Monday, August 30, 2010

Criteria for assessing economic models

How can we assess the epistemic warrant of an economic model that purports to represent some aspects of economic reality?  The general problem of assessing the credibility of an economic model can be broken down into more specific questions concerning the validity, comprehensiveness, robustness, reliability, and autonomy of the model. Here are initial definitions of these concepts.
  • Validity is a measure of the degree to which the assumptions employed in the construction of the model are thought to correspond to the real processes underlying the phenomena represented by the model. 
  • Comprehensiveness is the degree to which the model is thought to succeed in capturing the major causal factors that influence the features of the behavior of the system in which we are interested. 
  • Robustness is a measure of the degree to which the results of the model persist under small perturbations in the settings of parameters, formulation of equations, etc. 
  • Autonomy refers to the stability of the model's results in face of variation of contextual factors. 
  • Reliability is a measure of the degree of confidence we can have in the data employed in setting the values of the parameters. 
These are features of models that can be investigated more or less independently and prior to examination of the empirical success or failure of the predictions of the model.

Let us look more closely at these standards of adequacy. The discussion of realism elsewhere suggests that we may attempt to validate the model deductively, by examining each of the assumptions underlying construction of the model for its plausibility or realism (link). (This resembles Mill's "deductive method" of theory evaluation.) Economists are highly confident in the underlying general equilibrium theory. The theory is incomplete (or, in Daniel Hausman's language, inexact; link), in that economic outcomes are not wholly determined by purely economic forces. But within its scope economists are confident that the theory identifies the main causal processes: an equilibration of supply and demand through market-determined prices.

Validity can be assessed through direct inspection of the substantive economic assumptions of the model: the formulation of consumer and firm behavior, the representation of production and consumption functions, the closure rules, and the like. To the extent that the particular formulation embodied in the model is supported by accepted economic theory, the validity of the model is enhanced. On the other hand, if particular formulations appear to be ad hoc (introduced, perhaps, to make the problem more tractable), the validity of the model is reduced. If, for example, the model assumes linear demand functions and we judge that this is a highly unrealistic assumption about the real underlying demand functions, then we will have less confidence in the predictive results of the model.

Unfortunately, there can be no fixed standard of evaluation concerning the validity of a model. All models make simplifying and idealizing assumptions; so to that extent they deviate from literal realism. And the question of whether a given idealization is felicitous or not cannot always be resolved on antecedent theoretical grounds; instead, it is necessary to look at the overall empirical adequacy of the model. The adequacy of the assumption of fixed coefficients of production cannot be assessed a priori; in some contexts and for some purposes it is a reasonable approximation of the economic reality, while in other cases it introduces unacceptable distortion of the actual economic processes (when input substitution is extensive). What can be said concerning the validity of a model's assumptions is rather minimal but not entirely vacuous. The assumptions should be consistent with existing economic theory; they should be reasonable and motivated formulations of background economic principles; and they should be implemented in a mathematically acceptable fashion.

Comprehensiveness too is a weak constraint on economic models. It is plain that all economic theories and models disregard some causal factors in order to isolate the workings of specific economic mechanisms; moreover, there will always be economic forces that have not been represented within the model. So judgment of the comprehensiveness of a model depends on a qualitative assessment of the relative importance of various economic and non-economic factors in the particular system under analysis. If a given factor seems to be economically important (e.g. input substitution) but unrepresented within the model, then the model loses points on comprehensiveness.

Robustness can be directly assessed through a technique widely used by economists, sensitivity analysis. The model is run a large number of times, varying the values assigned to parameters (reflecting the range of uncertainty in estimates or observations). If the model continues to have qualitatively similar findings, it is said to be robust. If solutions vary wildly under small perturbations of the parameter settings, the model is rightly thought to be a poor indicator of the underlying economic mechanisms.

Autonomy is the theoretical equivalent of robustness. It is a measure of the stability of the model under changes of assumptions about the causal background of the system. If the model's results are highly sensitive to changes in the environment within which the modeled processes take place, then we should be suspicious of the results of the model.

Assessment of reliability is also somewhat more straightforward than comprehensiveness and validity. The empirical data used to set parameters and exogenous variables have been gathered through specific well-understood procedures, and it is mandatory that we give some account of the precision of the resulting data.

Note that reliability and robustness interact; if we find that the model is highly robust with respect to a particular set of parameters, then the unreliability of estimates of those parameters will not have much effect on the reliability of the model itself. In this case it is enough to have "stylized facts" governing the parameters that are used: roughly 60% of workers' income is spent on food, 0% is saved, etc.

Failures along each of these lines can be illustrated easily.
  1. The model assumes that prices are determined on the basis of markup pricing (costs plus a fixed exogenous markup rate and wage). In fact, however, we might believe (along neoclassical lines) that prices, wages, and the profit rate are all endogenous, so that markup pricing misrepresents the underlying price mechanism. This would be a failure of validity; the model is premised on assumptions that may not hold. 
  2. The model is premised on a two-sector analysis of the economy. However, energy production and consumption turn out to be economically crucial factors in the performance of the economy, and these effects are overlooked unless we represent the energy sector separately. This would be a failure of comprehensiveness; there is an economically significant factor that is not represented in the model. 
  3. We rerun the model assuming a slightly altered set of production coefficients, and we find that the predictions are substantially different: the increase in income is only 33% of what it was, and deficits are only half what they were. This is a failure of robustness; once we know that the model is extremely sensitive to variations in the parameters, we have strong reason to doubt its predictions. The accuracy of measurement of parameters is limited, so we can be confident that remeasurement would produce different values. So we can in turn expect that the simulation will arrive at different values for the endogenous variables. 
  4. Suppose that our model of income distribution in a developing economy is premised on the international trading arrangements embodied in GATT. The model is designed to represent the domestic causal relations between food subsidies and the pattern of income distribution across classes. If the results of the model change substantially upon dropping the GATT assumption, then the model is not autonomous with respect to international trading arrangements. 
  5. Finally, we examine the data underlying the consumption functions and we find that these derive from one household study in one Mexican state, involving 300 households. Moreover, we determine that the model is sensitive to the parameters defining consumption functions. On this scenario we have little reason to expect that the estimates derived from the household study are reliable estimates of consumption in all social classes all across Mexico; and therefore we have little reason to depend on the predictions of the model. This is a failure of reliability. 
These factors--validity, comprehensiveness, robustness, autonomy, and reliability--figure into our assessment of the antecedent credibility of a given model. If the model is judged to be reasonably valid and comprehensive; if it appears to be fairly robust and autonomous; and if the empirical data on which it rests appears to be reliable; then we have reason to believe that the model is a reasonable representation of the underlying economic reality. But this deductive validation of the model does not take us far enough. These are reasons to have a priori confidence in the model. But we need as well to have a basis for a posteriori confidence in the particular results of this specific model. And since there are many well-known ways in which a generally well-constructed model can nonetheless miss the mark--incompleteness of the causal field, failure of ceteris paribus clauses, poor data or poor estimates of the exogenous variables and parameters, proliferation of error to the point where the solution has no value, and path-dependence of the equilibrium solution--we need to have some way of empirically evaluating the results of the model.

(Here is an application of these ideas to computable general equilibrium (CGE) models in an article published in On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics; link.  See also Lance Taylor's reply and discussion in the same volume.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mechanisms of contention reconsidered

Social contention theorists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly created a great deal of interest in the "mechanisms" approach to social explanation with the publication of their Dynamics of Contention in 2001.  The book advocated for several important new angles of approach to the problem of analyzing and explaining social contention: to disaggregate the object of analysis from macro-events like "civil war," "revolution," "rebellion," or "ethnic violence" into the component social processes that recur in various instances of social contention; and to analyze these components as "causal mechanisms."  Here is how they define contentious politics:
By contentious politics we mean: episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants.  Roughly translated, the definition refers to collective political struggle. (5)
Here is the way they characterize the distinctive nature of the analysis offered in their new work:
This book identifies similarities and differences, pathways and trajectories across a wide range of contentious politics -- not only revolutions, but also strike waves, wars, social movements, ethnic mobilizations, democratization, and nationalism. (9)
And here is how they want to make systematic, explanatory sense of the heterogeneous examples of social contention that the world presents: to identify and investigate some common social mechanisms that work in roughly similar ways across numerous different instances of social contention.
Social processes, in our view, consist of sequences and combinations of causal mechanisms.  To explain contentious politics is to identify its recurrent causal mechanisms, the ways they combine, in what sequences they recur, and why different combinations and sequences, starting from different initial conditions, produce varying effects on the large scale....  Instead of seeking to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for mobilization, action, or certain trajectories, we search out recurrent causal mechanisms and regularities in their concatenation. (13)
They offer these definitions of the key analytical terms:
Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.
Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements.
Episodes are continuous streams of contention including collective claims making that bears on other parties' interests. (24)
They distinguish among environmental mechanisms ("externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life"), cognitive mechanisms ("operate through alterations individual and collective perception"), and relational mechanisms ("alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks") (25-26).  And they offer a few examples of mechanisms: mobilization mechanisms, political identity formation mechanisms, and aggregation mechanisms.

The approach can be summarized in these terms:
Seen as wholes, the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and Italian contention look quite different from each other. ... Yet when we take apart the three histories, we find a number of common mechanisms that moved the conflicts along and transformed them: creation of new actors and identities through the very process of contention; brokerage by activists who connected previously insulated local clumps of aggrieved people; competition among contenders that led to factional divisions and re-alignments, and much more.  These mechanisms concatenated into more complex processes such as radicalization and polarization of conflict; formation of new balances of power; and re-alignments of the polity along new lines. (32-33)
This is roughly the conception of social ontology and explanation that was put forward in 2001, and it was a powerful challenge to a more positivistic methodology that insisted on looking for general laws of contention and uniform regularities governing things like revolutions and civil wars.

By 2007, however, Tarrow and Tilly found it necessary to reformulate their views to some degree; and this re-thinking resulted in Contentious Politics.  So what changed between the theory offered in 2001 and that restated in 2007?  The answer is, surprisingly little at the level of concept and method.

Tilly and Tarrow refer to three main lines of criticism of Dynamics of Contention to which they felt a need to respond:
Although that book stirred up a lively scholarly discussion, even specialists who were sympathetic to our approach made three justified complaints about it.  First, it pointed to mechanisms and processes by the dozen without defining and documenting them carefully, much less showing exactly how they worked.  Second, it remained unclear about the methods and evidence students and scholars could use to check out its explanations.  Third, instead of making a straightforward presentation of its teachings, it reveled in complications, asides, and illustrations. (xi)
What did not change between the two formulations was the conceptual foundation.  The key concepts of contentious politics, mechanisms, processes, and episodes are essentially the same in the 2007 book as in 2001.
Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else's interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.  Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (4)
Further, they analyze contention in the same basic terms in 2007 as in 2001:
For explanation, we need additional concepts.  This chapter supplies four of them: the events and episodes of streams of contention and the mechanisms and processes that constitute them.
And their definitions of mechanisms and processes are unchanged:
By mechanisms, we mean a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.  Mechanisms compound into processes.  By processes, we mean regular combinations and sequences of mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (29)
One goal of the 2007 book is to simplify the discussion of mechanisms.  The authors highlight three mechanisms as being particularly central to episodes of contention:
  • Brokerage: production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites
  • Diffusion: spread of a form of contention, an issue, or a way of framing it from one site to another
  • Coordinated action: two or more actors' engagement in mutual signaling and parallel making of claims on the same object (31)
Other mechanisms that are discussed include social appropriation, boundary activation, certification, and identity shift (34).  And their key examples of processes are mobilization and de-mobilization -- each of which consists of a series of component mechanisms.

One difference between the two versions of the theory is more substantive.  In 2007 Tarrow and Tilly give greater priority to the performative nature of contentious politics: contentious performances and repertoires have greater prominence in the story offered in 2007 than in the analysis of episodes provided in 2001.  This is not a new element, since Tilly himself made extensive use of the ideas of performance and repertoire in his earlier analyses of French contentious politics; but the theme is given more prominence in 2007 than it was in 2001.

Overall, it seems reasonable to say that Contentious Politics expresses the same conceptual framework for researching and understanding contention as that found in Dynamics of Contention.  There is no fundamental break between the two works.  What has changed is more a matter of pedagogy and presentation.  The authors have sought to provide a more coherent and orderly presentation of the conceptual framework that they are presenting; and they have sought to provide an orderly and systematic analysis of the cases, in order to identify the mechanisms that recur across episodes.

Where additional work is still needed is at the level of conceptualization of causal mechanisms.  There is now a large body of discussion and debate about how to think about social causal mechanisms, and many observers are persuaded that the move to mechanisms is a very good way of getting a better grip on social explanation and analysis.  But how to define a social mechanism is still obscure.  The definition that MTT offer does not really seem satisfactory -- "a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations."  A mechanism is not an event (or a class of events); rather, it is a nexus between a cause and an effect; it is the pathway through which the cause brings about the effect.  It is a materially embodied set of causal powers and their effects.  But the specific formulation provided by MTT doesn't succeed in capturing any of these root ideas.

Various philosophers have attempted to specify more clearly the notion of a causal mechanism (Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences; Hedstrom and Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, my own Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science). We can give good examples of what we mean by a causal mechanism.  But to date, it seems that we have not yet been able to come up with a fully satisfactory definition of a causal mechanism.  (Here is a short conference paper by Tilly in 2007 that takes a different approach by linking the concept to Robert Merton's work; link.)

So the disaggregative approach that MTT advocate is a crucially important breakthrough in the study of complex social phenomena, and it seems convincing that it is "mechanisms" that disaggregation should lay bare.  Moreover, the idea of mechanisms aggregating to processes and constituting episodes is an intuitively compelling notion of how complex social phenomena are constituted.  These are genuinely important new ways of conceptualizing the complex social reality of contention and the task of providing descriptions and explanations of complex social episodes.  Contentious Politics is a very good presentation of these fundamental ideas.  What we don't yet have, however, is a fully convincing and fertile conception of the root idea, the notion of a causal mechanism.

(See other postings under the thread of causal mechanism for other discussions of the topic.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Village life in India

People sometimes describe India as undergoing an economic miracle in the past twenty years.  After decades of indolent economic growth following independence, a number of sectors of the economy have taken off with high rates of growth and increasing income.  Deepak Lal addresses this assumption in "An Indian Economic Miracle?" (link).  Here is the crucial graph from Lal's paper:

As the graph indicates, starting in roughly 1980, both GDP and GDP per capita increased at a rising rate, greatly exceeding the disparaging "Hindu rate of growth" of the 1950s and 1960s.  Lal's paper is worth reading.  But the overall impression is that India is finally moving forward -- an impression reinforced by some of Tom Friedman's comments in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.

However, this impression is very misleading with respect to India's rural population; or so V. K. Ramachandran at the Indian Statistical Institute argues.  (Here is an interview I conducted with Ramachandran in 2008.)  Ramachandran and his collaborator, Madhura Swaminathan, have pursued an important program of research on village India under the rubric of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (link).  They and their research teams have conducted a series of village studies over the past ten years that shed detailed light on the economic, social, and caste circumstances of rural India; and the picture they find does not conform to the idea of an "economic miracle."  Instead, they find patterns of social inequality and social domination that are continuing and increasing; patterns of landlessness that have worsened in the past decade or so; and levels of poverty that continue to challenge the idea of a fully developed human life for many hundreds of millions of Indian rural people.

A recent publication summarizes their studies of several villages in Andhra Pradesh (Socio-Economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh: A Study of Agrarian Relations), and it is worth reading in detail.  This book synthesizes the detailed surveys conducted in three villages in 2005-06.  The authors describe the goals of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India in these terms: to study and analyse ...
  • village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population;
  • sectional deprivation in rural India, particularly with regard to the Dalit and Scheduled Tribe populations, women, specific minorities and the income-poor; and
  • the state of basic village amenities and the access of rural people to the facilities of modern life. (1)
Here are the three villages included in the survey (Bukkacherla, Ananthavaram, Kothapalle):

View Andhra Pradesh in a larger map

The villages are small, ranging from 292 households (Bukacherla) to 667 households (Ananthavaram).  Here is a zoom view of Kothapalle village (372 households):

And here is Ananthavaram:

The surveys attempt to capture the important social and economic characteristics of the villages, including population, agricultural practices, social class composition, and caste composition.  Class and caste are particularly important characteristics in the analysis.  The researchers classify households as "landlord -- big capitalist farmer -- manual worker -- peasant -- other" (chapter 2). Here is how this classification works out for Kothapalle village:
  • landlord / big capitalist farmer 1%
  • capitalist farmer / rich peasant 9%
  • peasant: middle 13%
  • peasant: poor 5%
  • hired manual worker  44%
  • artisan and work at traditional caste calling 1%                   
  • business activity 8%
  • rents / moneylending 1%
  • salaried person 11%           
  • remittance/pension 5%
In other words, about 50% of households are in socially disadvantaged positions (poor peasants, landless workers, and artisans).

Here is a snapshot of the three villages extracted from the study with respect to several important socioeconomic characteristics: percent scheduled classes and tribes, percent landlord and capitalist farmer, percent poor peasant and hired laborer, land ownership Gini coefficient, household income Gini coefficient, medial household income as percent of poverty budget, and percent female literacy for persons seven years or older.

Several things are apparent from this summary.  First, the distributions of land and household income are very unequal in all three villages, with a Gini coefficient of .86 for land distribution in Ananthavaram.  The Gini coefficients for the distribution of income hover around .60 for all three villages -- a very high degree of income inequality by international standards (link, link)).  And it is interesting to notice that Ananthavaram village enjoys the highest median household income and highest female literacy, but simultaneously the highest degree of inequality of property and income and the highest percentage of scheduled castes and tribes.

Second, all three villages represent a high degree of poverty among households.  The income bar represents median household income as a percentage of a household poverty budget of 21,304 Rs.  The median household in Bukkacheria falls short of this budget -- as do the 50% of households below the median, implying a poverty rate of more than 50%.  The median household in Kothapalle is slightly higher than the poverty budget, and only Ananthavaram has a median income significantly higher than the poverty budget (120%).  So the poverty rate ranges between 40% and 55% in all three villages -- very high.

Third, female literacy is often regarded as an important measure of overall human development in a poor region or country; and the rates observed by these surveys are quite low (42-47%), with a substantial gap to the rates for male literacy.  Likewise, there are substantial variations in literacy across castes.  Female literacy in Bukkacherla village is 43% for all households but is 28% for Dalit households; 37% for "backward class" households; and 53% for "other caste" households (160).  In other words, the literacy rate for Dalit women is about half that of "other caste" women.

Put the point another way: these village surveys do not support the idea that social progress is occurring rapidly and broadly in India.  Rather, these particular villages support the idea that inequalities in rural India are extensive and possibly increasing; that poverty is widespread; that class and caste continue to determine life prospects; and that human development is impeded by these conditions of inequality and poverty.

It is interesting to consider the question of representativeness that this volume raises.  The studies provide data for only three out of thousands of villages in one Indian state.  So it is productive to ask whether the findings provided here are "typical" of rural Andhra Pradesh -- let alone other parts of India.  Ramachandran and Swaminathan have surveyed villages in a number of states, and will continue the project into the future.  Plainly, it is important to bring these micro-studies into relation with other larger-scope studies in order to assess the degree to which these developments are typical of rural India.  The authors do a good job of trying to make these connections using national and state social data sources; plainly, both methods are needed in order to arrive at justified conclusions about the state of Indian agrarian society.

Second, it is interesting to read this report as an exercise in empirical Marxist economics.  The studies are highly empirical and data-rich.  At the same time, the categories of analysis are drawn from Marxist economics: exploitation, class analysis, productive relations, and social relations of domination, extraction, and control.  The report provides a powerful illustration of the analytical value of a Marxian sociology and political economy in this context; relations of power, privilege, and property plainly have a determining role in the processes of social change in rural India today.

(For the interested reader, Ramachandran's Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study is an important contribution to the political economy of India.)

(Thanks to Vikas Rawal for corrections on the locations of the villages and images of Kothapalle and Ananthavaram.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Economics and the historian

What are some of the important ways in which economic analysis is pertinent to historical research and explanation?  This was the topic of a cutting-edge collection edited by Tom Rawski over ten years ago (Economics and the Historian), and it is still a unique contribution.  Rawski is a good historian of China and a good economist (Chinese History in Economic PerspectiveChina's Transition to Industrialism: Producer Goods and Economic Development in the Twentieth Century), and the volume is genuinely useful today.  The project began with a focus on Chinese history, but this volume takes a broader look at aspects of world history more generally.  Here is the overriding goal:
Our book is rooted in the conviction that historians will find it useful to acquaint themselves with economics.  The chapters that follow provide repeated examples of how standard items in the economist's intellectual arsenal extend the reach of historial source materials by revealing unexpected connections between different elements of market systems. (3)
The point of the volume is not how to conduct "economic history", but rather how to bring economic data and analysis into many aspects of historical research.

So what are the important foundational insights that economics can bring to history? Here is Rawski's statement of the fundamental object of economic thinking:
Economic theory is built around the logical analysis of profit-seeking behavior by large numbers of well-informed, independent individuals in competitive markets governed by legal systems that enforce contracts and ensure the rights of private owners. (5)
But he also emphasizes that economic theory in the past thirty years has given much more extensive attention to institutions -- the sets of rules through which transactions take place within an economy and within society.  Transaction costs and imperfect information fundamentally alter the logic of a pure market populated with rationally self-interested agents with perfect information.  Rawski's approach, and that of many of the other contributors, is very sympathetic to the "new institutionalism in economics."
If the market system, including the whole penumbra of legal, financial, and other enabling institutions, operates within a broader socio-cultural matrix that helps to determine the course of economic evolution, then the study of any economy, past or present, must involve a range of knowledge that reaches far beyond the focal points of conventional economic theory. (11)
Rawski's substantive essay focuses on "trends" as an important historical phenomenon.

Here he presents data on the cost of living and the real wage in three cities in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  And he points out that these data suggest several very interesting stories.  Valencia shows a steep downward trend in the real wage through 1620; but we have no data to answer the question whether this trend continues.  Vienna shows a downward trend throughout the whole three-hundred year time period; but, as Rawski points out, between 1600 and 1650 shows the opposite trend -- a fifty-year rising trend in the real wage.  So we have to be very specific in defining the time period over which we are investigating these movements, before we can say anything about the trends that exist.  This implies an important point: that we can't look at a "trend" as objective feature of history, but rather as a feature that is dependent on the frame of analysis.

At the same time, the phenomena recorded in the three graphs raise an important and interesting set of questions for the historian: what are the causes that pushed the prices of the basket of consumable up so sharply in all three cities between 1550 and 1650?  And equally important, what social consequences might these trends have had?   Was family size affected?  Were mortality statistics affected?  Did the incidence of bread riots and other forms of civil unrest increase?

Rawski's essay provides a fine tutorial for the historian on the difficulties of calculating the cost of living: index problems, data blind spots and data bias, and variation across a region.  But he also makes a clear case for why this kind of analysis is so important for historians generally -- not just economic historians: the circumstances of life that are indicated by rising rice prices or falling wages are fundamental to behavior.  So historians who want to understand how urban Austria in the 16th century or rural China in the 19th century developed in response to political and social changes need to have a good grasp of the material circumstances of the period as well.  (Robert Allen's work on the cost of living across Eurasia is an outstanding example; link.)

Other topics covered in the volume include institutions (Jon Cohen), labor economics (Susan Carter and Stephen Cullenberg), neoclassical supply and demand (Donald Deirdre McCloskey), macroeconomics (Richard Sutch), money and banking (Hugh Rockoff), and international economics (Peter Lindert).

McCloskey's treatment of economic rationality is a good place to close:
To reduce the humans in the rice market to single-minded seekers after profit does not seem to accord with common sense.  It does not.  We see ourselves failing every day to make the best decision about which food to buy or whether to change jobs. Considering that most of us wander in a fog of indecision and emotion the bright sunlight in which the rational man strides toward his goal is difficult to credit. (143)
However, McCloskey does not think that this element of realism about real actors does not make economic reasoning based on rationality a pointless exercise:
An English farmer choosing a reaping machine did not need detailed engineering specifications for each of the dozens of machines available in order to make up his mind to buy. Nor did he need perfect foresight about the future price of harvest labor.  A crude decision is rational if information to make a more subtle one is expensive. (143)
In other words: imperfect rationality is enough to get the economic theory enterprise going.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Intellectual work

It is interesting to think about the work that intellectuals do. Basically, they take on thought problems -- what is justice? How does a market economy work? Why do used cars sell for less than their real value? They gather the theories and hypotheses that they have encountered and studied. They look for a new avenue of approach to the problem. They make use of styles of analysis and reasoning they have acquired during their development and education. And they formulate and develop their own attempts at a solution to a problem.

There are some intellectuals -- Descartes, for example -- who present themselves as starting de novo; framing a problem in purely abstract, logical terms, and addressing it through first principles alone.  Possibly the philosopher mathematician Gottlob Frege falls in this category as well.  He asked, "What are the foundations of arithmetic?" And he presented a constructive logical account of how the truths of arithmetic can be derived from a small set of axioms.  So these thinkers pretend to a "pure thought" approach to intellectual work.  But in fact, this claim doesn't hold up even in these cases.  Both Descartes and Frege existed within traditions of thought; the questions they posed had historical roots, and the methods they use were historically conditioned as well.

The diagram above represents a stylized description of intellectual work: influences, an embodied cognitive framework ("skill"), important elements of originality, and a product.  The diagram also provides, at the bottom, a highly incomplete inventory of some of the ways in which intellectuals proceed in their work: extending and transforming existing frameworks, introducing novel elements, crossing intellectual domains, and bringing ideas into the public arena.

This puts intellectual work into a certain kind of frame: tradition and influences; problem formulations; invention and creativity; and a new intellectual product -- a theory of justice, a theory of general equilibrium, a market for lemons.  It is "work" in the Marxian sense: it begins with certain materials; the materials are shaped and transformed according to the skills and plans of the worker; the worker's skills are themselves an historical product; and the results reflect both tradition and creativity.

This analysis doesn't cover every kind of intellectual work; it doesn't fit the creation of literature, for example. But it seems to fit philosophy, social theory, the early parts of the natural sciences, and even theology.

To the extent this scheme fits an area of thought, we can then address the question of a particular thinker's contributions from several angles: looking for influences, looking for specific modes of thinking, looking for flashes of genuine originality, and looking at finished theories. In other words, we can think of the task of intellectual biography through the lens of this analysis of the mature thinker's work, and the arc of development that can be perceived in his/her lifetime corpus.

So, for the individual intellectual, we can ask questions at various points of entry.  First, can we say what some of this thinker's fundamental cognitive assumptions are.  Can we identify the modes of investigation, analysis, and reasoning that he/she pursued?  Second, can we trace backwards to some of the difference-making influences that shaped the intellectual's agenda?  What was the tradition of thought into which he/she was introduced through early reading and education?  Who were some of the charismatic individuals who helped this intellectual to establish a perspective and an intellectual framework?  Third, what can we discover internally to the corpus?  Is there a visible evolution of thought over time?  Are there ideas and assumptions that give the corpus coherence from beginning to end?  Can the corpus be reformulated into a consistent and innovative approach to a large set of problems?

Several books recently discussed in other postings are relevant to this question of the development of an intellectual.  One is Clifford Geertz's autobiographical essay in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics.  Another is the biographical essay of John Rawls provided by Tom Pogge in John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice.  Geertz highlights many of the categories mentioned here: exposure to a few influential figures in his undergraduate years, the experience of World War II, his exposure to Indonesia as a graduate student, ...  Geertz's work is highly original; nonetheless, we can go some ways towards teasing out some of the ways that his mature perspectives were influenced by his educational and personal experiences.  And likewise, Pogge's essay on Rawls's development as a child, youth, and adult sheds a very interesting light on Rawls's intellectual style as a mature philosopher.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rawls on Rousseau 1973, 1975

As noted in an earlier post, John Rawls delivered a fundamentally important course on the history of political philosophy at Harvard throughout much of his career. (See the earlier post for more about the course and for a set of notes on the section on Marx.) The 1973 course followed these main topics:
  1. The nature of political philosophy 
  2. Natural law and contract theory. [kinds of natural law doctrines; Locke's account of political obligation; Hume's critique of contract theory; Rousseau's theory of the General Will] 
  3. The notion of the original position 
  4. Some principles of justice 
  5. J. S. Mill 
  6. Marx 
Readers of my post on Josh Cohen's excellent recent book on Rousseau (Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals) may be interested in these course notes I took as a graduate student in Rawls's course. Cohen points out how important Rawls's lectures on this subject were for the formation of his own understanding of Rousseau. The notes are not detailed enough to give a full picture of Rawls's interpretation of Rousseau; but they give an idea of the issues he highlighted as well as an indication of how he related Rousseau's views to his own arguments in A Theory of Justice.

I attended the 1973 version of the course as a graduate student and served as a teaching assistant in the 1975 version of the course. So I have two sets of notes for most of the course, and it is interesting to compare them. (Here is a PDF document that presents the two sets of lectures side-by-side for easier comparison.)

Several things stand out upon reading both versions of the lectures. First is a very high degree of consistency between the two years. Rawls clearly worked from a very detailed lecture outline; the same topics occur in the same order, with the same breaking point between lecture 1 and lecture 2. Second, there is a great deal of consistency of content as well. Rawls's explanations of the general will, the well-ordered society, the central problem of the social contract, and the role of unanimity and voting are essentially the same in the two series. Even a somewhat puzzling statement in 1973 -- "The 'system' of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature." -- recurs in 1975: "The law of nature is the general will of the universe." Third, both series indicate Rawls's interest in relating Rousseau's ideas to his own constructions in A Theory of Justice.

Finally, the availability of two independent sets of notes from different years gives some basis for judging Rawls's meaning at various points. For example, when Rawls asks, "What does the general will will?", he answers "the public good" and "justice". But Rousseau doesn't write that "the general will wills justice"; so we have to ask what Rawls means by this. The fact that he repeats the assertion in both years indicates that he has something specific in mind. And it would appear that the connection in his mind proceeds through the idea of the well-ordered society (again, not a concept that Rousseau uses but one that is critical in Rawls's own thinking).

A synthesis of Rawls's lectures on the history of political philosophy over a number of years is provided in Samuel Freeman's edition of Rawls's lectures in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.

A core text for the course was Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, which includes the full text of Rousseau's Social Contract. Here is a link to the G. D. H. Cole translation of the Social Contract.

John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973 and 1975

[The following are notes taken by Daniel Little; they were intended to capture Rawls's formulations of the main points presented in the lecture. Text in red is from the 1975 lectures, and text in black is from the 1973 lectures.]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Rousseau. If inequalities are between property owners and non-property owners, giving rise to political differences, it is hard to see that the have-nots have equal opportunity. Especially if the contract view allows for entrenching of privileged class and restricts equality of opportunity.

Like Locke, Rousseau offers a complex view. We will look at one aspect of the Social Contract, with an explicitly narrow approach. 

Rousseau, The Social Contract. The General Will. What is the general will the will of? Every association of people is held together by some common interest. (The "system" of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature.) Within a political association each sub-association has a general will. This is a theory of associations as general-will-bearing agents. The general will is the general will of the political association. It is the will of the public person or body politic. When active, it is the will of the sovereign. An act of sovereignty is the declaration of the General Will. The general will is the will of the citizen -- i.e. as a rational person not determined by his particularity.

The general will. Here is a question: what is it the will of? Every human association has a general will. As long as people identify themselves as belonging to a group having a common aim, the resulting group has a general will. The law of nature is the general will of the universe. If we think of factions within associations, each of them has a general will also; but this is a particular will with respect to the whole association. Normally an association has procedures for making up its collective mind. The general will is the general will of the association established by the Social Contract of the body politic. The declaration of the General Will is the act of sovereignty.

The general will is the will of each person qua member of the association. It is the will that each person would have if they were rational, undeceived, unbiased, undistracted by private interests. We can identify three selves: self as member of political community, self as member of sub-association, and self as private individual.

What does the general will will? The common good -- i.e. the good of the public person, just as private will wills the private advantage. The general will wills justice (I.4.4 [ perhaps a reference to TJ I.4, "The Original Position and Justification"]). It wills the preservation of the whole and every part. In the social contract the person only alienates as much of his liberty as is necessary for the sovereign to rule.

Political economy (P114 [perhaps a reference to TJ V.41, "The Concept of Justice in Political Economy"]). The general will wills justice. The Original Position. To ascertain the general will, conditions lead each person to put himself in the place of all others. The general will is therefore the will of all, and applies to all. It must be general in purpose and nature: spring from all and apply to all.

The general will always extends to what is right (but it may be deceived or misinformed).

What does the general will will? It wills the common good, public interest, justice. The general will aims at the preservation and welfare of the whole and every part. This is related to the fact that in the social contract each alienates only so much of his liberty as relates to the community as a whole. This creates authority within limits. (2:4:3) The general will wills justice. It is the most just of wills. To be certain of following the general will it is enough to act justly. Why is the general will right even if not always enlightened? Happiness of everyone qua citizen is wished for by everyone.

In voting no one fails to take "each" to refer to himself. This proves a notion of rights derives from a predilection to oneself. (2:4:4) Qua rational citizens what we are to do is to adopt a certain general point of view. The general will wills justice from adopting the perspective of the citizen as citizen. 

By what acts does the general will act? It acts and expresses itself through enactments of basic laws -- particularly through decrees that set up fundamental conventions. It can set up privileges, but it cannot decide who gets them by name. The object of the general will is general.

By what acts does the general will act? It acts in the form of general laws and enactments. These are enactments of a constitutional sort: basic legislative agreements; fundamental laws that regulate the form of a regime.

Book II, chapter iii (link). Institutional questions. Under what conditions is it likely that the general will will express itself? No large public interests affecting voting. No coalitions. A vote is a statement of opinion, not an expression of interest or desire. As a vote approaches unanimity it tends to come closer to the expression of the general will.

The original position is a way of articulating conditions for the expression of the general will. The book describes a well-ordered society.

Institutional expression of the general will. What each citizen would will if rational, etc. We want to work out what form of institutional expression would do this. Consider the contrast between the will of all vs. general will. Former: what everyone would will if their sectional or personal interests ruled. Optimal conditions for establishing the general will within an association:
  1. No large sectional interests which affect general deliberations, and personal interests cancel out and leave the vote unaffected. 2:3:1-2 
  2. No communication or mutual influence in deliberation. No coalitions. 2:3:2 
  3. Rules of order ensure that the question is perfectly put. What is most of interest of this political association? 
  4. Assurance that we get expression of the general will comes from unanimity or approximate unanimity. 
  5. Every vote has to be counted and no one is excluded. No classes are excluded by constitution. 
  6. People have to be reliably informed. 
The more these conditions are satisfied, the greater our assurance that the outcomes of votes is an expression of the general will. The more important and serious the matter, the greater the need for unanimity. The social contract must be unanimous.

[continued on second lecture]

Last time: What would the conditions have to be for an enactment to represent the general will?

The general will is the will of persons qua citizen. How are we to determine this will? (1) No large private interests should determine action; rather, many small interests which cancel out (II:iii). The notion of the original position is designed to represent the same idea.

One can view the society of the original contract as a description of a well-ordered society. ["A well-ordered society is one designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice" (TJ chap VIII, sect 69).] What are the characteristics of this view in Rousseau? The general will is not historical, but rather a sociological fact. The conditions of the general will must be expressed in institutional form. Rousseau's society is a natural rights type of society.

What is the content of the general will? Rousseau doesn't say in sufficient detail what the general will wills. He depends upon social institutions and education to bring about the general will, rather than trying to sketch it out a priori. But one would like at least to know what the general principles are which govern the general will.

Describing a well-ordered society: an association having some conception of the common good which has public institutional expression. Public conception of justice, as expressed in institutional enactments.

We can supplement Rousseau by trying to see what these principles might be. The principles must satisfy a mutual advantage condition. Rousseau doesn't explore details, however.

What is Rousseau's special contribution to contract theory? It is clear in Rousseau that the social contract is not historical; not a sequence of actual agreements, as Locke seems to suggest. Rather, it represents conditions on any well-ordered society.

The general will as an interest that exists in every citizen. It is the basis upon which people decide how to vote or what is in the common interest. It is Rousseau's view that these conditions are realized and secure.

It is a natural rights view of some sort. Rousseau thinks of society as generating in people as they grow up a general will. That interest then determines their public reasoning. This leads them to act as the general will requires them to act, in conjunction with other interests. The society of the social contract is therefore stable. Rousseau does not discuss what the possible conceptions are of justice. Are they many or few?

Rousseau notes a hierarchy of interests: citizen qua citizen, citizen qua bourgeois, citizen qua individual. The object of the general will is the constitutional form, that of the particular is the individual's own private goals. The higher interests regulate the lower ones. These interests need to be articulated. There is no contradiction between say willing as citizen to establish a law and say willing as individual to avoid the application of the law in my own case. Rawls's four-stage sequence in Chapter 4 of A Theory of Justice is designed to provide much the same kind of articulation of interests.

Another notion in Rousseau is a hierarchy of interests. The self is not an aggregate of interests, but rather a structure. We have interests of different orders. Higher order interests are interests having other lower-order interests. E.g. an interest or desire not to have compulsive sensuous desires. To get rid of desire we might take specific actions. Higher order interests in some way regulate the growth of lower-order desires. How does Rousseau use this notion? The general will is the highest order desire. It is not necessarily the strongest; this is a logical characteristic rather than a measure of strength. Highest order desire is the most fundamental; it regulates all others.

We might now discuss Rousseau's fundamental problem: how to find an institutional form which protects the interests of each with the weight of all and yet also leaves each autonomous and as free as before. We may interpret his solution in terms of justice. (1) Each person alienates himself totally and his rights to the whole community and the public conception of justice. This means everyone gives himself absolutely to be regulated by the public conception of justice. (2) The giving of oneself is unconditional; no one is independent of the normative force of the public conception. (3) In giving oneself to the community, he gives himself to no one. There is no one in a superior relation to him; justice is mutual. (Book 1, chap 6, paragraphs 4, 6-8; link)

The central problem of the social contract may be thought to have the following solution. The problem: How to form an association which protects all without losing freedom. Each totally alienates all his rights and freedom to the whole association absolutely and without qualification. When the association conforms to the general will it is all right. If the association is seen as regulated by the common good, then what Rousseau says can be satisfied.

No one then has any rights except those defined by this conception of justice or the common good. Each person in giving himself to the community gives himself to no one. Everyone does the same, and everyone has the same rights. Giving oneself over to being regulated by the notion of the common good.

I-8: being forced to be free. This addresses a concern with the free-rider problem. People may agree that rules are fair but prefer to be an exception. They can be compelled to comply with fair rules. Justice defines rights and defines equal freedoms.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anthropology as a discipline

Several posts have focused recently on the meandering pathways through which the social science disciplines have developed in the past century or so -- within and across nations (link, link).  Anthropology is a particularly interesting example because of its proximity to power and empire. And Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar's recent World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations in Systems of Power (Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series) (2006) is a good place to start.

Ribeiro and Escobar are primarily interested in the question of "internationalizing" anthropology. The volume came out of an important conference on the topic sponsored by the the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2003. The question of internationalization is relevant to anthropology in two separate ways: in terms of content (local or exotic), and in terms of organizational structure (a few core centers in the metropole, versus a large and diffuse research community across the globe). Ribeiro and Escobar are interested in incorporating the anthropological research traditions that have developed in the developing world into a more comprehensive and adequate world anthropology for the future. They are certainly right that there is much to be learned by looking in detail at some of the ways that social observers in Africa, Asia, or Latin America have sought to describe and theorize distinctive communities. And their premise of the non-linearity of the development of anthropology is exactly right as well. There is no "best" ethnography, methodology, or anthropological theory within which to organize observation and explanation of the social world.

Several chapters in the volume are particularly interesting; and none more so than Eduardo Archetti's detailed and nuanced telling of the story of anthropology and ethnography in France since roughly 1900. The inclusion of France in this volume's discussion of core and periphery in scientific anthropology is of course initially surprising; but it makes sense in context. Part of the story of France falls squarely in the core of the discipline; but another part falls in the periphery of the science. Archetti links his discussion to several important recent histories of anthropology that are interesting in their own right: Thomas Eriksen and Finn Nielsen (A History of Anthropology), Alan Barnard (History and Theory in Anthropology), and Robert Layton (An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology).

What Archetti finds is that there is a standard way of telling the story of French anthropology. It begins with Durkheim and Mauss and culminates in Levi-Strauss and Godelier; it is long on theory, and it interweaves periodically with the interests of the French colonial state.  The standard account emphasizes the important role played by French thinkers in constructing theoretical frameworks for comprehending cultures. And the standard history links French anthropology to the international concerns represented by France's colonial possessions. Archetti quotes Lévy-Bruhl's arguments to this effect on the occasion of the establishment of the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Paris in 1925 (117):
The first and most central of the natural resources is the indigenous population, because the other resources are dependent on it, above all in tropical regions. Does not there exist a capital interest in studying it, in a methodical way, in order to get an exact and deep knowledge of its languages, religions, and social organization, which it is not prudent to destroy irresponsibly? (Lévy-Bruhl 1925: 1)
But Archetti argues that this story of French anthropology is too simple by half. What it leaves out is crucial: the development of several traditions of regional and ethnic studies within France that were slighted with the label "folkloric." And it turns out that a number of figures within that group of traditions should be given much more attention in the history of anthropology than they have received to date. The presumption is that anthropology is concerned with the external and the exotic; and that the study of indigenous French traditions and communities is pedestrian and uninteresting. It is ethnology rather than ethnography. But this assumption is false.

Archetti singles out several figures for particular attention. Arnold van Gennep is one figure largely overlooked in the standard narrative, particularly when it comes to recognizing and extending his studies of French rural communities (114). Other figures who are marginalized are Louis Dumont, Michel Leiris, and Marcele Griaule. The latter two figures come in for more extensive treatment because of their "de-centered" treatment of anthropology (119). Griaule and Leiris were students of Mauss but did not define their efforts in terms of the formulation or elaboration of theoretical ideas. Leiris presented his African ethnographic work, L'Afrique fantôme in a literary form influenced by surrealism; it jarred against the ideal of dispassionate description. And Griaule's ethnography also had a deep thread of the subjective and the anti-general. Archetti quotes James Clifford's assessment of Griaule with approval: "One hears, as it were, two full chords of a Dogon symphony: a mythic explanation of the cosmos and a native theory of language and expressivity" (119). This implies that there is as much of Griaule as the Dogon in the treatment. But, Archetti suggests, both these French ethnographers captured themes of interpretation and styles of presentation that were to become important in later ethnography. "L'Afrique fantome is a powerful book precisely because it is centered on the explicit recognition of the subjectivity of the ethnographer" (121).

Dumont is important in Archetti's account, not for his studies of South Asia, but for his detailed studies of some specific French settings.
La Tarasque is a complex and unorthodox monograph consisting of ethnographic findings based on observations of the ritual of the feast of the dragon in the village of Tarascon, a detailed oral history of its legends, the results of exhaustive historical archival work, and a detailed iconographic presentation. (124)
Here is Archetti's explanation of Dumont's significance:
My main aim with this brief examination of La Tarasque is to contextualize the question of centers and peripheries with a focus on the anthropology of France and its internationalization. It is clear that the rich tradition of studies of France by ethnologists, ethnographers, and folklorists initiated before World War II remained "local" and was not integrated into the creation of an international discipline in which the "more exotic and extreme non-European others" were privileged. (124)
Several points of interest come out of Archetti's discussion and the volume more generally. First has to do with the history of attempts to define the subject matter of anthropology through the focus on "exotic" non-western cultures. In hindsight, this is a distinction that makes no sense at all. The cultures, norms, religions, practices, and local preoccupations of an Alsatian village or a Detroit neighborhood are no more transparent than their counterparts in the Andaman Islands or the high Andes. And detailed observation and ethnographic investigation will reveal much of great interest in any of these locations. What is "exotic" is obviously a question of the familiar and one's initial perspective. So it is not in the least bit surprising that anthropology in the west has turned its attention to topics like "household practices in Soviet cities" or "nuclear weapons designers as a norm-driven community." Dissolving the notion of the exotic is a natural step.

Second, the notion that anthropology needs a few grand theories around which to organize its work is likewise bogus. The grand theories -- structural-functionalism, Freudianism, Marxism, rational choice theory -- simply can't be used as a formula in terms of which to understand a society or a culture as a whole. This isn't to say that theories are irrelevant to the investigation of communities; but they must be brought to bear in partial ways, not as general comprehensive schemes of interpretation.

Third, I suppose we might be just as skeptical about the availability of universal "ethnographic" methods. Once again, this isn't meant to doubt the need for intellectual rigor in observation and interpretation -- only to doubt that there is or should be a single best way of studying a human social groups. Objectivity qnd intellectual rigor cannot be defined simply as "adherence to the XYZ method of ethnographic observation." Ethnographic investigation can afford to be eclectic and multi-methodological; in fact, it can't afford anything else.

And finally, I think that Archetti's retelling of the story of French anthropology probably sheds light on the multiple nature of the development of scientific traditions everywhere. Many false starts, many promising avenues that were simply abandoned, and a real plurality of insightful approaches that don't cumulate to a simple, linear story.

(There is an interesting connection between this narrative of anthropology in France and the early relation of the Annales school to local histories of regions in France; link.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rousseau the democrat

Rousseau's political philosophy probably represents the richest and most adequate view of the moral foundations of the state of any of the great figures in the history of political thought. But it is also complex and opaque. Rousseau is usually cast as falling within the social contract tradition, according to which the legitimacy of the state depends on the hypothetical consent of the governed. This puts him in discussion with Hobbes and Locke. But he had substantive and radical ideas about freedom and equality that separate him sharply from these British theorists. His ideas about freedom and equality made him a prime candidate for the title, "philosopher of the French Revolution". He offered a sometimes mysterious theory of the "general will" as the central focus of politics; but philosophers have offered wildly different interpretations of the meaning of this concept. And, unlike Locke, Hobbes, or Mill, Rousseau had an elaborate theory of psychology -- the motivations that lead social actors to behave as they do and the processes of social construction through which they come to have these characteristics. This theory appears to fit into his social philosophy, but it isn't perfectly clear how.

It is for these reasons that Josh Cohen's recently published Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals is such an important contribution. The book is an exceptional achievement. Cohen offers a coherent, developed interpretation of Rousseau's theory; he provides clear statements of the central ideas and shows how they tie together; and he makes use of virtually all of Rousseau's enormous corpus to tease out Rousseau's intricate line of thought. Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau's theory is not simply a series of aphorisms, but is rather a detailed and subtle logical argument, with premises and inferences that can be rigorously reconstructed. It is a full philosophy of politics. Most basically, Cohen shows how philosophical principles, institutional assumptions, and psychological theories are intended to tie together into a coherent view of a democratic society.

This is an enormously difficult task to have accomplished. Just take the Social Contract as your starting point and you are inclined to emphasize chiefly the relations between institutions and freedom. Just take Emile or the Confessions as the point of origin and the emphasis will be on the individual's development. And if you begin with the more applied parts of Rousseau's work -- the constitution for Poland, for example -- and you are likely enough to get lost in a forest of institutional details. In other words -- three Rousseau's. Cohen has paid close attention to all these components of Rousseau's thought, and he has succeeded in showing how they all contribute to a single, coherent line of thought.

The key idea in Cohen's construction is the notion of a "free community of equals." (This is also the subtitle of the book.) Each part of the phrase demands analysis -- equality, freedom, and community, and unpacking them provides a basis for a nuanced and powerful political philosophy. The phrase also invokes the central problem of political philosophy, the contradiction between security and freedom: how is it possible to find personal security within a state (and therefore being subject to coercive laws), while fully maintaining one's freedom and autonomy? Here is how Cohen puts the solution he attributes to Rousseau:
The essential point about content is that Rousseau's solution requires that individuals commit to regarding themselves as belonging to a political community whose members are committed to regarding one other as equals: acknowledging one another as political equals, with equal status in establishing the laws; recognizing one another as equally subject to the laws; and agreeing to regulate their association by reference to reasons of the common good, which gives equal weight to the good of each citizen. (Kindle loc 221)
This formulation captures every element of the solution: equality, the common good, and a consequent situation of full autonomy. The citizen is autonomous (self-legislating) because he/she has willed the creation of exactly this system of law. The common good referred to here is the "general will"; and Cohen makes a good case for understanding that this concept is one that comes down to the individual perceiving and willing outcomes that serve the whole of the citizenry.

Citizens also have their own particular interests; so the situation described here, where all citizens give priority to the common good over their particular interests is one that requires a fairly specific bundle of institutions and motivations. And Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau methodically explores these institutional and behavioral requirements.

Cohen analyzes the idea of a community as being regulated by the general will into a conjunction of four conditions:
  • GW1 Particular Interest Condition [citizens have separate, particular interests]
  • GW2 Common Good Condition [citizens publicly share a common understanding of the common good]
  • GW3 Priority Condition [each citizen gives priority to reasons having to do with the common good over those concerning particular interests]
  • GW4 Reasonable Confidence Condition [citizens can be confident that their institutions conform to their shared conception of the common good]
It is evident that these are strong conditions. So it is incumbent on Rousseau (and Cohen) to demonstrate that they are singly possible and jointly consistent. If these points cannot be established, then the idea of a general will is useless. If the conditions are possible and consistent, then there is a further question to investigate: what empirical conditions (institutions, processes of individual moral development) are needed to establish and sustain them?

Another fascinating line of thought in the book is Cohen's attempt to reconstruct Rousseau's argument for the "natural goodness" of the human being. It is a complex argument and one I found highly convincing as an interpretation of Rousseau. And the issue is simply crucial; if this argument cannot be made out, then the free community of equals is an impossibility.

Much of Cohen's work here is that of philosophical reconstruction: what were Rousseau's positions and reasons? This is descriptive work, and doesn't require that Cohen evaluate the theory. (In fact, we can ask the question whether this is simply a hypothetical reconstruction of a Rousseau-like theory, or whether we are to understand that Rousseau actually had these logical connections and explications clearly in mind.) But beyond the explicative work, it is plain that there is much in Rousseau's conceptions of equality, freedom, participation, and democracy that Cohen admires deeply and regards as fruitful for contemporary discussions of democracy. There are also a few important threads that he is distinctly not pleased by: in particular, the exclusion of women, of course, and Rousseau's sometimes incipient communitarianism. The latter makes for the possibility of an ethnically or nationalistically grounded community, rather than a community of simple moral equals. And Rousseau sometimes seems to suggest that only a highly uniform community is likely to satisfy the conditions above -- a discouraging finding for those of us interested in a creating a democratic, multicultural world.

There is a particularly important meta-level point that emerges from Cohen's book and that seems to be fully embedded in Rousseau's thought process: the importance of addressing the question of social justice in full detail from three interrelated perspectives. We need a convincing set of moral principles that help to define what the most important features of a just society are. We need an analysis of some of the institutional requirements that these principles present; an idea of the kinds of institutions that could satisfy the principles. And we need an analysis of human psychology -- both the fixed parts and the malleable parts -- that would either support or undermine these institutions and principles. In other words, social philosophy requires a concrete study of institutions and psychology if we are to succeed in arriving at convincing and practical models of a good society. And Rousseau seems to have understood this imperative in greater detail than other contributors to the traditions of political philosophy.

Here is a schematic representation of major parts of Cohen's analysis of Rousseau:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Links between literature and the social sciences

Some novelists take as part of their task the description and evocation of certain social realities. James Baldwin captured one slice of African-American life in the 1950s and 60s. Tim O'Brien captured aspects of infantry life in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. And Tolstoy caught much about social attitudes and relations in elite Russia at a certain time and place. We could interpret these sorts of novels "realistically" and ask a range of questions about them: how accurate are they? Do they leave out important aspects of the picture? And what was the epistemic location of the author, such that he/she could claim to observe and portray accurately?

If we take this function of literature seriously, then it is natural to ask how this creative act relates to various areas of the social sciences. Does the knowledge offered by Baldwin complement the work of sociologists and historians of race in America? And, for that matter, can the realistically-minded novelist find valuable synergy in the research of historians and sociologists?

These questions are taken especially seriously by critics who are developing the framework of "critical realism", including especially Satya Mohanty. Particularly valuable is Identity Politics Reconsidered (Future of Minority Studies), edited by Linda Alcoff, Satya Mohanty and Michael Hames-Garcia. The topic is a core concern for the Future of Minority Studies project (link).

So, what about it? Can a work of fiction have realistic, referential content? Is a novel sometimes an empirical statement? Can a fictional character truthfully represent aspect of what it is like to be black in America, South Asian in Manchester, or gay in a suburban Illinois high school? For that matter, can a novel be faulted for "getting it wrong" -- for example, for representing an American Muslim as being completely oblivious to issues of racism?  Or is "right" and "wrong" out of place when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a novel and the world?

Here is one possible answer: fiction is always fiction, and normally does not have empirical validity. If we want to make empirical statements about social relations, class attitudes, or typical social values of specific groups, we need to do so based on valid methods of social research: surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observations of behavior. And we need to analyze the data we collect according to valid methods of aggregation and inference. That is what is required in order to arrive at knowledge about the social world.

Another very different response goes along these lines. Novelists are sometimes skilled social observers, and some of these are also skilled "painters" or evokers of what they have seen. A great novelist can pull together his/her many insights and observations into a powerful description of a fictional world or experience that captures an important sociological truth about the society depicted.  So these novelists do in fact gain knowledge of social life through observation, and they represent that knowledge through the fiction they produce. Both parts of this epistemic process are subject to criticism; but both are valid knowledge practices.

According to the second view, readers have the possibility of gaining real knowledge about the social world through the novel.  Seen in this way, a novelist is somewhat akin to an ethnographer, trying to make sense of a complex system of behaviors and meanings and expressing his/her findings in a way that is truthful to the social reality observed.

It seems that one would have to be a pretty narrow-minded epistemologist to hold that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that literature necessarily falls outside its bounds.  This might have been credible when the program of logical empiricism still seemed possible -- that there are observations that can be unambiguously arrived at, and that theories are evaluated through a specific logic of confirmation marshaling a domain of observations in support of hypothetical statements.  But this epistemology doesn't work well even in the sciences.  And within the framework of an anti-foundationalist epistemology, it seems reasonable enough to believe that literature has the potential of revealing important aspects of the social world.

This brings us back to the question of linkage between literature and the social sciences.  If we think that Platoon or The Things They Carried express some important truth about the nature of the experience of that war for American soldiers, this suggests the possibility of framing other sorts of social-science investigations to probe the extent and variation of these characteristics on the ground.  In other words, there is a simple kind of synergy that can exist between novelists, sociologists, and historians, when it comes to framing interpretations and explanations of a complex social reality, and designing further empirical studies to evaluate and qualify these findings.