Thursday, January 28, 2010

Relations, processes, and activities

An earlier post asked what sorts of social entities exist. Posing the question this way leads us to think of persistent abstract things populating the social world -- for example, structures, organizations, or institutions. But as a commentator to the earlier post pointed out, there are persistent phenomena in the social world that don't look much like things and look more like activities and processes. Grammatically they have more in common with verbs than nouns. And when many such social phenomena are described using nouns, we are often forced to interpret them in a non-referential way.

Take the social realities of friendship, solidarity, and inflation.

The first is a characteristic of social relationships; it is a relational concept.  It doesn't make sense to think of "friendship" as a concatenation of monadic atoms of "friend units"; rather, the concept of friend evinces a set of relational characteristics between persons.  So "friendship" doesn't designate a continuing "thing" in the world; instead, it designates a complex relational and psychological feature of pairs of persons, widely separated across population and space.  Our theory of friendship encapsulates our interpretation of the mental and behavioral states of persons who are in the relationship of friendship with each other.

Solidarity has this feature of relationality, and it adds a feature of social motivation and psychological orientation to a group. We can ask whether solidarity exists in the social world, and we can reasonably answer that it does.  But when we affirm that "solidarity exists", we really mean that "there are numerous instances of groups and individuals in which members of the group willingly conform their behavior to the needs and purposes of the group."  Our explanation of "solidarity" is likely to invoke abstract ideas about individuals within consciously constituted groups rather than something analogous to a social substance.  So solidarity is not a thing, but rather a dynamic feature of consciousness shared in varying ways by individuals who orient themselves to a group.

"Inflation" is a different sort of social noun. It refers to a complex social state of affairs reflecting a set of processes in which prices of goods are determined by market forces and prices are rising across a range of commodities. We cannot define the social reality of "inflation" without specifying a set of distributed social facts and identifying a number of social processes.  So inflation too doesn't look at all like a social thing.

Each of these social nouns corresponds to a social reality. But this reality doesn't look much like a set of fixed entities or composites of entities. The semantics of objects and things doesn't work well for this range of social vocabulary. And yet each of these terms identifies a domain that is perfectly well suited to empirical inquiry and discovery. The social reality of friendship practices differs across cultures; friendship practice has some degree of stability over time; and we can discover quite a bit about the culture, norms, and practices of friendship in a particular culture.  And likewise with solidarity and inflation.  Each is a legitimate object of empirical inquiry; and neither conforms to the ontology of "thing" with fixed location and properties.

What this discussion suggests is that our ontology of the social world needs to encompass not only a range and variety of entities -- structures, institutions, organizations, but also ontological categories that reflect a more fluid set of social realities: processes, practices, rules, relations, and activities.  This observation converges with the styles of thought of thinkers as various as Charles Tilly and Norbert Elias; Tilly refers to "relational realism," and Elias is an advocate of "process sociology".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What exists in the social realm?

What sorts of social things exist?  Does the "proletariat" exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a "working class"? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

We might want to say that things exist when they have enough persistence over time to admit of re-identification and study from one time to another.  Persistence involves some degree of stability in a core set of properties.  A cloud shaped like a cat has a set of visible characteristics at a given moment; but these characteristics disappear quickly, and this collection of water droplets quickly morphs into a different collection in a short time.  So we are inclined not to call the cat-shaped cloud an entity.  On the other hand, "the Black Forest" exists because we can locate its approximate boundaries and composition over several centuries.  The forest is an agglomeration of trees in a geographical space; but we might reasonably judge that the forest has properties that we can investigate that are not simply properties of individual trees (density and canopy temperature, for example).  The forest undergoes change over time; the mix of types of trees may shift from one decade to another, the density of plants changes, and the human uses of forest products change.  And we can ask questions like: "How has the ecology of the Black Forest changed in the twentieth century?"  So it seems reasonable enough that we can refer to the forest as a geographical or ecological entity.

We can also classify individual forests into types of forests: temperate rain forest, tropical rain forest, coniferous forest, etc.  (Here is a 26-fold classification of forests by UNEP-WCMC; the map below represents the global distribution of these types of forests.)  And we can ask ecological questions about the properties and processes that are characteristic of the various types of forests.

So what characteristics should a putative social entity possess in order to fall within the working ontology of the social sciences?  Here are a few possible candidate ontological features that might be associated with thing-hood in the social realm:
  • persistence of basic characteristics over time -- spatio-temporal continuity and social analogs such as nucleated population with shared norms and identities
  • an internal structural-functional organization
  • some sort of regulative social process that maintains the thing's identity over time, either internal or external 
  • social cohesion among the individuals who constitute the entity deriving from their social orientation to the entity (labor union, religious community, ethnic group)
  • an account of the particular material-social mechanisms through which the identity and persistence of the entity are maintained
According to these sorts of criteria, we might say that social things like these examples exist:
  • United Auto Workers
  • General Motors corporation
  • First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque
  • Missouri Synod
  • Kylie Minogue Facebook fan club 
  • 18th Street gang of Los Angeles
  • Michigan Legislature
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • University of Wisconsin
  • apprentice system for electrical workers
  • social practice of Islamic charity
Here is a slightly more abstract formulation.  We might say that these kinds of social entities exist: organizations, both formal and informal; networks of individuals oriented to each other and/or a social goal; social groups unified by features of consciousness or existential circumstance; bureaucracies of the state; enduring social practices; institutions possessing internal organization, rules, and purposes.

Social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals.  So the sinews of composition are important.  We can recognize a wide range of ways in which individuals are composed into larger social entities: agglomeration, adherence, mutual recognition, coercion, contractual relationships, marketing, recruitment, incentive systems, ...  This is one place where "assemblage" theory seems to be useful (Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Part of the confusion in this topic is the distinction between things and kinds of things. We might agree that the Chicago Police Department exists as a social entity.  But we may remain uncertain as to whether "police departments" or "state coercive apparatuses" exist as higher-order categories of social things. And perhaps this is a confusion; perhaps the issue of existence applies only to individual entities, not kinds or classes of entities. On this approach, we would stipulate the minimum characteristics of existence we would want to require of individual social entities and then be "nominalistic" about the higher-level categories or concepts into which we classify these singular individuals.

In considering the ontology of the social world it is important to be attentive to the fallacy of reification: the error of thinking that the fact that we can formulate an abstract noun (proletariat, fascism) allows us to infer that it exists as a persistent, recurring social entity.  So when we identify a given social entity as an X, we need to regard it as an open question, "What do X's have in common?"  We can avoid the fallacy of reification by focusing on the importance of providing microfoundations for the enduring characteristics of social entities.  It is the underlying composition of the entity rather than its location within a classificatory system that provides an explanatory foundation for the behavior of the entity.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Defining and specifying social phenomena

Insect (df): a class within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae.

What is involved in offering a definition of a complex social phenomenon such as "fascism", "rationality", "contentious politics", "social capital", or "civic engagement"? Is there any sense in which a definition can be said to be correct or incorrect, given the facts we find in the world? Are some definitions better than others? Does a definition correspond to the world in some way? Or is a definition no more than a conventional stipulation about how we propose to use a specific word?

There are several fundamental questions that need answering when we consider the meaning of a term such as "fascism" or "contentious politics". What do we intend the term to refer to?  How is the term used in ordinary language?  What are the paradigm cases? What are the ordinary criteria of application of the term -- the necessary and sufficient conditions, the rules of application? What characteristics do we mean to pick out in using the term? What is our proto-theory that guides our use and application of the concept?

From the scientific point of view, the use of a concept is to single out a family of objects or phenomena that can usefully be considered together for further analysis and explanation. "Metals" are a group of materials that have similar physical properties such as conductivity and ductility. And it turns out that these phenomenologically similar materials also have important underlying physical properties in common, that explain the phenomenological properties. So it is possible to provide a physical theory of metals that unifies and explains their observable similarities. The scientist's interest, then, is in the phenomena and not the concept or its definition.

In order to investigate further we need to do several kinds of work. We need to specify more exactly what it is that we are singling out. What is "civic engagement"?  Does this concept single out a specific range of behaviors and motivations? Would we include a spontaneous gift to a fund for a family who lost their home to a fire "civic engagement"? What about membership in a college fraternity? So we have to say what we mean by the term; we have to indicate which bits of the world are encompassed by the term; and perhaps we need to give some reason to expect that these phenomena are relevantly similar.

Several semantic acts are relevant in trying to do this work. "Ostension" is the most basic: pointing to the clear cases of civic engagement or fascism and saying "By civic engagement I mean things like these and things relevantly similar to them." If we go this route then we put a large part of the burden of the semantics in the world and in the judgment of the observer: is this next putative example of the stuff really similar to the paradigm examples?

But there is also an intensional part of the work: what do we intend to designate in pointing to this set of paradigm cases? Is it the motivation of the activity, the features of social connections involved in the activity, or the effects of the activity that are motivating the selection of cases? Is fascism a kind of ideology, a type of social movement, or a type of political organization? These questions aren't answered by the gesture of ostension; rather, the observer needs to specify something about the nature of the phenomena that are intended to be encapsulated by the concept.

Once we have stipulated the extension and criteria of application of the term, we can then take a further step and offer a theory of this stuff. It may be a theory in materials science intended to explain the workings of some common characteristics of this stuff -- electrical or thermal conductivity, melting point, hardness. Or it may be a social theory of the origins and institutional tendencies of the stuff (fascism, social movements, civic engagement). Either way, the theory goes beyond semantics and makes substantive empirical statement about the world.

It is not the case that all scientific concepts are constructed through a process of abstraction from observable phenomena.  A theoretical concept is one whose meaning exceeds the observable associations or criteria associated with the concept. It may postulate unobservable mechanisms or structures which are only indirectly connected to observable phenomena, or it may hypothesize distinctions and features that help to explain the gross behavior of the phenomena. The value of a theoretical concept is not measured by its fit with ordinary language usage or its direct applicability to the observable world; instead, a theoretical concept is useful if it helps the theorist to formulate hypotheses about the unobservable mechanisms that underlie a phenomenon and that help to provide some empirical order to the phenomena.

In order to support empirical research, theoretical concepts need somehow to be related to the world of observation and experience.  An important activity is “operationalizing” a theoretical concept. This means specifying a set of observable or experimental characteristics that permit the investigator to apply the concept to the world. But the operational criteria associated with a concept do not exhaust its meaning, and different investigators may provide a different set of operational criteria for the same concept. And a specific scheme of operationalization of a concept like "social capital" or "civic engagement" may itself be debated.

The idea of a "natural kind" arises in the natural sciences. Concepts like metal, acid, insect, and gene are linguistic elements that are thought to refer to a family or group of entities that share fundamental properties in common. Kinds are thought to exist in the world, not simply in conceptual schemes. So having identified the kind, we can then attempt to arrive at a theory of the underlying nature of things like this. (It is an important question to consider whether there are any "social kinds;" in general, I think not.)

These reflections raise many of the intellectual problems associated with defining a field of empirical research in the social sciences.  Research always forces us to single out some specific body of phenomena for study.  This means specifying and conceptualizing the phenomena.  And eventually it means arriving at theories of how these sorts of things work.  But there is a permanent gap between concept and the world that means that certain questions can't be answered: for example, what is fascism really?  There are no social essences that definitions might be thought to identify.  Instead, we can offer analysis and theory about specific fascist movements and regimes, based on this or that way of specifying the concept of fascism.  But there is nothing in the world that dictates how we define fascism and classify, specify, and theorize historical examples of fascism.  The semantic ideas of family resemblance, ideal type, and cluster concept work best for concepts in the social sciences.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The March on Washington, August 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country's most important history almost forty-seven years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and of course many of us are remembering Dr. King's legacy today as thousands of people throughout the country give a day of service in his memory.

(Over eight million people have viewed this YouTube video of the speech.)

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed -- not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam's Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation -- a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine -- but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation -- all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change -- this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names -- Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America's struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin's biography.  The NPR program State of the Re:Union ran an excellent piece on Rustin this morning; link.  Here is a film based on Rustin's life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam's account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  "Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions wa a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement" (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual's motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, "Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America," appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:
We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.
Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:
  • "The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life." 
  • "Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine."
  • "The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.”"
  • "On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups."
These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of "having done my part," a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:
What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.
But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  "It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups."  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:
The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.
The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative -- his ideas of the "moral economy of the peasant" and "weapons of the weak" are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I've treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott's work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena -- peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of "hidden transcripts" in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between "material circumstances" and "culture"; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro -- he examines the ways that states think; and more micro -- he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls "high modernism" -- essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:
It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)
Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state's agenda of "sedentarianization" -- reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into "legible" formations.
The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)
The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:
I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level....  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)
High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.
Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century ... He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)
The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott's view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of "scientific management" to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China's Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.
In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)
A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science -- social and natural -- and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment -- what he calls "metis".  "Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability" (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott's discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott's perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories -- whether of forests, bees, or cities -- has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott's arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott's most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott's contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fascist movements

Image: resistance to Spanish fascism, Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The crimes of fascist governments in Spain, Italy, and Germany are among the most terrible pages of twentieth-century history.  And these governments commonly came to power by long mass-based mobilization by right-wing nationalist parties rather than by seizure of power by a strategically located minority.  How was it possible for parties based on hatred and violence to be able to gain support from large parts of the populations of these states?  And how should the social sciences proceed in efforts to diagnose and explain these processes?

In Fascists Michael Mann offers a thorough and nuanced account of the rise of fascist movements in many countries in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.  And in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing he looks at the processes that have led to genocidal violence by a range of modern states.  These are important books by a particularly acute historical sociologist of political power and the state.  It is particularly interesting to examine Mann's research strategy -- the empirical research he brings to bear to his research questions and the assumptions he makes about what is needed in order to arrive at an explanation of various aspects of fascism.  (Another important sociological contribution to the study of fascism is Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.)

Mann's approach is through the people, ideologies, and social movements that led to the establishment of fascist regimes:
This book seeks to explain fascism by understanding fascists -- who they were, where they came from, what their motivations were, how they rose to power.  I focus here on the rise of fascist movements rather than on established fascist regimes.  I investigate fascists at their flood tide, in their major redoubts in interwar Europe, that is, in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain.  To understand fascists will require understanding fascist movements.  We can understand little of individual fascists and their deeds unless we appreciate that they were joined together into distinctive power organizations.  (9)
Here is Mann's definition of fascism:
I define fascism in terms of the key values, actions, and power organizations of fascists. Most concisely, fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. (13)
Mann disputes the common dichotomy between "idealist" and "materialist" theories of large movements and structures such as fascism.  Instead, he brings forward his own long-developed analysis of the four major sources of power in complex societies:
But my own approach to fascism derives from a more general model of human societies that rejects the idealism-versus-materialism dualism. My earlier work identified four primary “sources of social power” in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political. ... To attain their goals, social movements wield combinations of control over ultimate meaning systems (ideological), control over means of production and exchange (economic), control over organized physical violence (military), and control over centralized and territorial institutions of regulation (political). (5)
His analysis of the fascisms of Europe attempts to assess each of them in terms of these sources of power.  This analysis also plays into his account of the failure of fascism in countries such as France or Sweden.  Mann makes an important point when he observes that fascism never prevailed in countries where parliamentary democracy had developed a secure base.  There were fascist parties and leaders in France, Great Britain, and Sweden; but democratic institutions held, and fascism did not prevail in these countries.

Mann makes a very important point when he emphasizes that fascism was not an historical anomaly; rather, it was the expression of forces and crises that can recur in the twenty-first century as well.  "Fascists have been at the heart of modernity....  Fascists only embraced more fervently than anyone else the central political icon of our time, the nation-state, together with its ideologies and pathologies" (9).

The largest single topic in each of the country studies is Mann's effort to understand the motivations of the fascist followers themselves.  Who were the committed followers?  Who were the sympathetic but less-engaged followers?
As in all my case studies I examine in some detail the social backgrounds of the fascists. They offer the best evidence regarding ordinary fascists. Yet social movements are not mere aggregations of individuals, each of whom can be counted equally and statically. Movements contain particular social structures and processes. This fascist movement greatly respected order and hierarchy, and the attainment of substantial power within the movement was an important part of the “career” of fascists. Moreover, paramilitary violence conferred distinctive powers on a “mass” (though less than “majority”) movement committed to violence.  (100)
Mann uses a variety of empirical sources to answer simple questions: what were the occupational backgrounds of the members?  What can we infer about their values and motivations?
Which particular social groups within these countries were most attracted to fascism? I spend many pages over several chapters examining the social backgrounds of fascist leaders, militants, members, fellow-travelers, coconspirators and voters – compared (wherever possible) with their counterparts in other political movements. How old were fascists, were they men or women, military or civilian, urban or rural, religious or secular, economic winners or losers, and from which regions, economic sectors, and social classes did they come? (25-26)
He goes to some effort to refute the Marxist interpretation of fascist movements: that they were led and supported by the lesser bourgeoisie.  Instead, he finds that there was significant support for fascist ideology and movements across a wide range of social-class locations.

Ideology and values play a large role in Mann's interpretation and explanation of the program of fascism.  He rejects the view that fascism was wholly opportunistic and succeeded solely through its adeptness with propaganda; rather, he takes fascist social and political theory seriously, judging that fascist parties offered plausible solutions to perceived social problems (p. 2).  These parties attracted followers because they persuaded large numbers of Italians, Germans, or Spaniards that they had the ability to solve the problems their societies faced.  Key ideological themes were nationalism (the aggressive values and emotions of ethnicity and the nation) and "state-ism" (the legitimacy and necessity of a strong state with few limits on its power as an institution for solving "modern" problems).  "Fascists were motivated by a highly emotional struggle to cleanse their nation of “enemies,” and so they indulged in reckless aggression and terrible evil" (22).

Another key characteristic of fascist movements in the 1930s was the role played by paramilitary organizations as tools of intimidation, coercion, and mobilization.
Paramilitarism also conferred a concrete and enveloping social identity. The returning soldiers were young, mostly unmarried with little labor market experience, poorly integrated into local communities centered on family, occupation, and religion, prone to identify with the nation as a whole – which the mass army had claimed to “represent” (104).
Mann also spends some time assessing the role that "crisis" played in the rise of fascism: war, defeat, economic crisis.  He does not believe that crisis was the primary cause of the rise of fascism; rather, it was a contributing condition that helped to accelerate processes that were underway already.  And Mann notes that there is a pronounced geographical dimension to fascism and authoritarianism, as indicated in the following map representing the state of affairs in 1929.

So what does Mann's explanatory scheme amount to?  It comes down to something like this: fascist parties and leaders articulated a vision of the current problems and their solutions.  A significant proportion of the young adults (18-35) were receptive to these messages, including the call for radical change and the use of street violence.  War, financial crisis, class conflict, and insecure parliamentary institutions created an environment in which the ideology of fascism could flourish and fascist mobilization was feasible.  In several countries demobilized and defeated veterans represented a population of prospective recruits to fascist groups.  Paramilitary violence could not defeat the military arm of the state; but it could intimidate other parties and pressure governments.  The experience of a fascist organization was itself a reinforcing one; young people who found their way into a fascist group were reinforced in the attitudes that had brought them there in the first place.  State and military organizations varied in effectiveness across the map of Europe, and those states whose governments were weak and unstable were less able to repress the rising fascist challenge.

There is a deep question implicated in the effort to provide a definition of fascism.  Is the definition Mann offers a stipulative statement about how Mann will use the word "fascism"?  Or is it a condensed empirical theory, abstracted from the small number of clear cases -- Italy, Austria, Germany?  Is it an inductive discovery that "fascism is the extreme version of nation-ism and state-ism"; or is it a purely conventional stipulation?  Put it another way; does it make a difference that Mann finds that Spain is not "fascist" by this definition?  Does such a finding provide any genuine sociological/empirical insight?  Does it allow us to judge that "Spain's regime was likely to have other important behavioral differences relative to Italy"?  I am tempted to think that Weber's conception of the ideal type is relevant here; the definition offered above is a description of the ideal type of fascism, and each of the existing fascisms differ in various ways from this description.  The empirical issue is one level lower: not at the level of "fascism", but rather at the cluster of characteristics that are invoked in the ideal-type theory (paramilitary organizations, ideology of nationalism, authoritarian theory of the state, anti-democratic rhetoric).

It is interesting to think back to Fritz Ringer's analysis of the intellectual climate of the German mandarins (link) and relate his interpretation to Mann's treatment of the conservative-authoritarian ideologies of central Europe. Ringer's treatment singles out many of the same ideological themes and dissatisfactions that Mann identifies -- hostility to class conflict and mass democracy and the main elements of liberal modernity.  Ringer's narrative serves as something like a snapshot of the educated elites going through the intellectual-ideological progressions Mann describes.
These crises were exacerbated by an ideological crisis. On the right, though only in one half of Europe, this became a sense that modernity was desirable but dangerous, that liberalism was corrupt or disorderly, that socialism meant chaos, that secularism threatened moral absolutes – and so cumulatively that civilization needed rescuing before modernization could proceed further. So there emerged a more authoritarian rightist view of modernity, emphasizing a more top-down populist nationalism, developmental statism, order, and hierarchy. (355)
The book also suggests something else about the present: that there are good reasons to pay close attention to the claims, complaints, values, and resentments of the American right today. As Mann discovered a coherent worldview and programme for the future in the rightist authoritarian movements he discusses, so we may find there is greater coherence, greater popular appeal, and greater danger in the rightist movements today. Conservative Christian values, hostility to government and to social welfare provisioning, hostility to unions, antipathy to immigrants, and hateful, inflammatory rhetoric give talk radio and cable television a worrisome coherence.

Here is a sobering and tragic video (in Spanish) documenting the Spanish Nationalist government's expulsion of thousands of Republican veterans to the Austrian concentration camp Mathausen, where most of them were murdered.  There is a Facebook group, Plataforma Memoria Histórica - Guerra Civil Español (link), which is collecting materials on the Civil War.  This is a great collective effort to remember and to make sense of that struggle with fascism.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Labor abuses in China

The world press has begun to find ways of documenting the conditions of workers in many of the factories in China devoted to manufacturing goods for export to the United States and other countries (for example, In Chinese Factories, NYT, 1/5/08). The reportage is eye-opening but not surprising.  Reporters have documented excessive hours of work, pay that is lower than what Chinese law requires, working conditions that are chronically unsafe, and persistent exposure to the very dangerous chemicals that American toy consumers have been so concerned about. One of the authorities sometimes quoted in these articles is Professor Anita Chan from the Australian National University, and Professor Chan has been documenting these conditions for years. Her book, China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, is a detailed and factual examination of some of these conditions. She documents the fact that the most vulnerable groups of workers -- in the range of tens of millions! -- are the internal migrants of China, who have left their home regions in search of jobs. Very significantly, Professor Chan bases some of her fact-finding on the slowly emerging field of local investigative journalism in China.

Why do these abuses occur? For several related reasons. First, the motive of generating profits in the context of a rapidly growing economy. Since China's industrial economy was reformed in the 1990s, permiting private ownership of factories and enterprises, there have been strong incentives to be successful in business and to become rich. There has been tremendous demand for low-cost Chinese-manufactured goods, and great fortunes are being made in consumer electronics, toys, clothing, and dozens of other sectors. And in the downturn of world demand, equally abusive practices have been used to reduce costs.  The profit motive leads factory owners and managers to strive hard to keep wages and factory expenses as low as possible; and the vast population of poor rural people in China who are available for unskilled factory work makes the bargaining position of the factory owner very strong. (Chan documents some of the forms of coercion and intimidation that are used in some Chinese factories to keep workers on the job and to prevent them from leaving or resisting.) And the global purchasers are insistent about cost-cutting and price-cutting on the finished goods. So the result is -- a chronic competitive "race to the bottom" in which each factory tries to produce at the require level of quality with the absolutely lowest level of cost; and this means continuous pressure on working conditions, health and safety conditions, and environmental effects.  (C. K. Lee describes the situation of protest and resistance in "sunbelt" and "rustbelt" factories in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt.)

So part of the story has to do with the economic incentives and advantages that factory owners have relative to a large working population that has few alternatives. But this part of the story is familiar from other economies as they have developed through intensive industrialization. It has been learned elsewhere in the world that the imperatives of profitability by themselves almost mandate the abuse of labor; so government regulation and inspection are a necessary part of a manufacturing system if it is to succeed in treating all the population fairly and humanely. We might have imagined that the Chinese government would have been prepared to provide the regulatory environment that was necessary to protect the best interests of farmers and workers; it is, after all, governed by the party of farmers and workers. However, this is not the case. China has been so concerned to support economic growth that it has been very slow to implement effective regulatory systems to protect labor and the environment. Moreover, the balance of power between factory owners and local officials seems to be tilted towards the owners; other Times reporting has documented the fact that local officials cannot impose their will upon the owners. And, of course, there is ample opportunity for corrupt collusion between owners and officials.

This failure to regulate has been evident in other areas besides labor; the Chinese government has shown itself to be unwilling or unable to enact effective environmental regulations or to establish an effective regime of inspection and regulation for foods, drugs, and other potentially harmful products. It appears that middle-class Chinese consumers themselves are now expressing anxiety about the absence of this kind of regulation within their food and drug system.

So what other avenues exist for improving the conditions of workers in China?

There are three possibilities -- all mutually compatible. First, workers themselves can protect their interests in fair wages, safe working conditions, and limited hours of work -- if they are permitted to organize in unions. Woody Guthrie had it right: as individuals, workers are weak, but together they are strong. It seems inescapable that a major part of the problem is the enormous imbalance that exists between the powers associated with ownership and management, and those assigned to workers and their organizations. So a more just China will need to permit the development of real independent labor unions that work hard for the interests of their members.

Second, labor mobility can improve the conditions of labor everywhere. It is not an accident that some of the worst abuses documented by Professor Chan have to do with the forms of coercion that factory owners use to keep workers in their factories. If workers can vote with their feet, then we would expect that they will migrate to factories and other employers who offer better conditions of work and pay. And this will force employers to bid for qualified labor on the basis of improved working conditions.

And finally, there is obviously a role for consumers and companies in North America and Europe in all of this. North American consumers benefit from the low manufacturing costs currently available in China; but these low costs are unavoidably associated with the labor abuses we see today. We have a model for how international companies can take responsibility for the conditions of labor and environmental behavior, in the form of the Fair Labor struggles of the 1990s on university campuses in the United States. Large apparel manufacturers took on the responsibility of subjecting their suppliers to standards of conduct, and they subscribed to third-party organizations that undertook to "audit" the level of compliance with these standards by the supply chain. (Visit the Fair Labor website for an example of such an organization.) As the Times story observes, this is a tricky business, given the substantial degree of sub-contracting that occurs in the manufacturing process in China. But it can have a measurable effect.

China is plainly destined to be a major economic and political power in the coming fifty years. But to succeed in creating a society in which everyone has a continuing stake in a good quality of life and a fair deal from society, it will have to solve the problems of regulation of labor, health, and environment. And this will mean a degree of redistribution of China's wealth and power towards its poorest people.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The disciplines of economics

Economics is sometimes presented as the most "scientific" of the social science disciplines.  It is mathematical, it involves sophisticated models, it makes use of enormous data sets, and it is invoked in the formulation of social and economic policies in much the way that the science of mechanics is invoked in the building of bridges.  So one might imagine that the foundations, objectivity, and empirical credibility of modern economics are now beyond question.

Each of these assumptions is debatable, however.  Daniel Hausman, a sympathetic critic and the leading authority in the philosophy of economics, casts doubt on the claims for precision and comprehensiveness of economic theory in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics.  Essays in my volume, On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, cast doubt on the validity and reliability of some of the computational models that are used in current economics, including especially the computable general equilibrium models (CGE).  And economists like Bruce Pietrykowski have pointed out that there are multiple traditions bundled into the history of contemporary economics, some of which have been overlooked to the detriment of the science of economics (The Political Economy of Consumer Behaviour: Contesting Consumption).  (See an earlier post on Pietrykowski's work).

We need to have a better history and sociology of the formation of the disciplines of economics in order to have a better understanding of the scope and limits of current theory.  There is, of course, a major literature on the history of economic thought, including such beacons as Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis, Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect, and I. I. Rubin's History of Economic Thought.  (Rubin saw the muzzle-end of economic history, by being executed by Stalin in 1937 for crimes against the state.)  But traditional approaches to the history of economic thought almost always look for synthesis and logical progression; so the account that we often get represents the development of economics as a fairly linear evolution from the physiocrats to the classical political economists to the marginalist revolution to Keynes and general equilibrium theory.  The differences, contingencies, and choices that occurred along the way tend to disappear.

What the sociology of science can add to the history of science is a detailed, empirical examination of the institutions, processes, networks, and knowledge systems of a discipline.  Sociologists like Robert Merton (link) and Andrew Abbott (Chaos of Disciplines) attempt to provide a micro-level account of the development and workings of a scientific discipline, using the empirical and theoretical tools of sociology.  And this approach sheds a great deal of light on the way the particular field of science works, as well as providing greater granularity to the status of scientific claims within various disciplines.  (It should be said that the current generation of historians of science also sometimes take this kind of micro-level view -- for example, Peter Galison's treatment of Einstein and Poincaré in Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time.  But to date this hasn't been true of historians of the social sciences.)

Marion Fourcade's profoundly innovative book, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s, takes a sociologist's toolkit to work on the disciplines of economics.  Here is a good statement of her fundamental thesis:
Economics arose everywhere.  But everywhere it was distinctive.  If we look back just a few decades, we see that the institutionalization of economics expertise in science, policy, or business took different routes across nations.  Scientific and practical knowledge about the economy was conceptualized and institutionalized in different ways in different places, and for identifiable reasons. (3)
What is some of the evidence for thinking that "economics" is different in different national settings?  Here is a good example of an empirical approach a sociologist can take to this question.  Fourcade cites opinion surveys that have been conducted of "professional economists" in seven European and North American countries, on topics relevant to economic theory and policy.  For most of these questions there are significant differences between U.S., French, U.K., and Canada economists -- documenting the idea that there are meaningful differences in the theoretical presuppositions of economists in those national cultures.  Here are a couple of questions from table 0-2 (p. 6):
Tariffs and quotas reduce welfare
Agree          U.S. 95%  France 70%   U.K. 84%
Disagree      U.S.   3%  France 27%   U.K. 15%

Reducing the influence of regulatory authorities (e.g., in air traffic) would improve the efficiency of the economy
Agree          U.S. 75%  France 37%   Canada 56%
Disagree      U.S. 21%  France 56%   Canada 43%
On these two questions (only a subset of eight in the table), economists in the U.S. and France demonstrate very significant differences of judgment on very basic economic policy issues, with U.K. and Canada falling between them.  The regulatory question is particularly revealing.  So survey research -- a very basic tool of sociological research -- turns out to have useful and surprising results when directed at the profession of economics.

Another tool that Fourcade uses to good advantage is something that Merton emphasized as well: examination of scientific biographies and interviews with current practitioners.  How did specific influential individuals develop into professional economists?  And what can the sociologist learn about the profession from these detailed intellectual itineraries?

Fourcade is careful and reflective in formulating the methodology she pursues in the book.  She makes use of the comparative framework employed by comparative historical sociologists in other fields as well; she singles out the U.S., U.K., and France as specific national cases within which she attempts to reconstruct the specific values, attitudes, and institutions that defined "economics" as a profession.  (This is methodologically similar to Frank Dobbin's study of "policy cultures" in these same three countries; Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age.)  She calls her approach "critical organized comparison" (13).

This approach defines the bulk of the book; Fourcade provides chapters on the economic cultures of professional economics in the U.S., U.K., and France, in which she examines in detail the academic institutions, policy environments, and epistemic assumptions that went into the creation of economics as a discipline of knowledge and expertise in each country.  She argues that each national setting represents a "constellation of practices" that distinguishes it from the others; so that the profession of economics is defined differently in the three settings.  Here are the components of the French constellation as she sorts it out: limited private jurisdiction, segmentation of economics training, legitimacy of technocratic generalist discourse, state jurisdiction dominant, and late and piecemeal institutionalization (16).

A key insight in the book is Fourcade's insistence that economic knowledge, economic policies, economic expertise, and the profession of economics are jointly specified within a specific national culture.  They are socially constructed in ways that she makes perfectly understandable.  These social products are interrelated, and they are differently understood in the separate cultures studied.  "In short, we want to examine the historical conditions that helped crystallize the very idea of what economics is, and attend closely to changing local classifications and representations of this idea over time" (13).

She also pays close attention to the institutions through which economists are trained and validated -- another key sociological insight:
The structure of the academic system and the place of economics education and research within it are particularly relevant to understanding the nature of economic knowledge production in each country.  As an academically organized form of knowledge, and a training ground for a vast array of business and administrative professions, economics is shaped by broader research and higher education ecologies. (22-23)
Here is a nice statement of how she sees her work hanging together:
This book has been particularly concerned with one specific type of affinity, that which ties knowledge to its social setting.  Instead of focusing--in Foucault's manner-- on what makes particular sorts of knowledge possible at a given historical moement, I have thus tried to analyze interactions between forms of political organization and forms of knowledge making within specific social contexts. (239)
Economists and Societies is a very appealing piece of sociology, and it is a highly insightful contribution to a very fundamental question: what is the status of economic knowledge?

(Related work on the significant differences that can be discerned across national traditions of a social science discipline is being done for the discipline of sociology as well; see this post on national differences in the discipline of sociology, highlighting work by Gabriel Abend.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Separate social worlds

It is an interesting and important fact that most of us live our lives on orbits that seldom intersect with the orbits of some other categories of people in society.  The boundaries of our social worlds are often marked by major forms of social separation -- race, income, residence, work, region, or age.  And this creates the result that we have very little understanding of how people from other social segments think, reason, feel, and organize their experiences.  We think in terms of stereotypes about other people in other segments of society, rather than having a concrete experiential basis in common with them.

When geography is a large part of this separation it is easy to understand -- a suburban tax accountant in Massachusetts has very little daily experience that would permit him/her to gain knowledge of the thoughts, values, and experiences of rural Thai villagers.  But the striking fact is that there is often an equally deep separation between the phenomenal worlds of the suburban tax accountant and the homeless person in the nearby city or the blue collar woman who drives the local school bus.

This wouldn't matter too much if everyone's experiences and mental worlds were essentially similar. But they plainly are not.  Take poverty and affluence: the things that a poor person thinks about first when confronted with a small cash windfall are surely quite different from the affluent person.  Chronic deprivation probably gives the poor person a very clear recognition of his/her priorities for consumption that look very different from the affluent person.  Being offered a pair of basketball tickets to a Pistons game, for example: the poor person is likely enough to see the resale value of the tickets and the more pressing needs that he/she has for cash -- and therefore is more likely to come to the decision to sell the tickets rather than attend the game.  Or take ethnic differences -- a Yemeni immigrant in urban Michigan is likely to see the visit of a census worker in very different terms than does the middle-class suburbanite.

So the differences in worldview and values of people in different social segments are probably quite large.  And here is the important part of the story: it is valuable and interesting to find ways of reaching across these forms of separation and come to see how other people experience their worlds.  Each person's experiences and perspectives on the world are enriched by deep, extensive engagement with people very different from him/herself.  This is one of the chief values of a diverse but interconnected social community.  And it is one of the most regrettable costs of a highly divided society.

Social institutions that help to allow people to connect meaningfully across these social divides are particularly valuable.  This is how the social value of "diversity" gets actualized.  Sometimes religious organizations offer this possibility to their members, when different economic or national communities come together to worship.  Military service can also have this effect -- especially in countries with wide or universal military obligations such as Israel. Community service organizations like CityYear and AmeriCorps provide young people with an environment where they can have the opportunity of coming to know other people from very different social backgrounds.  And universities have this potential as well -- though colleges haven't been as successful as they should be at gaining this kind of cross-group understanding. Service-learning courses are one way that faculty in some universities have found to give their students meaningful exposure to the social realities that surround them -- and therefore to give them a broader avenue through which to encounter the experiences and worldviews of the segments of society that don't wind up in their middle-class orbits.

One of the reasons that Studs Terkel was such a fascinating writer and radio personality, was his ability to connect with people from widely different worlds.  His understanding of working America was dramatically different from that of most of us -- because he had great curiosity about other people, and he had the motivation to go out and talk to them.  Here is Studs talking about the experience of the Great Depression -- and the recession of 1997.

The Brenner debate revisited

One of the defining controversies in the field of economic history in the past 35 years is the Brenner debate.  Robert Brenner published "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe" in Past and Present in 1976 (link) and "The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism" in 1982.  In between these publications (and following) there was a rush of substantive responses from leading economic historians, including M. M. Postan and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  (Many of the most significant articles are collected in Aston and Philpin's The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.)  Brenner's theories injected important new impetus into the old question: what led to the advent of capitalism?  (Maurice Dobb had stimulated a similar burst of scholarship on this topic with his 1963 Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (link).  Brenner's discussion of the Dobb debate can be found in his essay, "Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism" here.)

The core issue of the debate is large and important: what were the social factors that brought about the major economic transformations of the European economy since the decline of feudalism?  Feudalism was taken to be a stagnant economic system; but in the sixteenth century things began to change.  There was something of an agricultural revolution in England, with technological innovation, changes of cropping systems, and significant increase in land productivity.  There were the beginnings of manufacture, leading eventually to water- and steam-powered machines.  There was a population shift from the countryside to towns and cities.  There was industrial revolution.  (Marx describes much of this process in Capital; here's an earlier post of his concept of "primitive accumulation.")  So what were the large social factors that caused this widespread process of social and economic change?  What propelled these dramatic changes of economic structure?

The great economic historian M. M. Postan offered a simple theory: “Behind most economic trends in the middle ages, above all behind the advancing and retreating land settlement, it is possible to discern the inexorable effects of rising and declining population” (Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages, p. 72).  Against this view, Brenner writes: "Under different property structures and different balances of power, similar demographic or commercial trends, with their associated patterns of factor prices, presented very different opportunities and dangers and thus evoked disparate responses, with diverse consequences for the economy as a whole. Indeed, . . . under different property structures and balances of class forces . . . precisely the same demographic and commercial trends yielded widely divergent results" (Brenner 1982:16-17).  Key to Brenner's argument is the fact that agricultural change was substantially different in England and France; so he insists that an adequate causal explanation must identify a factor that varies similarly.

From the distance of several decades, the dividing lines of the Brenner debate are pretty clear.  One school of thought (Postan, Ladurie) attempts to explain the economic transformations described here in terms of facts about population, while the other (Brenner's) argues that the central causal factors have to do with social institutions (social-property relations and institutions of political power). The demographic theory focuses its attention on the factors that influenced population growth, including disease; the social institutions theory focuses attention on the institutional framework within which economic actors (lords, peasants, capitalist farmers) pursue their goals.  The one is akin to a biological or ecological theory, emphasizing common and universal demographic forces; the other is a social theory, emphasizing contingency and variation across social space.

A voice that doesn't come into the debate directly but that is highly relevant is that of Douglass North. His book (with Robert Paul Thomas), The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History, offers a theory of modern economic development that falls within the category of "social institutional theory" rather than demographic theory.  But whereas Brenner finds primary causal importance in the institutions that define local class relations (a Marxian idea), North argues that property relations that create the right kinds of incentives will stimulate rapid economic growth (a Smithian idea). And North finds that this is the innovation that took place in England in the early modern period.  It was the creation of capitalist property relations that stimulated economic growth.

This schematic representation of the strands of argument in the Brenner debate suggests competing causal diagrams:
  • population growth => economic activity => sustained economic growth (Postan)
  • weak peasant farmers, strong capitalist farmers => enclosure and farming innovations => rapid agricultural growth (Brenner)
  • enhanced protections of property rights => incentive for profitable activity => sustained economic growth (North)
But it seems clear in hindsight that these are false dichotomies. We aren't forced to choose: Malthus, Marx, or Smith.  Economic development is not caused by a single dominant factor -- a point that Guy Bois embraces in his essay (Aston and Philpin, 117).  Rather, all these factors were in play in European economic development -- and several others as well.  (For example, Ken Pomeranz introduces the exploitation of the natural resources, energy sources, and forced labor of the Americas in his account of the economic growth of Western Europe (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy).  And I suppose that it would be possible to make a climate-change argument for this period of change as well.)  Moreover, each large factor (population, prices, property relations) itself is the complex result of a number of great factors -- including the others on the list.  So we shouldn't expect simple causal diagrams of large outcomes like sustained economic growth.

Not all the heat of this debate derives from a polemic between a neo-Marxist theorist and the Malthusians; there is also a significant disagreement between Brenner and another important Marxist economic historian, Guy Bois.  Bois' Crisis of Feudalism appeared in 1976 -- the same year as Brenner's first paper in the debate.  The crisis to which Bois refers is an analogy with a classic Marxist claim about capitalism: where Marx discerned a crisis in capitalism deriving from the falling rate of profit, Bois found a crisis in feudalism deriving from a falling rate of feudal levy.  (Here is an interesting review by Chris Harman of another of Bois' books, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: The Village of Lournard from Antiquity to Feudalism.)  Bois criticizes Brenner's account for being excessively theory-driven.  He argues that Brenner begins with a commitment to class struggle as a fundamental explanation, and then forces the facts of French and English rural life into this framework.  Better, he argues, to let the complexity of the historical situations emerge through careful evaluation of the evidence.  "Brenner's thought is, in fact, arranged around a single principle: theoretical generalization always precedes direct examination of historical source material" (Aston and Philpin, 110).  And Bois argues that the evidence will suggest that it is the declining feudal levy rather than the capacity for resistance by French peasants that best explains the course of events in France.

In short, one important consequence of the Brenner debate was the renewed focus it placed on the question of social causation.  Brenner and the other participants expended a great deal of effort in developing theories of the causal mechanisms that led to economic change in this period.  And in hindsight, it appears that a lot of the energy in the debates stemmed from the false presupposition that it should be possible to identify a single master factor that explained these large changes in economic development.  But this no longer seems supportable.  Rather, historians are now much more willing to recognize the plurality of causes at work and the geographical differentiation that is inherent in almost every large historical process.  So the advice that Bois extends -- don't let your large theory get in the way of detailed historical research -- appears to be good counsel.