Monday, May 30, 2011

Philosophy of social science today

A sign of arrival for a sub-discipline is the appearance of a handbook for the field. By that criterion, the philosophy of social science has passed an important threshold with the appearance of Ian Jarvie and Jesus Zamora-Bonilla's SAGE Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences. The 750-page volume offers 37 main articles, as well as an extensive reflective introduction by Ian Jarvie and an epilogue by Jesus Zamora-Bonilla. A majority of the contributors are European, confirming an impression that the most active research networks in this field are currently in Western Europe. Germany and the Scandinavian countries are particularly well represented.

Ian Jarvie's extensive introduction does a good job of setting the stage for the volume. He is in a unique position to offer this perspective, having served as editor of the key journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences for many years. He begins by noting the heterogeneity of the field:
As a set of problems, the philosophy of the social sciences is wide-ranging, untidy, inter-disciplinary and constantly being reconfigured in response to new problems thrown up by developments in the social sciences; in short, disorderly. (1)
The orientation to the philosophy of social science represented in this volume is largely grounded in the analytic philosophy tradition. By this I mean an emphasis on rationality, an interest in generalizations and laws, a commitment to empirical methods of inquiry, and an over-arching preference for conceptual clarity. (Paul Roth describes the analytic approach in his contribution to the volume; 103ff.) But David Teira also offers an interesting contribution on "Continental Philosophies of the Social Sciences." He begins the article by writing,
In my view, there is no such thing as a continental philosophy of the social sciences. There is, at least, no consensual definition of what is precisely continental in any philosophical approach. (81)
Among these approaches he highlights Marxist, phenomenological and Foucauldian philosophies and theories of the social sciences. His finding is one that I agree with -- that one of the particularly valuable aspects of the continental traditions is the fact that thinkers in this tradition have offered large, insightful conceptual schemes for thinking about social life -- whether historical materialism, ethnomethodology, or the rhetoric of power. He writes, "I guess that if continental philosophies seem attractive to many social scientists, it is because they offer the prospect of a somewhat radical reconstruction of current research practices" (96).

Particularly interesting for me were contributions by Alban Bouvier ("Individualism, Collective Agency and The "Micro-Macro Relation"), Daniel Steel ("Causality, Causal Models, and Social Mechanisms"), Joan de Marti and Yves Zenou ("Social Networks"), Peter Hedstrom and Petri Ylikoski ("Analytical Sociology"), Chris Mantzavinos ("Institutions"), and Jeroen Van Bouwel and Erik Weber ("Explanation in the Social Sciences").

What is particularly valuable in this collection is the fact that most of the essays are not dogmatic in their adherence to a "school" of philosophical thought. Instead, they get down to the serious business of understanding the social world, and understanding what is involved in achieving a scientific understanding of that world. Chris Mantzavinos's essay, "Institutions," is a good example of this intellectual pragmatism. His contribution is a careful study of the new institutionalism and the variety of theoretical challenges that the concept of an institution raises. The essay is very well grounded in the current sociology and political science literatures on institutions, and it goes on to make substantively interesting points about these debates. "Only a theory of institutions that increases our information about the structure of social reality can provide us with the means of reorienting this reality in a direction that we find desirable" (408-9).

Many of the contributors -- probably the majority -- have taken seriously what I think is a particularly fundamental requirement for productive work in the philosophy of an area of science. This is the need for the philosopher to take up the particular theories and controversies of some current research in the social sciences as a framework and stimulus to their philosophical analysis. The philosopher needs to gain a significant level of expertise in a particular field of social science if his or her work is likely to find traction with conceptual issues that really matter. The topics for the philosophy of social science should not derive from apriori speculation about society; instead, they should be selected on the basis of careful engagement with serious empirical and theoretical attempts to explain the social world.

This is the kind of book that would benefit from a simultaneous digital edition. An affordable Kindle edition would help; but more radically, an online, hypertexted and cross-linked version would be fantastic. It would be fascinating to see a concept map linking the articles by theme or keyword; it would be illuminating to see some analysis of the patterns of citation across the articles in the volume; and it would be great for the reader to be able to click to some of the references directly. (Jarvie provides something like a map of themes in his tables representing "Principal Problems in Philosophy of the Social Sciences" and "Problematics in 14 Selected Anthologies"; 7-8.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Practical mentality

How should we try to characterize the mental processes of the real human actor as he or she proceeds through life activity? One individual decides to stop by a retirement home to visit an elderly friend; another individual breaks into a car to steal a briefcase; another has an argument with her boss and decides to quit her job. What sorts of thinking go into these choices and innumerable others?

These are all actions that are to some extent deliberate and considered; and yet they are also complicated responses to shifting circumstances and events that have prudential and emotional meanings to the actors in question. Here I'm not asking the question, "What sorts of factors motivate people, and how do they process their motivations?", though these are interesting and important questions. Rather, I'm asking a more basic question: what categories and concepts should we use in attempting to analyze deliberate action in the first place? What features of mental experience need to be highlighted? Should we expect there to be a best framework of analysis of the components of practical mentality? Or is this fated always to be an open question?

Think of the range of vocabulary that is relevant to our discourse about the kinds of examples mentioned above: decision, belief, desire, emotion, fear, habit, norm, obligation, reason, impulse, weakness of will .... These terms and others constitute something like a mental ontology, a set of concepts that we attribute to the agent as he/she acts. And some of them bring presuppositions that are debatable. Take "decision," for example. Did the thief "decide" to break into the car? Or was the action an impulse, prior to thought and deliberation?

Here is one way of approaching the issue. What are the questions we would like to answer about the human actor?
  • What motivated the action?
  • What was the actor thinking?
  • What was the actor feeling?
  • What beliefs were highlighted in the actor's conscious thoughts?
  • What memories played a role in the actor's decision?
  • What rules of thumb did the actor make use of?
  • What emotional stream occurred?
  • How did the actor process emotions?
  • What scripts were salient?
  • What unconscious biases and impulses were operative?
Our ordinary "folk psychology" provides a range of simple theories available of the agent's mentality.
  • Desire-belief-opportunity
  • Emotion-dynamics of psychology-action
  • Habit/practice-context-performance
  • Environment scan-rules of thumb-action
And we might incorporate all these factors into a large composite model: desires, beliefs, habits, emotions, past experience, and moral conviction all play a role. But the key point is this: we need to have richer modes of representation of consciousness and agency than we currently have. Further, it seems that novelists like James Joyce or Henry James do as good a job of conceptualizing these processes as any philosopher has done.

One influential set of ideas on this question of practical agency is that offered by Pierre Bourdieu in his theory of "habitus". Here is how he describes action and habitus in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972):
The habitus, the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle, while adjusting to the demands inscribed as objective potentialities in the situation, as defined by the cognitive and motivating structures making up the habitus. (78)
In practice, it is the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such, which accomplishes practically the relating of these two systems of relations, in and through the production of practice. (78)
What I understand by this concept is a more fluid conception of thinking-experiencing-doing on Bourdieu's part than is characteristic of a more Aristotelian conception. There is a suggestion of a sort of tacit knowledge underlying activity, with action looking as much like the smooth, intelligent motions of a soccer player as a deliberative chess master. It is a less epistemic view of the human condition -- less a concoction of explicit beliefs and reasonings than a smooth coordination of tacit understandings and movements in the situation. It is less about deliberation and decision and more about intelligent doing.

This interpretation is born out in a cryptic passage a page or so later:
If witticisms surprise their author no less than their audience, and impress as much by their retrospective necessity as by their novelty, the reason is that the trouvaille appears as the simple unearthing, at once accidental and irresistible, of a buried possibility. It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know. (79)
There are many uncertainties about how to think about this most intimate of human facts -- the ways our thoughts process our needs and movements. And it seems to me that the choice of ontology surrounding action -- the concepts and entities we use -- is important and difficult, and worthy of careful attention.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

More on figures and diagrams in economics

Mark Blaug and Peter Lloyd's Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics is a genuinely interesting perspective on the development of modern economics. Each diagram illustrates a single analytical point; but there is a cumulative logic to the exposition of the various diagrams that reproduces the main turns in the development of modern economic theory. So reading the book cover-to-cover is an excellent way of working through the logic of the discipline.  (Here is an earlier post on the book.)

A core question that needs to be addressed in this book is the question of proof: does a good diagram prove a principle or truth of economics? Blaug and Lloyd address this question directly. “The use of figures and diagrams as a vehicle of proof has a chequered history. Mathematicians have always warned of the danger of proving propositions by geometry” (6). The problem, they observe, is that a diagram consists of curves of a particular shape; and there is always the possibility that the result obtains as a consequence of particular and non-generalizable features of the specific curves that are chosen. The authors illustrate this possibility with the law of diminishing returns. “One statement of the Law, the textbook by Stonier and Hague [London: Longmans, 1957] – which was widely used in the UK and elsewhere at that time – contended that the Law of (everywhere) Diminishing (marginal) Returns holds if the production function is linearly homogeneous. The proof is geometric. But it is false. They had drawn their isoquants as strictly concave from above … and with positive marginal products, without realizing that linear homogeneity plus these assumptions suffice but linear homogeneity alone does not” (6). The authors’ suggestion, then, is that the geometrical features of economics diagrams are an unreliable foundation for proving an economics proposition; rather, a formal mathematical derivation with clearly specified axioms and principles is preferable. The diagram serves to illustrate the point; the mathematical proof establishes the point. “Thus algebra has advantages of being more general and more precise” (8).

The authors draw attention to the interesting fact that many of these foundational diagrams were “discovered” multiple times by independent researchers. Following the sociologist of science Robert Merton (The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations), they argue that multiple discovery is a very common feature in the history of the sciences (14). They note a number of diagrams in the current volume that have appeared multiple times in the development of economics: “the Slutsky equation, the kinked oligopoly demand curve and monopolistic and imperfect competition” (14). The fact of multiple discovery suggests that some ideas are floating around within the community of researchers before they find expression in writing -- much as natural selection was in the air for scientists like Darwin and Wallace to incorporate into their pathbreaking books on evolution in the mid-nineteenth century.

It is worth considering several diagrams in particular here. In his article on “Marshallian cross diagrams” Thomas M. Humphrey describes the history and logic of what is arguably the most fundamental of economic diagrams in neoclassical economics, the intersecting curves of supply and demand by price. “The diagram achieves much with little. It illustrates how parametric shifts in its two curves caused by changes in tastes, incomes, technology, factor prices and prices of related goods operate to alter a good’s equilibrium price and quantity…. For all its simplicity, it is a powerful and flexible tool” (29). Humphrey notes that the diagram did not originate with Marshall. Instead, Cournot was the first to represent a supply-price diagram for a single good in 1838. Humphrey notes further that a German economist, Hans von Mangoldt, introduced formally similar diagrams into his economics work in 1863, evidently without influence from Cournot. All told, he finds five figures in the history of economic thought who made use of this schema, almost always without influence from one to the other. “Had [Marshall] never published, later economists probably would have discovered the work of his predecessors or invented the diagram themselves” (36).

A second fundamental diagram is the Edgeworth box (1881), with an entry by John Creedy to explain the logic and history of this influential contribution to welfare economics (233). The Edgeworth box models the behavior of price-taking utility maximizers who barter two goods with each other, and allows discovery of the contract curve defined by the shape of the indifference curves of the two traders. The points within the box represent the quantities of each of two goods that the two actors hold. Each individual has a set of indifference curves through the space of quantities of the two goods: individual A is indifferent between one allocation with more of X and less of Y, and another allocation with less of X and more of Y. The box diagram is provided as a way of analyzing the conditions of barter between two persons and two goods. “The contract curve is the locus of points of tangency between traders’ indifference curves” (233). Creedy situates the importance of the Edgeworth box in terms of this important result: “a price-taking equilibrium is Pareto-efficient” (237). In other words, at this point it is not possible to make one person better off without making the other person worse off. This is referred to as the “First Fundamental Theorem” of welfare economics. “Edgeworth was thus able to clarify the sense in which a competitive equilibrium is ‘optimal’, fully recognizing that it is just one of many (Pareto) optimal points” (233). Creedy explicates the idea of equilibrium in these terms: “Equilibrium is a situation in which no individual’s plans are frustrated, that is where there are no excess demands or supplies. In the present context this must imply that both individuals plan to consume at precisely the same point in the Edgeworth box” (236). (Here is a Youtube video explaining the Edgeworth box.)

Now consider a fundamental diagram in macroeconomics, the IS-LM diagram deriving from John Hicks’ work in 1936 and 1937. The diagram (or series of diagrams) serves as an important step in the effort to make rigorous economic sense of Keynes’s theory of money and capital. Warren Young provides an article on this topic (348). This diagram is often regarded as a crucial contribution to the assessment and interpretation of Keynesian economics. The diagram is designed to analyze the relationship between capital investment, savings, liquidity, and the interest rate. Young’s article is more developmental than most contributions to the volume, in that he attempts to track the development of Hicks’ concept through several important stages in 1936 and 1937. Alvin Hansen built on Hicks’ 1937 IS-LL diagram by introducing the IS-LM diagram in 1949. Hansen also introduced consumption into the representation. Young concludes that “the plasticity of the approach and its extension into augmented forms has enabled the diagram to become the basis for more sophisticated diagrammatic approaches such as AS-AD, which even include endogenous (rational) expectations, thus making the approach more acceptable to those of non-Keynesian predilection” (354).

 One persistent impression that emerges from the discussion of most of the figures and diagrams in the book is that economic theory is often an area of pure mathematics, not an empirical investigation of human behavior.  It is a precise, rigorous and mathematical exploration of the mathematical implications of a set of assumptions about rational consumer and producer behavior.  There is no empirical content in many of these theories whatsoever.  This part of modern economics, anyway, looks more like Euclidean geometry than natural history.  This feature raises the important question of the empirical status of economics: is it an empirically-based science describing and explaining human behavior, or is it largely a formal exploration of certain mathematical premises about “rationality”?  (Or, perhaps most plausibly, it is both, with more empirical studies being located in specific sub-disciplines such as development economics and consumer economics.)

It is also interesting to consider whether the use of diagrams and figures is as intellectually and theoretically important in other areas of the sciences.  There are iconic diagrams in physics, biology, and psychology; but it does not appear that these devices played as important a role in those areas of the sciences as they have done in economics.  And it is plain that diagrams and figures do not play anything like this role in other areas of the social sciences, including political science and sociology.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Garfinkel on social competence

Harold Garfinkel made highly original contributions to the field of micro-sociology in the form of his program of ethnomethodology, and the fruits of these contributions have not been fully developed. His death a few weeks ago (link) has led quite a few people to look back and re-assess the importance of his contributions. This renewed attention is very much warranted. Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) is the primary place where his ideas reached a broad public, so let's take a look at some of the ideas advanced there.

The interest that I take in his work flows from the idea of agent-centered sociology that I've found so appealing -- the idea of the situated actor, the idea that we need to have a substantially richer set of concepts in terms of which to characterize the actor's thought processes, and the idea that current conceptions of the rational actor or the cultural actor are inadequate (link). In order to provide a basis for explanations of social outcomes deriving from the interactions of purposive agents, we need a developed and nuanced set of ideas about how agents tick. And theorists like Garfinkel and Goffman provide substantial resources in this area. (Here are discussions of Goffman; link, link.)

Here is a key statement of Garfinkel's research goals in Studies in Ethnomethodology:
The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. (1)
A central empirical interest of Garfinkel's is the nuance of the ordinary knowledge -- commonsense knowledge -- that people use to navigate their daily lives and tasks.  What presuppositions about actions and motives do jurors rely on as they reach judgments about truth and falsity of testimony?  What ellipses occur in ordinary conversations that are nonetheless intelligible to the participants because of unspoken background knowledge?  What implicit beliefs and standards do coders for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center use to classify unexpected deaths (11 ff.)?

Here is Garfinkel's explication of a conversation between husband and wife about their son's putting a penny in the parking meter:
An examination of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There were many matters that the partners understood they were talking about that they did not mention. (b) Many matters that the partners understood were understood on the basis not only of what was actually said but what was left unspoken. (c) Many matters were understood through a process of attending to the temporal series of utterances as documentary evidences of a developing conversation rather than as a string of terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common were understood only in and through a course of understanding work that consisted of treating an actual linguistic event as "the document of," as "pointing to," as standing on behalf of an underlying pattern of matters that each already supposed to be the matters that the person, by his speaking, could be telling the other about. (39-40)
Garfinkel devised an experimental method for probing presuppositions that he referred to as "breaching" experiments: interactions with subjects that deliberately challenged their conversational or practical expectations. For example, a subject was invited to play the game of tic-tac-toe; and the researcher erased the subject's first move and placed the subject's mark in another location. The subject was incensed.  Another example:
My friend said to me, "Hurry or we will be late." I asked him what did he mean by late and from what point of view did it have reference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his face. "Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I don't have to explain such a statement.  What is wrong with you today? Why should I have to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone understands my statements and you should be no exception!"
Garfinkel takes the discomfort and irritation expressed by the subjects in these experiments to be an indicator of their expectations about normal social interaction. Here is one of his reflections about this dynamic:
Despite the interest in social affects that prevails in the social sciences, and despite the extensive concern that clinical psychiatry pays them, surprisingly little has been written on the socially structured conditions for their production. The role that a background of common understandings plays in their production, control, and recognition is, however, almost terra incognita. (49)
Here is a summary statement of Garfinkel's goals:
I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, and recognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is not the monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists. Members of a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily with these matters both as features and for the socially managed production of their everyday affairs.  The study of common sense knowledge and common sense activities consists of treating as problematic phenomena the actual methods whereby members of a society, doing sociology, lay or professional, make the social structures of everyday activities observable. (75)
The way that I would like to paraphrase Garfinkel's work is that he is offering an empirical research program designed to fill in a rich theory of the human actor's "competence" in engaging in ordinary social interactions. What does the actor need to know about immediate social relationships and practices in order to get along in ordinary social life? And how can we study this question in empirically rigorous ways? The program of ethnomethodology is intended to focus attention on the knowledge of rules and practices that ordinary people employ to make sense of their social surroundings.

One objection that some purists might offer of this formulation is that it puts the object of investigation "inside the head," rather than in the behavioral performances -- primarily conversations and classificatory tasks -- that Garfinkel primarily studies. It is thought that Garfinkel's method is formal rather than mentalistic.  It is true that he says repeatedly that he is not interested in getting inside the head of the individuals he studies. But the logic of his findings still has important implications for the cognitive systems of the individuals, and this is in fact the only reason we would be interested in the research. So I want to understand his research along the lines of a Chomskian linguist: making inferences about psychologically real "competences and capacities" on the basis of analysis of non-mental performances (utterances).

On this approach, Garfinkel did not pretend to offer a full theory of agency or actor consciousness; instead, his work functioned as a sort of specialized investigation of one aspect of social cognition -- the competences, rules, and practices we can attribute to specific actors on the basis of careful analysis of their observable performances.

(John Heritage's Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology is generally recommended as a highly insightful survey and discussion of Garfinkel's work.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

France 1848

The revolutions of 1848 have gotten renewed attention in light of this year's "Arab Spring" uprisings. (The amazing photo above depicts the barricades in Paris, 1848.) The parallels are obvious -- uprisings in a number of countries, similar grievances across countries, and a degree of cross-communication among the movements and leaders. And, of course, widespread optimism among progressives and activists about the prospects for fundamental social and political reform. The outcomes of 1848 were discouraging to progressives -- repression and authoritarian governments were usually successful in turning back the progressive tide. So one hopes that the prospects for democracy and equality are better in the MENA uprisings.

Particularly interesting, of course, is the example of France. So it is intriguing to look back at the causes and processes of demonstrations and resistance in May and June, 1848, in Paris and in other parts of the country. Roger Price's Documents on the French Revolution of 1848 (Documents in History Series) is worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it provides an astute analysis of the economic, social, and political situation of France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the events that unfolded into the revolution of 1848. But second, it is a genuinely interesting book from an historiographical point of view. The analytical text takes up roughly 50 pages of an introductory essay. The remainder of the book consists of short extracts from primary documents of the period. The extracts are selected and ordered according to the author's conception of the factors and turning points that were historically central to the moment; so they constitute a narrative of an unusual kind. Price presents his analysis and framing of the events entirely through the extracts he provides; the participants tell the story.

Price's framing essay begins with the point that France was a backward country in the first part of the nineteenth century, compared to Britain. The population was overwhelmingly rural, the economy was primarily agricultural, and the infrastructure of roads and railroads was underdeveloped. Industry was in the most embryonic state of development, and markets were primarily local because of the weakness of the transport system.
The great weakness of the system, however, lay in its transport infrastructure. Communications by water and, particularly, road were slow and costly. Only the first unconnected lines of the future railway network had been constructed before the 1850s. (12)

And, unlike Britain, there were few signs of an emerging proletariat in large factories and industrial cities, along the lines of the Manchester documented decades earlier by Engels:
The typical French worker would be the artisan working in a small workshop rather than the factory worker. This was true in Paris, for example, where the majority found work in industries catering for the material needs of the population -- food, clothing, furniture and housing -- or in the typically Parisian luxury industries, all traditionally operating on a small scale. (18)

These factors had social consequences. Hunger in the countryside was a recurring possibility. Landlords and gentry had great power over the rural population. Social inequalities in both town and countryside were visible and extreme. And neither peasant nor urban worker had a strong social basis for resistance.
The contrast in the living standards of rich and poor that daily greeted the eyes of the urban populations, especially in the larger towns, was often extreme. For as long as such a contrast was felt to be inevitable, it could be accepted only with resignation, or with a resentment that might burst out in violence. But new ideas and the diffusion of a more critical outlook were bound to erode this attitude. (20)

At the same time as economic inequalities were increasing the power of a small sector of elites was increasing as well.
The grand notables -- landowners, financiers, major industrialists, but also politicians and administrators -- collaborated in extending their economic power and safeguarding their social and political authority. This was a group given unity not simply by shared material interests, but by an entire style of life. (23)

Of course it is clear that this is one particular framing of the historical episode, and another historian would have highlighted other issues and other turning points. So the book doesn't serve as a broad repository of documents, potentially relevant to many different interpretations; instead, the documents have been specifically selected to serve as waypoints on a particular path through Price's interpretation. That said, the documents are fascinating to read, from observations by elite participants, to government announcements, to confessions by activist leaders and followers.

Was this a social revolution? Some of the goals of the activists involved radical social transformation; but these goals were entirely unsuccessful. The balance between the propertied and the property-less did not change in any meaningful way. Was it more successful as a political revolution? Again, not really. Universal suffrage was established before the June repression; but what followed was autocratic rule and eventually the election of yet another dictator, Napoleon III. So it is hard to see that the revolution of 1848 in France had much effect on the conditions of freedom and well-being of the majority of the poor in France.

It would be very interesting to have a similar compilation of documents and framing social descriptions for Egypt, 2011. I'm sure that researchers and observers in Cairo have been collecting interviews, posters, and other kinds of documents that will shed more light on the social and political grievances offered by ordinary Egyptians as they participated in the demonstrations and collective resistance that led to the fall of Mubarak. And, likewise, it will be valuable to document the timeline of reaction by the state during these crucial several weeks, including repression, accommodation, and eventually capitulation by the ruling circles in favor of -- the army.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Aggregation dynamics

The social world starts with social individuals. So how do we get more complex social outcomes out of the actions and thoughts of independent individuals? How do the actions and thoughts of individuals aggregate into larger social happenings? How did the various religious, political, and relational attitudes of rural Kenyans aggregate to widespread ethnic violence a few years ago? What sorts of conditions lead to interactions that bring about unexpected outcomes? And, of course, how do larger social happenings impinge upon individuals, leading to characteristic kinds of socialized behavior?

These are questions I've usually addressed from the other angle -- the "dis-aggregation" angle. I've asked how large social entities and processes can be disaggregated into actions and relationships pertaining to socially situated individuals. This is what we're aiming at when we ask for microfoundations for things like state power or the changing impact of Islam. Here, though, let's look at the upward-facing processes.

Here are some examples of the kinds of happenings and situations that we might be interested in:
  • collective social behaviors: riots, uprisings, boycotts, protests, panics, runs on the bank
  • coordinated actions by differentiated but organized groups: design of a new model vehicle at General Motors, movement of a tank squadron through a battle zone, actions by squads of fire fighters in a large forest fire
  • shifts of valuations and attitudes: styles, slang, inter-ethnic attitudes, diffusion of religious beliefs, dissemination of rumors through a population
  • preservation of stable organizations and structures: maintenance of the rules governing shop-floor behavior in a factory, sustaining command authority within a military organization, keeping a sustainable level of parent involvement in a cooperative childcare center, keeping a reasonably high level of taxpayer compliance within a mass society
How do the reasonings, thoughts, and choices of socially situated individuals aggregate and link together in ways that constitute these higher-level phenomena?

Some social outcomes are essentially agglomerative. A riot sometimes occurs when a small group of people have a grievance and a provocation; a larger group share sympathy with the original rioters; others see the behavior and join for their own reasons; and in a few hours thousands of people are breaking windows, setting cars on fire, and blocking the streets.

Second, some outcomes are the result of strategic behavior by a number of individuals. Competition leads agents to tailor their actions in such a way as to take advantage of the expected behavior of others; cooperation leads individuals to attempt to coordinate their behavior so as to bring about an outcome that the group prefers. These are the kinds of aggregative processes that Thomas Schelling describes in Micromotives and Macrobehavior; and, of course, some of the outcomes of both competitive and cooperative behavior are paradoxical with respect to the interests and intentions of the individuals who take part in them.

Third, some outcomes come about because individuals have constituted themselves as collective agents; they have come to identify themselves as members of a group and they behave deliberately out of consideration for what other members in the group will do. Their behavior is oriented to the behavior and intentions of the others in the group. They specifically strive to coordinate their actions with others through a shared set of social goals, identities, and attitudes. Raimo Tuomela explores this perspective in The Philosophy of Sociality: The Shared Point of View.

Other outcomes are largely structured by imperatives (rules or commands) conveyed through delineated social relationships from a group of decision makers to a group of agents. This is the key subject matter of the study of organizations and institutions. The Midwest account manager for a national bank issues instructions to loan officers throughout the region to do this or that; communications are sent out, supervisors are instructed to observe compliance, and loan officers change their behavior. This process too works through the incentives and purposes of a set of dispersed agents; but in this case there is a substantial degree of top-down coordination that is secured through communication channels and a supervisory structure.

The dynamics of competition and cooperation are well understood; the ideas of a prisoners' dilemma, tragedy of the commons, and race to the bottom capture some of the logic of independent individuals each seeking to maximize their own interests (Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior). But cooperation too has its logic; even when a group of individuals are seeking to find a common strategy to further their group interests, it is easy to spot the organizational obstacles that stand in the way: lack of consensus, imperfect communication, etc. These are aggregation dynamics that derive from the logic of individual agency.

And the dynamics of organizations and systems of rules likewise have some obvious characteristics. Costs of enforcement mean that an institution's rules are only imperfectly enforced. Conflicts of interests among powerful actors lead to inefficient behavior within the organization (e.g. ministry of steel and ministry of railroads). Well known organizational shortfalls like the principal-agent problem, imperfect and costly communications transmission, and costly information all lead organizations to fail in somewhat predictable ways. Robert Bates (Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies) and Charles Perrow (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters) each capture some of the imperfections of organizations in their works. These are aggregation dynamics that derive from more structural features of systems of rules, roles, and actors.

Let's look at an example of an aggregate-level phenomenon a bit more closely. Take style change over space and time. There are several different types of actors: street-level people who wear clothes with some degree of intentionality (want to look cool); street-level innovators (the first person to wear droopy jeans); clothing designers who want to influence the market for clothes through innovations that will be adopted by the public; "cool" finders who are looking for emerging innovations in hot places; marketers who specifically design strategies for proliferating new designs at Banana Republic or Abercrombie and Fitch. In this space of actors, consumers, and creators it sometimes happens that a new fashion emerges and quickly spreads to a larger population; how does this occur? What are the mechanisms of diffusion and adoption that lead to the success of a new look in denim jackets deriving ultimately from Seattle skateboarder culture? Stan Lieberson looks at some of these surprising dynamics in A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change.

I won't try to catalogue here all the pathways through which individual actors aggregate into larger social happenings. But it seems clear that several factors are key to any such discussion: communication channels, organizations, and social networks.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Flood courses of the Mississippi River

This fantastic map of the historical twists and turns of the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois, was drawn in 1944.  It is reproduced in the New York Times today (link).  In an age of digitally produced information displays, it is fascinating to see the density of historical information represented in this hand-drafted map.  It is reminiscent of the maps Edward Tufte highlights in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  Here is Charles Joseph Minard's 1869 map of Napoleon's invasion of Russia that Tufte made famous:

While on the subject of great maps, here is one by George Abel Schreiner in 1924, representing the structure of the world's telegraph cable system (link).

Here is a contemporary graphic representing global Internet flow:

And here is a graph of global cities connections, produced by R. Wall and B. v.d. Knaap in "Sustainability within a World City Network" (link).

What these images have in common is a very simple point: the power of graphical representation to capture complex sets of inter-related data.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Taxes on business

What is a fair level of taxation for businesses in a state? How much should businesses pay relative to individuals in supporting the services provided by government? How should we even begin to answer this question?

The question is easier for individual taxation, since there are only a few possible alternatives: a flat rate income tax or a graduated income tax; more reliance on income taxes or consumption taxes; a tax system that attempts to shelter the most vulnerable in society or a tax system aimed at stimulating profitability and economic growth, ....  For individuals, the fundamental principle is clear: each individual should pay a share of the costs of government based on income, perhaps moderated by a graduated rate.

But with businesses the issues don't seem as clear. Businesses in a state have a clear economic interest in the services provided by government, from fire and police protection, to preservation of the environment, to provision of a skilled and well-educated workforce.  Business should pay its fair share in supporting the necessary costs of the state; but what is a fair share? And what is "necessary" when it comes to state services?

The situation is even more complicated when we bear in mind that business activity is itself an important source of good for citizens. More business activity means more employment and income. More jobs and wages mean more demand for services and products of all kinds -- and more income for people employed in those goods and service industries. Business disinvestment leads to significant hardship for citizens. A tax system that discourages business activity is harmful to the economic wellbeing of the state and its citizens. So business tax rates ought to be high enough to support a fair share of the costs of government, but not so high as to discourage business investment.

And the latter point in turn requires comparison with other feasible locations for business activity. If Michigan and Ohio assess business income at significantly different rates, we should expect some flow of investment from one to the other.

The state of Michigan is an interesting current example. Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, has proposed a major change in the structure of business taxes in the state. He proposes abolishing the Michigan Business Tax, enacted only a few years ago, and replacing it with a 6% corporate income tax that applies only to the largest businesses and corporations in the state. This reform is promoted as one that is needed to simplify the tax obligations of businesses and to improve the business attractiveness of the state for future investment, and it has been welcomed with enthusiasm by the business community.  (According the the Tax Foundation's State Business Tax Climate Index, Michigan ranked 17th in 2010 and 2011 in the Tax Climate Index overall and ranked 48th on the corporate tax index, based on the existing Michigan Business Tax; link.)

Often tax reforms are put forward under the banner of "revenue neutrality" -- the rules are changed and simplified, but the "before" and "after" rules collect the same amount of revenue. This reform in Michigan is distinctly not revenue-neutral. In 2009 businesses in Michigan paid $2.6 billion under the Michigan Business Tax. Sales taxes collected $8.8 billion, and personal income taxes collected $6.0 billion.  (These data are presented in a 2011 report of the Citizen's Research Council in Michigan; link.)  In 2013 it is projected that the flat corporate income tax, when fully implemented, will collect only $749 million -- a decline of over 1.2 billion dollars in tax revenues for the state compared to the $2.0 billion estimated under the Michigan Business Tax if applied in that year.  (These estimates are provided in a February 17, 2011 report issued by the Michigan government; link.) This amounts to a greater than 60% reduction in the taxes paid by businesses in support of the general fund.  And this shortfall is being addressed in the state's fiscal plan through adjustments in the structure of individual taxes: pensions would be taxed for the first time and Michigan's Earned Income Tax Credit would be abolished. In other words, a billion dollars of tax reductions for business are being paid for by sacrifices by pensioners and poor people.

So here is a question worthy of discussion: are Michigan businesses being asked to pay their fair share under the revised business tax policies? Is 6% enough? Were businesses significantly over-taxed under the Michigan Business Tax? Should the corporate income tax be applied only to the small subset of businesses in the state that qualify, or should it be applied more broadly? And is a 6% corporate tax rate competitive with other states?

Let's look at the competitiveness question. It is broadly asserted by leading business organizations in Michigan that businesses pay too much taxes for the state to be competitive, and that 6% is about as high as the rate can go without losing investment to other states. But the facts appear to be otherwise.  The Tax Foundation provides annual data on corporate income rates by state (link). Here is the Tax Foundation data, ranked by the highest bracket.  (A number of states have a graduated rate, so small businesses pay lower rates.)
State corporate income tax rates (ranked by hightest bracket)
source: Tax Foundation
State Rates Brackets(a) Rank
Iowa 12.00% $250K 1
Pa. 9.99% $0 2
D.C. 9.98% 0 3
Minn. 9.80% $0 4
Ill. (c) 9.50% $0 5
Alaska 9.40% $90K 6
N.J. (b) 9.00% $100K 7
R.I. 9.00% 0 8
Maine 8.93% $250K 9
Calif. 8.84% $0 10
Del. (a) 8.70% $0 11
Ind. 8.50% $0 12
N.H. (a) 8.50% $0 13
Vt. 6% 8.50% $25K 14
W.Va. 8.50% $0 15
Md. 8.25% $0 16
Mass. 8.25% $0 17
La. 8.00% $200K 18
Wis. 7.90% 0 19
Nebr. 7.81% $100K 20
Idaho 7.60% $0 21
N.M. 7.60% $1M 22
Ore. 7.60% $250K 23
Conn. 7.50% $0 24
N.Y. 7.10% $0 25
Kans. 7.00% $50K 26
Ariz. 6.97% $0 27
N.C. 6.90% $0 28
Mont. 6.75% $0 29
Ala. 6.50% $0 30
Ark. 6.50% $100K 31
Tenn. 6.50% $0 32
Hawaii 6.40% $100K 33
N.D. 6.40% $50K 34
Mo. 6.25% $0 35
Ga. 6.00% $0 36
Ky. 6.00% $100K 37
Okla. 6.00% $0 38
Va. (a) 6.00% $0 39
Fla. 5.50% $0 40
Miss. 5.00% $10K 41
S.C. 5.00% $0 42
Utah 5.00% $0 43
Colo. 4.63% $0 44
Nev. 0.00% 45
S.D. 0.00% 46
Wash. (a) 0.00% 47
Wyo. 0.00% 48
Mich. (a)
Ohio (a)
Tex. (a)
Note: In addition to regular income taxes, many states impose
other taxes on corporations such as gross receipts taxes and franchise
taxes. Some states also impose an alternative minimum tax.
(a) Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Washington do not have a corporate
income tax but do have a gross receipts tax with rates not
strictly comparable to corporate income tax rates. 
(c) On January 12, 2011, Illinois increased its corporate income
tax from 7.3% to 9.5%, retroactive to January 1, 2011. Illinois’s rate
includes two separate corporate income taxes, one at a 7% rate
and one at a 2.5% rate.
Source: Tax Foundation; state tax forms and instructions.

The 6% rate proposed for Michigan falls at the bottom end of this ranking; 35 states have higher rates, extending to 12% in Iowa; four states have a 6% rate; and nine states have a lower rate.  It would appear that a 7% or 7.5% rate would still leave Michigan in a competitive position when it comes to the corporate income tax.  This would result in an additional $200 million in revenue -- and would permit significant dollars for the Earned Income Tax Credit.  So a larger share from business would permit a better outcome for poor and working people.

But the really difficult question is the "fair share" question: how should the costs of government be allocated across individuals and businesses? What principles of equitable contribution are helpful in addressing these issues?  And how would we try to judge whether Michigan's corporate tax reform plan results in a fair allocation of the costs of government across individuals and business?

(Here is an interesting post by Donald Barrett and James Steele on "Are Corporations Paying Their Fair Share of Taxes?".  In a word -- no!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The drop-out crisis (II)

We've talked about "wicked problems" before -- problems that involve complex social processes, multiple actors, and murky causal pathways (link, link). A particularly important example of such a problem currently confronting the United States is the high school dropout crisis. The crisis is particularly intense in high-poverty areas, but it is found in all states and all parts of urban, suburban, and rural America. (Here is an earlier discussion of these issues; link.)

The consequences of this crisis are severe. More than a million high school students a year drop out of high school. Over 50% of these dropouts come from fewer than 20% of high schools. These young people have virtually no feasible pathways to a middle class life or a job in the 21st-century economy. And this in turn means a permanent underclass of unemployed or underemployed young people. This in turn has consequences for crime rates, social service budgets, incarceration rates, and a serious productivity gap for our economy as a whole. So the problem is an enormously important one. (The Alliance for Excellent Education is a national organization devoted to tracking this issue; link. Another important resource is Building a Grad Nation ((link) from the America's Promise Alliance.)

Changing this current situation requires change of behavior on the parts of many independent parties -- teenagers, parents, teachers, principals, elected officials, and foundation officers, to name only some of the most obvious participants.

There are many social actors who have an interest in this problem and a commitment to trying to resolve it. Teachers, principals, school boards; mayors and governors; non-profit organizations; foundations; universities and schools of education; citizens' groups -- there are committed and concerned actors throughout the country that are highly motivated to attempt to solve the problem.

But it is very, very hard to marshal these actors into effective attacks on the causes of this crisis. One part of the problem is strategic -- what are the interventions that can work on a large scale? How can a school system introduce changes in behavior and organization that really change the outcomes in a measurable way?

Another part of the problem is a coordination problem. How can we succeed in gaining commitment and cooperation across this range of actors, even if we have some credible strategies at hand? It often seems that every actor has a different theory of the problem, and often it is difficult to gain concerted action across diverse actors. A foundation has one strategy; a school board has a different theory; and the teachers themselves work on the basis of a different understanding of the problem as well. All are well motivated; but there is a clash of efforts.

In this context the Diplomas Now initiative is particularly encouraging. It is focused on a national initiative to target the "drop out factories" through a clear theory of how to create turn-around schools. It is referred to as a civic Marshall Plan. It is based on careful empirical research. It has developed a clear theory about how interventions with children through the schools can impact persistence through graduation. It has mobilized a strategic group of partners -- CityYear, Communities in Schools, and Talent Development at Johns Hopkins. And it has an ambitious and effective national strategy that is already being implemented.

And the most impressive fact is that Diplomas Now is beginning to work. There are DN schools in some of the toughest urban contexts in America; these schools are showing real measurable progress; and the example is spreading to other cities and systems. Concrete evidence of these successes is highlighted by a wide range of committed leaders, academics, and corps members at the CityYear National Leadership Conference in Washington (link).

So maybe we can have some cautious optimism that our wicked problems can be solved, with sufficient commitment and persistence from a range of actors.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Causality and Explanation Conference Call for proposals

19-21 September
Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University
Blandijnberg 2, Ghent, Belgium

This is the sixth conference in the Causality in the Sciences series of conferences.  
Organizers: Phyllis McKay Illari, Federica Russo, Jon Williamson, Erik Weber, Julian Reiss


Henk de Regt, Daniel Little, Michael Strevens, Mauricio Suarez and James Woodward.


Causality and causal inference play a central role in the sciences. Explanation is one of the central goals of scientific research. And scientific explanation requires causal knowledge. At least, these are well-known tenets in present-day philosophy of science.

In this conference, we aim to bring philosophers and scientists together to discuss the relation between causality and explanation.

Even though the view that explanation requires causal knowledge is widespread, some accounts of explanation present themselves as a-causal or even as non-causal. Kitcher’s unificationism had it that causal relations are epistemically dependent on explanatory relations, not vice versa. In the mechanistic framework, interlevel explanation is said to be constitutive, not causal. Other accounts of explanation are primarily functional. What is the precise relation between causal and a- or non-causal accounts of explanation?

Relatedly, one of the close relatives of explanation is understanding. But what is the precise relation between explanation and understanding? And what is the role of causation herein?

But wait a minute. There is no consensus as to what causation is. Probabilistic, mechanistic, interventionist, and other accounts are available on the market and it is still an interesting and open question how precisely they relate to each other and how this bears upon the problem of scientific explanation.

Are causality and explanation the same across scientific disciplines? Is causality in physics the same as in psychology? Is causal discovery in biology the same as in economics? And is explanation in geology the same as in chemistry? Mathematics seems to be devoid of causation. Does that mean that it is also devoid of explanation? And is there a place for causation in technological explanation?

Our explanatory practices are partly determined by pragmatic considerations. What precisely do we want to explain, and what do we want to use our explanatory knowledge for? Do these pragmatic considerations influence our search for causal relations? Do they play a role, either implicitly or explicitly, in our algorithms for automated causal discovery (such as algorithms based on causal Bayes nets)?

We welcome contributions addressing these and other questions.

  • How is causality related to explanation? Is all explanation causal?
  • Which accounts of causality best fit which accounts of explanation?
  • Do different sciences demand different notions of causality and explanation?
  • Which case studies shed most light on the uses of causality and explanation in the sciences?

15 May: deadline for submission of titles and abstracts of papers for presentation
  • 500 words
  • To be emailed to
  • Please write "ABSTRACT SUBMISSION" in the Subject header of your mail
  • A notification of receipt will be sent shortly after 15th May
  • All abstracts will be carefully refereed
15 June: notification of acceptance of papers for presentation.
1 July: deadline for registration to attend the conference
  • Instructions for registration will be listed on in due course
  • Please also send an email to to say that you will be attending
    (with "REGISTRATION" in its Subject header)
19-21 September: conference

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Social media and social cohesion

The current topic on the UnderstandingSociety blog poll is a proposition about social cohesion:
The poll is still open, but as of today 70% of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that the Internet creates a basis for new forms of social cohesion, while only 16% somewhat or strongly disagree. On its face, a large majority of readers are optimistic about the ability of the Internet to contribute to a stronger national community. What the poll question doesn't reveal is the respondents' underlying thinking as the basis of their judgment. So let's see what some of the considerations might be.

First, what do we mean by "social cohesion"? Along with Durkheim, we can approach the concept by relating it to the bonds of morality and loyalty that lead members of a society to adapt their behavior to the perceived needs of society. A willingness to sacrifice in times of crisis, a willingness to defer to the common good, a willingness to conform to widespread social norms -- these are the sorts of things that go into the concept of social cohesion. A society that lacks all bonds of social cohesion is one in which individuals care only about their own interests; who pay attention only to their own individual ideas about morality; and who find the idea of sacrifice for the greater good to be for the gullible. (Interestingly, this is a state of affairs that Durkheim describes as "anomie", and it is the factor that he believes conduces to a heightened rate of suicide in a population; Suicide.) (Here is a nice contemporary survey of the sociological literature on social cohesion by Noah Friedkin; link.)

Where would the social basis of this kind of cohesion come from? Ferdinand Tönnies characterizes a traditional society with a strong basis for social cohesion in terms of the idea of "gemeinschaft"; whereas he describes a modern liberal-market society in terms of the idea of gesellschaft (Community and Society: (GEMEINSCHAFT AND GESELLSCHAFT)). According to Tönnies, traditional societies maintain social cohesion through traditional social mechanisms: face-to-face relations in a village, common religious institutions, and other institutions representing and inculcating collective values. And as these traditional mechanisms have lost traction in modern civil society, the intuitive idea is that modern societies are generally declining in the level of social cohesion that they reflect.

So how might the mechanisms of social connection provided by the Internet potentially influence the facts about social cohesion in a twenty-first century society? How might Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and webpages have effects that are either favorable or unfavorable for social cohesion? It seems that these capabilities of the Internet have the potential for working in both directions -- both undermining cohesion and enhancing cohesion. So overall, it is very difficult to assess the net impact of these capabilities.

First, consider a few tendencies in the negative direction. Much as Internet-based news sources have fragmented the audience for the network news -- and thereby have reduced the degree of commonality citizens have through their regular interactions with Walter Cronkite -- we might speculate that the Internet facilitates a fragmentation of social groups into smaller and smaller segments. So instead of a set of attitudes that bind citizens together as part of American society, we get micro-sets of attitudes that bind individuals together into micro-constituencies. This would seem to be a force working against social cohesion at the level of the population as a whole.

A related point stems from the evident ability of Internet tools to create ever-more strident groups of people around very specific issues and concerns. If each issue has its own website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, social media management strategies, and the like, individuals are drawn into greater engagement with ever-smaller groups of like-minded individuals. So it is increasingly difficult for politicians to create mass-based constituencies around a core set of values; there is a declining basis for a social consensus in a world in which individuals gravitate towards divisive social and political advocates.

These points suggest that the Internet has effects that are corrosive of social cohesion. What are the tendencies of the Internet that point in the other direction? The example of the use of Facebook during the democracy demonstrations in Egypt provides one positive indication. It would appear that activists were able to gain strong support from thousands of interested Egyptians through the real-time communication and social expression that Facebook pages enabled. This was a process of agglomeration rather than fragmentation for some period of time -- a process through which a broader and broader group of individuals became actively engaged with the values and current happenings associated with the pro-democracy movement.

Second, a little more generally, it is possible that social media like Facebook or YouTube may facilitate the development of more other-oriented interest on the part of the people who use them. If the United Way of Chicago or San Francisco can begin to attract tens of thousands of followers to a Facebook page with powerful, current information about the social needs of other Chicagoans or San Franciscans, we can imagine that there might be a rising level of willingness to get engaged in United Way fundraising and community efforts throughout the community. So YouTube and Facebook can become a contemporary alternative to the face-to-face relationships that Durkheim and Tönnies highlighted.

Third, several recent national elections have demonstrated that millions of people are willing to get involved in presidential and congressional campaigns through social media -- including the act of making online political contributions. The success of these efforts since 2006 suggests the faint possibility that online communities may begin to regain some of the pervasiveness that a fragmented television audience has lost. Perhaps this capability for aggregating large numbers of citizens around online communities of political interests suggests that the Internet can begin to help citizens build a broader consensus.

These considerations suggest that social media and the Internet have tendencies in both directions -- fragmentation and agglomeration -- with the result that its overall influence on cohesion may be neutral. In fact, we might speculate that social media enhance small group cohesion while undermining national cohesion.

In short, I'm inclined now to change my vote in the poll. I had supported the idea that the Internet is mildly favorable to increasing social cohesion. I now think that it's a wash, with negative as well as positive tendencies at work at the same time.