Saturday, April 30, 2011

The math of social networks

A social network is constituted by a number of units (nodes) that are connected to each other by a defined relationship -- for example, "x cites y", "x sends 5 email messages a week to y", "x and y belong to an organization in common." There are a few wrinkles -- the units may be persons, organizations, cities, journal articles, or other types of entities; the relationships may be uni-directional or bi-directional; and the linking relationships may represent categorical relationships or intensity relationships. "x and y are friends" is a bi-directional relationship; "x and y are close friends" is a bi-directional relationship recording intensity.

Some of the basic questions about a social network are easy to formulate but difficult to assess. Basically, we would like to know what groups of individuals are unusually closely interconnected with each other, relative to the average for the population as a whole.  Here are a few basic questions that we may have about networks of people.
  • Who is connected to whom? 
  • Are there a subset of persons who are unusually well connected? 
  • Are there sub-groupings of individuals who are more closely connected to each other than they are to others in the network? 
This last point may be put into the language of "communities": are there communities of individuals that can be identified on the basis of mathematical features of their positions within the graph of relationships defined by the data recording pairwise connections?

This question is especially important for sociologists because it goes to the heart of the reason why network maps are of sociological interest in the first place: we think that the social relationships among individuals explain important features of social action -- readiness to mobilize for a political cause, for example; this intuition derives from the idea that individuals influence each other through the exchange of information and the observation of each other's behavior; and so subgroups of persons with especially dense social connections with each other may have distinctive social characteristics as a group. So identifying the "communities" within a social network is an important sociological discovery.

This is where the mathematics of network graphs comes in. We need to have justifiable procedures for partitioning a network into sub-networks. These procedures need to make sense in terms of the intuition that there are often subgroups of nodes more closely related to each other. The procedures need to be non-arbitrary. They should be robust with respect to where we begin -- it shouldn't matter whether we begin analysis with this node or that node. And they need to be consistent with the fact that all the nodes are related to everyone else at some degree of separation. Neighborhoods that are entirely detached from the rest of the population are a trivial case; normally network ties extend transitively throughout a whole society.

Greek mathematician and social scientist Moses Boudourides is focused on this problem in his current work. (Follow him on Twitter at link.)  Boudourides is deeply sensitive to the sociological importance of the questions, so his work does a great job of bridging the two fields of thought. Some of his current work is available online, and it is very useful for people who want to understand more about the mathematics of social networks. It falls into the field of graph theory in mathematics, and it serves as a good tutorial to current thinking about the mathematics of social networks.

Worth reading first is "An Introduction to Community Detection in Graphs" (link). Here Boudourides offers a clear exposition of the mathematical problem of identifying a set of neighborhoods within a complex graph and lays out three approaches that have been taken.
Our aim here is to present an introductory and brief discussion of the formal concept of community in the context of the theory of complex networks (and social network analysis) and to describe (mostly by examples) a few of the many computational techniques which are commonly used for the detection of communities in a graph-theoretic background. (1)
Here is his definition of a community in the context of a network graph:
By a community structure of such a graph, we mean a partition of the set of nodes into a number of groups, called communities, such that all nodes belonging to any one of these groups satisfy a certain property of relative cohesiveness. Note that one may consider partitions, which are not necessarily strict, i.e., one may allow the case of overlapping communities, when there exist graph nodes belonging to more than one groups (communities) of the partition. (1)
The three iterative techniques he describes for analyzing a complex network into sub-communities are --
  1. Betweenness -- Centrality-based community detection
  2. k-Clique percolation
  3. Modularity maximization
In each case the analysis proceeds by working through the graph iteratively, identifying notes and links with certain characteristics, and arriving at a series of stages of community definition.  This process can proceed from above (divisive) or from below (agglomerative).

The "betweenness" approach derives from an application of the idea of "betweenness centrality" of edges: "the number of shortest paths between pairs of nodes that run through that edge" (3).  On this approach, edges are ranked by their betweenness measure; the highest ranked edge is removed; and the process is repeated for the reduced graph.  This is a divisive method.

The k-clique model is an agglomerative approach, or what Boudourides refers to as a "local community-finding approach" (6).  And modularity maximization approach begins with the graph as a whole and looks for regions that are locally higher in density than the graph as a whole.  Boudourides' explanation of each of these methods is technical and clear.  He indicates that the MM approach is most widely used; but that it falls in a class of particularly intractable optimization problems like the traveling salesman problem (NP-complete).  Consequently it is necessary to design heuristic algorithms on the basis of which to arrive at approximate solutions.  (As I understand the point, however, there is no guarantee that the approximate solution will be close to the ideal solution.)

With these tools at hand, he offers a detailed example: analysis of a data set of individuals who participated in peace demonstrations against the war in Iraq and the organizations and issues with which they were associated. Data on these activists are included in the International Peace Protest Survey (IPPS).  And the resulting neighborhood maps are fascinating.  These results are described in detail in a detailed research report on "Communities in the IPPS Survey Data" [link] and a theoretical paper on "Why and How Culture Matters in Community Interorganizational Structure" [link]. These presentations show the real power of mathematical network theory, in that they bring out social relationships among individuals within this population of activists that couldn't be discovered otherwise.  Here are a pair of network graphs for 972 activists in Italy presented in "Culture Matters":

Boudourides' particular goal here is to demonstrate the difference it makes to incorporate "cultural" affiliations into the structural analysis of the first figure.  Incorporating attitudes permits simplification of the community structure of this network, from nine communities in figure 5 to four communities in figure 6.  But more generally, the analysis demonstrates the analytical gain that is possible through this analysis, allowing us to discover important patterns of affiliation among these 900+ activists.  And this, in turn, appears very relevant when we come to trying to understand their behavior within a complex process of collective action. It allows us to give some rigorous detail to the idea that a social movement has a refined micro-structure underlying its macro-level actions and demands.

What is especially useful about these papers is the help they offer us non-specialists in understanding the mathematical techniques on the basis of which we can extract sociologically meaningful information from a network graph. This is a bit analogous to the gain we get from using statistical techniques to analyze and summarize a large data set. The statistical techniques allow us to winnow the data into a few statistical measures. And the techniques of graph theory that Moses Boudourides demonstrates allow a similar analytical power for the task of making sociological sense of a large network of connected individuals. In both cases it is necessary for us to understand the basics of the mathematical techniques if we are to use the tool appropriately.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quiet politics

image: Conspiracy, Edward Biberman (cover illustration, Quiet Politics)

Pepper Culpepper's Quiet Politics and Business Power: Corporate Control in Europe and Japan sheds some very interesting light on one key question in contemporary western democracies: how do corporations and business organizations so often succeed in creating a legislative and regulatory environment that largely serves their interests?  And, for that matter, why do they sometimes fail spectacularly in doing so, even while spending oceans of money in the effort to influence public policy?

The book is a careful comparative study of the development of corporate governance laws and institutions in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.  It offers special focus on the institutions governing hostile corporate takeovers (very different across the four examples), but also takes on other issues of current interest, including executive pay.  But though the cases and issues considered in the book are fairly esoteric and specialized, Culpepper's analysis is intended to provide a broadly useful tool for understanding how corporate influence is exercised in a democracy.

Culpepper wants to know what political and situational factors explain the divergent course that corporate governance has taken in these four contemporary democracies, from more permissive to more restrictive.  Do elected officials determine the broad outlines of the governance regime?  Are differences across states the result of differences in the platforms of large political parties in these states?  Or are the outcomes driven by something else?  Culpepper thinks that it is usually something else:
In this book, I argue that the outcomes observed in these four countries result not from variations in government partisanship or from different interest coalitions, but from differences in the political preferences of managerial organizations.  In all four countries, the rules favored by the managers of large firms are those that triumphed, often against substantial political opposition. (3)
Or in other words, the outcomes are those favored by the business elites rather than elected officials or mass-based political parties.  And differences in outcomes are explained by differences in the business environment in the four countries.  This is the "business power" part of the question, and Culpepper's fundamental empirical finding is that businesses elites generally have proven successful in creating the institutional and regulatory regimes in their polities that they prefer.  But how do they succeed?

Here Culpepper's central finding is encapsulated in the other half of his title: these corporate governance issues usually fall in the domain of what he refers to as "quiet politics."  Noisy politics arise around the issues that generate significant and sustained interest by large numbers of voters; these issues have "high salience" to the electorate, and parties and elected officials find it in their interest to adjust their positions around voter preferences on these salient issues.  Quiet politics arise in the context of issues with "low salience" -- issues to which the mass of voters are largely indifferent.  "The political salience of an issue refers to its importance to the average voter, relative to other political issues" (4).  In the context of "low salience" issues that matter to the interests of high-level business managers and elites, it is possible for these elites to deploy an arsenal of influential tools that succeed very well in bringing about the legislative and regulatory outcomes that the managerial elites prefer.  Most fundamental is an information asymmetry between managers and policy makers:
The managerial weapons of choice in quiet politics are a strong lobbying capacity and the deference of legislators and reporters toward managerial expertise.  The political competitors of managers, be they liberalizing politicians or crusading institutional investors, lack access to equivalent political armaments, so long as voters evince little sustained interest in and knowledge about an issue. (4)
Culpepper unpacks the political advantage residing with business elites and managers in terms of acknowledged expertise about the intricacies of corporate organization, an ability to frame the issues for policy makers and journalists, and ready access to rule-writing committees and task forces.  These factors give elite business managers positional advantage, from which they can exert a great deal of influence on how an issue is formulated when it comes into the forum of public policy formation.  Culpepper refers to British Cadbury Committee, tasked to develop "best practices" in corporate governance (9), as an important example of an occasion where high-level managers had a very powerful ability to write the rules that would govern their behavior.  Vice President Cheney's energy committee during the Bush administration is another great example (link).  Informal working groups, containing a significant representation of managerial elites, have an ability to set the agenda for a regulatory regime that allows them to privilege positions they prefer and to protect their organizations from worst-case outcomes.
As in the case of direct lobbying, the power of managers in this context is the power to set the terms of the debate in an environment that is established with an explicit eye to protecting their interests. (9)
Here is one of many detailed examples that Culpepper studies in the book: the Peters Committee in the Netherlands in 1997, tasked to "establish a voluntary code of best practice in corporate governance" (100).  He notes that the Peters Committee was very similar in structure to the Cadbury Committee.  It was chaired by a former CEO, and had representation from the VEUO (Dutch Association of Securities-Issuing Companies), pension funds, and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.  Unions were not represented.  And, Culpepper reports, the forty recommendations of the Committee were essentially ignored by the Dutch corporate actors.
Scholars of corporate finance point to the Peters Committee as a textbook example of the failures of self-regulation of business without any legal enforcement.  Yet from the viewpoint of the managerial interests that dominated the committee, its results were consistent with their highest political priority: to defend protection mechanisms [against hostile takeovers]. (101)
In other words: from the point of view of Dutch corporate elites, the committee was not a failure, but rather a demonstration of their ability to shape the agenda and secure a near-term environment that enabled their freedom of action.

So essentially Culpepper's empirical-institutional argument is that top business managers (CEOs and their teams) have a very powerful set of tools on the basis of which they are able to influence legislation and regulation.  This tool set leads to an impressive win percentage when it comes to legislation and regulation affecting the business environment.

But he also finds that these tools are really only decisive in the context of "low salience" issues -- issues that have not engaged the voting public with any intensity.  When a hitherto boring and technical issue of corporate governance suddenly jumps into high salience -- for example, the conflicts of interest faced by accounting firms involved in the Enron debacle -- these weapons of quiet influence essentially lose their ability to shape the outcomes.
The more the public cares about an issue, the less managerial organizations will be able to exercise disproportionate influence over the rules governing that issue. (177)
Parties, political entrepreneurs, legislative committees, and elected officials become interested in the issue; it becomes worthwhile for business journalists to learn the technical details; and the public demands solutions that may be contrary to the preferences of the business elite.  And Culpepper works through one of these examples in detail as well: the public and public policy debates that have flared up concerning executive pay (chapter 6).

In addition to its substantive political-institutional findings, the book is interesting for its methodology.  Culpepper explicitly favors the "causal mechanism" approach to social research and investigation.  He treats cases comparatively; and he attempts to "process-trace" the paths through which outcomes came about.  He depends extensively on interviews with pivotal actors in some of the cases studied.  He does a very good job of aligning his analysis against its main competitors -- median voter theories and coalition politics analysis.  Finally, the book is explicitly comparativist; he want to understand in some detail the situations and factors that lead to different outcomes with respect to corporate governance, and the rules governing hostile takeovers, in the four countries he studies.  So the book does an admirable job of sketching out some of the microfoundations of corporate influence in existing democracies.  As such, it is a very useful contribution -- it helps to connect the dots (link).

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Inequalities and the ascendant right

The playing field seems to keep tilting further against ordinary people in this country -- poor people, hourly workers, low-paid service workers, middle-class people with family incomes in the $60-80K range, uninsured people, ....  75% of American households have household incomes below $80,000; the national median was $44,389 in 2005.  Meanwhile the top one percent of Americans receive 17% of total after-tax income.  And the rationale offered by the right to justify these increasing inequalities keeps shifting over time: free enterprise ideology, trickle-down economics, divisive racial politics, and irrelevant social issues, for example.

Here is the trajectory of US income by quintile since 1965 (link); essentially no change in the bottom three quintiles over that 40-year period. Plainly the benefits of growth and productivity change in the national economy have benefited the top 40% of the population, and disproportionately have flowed to the top 5%.

Just consider what has happened to income to the "middle" class versus the top 1% in the US economy. The 40-60% segment of earners have declined from 16.5% to 14.1% of after-tax income, while the top 1% has more than doubled its share, to 17.1%.

And here's a very graphic demonstration of the rapid increase in the percent of income flowing to the top percent of US income earners since the Reagan revolution (thanks to benmuse):

Meanwhile, the power of extreme wealth in the country seems more or less unlimited and unchallenged.  Corporations can spend as much as they want to further candidates -- as "persons" with freedom of speech rights following Citizens' United v. Federal Election Commission (link). Billionaires like the Koch brothers fund the anti-labor agendas of conservative governors. Right-wing media empires dominate the airwaves. Well-financed conservative politicians use the language of "budget crisis" as a pretext for harshly reducing programs that benefit ordinary people (like Pell grants). Lobbyists for corporations and major economic interests can influence agencies and regulations in the interest of their clients, more or less invisibly.  And billionaire lightweights like Donald Trump continue to make ridiculous statements about President Obama's birth status.

The political voice of the right, and the economic elite they serve, has never been louder.  And it is becoming more reckless in its attacks on the rest of society.  Immigrants come in for repressive legislation in Arizona and other states.  Racist voices that would never have been tolerated a generation ago are edging towards mainstream acceptability on the right. Self-righteous attempts to reverse health care reform are being trumpeted -- threatening one of the few gains that poor and uninsured people have made in decades.  And the now-systematic attack on public sector unions is visibly aimed at silencing one of the very few powerful voices that stand in the political sphere on behalf of ordinary working people.

The big mystery is -- why do the majority of Americans accept this shifting equation without protest? And how can progressive political organizations and movements do a better job of communicating the basic social realities of our economy and our democracy to a mass audience?  Social justice isn't a "special interest" -- it is a commitment to the fundamental interests and dignity of the majority of Americans.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Social networks as aggregators

We think of social phenomena as "relational" in some important respect. Individuals contribute to social outcomes through structured and dynamic relationships with other individuals. So outcomes are not just heaps of aggregated individual behavior; rather, they are the filigreed result of interlinked, coordinated, competitive and sometimes unintended actions of people who have intentional and structural relationships to each other. And we think of these relationships, often, in terms of the metaphors and analytics of social "networks." So it is worthwhile giving some thought to how the machinery of social network theory can help us in better understanding the ways that social processes unfold. Here is a nice passage from Mario Diani's introduction to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.
It is difficult to grasp the nature of social movements. They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or revolts, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; they cannot be identified with any specific organization either, rather they consist of groups of organizations, with various levels of formalization, linked in patterns of interaction which run from the fairly centralized to the totally decentralized, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile. Persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomized individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either direct or mediated. Social movements are in other words, complex and highly heterogeneous network structures. (1)
This passage emphasizes quite a few themes that have been important throughout UnderstandingSociety -- the heterogeneity of social phenomena, the difficulty of formulating a clear understanding of social ontology, and the challenge of representing the processes of aggregation through which individual social actions contribute to mid- and large-scale social outcomes.

So how do the analytical resources of network theory contribute to a better understanding of the ways that actions aggregate into outcomes?  Diani emphasizes several ways in which network analysis has contributed to the study of contentious politics. 
Network analysis as it is best known developed with reference to a 'realist' view of social structure as networks which linked together concrete actors through specific ties, identifiable and measureable through reliable empirical instruments. This view represented an alternative to both views of social structures as macro forces largely independent from the control of the specific actors associated with them ...., and views of structure as aggregates of the individual actors sharing determinate specific traits (5).
So if we take it as a plain fact about the social world that individuals have a range of meaningful and material relationships with other individuals, both proximate and distant, then it is plainly important to understand the effects that those relationships have on their consciousness and behavior.  These causal relationships are likely to extend in both directions -- from the network to the actor, and from the actor back into the network.

What kinds of social relationships are most relevant to understanding social processes like contentious movements?  Particularly important are "personal ties linking prospective participants to current activists or dense counter-cultural networks affecting rates of mobilization in specific areas" (3).  Diani mentions "personal friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbours; ... people who share with prospective participants in some kind of collective engagement, such as previous or current participation in other movement activities, political or social organizations, and public bodies" (7).  To this list we might add membership and interaction within the kinds of civic and communal organizations that Robert Putnam emphasizes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Here is the key point: different people find themselves in very different networks of social connections, and these relationships contribute to their social and political consciousness in diverse ways.  If we are interested in the spread of militant civil rights activism, as Doug McAdam is in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, or in the spread of fascist activism and mobilization in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Michael Mann is in Fascists, it is highly relevant to discover the relationships and organizations through which individuals come into contact with each other and with the ideas of the nascent movements.  Likewise, if we are interested in the proliferation of support for the Deacons of Defense in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, as Lance Hill is in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is important to identify the personal and organizational linkages through which ordinary people became aware of this response to white supremacy and violence.  Communication of ideas and political emotions requires a mechanism connecting the "signallers" and those to whom the messages eventually percolate, and this is not a depersonalized, homogeneous process.

Recruitment and mobilization is one aspect of contentious politics where social networks are plainly important.  Relationships in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the church or mosque are a likely location for the diffusion of a range of socially relevant material -- news, gossip, indignation, shared views about politics.  And these relationships are a potential vector for the recruitment of followers and activists for a range of new political ideas -- from civil rights to Tea Party to fascism.  

Identifying coalitions of collective actors is another area of current research.  Once a topic has gained some degree of visibility and salience, it is likely enough that multiple groups will begin to focus on it.  Anti-tax activism is a good example -- dozens of "citizen-based" organizations emerged in California in the 1950s and 1960s with the overall goal of limiting property and income taxes in the state, and it is useful to track the emerging relationships that developed among these organizations and their activists.

Diani also highlights the role that concrete social networks play in "framing and tactical adaptation of action repertoires" (4).  Framing has to do with the ways that issues are understood by the participants; so this topic unavoidably has to do with culture and social interpretation.  But the ways in which cultural frames are conveyed to people through a population are material processes that can be studied empirically.  And social networks play a key role in these processes.  As people interact with their friends and associates, they develop their political and social representations of the society around them.  These interactions are the direct embodiment of their social networks.  Diani singles out "communitarian and subculture networks" for particular attention: "communitarian ties operate at a minimum to strengthen the identity and solidarity among movement activists and sympathizers. At the same time, though, they provide the specific locus of social conflict in those cases where the challenge is eminently on the symbolic side and where, in other words, the definition of identities and the preservation of opportunities for the enactment of alternative lifestyles are mainly at stake" (9).  These features of identity-based mobilization, through networks of like-minded individuals, are important in Michael Mann's analysis of the rise of fascism in Fascists as well: 
The fascist core consisted everywhere of two successive generations of young men, coming of age between WorldWar I and the late 1930s. Their youth and idealism meant that fascist values were proclaimed as being distinctively “modern” and “moral.” They were especially transmitted through two institutions socializing young men: secondary and higher education, encouraging notions of moral progress, and the armed forces, encouraging militarism. Since the appeal was mainly to young men, it was also distinctly macho, encouraging an ethos of braggart, semi-disciplined violence, in peacetime encouraging militarism to mutate into paramilitarism. The character of fascism was set by young men socialized in institutions favorable to moralizing violence and eventually to murder. Yet the similarity of values between paramilitarism and militarism always gave fascism a capacity to appeal to armed forces themselves, not to the extent of inducing military rebellions but to the extent of generating sympathy there that at its most extreme could immobilize the army. (26)
“Fascists” were not fully formed at the moment they entered the movement. People may formally sign up for a movement and yet possess only a rudimentary knowledge of it – sympathy for a few slogans, respect for a charismatic F¨uhrer or Duce, or simply following friends who have joined. Most recruits joined the movement young, unmarried, unformed, with little adult civilian experience. On them, fascist parties and paramilitaries were especially powerful socialization agencies. These movements were proudly elitist and authoritarian, enshrining a pronounced hierarchy of rank and an extreme cult of the leader. Orders were to be obeyed, discipline to be imposed. Above all, they imposed a requirement of activism. Thus militants experienced intense emotional comradeship. Where the movement was proscribed, clandestinity tightened it. Many activists lost their jobs or went into prison or exile. Though this deterred many of the more fainthearted, among those remaining active such constraints further tightened the movement. (28)
The social processes that Mann describes here have to do with all three aspects -- recruitment, mobilization, and framing; and they depend on the networks of relationships through which the core fascist values and worldviews were transmitted to new recruits.  Institutions were key in this transmission -- the military, the workplace, the youth organization -- and a large part of their influence was their ability to create a significant cohort of young men with a specific set of set of social relationships.

The lens of social networks, in short, seems to be a very powerful tool for understanding the processes of aggregation -- upward, downward, and lateral -- through which ideas, grievances, and actors come together into major social upheavals and movements.

What is perhaps more difficult to see, though, is how to engage in empirical research on the concrete networks of social relationships that have important effects on outcomes we care about.  As the United States moved towards civil war in 1860 and 1861, there were hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. Army officer corps who had antecedently mixed loyalties -- Southern birth, family still residing in the South, but a tradition of education and service within the U.S. Army.  So what accounts for the choices that were made by various officers when they had to decide -- North or South? It is intuitively plausible that each officer's concrete social network played an important role in his decision -- appeals from family and friends, business relationships in Virginia, long-standing relationships with senior Northern officers, an education and cohort at West Point.  But it is not entirely clear how to turn this plausible view into a feasible research plan.

This is one reason why the Diani volume is such a worthwhile contribution.  Most of the contributors focus their work on specific empirical problems in the field of social contention.  Maryjane Osa looks at activist networks in the Polish People's Republic; Christopher Ansell looks at community activism in the San Francisco Bay environmental movement; Jeff Broadbent looks at social networks in the Japanese environmental movement; and Chuck Tilly and Lesley Wood look at networks in contentious episodes in British history around 1828.  These are concrete, empirical-historical efforts to take the guiding ideas of network analysis and discover some substantive insights into the specific ways that a variety of protest movements unfolded.  And they give a better understanding of the contribution that social network analysis can offer to concrete historical research.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scenario-based projections of social processes

As we have noted in previous posts, social outcomes are highly path-dependent and contingent (link, link, link, link). This implies that it is difficult to predict the consequences of even a single causal intervention within a complex social environment including numerous actors -- say, a new land use policy, a new state tax on services, or a sweeping cap-and-trade policy on CO2 emissions. And yet policy changes are specifically designed and chosen in order to bring about certain kinds of outcomes. We care about the future; we adopt policies to improve this or that feature of the future; and yet we have a hard time providing a justified forecast of the consequences of the policy.

This difficulty doesn't only affect policy choices; it also pertains to large interventions like the democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. There are too many imponderable factors -- the behavior of the military, the reactions of other governments, the consequent strategies of internal political actors and parties (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) -- so activists and academic experts alike are forced to concede that they don't really know what the consequences will be.

One part of this imponderability derives from the fact that social changes are conveyed through sets of individual and collective actors. The actors have a variety of motives and modes of reasoning, and the collective actors are forced to somehow aggregate the actions and wants of subordinate actors. And it isn't possible to anticipate with confidence the choices that the actors will make in response to changing circumstances. At a very high level of abstraction, it is the task of game theory to model strategic decision-making over a sequence of choices (problems of strategic rationality); but the tools of game theory are too abstract to allow modeling of specific complex social interactions.

A second feature of unpredictability in extended social processes derives from the fact that the agents themselves are not fixed and constant throughout the process. The experience of democracy activism potentially changes the agent profoundly -- so the expectations we would have had of his/her choices at the beginning may be very poorly grounded by the middle and end. Some possible changes may make a very large difference in outcomes -- actors may become more committed, more open to violence, more ready to compromise, more understanding of the grievances of other groups, ... This is sometimes described as endogeneity -- the causal components themselves change their characteristics as a consequence of the process.

So the actors change through the social process; but the same is often true of the social organizations and institutions that are involved in the process. Take contentious politics -- it may be that a round of protests begins around a couple of loose pre-existing organizations. As actors seek to achieve their political goals through collective action, they make use of the organizations for their communications and mobilization resources. But some actors may then also attempt to transform the organization itself -- to make it more effective or to make it more accommodating to the political objectives of this particular group of activists. (Think of Lenin as a revolutionary organization innovator.) And through their struggles, they may elicit changes in the organizations of the "forces of order" -- the police may create new tactics (kettling) and new sub-organizations (specialized intelligence units). So the process of change is likely enough to transform all the causal components as well -- the agents and their motivations as well as the surrounding institutions of mobilization and control. Rather than a set of billiard balls and iron rods with fixed properties and predictable aggregate consequences, we find a fluid situation in which the causal properties of each of the components of the process are themselves changing.

One way of trying to handle the indeterminacy and causal complexity of these sorts of causal processes is to give up on the goal of arriving at specific "point" predictions about outcomes and instead concentrate on tracing out a large number of possible scenarios, beginning with the circumstances, actors, and structures on the ground. In some circumstances we may find that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes; but we may find that a large percentage of the feasible scenarios or pathways fall within a much narrower range. This kind of reasoning is familiar to economists and financial analysts in the form of Monte Carlo simulations. And it is possible that the approach can be used for modeling likely outcomes in more complex social processes as well -- war and peace, ethnic conflict, climate change, or democracy movements.

Agent-based modeling is one component of approaches like these (link).  This means taking into account a wide range of social factors -- agents, groups, organizations, institutions, states, popular movements, and then modeling the consequences of these initial assumptions. Robert Axelrod and colleagues have applied a variety of modeling techniques to these efforts (link).

Another interesting effort to carry out such an effort is underway at the RAND Pardee Center, summarized in a white paper called Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis. Here is how the lead investigators describe the overall strategy of the effort:
This report describes and demonstrates a new, quantitative approach to long-term policy analysis (LTPA).  These robust decisionmaking methods aim to greatly enhance and support humans’ innate decisionmaking capabilities with powerful quantitative analytic tools similar to those that have demonstrated unparalleled effectiveness when applied to more circumscribed decision problems.  By reframing the question “What will the long-term future bring?” as “How can we choose actions today that will be consistent with our long-term interests?” robust decisionmaking can harness the heretofore unavailable capabilities of modern computers to grapple directly with the inherent difficulty of accurate long-term prediction that has bedeviled previous approaches to LTPA. (iii)
LTPA is an important example of a class of problems requiring decisionmaking under conditions of  deep uncertainty—that is, where analysts do not know, or the parties to a decision cannot agree on, (1) the appropriate conceptual models that describe the relationships among the key driving forces that will shape the long-term future, (2) the probability distributions used to represent uncertainty about key variables and parameters in the mathematical representations of these conceptual models, and/or (3) how to value the desirability of alternative outcomes. (iii)
And here, in a nutshell, is how the approach is supposed to work:
This study proposes four key elements of successful LTPA: 
Consider large ensembles (hundreds to millions) of scenarios.
• Seek robust, not optimal, strategies.
• Achieve robustness with adaptivity.
• Design analysis for interactive exploration of the multiplicity of plausible futures.
These elements are implemented through an iterative process in which the computer helps humans create a large ensemble of plausible scenarios, where each scenario represents one guess about how the world works (a future state of the world) and one choice of many alternative strategies that might be adopted to influence outcomes. Ideally, such ensembles will contain a sufficiently wide range of plausible futures that one will match whatever future, surprising or not, does occur—at least close enough for the purposes of crafting policies robust against it.  (xiii)
Thus, computer-guided exploration of scenario and decision spaces can provide a prosthesis for the imagination, helping humans, working individually or in groups, to discover adaptive near-term strategies that are robust over large ensembles of plausible futures. (xiv)
The hard work of this approach is to identify the characteristics of policy levers, exogenous uncertainties, measures, and relationship (XLRM).  Then the analysis turns to identifying a very large number of possible scenarios, depending on the initial conditions and the properties of the actors and organizations. (This aspect of the analysis is analogous to multiple plays of a simulation game like SimCity.) Finally, the approach requires aggregating the large number of scenarios to allow the analysis to reach some conclusions about the distribution of futures entailed by the starting position and the characteristics of the actors and institutions.  And the method attempts to assign a measure of "regret" to outcomes, in order to assess the policy steps that might be taken today that lead to the least regrettable outcomes in the distant future.

It appears, then, that there are computational tools and methods that may prove useful for social explanation and social prediction -- not of single outcomes, but of the range of outcomes that may be associated with a set of interventions, actors, and institutions.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Academic freedom and faculty email

There have been several efforts recently by partisan groups in Michigan and Wisconsin to gain access to faculty email messages on subjects that fall within the scope of the faculty member's research or personal political opinions. These groups have made use of state Freedom of Information laws, on the basis that faculty members are "state officials" and their communications are therefore "business records" of the university.

This is an alarming intrusion into the zone of academic and personal freedom of the faculty member, and it threatens to create a chilling effect on the faculty member's ability to freely communicate his or her ideas with colleagues without fear of retaliation or punishment, or premature disclosure of ideas not yet fully developed. It is vital that universities think very carefully about these issues before complying.

Once a scholar's ideas are published, they are in the public forum and are readily available to anyone who is interested, including the partisan groups who are now attempting to gain access to private emails. But before the scholar chooses to publish his or her ideas, she needs and deserves to have a zone of private conversation and expression through which she can test and refine her ideas. This is part of being a human being. It is a key reason why academic freedom is so important, to allow the free expression and refinement of ideas through intellectual interaction. And being able to control the publicity or privacy of one's thoughts is essential for this process, and is very close to being a human right.

So accepting the principle that a faculty member at a public university is a state official and his/her communications about research ideas or social and political opinions are "business records" represents a huge erosion of academic and personal freedom. Academic freedom requires a zone of untrammeled private expression and discussion through which the individual can develop and refine her ideas.

If public universities are to be successful in maintaining their commitment to academic freedom for their faculty, they need to draw a bright line between business records and intellectual, critical, and creative documents. Freedom of information laws pertain to the former but should not require disclosure of the latter.

So what is the distinction? Here is one way of drawing the distinction. Business activities have to do with decision making about material issues within the organization. They have to do with concrete decisions involving such issues as purchasing, contracting, personnel decisions, hiring, and other material administrative actions. Intellectual, critical and creative documents are those that express the faculty member's ideas, thoughts, judgments, and hypotheses about subjects of interest. Transparency about business deliberations and decisions is essential in order to prevent conflict of interest, favoritism, and other improper business activities within any institution. But privacy with regard to "intellectual, critical, and creative documents" falls outside the scope of business activity, and should be protected.

The argument is sometimes made that professors are hired to think and do research; therefore their writings, even in email, are part of their employment work; therefore these writings are business records. But this line of thought is incorrect. The faculty member is hired to teach courses. An expectation of their work is that they will be active intellectuals and scholars. They will exercise their talents, it is expected, in an autonomous and self-directed way, to arrive at their own original results. But the content and product of their intellectual works are not themselves paid work products. Evidence of this, in part, is the fact that the university does not claim ownership of the copyright on faculty writings. Originality, autonomy, independence, and creativity are key to intellectual work, including faculty work. And this in turn underlines the importance of the zone of privacy within the context of which their intellectual and personal thinking and expression take place.

There are extreme and untenable results that ensue if you take this paradigm to its limit. Right now the FOIA requests are for a range of emails delimited by a list of keywords. But if the principle is accepted that the faculty member's intellectual products, in whatever form, are a business record, then preliminary drafts of scholarly work, laboratory notebooks, the jottings of a creative writing professor in preparation of a short story or novel -- all these products ultimately lead to a research result, which is a part of the expectations of the faculty member's work. And therefore, by this paradigm, they would be discoverable. Therefore it would be possible to FOIA a poet working for a public university to make available preliminary drafts of a poem. Likewise, paintings, drawings, and sculptures are the work of faculty in the arts. By this same principle, it is hard to see a basis for denying a FOIA request for drawings, sketches, and clay models.

On the subject of the expression of political and social opinions, observations, and judgments: Clearly this set of ideas and expressions by the faculty member does not fall within the scope of faculty employment under any description. The university does not hire faculty members to have political opinions. Rather, as citizens they may or may not have such opinions, and it is entirely within their rights to hold and express them. Further, neither the state nor the university has a right or an interest to surveilling or observing or criticizing or delimiting their expressions of political opinion. So any emails that are primarily expressive of political opinions or judgments are not part of their work, do not have business content, and should not be provided under the scope of a FOIA request, even though they are expressed by a faculty member hired by a public university.

These FOIA requests, it should be noted, do not depend on the issue of whether the email account is owned by the university or is a private account. FOIA requires university officials to provide emails that have business content relevant to a particular subject, without regard to the platform on which these messages were transmitted. If the judgment were to stand that the faculty's intellectual products are in fact business records, then it wouldn't matter whether they are expressed in an email owned by the university or a private account.


Here is a story in TPM about the Mackinac Center FOIA request in Michigan (link). Here is a summary of Michigan's FOIA law. Here is a posting from Inside Higher Education that describes the decisions the University of Wisconsin administration made with respect to requests for some of history professor William Cronon's email (link). And here is a thoughtful piece from the Center for Free Speech on Campus on the issues (link).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

University as a causal structure

An earlier post laid out a case for a modest social holism, in the form of a set of arguments for the idea that there are social forces and causal powers that are relatively autonomous from the features of the individuals who constitute them (link). These ideas parallel some of those offered by Dave Elder-Vass that were discussed in a recent post. I hold that this modest holism is compatible with the ideas of methodological localism (link) and the requirement that social causes require microfoundations (link, link). At the same time, it helps make sense of the fairly obvious point that social institutions, norms, and linguistic communities exercise powerful influence over the thoughts and behaviors of individuals.

The causal processes linking institution and individuals appear to be fully two-directional, with reinforcing feedback loops. The institution consists of a set of rules, processes, and role-players. The rules are both formal (laws, standard practice guides, by-laws) and informal (long-standing and widely recognized practices and norms governing specific kinds of activity). Some of the role players have the role of enforcing the rules and incentivizing the desired behaviors. These "enforcers" may act on the basis of a range of levels of understanding and commitment; so enforcement itself is variable. Ordinary participants within the institution are subject to the incentives and sanctions created by the rules and the enforcers; so their behavior is to some extent responsive to the rules. And ordinary participants in turn have internalized some understanding of the core processes and regulations of the institution -- and are (in varying degrees of involvement) prepared to encourage or sanction the behavior of their peers based on their understanding of the rules.

This description raises a number of theoretical issues. (1) What social processes establish the relative degree of continuity of the rules and practices of the institution? What prevents "drift" away from the rules of a given moment? (2) What social and agentic processes lead individuals to conform to the rules, and under what circumstances do individuals subvert or evade the rules? (3) What social processes ensure a reasonable degree of commitment by "agents" (officers, managers, directors) of the institution to its foundational rules and practices? How is an alignment between rules, agents, and participants established and maintained?

We might imagine that there are "tipping points" when it comes to adherence to the institution's norms, rules, and practices. When a sufficient number of agents or participants sincerely endorse the rules and adhere to them, this leads other agents to do so as well. When rule evasion is perceived to be common, this probably leads to a precipitous decline in rule adherence. So widespread conformance is itself a causal factor in the persistence of the rules into the next time period.

But how do we go beyond these general statements about structural causation? It may be helpful to think through a familiar example -- the ways in which a specific institution like a university both shapes and influences the behavior of many individuals, and the ways in which its own internal functions and culture are themselves constituted by the behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and morés of the individuals who fall within its ambit. Here is a sketch of the functional organization of a fictitious university:

The diagram has place-holders for formal, explicit rules and procedures (by-laws and operating regulations) and informal norms and practices; it has a sketch of some typical processes and transactions within which actors need to make various performances (tenure evaluation processes, research account oversight, purchasing decisions); and it identifies core "enforcer and incentivizer" roles -- CFO, provost, dean, auditors ... The actions that take place within the university generally fall within the scope of one or more of these regulations and norms.  Actors (faculty members, front-line staff, administrators) are generally aware of the procedures that regulate their actions, and they either conform or deviate from the procedures.  If they conform, generally things go well for them; if they deviate (submit false receipts for travel reimbursement) they are often detected and punished.  So behavior of actors within the institution shows a measurable level of conformance with regulations and norms.  And there are direct forms of oversight, reward, and punishment that serve to reinforce compliance.  Finally, to close the circle -- the enforcers and incentivizers themselves fall within a circle of appraisal and accountability; so if their behavior deviates from what the standards and norms of the institution require, there is a likelihood of discovery and remedial action by others.

Outside the scope of the formal and informal norms of the institution, there are a variety of strands of institutional culture.  Faculty, for example, find themselves in specific social settings within the university -- department meetings, faculty clubs, research seminars, etc. -- in which they gain exposure to local attitudes and values.  And, as anyone who has spent much time in a university knows, these experiences often lead up to a fairly stable institutional culture among faculty -- in a department or division, or in the university as a whole (link).  The faculty in a liberal arts college have a rather different culture from that of the faculty at a large research university.  And liberal arts college faculties differ among themselves as well in this respect.

There is another kind of causal influence that is indicated in the first diagram above -- the fact that universities also have relations of influence with other universities.  So if University A is looking to refine or modify its employee benefits policies, it is likely to examine the best practices of University B and C as well; and it is likely to adopt a few of those best practices.  So the network of learning and emulation that exists across institutions is another form of causal influence at the level of the social structure.  Here again, it is not difficult to disaggregate this causal mechanism into specific individual-level actions -- attendance at an ACE conference, a site visit to University B by several representatives of University A, the drafting of a new policy by those individuals when they return home for consideration by a deliberative body, and the ultimate selection of the new policy by the president of the university.

So it isn't difficult to specify the ways in which the institution and its components exercise "macro" causal impact on the behavior of individuals within a university.  An organization develops specific arrangements to solve problems of coordination, incentives, and rule enforcement; and these social arrangements have a strong influence on the behavior of the individuals who live within the institution.  But likewise, it is not difficult to specify how these rules, norms, and enforcement mechanisms are embodied in the actions and mental states of a set of individuals.  The people who occupy positions of influence within this organization have been "trained" by the organization to do their jobs; the skills learned through this training (and through their experience in the position over time) are embodied in their cognitive systems as "managerial skills"; and their motivations and behaviors themselves are subject to a degree of institutional control.  (A dean who refuses to accept the responsibility of maintaining fiscal balance in his or her unit will soon be removed.) This causal system is indeed cyclical: both the organizational components and the participants have history and skills developed by past experience that allow them to function adeptly within the system.  The participants have learned their university "habitus" from prior experience of the university; and the university's rules, norms, and procedures are in turn embodied in the present in the habitus of the current members of the university, and the embodied traces of its norms and rules in the form of written regulations.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Structures and structuration

Several recent posts have focused on new thinking about how to characterize "agency". Much of that thinking is aimed at dissolving the distinction between agency and structure. So what remains to be said about "structure"? Has the structure side of the debate developed much in the past decade or so?

One of the important exponents of a structure-centered approach to social theory is Anthony Giddens. His 1979 book, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis, is one place where his views on structure are expressed. He separates himself from earlier versions of "structuralism," including Saussure and Levi-Strauss; but he advocates for the reality of social structures and the methodological appropriateness of attempting to arrive at empirically based theories of social structures in sociology and other areas of the social sciences. He emphasizes the fact of process rather than static organization in his theory of structures; to capture the "verbiness" of a process view, he prefers the language of "structuration" rather than "structuralism." This distinction having to do with the location of things in time -- a static snapshot versus a continuous process -- extends to his treatment of action as well:
'Action' or agency, as I use it, thus does not refer to a series of discrete acts combined together, but to a continuous flow of conduct. We may define action... as involving a 'stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world'. (55)
A recent and unapologetic treatment of the reality of social structures is presented in Dave Elder-Vass's The Causal Power of Social Structures (2010). Elder-Vass accepts the point that agency and structure are inseparable; neither functions as a solely sufficient cause of social outcomes. But he argues strongly for the idea that social structures have causal powers that are not reducible to facts about individuals. He places his analysis generally within the tradition of critical realism (Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science). And he relies heavily on the theory of supervenience to solve the riddle of how structures can be composed of individual-level activity and yet possess autonomous causal powers (Kim, Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem and Mental Causation).

Elder-Vass rejects the ontology of methodological individualism, which he regards as a species of reductionism: social properties need to be reducible to features of individuals. And yet he fully and unambiguously embraces the obvious fact that social structures must be composed of individuals in relations to each other. His way out of this apparent contradiction is to argue that social structures possess emergent causal powers: causal characteristics that pertain to the whole but not to the parts or their ensembles. Here is how he characterizes emergence:
A thing ... can have properties or capabilities that are not possessed by its parts. Such properties are called emergent properties. (4)
And later:
An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. (17)
It is obvious and unexceptional that there are "emergent" properties in this limited sense. However, I'm not sure it captures the full concept of emergence. It would appear that holists have another idea in mind as well: the idea that the properties of the whole cannot be derived from knowledge of the properties of the parts and their relations to each other. ((E-V discusses this angle under the topic of "eliminative reductionism"; 24, 54.) A square figure is composed of four lines; the figure possesses area, whereas the lines do not. Sugar is sweet, but its component parts -- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen -- are not. So is "sweetness" an emergent property? Apparently it is not; because the sweetness of the compound can in fact be explained by the knowledge we have of the chemistry of the components, their molecular bonds, and the human sensors that register "sweetness." The property of sweetness can be derived from knowledge of the basic chemistry and the workings of the sensory system. So sweetness can be "reduced" to facts about the molecule and the sensor. It is not a novel causal power.

Here is why Elder-Vass thinks the concept of emergence is valuable in the context of social structures:
The value of the concept of emergence lies in its potential to explain how an entity can have a causal impact on the world in its own right: a causal impact that is not just the sum of the impacts its parts would have if they were not organised into this kind of whole. (5)
But really his central insight is that composites may have causal powers that are relatively autonomous from the powers of their parts:
Reductionist thinkers have argued that if we can explain how a causal power works in terms of lower-level forces, the original power itself becomes redundant to any explanation of its effects. By contrast, I argue in chapter 3 that when we explain a causal power, we do not explain it away. (6)
And here is his central point:
I shall argue that social entities [structures] are causally effective in their own right, with causal powers that are distinct from those of human individuals. But I shall also examine the mechanisms that underpin these causal powers, thus recognizing the contributory role that human individuals make to the functioning of social structures. (6)
(This last point is what I and others refer to as providing "microfoundations" for claims about social causation.)

So this seems to be Elder-Vass's core ontology of structures: structures are composed of individuals in relation to each other; structures have "emergent" causal powers that are not simply the sum of the causal powers of the component individuals; these emergent powers derive from the relations between the components; and for any particular causal power of the structure it must be possible to provide an explanation of the power in terms of mechanisms involving the individuals and their relations.

The bulk of the book takes the form of an effort to work out this view in detail with respect to two important types of social structures: organizations and normative circles. A bank is an organization (which in turn fits into a web of other organizations). A normative circle is a set of overlapping sets of individuals who both embody and conform to a normative rule or ideal. (E-V traces the idea here back to Durkheim and Simmel.) More on this later!

I suggested above that the concept of explanatory autonomy might work better than emergence. So what is a good definition of "relative autonomy" of causal powers at one level or another, with respect to the underlying entities? I think there are many areas of the sciences where we identify a set of causal processes that are sufficiently regular and predictable, that we don't feel obliged to drop down to the next level in order to achieve an adequate explanation. A level is "explanatorily autonomous" if entities at that level conform to a regular set of causal relations. Thinking of the brain as a computing system is an example. If we analyze the visual system in terms of a set of receptors, aggregators, detectors, analyzers, etc., and if this model allows us to explain and predict the organism's perceptual capacities (including mistakes), then we don't need to have a full theory of the neurophysiology that underlies. On this example, "perception as computational system" is relatively autonomous with respect to the underlying neurophysiology.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Picturing social consciousness

Here is a schematic effort at capturing some of the main factors involved in the socially constituted agent. There are the "influencers" that impact the development of the person and his/her "social brain" -- that is, the neurophysiological infrastructure we have evolved through our evolutionary history for gaining knowledge, representing the world, interacting with other people, etc. I've singled out media, family, school, religion, peers, popular culture, work, and the military as primary social and cultural influencers. And the red arrows indicate the schematic notion that these institutions and structured experiences affect the development of multiple aspects of the social agent's mental system. The idea is that each of these institutions creates an environment and a set of experiences that lead the young person into a specific "grammar" of interpretation and action.

Second, there is a marker in the diagram for the evolutionary history of the human "social brain" -- the neurophysiological systems we have evolved to support cognition, language, dexterity, cooperation, ... This part of the diagram represents a whole set of fields of interdisciplinary research, from neurophysiology to animal ethology to the study of morality embodied in human practices.

Third, there are the "sections" of the fully developed actor -- memory, emotion, meaning, purposes, norms, affinities, and social and causal beliefs. And there is an "executive" department that aggregates these action-relevant inputs into actions and plans. Each of these departments is itself the subject of development and influence by the "influencers"; and many interact with each other. In particular, memories and emotions may mutually interact. Adherence to a cause may be amplified by a set of memories and a set of emotions. And so forth.

I don't put this forward as a serious effort in the "science of the mind", but rather as a way of providing an inventory of the various aspects of consciousness and agency that we recognize as going into the social constitution of the actor; and a sketch of some of the various ways in which these aspects are influenced by social experience and culture.

To me the interesting part of the diagram is that it suggests many avenues of empirical and hermeneutic investigation. For example, how exactly are the memory system and its contents influenced by social experience? How does this system in turn influence social perception, choice, and action? Or the emotions: how are the emotions and passions shaped by social and cultural experience? And how do they in turn influence action? It would seem that there is ample room along each of the "arrows" of influence provided here for extensive empirical and interpretive investigation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Studying the socially constituted agent

We think we know quite a bit about being an "agent". It is to be an intervener in the world: a being capable of changing things around him or her through physical action; a subjectivity (consciousness, feelings, thoughts, desires); a user of language for thought and for communication. We also think we are well prepared when it comes to recognizing the diversity of the subjectivities on which agents act and live. We are familiar with important cultural differences; we know that people have different sets of values and commitments; we know that people from different backgrounds see and experience the world differently. Perhaps even, like Benjamin Whorf, we may think that different language systems and grammars give their users fundamentally different categories in term of which to analyze the world (link).

So we seem to know a lot. But in fact, this is the part of the social sciences and humanities that is the least developed and the least adequate to the complexity of the facts. What we lack most basically is a useable meta-framework in the context of which to characterize and analyze -- and to study -- the workings of these features of agency. We're not even clear about what to call these personally realized features of subjectivity and vision -- Mentalities? Conceptual frameworks? Value systems? Worldviews? Depth grammars of social cognition?

One reason for this under-development is the intangibility of these sorts of characteristics. They are features of the subjectivity of the individual; they are unobservable; they are difficult or impossible for the agent herself to articulate. So it is easier for the social sciences to proceed on the basis of highly schematic "models" of the agent -- e.g. the rational-choice model of preferences and beliefs, or the traditionalist's model of roles and norms. But these models aren't adequate. Worse, they lead us to paraphrase features of novel agency into the stylized forms of the model. They erase the differences.

The topic is important, because ultimately, all social phenomena are the result of agents acting for their own reasons, and we need to understand the varieties of their thought processes. So the social sciences need detailed understandings of the varieties of human subjectivity -- agency. We need to understand in concrete detail what it means to say that the subject is socially constructed, and through what concrete social mechanisms this construction takes place. We need to know how differences in culture produce systemically different world views or mental frameworks. And we need to be able to investigate these differences in detail and rigorously.

A few concrete examples are helpful:
  • How did French and Chinese legal systems think differently about "property"? How did these differences influence differences in judgment between French and Chinese officials?
  • How does the idea of an after-life influence worldview, action, and behavior for believing Christians and Muslims?
  • In what ways do Balinese people have a non-individualistic conception of the individual person?
  • Is it true that Japanese workers have a deeper affinity with team and group than American workers?
  • Was the "Greatest Generation" really different in significant ways having to do with values and social perceptions than the next generation?
There are research vehicles through which to conduct this kind of research -- ethnography, careful study of texts, literary analysis, interviews in depth about political perceptions, the methods of phenomenological sociology, and perhaps the tools of cognitive and personality psychologists. Particularly interesting is Robert Darnton's reconstruction of the specific and surprising mentality of the 18th-century printer's apprentices in the The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. And his interpretation is based on rigorous analysis of varied documents and practices (link). It is good social science and good discovery of subjectivity.

But before we are likely to make a lot of progress on framing a research agenda around "mentality", we need a better and more commonly understood vision of the goal of the study. And I would say this means trying to formulate a meta-theory of subjectivity and agency, into which our findings about value systems, cognitive frameworks, moral ideas, and the like can be fitted.

There are some meta-frameworks that might be considered at the outset. The idea of a scientific paradigm or research programme is one; here philosophers of science have tried to get concrete about the specific presuppositions and concepts in terms of which the community of physicists understand theory and the laboratory bench. The idea of a cultural tradition is likewise a fairly concrete idea, where anthropologists try to use the statements, speeches, and artifacts of a community to help decode the subjectivity that underlies.

This topic is important in many areas of the social sciences, but none more so than in comparative research across civilizations. When we consider economic and political institutions in Europe and Asia, as Bin Wong does in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, the fact of massive differences in starting points, presuppositions, fixed values, and moral perceptions of the populations involved loom enormous. But without more refined tools for analyzing these differences, it is difficult to treat them in a satisfying way.

This seems like an ideal place for an interdisciplinary research group of social scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists to begin charting new ground.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hume as historian

David Hume is probably the greatest British philosopher of his century or the next one. He set the framework for empiricist theories of knowledge, causation, and induction, as well as providing trenchant writings about religion, psychology, and the self. And he appears to have been an appealing personality as well, with the courage of his convictions when it came to his atheism and his stocism in the face of impending death.

So he was a truly brilliant and original philosopher. But he was best known during his lifetime for his million-word history of England, The History of England, Volume I (1754-62), in six long volumes. The work covers Britain from the Saxon kings through the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As such, it intersects to some extent with a topic discussed several times before, Steve Pincus's recent 1688: The First Modern Revolution. So it is worth taking a quick look at a bit of the history, in order to get an idea of how Hume thought about historical knowledge and how to present it.

The final section of volume I treats the reign of Charles II. (I'm using the Kindle edition; A Short History of England.) This is a key period in Britain's modern history, following the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the brief rule of Cromwell. And, of course, it leads up to the revolution that led to the flight of James II and succession by William and Mary. So how did Hume synthesize this period of history? What factors did he select for inclusion? How did he structure his narrative? And to what extent did he offer large interpretations or explanatory judgments about the period?

The book went through some 50 editions during the century following Hume's death; it was a stunning success with the British reading public. That said, it reads as a pretty pedestrian piece of historical writing today. The prose is inviting and clear; but there is very little to stimulate the reader's intellect.

Content. Hume opens the volume with extensive description of the personality and character of Charles II himself. The focus on the personalities of the period takes a high proportion of the text. Second, he describes the diplomacy and military affairs of the monarch's court in some detail. (He shows a particular interest in naval battles.) He introduces some of the important turning-points of the period and provides some details about their how's and why's. Third, he goes into some detail about the politics of religion and the jockeying of Catholics and Protestants for power and freedom of political and religious activity. Fourth, he gives substantial attention to the politics and actions of Parliament and the King's relations with Parliament.

What is almost wholly lacking is any detail or attention to the social or economic context of the period. There is no mention of common people, villages, agriculture, hunger, or popular religious beliefs. The resolutions of the new King's finances are discussed, but there is no sustained discussion of the fiscal system or the reforms that were enacted. The "modernizing" efforts of this regime that are so important in the account Pincus offers are invisible in this history.

The one exception to this observation comes in the final dozen pages of volume I, following without break his account of the ascension of William and Mary. There he takes a very different approach. He provides a brief summary of the fiscal realities of the Crown, military and naval affairs, England's state of commerce and manufacture, England's colonies, the advancement of science and technology, and the state of letters and literature. This chapter is wholly exceptional; it is a synthetic summary rather than a linear narrative, it is topically organized rather than chronological, and it looks much more like a multi-threaded history than the succession of actions, wars, plots, and trials that precedes.

Structure. The history takes the form of an entirely linear narrative, down to section breaks for successive years (1660, 1661, 1662, ...). Hume structures his task as one of organizing the facts of each year into a story that incorporates the main details of person, event, and political action. There are no synthetic chapters that attempt to rise to a higher level of historical abstraction. The narrative proceeds from court to parliament to war to plots to trials and executions, with virtually no commentary on the sequence.

Explanations. Hume's explanations in this part of the history, at least, are essentially biographical and interpretive. He explains outcomes as the result of the goals and intentions of the elite actors. But he does not offer anything like the large interpretive schemes offered by his contemporary, Edward Gibbon, in his history of the Roman Empire. Hume does not find systemic causes of change during this dynamic period of British history, and he does not attempt to offer a big-picture schema for the period. The character of the king is relevant, as are the motives and loyalties of dozens of other characters. But there is nothing in the way of reference to historical forces or trends.

So Hume's history is NOT a number of things. It is not a precursor to "history from below"; it is not a history of state or social institutions; it is not an interpretive history with a "big-picture" theme of interpretation. And really, it is not particularly interesting from a historiographic point of view.

This assessment leaves us with something of a puzzle to unravel: how is it that such a brilliant and penetrating philosopher would have devoted so much of his life to such a plodding historical book? Why did he not perceive the need for inclusion of some of the factors mentioned here? And why did he so assiduously avoid anything remotely resembling an explanatory hypothesis about the sources and dynamics of change during the period? Is it simply that the parameters of historical writing in the first half of the eighteenth century were so limited that even a great and original mind could not transcend them?

And the mystery deepens when we arrive at the synthetic section mentioned above. This section demonstrates that Hume was fully aware of these other topics, and had interesting views about them. So he could have written a history that incorporates social, economic, and institutional context. He therefore must have made a conscious decision not to do so. Why not?

I suppose there is a case to be made for the idea that Hume's philosophical beliefs themselves were partially responsible for the limitations of his history. Take causal explanation, for example. Given Hume's skepticism about "real" causes, and given the absence in history of strong regularities, perhaps it is unsurprising that Hume refrained from offering a causal hypothesis about the twists and turns of the period. And given his insistence on the primacy of "facts" that can be observed and documented, perhaps this comes close to implying the necessity of a historical narrative that simply chronicles the facts. If it can't be observed, then it is pure speculation; and it has no place in empirical historical writing. On this line of thought, it is Hume's fundamental empiricism that leads to the fundamental flatness of his historical writing.

This doesn't provide a complete explanation -- it doesn't explain Hume's deliberate exclusion of social questions or ordinary people in history, for example. But maybe it suffices to explain the flatness and linearity of the narrative and the absence of explanatory themes.

(It is interesting to note that Hume sometimes uses the language of cause in a very untroubled way -- for example, in this passage about the Great London Fire:
The causes of this calamity were evident. The narrow streets of London, the houses built entirely of wood, the dry season, and a violent east wind which blew; these were so many concurring circumstances, which rendered it easy to assign the reason of the destruction that ensued. (kl 867)
This is remarkably realist language about causation for the great skeptic on this subject.)