Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The safety net in Michigan

Poverty in the United States has increased measurably in the past ten years, and this is particularly visible in the state of Michigan. (Here is a webpage provided by the Michigan Department of Human Services with some basic information on poverty in the state.)  State departments of human services and non-profit organizations alike are being stretched by the need for poverty-related services -- food assistance, childcare, heating assistance, job training, and the like. So how good a job are we doing to ensure that poor people in the United States have reasonable access to the necessities of life?

In general, the answer to the question seems mostly to be -- not a very good job. The amount of money available for services to the poor is under pressure in most state legislatures. The processes through which low-income people need to pass in order to apply for assistance are confusing and needlessly lengthy. And the "front doors" for providers are highly decentralized, so the potential recipient of assistance needs to conduct a lengthy search simply to find a possible source.

The United Way of Southeast Michigan is a highly capable social service agency that is genuinely committed to helping to improve the situation of Michigan's poorest residents (link). Here is a UWSEM report on the status of basic needs of the population in Michigan.  The report is worth reviewing in detail.  One point stands out very starkly -- a strikingly high percentage of the state's population falls in the status of poor or near-poor.  The report provides a very legible description of the composition of the 40% of Michigan's population who are "at-risk":

This is a truly sobering statistic: two out of five residents of Michigan fall within the groups of the persistent poor, working poor, newly poor, and potentially poor.

One of the United Way's current priorities is to do a careful review of the system of assistance as a whole in the state. Generally, their finding is that resources, agencies, and strategies are highly fragmented in the state, so it is easy to guess that the provision of services is somewhat sporadic and inefficient. More importantly, their analysis shows that over a billion dollars of federal assistance to individuals are left unused year after year -- at a time when the need for assistance is greater than it has ever been.  (This report should appear on the UWSEM website sometime soon.)

It's worth looking closely at the data compiled by UWSEM. Over $34 billion are expended on assistance to the poor in Michigan, with over 55% of the funds coming from Federal sources ($19.9 billion). The state's own resources represent roughly half that amount ($9.4 billion).  Foundations and private resources make up the rest.  Second, these $34 billion are expended through a large number of state agencies -- treasury, school aid, public housing, the department of human services, etc.  And finally, the funds flowing from these multiple agencies then re-aggregate at the level of the users in a variety of basic categories of need: workforce development, housing, family preservation, food, cash assistance, and healthcare.

There are several key conclusions that emerge from the UWSEM analysis. One is that this is a process that is plainly designed for providers and auditors, not users. The idea that the system of social services should be streamlined in such a way as to allow maximum access for eligible residents is clearly not the guiding design principle.

A second point is that the system is needlessly complex for the user. It should be possible to streamline services and application processes in such a way as to increase the impact of available resources for eligible people.

A third point is that it should be possible to use the Internet to significantly increase the accessibility and transparency of the system. It should be possible for the poor person to enter a single "portal"; enter his/her information into a database; and find out on one screen what programs and benefits for which he/she is eligible.

In short, it would appear that there are significant opportunities for public "safety net" providers in Michigan to increase the efficiency and reach of their services with some intelligent redesign of the delivery systems.  And we certainly need to make sure that the billion dollars of unexpended federal benefits find their way to eligible citizens.

(Here is a nice example of how universities and communities can work together to address the issues of poverty that their region faces (link).  This collaboration between Western Michigan University and various organizations in Kalamazoo, Michigan is aimed at providing easy access to data about poverty and well-being in Kalamazoo that can help guide programs and resources towards effective reduction of poverty.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


detail: Lynn Cazabon photo

The philosophy of social science encompasses several important tasks, and key among them is to provide theories of social ontology and social explanation. What is the nature of social entities? What is needed in order to substantiate a claim of social causation? What constitutes an acceptable social explanation?

The concept of microfoundations is relevant to each of these domains. A microfoundation is:
a specification of the ways in which the properties and structure of a higher-level entity are produced by the activities and properties of lower-level entities.
In the case of the social sciences, this amounts to:
a specification of the ways that properties, structural features, and causal powers of a social entity are produced and reproduced by the actions and dispositions of socially situated individuals.
This concept is relevant to social ontology in this way. Social entities are understood to be compositional; they are assemblages constituted and maintained by the mentality and actions of individuals. So providing an account of the microfoundations of a structure or causal connection -- say a paramilitary organization or of the causal connection between high interest rates and the incidence of alcohol abuse -- is a specification of the composition of the social-level fact. It is a description of the agent-level relationships and patterns of behavior that cohere in such a way as to bring about the higher-level structure or causal relationship.

The concept of microfoundations is directly relevant to explanation. If we assert a causal or explanatory relation between one social entity or condition and another, we must be prepared to offer a credible sketch of the ways in which this influence is conveyed through the mentalities and actions of individuals.

Much turns, however, on what precisely we mean to require of a satisfactory explanation: a full specification of the microfoundations in every case, or a sketch of the way that a given social-level process might readily be embodied in individual-level activities. If we go with the second version, we are licensing a fair amount of autonomy for the social-level explanation; whereas if we go with the first version, we are tending towards a requirement of reductionism from higher to lower levels in every case. I am inclined to interpret the requirement in the second way; it doesn't seem necessary to disaggregate every claim like "organizational deficiencies at the Bhopal chemical plant caused the devastating chemical spill" onto specific individual-level activities. We understand pretty well, in a generic way, what the microfoundations of organizations are, and it isn't necessary to provide a detailed account in order to have a satisfactory explanation.

The ontological position associated with microfoundationalism falls in the general area of methodological individualism and reductionism, in that it insists on the compositional nature of the social. However, there is a recursive aspect of the theory that distinguishes it from strict reductionism. The individuals to which microfoundations are traced are not a-social; rather, their psychology, beliefs and motives are constituted and shaped by the social forces they and others constitute. So the microfoundational account of the workings of a paramilitary organization may well refer to the locally embodied effects of that organization on the current psychology of the members of the organization; and their behavior in turn reproduces the organization in the next iteration. This is why I prefer the idea of methodological localism over that of methodological individualism (link).

The theory of microfoundations is also very consistent with the idea of social mechanisms. When we ask about the microfoundations of a social process, we are asking about the mechanisms that exist at a lower level that create and maintain the social process.

One way of motivating the theory of microfoundations is to observe that it is a prescription against "magical thinking" in the social realm. There is no "social stuff" that has its own persistent causal and structural characteristics; rather, all social phenomena are constituted by patterns of behavior and thought of populations of individual human beings. And likewise, social events and structures do not have inherently social causal properties; rather, the causal properties of a social structure or event are constituted by the patterns of behavior and thought of the individuals who constitute them and nothing else.

The theory of supervenience is often invoked to express the idea that social entities and properties are constituted by individuals. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary creator of the theory of supervenience in the philosophy of mind; Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays.) This basic idea is expressed as:
No difference at level N without some difference at lower level K.
The advantage of the theory of supervenience is that it provides a way of recognizing the compositional nature of higher-level entities without presupposing explanatory reductionism from one level to the lower level.

The explicit idea of microfoundations appears to have been first developed in the domain of microeconomics; there it referred to the necessity of deriving macroeconomic phenomena from the premises of rational economic behavior (Weintraub, Microfoundations: The Compatibility of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics). (Here is an interesting article by van den Bergh and Gowdy on recent analysis of the microfoundations debate in economics.) Maarten Jansen describes the theory of microfoundations in economics in his entry in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law:
The quest to understand microfoundations is an effort to understand aggregate economic phenomena in terms of the behavior of individual economic entities and their interactions. These interactions can involve both market and non-market interactions. The quest for microfoundations grew out of the widely felt, but rarely explicitly stated, desire to stick to the position of methodological individualism ..., and also out of the growing uneasiness among economists in the late 1950s and 1960s with the co-existence of two subdisciplines, namely microeconomics and macroeconomics, both aiming at explaining features of the economy as a whole. Methodological individualism, as explained in the entry on the topic, is the view according to which proper explanations in the social sciences are those that are grounded in individual motivations and their behavior.
The idea of microfoundations is now important in many areas of the social sciences, including especially sociology and political science. Particularly important were ideas formulated by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory. Coleman doesn't use the term "microfoundations" explicitly in this work, but his analysis of the relationship between the macro and the micro seems to imply a requirement of providing microfoundations as a condition on good explanations in the social sciences. The Coleman boat (link) seems to be a graphical way of representing the microfoundations of a macro-level fact.
A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. ... I call [this] the internal analysis of system behavior. (2)
Coleman's view here is complex, though, and isn't entirely unambiguous. Consider this qualification a few pages later, which refers unexpectedly to "emergent phenomena" and intermediate levels of explanatory mechanisms between the macro and the micro:
Those readers familiar with debates and discussions on methodological holism and methodological individualism will recognize that the position taken above on explanation is a variant of methodological individualism. But it is a special variant. No assumption is made that the explanation of systemic behavior consists of nothing more than individual actions and orientations, taken in aggregate. The interaction among individuals is seen to result in emergent phenomena at the system level, that is, phenomena that were neither intended nor predicted by the individuals. Furthermore, there is no implication that for a given purpose an explanation must be taken all the way to the individual level to be satisfactory. The criterion is instead pragmatic. (5)
Other more explicit advocates of the microfoundations principle are Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, and other contributors to the theories of analytical Marxism (Analytical Marxism). Here is how I attempted to synthesize some of this thinking in 1994:
Marxist thinkers have argued that macro-explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macro-level social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to provide an account of the circumstsances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macro-explanations are to be adequate. Thus in order to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need to have an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped or controlled so as to produce this outcome. ("Microfoundations of Marxism," reprinted in D. Little, Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation, 4)
As noted in a prior post, the idea of microfoundations is also a core constituent of the methodology of analytical sociology (Peter Hedström, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology).

In short, a fairly wide range of social science research today embraces the general idea of providing microfoundations for macro-level assertions. And this seems to be a very reasonable requirement, given what we know about how social entities, processes, and forces are composed.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What is the philosophy of history?

When philosophers have written about “history”, they have often had different and even incompatible goals in mind. One tradition of philosophers, generally pre-twentieth century and generally from continental Europe, have wanted to contribute to answers to large questions about the nature of history as it presented itself over time as a compound of individuals, actions, nations, and civilizations: Does history have a direction? Does history have meaning? Is there a plan to history? Do civilizations rise and fall? Is materialism or idealism the better framework for understanding the movement of history? G. W. F. Hegel, for example, wanted to discover the underlying rationality within history. This approach to the study of history is often referred to as “speculative” or “substantive.”

A second group of philosophers, also largely continental, were inspired by the strong connections that exist between individual human life and expression, and large collective events and processes. The theory of hermeneutics attempts to provide an intellectual framework for analyzing and interpreting meaningful human expressions – poetry, actions, thoughts, and motives. Hermeneutic philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended this approach to efforts to understand large historical events and processes in similar terms. Wilhelm Dilthey was one of the early exponents of the hermeneutic approach to human affairs. Hermeneutic philosophy of history seeks to understand events, movements, and processes in terms of the meanings that they embody and the meaningful relations they bear to other historical events.

Another group of philosophers, often in the twentieth century and often English-speaking, have focused their attention on the nature of historical knowledge rather than the concrete events of history. Analytic philosophers have wanted to clarify the grounds of historical knowledge and explanation. Issues such as the nature of narrative, the role of general laws in historical explanations, and the objectivity or subjectivity of historical judgment have been taken up by Arthur Danto, Patrick Gardner, Carl Hempel, and others. This approach is sometimes referred to as “analytical”; more generally, we might say that it is epistemological and methodological.

New questions have emerged since World War II within the discourse of philosophy about “history” by philosophers, both analytical and continental. These new areas were stimulated, first, by the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the effort to make sense of this horrendous tear in the fabric of modern civilization. How are we to make sense of the Holocaust? How should we remember it? A second source of new thinking about history by contemporary philosophers is the linguistic and semantic turn that many of the human sciences took in the 1970s and 1980s (Rorty, 1967). A cohort of writers in the 1980s and 1990s undertook to approach history from the point of view of narrative and meaning. In some ways this was a return to the hermeneutic approach to human affairs of the nineteenth century; but it was also original in that it brought new thinking from the philosophy of language into the debate.

There is a valid but limited place for metaphysical research in the area of the philosophy of history. Fundamentally, we need to have a clearer specification of the meaning of key concepts that we use in analyzing and describing historical events and structures. Philosophers can help in probing and refining these concepts. These ontological questions are really about our conceptual schemes rather than about substantive historical facts. What presuppositions are we making when we divide history into epochs or regions? Does it make sense to refer to civilizations as a whole? So we need a more explicit theory of historical ontology, and the philosophy of history can help to provide such a theory. What we cannot hope to achieve is an apriori discovery of the reality of history – its meaning, direction, or foundational causes. This is not a limitation of our ability to discover historical truths, but rather a reflection of the fact that there are no general answers to these questions at all. Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics is decisive here.

As this summary suggests, there are many unanswered questions that philosophers can usefully pose to the discipline and facts of history. For this reason it is timely to consider some new approaches to the philosophy of history. The past decade has seen several contributions that are difficult to classify according to the distinctions provided above. They are analytic but not reductionist; they pay attention to narrative but nonetheless attribute rational warrant to historical accounts; and they are respectful towards the actual practices of gifted historians, rather than assuming that the philosophy of history can proceed as a separate philosophical discourse. Significantly, new contributions to this subject come from philosophers, literary critics, anthropologists, and historians. Perhaps this is a clue for how the field might most productively move forward: by incorporating several philosophical perspectives, by raising new questions, and by reaching across the human sciences as well as philosophy to find some innovative new answers.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mental illness, big pharma and agent-based simulation

The New York Review of Books has an absorbing two-part piece by Marcia Angell on mental illness, psychiatry, and big pharma (link, link). (The NYRB Facebook page provides a good way of following the NYRB.)  Angell provides an in-depth discussion of books by Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. There has been an explosion in the numbers of patients diagnosed with a list of mental disorders, and there has been an explosion in the profits associated with the drugs prescribed in treatment of these disorders as well.
It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it. The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs were created. (Angell, part 1)
What is going on here? Is the prevalence of mental illness really that high and still climbing? Particularly if these disorders are biologically determined and not a result of environmental influences, is it plausible to suppose that such an increase is real? Or are we learning to recognize and diagnose mental disorders that were always there? On the other hand, are we simply expanding the criteria for mental illness so that nearly everyone has one? And what about the drugs that are now the mainstay of treatment? Do they work? If they do, shouldn’t we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising? (Angell, part 1)
To oversimplify, the thrust of several of these books is that the psychoactive drugs created the mental illnesses through the profit incentives and strategies of big pharma, rather than the diseases creating the drugs (through research and development aimed at treating the diseases).
This is over-simple, of course, since no one would question that mental illnesses exist prior to drugs. But the explosion of treated disorders like depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and attention deficit disorder in children -- the "epidemic" to which Angell refers -- seems to conform to the reverse order. Deliberate strategies of marketing, influence on physicians, and influence on guiding medical documents such as the DSM seem to have produced a much larger patient base in specific mental disorders, with large profits accruing to pharma as a consequence.  (Ian Hacking looks at the degree to which mental illnesses are socially constructed in The Social Construction of What?.)

Here is the main thrust of the interpretation offered by the books that Angell reviews:
First, [the authors] agree on the disturbing extent to which the companies that sell psychoactive drugs—through various forms of marketing, both legal and illegal, and what many people would describe as bribery—have come to determine what constitutes a mental illness and how the disorders should be diagnosed and treated. (Angell, part 1)
A couple of pieces of evidence are especially pertinent in support of this telling of the story. One is the observation that psychiatrists as a profession are the largest beneficiaries of funding by pharma, by a large margin.
As psychiatry became a drug-intensive specialty, the pharmaceutical industry was quick to see the advantages of forming an alliance with the psychiatric profession. Drug companies began to lavish attention and largesse on psychiatrists, both individually and collectively, directly and indirectly. They showered gifts and free samples on practicing psychiatrists, hired them as consultants and speakers, bought them meals, helped pay for them to attend conferences, and supplied them with “educational” materials. When Minnesota and Vermont implemented “sunshine laws” that require drug companies to report all payments to doctors, psychiatrists were found to receive more money than physicians in any other specialty. The pharmaceutical industry also subsidizes meetings of the APA and other psychiatric conferences. About a fifth of APA funding now comes from drug companies.
Drug companies are particularly eager to win over faculty psychiatrists at prestigious academic medical centers. Called “key opinion leaders” (KOLs) by the industry, these are the people who through their writing and teaching influence how mental illness will be diagnosed and treated. They also publish much of the clinical research on drugs and, most importantly, largely determine the content of the DSM. In a sense, they are the best sales force the industry could have, and are worth every cent spent on them. Of the 170 contributors to the current version of the DSM (the DSM-IV-TR), almost all of whom would be described as KOLs, ninety-five had financial ties to drug companies, including all of the contributors to the sections on mood disorders and schizophrenia.  (Angell, part 2)
A second piece of evidence is a recounting of the drafting of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) through five editions, especially the third edition. In each case there is a strong suggestion of swaying of medical and scientific opinion through financial incentives.
These efforts to enhance the status of psychiatry were undertaken deliberately. The APA was then working on the third edition of the DSM, which provides diagnostic criteria for all mental disorders. The president of the APA had appointed Robert Spitzer, a much-admired professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, to head the task force overseeing the project. The first two editions, published in 1952 and 1968, reflected the Freudian view of mental illness and were little known outside the profession. Spitzer set out to make the DSM-III something quite different. He promised that it would be “a defense of the medical model as applied to psychiatric problems,” and the president of the APA in 1977, Jack Weinberg, said it would “clarify to anyone who may be in doubt that we regard psychiatry as a specialty of medicine.”
When Spitzer’s DSM-III was published in 1980, it contained 265 diagnoses (up from 182 in the previous edition), and it came into nearly universal use, not only by psychiatrists, but by insurance companies, hospitals, courts, prisons, schools, researchers, government agencies, and the rest of the medical profession. Its main goal was to bring consistency (usually referred to as “reliability”) to psychiatric diagnosis, that is, to ensure that psychiatrists who saw the same patient would agree on the diagnosis. To do that, each diagnosis was defined by a list of symptoms, with numerical thresholds. For example, having at least five of nine particular symptoms got you a full-fledged diagnosis of a major depressive episode within the broad category of “mood disorders.” But there was another goal—to justify the use of psychoactive drugs. The president of the APA last year, Carol Bernstein, in effect acknowledged that. “It became necessary in the 1970s,” she wrote, “to facilitate diagnostic agreement among clinicians, scientists, and regulatory authorities given the need to match patients with newly emerging pharmacologic treatments.”  (Angell, part 2)
Another element of the strategy used by the drug companies to promote their products, according to these authors, is the selective way that clinical studies are used in order to establish the safety and effectiveness of a given psychoactive drug:
For obvious reasons, drug companies make very sure that their positive studies are published in medical journals and doctors know about them, while the negative ones often languish unseen within the FDA, which regards them as proprietary and therefore confidential. This practice greatly biases the medical literature, medical education, and treatment decisions. (Angell, part 1)
What this story made me think of was ... slime molds. Here's what I mean. Japanese researchers have discovered that certain examples of optimizing processes can be simulated with slime molds and food supplies distributed across space. Here is an example of this research in the context of rail networks: the researchers found that a colony of slime mold essentially reproduces the configuration of existing rail networks when food is distributed in a configuration mirroring major cities (Tero et al 2010; link, link). Here is the experiment based on the configuration of cities around Tokyo:

After about a day of growth, the slime mold has established a network of tunnels connecting the food supplies, and this network looks strikingly similar to the configuration of Japanese railroads in the region.

So here's the question for consideration here: what if we attempted to model the system of population, disease, and the pharmaceutical industry by representing pharma as the slime organism and the disease space as a set of disease populations with different profitability characteristics? Would we see a major concentration of pharma slime around a few high-frequency, high profit disease-drug pairs? Would we see substantial underinvestment in pharma slime on low frequency low profit "orphan" disease populations? And would we see hyper-concentrations around diseases whose incidence is responsive to marketing and diagnostic standards?

I'm just speculating here, but I'm guessing that a Petri dish designed with these characteristics would produce the outcome described in the books included in the Angell reviews: a hyper-concentration of the slime organism around the "plastic" diseases that display positive feedback from marketing to incidence.  Essentially the model would suggest that the pharma industry "grows" into the space of emerging diseases, making investments in research and marketing that allow for growth of revenues around the disease segments of the population.

I suppose that this thought experiment simply supports a dismal but familiar finding: that profit-maximizing firms will aggressively seek out new sources of profits; that they will be particularly interested in opportunities where the possibility exists of strategically increasing the demand market; and that they will find creative ways of inducing other actors to behave in ways that enhance their business interests. Unfortunately, in this case the business optimal outcome seems to have very negative consequences for public health. And it seems to cast some doubt on the ability of professional ethics and conflict of interest policies to keep the medical profession as a whole on the track of placing the patient's health as the highest priority.

(I think this thought experiment could be recast as an agent-based simulation, with similar results.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alternatives to analytical sociology

I've now spent a fair amount of time in the past month on the micro-macro link and the foundations of analytical sociology (AS). It is worth taking stock to consider how this approach relates to other important methodologies in sociology and the social sciences more generally.

To start: I've generally found the strictures of "microfoundations" and "agent-based explanations" as representing ontological constraints on sociological explanations rather than guides for empirical research. The constraints require, essentially, that all our explanations of social processes and causal connections need to be compatible with providing plausible micro-level accounts of how they work. This is somewhat analogous to the philosophy of atomism in pre-Socratic natural philosophy; atomism postulated that there was a most fundamental level of physical phenomena; that these "atoms" were discrete and indivisible; and that all natural phenomena are composed of atoms and their aggregations. But this philosophy doesn't prescribe how to pursue the science of chemistry.

So these constraints don't necessarily provide guidance about what social phenomena to study or how to study it. In particular, they don't imply that sociological research needs to flow from bottom up, and they don't imply that the content of sociology should derive from features of individual agency and psychology.

But it seems that advocates of AS believe that the framework goes beyond this; that it leads to research strategies and areas of empirical inquiry that are distinctive from those adopted by other approaches to sociology. Research needs to fit into one of the struts of Coleman's boat. It needs to provide an empirical understanding of some of the micro-micro linkages or the micro-macro linkages; and it needs to offer rigorous techniques for establishing causal connections from micro to macro. Hedstrom puts the point this way early in Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology:
To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals' actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (kindle location 139)
This brief summary of the central dogmas of AS provides one reason why AS theorists are so concerned to have adequate and tractable models of the actor -- often rational actor models. Thomas Schelling's work provides a particularly key example for the AS research community (Micromotives and MacrobehaviorChoice and ConsequenceStrategies of Commitment and Other Essays); in field after field he demonstrates how micro motives aggregate onto macro outcomes. And Elster's work is also key, in that he provides some theoretical machinery for analyzing the actor at a "thicker" level -- imperfect rationality, self-deception, emotion, commitment, and impulse (Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social SciencesSour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of RationalityUlysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and ConstraintsAlchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions).

This summary also shows why agent-based modeling and simulations are so attractive to AS researchers: these techniques offer tractable methods for aggregating the effects of lower-level features of social life onto higher-level outcomes. If we represent actors as possessing characteristics of action X, Y, Z, and we represent their relations as U, V, W -- how do these actors in social settings aggregate to mid- and higher-level social patterns? This is the key methodological challenge that drives the Santa Fe Institute, and it produces very interesting results (link). (Here is an interesting recent paper on agent-based simulations for the social sciences by Dirk Helbing and Stefano Balietti called "How to Do Agent-Based Simulations in the Future: From Modeling Social Mechanisms to  Emergent Phenomena and Interactive Systems Design" (link).)

There certainly is intellectual power in this approach -- actors in social relations and the aggregation of their actions; but it isn't the whole of sociology. So let's quickly consider a few examples of sociological research that seem fairly distant from AS and consider how they might relate.

We might consider such fertile social scientists as Jack Goldstone, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, Andrew Abbott, Emmanuel Wallerstein, Pierre Bourdieu, Stanley Lieberson, George Steinmetz, Douglas Massey, and Erving Goffman, with respect to these questions:
  • To what extent do their theories rely on "mechanisms" as a foundation for social explanations? 
  • Are their theories compatible with the requirement of microfoundations at a local actor level? 
  • Do they have a theory of the actor?  
  • And do they make use of social ontologies that presuppose large social causes and macro causal relationships?  
In many instances some but not all answers to these questions will be affirmative.  Goffman and Bourdieu have a theory of the actor; Tilly and Lieberson appeal to social mechanisms; and in different ways I would say that each of them offer theories that are compatible with the requirement of microfoundations.  At the same time, the explanatory logic that these authors provide is rarely "aggregative"; they are not interested in showing how a macro phenomenon is the aggregate result of local actors' choices.  Moreover, several of them make specific and deliberate use of macro factors as central explanatory constructs: Goldstone, Skocpol, Wallerstein, and Massey. And Tilly explicitly criticizes the individualism that is characteristic of rational-actor theories, preferring a relational understanding of social phenomena.  So there isn't an easy translational relationship between AS and a number of other important and productive research traditions in sociology today.

One interesting data point on this question of the relationship between AS and other approaches to social explanation can be examined in Kathleen Thelen's contribution to Renate Mayntz, Akteure – Mechanismen – Zur Theoriefähigkeit makro-sozialer Analysen. (The book is very interesting and is available as a PDF download; link.)

Thelen is a brilliant scholar within the new historical institutionalism perspective (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan), and her contribution to the Mayntz volume ("The Explanatory Power of Historical Institutionalism") implicitly aims at tracing out some of the points of contrast between AS and historical institutionalism. She highlights several key methodological and theoretical assumptions underlying current research in historical institutionalism: attention to the formation of collective interests (92), attention to context (93), attention to meso- and macro-causal analysis (95), and sensitivity to the temporal dimension of social processes (96).  Here are some representative passages:
Thus, historical institutionalists have consistently drawn attention to the way in which institutional configurations »foster the emergence of particular definitions of mutual interest« (Immergut 1998: 339), and how they also often shape political outcomes by facilitating the organization of certain groups while actively disarticulating others (e.g., Skocpol 1992). (92)
A good deal of historical-institutional scholarship shows that the impact of institutions is often heavily mediated by features of the overarching political or historical context, a point that Charles Ragin’s work has repeatedly emphasized and underscored (Ragin 1987; also Katznelson 1997). (93)
However, beyond that, the emphasis on timing and sequencing in historical institutional research is also motivated by the insight, borne out in a number of studies, that when things happen, or the order in which different processes unfold, can itself be an extremely important part of the causal story (Pierson 2000c). (97)
Thus, for example, a number of authors have suggested that rational choice institutionalism applies best to understanding the strategic interaction of in- dividuals in the context of specific, well established and well known rules and parameters (e.g., Bates 1997; Geddes 1995). By contrast to this, the strength of historical-institutional approaches is precisely in the leverage it provides on understanding configurations of institutions (Katznelson 1997) and over much longer stretches of time (Pierson 2001). Historical institutionalism is concerned not just with how a particular set of rules affects the strategic orientation of individual actors and their interactions, but also with the broader issue of the ways in which institutional configurations define what Theda Skocpol has termed »fields of action« that have a very broad influence not just on the strategies of individual players but on the identities of actors and the networks that define their relations to each other. (103-4)
My takeaway from Thelen's thinking here and elsewhere is that there is a pretty significant methodological divide between her way of thinking about social processes and that of AS.  She highlights a handful of characteristics of HI research.  Historical institutionalists are inclined to focus on the meso level -- the settings of rules, norms, and processes through which social life is mediated; and they are sensitive to the crucial variations across time and place that these arrangements illustrate.  Nothing in this construction is antithetical to the requirement of microfoundations and the recognition that socially situated actors constitute the social world; but the emphasis of the research is not on the discovery of the aggregation dynamics from the level of the individual actor.

So I'm inclined to judge two things: first, that the methodological requirement of microfoundations is indeed a universal requirement on valid sociological research; but second, that the program of aggregation from micro to macro is only one way of conducting sociological research and explanation. So we shouldn't expect other areas of sociological thinking and research to simply fold into the framework of analytical sociology -- any more than a common commitment to natural selection as the causal mechanism underlying species change dictates the content and methods of the various areas of biology.

This is a place where the ontological framework of social structures that Dave Elder-Vass provides in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency seems methodologically useful.  It provides a rigorous basis for conceding the point that context, institutions, moral ideas, and value systems have a causal role to play in social explanation.  In E-V's view, these social structures supervene upon facts about individual actors; but their causal properties do not need to be reduced to features of the actors.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Esser's sociology

Sociology in Germany seems to be particularly prolific today, and this extends to the contributions that German sociologists are making to the sub-discipline of analytic sociology. One of the leaders who has played a key role in this active field is Hartmut Esser. Esser's Soziologie. Spezielle Grundlagen 3. Soziales Handeln (2002) is particularly important, but it hasn't been translated into English yet. (Here is a link to the second volume of this work on Google Books, and here is a link to Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen (1993).) So Esser's contributions are not yet as widely known in the US sociology world as they ought to be. (Here is a short Wikipedia entry on Esser in German (link).)

One of Esser's primary areas of empirical research is on the general topic of immigration and ethnicity. Here are a couple of relevant articles in English: "Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration" (link) and "How Far Reaches the “Middle Range” of a Theory? A Reply to the Comments" link). His goal generally is to consider the theories of ethnicity and assimilation that have been developed since the Chicago School and Robert Parks, and to attempt to reconcile the empirical experience of assimilation with a synthetic theory.

Several things seem fairly clear. First, Esser was an early and influential contributor to analytical sociology in two important ways. He advocates for social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanation. And he highlights rational individual actions as the heart of most (all?) social mechanisms. His work appears to be comparable in importance and impact to that of Raymond Boudon, James Coleman, and Jon Elster: rationality, microfoundations, mechanisms. (Here is a contribution by Esser on the topic of "Theories of the Middle Range" in a very interesting volume by Renate Mayntz available online; link.)

Second, Esser is especially interested in topics within the philosophy of science in connection to sociology. He is interested in the logic of explanation, the development of theory, and the role of models in scientific explanation. He is influenced by Karl Popper and Carl Hempel, and there are occasional references to other philosophers of science from the 1950s and 1960s. There are no references to Thomas Kuhn, W. V. O. Quine, or Hilary Putnam in Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen.

Another thing seems evident: that Esser is a sociologist in the tradition of Max Weber and interpretive sociology, with particular affinity to the "rational actor" Weber. Along with other German sociologists today, Esser appears to be helping to constitute a "Weber 2.0", more attuned to issues of contemporary interest such as immigration and assimilation, but with a strong sense of the importance of appropriate use of social theory in arriving at explanations of complicated contemporary social processes. (Here is a link to a book chapter by Esser on "The Rationality of Value".)

Here is an example of his use of rational choice theory in his theory of ethnic assimilation ("Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration"):
At the heart of the model are the options for those immigrants who are currently present within a receiving context. Options include activities which are related to the receiving country (receiving context option, in short: rc-option) and those which are related to the ethnic context (ethnic context option, in short: ec-option). Examples are changing or maintaining habits, relationships, or orientations. In order to explain when and why a certain activity occurs, we need a general rule for the selection between options that can be applied to, in principle, all empirical constellations. The model uses the rule of the expected utility theory as such a general selection rule. For each of the possible options a so-called EU weight is computed. The EU weight is the sum of both the negative and positive returns that can be achieved with the selection of a particular option, weighted with the corresponding expectation that the return actually occur with the selected option. Individuals would then select the option with the highest expected value [cfr. Esser 2004, 1135 ff.; Esser 2006, 39 ff. on details of the expected utility theory and also with reference to the model.
Esser has also attempted to find affinities between rationality theory and micro-sociology, including especially the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schütz. Here is the abstract of "The Rationality of Everyday Behavior: A Rational Choice Reconstruction of the Theory of Action by Alfred Schütz" (link):
This article argues that Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretative paradigm in sociology, developed a theory of action whose basic structure is compatible with subjective expected utility theory (i.e., a specific variant of rational choice theory). Alfred Schütz's view with respect to the characteristics of everyday action—the individual orientation toward routines and structures of relevance—is modeled in terms of subjective expected utility theory. In this perspective, these characteristics appear as the result of an action-preceding rational choice in the process of the cognition of situations, under the conditions of bounded rationality.
Esser is the object of quite a bit of discussion and reflection by other German sociologists. One whose name shows up frequently in these discussions is Rainer Greshoff (Die Transintentionalität des Sozialen. and Integrative Sozialtheorie: Esser, Luhmann, Weber (Rainer Greshoff and Uwe Schinank, eds.)).

(For those of us whose German reading knowledge is limited, I'm finding Google Translate to be a helpful source of assistance as I struggle with some of these texts; it helps with vocabulary even though the translations of complete sentences are not ready for prime time.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Marx an analytical sociologist?

In an earlier post I gave a brief sketch of the emerging field of analytical sociology, and summarized its foundations around three premises: microfoundations, rational social actors, and causal mechanisms.

Marx is often thought to be a "structuralist" thinker, highlighting large social processes and entities such as the mode of production, the economic structure, and social class (for example, by Althusser and
Balibar in Reading Capital). However, I argued in The Scientific Marx (1986) that a careful examination of Marx's economic writings reveals something quite different. I argued, first, that Marx embraced the idea that social explanations require microfoundations.
Marxist social science commonly has advanced macro explanations of social phenomena in which the object of investigation is a large-scale feature of society and the explanans is a description of some other set of macro phenomena. Some Marxist social scientists have recently argued, however, that macro explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macrolevel social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce the outcome. (127-28)
Consider now a second issue underlying the call for "microfoundations" for Marxian explanations: the gap between the interests of a group as a collective and the interests of the individuals who comprise the group. (John Roemer refers to this as the "aggregation gap.") "Rational-action" explanations depend on identifying an individual's interests and then explaining the person's behavior as the rational attempt to best serve those interests. The model is often extended to account for collective behavior of groups as well.... However, Mancur Olson and others have made it plain ... that it is not sufficient to refer to collective interests in order to explain individual behavior. (129-30)
In both cases the objection being advanced to macro-Marxism is grounded in a recognition that there are no supraindividual actors in a society. (131)
After examining several examples of Marx's most important explanations, I conclude that his arguments conform to the requirements of the microfoundations principle. His most characteristic explanations proceed from reasoning about the actions of typical individuals within capitalist institutions to an effort to aggregate these individual choices up to the level of larger collective patterns.

Second, I argued that Marx's explanations were almost always grounded in an analysis that highlighted rational individual decision-making. But Marx differed from the perspective we would now call "public choice theory" in that he gave much greater attention to the historically specific motives and values of the actor.  Marx highlighted what we might now call "political psychology" of the actor -- the socially specific ideas, motivations, and ideologies that the actor acquired through ordinary experience of capitalism. So there is a developed "action theory" present in Marx's writings.  It is a theory that gives prominence to means-end rationality.  And it gives attention to the social specificity of the actor as well.  

Here is how I described Marx's assumptions about the actors within capitalism in TSM:
Marx's accounts depend on an examination of the circumstances of choice of rational individuals. Marx identifies a set of motivational factors and constraints on action for a hypothetical capitalist and then tries to determine the most rational strategies available to the capitalist in these circumstances of choice.... A second part of this model of explanation involves an attempt to determine the consequences for the system as a whole of the forms of activity attributed to the typical capitalist at the preceding stage of analysis. (141-42)
But Marx has a nuanced and socially specific conception of the actor:
Against both these positions -- the nonsocial individualism of political economy and the uncritical holism of speculative philosophy -- Marx puts forward an alternative position. On this account the socialized individual is the ultimate unit of analysis in social explanation. "Individuals producing in society -- hence socially determined production -- is of course the point of departure" (Grundrisse 83).... On this account society is not a freestanding entity, and social relations exist only through the individuals who stand within them. At the same time, however, individuals exist only within particular sets of historically given social relations. Consequently, social explanations must begin with a concrete conception of the individual within specific social relations." (150)
These assumptions about social actors conform fairly well to the assumptions incorporated into analytical sociology.  

And third, I argued that Marx offered causal mechanism explanations based on an analysis of what I termed the "institutional logic" of a particular social setting. So various features of capitalism are explained as resulting from rational actors situated within a particular set of institutions. These accounts serve as descriptions of the social mechanisms through which capitalist dynamics take place.
Marx attempts to work out the institutional logic of these capitalist institutions. What distinctive features of organization and development are imposed on the capitalist economy by its defining structural and functional characteristics? What are the "laws of motion" of the mode of production defined by these conditions? We may call this an institutional-logic analysis of social regularities, and it is significantly different from the construction of theoretical explanations in natural science. Such an analysis is concerned with determining the results for social organization and development of an entrenched set of incentives and constraints on individual action. (34)
Marx's interest in discovering and elaborating the social mechanisms that drive social processes is found within his theory of historical materialism as well.  In TSM I argue that Marx's claims about causation between levels of the social and economic structures of various modes of production are best understood as "mechanisms" explanations.
In order to understand fully this view of the relation between the economic structure and noneconomic phenomena, it is necessary to describe the mechanisms through which the lower-level structures constrain or filter superstructural elements. The filtering may occur through a variety of mechanisms, both intended and unintended. (56)
This account of Marx's implicit theory of social explanation -- microfoundations, rationality, and mechanisms -- reproduces Coleman's boat (Foundations of Social Theory).  The institutions and structures of capitalism create a local environment of choice for individual capitalists and workers, and their behavior aggregates to a macro-outcome of interest (for example, the falling tendency in the rate of profit). This is a "logic of institutions" argument in a specific sense. The institutions (property relations) create an environment of choice in which actors pursue specific strategies, and these strategies aggregate to a certain kind of macro-level outcome. These are the "laws of motion" of the capitalist mode of production, in Marx's terms. And it is a mechanisms-based explanation in a specific sense as well. Marx is deliberately seeking out the social mechanisms through which the institutional setting produces a set of macro-outcomes, through their influence on the behaviors of the actors. The Scientific Marx offers a handful examples of these aggregative explanations. The point here is that this logic conforms very well to the framework of thought associated with analytical sociology.

There is one additional point of convergence between the methods I identified in Marx's writings in 1986 and the current doctrines of analytical sociology. I argued that the covering law model of explanation and the deductive-nomological model of justification did not work at all well in application to Marx's reasoning. The reason? Because the covering law model assumes that explanatory warrant proceeds from laws and regularities, whereas the heart of Marx's explanations rests upon the discovery of particular social processes and mechanisms.
Do Marx's explanations conform to the subsumption theory? ... There are statements of lawlike regularities in Marx's explanations, but these statements are somewhat trivial.... The real weight of the argument lies elsewhere: in the particular details of the circumstances of choice in which capitalists find themselves, and in Marx's reasoning from these circumstances to patterns of collective behavior. (152) [Or in other words, he seeks to uncover the social mechanisms of capitalism and their aggregative dynamics.]
The process of discovering an institutional logic is not merely one of working out the deductive consequences of the theory; it is rather discovering new aspects of the social process. These aspects are perhaps "implicit" in the original theory, but their discovery is a substantive one, not a mere deductive exercise. (153)
Here too there is a strong affinity between Marx's theory of science (as I interpreted it in 1986, anyway) and the philosophy of social explanation developed within analytical sociology.

So it looks as though Marx's analysis of capitalist society -- at least as it is reconstructed in The Scientific Marx -- falls squarely within what we would now call "analytical sociology" with a commitment to microfoundations, mechanisms, and socially constituted purposive actors. What a surprise!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dissecting the social

The past dozen years or so have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive approach to the social sciences that its practitioners refer to as "analytical sociology." Peter Hedström's Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology (2005) serves as a manifesto for the approach, and Pierre Demeulenaere, ed., Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, and Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology provide substantive foundations for several areas of research within this approach.  And the European Network of Analytical Sociologists provides an institutional framework within which research approaches and findings can be shared (link).

Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms:
Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach.  They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (kl 113)
One important characteristic of the analytical approach is that it aims to gain understanding by dissecting the social phenomena to be explained.  To dissect, as the term is used here, is to decompose a complex totality into its constituent entities and activities and then to bring into focus what is believed to be its most essential elements. (kl 65)
And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in the Handbook:
Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts -- an exercise that does not provide an explanation -- but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about.  In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (3-4)
Two interrelated aspects are of particular importance: the explanatory principles guiding the approach and the type of explanatory factors being evoked. Analytical sociology explains by detailing mechanisms through which social facts are brought about, and these mechanisms invariably refer to individuals' actions and the relations that link actors to one another. (4)
In my assessment, AS rests on three central ideas.

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals.  This position is referred to variously as methodological individualism, methodological localism, or microfoundationalism.  It is often illustrated by reference to "Coleman's Boat" in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (1994:8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena:

The diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior).  Here are a few of Hedström's formulations of this ontological position:
In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (kl 106)
To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals' actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (kl 143)
Further, Hedström is drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory -- what he calls the "Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory".
Desires (D), beliefs (B) and opportunities (O) are the primary theoretical terms upon which the analysis of action and interaction will be based.  ... The desires, beliefs and opportunities of an actor are here seen as the proximate causes of the actor's action. (kl 507)
This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor's choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated and socially constructed; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incented by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism that I've defended.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not reductionist about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. (Gary Becker's effort to explain much of social life on the basis of the premise of maximizing utility is an example of the reductionist tendency of purist rational choice theory; Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.) In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they put the point this way:
Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals' actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (4)
This is a direction of thought that is not well advanced within analytical sociology, but would repay further research.  There is no reason why a microfoundational approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual's cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks.  These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions.

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in a hypothesis about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research.  (This is a position developed and discussed many times in this blog; thread.) This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science). Hedström advocates for a theory of causal explanation that is grounded in the idea of a causal mechanism:
The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences.  The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (kl 65)
A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181)
In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned.  This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation.  So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes.  It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the "aggregation dynamics" research program (link).  There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain.  And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components.  (This is the thrust of Andrew Abbott's article on mechanisms, discussed previously.)

(An earlier post described John Levi Martin's effort to show how social structures come to be as the result of the accretion of patterns of individual social interaction.  Where Levi Martin proceeds from micro to macro through aggregation, Hedström proceeds from macro to micro through disaggregation (or dissection, in his words). But both are fundamentally interested in analyzing the micro-macro link.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Abbott on mechanisms

Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998) announced to the world the power of social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanations. It was based on a conference on this approach in Stockholm in 1996, and the volume includes contributions by outstanding authorities such as Thomas Schelling, Jon Elster, Aage Sorensen, and Arthur Stinchcombe (among others).

One person whom it does not include is Andrew Abbott. Abbott did indeed participate in the conference, but his contribution was not included in the volume when it appeared in 1998. The article did appear subsequently, however, in a special volume of Sociologica in 2007, with discussions by Delia Baldassarri, Gianluca Manzo, and Tommaso Vitale. (Here is a link to Abbott's essay and to his reply to discussants.) And the whole debate is worth reading. Abbott's piece is a serious challenge to the ontology of mechanisms. And each of the discussants in the Sociologica volume bring important criticisms and perspectives to the table.

Essentially Abbott takes issue with the mechanisms approach because it attempts to analyze the social world into fixed "atoms" of causal events (mechanisms and actors) rather than a more contextual ontology of relations and actions.
I shall consider the mechanisms movement from the viewpoint of a different theoretical tradition, one that focuses on the processual and relational character of social life and that traces its roots to pragmatism. (2)

By the relational view I mean the notion that the meaning of an action is comprehensible only when it is situated in social time and place. A fundamental assumption of the mechanism view as set out here is that the meaning of a certain activity is given in itself. By contrast, the relational view assumes that the meaning of an action arises from its relations to other actions – both temporally, as a successor and a forerunner in coherent sequences of social events, and structurally, as a vertex in a synchronic ensemble of actions. Beneath this lies a more profound assumption that actions, not actors, are the primitives of the social process. The substratum of social life is interaction, not biological individuals who act. (7)
Abbott agrees with the CM approach in its rejection of a positivist search for statistical regularities among social characteristics -- what he refers to as the variables paradigm -- but he isn't persuaded by the ontology of mechanisms. He prefers actions to actors, and he prefers relationships linked to their contexts in time and place to portable mechanisms.

The most important part of Abbott's article is his positive argument for the primacy of a relational approach and actions-in-context instead of unitary actors.  Much of this line of thought comes down to Abbott's view that actors and agency are deeply socially constructed; so it doesn't make sense to take the actor as a given who then deliberates about options.
Making interaction primitive makes it possible to give an account of the self.  By making the self be continuously recreated in the flow of interaction we bring it out of the realm of assumptions and into that of investigation.  At the same time, by making interaction primitive we allow for the endless interplay of cross-individual structural definitions of the flow of action, an interplay that is an evident fact in social life. (8)
For the relational account defines an act as a making of relations within a scene.... Social actors are cobbled together by actions that turn existing potential boundaries into actual ones. (9) 
I am arguing the stronger point that the acting self is continuously remade in interaction and that the environment of possible endowments and contrasts--the environment of others and past experiences--provides the ground whence comes this remaking. (12)
Another central thrust of Abbott's critique of the mechanism approach is that it is "reductionist" and depends on a rational-choice model of the actor. Essentially his line of argument is this: the mechanism approach requires microfoundations for macro-causal mechanisms; microfoundations presuppose rational actors; and therefore macro-facts are being reduced to facts about rational individuals. Each of these links is debatable, however, and in fact several of the discussants in the Sociologica volume question each of them. Essentially, many advocates of microfoundations (including me) insist on a richer theory of the actor than narrow economic rationality. And others -- for example, Dave Elder-Vass -- maintain that microfoundations don't imply reductionism either. (He prefers the idea of supervenience; I prefer explanatory autonomy; link.)

Delia Baldassarri highlights this issue in her comment, when she talks about the strengths and weaknesses of methodological individualism:
This approach has been quite successful in explaining "macro-phenomena that are emergent effects of the interdependent but uncoordinated actions of many individuals" [Mayntz 2004, 250]. The same approach has been less effective, however, in accounting for dynamics of identity construction, interest formation, boundary definition and institutional change, and in general, for social processes where macro-level states cannot be considered as given. (2)
Gianluca Manzo's comment is the most extensive of the three in the Sociologica volume.  His careful assessment leads him to conclude that Abbott overstates the incompatibility between "mechanisms" and "relations," and overstates as well the degree to which the analytical sociology perspective is "reductionist".  Manzo advocates for what he calls "complex methodological individualism", and concludes that:
The "relational sociology" that Abbott defends is inconceivable without the "mechanismal sociology" (AS) he critiques.  
One feature of Abbott's article gives it its own particular relationality: he illustrates his meaning by describing a prolonged disagreement he had as a dean with the president of the University of Chicago over admissions recruitment strategies. His point, seemingly, is that the strategy chosen by the president presumes a rational-actor theory of college choice, and it further misunderstands the true priorities and considerations that motivate prospective UC students.
More important, we might phrase the difference by saying that the relational model is interested in how a student becomes a person who matriculates at the University of Chicago. (15)
The inference: if UC is to continue to recruit the edgy, intellectual and quirky undergraduates it has been famous for, it will need to have a more nuanced understanding of the whole process. Or in the context of mechanisms versus relations: it won't do to think a marketing can pull the lever on a strategy (mechanism) and expect to get the desired result. Rather, we need a more contextualized and relational approach. There is no recipe of mechanisms -- grounded, moreover, in a rational expectations theory -- that will do the job. Instead, Abbott advises a relational, processual approach to college marketing: figure out the kinds of identities the desired segment of high school students are trying to make for themselves, and construct a series of experiences around that.

In many ways I find Abbott's essay more original than several in the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume. So it's unfortunate that it wasn't included. It could have influenced the subsequent discussions very fruitfully.

Readers will also be interested in a recent collection edited by Pierre Demeulenaere that serves as a valuable follow-on to the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. It includes a piece by a German philosopher and sociologist whose work on this subject I admire, Michael Schmid, as well as contributions from Dan Sperber, Raymond Bouton, Jon Elster, Robert Sampson, and others. Schmid's Die Logik mechanismischer Erklarungen (2006) isn't available in English, which is unfortunate. The causal mechanisms approach has been picked up internationally, including an interesting book on the subject by the Italian sociologist Filippo Barbera (Meccanismi Sociali; Elementi di sociologia analitica; 2004).