Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pincus re-presented

Several earlier posts have discussed aspects of Steve Pincus's 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link, link). The book provides a major rethinking of the events and significance of England's Glorious Revolution, and it has already made a deep impression within English studies (link). Pincus tells a large, complicated story, spread out over a period of several decades and including important actions, persons, and events in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands.

Much of the interest of his account is how fundamentally it differs from the received narrative, its novel use of familiar and new resources, and the author's strong ability to link to current work in some areas of the historical social sciences. But here I want to raise a different sort of question: how could we propose to make this story more vivid and comprehensible for the reader? The book is organized as a fairly traditional academic argument, with chapters on Catholic modernity, pre-Revolution policy change, and aspects of the Revolution itself. Pincus marshalls his evidence to tell a significantly different story from the received one. And as an academic work, it is highly readable and logical. But it is from beginning to end a complex canvas, and it is difficult for a non-specialist reader to keep it all in mind. How might an author -- or a producer -- more fully engage the reader's historical imagination in these complex events? How might the material be presented in a way that gives the reader a more comprehensive apprehension of this history of the English Revolution?

One possibility is a very well produced and very long film. A dramatization could serve to give the viewer a more vivid sense of acquaintance with the central actors -- James, Monmouth, William.  Dramatic reconstruction and enactment certainly gives the viewer a more visceral grasp of the historical personnages. But another value of dramatization could be to give the viewer a better grasp of the mass politics of the events -- skirmishes with brigades, vandalism against Catholic churches and property, and a few major battles in Ireland -- and perhaps even a sense of the motives and passions that moved people. Viewers of Battleship Potemkin (link) certainly come away with a more intense set of representations of the Russian revolution of 1905 and some of the personalities than they do from reading Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.

But the film described here would be very long -- even Sergei Eisenstein's canvas would fall short. (I seem to recall reading a long time ago that Eisenstein once proposed to produce a seven-hour film based on Marx's Capital.) And the academic historian has specific cognitive goals -- to present a narrative of the period, to refute common assumptions ("no mass underclass violence in the Glorious Revolution"), and to present some compelling evidence for the interpretation. So a film probably wouldn't be a satisfactory platform for Pincus's academic goals. He wants to present new knowledge, not an abbreviated and highly selective sketch.

Another possibility that appeals to me is a mutimedia production that is integrated with the existing book. A core element might be an interactive map that the reader can manipulate -- "what was happening in Essex at this time?" -- and that is keyed to the text itself so the reader always has a sense of the geography of the events. This hypertext "rich" document might also include significantly more graphics -- reproduction of key pieces of archival evidence, contemporary paintings and engravings of events, graphs of important population and trade statistics, a snippet of Youtube video in which another major historian of the period offers an alternative reading. (Here is Simon Schama on Anne Boleyn (link)).

Here the idea is that the historian needs some new tools of representation for better conveying to the reader a grasp of the complex, multidimensional argument and narrative. This suggests the value for academic historians of taking very seriously the potential of "rich" media as an integrated platform for conveying arguments and knowledge. And here I'm not thinking simply of pedagogy -- how to get these complexities across to the lay reader -- but new ways of presenting the historian's central ideas and arguments. Perhaps this kind of rich document could actually be a better way of making the case based on narrative, multimedia components, interactive maps, graphics, etc.

One difficulty with this notion is the fact that historians are trained as narrative writers. They have learned to organize their thoughts into arguments, narratives, and chapters, and they expect their readers to do the work of putting it together into an integrated historical presentation. The skills possessed by an Eisenstein or a David Simon, executive producer of The Wire, are substantially different -- more graphical, more attuned to the audience (viewer/reader), and more able to encapsulate their story into a handful of scenes of drama that permit the viewer to connect the dots and arrive at an interpretation of the full story. These are skills that are entirely foreign to PhD training in history.

I suspect that not many academic historians would be especially receptive to these ideas, and sometimes for good reasons. (Simon Schama may be an exception; his efforts with the BBC to put together a serious multi-episode history of Britain indicates a willingness to experiment with new forms of presentation of history; link.) A central part of the resistance from traditional historians might reasonably reflect their core views of what a "history" of something needs to accomplish. The academic historian's primary goals are cognitive and epistemic: offering interpretations, drawing inferences, and providing evidence for their views. Part of the task of a narrative is to distill the complex whole into a comprehensible set of events. Another part is to categorize actions and occurrences. It is to provide a more abstract analysis of the events. And sequential narratives may be thought to be a more-or-less ideal form for this kind of logical, cumulative argument.

All this said, it does seem clear that there are tools for the presentation of knowledge that may prove more helpful than the printed page for synthesizing a large complex story, and it would be very interesting to see what happens when a few innovative academic historians begin thinking along these lines.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why peasant activism?

I have long been interested in peasant struggles as an historical phenomenon -- for example, the causes and outcomes of the peasant rebellions in China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science).  But it is also true that peasant movements are still visible in contemporary politics in a number of countries.  For example, mobilization by peasants and landless workers in West Bengal against the state's proposed development of a Tata factory led to the project's relocation to Gujarat (link).  In some instances and issues, peasants and other disadvantaged people come together as a mass organization to press their interests and concerns; in other apparently similar instances they do not.  How are we to understand this variation?

People are generally careful about their active political investments, especially when their choices can lead to serious personal consequences.  Are there good reasons for poor people to form and support organizations that seek strategies for expressing their needs and interests? Should they consider supporting demonstrations, strikes, and protests? What is the likelihood that social mobilization of the poor majorities in India, Egypt, or Brazil might lead to improvement in their daily lives?

A first point is fairly obvious. As a low-income society undertakes policies and strategies for growth, there are choices to be made. These choices have differential effects on different social groups.  And poor people and peasants are often at a severe disadvantage in competing over the terms of these choices within the formal institutions of government.  China's decision to create the Three Gorges Yangtze River dam system created many winners; but it also created many millions of low-income losers whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in the process (link).  Largescale social and economic change is a time when the stakes are exceptionally high, and having a voice is crucial.

A second point has more to do with the "normal" workings of power in a developing state.  Poor people's interests are almost always overlooked or undervalued by official power-holders in developing societies -- a point made thirty years ago by Michael Lipton in Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (1977). And this is often true even within parties that are ostensibly devoted to the poor, like the Congress Party in India. Corruption by leaders and powerful organizations is endemic, and landlords, business owners, and the military almost always wield disproportionate influence in the corridors of power.  So if nothing is done to disturb this "tilt" in the political system, then the outcomes will be unfavorable to poor people.

Third, it is plain that the organized efforts of under-class people can be powerful. Women's organizations advocating for environmental protection or property rights for women can push state and national authorities towards policies they would not otherwise have chosen. (Bina Agarwal has documented these processes in India; for example, here.)  Organizations of landless agricultural workers can pressure the state into adopting reforms and programs that provide some relief for their poverty. Mass mobilization is almost the only way to assert the material interests of the people.

Debal Singha Roy considers these issues in detail with regard to rural India in Peasant Movements in Post-Colonial India: Dynamics of Mobilization and Identity. Here is how Roy puts the point:
Social movements have always been an inseparable part of social progression, and through organized protests and resistance against domination and injustice they pave the way for new thoughts and actions that rejuvenate the process of change and transformation in society.  They bring forth for public scrutiny the hard and hidden realities of social dynamics. (8)
So, according to Roy, popular movements -- e.g. peasants' movements -- can lead to measurable change in favor of the dispossessed. They do so by making injustice visible to the broader society; pressing effectively for social changes that improve the condition of one's group; giving voice to segments of society who are almost always invisible to the middle classes; and asserting one's own agency as a fundamental aspect of being human.  These are all reasons for thinking that social activism and social movements are important.

What about the rest of us? Is activism important in a modern market democracy? Frances Fox Piven argues that these points do indeed apply in modern market democracies as well. In her recent book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, she lays out this case through a new analysis of American policy history.
This book argues that ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. (kl 23)
Piven's basic view is that the structural inequalities of property and power in market democracies mean that electoral processes are usually tilted against the interests and concerns of poor and middling people. Electoral competitions are generally won by enough candidates reflecting the interests and world views of the powerful, that the perspectives of the poor and disadvantaged in American society rarely prevail in the statehouse or the Congress.  The exceptions occur, she believes, when poor and disadvantaged people find ways of expressing their interests through avenues that threaten to disrupt "business as usual" -- boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and other activities outside of formal politics. Rights of speech and association underlie many of these strategies, and they express a different aspect of democracy. And these in turn depend upon a combination of mobilization and a moment in time when such collective actions have the potential of creating significant disruption -- when French farmers block roads to protest milk prices, for example.

So it seems that democracy almost requires a dynamic tension between formal representative politics and informal, nonviolent popular politics. What goes on in the state house needs what goes on in the streets of Madison if outcomes fair to ordinary working people are likely to occur.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Connecting the dots

There isn't very much transparency about the deep structure of almost any complex modern society. For most people their primary impressions of the society's functioning comes from the mass media and their own personal experiences.  We each see the limited bits to which we are fairly directly exposed through our ordinary lives -- the newsroom if we happen to be a beat reporter, the university if we are professors, the play-and-learn center if we are in the business of preschool education.  We gain a pretty good idea of how those networks of institutions and organizations work. But it's very difficult to gain a birds-eye picture of the social system as a whole.

The most basic goal of Marx's economic programme was to demystify the workings of the political economy of capitalism.  He wanted to sweep aside the appearances that capitalism presents and to lay bare the underlying social relations of inequality and exploitation that really constituted the causal core of the system. (This is the point of his theory of the fetishism of commodities; link.) And he believed that active systems of ideology and false consciousness conspired to conceal these workings from ordinary participants. In particular, he wanted to demonstrate the process through which wealth is created within capitalism, and the relations of inequality through which its benefits are distributed.  It is a class-based analysis, and Marx proposes to the proletariat (and the rest of us) that we look for the class mechanisms of our ordinary economic experiences.

What is unsatisfying about Marx's theory in the current context is that in the end it isn't really very much of an empirical demonstration.  It is an abstract model of how the theorist thinks capitalism works, rather than a detailed empirical exposure based on rigorous and diverse data that demonstrates the flows that he postulates.  It offers a schema for connecting the dots of our ordinary experience, but it doesn't actually carry out the effort.

Other researchers have done so, of course; researchers who demonstrate the widening inequalities of income and wealth that market democracies contain, the consequences of these inequalities for people at both ends of the divide, the often degrading conditions of work that the majority of the working population experience, and so forth.  So on the dimension of wealth, income, and privilege, it isn't too difficult to gather the information we need to better understand our current economic realities based on information that is readily available; but most Americans don't seem to bother to do so. The ease with which the right has succeeded in setting the terms of popular ideas about organized labor, racial inequalities, and immigration bears that out. Lies and slogans replace honest factual argument.

And what about the other large determinant of outcomes in modern society, the workings of political power? Here too there are founding theorists who sought to lay bare the "real" workings of power in a market democracy.  Foucault is one; Domhoff and Mills sought to do so a generation earlier.  The goals of C. Wright Mills (The Power Elitelink) and G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominancelink) were similar to Marx's, but in the sphere of political power within a democracy.  They wanted to demonstrate how the language of pluralism and representative democracy works to conceal a system of power and influence that was anything but egalitarian. They wanted to shred the ideologies and obscurantist narratives that conceal these political realities.

But, like Marx to some extent, their writings too remained schematic. They offered a framework for thinking about political power that was radically different from that of the pluralists. But they didn't really provide a detailed empirical exposure of the workings of this system in real time.  So here again, we'd like to have an organized way of connecting the dots within the contemporary world.  How do corporations use lobbying firms and campaign PACs to shape policy and legislation to their liking? How is it going on today? And, as is the case of the domain of economic inequalities, there are plenty of sources today shedding light on aspects of these processes.  But these political realities seem if anything, even more difficult to perceive.

The blog Naked Capitalism approximates the kind of dot-connecting that I'm describing, with specific application to the financial industry. Here a group of very expert observers are taking the trouble to track the complexities and the hidden interests involved in the financial industry, and to try to make sense of what they find in an honest way. I. F. Stone was a one-man dot-connector in the 1960s when it came to the Indochina War (Best of I. F. Stone). The opening chapter of Frances Fox Piven's Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America does a good job of sketching out the influence systems that set the planets in motion in American democracy. And Bob Herbert's last column for the New York Times does it as well (link).  We need exactly these kinds of effort in other areas too -- defense contracting, influence peddling, the pharmaceutical industry, news media, ...  We need help connecting the dots of how our society works, who pulls the strings and who benefits.

Blogging, critical journalism, and crusading thinkers like I. F. Stone and Frances Fox Piven can help a lot. And, by the way, it must be done in a way that is committed to high standards of empirical fidelity; it needs to inspire the kind of trust that Stone was able to do fifty years ago. And maybe, with the makings of a more truthful shared understanding of how our society actually works, we will succeed in creating a politics that transforms it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Andreas Glaeser on agency

Andreas Glaeser is another gifted contemporary sociologist who takes a different approach to providing a sociological analysis of agency. Glaeser's most recent scholarship is a careful and detailed study of the end of communism in the German Democratic Republic.  This research appears in a book that is just now being published, Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism.  (Glaeser provides several chapters and related materials here on his research page at the University of Chicago.) The work is concrete, historically situated, and close to the ground in the sense that it pays close attention to the ideas, emotions, and mental frameworks of the various actors as expressed in Glaeser's interviews with them. But along the way he develops a powerful framework for understanding some of the fundamental concepts and theoretical frameworks that are employed by sociologists when they attempt to understand individual and collective behavior.  Here is the publisher's description of the book:
What does the durability of political institutions have to do with how actors form knowledge about them? Andreas Glaeser investigates this question in the context of a fascinating historical case: socialist East Germany’s unexpected self-dissolution in 1989. His analysis builds on extensive in-depth interviews with former secret police officers and the dissidents they tried to control as well as research into the documents both groups produced. In particular, Glaeser analyzes how these two opposing factions’ understanding of the socialist project came to change in response to countless everyday experiences. These investigations culminate in answers to two questions: why did the officers not defend socialism by force? And how was the formation of dissident understandings possible in a state that monopolized mass communication and group formation? He also explores why the Stasi, although always well informed about dissident activities, never developed a realistic understanding of the phenomenon of dissidence.
Out of this ambitious study, Glaeser extracts two distinct lines of thought. On the one hand he offers an epistemic account of socialism’s failure that differs markedly from existing explanations. On the other hand he develops a theory—a sociology of understanding—that shows us how knowledge can appear validated while it is at the same time completely misleading.
And here is the abstract that Glaeser provides for the first chapter at the link above:
ABSTRACT: On the basis of ethnographic data gathered during 11 months of field study in two east German police precincts, four processes of identity construction are analysed which link selves to space and thereby to one of the main aspects of material culture. These processes are (1) the tropic (as opposed to literal) reading of space, producing a complex web of identifications through a play of metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor, ellipsis and hyperbole; (2) the writing of space as a material inscription of self in small spatial contexts such as neighbourhoods, cities and regions; (3) the placement of self into larger spatial wholes such as neighbourhoods, cities and regions; (4) the anchoring of life-stories and narrated life experiences in significant time-space combinations or chronotopes. The paper argues that identities are not only constructed in interaction with other actors but also in "dialogue" with material culture and spatial practices. It argues also that the spatial dimension of identity brings to the fore the fact that identities are not only knowable, but that they can be experienced. Through space, identities become sensualised.
The topic of "agency" comes out of this research very directly and immediately: why did the various actors choose to live and act as they did?  Why were Stasi agents so complex in their behavior -- neither passive puppets of the regime nor hidden activists within the state?  What were the "epistemics" on the basis of which they and other social actors acted -- the assumptions about themselves and the world that framed their choices?  These questions lead Glaeser to attempt to arrive at a better and more satisfying account of the forms of consciousness, locatedness, and feeling that create the individual's field of choice.

Here is how Glaeser describes his current thoughts about agency and the questions that will guide his next program of research:
I have begun researching and writing a third book with the working title Agency, Institutions and Understanding: A Sociology of Liberation. With it I aim to offer a fundamental critique of the schizoid contemporary social imaginary that flip-flops between ontological individualism categorically asserting persons’ power to act on the one hand and structural determinism which pays no heed to individual actors in whatever form or shape on the other. Instead I aim to show how agency does not only vary historically and situationally but how it can be cultivated by individuals and collectivities from within a realistic understanding of the operation of institutional arrangements. Thus I aim to rejuvenate and reposition an older normative understanding of the task of the social sciences as a reflexive enterprise in the service of emancipatory politics.
Against the "schizoid" opposition of pure subjectivity of the individual actor and pure objectivity of social structures, Glaeser prefers a stance that allows him to weave together the social situatedness of the actor -- in very concrete spatial and social-relationship terms -- with the thoughts, motives, and impulses that lead them to act as they do.  Here is a nicely concrete description of how he proceeds to investigate these states of social consciousness:
The social arenas I have chosen to study identity formation through acts of identification are two police precincts in what used to be East Germany. The first is Precinct 66 (southern Kopenick) in the southeastern corner of Berlin, the second is Potsdam in the state of Brandenburg just outside Berlin . The ethnographic material on which this paper is based was collected during 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork, consisting chiefly in participant observation of all sorts of police practices (patrol car shifts, neighbourhood beat patrols, administrative work, social events , etc.). Another important source of data was open-ended tape-recorded biographical interviews. The rationale for choosing the Berlin police is that identity is a hotly contested issue between former West Berlin and former East Berlin police officers, who have had to cooperate after the unification of Germany into one unified All-Berlin police corps. The second fieldsite was primarily chosen to establish a backdrop for Berlin, which is in many ways a special case. (link, 8)
Like the arguments of Martin and Dennis considered in an earlier post, Glaeser is led to a position that negates the traditional strong distinction between agent and structure. Like them, his work brings him into close relationship to the micro-sociologies of ethnomethodology, phenomenological sociology, and interactionist sociology. Unlike rationalist approaches that exclusively emphasize discursive states of mind -- reasons, beliefs, goals -- Glaeser positions his actors in terms of their discursive, emotional, and kinesthetic representations of their situation.Glaeser refers to his approach as hermeneutic. The work is ethnographic in detail; but the goal is plainly sociological. He wants to provide a detailed analysis of the modes of understanding that constitute the position from which concrete individuals construct their activities and choices. And he wants to understand the complex social world that was East Germany at the end of socialism.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

New ideas about structure and agency

The social sciences have chosen up sides around a number of dichotomies -- quantitative versus qualitative research methods, macro versus micro, ethnographic versus causal. A dichotomy that spans many of the social sciences is the opposition of structure versus agency. "Structures" are said to be the objective complexes of social institutions within which people live and act. "Agents" are said to be human deliberators and choosers who navigate their life plans in an environment of constraints.  If structure and agent are considered to be ontologically distinct levels, then we have a series of difficult questions to confront.  For example: Which has causal priority?  Are structures determinative of social outcomes, with agents merely playing their roles within these structures?  Or are agents the drivers of social causation, and structures are merely secondary effects of individual-level actions and states of consciousness?  Are features of structures reducible or explicable in terms of the actions and characteristics of individuals?  Or, possibly, are the behavioral characteristics of individuals merely the consequence of the social structures they inhabit?

The contrast goes back to the founders, including Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. And authors such as Anthony Giddens, Maurice Godelier, and Pierre Bourdieu provided second-generation refinements.  But new ideas have come forward in the past decade that merit reconsideration.

Some of this new thinking is contained in Peter Martin and Alex Dennis, eds., Human Agents and Social Structures. Here is a thumbnail of the approach taken by this group of philosophers and sociologists.
[The current book's] aim is to be an intervention which seeks to make the case that structural, system, or holistic approaches to the understanding of social life and the explanation of human action are fundamentally misconceived -- as, equally, are efforts which rest on individualistic assumptions. In essence, our view is that human social life is conducted in and through patterns of collaborative interaction: sociologically, our interest is thus not in the subjectivity of individuals but in the ways in which intersubjectivity is achieved and maintained. (7)
This group of researchers addresses the contrast between agency and structure; but really their goal is to help to dissolve the distinction.  They want to show that "structures" do not exist in any strong sense (including the senses associated with critical realism), and that a proper understanding of "agency" involves both subjective and objective features of the individual's actions, thoughts, and situation.  Social relationships are densely intertwined with reasons, emotion, commitments, beliefs, and attitudes -- the aspects of consciousness that make up agency and action.

Here is a representative statement about social structures:
The collective concepts (such as family, state, organisation, class and so on) -- which have often been seen as fundamental to sociological analysis -- have often encouraged 'the temptation to reify collective aspects of human life' (Jenkins 2002a:4); that is, to treat them as if they were real entities, independent of the human beings who constiTute them. (7)
Their affirmative theory of agency -- now stripped of the notion that it is a polar opposite to structure -- has much in common with the traditions of micro-sociology -- Goffman, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and phenomenological sociology.  The idea here is to emphasize the very concrete ways in which each of these traditions succeeds in identifying the agent, the social actor, as both subjective and objective.  He/she is a subject, in the sense that the agent possesses thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, allegiances, and the like, which in turn contribute to the actions and lives they live.  But the agent is objective, in the sense that he/she is embedded and developed within a concrete set of social relationships and institutions.
Thus each of these approaches develops in its own way the idea that human social life is carried out through processes of interaction among real people in specific situations, and each seeks to avoid the reification of collective concepts -- there are no such 'things' as social 'structures,' 'classes', or indeed 'societies', yet terms such as these are indispensable, not only for sociologists but for the purposes of everyday communication. (14)
Martin and Dennis quote Anthony King with approval: "human agency is a collective product, germinated with others and dependent upon the social networks in which we al exist.  Human agency is better understood as the collective product of social relations ... than as an autonomous individual power" 14).

So is there space within this view of sociology for investigation of "macro" features of society?  They argue that there is, but not as an autonomous domain:
There is nothing in the perspective developed here that would prevent the investigation of social phenomena conventionally described in terms of 'macro' structures. But what we are suggesting is that, for example, the 'class structure' must be conceived as the outcome of stratifying processes and practices, many of which -- like the grading of students' work or the awarding of educational credentials -- may appear to be routine and mundane.  This interactionist sociologists have investigated the processes through which social class differences in educational attainment are produced. (15)
One reason I'm intrigued by the approaches taken to this aspect of social ontology by the contributors to Human Agents and Social Structures is that these approaches seem to converge with the ideas about "methodological localism" that I've been drawn to as a bottom-level description of social ontology (link).  On this approach, neither "structure" nor "agent" can be specified in its own terms alone; rather, we need to base our social concepts on the socially situated and socially constituted individual, located within a set of locally manifest social relations (link, link).  So we cannot separate agency and social location (structure); rather, the fundamental unit of social activity involves both aspects.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Basic institutions and democratic equality

Modern societies seem to produce persistent social inequalities that are contradictory to many of the values we espouse when it comes to the idea of democratic equality.  We continue to find wealth and income inequalities, inequalities of educational and health outcomes, inequalities of political power and influence, and these disparities seem to increase over time.  Is this a residual defect in these specific societies, or is it rather a natural result of the logic of the institutions that define a market economy and an electoral democracy in the circumstances of extensive existing inequalities of wealth and power?

Consider these polar views:
  • Modern market democracies work to narrow social and economic inequalities over time.  
  • The institutions of modern market democracies work to increase economic and political inequalities; the rich and powerful become more so through their privileged positions within existing institutions.
Which of these views is correct?

We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).

There is a fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals. The economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within each of these sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society. So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

On this line of thought, market and electoral institutions both create and reproduce social inequalities even when they are working correctly; inequality is built into them at a very basic level.  The institutions are tilted in favor of privileged groups, and it is no surprise when corporations wield substantial influence in Washington and Paris and tax policies are enacted that favor the richest percent of American income earners.   These aren't abnormal anomalies; they are instead precisely what we should expect when we analyze the basic institutions carefully.

What remedies are available to help move a modern society towards greater democratic equality for all of society?  Several large institutional variations have been tried in the past century -- social democracy, small self-sufficient communities, local economies based on cooperatives, etc.  Jon Elster surveyed some of these alternatives in Alternatives to Capitalism over twenty years ago -- at a time when there was more openness to the idea of fundamental institutional reform.  Tamas Bauer opens his essay, "The unclearing market," with these words:
The well-functioning market of textbooks brings about general satisfaction. Under market-clearing prices, goods and factors offered for sale are sold; the demand of each agent is satisfied by supply by others.  Wage earners are paid wages that more or less correspond to their marginal contribution.  Etc., etc. ... Life is, of course, much different. (71)
The social-democratic solution to these tendencies was developed in the early twentieth century.  It was recognized that market institutions create unacceptable inequalities and leave some citizens in circumstances of insecurity, deprivation, and indignity; and it was argued that the institutions of the state needed to correct these tendencies through the establishment of a strong social safety net.  The majority of a society would have the electoral strength to create and maintain strong protections of the interests of ordinary working people through a combination of positive economic rights. (Gosta Esping-Andersen reviews this history in The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism.)  

The triumph of social and economic conservatism -- Thatcher, Reagan, and other conservative European leaders and their political parties -- took this theory of the role of the state off the public agenda, and the past thirty years have witnessed the systematic disassembly of the institutions of social democracy in most countries.  And the consequences are predictable: more inequality, more deprivation, more severe disparities of life outcomes for different social groups.

What is truly surprising is that there has been so little continuing exploration of alternatives in the intervening two decades.  Democratic theorists have explored alternative institutions in the category of deliberative democracy (link), but there hasn't been much visioning of alternative economic institutions for a modern society. We don't talk much anymore about "economic justice," and the case for social democracy has more or less disappeared from public debate.  But surely it's time to reopen that public debate.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Social brains

Here is a foundational question that is worth asking periodically in the philosophy of social science: what is the relationship between the evolutionary history of the human species and our current social and cultural behavior? The sociobiologists had one answer to the question: many of our current social behaviors are an expression, through the medium of the evolved central nervous system, of the compounding of a set of social instincts that were favored by natural selection. E. O. Wilson describes the intellectual agenda of sociobiology in these terms in In Search of Nature:
Much of the new effort falls within a discipline called sociobiology, which is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in every kind of organism, including man, and is being pieced together with contributions from biology, psychology, and anthropology. There is nothing new about analyzing social behavior, and even the word "sociobiology" has been around for years. What is new is the way facts and ideas are being extracted from their traditional matrix of psychology and ethology (the natural history of animal behavior) and reassembled in compliance with the principles of genetics and ecology. ...  With genetic evolution always in mind, sociobiologists search for the ways in which the myriad forms of social organization adapt particular species to the special opportunities and dangers encountered in their environment. (76)
This view sometimes takes the form of a very direct connection from hardwired disposition to behavior. And sometimes it takes the form of a more mediated connection, from selection-favored capacity to complex mental state to behavior. The response we have to a smiling baby falls in the first category, and the "good Samaritan" impulse falls in the latter.

The view at the other end of the spectrum holds with the (relative) autonomy of human thought and action. Human beings are natural biological organisms, to be sure, and our mental capacities are embodied in neural circuitry that has a specific evolutionary history. But what evolution provided us was an all-purpose "reasoning, acting, interpreting" machine that is capable of creating and embodying all cultural and behavioral systems. Much as a computer can embody any algorithm (program), a human brain can incorporate any system of cultural rules. Much as a human child can acquire any human language, so too any human child is a voracious "culture-acquisition device," primed to absorb the cultural rules and meanings around him or her. And once absorbed, it is the cultural program rather than the evolutionary instincts that rule behavior.

These are the polar views of the relation between evolution and culture. I think philosophers and anthropologists may prefer the second story over the first -- philosophers because it creates space for an all-purpose reasoning engine and anthropologists because it gives maximum autonomy to the symbolic and normative workings of freely created culture systems. For both there is the idea that humanity has kicked away its biological origins and limitations. And both are reflexively opposed to the apparent reductionism of the first position.

It seems to me that there is a sturdy intermediate position that incorporates some of both extremes and does a superior job of capturing the truth about human behavior and mind than either. Certainly human cognitive and behavioral capacities have an evolutionary history. But equally, it is plausible that there is a great deal of plasticity and multiple-realizability that has been built into these systems -- with the result that there is no one-to-one relationship between biological origins and current behavioral patterns. Culture is a powerful intervening structure.

Concerning the first point: the evolutionists are surely correct in believing that there is a great deal of brain structure that is responsive to the fundamental situations of human sociality -- family relations, cooperation and competition within small groups, and coordination. These elements of human daily life are too ever-present and too consequential not to have had implications for the evolution of the brain. Moreover, we know that there are highly evolved neural systems for non-social activities and challenges -- finger dexterity, for example, or simple problem solving. And, finally, we have the example of language, which involves both the kinds of latent linguistic structures that Chomsky postulates and the universality of application that results. So it would be surprising if evolution had not shaped the brain around these features of the human condition.

So acknowledging the likelihood of neural structures specific to social life seems pretty compelling. But what specifically? Almost certainly not determinate behavioral routines or dispositions. We surely don't have a gene for "promise-keeping". More credibly, we may have an abstract behavioral disposition for generalized reciprocity; and this may be invoked by a particular cultural system and set of value specifications that give a concrete moral motivation to keep one's commitments and promises.

This is where another important stylized fact about human society comes in: behavior differs widely and persistently across societies, and the best explanation of that fact is the causal efficacy of cultural and value systems that are reproduced within communities of human beings.

We know that those normative and symbolic systems are somehow embodied in persistent human neurophysiology, since all psychological states depend on the brain.  But from the variety of human symbolic, cultural, and normative systems we also know that the neurophysiology that underlies culture necessarily possesses a high degree of plasticity.  Along with the sociobiologists, we can look with favor on the notion that there may be important and contingent features that all human culture systems possess -- at some level of abstraction -- that are the result of constraints in the brain created by our evolutionary history.  But along with the cultural autonomists, we can work on the basis of the hunch that the human brain embodies enough plasticity and capacity for learning to make the role of culture and social norms a credible source of behavioral variation.

(These topics have been considered in earlier posts on human nature (link) and moral psychology (link).)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Social justice and democratic stability

One thing I find interesting about the sustained demonstrations and protests in Madison, Wisconsin is the fact that people on the streets do not seem to be chiefly motivated by personal material interests. Rather, the passion and the sustainability of the protests against Governor Walker's plans seem to derive from an outrage felt by many people in Wisconsin and throughout the country, that the Governor's effort is really an attempt to reduce people's rights -- in this case, the right to come together as a group of workers to bargain together. This is a well established right in the private sector, protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and the rationale is substantially the same in the public sector.

So when the Governor attempts to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for public employees, he offends the sense of justice of many citizens in Wisconsin and elsewhere -- whether or not they are directly affected, whether or not they themselves are members of unions. Restricting established social rights is a very serious thing -- well beyond the specific calculation of interests that people might make. It's morally offensive in the way that state efforts to roll back voting rights would be offensive.  And this moral offensiveness can be a powerful motivator of collective resistance.

So this seems to provide an intriguing clue about political mobilization more generally. To what extent is moral outrage, a perception of injustice, an important motivator of individual political engagement and activism?

When we look at the MENA rebellions, even from a great distance, it seems that concerns about social and political justice have as much prominence as more material motivations -- demands for food subsidies, demands for state-sponsored jobs programs, etc. Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans interviewed on the BBC talk more frequently about the outrage of dictatorship and arbitrary state power than they do about material demands. And really, it's hard to see an economic interest in forcing a certain kind of food subsidy program being strong enough to create enough of a political motivation to lead a person to stand up against fighter jets and attack helicopters.

This is an insight that James Scott expressed a generation ago in The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, and E. P. Thompson a generation before that in Customs in Common, in the theory of the moral economy. In its essence, the theory holds that the fact of sustained violation of a person's moral expectations of the society around him or her is a decisive factor in collective mobilization in many historical circumstances.  Later theorists of political activism have downplayed the idea of moral outrage, preferring more material motivations based on self-interest.  But the current round of activism and protest around the globe seems to point back in the direction of these more normative motivations -- combined, of course, with material interests.  So it is worth reexamining the idea that a society that badly offends the sense of justice of segments of its population is likely to stimulate resistance.

This basic and compelling idea has an important implication for sustainable social and political stability in a political regime. If citizens react collectively to sustained injustice, then a regime that wants to rule sustainably needs to respect the demands of justice.  It is important for a social order to arrive at a rough-and-ready shared understanding about the rights and obligations that citizens have, and it is important for the state to conduct itself in ways that honor those expectations.

This sounds like a social contract theory, and it certainly has something in common with that normative theory. But its relevance here is more sociological. It is the basis of a prediction about what social and political circumstances will elicit sustained protest and resistance, and which kinds of arrangements are likely to be accepted indefinitely by the population. And it leads to a policy recommendation for any regime that wants to create a stable, ongoing polity: work hard to make sure that social arrangements and institutions treat citizens fairly, and don't gratuitously violate their deeply held convictions about their rights and about the general features of justice.

So what moral expectations do American citizens have about how society ought to work? Several things seem fairly clear. Americans care about equality of opportunity. We are deeply rankled by the idea that the good opportunities in society are somehow captured by an elite of any sort. Second is the idea of equal treatment of all citizens by the institutions of the state. Teenagers and persons of color rankle at being singled out for special attention by the police. Women rightly seethe at the persistence of institutions in the workplace that continue to treat them differently. Arab Americans rightly resent special scrutiny at airports.  We don't accept status inequality easily -- especially in our own cases.  And third, we are very sensitive about the inviolability of our rights -- our right to vote, right to go where we want, right to speak our minds and associate with whomever we want to.

What Americans don't yet seem to have is a specific moral sensitivity to extreme inequalities of income and wealth. The fact of the accelerating concentration of income at the top doesn't seem to produce the moral outrage in the US that perhaps it would in France or Germany. And maybe this comes from another element of our moral economy -- the idea that inequalities are all right as long as they are fairly earned. But more information about bonuses on Wall Street and the banking industry may begin to erode that tolerance.  

It is intriguing to have widely separated examples of social mobilization going on right now.  Surely there are sociologists and political scientists working right now to interview leaders and followers in Egypt, Madison, or Benghazi trying to sort out the motivations and social networks through which these movements arose and solidified.  As a theoretically informed prediction, it seems likely that moral motivations like resentment of arbitrary power, violations of strongly held rights, and persistent status inequalities will be found to have played a role.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Democracy and contentious politics

Democracy and contention are back on the front page, thanks to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  As always, Chuck Tilly provided some important insights into today's events based on his depth analysis of several hundred years of contentious politics.  The relevant work on the intersection between democratization and contention is Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000 (2004).  As the history of contentious politics demonstrates, nothing in the nature of social contention leads necessarily to a demand for greater democracy; in fact, nineteenth century observers tended to believe that "revolutionary contention" and democracy were antithetical to each other. So democratization and contention are interweaving subjects rather than different aspects of the same process.

As always, Tilly is interested in using historical comparisons to shed light on the processes of contention and democratization, and the history that they focus on in this volume is that of modern France and Britain.
To explain similarities and differences in French and British experience since 1650 constitutes a reasonable start toward more general explanations of variation within Europe as a whole. Since European polities and their immediate transplants originated most of the contemporary institutions we recognize as democratic, furthermore, any explanation that gets right the last few centuries of European involvement in contention and democracy offers some promise of helping to identify likely origins of democracy elsewhere. (7)
So comparison is one key methodological pillar.  The other is the framework of mechanisms and processes that he and his colleagues developed in Dynamics of Contention and in other subsequent works.  "[This book's] claim to attention resets instead on the identification of mechanisms and processes that promote, inhibit, or reverse democratization" (ix).  This places Tilly's approach in direct opposition to several other theories of largescale social change -- theories that look for common structural factors that explain large outcomes such as democracy or revolution, and theories that look primarily to the intentions of the actors.
My inquiry guesses, furthermore, that the social world’s order does not reside in general laws, repeated large-scale sequences, or regular relationships among variables.We should not search for a single set of circumstances or a repeated series of events that everywhere produces democracy. Nor should we look for actors having democratic intentions, seeking to discover how and when they get chances to realize those intentions. We should look instead for robust, recurrent causal mechanisms that combine differently, with different aggregate outcomes, in different settings. (9)
If we are to attempt to understand the factors that are conducive to (or inhibitive of) greater democracy, we need to have a fairly specific idea of what we are thinking of under the concept of democracy.  Tilly provides this definition of democratization:
Democratization means increases in the breadth and equality of relations between governmental agents and members of the government’s subject population, in binding consultation of a government’s subject population with respect to governmental personnel, resources, and policy, and in protection of that population (especially minorities within it) from arbitrary action by governmental agents. (13-14)
Remarkable in this definition is the fact that Tilly does not chiefly highlight institutions such as representative voting or separation of powers, but rather several more general features of a polity: equality between government and the subject population, binding consultation of the subject population, and protection of the subject population from arbitrary action.  Each of these dimensions has a strong theoretical relationship to the concept of democracy; the equal worth of citizens favors the first point, the idea that citizens should contribute to the formation of government's policies finds expression in "binding consultation"; and the idea of the rule of law is expressed in the idea of protection from arbitrary action.  Greater democratization means increasing one or more of these three dimensions in the given society.  Tilly refers to this as a "political process" approach to the conceptual problem.  And he folds this definition into a substantive historical hypothesis:
Only where positive changes in trust network integration, inequality insulation, and the relevant internal transformations of public politics all intersect does effective, durable democracy emerge. Most changes in public politics, on the contrary, produce undemocratic outcomes. (17)
So what are the high-level factors that work on the state's side to influence the state's ability to crush popular contention?  And what external factors might bring about abrupt changes in these factors?  Tilly refers to a state's command of "coercion, capital, and commitment" as a measure of its ability to enforce its will -- including the ability to repress popular movements demanding social and political change.  Coercion has to do with the apparatus of the military and police, and the administrative infrastructure through which these are controlled.  Capital has to do with the amount of wealth the state is able to summon to its purposes.  And commitment has to do with the networks of committed partners the state can call upon throughout the population within its scope of control -- what he refers to as the "trust networks" of the state.  When the state's ability to marshall these forms of power is great, contentious movements are unlikely to succeed.  But specific, concrete social factors can work to undermine each of these aspects of the state's power.  Those factors can be internal -- a food crisis that greatly undermines the loyalty of the state's agents, for example -- or external -- the stresses of international efforts by the state.  In particular, he singles out revolution, conquest, confrontation, and colonization as large stresses for the state that can significantly change its ability to enforce its will (40).  And all of this leads Tilly to a fairly strong hypothesis:
Regional variation in the accumulation and concentration of coercion, capital, and commitment strongly affected the sorts of governmental institutions that formed in different parts of Europe through the centuries, but the presence of certain sorts of regimes in a region shaped what kinds of regimes formed later. (45)
These factors give some insight into how a regime can be more or less capable of resisting contentious challenges; but what factors influence the likelihood of such challenges themselves? Tilly's analysis takes an important step towards greater specificity through his construction of three tables of concrete mechanisms in these areas of political process: "mechanisms segregating categorical inequality from public politics," "mechanisms integrating trust networks into public politics", and "mechanisms increasing breadth, equality, enforcement and security of mutual obligations between citizens and government agents" (18-20). Examples from each group of mechanisms are highly relevant to the processes currently underway in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya:
  • Adoption of devices that insulate public politics from categorical inequalities; for example, secret ballots, payment of officeholders, and free, equal access of candidates to media forward formation of cross-category coalitions (18) 
  • Disintegration of existing segregated trust networks; for example, decay of patrons’ ability to provide their clients with goods and protection promotes withdrawal of clients from patron-client ties (19) 
  • Central co-optation or elimination of previously autonomous political intermediaries; for example, regional strongmen join governing coalitions, thus becoming committed to governmental programs (20)
These tables amount to a detailed micro-analysis of mechanisms and processes that can occur more or less independently, and that have impact on the democratic issues of categorical inequalities, consultation, and protection.  Here is a causal model in which Tilly attempts to capture the meso-level causality that he finds in the comparison of British and French contentious politics over three centuries:

Tilly encapsulates his key findings in these thirteen hypotheses:
  1. Differing combinations of coercion, capital, and commitment in various regions promote the formation of significantly different kinds of regimes, and different directions of regime change, within those regions.
  2. Trajectories of regimes within a two-dimensional space defined by (a) degree of governmental capacity and (b) extent of protected consultation significantly affect both their prospects for democracy and the character of their democracy if it arrives.
  3. In the long run, increases in governmental capacity and protected consultation reinforce each other, as state expansion generates resistance, bargaining, and provisional settlements, on one side, while on the other side protected consultation encourages demands for expansion of state intervention, which in turn promote increases in capacity.
  4. At the extremes, where capacity develops farther and faster than consultation, the path to democracy (if any) passes through authoritarianism; if protected consultation develops farther and faster than capacity and the regime survives, the path then passes through a risky zone of capacity building.
  5. Although the organizational forms – elections, terms of office, areal representation, deliberative assemblies, and so on – adopted by democratizing regimes often emulate or adapt institutions that have strong precedents in villages, cities, regional jurisdictions, or adjacent national regimes, they almost never evolve directly from those institutions.
  6. Creation of citizenship – rights and obligations linking whole categories of a regime’s subject population to governmental agents – is a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratization.
  7. In high-capacity regimes, nondemocratic citizenship sometimes forms, and with extensive integration of citizens into regimes even reduces or inhibits democracy.
  8. Nevertheless, the prior presence of citizenship, other things equal, generally facilitates democratization.
  9. Both creation of citizenship and democratization depend on changes in three arenas – categorical inequality, trust networks, and public politics – as well as on interactions among those changes.
  10. Regularities in democratization consist not of standard general sequences or sufficient conditions but of recurrent causal mechanisms that in varying combinations and sequences produce changes in categorical inequality, networks of trust, and public politics.
  11. Under specifiable circumstances, revolution, conquest, confrontation, and colonization accelerate and concentrate some of those crucial causal mechanisms.
  12. Almost all of the crucial democracy-promoting causal mechanisms involve popular contention – politically constituted actors’ making of public, collective claims on other actors, including agents of government – as correlates, causes, and effects.
  13. In the course of democratization, repertoires of political contention (arrays of widely available claim-making performances) shift from predominantly parochial, particular, and bifurcated interactions based largely on embedded identities to predominantly cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous interactions based largely on detached identities. (7-8)
Here is what France's political history looks like, according to Tilly's analysis of its path through the space of "governmental capacity" and "protected consultation":

Some readers might be disappointed at the complexity of the analysis Tilly offers here.  But that is inherent in his foundational assumptions: that there are many relevant mechanisms and processes, that these mechanisms interact in multiple complex ways, and that there are many pathways to democracy and dictatorship.  So even the most systematic tracing of possible scenarios will result in a highly complex "phase diagram" of a polity as it moves through its political processes over time.

*          *           *

In light of the recent post about Steve Pincus's reinterpretation of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, it is interesting to pull out a few of Tilly's observations about the same period.
  • The Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to power wrought enduring effects, but at a price. Considering the British Isles as a whole, the settlement of 1690 produced a higher capacity government than had ever existed before. It did so, for the time being, at the expense of protected consultation. (144)
  • The new regime likewise brought the rise of party politics and Dutch inspired fortification of public finances (Braun 1975: 290–94, ’t Hart 1991; Kishlansky 1996: 290; Scott 2000: chapter 21). Creation of a Bank of England (1694) coupled with parliamentary control over governmental indebtedness to produce a relatively secure national debt, heavy involvement of London financiers in the funding of that debt, and widespread investment of the wealthy in government securities (Armitage 1994; Muldrew 1998: 328–29). (145)
  • As military forces exploded during the 18th century, moreover, Parliament’s authorization of taxation and expenditure added weight to parliamentary decisions, beginning a decisive shift of power from the royal administration to Parliament (Brewer 1989; Stone 1994; Tilly 1997). (147)
These points converge closely with Pincus's points about the modernizing state, and the role of financial elites in the changes of the period.  But it is also interesting that Tilly treats the earlier part of the English seventeenth century as being more crucial for the process of British democratization.  The "Glorious Revolution" plays a secondary role in his analysis.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Education a leveler?

The role of education in social inequalities is difficult to assess, because it seems to have contradictory tendencies.  On the one hand, improving access to education at all levels -- from elementary school to graduate school -- levels the playing field because it enhances the ability of everyone affected to realize their human talents and to pursue their goals with a greater foundation of cognitive and mental skills.  Closing the literacy gap, the numeracy gap, or the technology gap across all of society gives the previously disadvantaged population a better chance to compete for success in seeking employment or creating other economic and social benefits for themselves and their families.  Traditional sources of social inequality -- positions of privilege in social hierarchies, privileged access to political benefits, disproportionate ownership of land and other forms of productive property -- are to some extent blunted by a greater degree of equality of access to good schooling and the knowledge and skills it provides.  So we might say that improving the quality and reach of a society's educational system should be expected to reduce existing inequalities.

On the other hand, access to education amplifies everyone's talents -- elite and disadvantaged alike.  And more importantly, education proceeds through specific, concrete social institutions -- schools and universities -- and the quality and effectiveness of these educational institutions varies enormously across the face of a complex society.  It is possible -- perhaps likely -- that these variations in quality will correspond to populations and neighborhoods in ways that align with patterns of prior advantage and disadvantage.  So it is likely that we will have high-quality, effective schools providing education to advantaged groups; and low-quality drop-out factories providing education to the disadvantaged institutions.  In this case, the education system might actually have the effect of deepening and entrenching the social inequalities that exist across groups.

I've put this point in hypothetical terms.  But we know that across much of the United States, this isn't simply a hypothetically possibility.  It is largely a fact on the American cityscape that schools vary in quality by race, poverty, and social status at the K-12 level.  Affluent people are often served by good public schools, and they have the financial ability to choose good private schools if they are unsatisfied.  Poor people are usually served by schools with severe disadvantages -- under-resourced, dilapidated, endemic management crisis, disaffected teachers and principals.  So it is hard to make the case that American public education is a powerful force for decreasing social inequalities.

So what about American universities?  Here the picture is more favorable.  High school graduates who have gained the intellectual abilities required for succeeding at the university level -- admittedly, often a minority of all graduates -- have a range of choices that can genuinely erase most of the disadvantages of birth.  A first-generation freshman from a low-income family can nonetheless gain a great engineering education or a great education in art history at an affordable public university; and this undergraduate success in turn positions him or her for future successes in graduate school or employment.  So American universities do in fact deliver much of the promise of the theory of democratic education: broad access without regard to status or income, and substantial enhancement of life prospects as a result.

That said, American universities continue to reproduce a more specific form of elite advantage.  Here is a January 2011 Newsweek review of America's elites and their university degrees.  The snapshot it provides is a familiar one; elite positions in our society are disproportionately held by graduates of elite universities.  Think of the number of US presidents and members of Congress with Ivy League degrees.  Plainly our political elite was disproportionately produced by an elite set of universities (link).  But similar results seem to obtain in the business world as well.  The same Newsweek story reports that elite universities also produced the largest bloc of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, with Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania leading the list, and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State providing a significant number of CEOs as well.  Put the point this way: entry into an elite university greatly increases an individual's likelihood of becoming a member of the political and business elites in America.  It is true, of course, that talented young people attend these universities, and it is predictable that they will be successful.  But there seems to be more at work here than simply "elite schools educate the most talented young people of their generation."

Rather, it seems likely that the pathways that lead to career success are themselves facilitated by the social resources created for the graduate by his or her university: networks of alumni, the prestige of the degree, and the classmates and their families whom they come to know.  The density of elite social networks seems to be a key part of the story; avenues into elite careers are facilitated by these contacts and social advantages.  Contacts in government, politics, journalism, business, and Wall Street are richly available to the rising elite university graduate.  An elite university provides a great reserve of social capital for the graduate. and this is unrelated to the actual level of achievement and talent that the graduate possesses.

Here are two empirical studies that complement these suspicions -- one in France in the 1960s and the other in the United States in the 1990s.  Both studies are interested in essentially the same question: to what extent do universities (French or American) provide equitable opportunities across social groups?  To what extent are the universities in these countries effective agents for bringing about greater social equality?

First, France.  One of Pierre Bourdieu's earliest works is a study (with Jean-Claude Passeron) of the social inequalities that are reproduced by the French educational system (Les Héritiers : Les étudiants et la culture, 1964).  Essentially Bourdieu and Passeron provide empirical data from 1961-62 that demonstrate that the population of French university students was highly unrepresentative of the social categories of the larger population.  The likelihood of attending university was many times higher for some economic classes than others.  Here is a graphic that captures the heart of Bourdieu and Passeron's findings:

In spite of the pre-Pixar graphics, I think Edward Tufte would approve; the graph displays very economically the fundamental relationship that the authors want to highlight in the data. The left panel of the graph represents the sizes of the populations associated with various social groups as well as the number of students whose background stems from the group.  The right panel aggregates these data by computing the percentage of students from each who enroll in a university. For children from the humble social categories, including workers and farmers, the likelihood of attending university was very small, ranging from .7% to 3.6%.  Higher social categories had substantially greater rates of attendance, ranging from 16.4% for the children of the owners of businesses to 29.6% and 58.5% for the children of lesser and higher civil servants and professionals.  From top to bottom, then, the disparity of odds for different social groups is staggering.  The children of professionals and high civil servants were 85 times more likely to attend university than hired farm workers, and they were 42 times more likely to attend than the children of blue collar workers.  They also look carefully at academic success and choice of professions by the social class of the students' parents -- a perspective which continues through the present.  Naturally, these findings are specific to a point in time -- 1961-62.  No doubt these disparities have narrowed in the fifty years since Bourdieu and Passeron did this research.  But they asked the right questions, and they established a perspective on French education that has continued to guide research in France.   

And second, the United States.  William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin provide a careful, empirically detailed and historically nuanced treatment of these issues in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005).  One chapter of Equity and Excellence is particularly relevant to the question here.  In "The Elite Schools: Engines of Opportunity or Bastions of Privilege?" the authors consider a large data set of admissions and outcomes at 19 selective colleges and universities (94).  It is a fascinating analysis.  

Their conclusion is a nuanced one:
By providing an increasingly straight path to entry and graduation for academically talented students from all socioeconomic strata, these prestigious institutions are fulfilling their historical promise to serve as "engines of opportunity." On the other hand, the disproportionately large number of graduates of these schools who come from the top rungs of American society indicate that they also remain "bastions of privilege."  Vigorous recruiting notwithstanding, the applicant pools of these schools contain only a small number of well-prepared students from families of modest circumstances.  This is the "controlling reality." (135)
They also find that students from disadvantaged socioeconomic origins are severely underrepresented in the elite institutions included in their study (parallel to the Bourdieu-Passeron findings):
Students whose families are in the bottom quartile of the national income distribution represent roughly 10 to 11 percent of all students at these schools, and first-generation college students represent a little over 6 percent of these student populations.... Both groups are heavily underrepresented at the institutions in our study.  ...  When we combine the two measures of SES, and estimate the fraction of the enrollment at these schools that is made up of students who are both first-generation college-goers and from low-income families, we get a figure of about 3 percent.  Nationally, the share of the same-age population who fell into this category was around 19 percent in 1992, making this doubly disadvantaged group even more underrepresented than students with just one of the two characteristics. (98)
This looks at the issue from the point of view of "probability of attendance" -- the focus of the Bourdieu-Passeron analysis.  What about the outcomes of students from different socioeconomic groups who have successfully graduated from the elite institutions that Bowen et al survey?  Does SES status influence career success?  Bowen and his colleagues find that it does.  First, a very crude measure: "The average income in 1994 or 1995 of a former student from the bottom income quartile was over $67,000; former students from the middle two quartiles had average incomes of between $73,000 and $75,000; and those from the top quartile had average earnings of nearly $86,000" (123).  And an even more telling statistic when it comes to the sociology of American elites: "Just under 2% of former students from the bottom income quartile had a very high income 15 years out of college, while almost 6 percent of former students from families in the highest income quartile were themselves already in the top income category" (123).  So socioeconomic background makes a difference all the way through; high SES graduates are three times as likely to have very high income than their equally qualified classmates from low SES circumstances.  This certainly suggests that elite universities fail in the democratic ideal of leveling the playing field for persons of talent.

So it isn't really possible to answer the simple question with a simple answer: do modern educational systems in democracies level inequalities or increase inequalities?  It would seem that they do some of both; they provide access to disadvantaged people who can then leverage success for themselves and their families, and they also create mechanisms of recruitment into elite organizations that are anything but egalitarian.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

England's Glorious Revolution

Earlier posts have remarked upon the interesting fact that large historical events are often significantly reconsidered and re-understood through the passage of time.  China's Cultural Revolution is one such example (link), as are the revolutions of 1848 (link).

A truly stunning example of this kind of historical recasting of something that we think we've fully understood is Steve Pincus's 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Pincus sets up his argument beautifully: there has been a dominant and eventually unquestioned narrative about the English Revolution of 1688-89, and in detail and in broad outline -- this narrative is incorrect. Here is the thrust of the standard story:

According to this dominant story,
The revolution was unrevolutionary. Unlike other subsequent revolutions, England's revolution was bloodless, consensual, aristocratic, and above all sensible. The English had no desire to transform their polity, their society, or their culture. Instead they worried that James II had intended to do just that. Second, the revolution was Protestant. James II had tried to reinstitute Catholicism in England. The revolution insured that England would remain a Protestant polity. Third, the revolution demonstrated the fundamentally exceptional nature of English national character.... Fourth, there could have been no social grievances undergirding the Revolution of 1688-89 because English society had changed little in the modern world. (kindle loc 134)
According to Pincus, this account fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the transformation that 1688 represented in English history, and it defines the scope of the historical question incorrectly in profoundly misleading ways. Pincus wants to tell a more accurate and revealing story; and he also wants to provide a political historiography that attempts to explain how these misrepresentations have come to define the dominant view of this revolution -- the political ins and outs of Establishment Whigs, Conservatives, and Opposition Whigs in the ensuing century and a half of debate and historical interpretation.

His own approach to the historical problem is to start over: to reassess the materials and archives that exist today that allow the historian to gain fragmentary glimpses into the complex social reality that 1688 represented.  As he points out, there are substantial materials available today that were not available in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries when the master narrative was pieced together.  But he also observes that even materials available to Macaulay and Trevelyan can be read to a very different conclusion from those drawn by the eighteenth and nineteenth century historians.

Pincus's interpretation disagrees with the standard narrative in every major respect. First, he believes that the English Revolution was "the first modern revolution" -- the result of conflicts created by the process of state modernization that James II had undertaken. Second, he believes that the English Revolution was fundamentally located within a European context -- not a purely sui generis English affair.
The Revolution of 1688-89 is important not because it reaffirmed the exceptional English national character but because it was a landmark moment in the emergence of the modern state. (kindle loc 184)
Just as in the French and Russian Revolutions, there was extensive and violent crowd activity. And just as in other modern revolutions, the revolutionary events resulted not in consensus and compromise but in deep ideological cleavages. (kindle loc 3450)
Third, fourth, and fifth, Pincus refutes the idea that the revolution was "bloodless, aristocratic, and consensual". He documents that mass mobilization and violence were just as striking in England, Scotland, and Ireland as in the first year of the French Revolution (chapter 9), that segments from all levels of society were actively involved in these conflicts (chapter 8), and that the Revolution and its aftermath involved deep and abiding disagreements about the directions that the English state and society should take (chapter 10).  So -- not bloodless, not aristocratic, and not consensual.

Instead Pincus tells a new story:
In this book, then, I retell the story of the Glorious Revolution, but I retell it in significantly new ways.  Instead of a story of triumphant English exceptionalism emphasizing the far-seeing actions of a few men, I tell a story about a wide range of actors reacting not only to developments in English high politics and in the English church but to changes in society, in the economy, and on the broader European scene. (kindle loc 210)
The Revolution of 1688-89, then, like all modern revolutions, was a struggle ultimately waged between two competing groups of modernizers. The revolution did not pit defenders of traditional society against advocates of modernity. Both Whigs and Jacobites were modernizers. It was the Tories who wished to defend a version of the old order. The Tories were placed in the unpalatable position of having to choose between two very imperfect political outcomes. (kindle loc 7542)
So how is it that a great historical event could be so fundamentally mis-construed and mis-remembered? Pincus refers to a number of factors that have distorted the historical understanding of the English Revolution over intervening centuries. One is an English belief in "English exceptionalism." There was a powerful desire on the part of English intellectuals -- for example, Burke and Hume -- to see England as being very different from France -- more civil, more consensual, and more constitutional.  Second is the intellectual framework of "revolution as conflict between a decaying traditional state and a challenging modernist opponent" (see an earlier post on this conception of revolution).  This led historians to narrow the focus of the events they highlighted, and to give primacy in their accounts to the debates and positions of the great figures inside and outside of government.

Third and most important is a feature of English political ideology, as expressed in the political conflicts between Tory and Whig parties and between establishment and opposition Whigs.
Walpole and his political allies now claimed that the revolution had instantiated parliamentary rather than popular sovereignty and that it had established a constitution rather than a blueprint for further reform. (kindle loc 310)  
Opposition Whigs insisted that the revolution's principles should continue to drive a reformist agenda. In short, by the 1720s the establishment Whigs were emphasizing the immediate tyrannical causes of the events of 1688-89, whereas the Opposition Whigs were highlighting long-term structural causes and the revolutionary consequences of 1688-89. (kindle loc 394)
The works of Burke, Macaulay, and Trevelyan reasserted the establishment Whig interpretation of the revolution. ... Their interpretations became hegemonic not because they had uncovered new, irrefutable historical evidence but because in the face of contemporary political events their interpretative opponents had abandoned the field. .... Burke, Macaulay, and Trevelyan did not so much refute the arguments of the Opposition Whigs as assume that in the contemporary political climate their claims were irrelevant. (kindle loc 470)
These passages perhaps represent the key to Pincus's own perspective on the English Revolution -- we might argue that the book contributes to an unfettered "Opposition Whig" account of the revolution. And Pincus seems to support this interpretation: "It is now time to find answers to the questions that the Opposition Whigs raised in the eighteenth century" (kindle loc 503).

So we have the makings of a partial answer to the historiographic question -- why did several generations of historians so badly misunderstand the nature of the English Revolution? Ideology played a role; mental frameworks about "being English" played a role; and concrete political conflicts about what the state should do played a role. And, of course, these sorts of factors are still with us.