Sunday, February 27, 2011

Searle on social ontology

Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language made a big impression on the field of the philosophy of language when it appeared in 1969.  But its author, John Searle, thinks the theory of speech acts has a much broader scope than simply the philosophy of language; he thinks it provides a foundation for the philosophy of mind, and -- of particular interest here -- for the philosophy of society.   Two books in the past decade or so have pushed this programme forward -- The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010).  So -- how much insight into the social world can we get from the ideas underlying speech act theory?

Fundamentally, Searle's interest is in the nature of social ontology:
[The philosophy of society is] the study of the nature of human society itself: What is the mode of existence of social entities such as governments, families, cocktail parties, summer vacations, trade unions, baseball games, and passports? (MSW, kindle loc 161)
His answer is categorical and dogmatic; there is precisely one human intentional activity that underlies all of social reality:
Humans have the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure. [E.g. a five-dollar bill can't be physically transformed into a grande latte.] The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question. (kindle loc 194)
Status functions are fundamental, according to Searle, because they are the bearers of rights, obligations, and norms -- what he refers to as "deontic powers." As a member of the American Philosophical Association, I have a right to attend the annual conference, and this right is embodied in the states of intentionality of other actors who recognize that status and the associated right.  "So status functions are the glue that holds society together.  They are created by collective intentionality and they function by carrying deontic powers" (kindle loc 225).

Searle thinks that rules, institutions, and collective intentions are the fundamental "atoms" of social phenomena; and -- this is the dogmatic part -- he thinks that these all depend on one mental action, which he refers to as a Status Function Declaration.  He holds that we cannot understand the working of a rule, a socially embodied obligation, or a socially embodied right, without postulating a commonly recognized Status Function Declaration that establishes that practice.  And, sure enough -- a status function declaration is a form of a speech act.
All institutional facts, and therefore all status functions, are created by speech acts of a type that in 1975 I baptized as "Declarations".... With the important exception of language itself, all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization, is created by speech acts that have the same logical form as Declarations.... Institutional facts are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see. (kindle loc 253, 282, 1683)
So speech acts, and the linguistic intentionality that they express, are the foundation of all social phenomena.  "All of institutional reality is created by linguistic representation" (kindle loc 313).  Voila.

What this all seems to boil down to, is three points: (1) Social interactions always involve language, both internally in thought and externally in communication. (2) The idea of a norm is an inherently social idea that needs to be embodied in the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals in the group through linguistically framed mental representations. (3) Norms need to be shared and publicly articulated if they are to be socially real. Searle represents these three common ideas in a more technical vocabulary: individuals have individual and collective intentionality; individuals have deontic commitments; and deontic commitments result from status function declarations -- speech acts of a specific kind.

Let's consider each of the points. Is intentionality inherently linguistic? Of course adult human intentionality is -- we can always paraphrase a state of consciousness as a linguistic declaration of some sort, and it is common to think of "thought" as internal speech.  But is it possible to imagine purposiveness and intentionality in a non-linguistic species?  Can we find examples of non-human cooperation that appears to presuppose intentionality without language?  The answers to these two questions appear to be affirmative.  Examples of primate problem-solving, group hunting, and simple cooperation in which the behavior of members of a group are oriented to the behavior of others all appear in the animal behavior literature.  (Here is an earlier post on current research on human cooperation that appears to contradict the assumption that intentionality requires language; link.  The post draws on the work of Michael Tomasello and colleagues in Why We Cooperate.)

Is it possible for a group of humans to embody a set of norms of behavior that are not explicitly formulated in language? Again, it seems that we have good empirical and theoretical reasons for thinking that "implicit norms", conventions, and practices exist. Searle himself gives some attention to what we would call "norms by convention", but only to argue that these examples are on their way to full-fledged status function declarations ("pre-institutional examples of the same logical form") (kindle loc 404, 449). But David Lewis's extensive work on the topic in Convention: A Philosophical Study (which Searle does not discuss) gives substantial support for the idea that conventions can emerge within a human group without formal linguistic articulation, and they can persist as a basis for organizing group behavior without requiring "codification" through a speech act. Here is a simple example:
In my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, until recently all local telephone calls were cut off without warning after three minutes. Soon after the practice had begun, a convention grew up among Oberlin residents that when a call was cut off the original caller would call back while the called party waited. Residents usually conformed to this regularity in the expectation of conformity by the other party to the call. In this way calls were easily restored, to the advantage of all caoncerned.  New residents were told about the convention [deontic speech act!] or learned it through experience [no deontic speech act required!]. It persisted for a decade or so until the cutoff was abolished. (43)
So, according to Lewis, coordination through tacit or implicit convention is a common feature of social life, and it does not require a deontic speech act for its effectiveness. (In fact, Lewis argues that the arrow points the other direction: language presupposes conventions rather than being a necessary condition to the possibility of a convention.) Lewis's analysis is responsive to condition (3) above as well; Lewis has demonstrated how a practice can become "common knowledge" and effective in regulating coordinative and cooperative behavior, without ever having been expressed through a deontic declaration.

So it seems that Searle's insistence on the inescapable role of language and performative speech acts goes beyond what is justified by the facts.  The social is not reducible to a set of logical characteristics of language. That said, it is of course true that human social life -- coordination, planning, strategizing, conspiring, cooperating, and competing -- is enormously dependent on our species' ability to use language to express our thoughts and intentions. But we don't gain very much by paraphrasing social action in the language of speech acts; the real challenge for the social scientist is to explain social outcomes, not to redefine them.

Most fundamentally, we would hope that the philosophy of society or the philosophy of social science will help to formulate better theories and better research questions in the social sciences. The hard part of the social sciences is not arriving at a logical analysis of how institutions and norms can be defined in terms of something else; it is rather the difficult challenge of sorting out real human behavior within a set of institutions and explaining outcomes on that basis. But because of its single-minded focus on a single logical hypothesis, Making the Social World doesn't really do that. It is a formal treatment of the supposed relationship between institutions and speech acts that unfortunately does not provide substantive insight into the workings of real social institutions or human behavior.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Spartacus, Kitty Genovese, and social explanation

What is most interesting in paying attention to social life is noticing the surprising outcomes that often materialize from a number of uncoordinated choices and actions by independent individuals. We want to understand why and how the aggregate-level social fact came to be: was it a set of features of the individual actors' preferences or decision-making?  Was it the unintended result of strategic choices by various actors?  Was it simply the path-dependent and contingent outcome of a serial interactive process?  Was it brought about by structural conditions -- power, wealth, race -- within the context of which actors made their choices?  And what were the mechanisms of constraint, aggregation, contagion, and escalation through which actions and processes at the more proximate level came together into the outcome at the distal level?

Consider a pair of examples. Kitty Genovese is attacked by an assailant over an extended period of time in a dense neighborhood in Queens, many people observe the crime, and no one intervenes.  The woman is eventually murdered.  The question here is, why was there a total absence of intervention by any individual or group in this crime?  And a parallel surprise: General Marcus Licinius Crassus, having trapped the rebellious slave army of Spartacus, announces that the slaves will be spared death if they give up Spartacus for crucifiction.  Spartacus rises to his feet to say, "I am Spartacus." And in minutes the army of men rise as well, all declaring "I am Spartacus."  Here the question is the reverse: why do these men expose themselves to death to stand in solidarity with Spartacus?  In each case, there is an occasion for action presented to a group of individuals, in which members of the group can attempt to save the life of another person.  The collective behavior is fundamentally different in the two cases.   Why so? What are the mechanisms, psychological and social, that led to non-intervention in the first case and fatal solidarity in the second?

We might form a number of hypotheses about both of these cases in order to explain the very different outcomes.  In the Kitty Genovese case, we might cite anomy and anonymity as possible causes of the lack of response by bystanders.  With a low level of civic bonds, perhaps city dwellers have such a low level of emotional involvement with each other that even the slightest effort is unjustified.  Or perhaps it is the fact that each potential responder is anonymous to the others that leads to the result; he/she can make the decision to refrain from offering aid without fear of criticism from others.  Or perhaps collective behavior is strongly influenced by the actions of the first few, with later observers mimicking earlier non-aiders.  So the outcome might have been highly different if the first or second witness had intervened; others might have followed suit.   In the case of Spartacus, we might hypothesize that the bonds of solidarity forged by a history of fighting the Roman army gave the soldiers the moral motivation to support Spartacus; or perhaps it is the publicity of the scene, or the early example of the first few supporters, that spread to the behavior of the others.  Or perhaps it is an expression of fundamental mistrust by the soldiers of the good faith of Marcus Crassus; "he will kill us anyway." With nothing to lose, the army makes its symbolic statement of rejection.  These are each social psychological hypotheses, concerning the ways that individuals choose to involve themselves in an emergency and a situation of potential sacrifice.

Each of these hypotheses represents a social mechanism that can be incorporated into a narrative explaining the aggregate outcome.  In order for such a story to be scientifically compelling, we need to have some way of using empirical evidence to evaluate whether the postulated mechanism actually works in the real world of human behavior.  Is there empirical evidence for a social psychology of mimicry?  Do we have evidence to suggest that members of a crowd are more likely to do X or Y if a few others have already done so?  Is there empirical support for a theory of solidarity as a social motivation: do combat teams, groups of deep-ground miners, or emergency room doctors develop a higher willingness to conform their behavior to the good of the group or of other individuals in the group?  These examples of social mechanisms all fall in the category of putative behavioral regularities, and it should be possible to investigate them experimentally and statistically.

The challenge of explanation for any social outcome, we might say, is that of constructing an interpretation of the states of minds of a set of actors; the constraints and opportunities within which they choose a course of action; and the interactions that are created as they act within a common environment, leading to the outcome in question.  This is what we can refer to as an aggregative explanation, and it lies at the heart of Thomas Schelling's methodology in Micromotives and Macrobehavior.  As Schelling points out, sometimes the explanation turns on specific features of agency (the actors' preferences or their modes of decision-making), and sometimes it turns on the specifics of the environment of choice (the fact that the outcome of action is a public good).  But in general, explanation proceeds by showing how agents with specific features, acting within a social and natural environment with specific characteristics, bring about specific kinds of outcomes.

This, in a nutshell, represents a simple but powerful statement of a philosophy of social explanation.  It also represents the rudiments of a social ontology: higher-level social features are composed of the actions and states of agency of a set of actors within the context of locally embodied rules, norms, and expectations.  This is what I refer to as "methodological localism":
This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rule. (link)
Social explanations derive their force from empirical research into the nature of the actor, the nature of the locally embodied social environment, and the processes of aggregation through which actions by multiple actors coalesce into social outcomes.  The explanation satisfies us when it demonstrates the pathways through which individuals, constituted as they are found to be, located in institutions of the sort described, contribute to collective outcomes of the kinds described.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New thinking about the Red Guards

Andrew Walder has spent almost all of his academic life, on and off, studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  In Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (2009) he offers some genuinely new insights into this crucial and chaotic period of China's revolutionary history.  Some historians have focused on the political motivations of Mao and other top leaders in the party; others have examined the economic and social cleavages that existed in China only a decade and a half into its Communist Revolution.  Walder is interested in a much more grass-roots question: what were the motivations, calculations, and states of mind of the "foot soldiers" of the CR, the Red Guards in the earliest years of the upheavals?  And why did the political activism of the CR devolve almost inevitably into intense factionalism between groups whose ideologies seemed virtually indistinguishable -- loyalty to Mao, defense of the revolution, attacks on treacherous leaders?  Walder is a political sociologist, and he wants to understand the dynamics of mobilization and affiliation that led to the group violence and inter-group factionalism in the early years of this period.

Here is an example of the kind of factionalism that most interests Walder:
Chapter 8 examines the puzzling disintegration of the rebel movement in January 1967, soon after the decisive victory over its opponents.  Why did the victorious rebel coalition rapidly split into two opposing camps?  In their earlier attacks on ministries and commissions, rebels stayed within separate bureaucratic hierarchies.  Work teams were dispatched down these hierarchies to the schools under them, and the pursuit of work teams led rebels directly back up this hierarchy to the ministry or commission that sent them.  When these rebels moved to seize power in national and municipal agencies, however, they crossed into different bureaucratic hierarchies.  Rebel groups from different schools who went to the same organs of power turned quickly from allies into competitors.  These competitive rivalries were exacerbated by deep splits that had earlier developed among rebel forces in the two largest and most important campuses, Beijing and Quinghua universities.  The splits at Beida and Qinghua served as a wedge to divide rebel forces citywide, as factions of different schools aligned themselves with one or another faction at these two large campuses.  The resulting split between "Heaven" and "Earth" factions crippled the student movement and frustrated the CCRG until the very end. (26-27)
Walder suggests that earlier scholars have sought to understand the motivations and factions of China's young people in terms of the class position of the participants and the pervasive political indoctrination of youth that had been ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s.  Factions existed, according to this line of thought, either because different groups had different interests, or they had different political theories and ideologies ("conservative" and "radical").  Walder finds these explanations unsatisfactory, since they apply equally to both sides in all the factions -- and so he wants to identify some other feature of the political landscape that would explain the behavior and the factionalization.  And, unlike the scholars of the 1970s and 1980s who had to largely speculate about these issues, Walder takes advantage of primary sources that allow the researcher to get a great deal of information about the participants in their own words, and in their relationships to other activists.

Walder also questions the relevance of the core assumptions of social mobilization theory for the Cultural Revolution -- the idea that social movements need to be understood in terms of grievances, resources, and the state's ability to resist group demands.  Fundamentally his objection is that this theory doesn't help to explain the early months of the Cultural Revolution because all the postulated conditions were present in 1966, and mobilization did in fact occur (14).  But it occurred in a very distinctive way that resource mobilization theory seems not to prove a basis for explaining -- the constant fissioning of a group of activists into two or more factions, bitterly opposed to each other.  It appears, then, that resource mobilization theory lacks the tools necessary to explain this specific pattern of mobilization -- radicalization followed by bitter factionalism.

Walder's explanation is a novel one.  He argues that factionalization was a consequence, not of class differences or ideological disagreements between individuals, but simply of the early choices that various individuals made early in the period.  A central feature of this period was the fact of denunciation -- denouncing past or current leaders for disloyalty to the revolution or other ideological errors.  And these denunciations within the universities were highly consequential: "by mid-July 55 percent of all university party first secretaries and 40 percent of all general branch secretaries had been labeled anti-party reactionaries and placed in category 4" (57).  The rapid proliferation of denunciations meant that persons close to the denounced leader needed to decide -- should they join the denunciation or should they refrain?  The work teams that were sent into Beijing's elite universities in June 1966 (Peking University, to begin with) were forced to make choices in light of radical students' denunciation of top university officials; lower officials had to make similar choices; and activist student leaders had to decide whether to support or oppose the activities of the work teams.  And, Walder argues, this choice was fateful and enduring.  It meant that the individual would be shunted into this group or that group, with further decisions cementing the affinity with the group.
Another way of stating the argument is that factional identities and the common interests that define them are the product of political interactions rooted in specific contexts whose properties must be researched, not simply assumed.  Individual decisions -- to join factions, to oppose or support a work team -- are not the product of prior socialization or social ties but are actdively shaped by political encounters.  The focus is on the interactions that generate choices and outcomes, not the prior statuses of individuals or their preexisting social and political ties. These processes determine when prior social statuses or network ties are activated in a conflict, and when they are not. (13)
In other words, Walder argues that the fact of pervasive factionalization in the Cultural Revolution does not reflect fundamental underlying disagreements or contradictions between the factions; it does not reflect prior sociological distinctions among the participants; but rather reflects the emergence of separate networks of political affiliation from which there was no exit.
Chapter 3 describes how the work teams split university power structures into warring factions, with a focus on the issues that bred conflict between work teams and militant students.  Only in rare and fleeting circumstances were the issues of contention about attacks on the incumbent power structure -- a question that might distinguish "conservative" from "radical" political orientations.  Instead, they were usually about the work team's authority over student actions and the physical control of officials held for interrogation, and about heavy-handed work-team punishment of students who proved hard to control. (24)
This is a fascinating micro-sociology of a crucial span of a few months of violent upheaval in a single city.  It helps to explain a particularly pervasive feature of a broad and chaotic period of political unrest in China -- the constant factionalism that occurred at virtually every level of conflict.  It introduces an innovative model of political behavior (path-dependent choices by individuals leading to a durable configuration of political affiliations).  And it provides a new avenue through which the methods of network analysis can be fruitfully used to explain complex social processes.  It is a valuable contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is currently underway about the Cultural Revolution.  (Other contributions to this new scholarship are included in Esherick, Pickowitz, and Walder, eds., China's Cultural Revolution As History.)

A side note, not crucial to Walder's argument but interesting nonetheless, is the apparently simple question of when the Cultural Revolution took place.  It is conventional by many historians to date the CR to the years 1966-1976.  In 1966 the Red Guard movement erupted with wall posters and virulent activism in Beijing, among high school and university students.  And in 1976 Mao died, the Gang of Four were arrested, and the disruptions of the decade were decisively put aside.  But Walder dates the CR to a much shorter period, 1966-68, beginning with the same Red Guard explosion that occurred in 1966 but ending in 1968 when Mao unleased the military to put down the radical activists: "Not until August 1968 were the flames of China's Cultural revolution extinguished by the imposition of a harsh regime of martial law" (1).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Steve Pincus on revolution

Steve Pincus offers a sweeping and compelling reinterpretation of the English Revolution in 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Along the way he provides a review of existing theories of revolution -- Skocpol, Huntington, Barrington Moore, and Goldstone, in particular (chapter 2). Pincus's definition of revolution goes along these lines:
Revolutions thus constitute a structural and ideological break from the previous regime. They entail changes to both the political and socioeconomic structures of a polity. They involve an often violent popular movement to overturn the previous regime. Revolutions change the political leadership and the policy orientations of the state. And revolutionary regimes bring with them a new conception of time, a notion that they are beginning a new epoch in the history of the state and its society. (kindle loc 549)
Pincus criticizes each of the prevailing theories of revolution. Fundamentally Pincus's criticism is that these theories share a common error of conceptualization: they work on the assumption that revolutions are the outcome of a conflict between a rigid, conservative, and exhausted state, on the one hand, and a movement of modernizers, on the other. Tocqueville embodies this assumption in his own history of the French Revolution -- the defenders of the Ancien regime are defeated by economic and social reformers (Ancien Regime and the French Revolution). But Pincus argues that the historical reality was quite different, in France, Russia, China, the Ottoman Empire, and England.
In all cases the old regime had ceased to exist before the revolution. Revolutions, then, do not pit modernizing elements against defenders of the traditional order. Instead revolutions occur only after the regime in power has set itself on a modernizing course. State modernization itself cannot occur without prior socioeconomic modernization. But that socioeconomic modernization is a necessary though not a sufficient cause of state modernization. It is for that reason that revolutions are the often-violent working out of competing state modernization programs. (kindle loc 613)
So it is fissures and catalysts created by the state's own processes of modernization that create the impetus towards revolution, according to Pincus. But what is modernization? Here is Pincus's brief account:
By state modernization I mean a self-conscious effort by the regime to transform itself in fundamental ways. State modernization will usually include an effort to centralize and bureaucratize political authority, an initiative to transform the military using the most up-to-date techniques, a program to accelerate economic growth and shape the contours of society using the tools of the state, and the deployment of techniques allowing the state to gather information about and potentially supporess social and political activities taking place in a wide range of social levels and geographical locales within the polity. (kindle loc 613)
But not all modernizing states result in revolution; so what factors make revolution more likely? Pincus mentions Sweden, Denmark, and Meiji Japan as historical examples of societies with modernizing states and no revolution. Pincus thinks the answer lies in the degree to which the modernizing state is able to keep credible control of the apparatus of social order.
Revolutions are more likely in situations in which the modernizing regime is not clearly perceived to have a monopoly of the forces of violence.... When the modernizing state quickly demonstrates its control of resources and disarms the opposition, as in seventeenth-century Denmark and Sweden or late-nineteenth-century Japan, revolutions do not occur. (kindle loc 699)
So the causal narrative the Pincus offers goes along something like these lines:
  • The state initiates a process of reform and modernization.
  • There are multiple visions of what "modernization" ought to look like for the polity, both within the state and outside the state.
  • These multiple visions have the capacity to create advocates and processes of collective mobilization outside the state within civil society.
  • One or more parties in civil society gain the intention and the resources to challenge the state.
  • The state marshalls its forces to repress opposition.
  • If it lacks sufficient capacity to intimidate or repress opposition, revolution occurs.
What this narrative discounts is quite a bit of what other theories of revolution place in the foreground -- under-class revolt, state breakdown, demographic change, ideological conflict, the disruptive social effects of war, and fiscal crisis, to name several. Pincus is too good a historian to truly overlook these factors, and they all come into his narrative of the English Revolution. But when it comes to offering a "theory" of revolution, Pincus is led down the same rhetorical path as the authors he criticizes: he wants to identify a single factor that "explains" the occurrence of revolution. Within the viewpoint of that single factor, he is willing to interweave the "secondary" factors mentioned here; but there is an intellectual desire to identify a single, most-important factor. And this seems misguided.

Better is the approach taken by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. Fundamentally, they reject the impulse towards any kind of single-factor theory of revolution or any other kind of contentious politics. They argue that these large social outcomes are the result of the concatenation of a diverse range of social mechanisms and processes, none of which is paramount.
To call the events of 1789 "contentious politics" may seem to demean a great revolution. This book aims to demonstrate that the label "contentious politics" not only makes sense but also helps explain what happened in Paris and the rest of France during that turbulent summer. ... Further [the book] shows how different forms of contention -- social movements, revolutions, strike waves, nationalism, democratization, and more -- result from similar mechanisms and processes. It wagers that we can learn more about all of them by comparing their dynamics than by looking at each on its own. Finally, it explores several combinations of mechanisms and processes with the aim of discovering recurring causal sequences of contentious politics. (4)
Revolution is an instance of what McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly call "transgressive contention" (7), but there are important examples of transgressive contention that are not revolutionary -- for example, the American civil rights struggle, cycles of protest in Italian cities, the Mau Mau rebellion, and other examples.

So Dynamics of Contention offer a serious methodological alternative to all of the theories of revolution mentioned here: rather than looking for a small number of structural characteristics that "cause" or "inhibit" revolution, we are better served by moving down to the meso- and micro-levels of mobilization, claim-making, repression, state building, tax collecting, and ideological competition that constitute the real causal stuff of revolution and contention.

It is worth observing, further, that the Dynamics of Contention approach -- identifying discrete mechanisms and processes of contentious politics -- offers vastly better resources for investigating and explaining the wave of revolts, uprisings, and popular movements that are taking place today across the Middle East than any single theory of revolution would provide.  The processes of grievance-making, group mobilization, communication, escalation, brokerage, and state tactics of repression that MTT describe are of obvious relevance in trying to understand the last few months of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and other countries. In particular, none of the macro-theories -- class conflict, state breakdown, or crises of the modernizing state -- seem to shed much light on these events.  What is occurring seems to be much more akin to the path-dependent, multi-causal kind of process that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly describe.

(McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly have been discussed several times here, including link, link.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thinking about disaster

Charles Perrow is a very talented sociologist who has put his finger on some of the central weaknesses of the American social-economic-political system.  He has written about corporations (Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism), technology failure (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies), and organizations (Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay).  (Here is an earlier post on his historical account of the corporation in America; link.) These sound like very different topics -- but they're not, really.  Organizations, power, the conflict between private interests and the public good, and the social and technical causes of great public harms have been the organizing themes of his research for a very long time.

His current book is truly scary.  In The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters he carefully surveys the conjunction of factors that make 21st-century America almost uniquely vulnerable to major disasters -- actual and possible.  Hurricane Katrina is one place to start -- a concentration of habitation, dangerous infrastructure, vulnerable toxic storage, and wholly inadequate policies of water and land use led to a horrific loss of life and a permanent crippling of a great American city.  The disaster was foreseeable and foreseen, and yet few effective steps were taken to protect the city and river system from catastrophic flooding.  And even more alarming -- government and the private sector have taken almost none of the prudent steps after the disaster that would mitigate future flooding.

Perrow's analysis includes natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the electric power transmission infrastructure, and the Internet -- as well as the threat of deliberate attacks by terrorists against high-risk targets.   In each case he documents the extreme risks that our society faces from a combination of factors: concentration of industry and population, lax regulation, ineffective organizations of management and oversight, and an inability on the part of Congress to enact legislation that seriously interferes with the business interests of major corporations even for the purpose of protecting the public.

His point is a simple one: we can't change the weather, the physics of nuclear power, or the destructive energy contained in an LNG farm; but we can take precautions today that significantly reduce the possible effects of accidents caused by these factors in the future. His general conclusion is a very worrisome one: our society is essentially unprotected from major natural disasters and industrial accidents, and we have only very slightly increased our safety when it comes to preventing deliberate terrorist attacks.
This book has been about the inevitable inadequacy of our efforts to protect us from major disasters. It locates the inevitable inadequacy in the limitations of formal organizations. We cannot expect them to do an adequate job in protecting us from mounting natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.  It locates the avoidable inadequacy of our efforts in our failure to reduce the size of the targets, and thus minimize the extent of harm these disasters can do. (chapter 9)
A specific failure in our current political system is the failure to construct an adequate and safety-enhancing system of regulation:
Stepping outside of the organization itself, we come to a third source of organizational failure, that of regulation. Every chapter on disasters in this book has ended with a call for better regulation and re-regulation, since we need both new regulations in the face of new technologies and threats and the restoration of past regulations that had disappeared or been weakened since the 1960s and 1970s. (chapter 9)
The central vulnerabilities that Perrow points to are systemic and virtually ubiquitous across the United States -- concentration and centralization.  He is very concerned about the concentration of people in high-risk areas (flood and earthquake zones, for example); he is concerned about the centralized power wielded by mega-organizations and corporations in our society; and he is concerned about the concentration of highly dangerous infrastructure in places where it puts large populations at risk.  He refers repeatedly to the risk posed by the transport by rail of huge quantities of chlorine gas through densely populated areas -- 90 tons at a time; the risk presented by LNG and propane storage farms in areas vulnerable to flooding and consequent release or explosion; the lethal consequences that would ensue from a winter-time massive failure of the electric power grid.

Perrow is an organizational expert; and he recognizes the deep implications that follow from the inherent obstacles that confront large organizations, both public or private.  Co-optation by powerful private interests, failure of coordination among agencies, lack of effective communication in the preparation of policies and emergency responses -- these organizational tendencies can reduce organizations like FEMA or the NRC to almost complete inability to perform their public functions.
Organizations, as I have often noted, are tools that can be used by those within and without them for purposes that have little to do with their announced goals. (Kindle loc, 1686)
Throughout the book Perrow offers careful, detailed reviews of the effectiveness and consistency of the government agencies and the regulatory legislation that have been deployed to contain these risks.  Why was FEMA such an organizational failure?  What's wrong with the Department of Homeland Security?  Why are chronic issues of system safety in nuclear power plants and chemical plants not adequately addressed by the corresponding regulatory agencies?  Perrow goes through these examples in great detail and demonstrates the very ordinary social mechanisms through which organizations lose effectiveness.  The book serves as a case-study review of organizational failures.

Perrow's central point is stark: the American political system lacks the strength to take the long-term steps it needs to in order to mitigate the worst effects of natural (or intentional) disasters that are inevitable in our future.  We need consistent investment for long-term benefits; we need effective regulation of powerful actors; and we need long-term policies that mitigate future disasters.  But so far we have failed in each of these areas.  Private interests are too strong, an ideology of free choice and virtually unrestrained use of property leads to dangerous residential and business development, and Federal and state agencies lack the political will to enact the effective regulations that would be necessary to raise the safety threshold in dangerous industries and developments. And, of course, the determined attack on "government regulations" that has been underway from the right since the Reagan years just further worsens the ability of agencies to regulate these powerful businesses -- the nuclear power industry, the chemical industry, the oil and gas industry, ...

One might think that the risks that Perrow describes are fairly universal across modern societies.  But Perrow notes that these problems seem more difficult and fundamental in the United States than in Europe.  The Netherlands has centuries of experience in investing in and regulating developments having to do with the control of water; European countries have managed to cooperate on the management of rivers and flood plains; and most have much stronger regulatory regimes for the high risk technologies and infrastructure sectors.

The book is scary, and we need to pay attention to the social and natural risks that Perrow documents so vividly.  And we need collectively to take steps to realistically address these risks.  We need to improve the organizations we create, both public and private, aimed at mitigating large risks.  And we need to substantially improve upon the reach and effectiveness of the regulatory systems that govern these activities.  But Perrow insists that improving organizations and leadership, and creating better regulations, can only take us so far.  So we also need to reduce the scope of damage that will occur when disaster strikes.  We need to design our social system for "soft landings" when disasters occur.  Fundamentally, his advice is to decentralize dangerous infrastructure and to be much more cautious about development in high-risk zones.
Given the limited success we can expect from organizational, executive, and regulatory reform, we should attend to reducing the damage that organizations can do by reducing their size.  Smaller organizations have a smaller potential for harm, just as smaller concentrations of populations in areas vulnerable to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters present smaller targets. (chapter 9)
If owners assume more responsibility for decisions about design and location -- for example, by being required to purchase realistically priced flood or earthquake insurance -- then there would be less new construction in hurricane alleyways or high-risk earthquake areas.  Rather than integrated mega-organizations and corporations providing goods and services, Perrow argues for the effectiveness of networks of small firms.  And he argues that regulations and law can be designed that give the right incentives to developers and home buyers about where to locate their businesses and homes, reflecting the true costs associated with risky locations. Realistically priced mandatory flood insurance would significantly alter the population density in hurricane alleys.  And our policies and regulations should make a systematic effort to disperse dangerous concentrations of industrial and nuclear materials wherever possible.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Democracy in a polarized society

What are some of the institutional arrangements that can work to preserve a functioning democracy in a society with extensive inequalities of wealth and power?

This is a key question in part because we can easily see the factors that work against the democratic outcome. A Berlusconi in Italy is capable of dominating the political institutions in his country through his wealth and control of a media empire. An Abhisit in Thailand is able to maintain his political power through his reliance on the support of the armed forces and their willingness to use force against popular movements like the Redshirts (link). And the sham democracy resulting from elections rigged by Burma's junta last fall demonstrates how the generals can exert their rule through and behind ostensibly "electoral" legislative institutions.

These questions are most relevant today because of the people's movements in Tunisia and Egypt. But they are also relevant in many of the "semi-democracies" in the world today -- for example, Putin's Russia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. In each case a strongman and his political organization are able to intimidate opponents and govern through a charade of elections. There are some of the trappings of democracy -- elections, parties, legislatures -- but there is the reality of authoritarian rule backed ultimately by the threat of violence -- against journalists, against the opposition, and against the people if they bring their politics into the street. And behind all is the reality of the plutocrats -- the wealth holders whose property originates in privileged access to the state and depends on the state for its continuation.

An idealized conception of democracy might go along these lines. The population as a whole is entitled to decide the basic issues confronting the nation. Individuals have an unencumbered right to form and express their opinions about the issues of the day. Individuals have the right to join and support political organizations (parties) whose program they wish to support. Individuals and organizations have the right to compete for political office, legislative and executive. An elected legislative body has the authority to enact legislation.  All parties in society are fundamentally committed to supporting the constitutionally defined democratic processes, whether or not their preferences prevail. No party has the ability to overturn the outcomes of democratic competition. And no group has such a concentration of resources that it is able to dominate political outcomes.

These assumptions are idealized in a variety of ways, but I think they capture our general intuitions about a functioning democracy.

These are simple assumptions. But they are incredibly demanding in the context of many historical circumstances. It is almost always true that there are groups that have very strong material interests in one set of outcomes over another and have access to resources that would permit them to go extra-constitutional. They may use money to corrupt the process; they may support paramilitary organizations and militias to protect their interests; and they may form alliances with the military and police to gain their will. (El Salvador in the 1980s is a terrible but apt example.)

So given these class-based factors that threaten to destabilize and undermine an emerging democracy, what countervailing factors exist that can help to secure an emerging democracy? There seem to be several.

First, an independent press (and Internet news and communications world) can serve as a check on anti-democratic and corrupt usurpation of the democratic process.

Second, a broadly shared public commitment to constitutional procedures can help to reduce the likelihood of anti-democratic seizure of power, whether by leaders or the military.

Third, a strong ethical conviction within the officer corps of the need for constitutionality in the conduct of the military can reduce the likelihood of intervention in politics by the army.

Fourth, a tradition of a neutral and independent judiciary can constrain the emergence of anti-democratic leaders.

Fifth, and most important, the citizenry can remain vigilant and courageous in the face of corruption and anti-democratic actions by government, legislators, and power-holders. Citizens can return to the streets when their government deviates from constitutionality and democracy.

None of this makes it seem as though the creation of a functioning democracy is easy work or a process that inevitably leads to success. In fact, it suggests the contrary: that polarization, severe inequalities of wealth and power, and the existence of a military with entrenched economic interests in an authoritarian society make the attainment of a genuinely citizen-centered democracy inordinately difficult.

The best hope for a democratic Egypt, it seems, is the existence of far-sighted groups of democratic activists who can help create the institutions of individual participation and governance that democracy requires; and who can use the tools available to them (including the publicity of the Internet and political organizations of the masses of Egyptians) to create a working constitution and the institutions and loyalties that will support it.

These questions fall within what might be called "applied theory of democracy" rather than ideal theory. Adam Przeworski is a political scientist who has made particularly incisive contributions to this aspect of the study of political institutions, especially in the context of emerging democracies. Particularly useful are Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government (2010) and Capitalism and Social Democracy (1986).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is there a revolution underway in Egypt?

source: Guardian, February 8, 2011

Is what is going on in Egypt today a "revolution"? What about Tunisia? And how about the Georgian "Rose" Revolution (2003) or the Philippine Yellow Revolution of 1986? Do these social and political conflicts and outcomes add up to a "revolution" in those societies? Are they analogous in any way to other revolutions in the post-World War II period -- e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe?

In the case of Tunisia, the world witnessed several things: large, sustained street demonstrations by tens of thousands of people demanding the resignation of Tunisia's president; tactics of repression and intimidation by the state intended to quiet the protests; an unexpected ability of the population to sustain its demonstrations; and the eventual flight of the president from the country. We also witnessed the establishment of an interim government that was nominally committed to free elections within a reasonable timeframe -- though we don't yet know how that process will unfold. So we saw a popular movement aiming to topple a dictator and demanding institutional changes in government; we saw the downfall of the dictator; and we saw an apparent commitment to establish the institutional reforms that had been demanded. Does all of this add up to a "revolution"?

This is as much a conceptual question as it is an empirical one. What do we mean by "revolution"? Is there a reasonably clear and uncontroversial definition that would allow us to classify various uprisings and changes as governments as "revolution" or not? Let's look at the way that a number of recent theorists have dealt with the concept of revolution. Here are three, with rather different approaches: Samuel Huntington, Theda Skocpol, and Jack Goldstone. Each of them seems to capture something important about the way we think about the idea of revolution.

Samuel Huntington offers a very clear definition of revolution in "Revolution and Political Order", collected in Jack Goldstone's Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies:
A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies. Revolutions are thus to be distinguished from insurrections, rebellions, revolts, coups, and wars of independence. (39)
A full-scale revolution thus involves the rapid and violent destruction of existing political institutions, the mobilization of new groups into politics, and the creation of new political institutions. The sequence and the relations among these three aspects may vary from one revolution to another. (40)
In Huntington's view, revolution usually unfolds from collapse of the state to the emergence of a new political group or elite capable of seizing and institutionalizing power.
If no group is ready and able to establish effective rule following the collapse of the old regime, many cliques and social forces struggle for power. The struggle gives rise to the competitive mobilization of new groups into politics and makes the revolution revolutionary. Each group of political leaders attempts to establish its authority and in the process either develops a broader base of popular support than its competitors or falls victims to them. (41)
The two prerequisites for revolution are, first, political institutions incapable of providing channels for the participation of new social forces in politics and of new elites in government, and secondly, the desire of social forces, currently excluded from politics, to participate therein, this desire normally arising frlom the group's feeling that it needs certain symbolic or material gains which it can achieve only by pressing its demands in the political sphere. (45)
Huntington's approach to revolution, then, emphasizes the grievances and demands of the population and the rigidity or flexibility of political institutions, and it highlights the sweeping character of the changes, political, social, and ideological, that resulted.

Next, consider Theda Skocpol conception of a "social revolution" in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China:
Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society's state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. In contrast, rebellions, even when successful, may involve the revolt of subordinate classes -- but they do not eventuate in structure change. Political revolutions transform state structures but not social structures, and they are not necessarily accomplished through class conflict. And processes such as industrialization can transform social structures without necessarily bringing about, or resulting from, sudden political upheavals or basic political-structural changes. What is unique to social revolution is that basic changes in social structure and in political structure occur together in a mutually reinforcing fashion. And these changes occur through intense sociopolitical conflicts in which class struggles play a key role. (4-5)
Several things are evident in this paragraph. First, Skocpol is not offering a general definition of revolution here, but rather a sub-category, the "social revolution." A social revolution involves both significant transformation of political structure and major change of social structure. It is both political (having to do with the institutions of the state) and social (having to do with the basic relations of property and class that exist in society). She does presuppose that there is such a thing as a purely political revolution; but she indicates that she is not particularly interested in this category of change. Second, she postulates that social revolutions derive from a duality of types of grievances as well: grievances about the economic structure (property, class, and inequality) and the political structure (the institutions through which a dominant group exercises power and coercion over the rest). So a social revolution derives from demands for social as well as political change, and it results in largescale structural changes in both social and political institutions.

Jack Goldstone is a historical sociologist who has written very extensively on revolution in the past decade or so. His Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991) offers an innovative interpretation of several modern revolutions -- the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and state breakdowns in the Ottoman Empire and Ming-Qing China. So let's look at Goldstone's way of conceiving of revolutions.

It turns out that Goldstone doesn't really place much weight on "revolution." Instead, he gives conceptual priority to the idea of "state breakdown" over the more complex concept of revolution.
I shall refer to the revolutions and rebellions examined in this book as cases of state breakdown. By state breakdown I mean a particular combination of events, but not quite a revolution. (7-8)
He frames his intellectual task as that of explaining why there were waves of periods of state breakdown in modern European and Asian history. Revolution is a consequence of state breakdown rather than an event having its own historical dynamic. So what is state breakdown? Goldstone doesn't give a developed analytical discussion of this concept; but it presumably encompasses fiscal breakdown (inability to collect sufficient taxes to maintain the state's actions); military and police breakdown (inability to marshall sufficient manpower to quell foreign and domestic enemies); and ideological breakdown (inability to maintain the loyalty and adherence of the subject population).

Here is Goldstone's definition of the state:
By "the state" I mean the institutions of centralized national-level rule-making and rule-enforcing power, including the individuals who controlled those institutions when acting in their official capacities. (4)
And "breakdown":
State breakdown generally involved the collapse of the central authority's ability to dominate in a confrontation with other politically powerful actors, rather than the breakdown of all political institutions. (4-5)
So -- what about Tunisia and Egypt? It seems that none of these three conceptual frameworks for revolution would classify Tunisia and Egypt as revolutions. Neither is a "social revolution" by Skocpol's definition. There is no indication of major change in the system of property and class, either demanded or forthcoming -- even if there are economic reforms that make life a little better for poor people. And the anti-government popular movement does not seem to have been largely driven by under-class interests; rather, the demands seem largely to be centered on grievances about the misuse of government power and corruption of the state that are of interest across almost all segments of society.

Second, neither appears to represent the situation of "state breakdown" in Goldstone's sense. Up until the street demonstrations began to grow and to represent a credible and sustainable social movement of opposition, no expert observer would have said that Tunisia or Egypt was suddenly losing its ability to control society, collect taxes, or run the government's operations. So the dramatic political events in Tunisia and Egypt did not result from "state breakdown."

Finally, Tunisia and Egypt do not appear to fit Huntington's definition either. These movements have not been particularly violent -- instead, they depend on "people's power" for their political force. And they don't seem to have resulted in the kinds of sweeping changes of social, political, and ideological structures that Huntington postulates either. We don't know precisely where things will end up in either Tunisia or Egypt; but the case of the Philippines is well known, and only fairly superficial political institutional changes have persisted, with virtually no change in the basic social-property relations that govern ordinary people's lives. What is more congruent to Tunisia and Egypt is Huntington's observation about the rigidity of certain political systems: in neither Tunisia nor Egypt was there an avenue for effective political expression and change for non-elites, over a three-decade period. So these regimes were neither inclusive nor accountable; as a result, they had no way of containing the growing discontent in the population.

Perhaps the most we can say about Tunisia and Egypt is fairly descriptive: these were instances of governmental change forced by a largely spontaneous social movement that erupted into the streets, with very little organization or leadership. Promises of political reform were made in response to the demonstrations, and if these promises are kept, then the movement will have produced some degree of political reform in addition to the successful ouster of the dictator. So popular movements can push the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the direction of more inclusive democratic political institutions. But this process, and these limited outcomes of political change, seem to fall far short of the idea of "revolution." And, along with the realism that Huntington often expresses about this sort of process, it is entirely possible that these transformations will be hijacked by other groups as events unfold, so that their progressive political goals will be frustrated.

Unfortunately, though, we don't have a convenient umbrella term for this kind of political transition. The closest I can come is something like this: these are people-powered processes of forced political reform, intended to lead to institutions that are more inclusive and more accountable than the dictatorships they replace. They are "people-power" political transformations, not revolutions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

History of economic thought and the present

What is the relationship between the history of economic thought and contemporary economics? There are polar views on this issue. At one extreme, it is sometimes held that the history of economics, like the history of physics, is irrelevant to contemporary theory and analysis. Alfred North Whitehead is quoted with approval: "A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost" (‘The Organization of Thought’. Science, 1916(22) : 409–19). Where useful analytical or theoretical insights were put forward in the past, they have been incorporated into more general theories; and the fine grain of how Marshall or Pareto constructed his economics is simply not pertinent to contemporary economics. This position does not necessarily dismiss the value of the discipline of the history of economic thought (though it is interesting to note how uncommon it is for research departments of economics to include faculty lines in the history of economic thought).  It simply says that this discipline is irrelevant to contemporary knowledge of how an economy works. Put brutally: there is nothing to learn from the history of economic thought for improving our understanding of contemporary economic realities.

A position at the other end of the spectrum holds that the history of economic thought is indeed relevant to contemporary economic theory and analysis. In particular, we can gain new insights into the contemporary global economy by reconsidering and developing theories that fall in the category of "alternative economics" -- e.g. Marx, Polanyi, Georgescu-Roegen, or even Malthus. The rationale here is that economics is an open-textured field of thought today, with some threads of analysis deeply and fully developed, others left fallow, and yet others still undiscovered. If the scientific challenge of economics is to provide hypotheses, theories, and modes of analysis that permit us to understand the behavior of a modern economy – then modesty and recent experience should convince us that there are major gaps in our knowledge.

This in turn suggests that it is likely enough that there are large perspectives within the history of economic thought that have not been adequately developed and assessed. There is a great deal of path dependence in the development of economics as a discipline and profession (link); and there are identifiable turning points where we can judge with confidence that themes that were eliminated at a certain time would have led to a substantially different intellectual system had they persisted. So careful work in the history of economic thought is indeed relevant to improving our current understanding of a complex economy. (See several earlier posts that illustrate these points; link, link.)

A limited way of taking this latter position to heart is to return to some of the early economists in order to reformulate their basic insights in more adequate theoretical and mathematical ways.  Pierro Sraffa did some of this work with regard to Ricardo in Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities : Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.  Michio Morishima illustrates this approach in his books on Ricardo (Ricardo's Economics: A General Equilibrium Theory of Distribution and Growth) and Marx (Marx's Economics: A dual theory of value and growth). And John Roemer does similar work by returning to Marx's theory of exploitation and finding alternative analytics leading to essentially the same conclusions that Marx reached in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class.  In each case, modern economic analytical tools are used to reformulate the theories and insights of the earlier economist.

The harder question, though, is whether a reconsideration of the history of economic thought can lead to fundamentally different frameworks of thought for economics.  Is there a place for "political economy" in our contemporary discipline of economics?  What about a Polanyian economics?  Should we reconsider the relevance of ethnography for economic theorizing?  And, of course, are there parts of Marx's economics which are once again relevant to our understanding of contemporary economic institutions?

This issue comes up in other areas of the social sciences as well, of course.  Paul Adler addresses the issue of the relevance of the history of the social sciences for contemporary research in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Organization Studies: Classical Foundations (link). Adler makes a strong case for why the classics of sociology remain relevant for the discipline and, indeed, provide a powerful resource for trying to understand the most current social processes.  Here is a description which works equally well for the history of economics:
This trend bodes badly for the intellectual development of organization studies. As Jeffrey Alexander (1987), Art Stinchcombe (1982), and others have argued, social sciences—as distinct from natural sciences—are considerably enriched by rereadings of their classics.  (5)
An important point that Adler makes is that the social sciences have historically defined their research topics in close relationship to important contemporary social problems; whereas there is a tendency for contemporary social science research to define research agendas around a more "academic" set of priorities.  Attention to the history of the social sciences can lead us back to a better set of research priorities.
The contributors to this volume share a concern that organization studies reconnect with broader social issues. Since ours is a society of organizations, many of these big issues are directly organizational, as evidenced by the headlines of the daily news: globalization, outsourcing, the pressure of financial markets on industrial firms, new technologies that obsolete old organizations, the fate of the individual, and the possibility of collective agency in the face of massive systemic forces of change, and so on.
The discrepancy between this list and the list of topics in recent organization studies research is both saddening and troubling. Saddening, because it represents a narrowing of scope, ambition, and concern compared to the founders of the field. Troubling, because this narrowing saps the vitality of the field. A field that hides its head in the sand when its ostensible subject matter is undergoing such massive turbulence is a field that risks losing any credibility. Moreover, it risks losing its ‘franchise’, its legitimacy as a key discipline in the broader public’s effort to make sense of these changes. (6)
These comments seem equally relevant to contemporary economic research as well.  Persistent high unemployment, for example, is both a huge social problem and an unresolved theoretical issue -- whether  in Milan in the 1950s or in Detroit in 2011.

So -- given the richness of debates and theories that have taken place in the past two centuries of economic reasoning; given the variety of approaches to economic institutions and mechanisms that have been put forward during that history; and given the unresolved challenges we face in understanding and guiding a complex modern economy -- surely the careful study of the history of economic thought will repay the effort we give it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Social Science History Association call for papers

Macrohistorical Dynamics Network

36th Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Boston, Massachusetts 17-20 November 2011
Submission Deadline: 15 February 2011

"Generation to Generation"

We invite you to take part in Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) panels of the 36th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, November 17-20, 2011 in Boston.  For more information on the meeting as well as the call for proposals, please refer to the SSHA website:

The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is February 15, 2011.

The members of the Social Science History Association share a common interest in interdisciplinary and systematic approaches to historical research.

The thematic topic of the 2011 annual meeting is “Generation to Generation” – a theme that works very well with the research interests of many of the scholars involved in the Macrohistorical Dynamics network.

Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry.  Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including Eurasian comparisons; macro- and historical sociology; comparative histories; world history; world-system analysis; comparative study of civilizations; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political trends and transformations.  The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.

Possible topics that illustrate some of the general themes of Macrohistorical Dynamics include …
  • Comparative Methods in Macrohistory
  • Eurasian comparisons
  • Large-scale historical causes: climate, population, geography
  • Cultural and National Identities in Large-scale Historical Change
  • Theory in Macro-history: Are There Successful Macrosociological Theories?
  • Macro-, Meso-, Micro- in Historical Explanations
  • Empires and Peoples
  • Globalization and World Cities
  • Social Evolution and Systemic Transformations in World History

The list of MHD panel themes for 2011 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for paper topics or panel themes.

SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site, where the general SSHA 2011 call for papers is also available.  (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.)  Here is the direct link for submissions: 

The online system is now accepting submissions. If you have any questions, please contact either of the MHD co-chairs (Peter Perdue, James Lee, Dan Little). 

NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions.  For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present.  Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Boston November 17-20, 2011.

Feel free to contact the MHD network organizers for further information.

Prof. Daniel Little
Philosophy, University of Michigan-Dearborn
Prof. Peter Perdue
Department of History, Yale University

Prof. James Lee
School of Humanities and Social ScienceHong Kong University of Science and Technology

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bourdieu's "field"

image: Emile Zola, 1902

How can sociology treat "culture" as an object of study and as an influence on other sociological processes? This is, of course, two separate questions. First, internally, is it possible to treat philosophy or literature as an embedded sociological process (a point raised by Jean-Louis Fabiani in his treatment of French philosophy (link))?  Can we use the apparatus to pull apart the sociology of the fashion industry?

And second, externally, can we give a rigorous and meaningful interpretation of "bringing culture back in" -- conceptualizing the ways that thought, experience, and the institutions and mental realities of culture impact other large social processes -- e.g. the rise of fascism (link)?

The problem here is to find ways of getting inside "culture" and decomposing it as a set of social, material, and semiotic practices. We need an account of some of the culture mechanisms through which voices develop, acquire validation, and are retransmitted. And we need concrete accounts of how this culture activity influences other socially important processes. Culture cannot be thought of as a monolith if we are to explain its development and trace out its historical influences; rather, we need something like an account of the microfoundations of culture.

One of the fertile voices on this question is that of Pierre Bourdieu.  His core contribution is the idea of cultural life and production being situated in a "field." So what does Bourdieu mean by a field? Is this concept genuinely useful when we aim at providing a sociology of a literary tradition or a body of ideas like "cultural despair"?

One place where Bourdieu provides extensive analysis and application of this construct is in a collection published in 1993, The Field of Cultural Production, and especially in the title chapter, originally published in 1983. Here Bourdieu is primarily interested in literature and art, but it seems that the approach can be applied fruitfully to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including American conservativism and early twentieth century German colonialism.  (George Steinmetz makes extensive use of this concept of the field in his analysis of the causes of specific features of German colonial regimes; The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.)

The heart of Bourdieu's approach is "relationality" -- the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within "a space of positions and position-takings" (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.
The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in' the field -- literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. -- is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)
This description highlights another characteristic feature of Bourdieu's approach to social life -- an intimate intermixture of objective and subjective factors, or of structure and agency.  (This intermixture is also fundamental to Bourdieu's theory of practice in Outline of a Theory of Practice.)  Bourdieu typically wants to help us understand a sociological whole as a set of "doings" within "structures and powers." This is captured in the final sentence of the passage: a "field of forces" but also a "field of struggles". The field of the French novel in the 1890s established a set of objective circumstances to which the novelist was forced to adapt; but it also created opportunities for strategy and struggle for aspiring novelists. And in fact, Emile Zola, pictured above, did much to redefine aspects of that field, both in ideas and in material institutions.

Fundamental to Bourdieu's view is that we can't understand the work of art or literature (or philosophy or science, by implication) purely in reference to itself. Rather, it is necessary to situate the work in terms of other points of reference in meaning and practice. So he writes that we can't understand the history of philosophy as a grand summit conference among the great philosophers (32); instead, it is necessary to situate Descartes within his specific intellectual and practical context, and likewise Leibniz. And the meaning of the work changes as its points of reference shift. "It follows from this, for example, that a position-taking changes, even when the position remains identical, whenever there is change in the universe of options that are simultaneously offered for producers and consumers to choose from.  The meaning of a work (artistic, literary, philosophical, etc.) changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader" (30).  

This fact of relationality and embeddedness raises serious issues of interpretation for later readers:
One of the major difficulties of the social history of philosophy, art or literature is that it has to reconstruct these spaces of original possibles which, because they were part of the self-evident givens of the situation, remained unremarked and are therefore unlikely to be mentioned in contemporary accounts, chronicles or memoirs. (31)
Here is how Bourdieu describes the intellectual field within which philosophy proceeds in a time and place:
In fact, what circulates between contemporary philosophers, or those of different epochs, are not only canonical texts, but a whole philosophical doxa carried along by intellectual rumour -- labels of schools, truncated quotations, functioning as slogans in celebration or polemics -- by academic routine and perhaps above all by school manuals (an unmentionable reference), which perhaps do more than anything else to constitute the 'common sense' of an intellectual generation. (32)
This background information is not merely semiotic; it is institutional and material as well.  It includes "information about institutions -- e.g. academies, journals, magazines, galleries, publishers, etc. -- and about persons, their relationships, liaisons and quarrels, information about the ideas and problems which are 'in the air' and circulate orally in gossip and rumour" (32).  So the literary product is created by the author; but also by the field of knowledge and institutions into which it is offered.

Another duality that Bourdieu rejects is that of internal versus external readings of a work of literature or art.  We can approach the work of art from both perspectives -- the qualities of the work, and the social embeddedness that its production and reception reveal.
In defining the literary and artistic field as, inseparably, a field of positions and a field of position-takings we also escape from the usual dilemma of internal ('tautegorical') reading of the work (taken in isolation or within the system of works to which it belongs) and external (or 'allegorical') analysis, i.e. analysis of the social conditions of production of the producers and consumers which is based on the -- generally tacit -- hypothesis of the spontaneous correspondence or deliberate matching of production to demand or commissions. (34)
A key aspect of Bourdieu's conception of a field of cultural production is the material facts of power and capital. Capital here refers to the variety of resources, tangible and intangible, through which a writer or artist can further his/her artistic aspirations and achieve "success" in the field ("book sales, number of theatrical performances, etc. or honours, appointments, etc." (38)). And power in the cultural field is "heteronomous" -- it is both internal to the institutions of the culture field and external, through the influence of the surrounding field of power within which the culture field is located. Here is an intriguing diagram that Bourdieu introduces to represent the complex location of art activity within the broader field of social power and the market.

These comments give us a better idea of what a "field" encompasses.  It is a zone of social activity in which there are "creators" who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product.  The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience -- not simply the creator.  The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public.  And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions -- galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of "culture."  It is also important to observe that we could have begun this inventory of components at any point; the creator does not define the field any more than the critic, the audience, or the marketplace.

I see some similarities between Bourdieu's conception of a field and the broad ideas of paradigm and research tradition in the history and sociology of science. Both ideas encompass a range of different kinds of things -- laboratories, journals, audiences, critics, and writers and scientists. Here Lakatos and Kuhn are relevant, but so are Bruno Latour and Wiebe Bijker. In each case there is some notion of rules of assessment -- explicit or tacit. And in each case we are given breadth enough to consider the social "determinants" of the cultural product at one end -- economy, institutions of training and criticism -- and some notion of the relative autonomy of the text or object at the other (truth and warrant, beauty and impact).

The point mentioned above about the validity and compatibility of both internal and external analysis of a work of art is equally important in the sociology of science: to identify some of the social conditions surrounding the process of scientific research does not mean that we cannot arrive at judgments of truth and warrant for the products of scientific research. (This point has come up previously in a discussion of Robert Merton's sociology of science (link).)

This is a very incomplete analysis of Bourdieu's concept of the field; but it should give an idea of the leverage that Bourdieu provides in framing a scheme of analysis for culture and ideas as concrete sociological factors and objects of study.  Certainly Bourdieu's writings on these subjects -- especially in The Field of Cultural Production -- repay close reading by sociologists interested in broadening their frameworks for thinking about culture.  (Jeremy Lane's Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction is a good introduction to Bourdieu's sociology, though it doesn't give much attention to this particular topic.)