. Neurath offers as a negative example of a social concept, the idea of the "spirit of nations." He suggests that this concept appears to be incapable of being connected to specific observable facts about social behavior; it functions as a speculative postulate of something inherently unobservable; and it should be avoided. "I suggest that it would be better not to discuss these remarks further within logical empiricism, because I see no way of transforming them into physicalist statements" (4). This corresponds to a very basic prescription for sociologists: make sure that the concepts one uses are logically clear and have explicit connections to observation.
We see how perplexing anthropological and historical analyses sometimes appear to be, because the phraseology is anything but consistent. It will not bolster up any argument to add that something belongs to the "mental world" or that there are "motives behind an action" instead of using a simple correlation phraseology. Generalities, such as "factors of social change," even when they are connected with empiricist statements, do not seem to further descriptions or predictions; they often serve as a kind of healing balsam." (17-18)
Several points in this passage warrant comment. First, there is the requirement of "consistency" of language. Here Neurath is reaffirming the goal of arriving at a universal language for social science research. Second is the rejection of mentalistic vocabulary. The point, I believe, is that the scientist cannot provide any observational criteria for applying the mental term to the individual. He/she may be able to provide behavioral criteria for the mental term; but in that case the mental term can be eliminated in terms of a feature of behavior. Instead of: "Berty broke the glass because he was angry," we can replace the sentence with: "Berty broke the glass; Berty displayed a, b, c features of angry-behavior; angry-behavior is commonly associated with things like breaking glasses." This leads us immediately to behaviorism as a methodological requirement for psychology. And the problem with "factors of social change," evidently, is that the phrase is entirely abstract and vacuous -- and therefore does not help with description or prediction. If, on the other hand, the "factor" were specified more concretely -- say, "rising population density as a factor of social change" -- then presumably Neurath would be satisfied. It would then be possible to study a number of societies; evaluate them for population density and social unrest; and arrive at testable statements about the correlation between the two factors.

Consider an example that I think will illustrate Neurath's point here. Suppose we say that "capitalism exists because of a pre-existing spirit of Calvinism." (Neurath begins to consider this example, understanding both concepts in terms of a set of "human attitudes"; p. 16. His use of the example obviously indicates that he is thinking of Max Weber, but he doesn't explicitly mention Weber.) Neurath would require that we be able to answer a series of questions: what are the criteria by which we apply the concept of capitalism to a specific society or group? What are the criteria by which we apply "Calvinism" to a population of people? And what observations and deductive arguments exist that would allow us to assess the truth or falsity of the claim of causation? If we are unable to answer any of these questions, then the statement is not yet an acceptable sociological assertion. Ultimately Neurath argues that we should refrain from making causal claims (21); but if we have clear criteria of application for C and P, then we can arrive at acceptable statements like "All C societies are P societies" or "Some P societies are not C societies". In other words, we can discover observational correlations in the occurrence of C and P across a range of societies or groups.

Neurath gives attention to the topic of "corroborating and supporting hypotheses" (25 ff.) -- what he refers to as "assaying" the statement (19). Here he takes a Duhemian view (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory), according to which a scientific account of a phenomenon consists of a network of hypotheses that jointly (not singly) have implications for observation. "We look at a network of hypotheses only, and we cannot say from which hypotheses certain difficulties arise." He denies that "crucial experiments" exist that permit the scientist to refute a single hypothesis based on a single experimental outcome. Instead, the system of hypotheses as a whole gains empirical support through positive findings, and loses empirical credibility through negative findings. "I should therefore say we may 'shake' or 'corroborate' the assertion of a hypothesis and finally prefer some hypothesis; but I should not suggest saying that we may 'confirm a sentence more and more,' because even this 'weak' statement deals at least with some 'limit'" (25).

What I do not find in this essay is a clear conception of a "theoretical construct" or theoretical concept -- that is, a scientifically useful concept that does not have criteria of empirical application. Theoretical concepts in physics are thought to be "non-observational" -- that is, there are no direct criteria for applying the concept of a quark to a specific observable thing in a specific time-space location. Instead, theoretical terms are employed in theoretical hypotheses along with "bridge laws" that permit us to relate the theory to the range of observable evidence. The observation-theoretic distinction becomes a crucial one in later analytic philosophy of science; but it doesn't seem to be explicit here in Neurath's essay. (He does refer to the Newtonian concept of gravity; but he doesn't specifically describe the logic of this concept and how it relates to observation; 26.)

Neurath also advocates caution in the search for predictions about social behavior and social processes: "As social scientists, we have to expect gulfs and gaps everywhere, together with unpredictability, incompleteness, and one-sidedness of our arguing, wherever we may start" (27). He reinforces this point with a strikingly modern-sounding point about the non-linearity of social processes: a small deviation at one end can lead to a major deviation at the other end (28).

So the main elements of a logical empiricist philosophy of sociology are here, in the form of a number of prescriptions:
  • logical specification of concepts
  • specification of empirical criteria of application of concepts to observations
  • description of social phenomena in terms of this conceptual system
  • observational assessment of statements
  • discovery of regularities among descriptive statements
  • avoidance of claims of causation
  • disregard of theoretical concepts
And these prescriptions, in turn, seem to lead to a particular model of sociology research -- one that appears to have guided the conduct of quantitative-statistical sociological research for several decades at mid-century. This is a variant of positivist philosophy of science that most strongly encourages general descriptive concepts, strong empirical procedures, and the discovery of statistical regularities among variables. It is what Andrew Abbott refers to as the "variables" paradigm.

Did the Vienna Circle view of the social sciences have any influence on working sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s? Or, more generally, did the writings of logical positivism influence the development of the methodologies and theories of sociology? One direct form of influence can be traced through the priority that behavioral scientists gave to "concept formation" and operationalizability -- for example, Carl Hempel's Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol 2 No 7) (1952) or P. W. Bridgman's The logic of modern physics (1927). The requirement of testability certainly recurs throughout much methodological writing by sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s. The insistence on discovering regularities among social facts plays directly into more sophisticated efforts to understand sociology as a statistical/quantitative science. The idea that the social sciences should avoid using "cause-effect" vocabulary seems to resonate with methodologists who insist that "we discover regularities but cannot assess causal relationships." So there does appear to be a fairly high degree of fit between the views that Neurath advances concerning sociology, and the content of positivist sociological methodology a few decades later.

A final question is this: how should science and philosophy interrelate? Do philosophical findings about scientific method imply that the scientific enterprise needs to start over? In response to this question, the book closes with one of Neurath's most famous passages -- the description of what is now known as "Neurath's raft".
Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their clumsy vessel from a more circular to a more fishlike one. They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. In transforming their ship they take care that dangerous leakages do not occur. A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step -- and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. That is our fate. (47)
This is his metaphor for the reconstruction of the sciences along the lines of logical empiricism and terminological empiricism: gradual reconstruction of the enterprise while underway in the business of performing scientific research.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Vienna Circle on interdisciplinary science

Image: in place of a network map of the contributors to the Vienna Circle

One of the central projects of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 1930s was an ambitious one: to create an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science that would demonstrate the crucial unity of all the empirical sciences -- including sociology and psychology (INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF UNIFIED SCIENCE. VOLUME I; 1938). The Vienna Circle group included a distinguished number of philosophers and scientists, including Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Rudolph Carnap, and Charles W. Morris; and non-Circle members Niels Bohr, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell lent their names to the project as well. Their central intellectual commitments constituted the cutting edge of positivist empiricism in the early part of the twentieth century; they advocated for the unity of science, inter-theoretic coherence, and the aspiration to a comprehensive empirical-logical method of scientific knowledge validation. This group was highly influential in the development of subsequent analytic philosophy of science (e.g., Herbert Feigl, Ernest Nagel, and Carl Hempel); in fact, Neurath's description of "logical empiricism" is one that pretty well describes the philosophy of science of the 1940s through the early 1960s. This was a very important stage in the development of twentieth-century thinking about the sciences, and some of the most incisive thinkers in the world were involved in the project. (See Thomas Uebel's article on the Vienna Circle in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

The positions and interpretations of Vienna Circle thinkers are particularly important here because these philosophers and scientists concentrated their thoughts on the question, what is science? And how do the various areas of scientific research relate to each other? And their writings have the advantage of a close acquaintance with some of the most important advances in a wide range of the sciences in the first several decades in the twentieth century, including physics, biology, psychology, and economics. So their writings have one of the characteristics that I think is most important in doing the philosophy of science: they formed their views in close engagement with particular areas of scientific research. These were brilliant thinkers; they were, on the whole, not dogmatic in their assumptions and judgments; they were sensitive to nuance in the doing of science; and they were deeply respectful of scientific work across a range of areas.

The first part of the Encyclopedia appeared in 1938, and it set the stage for the work that this international group of scientists and philosophers proposed to do (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science ; Volume 1 Part 2). Otto Neurath edited this volume, and his opening sentences in the initial essay set the stage:
Unified science became historically the subject of this Encyclopedia as a result of the efforts of the unity of science movement, which includes scientists and persons interested in science who are conscious of the importance of a universal scientific attitude. (1)
A bit later he links the work of the "unity of science" movement of his time to the writings of John Stuart Mill (discussed in an earlier post):
Modern scientific empiricism attained very late in its development a comprehensive work which analyzes empirical procedure in all scientific fields: John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. Mill does not question the fact that astronomy and social science, physics and biology, are sciences of the same type. ... Mill's work influenced modern empiricism despite the fact that many of his particularly statements were criticized. (9)
The central thrust of the Vienna Circle position on scientific knowledge is a joining of "empiricism" -- the view that all knowledge depends on empirical observations -- with "logicism" -- the idea that it is possible to give exact and rigorous interpretation of the idea of a valid inference. So the sciences are the ways in which we attempt to logically organize and express the facts of observations and the inferences we draw from these observations. And the work of the great logicians around the turn of the 20th century on the foundations of arithmetic -- Piano, Frege, Tarski, Russell -- gave the Vienna Circle thinkers a great deal of confidence in the power that is brought to scientific knowledge by formal systems of deductive logic.

The most extreme version of empiricism -- "knowledge consists of statements based on observations and deductively valid inferences from those statements" -- doesn't quite do the job, because it was quickly recognized that hypotheses and theories are not deductively entailed by a set of facts of observation. Consequently it is necessary to formulate a formal logic of confirmation (the task that Carl Hempel picked up with his hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation). In other words, empiricism needs something like an inductive logic in order to get the enterprise of science going. But the main elements of scientific knowledge are here: observation and inference.

The project of the Encyclopedia is to investigate how the various areas of existing science fit into this conception of scientific knowledge, and how they relate to each other. And the collaborators in the project think that there is a common scientific attitude -- respect for the empirical facts and logical deductions -- that extends across all the sciences.

It is interesting to notice the fact that Neurath's version of the unity of science does not imply reduction of all science to one super-theory:
Science itself is supplying its own integrating glue instead of aiming at a synthesis on the basis of a "super science" which is to legislate for the special scientific activities. The historical tendency of the unity of science movement is toward a unified science departmentalized into special sciences, and not toward a speculative juxtaposition of an autonomous philosophy and a group of scientific disciplines. (20)
Some of these observations make me think that it might be worth rethinking the import of the Vienna Circle. We're inclined to caricature the Vienna Circle as reductionist, positivist, and hyper-empiricist; and we tend to think of the movement as eliding the important differences across scientific disciplines. But there is a strong strand of scientific pluralism that flows through the project that is at odds with the reductionist reputation the movement has.

One might almost be inclined to call the Encyclopedia project one that emphasizes the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration, rather than a reductionist programme that seeks to impose a single set of principles and methods on all sciences. And in fact, Neurath seems to go out of his way to disavow the hope of reducing the special sciences to some single core science. Here is how Charles H. Morris ends his contribution in this opening volume with the title, "Scientific Empiricism":
This Encyclopedia, reflecting this inclusive standpoint, rightfully sounds the roll call of those distinguished logicians, scientists, and empiricists whom the traditional history of ideas has so shamefully neglected. But basically it aims to present through extensive co-operation the existing status and the unrealized possibilities for the integration of science. Its existence signalizes the union of scientific and philosophic traditions in a common task. (74-75)
And the scientific value of cross-disciplinary collaboration that the Vienna Circle members shared is reflected in the international group of scholars they gathered together in the 1930s. Here is the International Committee of the International Congresses for the Unity of Science (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science ; Volume 1 Part 2, p. 26):
N. Bohr, M. Boll, H. Bonnet, P. W. Bridgman, E. Brunswik, R. Carnap, E. Cartan, J. Clay, M. R. Cohen, J. Dewey, F. Enriques, P. Frank, M. Frechet, F. Gonseth, J. Hadamard, P. Janet, H. S. Jennings, J. Joergensen, E. Kaila, T. Kotarbinski, A. Lalande, P. Langevin, K. S. Lashley, C. I. Lewis, J. Lukasiewicz, G. Mannoury, R. von Mises, C. W. Morris, O. Neurath, C. K. Ogden, J. Perrin, H. Reichenbach, A. Rey, C. Rist, L. Rougier, B. Russell, L. S. Stebbing, J. H. Woodger
Later volumes add several additional names to the list of the membership of the Advisory Committee:
Herbert Feigl, Clark Hull, Waldemar Kaempffert, Victor Lenzen, William M. Malissoff, Ernest Nagel, Arne Naess, Alfred Tarski, Edward C. Tolman (1944)
Out of the 46 individuals listed, 11 are from France; 15 are located in the United States; and only one is located in Austria. The disciplines of philosophy, psychology, physics and logic are the largest groups, and there are a few economists included as well. It would be very interesting to extend this into a map of networks of influence in the next generation.

Here are the tables of contents for Volumes I and II. There are a few surprises on the contents for the second volume.

Volume 1
  • Encyclopedia and Unified Science / Otto Neurath et al
  • Foundations of the Theory of Signs / Charles Morris
  • Foundations of Logic and Mathematics / Rudolph Carnap
  • Linguistic Aspects of Science / Leonard Bloomfield
  • Procedures of Empirical Science / Victor Lenzen
  • Principles of the Theory of Probability / Ernest Nagel
  • Foundations of Physics / Phillipp Frank
  • Cosmology / E. Finlay-Freundlich
  • Foundations of Biology / Felix Mainx
  • The Conceptual Framework of Psychology / Egon Brunswik
Volume 2
  • Foundations of the social sciences / Otto Neurath
  • Structure of scientific revolutions / Thomas Kuhn
  • Science and the structure of ethics / Abraham Edel
  • Theory of valuation / John Dewey
  • Technique of theory construction / J. H. Woodger
  • Methodology of mathematical economics / Gerhard Tintner
  • Fundamentals of concept formation in empirical science / Carl Hempel
  • Development of rationalism and empiricism / Giorgio De Santillana and Edgar Zilsel
  • Development of logical empiricism / Jorgen Jorgensen
  • Bibliography and index / Herbert Feigl and Charles Morris

Thursday, September 17, 2009

History of sociology as sociology

I find the history of various approaches to sociology to be an interesting subject. When we look at the history of the Chicago School of sociology or the positivist-quantitative paradigm of the American 1950s and 1960s, we see a very particular set of intellectual problems and theories; we see personalities and universities; and we see specific prominent social problems that come in for study. And the resulting frameworks of assumptions about topics, scope, and method are very different. So there is a lot of contingency and path-dependency involved in the development of a sociological research tradition. I've commented on differences in national approaches to sociology in earlier postings (French sociology, Chinese sociology). Here I'd like to reflect a bit on some of the complexities involved in doing a history of a particular sociological tradition.

Craig Calhoun's Sociology in America: A History illustrates much of what I find interesting about this subject; the contributors have generally provided fascinating and nuanced insights into some of the main currents of American sociological thinking over the past century or so. George Steinmetz's contribution, "American Sociology Before and After World War II" is particularly interesting, in that it is both empirical and epistemic. "The burden of my argument in this chapter is to track the postwar narrowing of sociology's intellectual diversity or, more precisely, the shift from a relative equality between nonpositivist and positivist orientations in terms of scientific prestige to a condition in which positivism as defined here was clearly dominant" (315-6). Andrew Abbott and James Sparrow look at the impact of massive social events on the development of American sociology -- the events of World War II. And they treat this question in a rigorously sociological fashion; they examine the institutions, the demography, and the funding mechanisms that influenced the development of sociology in the United States between 1940 and 1955. And Doug McAdam provides a really fascinating and insightful examination of how the social context of the 1960s affected the discipline of sociology. Altogether, the collection represents the best historical sociology of the disciplines of sociology that I've seen.

A key foundational question in considering this subject is this: what is the historian of sociology trying to accomplish? What does he/she hope to discover? There are a range of possible questions: Where did the fundamental concepts and methods come from? How were the founders influenced in their theories and methods by prior intellectual frameworks? How did institutions and funding mechanisms influence the particular directions that were taken in the research tradition? How did individual innovators and pathbreakers impose their own innovations into the emerging tradition? How do the concepts and methods reflect background social conditions and events? These are all questions of causation and genesis, and they can be treated empirically -- even sociologically.

What is the intellectual standing of this sort of inquiry? What does a good history of the Annales school or the Chicago school tell us? Here are a couple of possibilities.

First, a good history of a concrete sociological tradition may lay out some of the intellectual influences that stimulated thinkers through the formative period--the ideas about science and knowledge, the ideas about what the interesting historical questions are, and even what's involved in being an iconoclast in the current state of the broader discipline. In the case of the Annales school, the history will likely drill down on the concrete influence wielded by Durkheim, Mauss, and their tradition on the Annales founders; and it will highlight what the founders were reacting against in defining their approach -- perhaps the towering influences of Ranke and Michelet. And the history will be attentive to detail -- not just the broad brush, but the specific controversies and influences that shaped the development of the field at various points. This aspect of the work converges with the methods and content of intellectual history more generally.

Second, the history of a sociological tradition may give a lot of attention to uncovering the specific institutions of knowledge validation and dissemination that set the context for the founders -- the universities, journals, state institutions, funding sources, and academic associations that promoted or impeded the creation of new knowledge. This is core sociology of science, reflecting the recognition that science is a social product and is deeply influenced by the concrete institutions that exist or are subsequently created.

A third component of a history of a sociological tradition might be an account of the historical and social environment in which the tradition takes shape. In the case of the Annales school, the fact that it emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Great War is surely relevant; Marc Bloch's experience of war and the French army surely had some influence on his development as an historian. Likewise, the Frankfurt school's development within the jaws of emerging fascism must be relevant to understanding of the social theorists of the school (and of the New School in New York!). And the buoyant optimism of America in the 1950s must play a role in the development of American sociology (e.g. Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties).

But now we're brought face to face with the crucial questions of validity and truth. We want our sociologies to shed real light on the nature of various social settings. We want sociological results to be validated by empirical investigation. We want sociologists to be in a position to create genuinely innovative ideas and representations of the social world -- ideas that genuinely increase our ability to understand society. And therefore we want to avoid any sort of determinism in the realm of scientific inquiry; we want it not to be the case that the sociologist is trapped in the "prison-house" of ideas and social context that surround him/her. Marx's simple formula, "the hand-mill gives you the feudal lord" (German Ideology) makes scientific knowledge impossible; likewise with Karl Mannheim's deterministic sociology of knowledge (Ideology And Utopia).

Here is the picture I favor in understanding the evolution of the various traditions of social knowledge (post). There is no such thing as comprehensive social knowledge; there is no general "first theory" that we might aspire to as a universal sociology. Rather, social knowledge takes the form of an indefinite series of sometimes overlapping domains and definitions of knowledge. Some of these give us a better understanding of social factors like race or caste; others focus on agency and constraint; yet others try to discover quantifiable patterns within the social world. So social knowledge is a dynamic and expanding tool box of theories and approaches, each of which adds something to our overall understanding of society.

And if this is our view of social knowledge, then the history of sociology has a very substantial role to play in helping us understand the intellectual and practical path that brought us to various sociological approaches, without undermining the epistemic status of those traditions. There is a lot of contingency in the story; there is an unavoidable incompleteness in the composite mosaic of traditions of inquiry and knowledge; but there are straightforward intellectual strategies that permit us to empirically evaluate the theories and traditions. Criticism, validation, and knowledge are consistent with the fact that specific historical paths led us to the theories we currently possess. Of course, we need to recognize that those traditions could have emerged significantly differently.

This understanding of the relationship between sociology and the history of sociology means, in turn, that we can treat a sociological tradition simultaneously in terms of ...
  • the specific sociological and institutional pathways through which it developed and
  • the degree of truth, justification, and insight that it has as a partial representation of the social world.
In other words, an historical sociology of sociology can be both empirical and institutional, and at the same time epistemic and critical. It can shed light on how we got where we are, and on the question of how good are our current understandings of the social world.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Agrarian history -- the Weber edition

One of Max Weber's early areas of research was what might be called "macro agrarian history". This was a field of research that Weber himself largely invented. He undertook to document and explain the large patterns of economic development in the ancient world, including especially the social systems surrounding farming and animal husbandry. Weber's cases include Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. How did the fundamental material activities of farming, trading, and consuming contribute to the development of major civilizations? This research culminated in several important manuscripts, including in particular Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1909; translated and edited by R. I. Frank in 1976). Weber was particularly interested in the causal and structural features of the specific forms of property relations, labor, trade, taxation, and consumption that characterized the social economies of the ancient world. And he tries to show how certain features of the agrarian system influenced the emergence of certain political and legal forms.

The title "Agrarverhältnisse in Altertum" is translated as "Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations"; but this is a little misleading. It's not so much a work of sociology as it is a work of economic and political history at a civilizational level. The essay is offered as an account of the history and particularity of the rural economies of the ancient world -- closer to economic history than sociology.

Weber's treatment of ancient Greece is particularly detailed. So let's inventory some of the main components of his account to get a flavor of his approach. This will give us a better idea of how he set about trying to understand and explain the social world that is presented through ancient Greek literature. Here are the first few paragraphs of his description of the agrarian society of "historic Greece" -- the contemporary society of Homer, or roughly 1000 BCE:
The Greeks raised spelt, barley, and wheat, alternating this in each field with grass (hence leases were for an even number of years). This system continued to be followed except in those areas specializing in a particular crop. Occasionally, it seems, the three-field system was used, but there was no change of crops, except that legumes were grown on fallow land. The use of manure is mentioned in Homer (but green manure was not used until later times); in general, however, agricultural techniques were stabilized at a rather primitive level and thereafter did not develop.

Thus the main features of Greek agriculture continued to be ploughing with a hooked plough (for long entirely of wood) drawn by oxen, sowing seed in furrows, hacking and weeding the grain fields, and harvesting with sickle and threshing board. Hence labour intensity was considerable, and since virgin land was no longer available, it was difficult to shift from subsistence agriculture to market production, even though grain prices were high in later times.

Cattle raising does not seem to have been much reduced in extent by farming until the age of the tyrants, who favoured the peasantry. The Homeric epics indicated a diet based mainly on cheese, milk, and -- among aristocrats -- meat. Clothing was made of wool and skins. (147)
So -- crops, technology and practice, labor productivity, and consumption patterns. And what about the social relationships within which these farm activities took place?
In historical times the prevalent form of living unit was the patriarchal nuclear family. Women and children were in much the same position as among Semitic peoples: women could be bought or else married with dowry; husbands had the right to send away their wives, and could sell, rent, expel, or kill their children. Later the laws governing legitimacy, and the feeling for kin ties cultivated among the great families combined to reduce these powers of the father over his children; by the time when the Gortyn Code was first framed these changes had all taken place. (148)

But whereas the masses lived in nuclear families, nobles and kings -- at first the same -- lived as elsewhere in large households including agnates of a clan (genos). The purpose of this was to preserve the unity of inheritable landed estates. Thus both separate and group inheritance are mentioned in the Homeric epics; see the homosipuoi of Charondas, equivalent to the homogalaktes of Attic law. (148)
Here we have some social detail: the family, property in land, inheritance, and a "class" distinction between the farmer class and the elite families. And we have regular reminders of the primary historical sources underlying these descriptions: the Homeric epics and other surviving texts from Greek literature and history.

Weber quickly identifies social inequality in ancient Greek society and points to a system of wealth extraction from the masses to the elite families:
Those people who did not belong to a numerous and economically established clan, who were in short without land, found themselves forced to enter the clientele of one or another aristocrat. This was a later development, as the supply of new land declined and differences in wealth developed; originally membership of the community and ownership of land each presupposed the other. (149)
What about politics -- the use of military force to extract resources and compel population behavior?
The Dorian cities were fundamentally military states, and so everywhere they maintained the same three tribes. Elsewhere there was great variety, but everywhere and always the formal division of a community into tribes signified one thing: that a people had constituted itself as a polis ready for war at any time. It should be noted here that the proper word for a tribe in a non-urbanized community was ethnos, as is shown by the documents of the Delphic Amphictyone. (151)

More precise information is not available for the political and social structures of autonomous communities in early times. If, however, we rely on analogies with other peoples, then we can assume that in each community the position of ruler (anax) came to be hereditary in a family made prominent by wealth in cattle and marked out as favoured by the gods by success in war and equity in judgment. (151)
When he moves on to the later period in ancient Greek history he extends the list of concepts used to characterize society; he describes the development of cities, the extension of long-distance trade, the social and cultural influence of Asia Minor, and the growth of political power wielded by aristocratic kings.

This is just a small snapshot of Weber's historical reasoning in Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. The book is methodical, and it moves through an orderly series of objective concepts of social organization in order to provide a description of the historically given society.

So the text is full of interesting claims and details about the agrarian regimes of human society 3,000 years ago. But here is the question that needs posing in the context of UnderstandingSociety: What is Weber trying to accomplish in this piece of writing? And how does his analysis shed light on his intuitive views of social and historical knowledge? What can we discover about Weber's sociological imagination from this book? Several summary comments seem fairly clear.

First, much of the intellectual work here is devoted to de-coding the social and economic implications of surviving Greek literature, including particularly the Homeric poems. Weber is trying to piece together a coherent story of the modes of farming, technology, property, family, kinship, and kingship that are implied in the many small clues about social life contained in the Homeric corpus. So there is a large part of the work that is intended to be conceptual and descriptive.

Second, Weber lays bare one of his own interests in his construction of the text: a concern for viewing large social formations -- civilizations or social-economic regimes -- and discovering some of the material and situational factors that influence their development. This introduces an explanatory ambition to the work; Weber wants to be able to explain how some developments are the causal result of other developments.

Third, there is an important element of comparison involved in the book. Weber is plainly interested in noticing the differences as well as the similarities in the agrarian regimes he describes in Egypt, Greece, or Rome.

Fourth, there is not much attention given to the role of ideas or ideologies in this book -- in contrast to the central role that ideas play in his comparative religion research some years later. And there is no trace of "interpretive" inquiry in this book either. Weber is trying to discover an objective vocabulary in terms of which to describe the material and social arrangements that are implied by the Homeric corpus, without attempting to say how the agents experienced or represented these social relations. This is not a "hermeneutic" book; if anything, it more resembles an ethnographically sensitive materialism. We might even say that the book is Weber's, but it is something other than Weberian.

Finally, the topic of power returns repeatedly throughout the book. Weber demonstrates his recurring interest in the role that coercion and military force play in the organization of society and the concentration of wealth.

Several generations later, the great classical historian M. I. Finley undertook a parallel investigation of the agrarian economies of Greece and Rome in The Ancient Economy (1973). Finley's work is more clearly organized by the goal of showing how the material, technical, and social relations he describes constitute an economic system -- a system of production and reproduction. And it reflects a modest kind of Marxism in its effort to describe the forces and relations of production in the ancient world. Certainly the body of historical data that was available to Finley about the social arrangements of the ancient world was much greater than what was available to Weber; in this sense we are likely to judge that Finley's account is more likely to be accurate in detail. But it is very interesting to read the two books side-by-side; they have a lot in common. And each presents an ambitious view of what is involved in knowing how ancient societies worked.

(It is interesting to discover that M. I. Finley and R. I. Frank, the translator and editor of Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, had a bit of a dust-up in the New York Review of Books in 1970 over a review that Finley wrote of several books on the Roman Empire.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why the corporation?

image: Diego Rivera mural of Rouge Plant, Detroit Institute of the Arts

Recently I posted about C. Wright Mills and his analysis of power elites in America (post). A major theme in Mills's book is the new power associated with the American corporation following World War II. Charles Perrow's Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism (2002) offers an historical account of how this system of power came into being. Perrow is a historical sociologist, and he focuses his analysis on the structural features of the organizations he considers; the historical and social factors that favored the emergence of these kinds of organizations; and the role that they now play within the complex social and political system of modern America.

The topic is particularly relevant today, when the Supreme Court is considering whether "corporations have a right to free speech", and therefore a right to further deepen their influence on political directions and policies through their funding of political messages.

Perrow gives close empirical attention to the evolution of the institutions through which the American economy functioned from the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Textiles and railroads play key roles in this early history. Perrow tells the story of how the American economy came to feature the large corporation as its central business organization -- an outcome that was far from inevitable. He argues that the large corporation is a historically contingent creation; other forms of enterprise activity could have emerged. And he teases out of this account a pretty compelling set of conclusions that are very supportive of Mills's basic line of thought concerning the disproportionate power that is wielded by corporations and their officers. Here's his summary statement:
Our economic organizations -- business and industry -- concentrate wealth and power; socialize employees and customers alike to meet their needs; and pass off to the rest of society the cost of their pollution, crowding, accidents, and encouragement of destructive life styles. In the vaunted "free market" economy of the United States, regulation of business and industry to prevent or mitigate this market failure is relatively ineffective, as compared to that enacted by other industrialized countries. (1-2)
Perrow notes that organizations do not have to be large to be effective and efficient; along with Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization) and Philip Scranton (Endless Novelty), he argues that "networks of small firms can drive innovation and distribute wealth and power more equitably" (2). So large, hierarchical organizations are not mandated by the technical demands of modern economic life. In fact, innovation, flexibility, and community responsiveness are more likely to be associated with networks of small organizations rather than solitary large organizations, and these types of organizations were abundant in our economic history. "Many conditions were in place to grow a society of well-regulated and moderate-sized firms focused upon regional economic development; at various points in the century many citizens argued for this" (19). But that is not what we got; instead, the large organization and the corporation became the central unit of economic activity.

So why did large organizations and corporations come to have the central and dominating role that they have had in economic and social life since the early twentieth century in the United States? Perrow's answer to this represents a synthesis of the best thinking to date on the role that corporations play. He refers to his approach as a "society of organizations" approach, involving these key elements:
  • History is path-dependent, accidental, only partially developmental
  • structure and environment rather than entrepreneurship explain success / failure
  • technologies are chosen to fit preferred structure / ideology
  • culture shapes and is shaped by organization; the latter is emphasized
  • labor process is shaped in part by workers' resistance and can occasionally be a key factor, but acquiescence in dependency, and tradeoffs in benefits, are more often the common lot of employees
  • bureaucracy (formalization, standardization, centralization, hierarchy) is the best unobtrusive control device that elites ever had (19)
The point about labor process is an important one. Perrow notes that the central challenge of how to discipline and regularize a labor force in textiles or other mass-production industries itself led to the early development of bureaucratic and hierarchical rules within emerging organizations. For example, "uniform work rules for all mills in Philadelphia including Manayunk were established at meetings of the owners in the early 1830s" (55). (Michael Burawoy explores this role of the corporation throughout his work; Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism.)

Perrow also gives quite a bit of attention to the legal and policy environment in the United States as a key variable in the specific pathway that American business took. The enactment of legislation permitting incorporation was an important step, in that it provided significant rights and powers to corporations (36 ff.). And Perrow notices that the development of railroads and their business organizations in the United States took a very different course than counterparts in Europe because of significant differences in political values and culture in the United States (a point that leads Perrow to intersect with Frank Dobbin's analysis in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, discussed here.)

What is the upshot? Perrow argues that in the United States the national political economy was led to create a system that gave enormous and very lightly regulated power to large organizations and corporations; that, once established, these organizations were very capable of defending their rights and freedom of action; and that the corporations exercise power at every level in American society. Corporations and large organizations wield micro-power over the tens of millions of Americans who work within them, meso-power over the environmental status of communities and regions and the consumption patterns of individuals, and macro-power over the direction that legislation and policy takes. And this degree of power is now deeply entrenched:
Belatedly, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century sought to redress the power imbalances and the costly externalities for workers and communities. But the organizational infrastructure of the nation was not to be seriously disturbed or even ideologically challenged, up to the present. A society with small- and modest-sized firms, regional rather than national markets, and with civic welfare provisions that are a right of citizenship rather than a benefit of employment--a society with wealth and power distributed widely--is now out of the question. Large bureaucratic organizations, public and private, will be our fate for the foreseeable future. It might have been otherwise. (228)
And finally, Perrow argues that this system was not economically or technologically inevitable. Networks of smaller firms and organizations could satisfy the needs for efficient production and innovation that a robust and dynamic economy presents. And a substantially less centralized political economy would be favorable to democracy and modern quality of life.

(Perrow's most recent book is also very timely and worth reading (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters). Here Perrow returns to the subject of catastrophe and its prevention. He outlines the very significant possibilities of catastrophic failure that are inherent in our current industrial and economic organization, and offers some ideas about how we might reduce these vulnerabilities. There is a connection between the two books; the wide scope of the corporation as the basic unit of economic organization directly implies the concentration of dangerous industrial processes that a more decentralized network of smaller producers would have avoided. Try a sample chapter on the Kindle.)