Monday, August 29, 2011

The moral basis for an extensive state

A recent post focused on the conception of society involved in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English political thinking, the theory of possessive individualism. The post suggested that this conception has a lot of resonance with the ideas and rhetoric of the Tea Party today. I've also posted a number of discussions of the social ideals of John Rawls (link, link), expressing a liberal democratic view of the good society.  These posts remind me how important it is to have some fairly specific ideas about how we would want society to be organized in the future, so we can also have some ideas about current reforms that might take us in that direction.  And today we don't seem to have a lot of clarity about this kind of vision, especially on the progressive side of the political spectrum.

The ideal that seems to lie behind the conservative Tea Party political philosophy is simple but alarming:
  1. Citizens should have maximum possible liberties of activity and use of property.
  2. Citizens have no positive obligations to other citizens, beyond those associated with respecting liberties and property rights.
  3. The state exists only to secure the liberties and security of citizens; this means the state needs to have funds to provide for national defense, enforcement of property rights, and maintenance of public order.
  4. The state has no legitimate basis for creating more extensive regulations on the exercise of liberty and property (FDA, EPA, regulation of banks, …).  Such regulations represent an unjustified interference with the exercise of private property rights.
  5. The state has no legitimate basis for using tax moneys to provide a social safety net (unemployment payments, welfare payments, food and housing subsidies, …).  Such transfer programs represent an unjustified system of redistribution of wealth and income that violates the property rights of anyone who is taxed more extensively than a fair share of the costs of providing for national defense and maintenance of public order.
This political philosophy is familiar from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).  At the time Nozick's vision was considered extreme from a philosophical point of view; it took to a logical limit the very limited assumptions about individual rights that were a part of the Lockean tradition of political philosophy, and arrived at what was then a very startling set of conclusions about the limits on legitimate state action.  Nozick referred to this conception as the "minimal state".  Nozick's philosophy expressed a form of libertarian conservativism, with no inclination towards the "social values" of more recent conservatism.

If this political philosophy were to be enacted through legislation, it would imply a number of things: abolition of mandatory social security, abolition of regulatory agencies like EPA and FDA, abolition of unemployment benefits and poverty-based welfare programs, and dramatic reduction of taxes on the affluent.  This is a vision of the minimal state with a vengeance; and it seems rather familiar from much of the rhetoric offered by Tea Party activists and Republican presidential candidates alike.

We could spend time thinking about the deficiencies of this political philosophy from a number of points of view.  Here my interest is different; I'd like to consider what components might go into a political philosophy that expresses a moral justification for the more extensive state that a great many Americans would want to have. First, what are the institutional arrangements that might be considered?

A strong alternative to the minimal state is the Nordic model -- essentially the political and economic system associated with Scandinavian democracies in the 1960s through the 1980s.  Here is an interesting monograph on the economic and social characteristics of the Nordic model: The Nordic Model: Embracing globalization and sharing risks (Torben M. Andersen, Bengt Holmström, Seppo Honkapohja, Sixten Korkman, Hans Tson Söderström, Juhana Vartiainen; published by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy); link.  The authors describe the key economic and social commitments of the Nordic model in these terms:
  • a comprehensive welfare state with an emphasis on transfers to households and publicly provided social services financed by taxes, which are high notably for wage income and consumption;
  • a lot of public and/or private spending on investment in human capital, including child care and education as well as research and development (R&D);
  • and a set of labour market institutions that include strong labour unions and employer associations, significant elements of wage coordination, relatively generous unemployment benefits and a prominent role for active labour market policies. (13)
A key goal of the study is to assess the economic performance of the Nordic model over the past fifty years.  The study's summary conclusion is very favorable: contrary to anti-tax, anti-government ideology, the Nordic economies have performed very well.
The Nordic countries have, according to many indicators, succeeded relatively well in fulfilling their social ambitions. Recently, this has been combined with a satisfactory economic performance in terms of employment and productivity levels as well as growth of GDP per capita. Also, the macroeconomic balance is good and public finances are strong. There is indeed a Nordic success story in the sense of a favourable combination of economic efficiency and social equality. 
True, the Nordics went through a period of low productivity growth in the 1970s (like most other OECD countries) as well as a major financial and macroeconomic crisis with very high unemployment rates and large fiscal imbalances in the early 1990s (somewhat earlier and less dramatically in the case of Denmark). But even so, the Nordics have more or less managed to keep up with the US in terms of PPP-adjusted GDP over the last 25–30 years, which is more than can be said of most other EU15 countries. The longterm performance is mainly recorded as a high rate of total factor productivity growth. This indicates that technical progress, notably in the area of information and communication technology (IT), has played in important role in growth. More importantly, it also shows that the Nordics – contrary to popular belief – demonstrate a high degree of economic flexibility and capacity of structural change. The macroeconomic crises have helped the process by inducing growth-enhancing changes in structural policies (and, for a while, through the improvements of competitiveness caused by large depreciations in the early 1990s). (15)
These are social and economic arrangements that establish an active state, a state with broad responsibilities to the welfare of its citizens, and a state that calls upon a significant fraction of the wealth of society to do its work.  What are the moral principles that might underly such a conception of a good society?  Here are a few axioms that seem to be worth considering within such a political philosophy.
  1. Society is a system of interdependency and mutual benefit for all citizens. Everyone benefits from being part of a just society.
  2. The moral situation of individuals in society includes several important components:
    1. Individuals within society have rights, liberties, and needs for personal security.
    2. Individuals have obligations to each other to help prevent hardship and to facilitate full human development. These obligations derive from at least two sources: (a) the benefits we all enjoy as a result of social cooperation in a functioning society; and (b) the moral recognition we have of the equal human worth and dignity of fellow citizens.
    3. Individuals within society have universal needs to facilitate their full human development and functioning, including education, health care, housing, and adequate nutrition.
  3. Certain core functions for the state follow from these moral ideas:
    1. The state is obligated to create a system of law that protects the rights, liberties, and security needs of all citizens.
    2. The state is obligated to serve as one of the important vehicles through which our positive obligations to other citizens are honored. 
      1. The state needs to ensure that all citizens have access to education, healthcare, and the essentials of life.
      2. The state needs to provide a safety net for citizens whose earnings within the market economy leave them unable to provide for a decent standard of living.
    3. The state is obligated to protect the public from the harmful effects of private activities, including regulations concerning health and safety, conditions of labor, and environmental harms.
  4. A handful of moral constraints surround the policies and laws the state may adopt:
    1. The state is authorized to collect taxes to efficiently perform its functions of protecting rights, securing welfare, and regulating harmful activities.
    2. The state is obligated to be procedurally just and economically efficient in its administration of public programs.
    3. The policies and laws of the state need to be adopted through a democratic process in which all citizens have equal voice.
This formulation highlights a cluster of values that can potentially gain wide support within a democracy: the equal worth of all individuals, the importance of liberty, the importance of a range of social obligations all citizens have to each other, and the idea that the state needs to be articulated in such a way as to embody these moral ideas.

If the theory of the minimal state owes much of its content to John Locke, the more extensive state described here owes much of its moral rationale to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau brought the moral perspective of the "individual within community" into the foundations of political philosophy.  Josh Cohen's Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals provides an excellent discussion of Rousseau's political theory; link.

(Gosta Esping-Andersen has studied the politics and policies of social democracies through a lifetime of writing. Especially important are The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism and Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Causal narratives about historical actors

A common kind of causal narrative employed by historians is to identify a set of key actors, key circumstances, and key resources; and then to treat a period of time as a flow of actions by the actors in response to each other and changing circumstances. We might describe this as "explanation of an outcome as cumulative result of actions by differently situated actors, within a specified set of institutions, resources, and environmental factors."

Individual actions make sense in the context, so we have explained their behavior at the micro level. But we can also "calculate" aggregate structural consequences of these actions, and we can thereby reach conclusions about how change in one set of structural conditions led to another set of structural changes through the flow of situated actors choosing their strategies. The powers and resources available to different groups of actors are different and must be carefully assessed by the historian.

This explanatory logic is illustrated in Emmanuel Wallerstein's account of the development of the so-called absolute monarchy in France (The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, With a New Prologue). Actors choose strategies based on the circumstances, alliances, and opponents that confront them. Actors include: king, lord, peasant, merchant, civil servant, bandit, clergy. Most of these actors also have collective organizations that function as actors at a group level. Economic crisis in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led officials of medieval states to broaden and extend their bureaucracies (134). Kings profited from disorder to extend their wealth at the expense of the nobles (135). Kings set more ambitious objectives for their states (135). Kings needed support from nobles and created parliaments. Kings used a variety of strategies to centralize power.
How did kings, who were the managers of the state machinery in the sixteenth century, strengthen themselves? They used four mechanisms: bureaucratization, monopoly of force, creation of legitimacy, and homogenization of the subject population. (136)
These actions aggregate into a new set of circumstances, a more effective set of centralized state powers, for the next period of play.

Institutions come into this kind of narrative in two ways. First, they are objective constraints and facts on the ground for the actors, leading actors to adjust their strategies. But second, institutions are built and modified through strategic actions and oppositions of the actors during a period of time. The king wants to strengthen the institutions of tax collection in the provinces; local lords oppose this effort. Each party deploys powers and opportunities to protect its interests. The resultant institutions are different from what either party would have designed.

Where do "causes" come into this kind of narrative? Climate change is a good example. Wallerstein considers the idea that climate change caused the emergence of a new set of institutions of land use (33 ff.). The mechanism is through the actions of the various stakeholders, competing and cooperating to adjust institutions to fit their current needs. Let us say the king is in a situation of greater power than the peasant or the lord. The king largely prevails in institutionalizing a new set of land use practices. One of the causes of the new institution is climate change, working through the strategic actions of the several groups of players. Or: Medieval landowners suffer income loss during a period of economic crisis; they recognize an income opportunity in enclosing public lands for private cultivation; peasants resist using traditional forms of protest; landowners generally have a power advantage and are supported by the state; landowners prevail. In this story, economic crisis causes change of land property relations, mediated by the strategic actions of key actors and groups. (Marx and Brenner tell different versions of this story; link, link.)

A different kind of example comes in at the level of the state. Wallerstein holds that the absolutist state caused the extension of the world trading system. What does he mean by this? He means that new state institutions created new powers and opportunities for several groups of actors, and the net result of these actor's strategies was to bring about a rapid increase in trade and associated military strategies. Again -- a macro cause of a macro outcome, flowing through an analysis of the strategies, interests, and powers of the historically situated actors.

This model of agent-based causal narratives seems to fit well into the methodology of agent-based simulations, with adjustments of the conditions of play from one iteration to the next. We would specify the goals and knowledge possessed by the actors. We would stipulate the institutional "geography" of the playing field. The institutions would define the powers possessed by each actor and the resources available for competition. We would represent alliances, competitions, and outcomes as they develop, noting that there is a stochastic and path-dependent nature to the unfolding of these scenarios.

Essentially the model for explaining social change and stability goes along these lines: actors act according to their interests and psychology. To explain a new outcome we need to identify either:
a structural circumstance or resource that significantly changed the situation of action for one or more groups;
a change in the conditions of agency in the actors themselves -- ideology, religion, new factual theories and beliefs.
Either of these changes can then account for a persistent pattern of behavior leading to a new social outcome. This framework of explanation fits well into the ontology of methodological localism and also leaves room for meso-level causal factors.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Small cities

A recent post on the suburbs closed with the observation that there is an important "other" social space in the United States beyond the categories of urban, rural, and suburban.  These are the small cities throughout the United States where a significant number of people come to maturity and develop their families and careers.  I speculated that perhaps there is a distinctive sociology associated with these lesser urban places.  Here I will look into this question a bit more fully.

There are about 275 cities in the US with populations 100,000 or larger (Wikipedia link).  201 of these cities are small, with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.  There are 30.3 million people living in these cities -- about 10% of the US population.  A certain number of these cities fall within the metropolitan areas of larger cities, but a significant number are at least 50 miles from a major city.

Here is a map of 200 cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000:

View Small Cities in a larger map

And here is a map of 25 cities with population greater than 500,000 (red) and 48 cities with population between 250,000 and 500,000 (green):

View Small Cities in a larger map

Google Maps limits the number of objects that can be placed on a map to 200 items, so it isn't possible to overlay these maps using Google Maps.  Google Earth does not have this limitation, and all these points are included on the Google Earth version of the map. Here is what the overlay looks like:

And here is a map of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the US in 1999. Wikipedia provides an up-to-date list of the MSAs in the US (link). (Many of the small cities actually constitute an MSA of their own; so determining whether a small city is "metropolitan" really involves the question of whether the place falls within one of the top 25-50 MSAs by population.)

The group of cities I'm interested in here is a subset of the cities on the first map: those that are more than 50 miles from one of the top 25 cities on the second map.  This still leaves well over 100 cities in the United States with a couple of interesting characteristics: they are relatively small, so they can be expected to lack a number of higher-level functions and industries; and they are relatively isolated from other larger cities, so their populations are extensively dependent on the resources of the city itself for employment, social services, entertainment, consumption, education, etc.

So the takeaway question here is this: what is life like in Billings MT, Topeka KS, Norman OK, Pueblo CO, Springfield IL, Knoxville TN, Cary NC, Green Bay WI, Grand Rapids MI, Allentown PA, Shreveport LA, and Killeen TX?  What is it like to grow up in these places?  Where do young people go for post-secondary education?  What percentage of young people leave these places permanently in the course of their careers?  Where do the elected officials in these places come from? How are these cities doing, from the perspective of unemployment, neighborhood and business district decline, and social problems?

Further, we can ask whether there are any structural features in common that imply that these places are more similar to each other than they are to larger cities or smaller towns.  Are issues of immigration, race relations, drug use, teen pregnancy, or high school dropout rates different in these places?

Finally, we can ask whether growing up in these places gives rise to a specific mentality.  Do those of us who grew up in small cities like these -- Peoria, Rock Island, Springfield -- have a different set of values, a different way of looking at the world, or perhaps different ways of relating to people in ordinary social life?  Or are regional differences (south, midwest, Pacific Coast) more of a determinant of one's mentality?

(I've placed the lists of cities and MSAs I've used here as spreadsheets at Google Docs; link, link. Both lists come from Wikipedia entries on US Cities and Metropolitan Statistical Areas.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

The suburbs

There has been lots of work on urban history, and rural life has come in for its own specialized study for almost two centuries as well. But what about the suburbs? Is there anything distinctive about suburban life in the United States that suggests that it needs its own sociology and history? Kevin Kruse and Tom Sugrue think so, and their volume, The New Suburban History (Historical Studies of Urban America), makes the case. Kruse and Sugrue think that this history is actually crucial to understanding many things about the United States since the 1950s.
In the still-developing history of the postwar United States, suburbs belong at center stage. The rise and dominance of suburbia in America after the Second World War is inescapable. In 1950, a quarter of all Americans lived in suburbs; in 1960, a full third; and by 1990, a solid majority. (1)
This question divides naturally into two tracks. First, has there been a distinctive sociology of suburban life that needs to be tracked? And second, does this social-demographic fact about post-war America have important consequences for larger issues -- electoral politics, race, education, cultural homogenization, and economic competitiveness? Kruse and Sugrue think that suburbanization has implications for each of these topics, and the volume makes the case.

The subject of suburban history isn't a new one. But what is new about the approach taken by the contributors is the fact that they treat the suburbs as part of a system. They treat regions as metropolitan systems including inner cities and multiple suburban places.
[The contributors] take a broader metropolitan perspective, paying attention to the place of suburbs in political and economic relationship with central cities, competing suburbs, and their regions as a whole. (6)
Another distinctive part of their approach is that they look at suburbanization as chiefly a long-running political process. It was the result of many layers of federal, state, and local public policies. Here is how David Freund puts it in his essay:
The modern American suburb is heavily indebted to the federal government. For decades writers have chronicled this debt, documenting how state policy fueled the rapid suburban growth that has so decisively shaped U.S. politics and culture since World War II. ... Meanwhile the nation's cities, and especially the minority populations concentrated within them, were left behind. (11-12)
And it led to a powerful new set of political dynamics of competition.
The history of suburbanization and its consequences is, in large part, a question of power. (6)
In fact, the editors point out that a number of key electoral issues in the past half century have emerged out of the conflicts of interest that arose out of the shift of population to the suburbs and competition between suburban communities -- for example, the anti-tax movement that originated in California. (Robert Self analyzes this dynamic in his contribution, "Prelude to the Tax Revolt.")

Arnold Hirsch picks up the issue of segregation in his essay.
The cumulative effect of federal housing policies ... was to produce a federally sponsored social centrifuge that not only separated black from white but increasingly linked the latter to placement on the economically dynamic fringe as opposed to the crumbling core. (35-36)
It is also interesting to understand in hindsight that these implications of federal housing policy were fairly clearly understood on both sides -- by advocates of a radicalized housing policy and by advocates for the civil rights of African Americans. Hirsch summarizes the prescient views of George Nesbitt:
In 1952, Racial Relations Service officer George B. Nesbitt addressed the meeting of the National Association of Intergroup Relations Officials and warned that the programs then being implemented under the rubric of urban redevelopment would establish the spatial and psychological framework within which the civil rights struggle would take place in "decades to come". The racial implications of the program were awesome and could not be avoided. (52)
(Hirsch's own urban history of Chicago is well worth reading; Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (Historical Studies of Urban America).)

Kruse and Sugrue and most of the contributors to the volume emphasize the range of variation that has existed in American suburbs. The racial and class homogeneity that earlier historians have highlighted has a realistic core -- Federal housing policies certainly contributed to de facto segregation across metropolitan regions -- but the editors note that there were a fair number of embedded clusters of minority residents and low-income workers as suburbs developed. And these facts of race and class diversity -- and sometimes conflict -- have had large consequences.

Detroit and its suburbs provide an almost pure case for the processes described in the volume. White flight beginning in the 1950s, the provision of county and municipal governments, and a very strong separation between Oakland County, Wayne County, and the city of Detroit illustrate many of the social and economic dynamics that are described in the volume. This has left a legacy of fragmented governance where it is very difficult to achieve anything like a shared regional perspective on problems that cross over the whole region. The fate of unified mass transit (which still doesn't exist in the region) and the bitter arguments among governments over the fate of Cobo Hall point to the failure of regionalism to date and the sub-par outcomes that are the result for almost all the 4.5 million people who live in the metropolitan region. Tom Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton Studies in American Politics)does a masterful job of telling the story of how we got here.

Kruse and Sugrue and the contributors to the volume succeed in establishing the importance of suburban history within American social development and public policy change, and they do a good job of drilling down into the policy choices that were made at all levels leading to this course of development in the U. S. They also demonstrate how the politics and sociology of race relations played an essential role in this history. What the volume doesn't even try to do is to get at the sociological dynamics that this form of residence, work, and socialization created. So plainly there is still a lot to do in the field by sociologists and ethnographers to capture the suburban experience.

(It is interesting to consider that there is a significant slice of the American population who live in places that are neither urban, suburban, nor rural. These are people who live in towns and small cities -- population 50,000 to 250,000. This is small-city America -- Peoria, Youngstown, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Orlando. These places often have many of the same challenges as major cities, without the dynamism and opportunity that are part of the scene in Chicago, Miami, Seattle, or New York. It would be very interesting to see data on things like social and geographical mobility, innovative business ideas, and average educational levels for places like these. Richard Florida has made the case for large cities and their inherent dynamism; do any of these effects extend down the scale to Peoria or Syracuse? Take Peoria, Rockford, and Chicago -- what does a detailed history of Illinois electoral politics and public policy tell us about the relations of competition, cooperation, and dominance that these three cities demonstrate over time?)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Possessive individualism

C. B. Macpherson was a political philosopher who placed a genuinely novel interpretation on the history of political thought in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke when the book appeared in 1962. Macpherson was a Canadian philosopher who influenced quite a few young scholars in the 1970s in North America and Great Britain. Macpherson offered the basis of a strong critique of a certain kind of liberalism -- the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form:

The repair that was needed [to liberal theory] was one that would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual, and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community, which had been present in some measure in the Puritan and Lockean theory. (2)

But Macpherson feels the need to go further:

The present study … suggests that the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality. Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual. the individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and capacities. The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of exchange between proprietors. (3)

The individualism that Macpherson identifies is of a specific sort; it is "possessive" individualism. What does Macpherson mean by this? Here we have the heart of the theory of possessive individualism: the individual as solely an owner of himself. Here is his formulation late in the book:

  1. What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others.
  2. Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest.
  3. The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.
  4. Although the individual cannot alienate the whole o fhis property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labour.
  5. Human society consists of a series of market relations.
  6. Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual's freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.
  7. Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual's property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves. (263-4)

The core of the book is a set of interpretive chapters on Hobbes, Locke, the Levellers, and Harrington. These chapters are careful, detailed, and closely textual and contextual. The book puts forward a fairly simple theory: the British tradition of political philosophy expresses a rather particular ideology that is pre-philosophical. The ideology (possessive individualism) is a very specific conception of the individual and his/her roles in the social world. The philosophical theories that are built on that ideology give shape to that set of assumptions, but they are ill suited to recognizing or critiquing those assumptions. Macpherson highlights the interpretive challenge of discovering these underlying assumptions: "Where a writer can take it for granted that his readers will share some of his assumptions, he will see no need to set these out at the points in his argument where we, who do not share those assumptions automatically, think they should have been stated to make the argument complete" (5).

What is the social context of this ideology? It is the reality of market society:

These assumptions do correspond substantially to the actual relations of a market society. (4)

One of Macpherson's more indirect goals in his philosophy is to provide an intellectually sound foundation for the liberal democratic state -- a state that recognizes the worth of the individual while also recognizing the social obligations that we all have towards each other and that need to be expressed through the social programs of the state. Fundamentally, Macpherson is interested in helping formulate a political theory that lays a powerful normative base for social democracy.

Macpherson's interpretation of Hobbes's philosophy provides an interesting discussion of "models of society" that is worth drawing attention to. He suggests that Hobbes formulates three models of society: customary or status society; simple market society; and possessive market society (47-48).

The concept of possessive market society is neither a novel nor an arbitrary construction. It is clearly similar to the concepts of bourgeois or capitalist society used by Marx, Weber, Sombart, and others, who have made the existence of a market in labour a criterion of capitalism, and like their concepts it is intended to be a model or ideal type to which modern (i.e. post-feudal) European societies have approximated. (48)

What Macpherson means by a model here needs some careful interpretation. He refers to it as an "ideal type" in this passage. More specifically, a model is a specification of several key structural features of a social order. Here is the model of a customary or status society:

  1. The productive and regulative work of the society is authoritatively allocated to groups, ranks, classes, or persons.
  2. Each group, rank, class, or person is confined to a way of working, and is given and permitted only to have a scale of reward...
  3. There is no unconditional individual property in land.
  4. The whole labour force is tied to the land, or to the performance of allotted functions, or (in the case of slaves) to masters. (49)

Macpherson thinks that these four characteristics create a specific form of system behavior for societies that embody them: "From these properties of a status society certain characteristics follow" (49).

The most complex model is the possessive market society, with postulates defining allocation of work, rewards for work, enforcement of contract, individual rational maximizing, individual's property in his labour, individual ownership of land, individuals want more utility or power, individuals have differential energy, skill, or possessions. With these postulates (including institutions and actors), we get a certain kind of social functioning. This is an "aggregation dynamics" argument. In other terms, it is a micro-to-macro argument up the struts of Coleman's boat.

It is worthwhile drawing out the connections between possessive individualism and conservative libertarian political groups in the present. The Tea Party seems to be a contemporary descendant of this ideology. Taxation is theft; the state has no legitimate role beyond protecting individual security and property; government regulation of private business activity is an immoral intrusion on liberty and property; individuals possess liberties and property that the state cannot limit; individuals deserve what they own and owe nothing to society or other citizens. Justice is served by simply protecting the possessions of individual citizens. Robert Nozick seems to have represented many of these values in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Those who favor a more expansive vision of a democratic society have several core values that conflict with these: Individuals have obligations to other members of society; government has the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of the least advantaged in society; government has the responsibility of protecting the public good against harmful effects of private activities; decisions about public policies can and should be made through effective institutions of democratic self-determination; inequalities of wealth and power need to be restrained to ensure the political voice of the whole of society. Taxation is legitimate for at least three different reasons: it is a legitimate policy tool for limiting wealth inequalities to levels consistent with democratic equality; it is a legitimate vehicle for redistributing income to satisfy the requirement of providing a social minimum; and it is legitimate as a source of revenue needed to accomplish the public functions of the state, including provision of public goods and regulation of environment, labor, air safety, food safety, and the like. Justice is served by creating a system of legislation and policy that ensures the dignity and democratic rights of all members of society. John Rawls expresses most of these value in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.

Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas. So Macpherson's voice is still relevant, almost fifty years later.

Here is a review of the book by the great English Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Global justice

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations/cultures can accept. This is grounded a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millenium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. This conception emphasizes several key values:
  • equal worth of all persons
  • value of freedom
  • value of democracy and self-determination
  • the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare
  • the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)
These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

John Rawls drew a strong distinction between ideal justice and imperfect justice, and noted that his contributions were directed to the formulation of a theory of ideal justice (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 13).  He did not believe that the ideal theory of justice would suffice to provide a road map for creating a more just society.  When we consider the complexity and difficulty of improving the justice of fundamental international institutions and relations, the program of arriving at an ideal theory seems unappealing.  Instead, we need to have some plausible and action-supporting principles that allow for practical improvement in the overall justice of the global system. We need to have some concrete ideas about how to get from here to there.

This approach -- the idea that we can improve justice in a piecemeal way -- spares us the heroic pretense of offering a general, universal theory of justice that we hope or expect all people can be persuaded to accept. It works from the point of view that injustice is more specific and more widely agreed upon. We don't need to engage in irresolvable debates about whether there are universal human rights in order to agree that the world will be more just if fewer people are forced into famine conditions.

This is the approach taken by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden in their study of the ethics of global public health in Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy (link), and it has the clear advantage of pragmatism.  It is pragmatic on the side of moral agreement, in the sense that it makes no strong claims about abstract moral theories that may be controversial across perspectives.  And it is pragmatic on the side of policy, in the sense that it provides an incremental strategy for improving the conditions of justice in the world.  And in fact, the premises mentioned above conform fairly closely to the six dimensions of personal well-being that Powers and Faden highlight: health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination.

One of the greatest advocates for justice in global development is Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom).  Sen's major contribution is the idea of the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities.  Sen's most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice, in which he offers an alternative to Rawls's approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice.
I turn now to the second part of the departure, to wit the need for a theory that is not confined to the choice of institutions, nor to the identification of ideal social arrangements. The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live. The importance of human lives, experiences and realizations cannot be supplanted by information about institutions that exist and the rules that operate. (17)
Tom Pogge's work on global justice provides a good bridge between abstract moral theory and practical, real-world issues of justice in a developing world.  Pogge has sought to engage these issues in ways that have real, substantive engagement with the issues of poverty, hunger, and maltreatment that continue to set the stage for the majority of the earth's population today.  In an important recent volume, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge have pulled together an extended working group of scholars and activists concerned with global justice.  The volume took its origin at a conference in Oslo in 2003.  (Here is an article by Pogge on global justice and poverty (link), and here is a video interview with Pogge on the consequences of the global economic crisis on poverty; link.)  Pogge and his colleagues focus closely on the actual workings of international institutions to attempt to measure the degree to which they disadvantage the people of the less-developed world.
Consider for example a long-term contract concerning the exportation of natural resources which the government of some African country concludes with a rich Western state or one of its corporations.  Within the traditional philosophical framework, it is self-evident that such an agreement must be honored: "People are to observe treaties and undertakings" says Rawls's second principle of state conduct, and the third one adds: "Peoples are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind them" (Rawls 1999). But here is the reality. The African government is corrupt and oppressive, and its continuation in power depends largely on the military.  The sales it conducts impose environmental harms and hazards on the indigenous population. Yet, most of these people do not benefit, because the revenues are partly siphoned off by the small political elite and partly spent on arms needed for military repression. (These arms are suppled by other rich Western states in accordance with other contracts executed, without coercion, between them and the African government.) (5)
Why should gimlet-eyed policy makers take these arguments about global justice seriously?  What does justice have to do with the nuts and bolts of international economic policy reform?  Why should self-interested nations and their leaders adjust their policies to the demands of justice? The humanitarian and moral reasons are self-evident.  But it is also true that there is a powerful reason to care about justice that is based in self-interest.  This is because systemic injustice is itself a threat to national security.  Governments are destabilized, insurgencies are supported, cities experience riots, and anti-liberal violent movements flourish in conditions where masses of people are enmeshed in circumstances of injustice.  Barrington Moore, Jr. made these arguments in Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), and his conclusions seem even more compelling in the world today.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ethical thinking for global public health

Here is a fine recent book that brings together recent thinking about development ethics with some of the specific issues faced in the field of global public health. Madison Powers and Ruth Faden published Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy in 2008, and it represents a genuinely interesting extended essay on the topic of justice in global health policy.  Here is an early statement of their governing perspective:
Our central focus, only vividly appreciated in hindsight, was in a notion of social justice that went beyond issues of distributive justice, micro-allocational questions of priority setting in medical care, or any number of questions centered on how one individual fares relative to some other individual. Beginning, as we did, with moral questions in public health and health policy, it is perhaps not surprising that our focus in social justice is largely directed at the well-being of people in social communities or groups. (ix)
 What is evident here is that Powers and Faden are bringing the perspective of public health into the discussion of issues that have been raised in other contexts (development ethics, bio-medical ethics) without the population-based starting point.

A second important difference in approach taken by Powers and Faden is to take seriously the finding within public health studies that inequalities come into populations' health outcomes in ways other than inequalities of access.
We contend that it is impossible to make progress in our understanding of the demands of justice within medical care without looking outside of medical care to public health and to the other determinants of inequalities in health and indeed without situating an analysis of justice and health policy in the wider social and political context. (x)
This perspective brings Powers and Faden into a degree of connection to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (link).

A third distinctive feature of the project is the authors' rejection of the goal of arriving at a simple, unified theory of health justice.
In place of some single theory of justice drawn from one of the leading contenders for being the "right" account of justice, we argue instead that most of these other contenders have it wrong.  Indeed, we use the term 'theory' somewhat  cautiously. ... We choose to steer a middle course on the question, and we agree with Thomas Nagel's conclusion that whatever we are likely to attach the label of 'theory' to in the realm of normative inquiry will reflect an aspiration to develop some systematic but noncomprehensive account of some part of the moral landscape. (x)
The job of justice, as we see it, is to specify those background social and economic conditions that determine whether certain inequalities, that may themselves result from the promotion of other indispensable moral aims, should be seen as unfair. Ours is an account of justice that denies that there are separate spheres of justice, within health policy or within social policy more generally. (x)
Ours is a nonideal theory of justice, intended to offer practical guidance on questions of which inequalities matter most when just background conditions are not in place. (30)
Their central concern is with justice in health; and this comes down to a theory about inequalities.
The central question we pose in this book is, Which inequalities matter most? The aim of this book is to develop a theory of social justice suitable for answering questions of this kind in a variety of concrete circumstances.  (3)
But they insist on the point that theirs is not an "ideal" theory of justice; rather, it is intended to provide the basis for reasoned decisions about the practical, real problems we face in a world of substantial inequalities in life prospects.  Moreover, their account does not begin with a principle of distributive justice, but rather with a conception of the human good.  They offer Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum as exemplars rather than John Rawls (4).
As Sen correctly notes, a theory of justice of this sort begins with some underlying account of what persons "can do and be" (Sen 1993). Theories in this tradition start with ideals, to be sure, but they are ideals of a very different kind from those that form the starting points of Rawlsian ideal theory. (4)
So their theory is one that begins with a rich conception of human well-being and flourishing, not with a contractual deliberation between hypothetical individuals behind a veil of ignorance.  Here is a general statement of their view:
Social justice is concerned with human well-being. In our view, well-being is best understood as involving plural, irreducible dimensions, each of which represents something of independent moral significance. Although an exhaustive, mutually exclusive list of the discrete elements of well-being is not our aim (and may not be possible), we build our account around six distinct dimensions of well-being, each of which merits separate attention within a theory of justice. These different dimensions offer different lenses through which the justice of political structures, social practices, and institutions can be assessed. Without attention to each dimension, something of salience goes unnoticed. (15) 
The six dimensions of well-being that they identify include health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination (16).

This approach has a lot in common with Amartya Sen's most recent thinking in The Idea of Justice (as well as Sen's earlier work and that of Martha Nussbaum).  Here is Sen's description of his work in The Idea of Justice:
What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense.  Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice. (kl 183)
Here the emphasis is on "enhancing" justice rather than providing a conception of ideal justice.  Sen's work here is intended to be practical: it should assist policy makers in their deliberations as reforms are considered.  Sen refers to this approach as "comparative justice".
We are engaged in making comparisons in terms of the advancement of justice whether we fight oppression (like slavery, or the subjugation of women), or protest against systematic medical neglect (through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or a lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including the United States), or repudiate the permissibility of torture ..., or reject the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger. (kl 225)
In terms of the analysis offered by Powers and Faden, we improve justice by moving a population forward in any one of the six (or more) dimensions of human well-being that were noted.

Inherent in the idea of comparing the justice of several different scenarios, is the idea of reasoning across different perspectives on justice.  Sen is committed to the notion that it is possible to engage in reasoned dialogue with people with whom you have deep disagreements about starting points.  And this theory of comparative justice is intended to help facilitate those reasoned discussions.

Sen contrasts his approach to justice with that of John Rawls in these terms:
In the approach to justice presented in this work, it is argued that there are some crucial inadequacies in [Rawls's] overpowering concentration on institutions (where behaviour is assumed to be appropriately compliant), rather than on the lives that people are able to lead. (kl 203)
Several things seem important to me in both books mentioned here.  First, each is an innovative contribution to issues that are core to what we might refer to as "global justice" -- hunger, health, abusive states, educational deprivation.  Second, each is aiming to create a philosophical framework within which practical, real-world issues can be handled in a reasoned way.  Third, each seeks to broaden the moral perspective of contractualism that has set the terms for discussions of justice for the past forty years.  And, finally, each shuns the goal of formulating a general system or a unified theory on the basis of which to judge all possible social arrangements in terms of justice.

These features make the moral ideas of Powers, Faden, and Sen particularly helpful when we turn our attention to trying to influence international practices and institutions in the direction of greater justice for the people of the world.  The arguments are pragmatic, modest in scope, and potentially less bound to a particular tradition of moral thinking.  (Sen makes this latter point quite explicitly: "Some of the reasoning of, for example, Gautama Buddha (the agnostic champion of the 'path of knowledge'), or of the writers in the Lokayata school (committed to relentless scrutiny of every traditional belief) in India in sixth-century BC, may sound closely aligned, rather than adversarial, to many of the critical writings o the leading authors of the European Enlightenment" (kl 268).)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Economic thinking in Rawls's thought

John Rawls's (1971) A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (TJ) had a sizable impact on a number of disciplines, including economics and economic policy thought. (His ideas in this original version of the theory are clarified and further developed in his 2005 Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JF).)  Rawls's influence on economics largely derived from one aspect of his theory of justice, the theory of justice in distribution, which has implications for economic inequalities, taxation, and social welfare benefits.  Did Rawls actually think about these issues in the ways that an economist would have done?

One of the primary goals of Rawls's theory of justice is directly relevant to economic policy. He specifically wanted to work out the implications of the theory of justice for the justice of fundamental economic institutions:
My aim in this chapter is to see how the two principles work out as a conception of political economy, that is, as standards by which to assess economic arrangements and policies, and their background institutions. (Welfare economics is often defined in the same way. I do not use this name because the term "welfare" suggests that the implicit moral conception is utilitarian; the phrase "social choice" is far better although I believe its connotations are still too narrow.) (TJ, 259)
What is the purpose of this aspect of the theory of justice?
A doctrine of political economy must include an interpretation of the public good which is based on a conception of justice. It is to guide the reflections of the citizen when he considers questions of economic and social policy. (259)
Rawls is explicit in addressing the issue of the relationship between his own theorizing and the theories of the economists:
It is essential to keep in mind that our topic is the theory of justice and not economics, however elementary. We are only concerned with some moral problems of political economy. For example, I shall ask: what is the proper rate of saving over time, how should the background institutions of taxation and property be arranged, or at what level is the social minimum to be set? In asking these questions my intention is not to explain, much less to add anything to, what economic theory says about the working of these institutions. ... Certain elementary parts of economic theory are brought in solely to illustrate the content of the principles of justice. (265)
So what use does Rawls in fact make of current economic theories? Does he think like an economist? Key to thinking like an economist is thinking in terms of incentives, markets, and institutions. Let's start with incentives. Rawls pays attention to the incentives that citizens have within various sets of institutions:
Moreover, the theory of justice assumes a definite limit on the strength of social and altruistic motivation. It supposes that individuals and groups put forward competing claims, and while they are willing to act justly, they are not prepared to abandon their interests. (281)
He also does a good job of articulating and motivating the central insights of public choice theory -- essentially, reasoning about public goods within a democratic public (TJ, 265 ff.). He analyzes the two key features of a public good -- indivisibility and non-excludability. He explains the free rider problem and the prisoners' dilemma clearly and accurately, and reproduces the conclusion that a public of independent citizens will not achieve public goods at an appropriate level without legislation. The discussion is compact, but it is solidly linked to the best available literature on public goods (Baumol, Sen, Buchanan, Olson). Rawls thinks this is a good place to start, because the institutions of the state have a very substantial role to play in establishing conditions in which public goods are achieved. He also addresses a series of reasons for favoring, and limiting, the institutions of the market as determinants of investments and incomes. He refers to allocative efficiency and personal liberty as positive features, while noting the possibility or likelihood that markets by themselves will create economic inequalities in excess of the requirements of the difference principle. "There is with reason strong objection to the competitive determination of total income, since this ignores the claims of need and an appropriate standard of life" (277).

When discussing the role of government in economic activity Rawls refers to four "branches" of fiscal and resource management activity (TJ 275 ff.). The allocation branch keeps the price system competitive and "prevents the formation of unreasonable market power" (276), and actively monitors market imperfections and externalities. The stabilization branch "strives to bring about reasonably full employment". The transfer branch is responsible for managing the transfer of incomes necessary to establish the social minimum. And the distribution branch "is to preserve an approximate justice in distributive shares by means of taxation and the necessary adjustments in the rights of property" (277).

The primary implications of the theory of justice for economics cross several topics: distribution, taxation, and the idea of a social minimum. Rawls thinks about taxation in several places. The topic arises in TJ under "Institutions for Distributive Justice" (277-280):
The taxes and enactments of the distribution branch are to prevent this limit [in the range of wealth inequalities] from being exceeded. (278)
The second part of the distribution branch is a scheme of taxation to raise the revenues that justice requires. Social resources must be released to the government so that it can provide for the public goods and make the transfer payments necessary to satisfy the difference principle. (278)
A parallel discussion of taxation occurs under the topic of "Economic Institutions" in JF (160-162). There Rawls makes several comments on wealth and inheritance taxes:
First, consider bequest and inheritance: we borrow from Mill (and others) the idea of regulating bequest and restricting inheritance. ... The principle of progressive taxation is applied at the receiver's end. Those inheriting and receiving gifts and endowments pay a tax according to the value received and the nature of the receiver.... The aim is to encourage a wide and far more equal dispersion of real property and productive assets.
Second, the progressive principle of taxation might not be applied to wealth and income for the purposes of raising funds (releasing resources to government), but solely to prevent accumulations of wealth that are judged to be inimical to background justice....
Third, income taxation might be avoided altogether and a proportional expenditure tax adopted instead, that is, a tax on consumption at a constant marginal rate. People would be taxed according to how much they use of the goods and services produced and not according to how much they contribute. (JF, 161)
Another important economic idea that emerges from Rawls's theory is the notion of a social minimum -- essentially an income guarantee for low-income people, established through an income supplement system if needed. This principle derives from the difference principle, Rawls's view that inequalities need to be the least system of inequalities consistent with the maximum result for the least-well-off segment of society.
Once the difference principle is accepted, however, it follows that the minimum is to be set at that point which, taking wages into account, maximizes the expectations of the least advantaged group. By adjusting the amount of transfers (for example, the size of supplementary income payments), it is possible to increase or decrease the prospects of the more disadvantaged, their index of primary goods (as measured by wages plus transfers), so as to achieve the desired result. (285)
Here is what seems to come out of Rawls's discussion of economic institutions and justice. It is a theory of political economy that holds that government has substantial obligations based on distributive justice. It has the obligation of maintaining and correcting the system of economic institutions so as to prevent "unacceptable" levels of inequalities of income and wealth. It has the obligation of providing the resources for securing public goods at an appropriate level. and it has an obligation of collecting taxes sufficient to fund the social minimum for all citizens. It is an account that is well informed about then-current thinking about institutions and public choice. It rests on realistic assumptions about motivation and incentives. And it appears to set the stage for a set of institutions that appear to be economically feasible, along the lines of Scandinavian forms of social democracy.

(Some readers may wonder, as I do, whether the concept of a "proportional expenditure tax" has been seriously explored by economic experts. Here is a review by Michael Graetz in the Harvard Law Review in 1979, arguing that the system is politically infeasible.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Relative explanatory autonomy

In an earlier post I indicated a degree of disagreement with the premises of analytical sociology concerning the validity of methodological individualism (link). This disagreement comes down to three things.

First, for reasons I've referred to several times here and elsewhere (link), I prefer to refer to methodological localism rather than methodological individualism.
This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules. (link)
I believe that the ideas of localism and socially constructed, socially situated actors do a better job of capturing the social molecule that underlies larger social processes than the simple idea of an "individual". Structural individualism seems to come to a similar idea, but less intuitively.

Second, the requirement of providing microfoundations for social assertions is preferable to methodological individualism because it is not inherently reductionist (link). A microfoundation is:
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. (link)
We need to be confident that our theories and concepts about social structures, entities, and forces appropriately supervene upon facts about individuals; but we don't need to rehearse those links in every theory or explanation. In other words, we can make careful statements about macro-macro and macro-meso links without proceeding according to the logic of Coleman's boat -- up and down the struts. Jepperson and Meyer make this point in "Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms" (link), and they offer an alternative to Coleman's macro-micro boat that incorporates explanations referring to meso-level causes (66).

Third, these points leave room for a meta-theory of relative explanatory autonomy for social explanations. The key insight here is that there are good epistemic and pragmatic reasons to countenance explanations at a meso-level of organization, without needing to reduce these explanations to the level of individual actors. Here is a statement of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy, provided by a distinguished philosopher of science, Lawrence Sklar, with respect to areas of the physical sciences:
Everybody agrees that there are a multitude of scientific theories that are conceptually and explanatorily autonomous with respect to the fundamental concepts and fundamental explanations of foundational physical theories. Conceptual autonomy means that there is no plausible way to define the concepts of the autonomous theories in terms of the concepts that we use in our foundational physics. This is so even if we allow a rather liberal notion of “definition” so that concepts defined as limit cases of the applicability of the concepts of foundational physics are still considered definable. Explanatory autonomy means that there is no way of deriving the explanatory general principles, the laws, of the autonomous theory from the laws of foundational physics. Once again this is agreed to be the case even if we use a liberal notion of “derivability” for the laws so that derivations that invoke limiting procedures are still counted as derivations. (link)
The idea of relative explanatory autonomy has been invoked by cognitive scientists against the reductionist claims of neuro-scientists. Of course cognitive mechanisms must be grounded in neurophysiological processes. But this doesn't entail that cognitive theories need to be reduced to neurophysiological statements. Sacha Bem reviews these arguments in "The Explanatory Autonomy of Psychology: Why a Mind is Not a Brain" (link). Michael Strevens summarizes some of these issues in "Explanatory Autonomy and Explanatory Irreducibility" (link). And here Geoffrey Hellman addresses the issues of reductionism and emergence in the special sciences in "Reductionism, Determination, Explanation".

These arguments are directly relevant to the social sciences, subject to several important caveats. First is the requirement of microfoundations: we need always to be able to plausibly connect the social constructs we hypothesize to the actions and mentalities of situated agents. And second is the requirement of ontological and causal stability: if we want to explain a meso-level phenomenon on the basis of the causal properties of other meso-level structures, we need to have confidence that the latter properties are reasonably stable over different instantiations. For example, if we believe that a certain organizational structure for tax collection is prone to corruption of the ground-level tax agents and want to use that feature as a cause of something else -- we need to have empirical evidence supporting the assertion of the corruption tendencies of this organizational form.

Explanatory autonomy is consistent with our principle requiring microfoundations at a lower ontological level. Here we have the sanction of the theory of supervenience to allow us to say that composition and explanation can be separated. We can settle on a level of meso or macro explanation without dropping down to the level of the actor. We need to be confident there are microfoundations, and the meso properties need to be causally robust. But if this is satisfied, we don't need to extend the explanation down to the actors.

Woven throughout this discussion are the ideas of reduction and emergence. An area of knowledge is reducible to a lower level if it is possible to derive the statements of the higher-level science from the properties of the lower level. A level of organization is emergent if it has properties that cannot be derived from features of its components. The strong sense of emergence holds that a composite entity sometimes possesses properties that are wholly independent from the properties of the units that compose it. Vitalism and mind-body dualism were strong forms of emergentism: life and mind were thought to possess characteristics that do not derive from the properties of inanimate molecules. Physicalism maintains that all phenomena -- including living systems -- depend ultimately upon physical entities and structures, so strong emergentism is rejected. But physicalism does not entail reductionism, so it is scientifically acceptable to provide explanations that presuppose relative explanatory autonomy.

Once we have reason to accept something like the idea of relative explanatory autonomy in the social sciences, we also have a strong basis for rejecting the exclusive validity of one particular approach to social explanation, the reductionist approach associated with methodological individualism and Coleman's boat. Rather, social scientists can legitimately aggregate explanations that call upon meso-level causal linkages without needing to reduce these to derivations from facts about individuals. And this implies the legitimacy of a fairly broad conception of methodological pluralism in the social science, constrained always by the requirement of microfoundations.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Mapping sociology

Sociology is now composed of a wide expanse of approaches, theories, methodologies, and paradigms.  The American Sociological Association has 49 sections, and even this variation doesn't capture the full diversity of the field (link). In fact, Jonathan Turner refers to the current situation as one of "hyper-differentiation of theories" (1). It is therefore useful to try to map out some of the main dimensions of activity, aspiration, and method that currently define the discipline.  One way of doing this is to look closely at some of the handbooks that leaders in the field have compiled over the past fifteen years or so.  Several are particularly useful in my opinion, including Craig Calhoun's Sociology in America: A History (2007), Jonathan Turner's Handbook of Sociological Theory (2001), and Julia Adams et al's Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology(2005). What can we learn by examining the structure and signposts that these editors and teams of scholars have chosen to frame their collections?

It is interesting to notice that each volume limits its perspective in significant and different ways.  They represent very different intellectual efforts at synthesis.  Jonathan Turner's volume references the intellectual diversity of sociology from the point of view of theory.  But not all sociological research is theoretical; so the dimensions of variation that we can find among theoretical orientations to understanding society is unavoidably more limited than the full range of the discipline.  There are groups of sociologists who are primarily interested in careful descriptive work -- either at the macro level or the micro level.  And there are sociologists whose primary concern is for providing an empirical basis for policymaking -- again, an exercise that has little to do with theory.  Calhoun's volume focuses primarily on the intellectual history of the discipline.  And Adams and her colleagues have tried to work out a narrative of the development and brachiation of the frameworks of comparative sociology over time.

Turner groups the contributions to his collection around these meta-topics:
  • Theoretical methodologies and strategies
  • The cultural turn in sociological theorizing
  • Theorizing interaction processes
  • Theorizing from the systemic and macrolevel
  • New directions in evolutionary theorizing
  • Theorizing on power, conflict, and change
  • Theorizing from assumptions of rationality
In other words, Turner's analytical strategy is to identify key topics that have inspired important recent work in the development of sociological theory over the past two decades.

Calhoun's volume takes a different approach.  He wants to provide insights into the historical origins of contemporary American sociology -- both situational and intellectual.  On the situational side, several essays in the Calhoun volume focus on the effects that large historical developments such as the Cold War, the Great Depression, and World War II had on the intellectual, theoretical, and institutional development of sociology.  And on the intellectual side, essays in the volume consider the influence of large currents of thought on the development of American sociology -- for example, Spencer, Comte, positivism, pragmatism, feminism, and critical race theory.

In Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology Julia Adams, Elisabeth Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff present a collection of essays that attempt to provide a similar kind of complex unity to one specific sub-discipline within sociology, the field of comparative historical sociology.  Their primary locational metaphor is time rather than space; they analyze the history of comparative historical sociology into a sequence of three waves of theory and method from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.  Their core definition of the subject matter of this discipline es expressed in these terms:
How did societies come to be recognizably "modern"? How did selves come to be understood as individuated, coherently centered, and rationally acting human subjects.... Various lines of theory developed as an effort to understand the processes by which social structures and social actors were created and transformed over the course of the transition from "traditional" or feudal societies to some distinctively modern social life. (3)
And a key inspiration for the discipline of comparative historical sociology is that paying attention to history permits us to tease out the causes and processes that have led to specific kinds of social outcomes.

Adams, Clemens, and Orloff also offer some useful thoughts about the nature of the disciplines of the social sciences:
Disciplines -- like any structure -- provide both distinctive constraints and capacities embedded in theoretical and methodological orientations, transmitted through graduate education, hiring, the tenure process, and the gatekeeping of fellowship, research proposal, and manuscript review. (11)
They make the point, however, that these constraints still leave a wide degree of indeterminacy in the development of a disciplines: which topics are foregrounded, which methods of inference are favored, and which implications are pursued are all issues that are underdetermined by the constraints of the discipline.

One of the tasks of philosophy has traditionally been to provide a degree of organization to the fields of knowledge.  As this quick review of the diversity of knowledge-products involved in contemporary sociology indicates, it is challenging to provide an ordering of topics, methods, and ontological presuppositions that might permit us to bring the complexity of the trees and undergrowth down to a map of the forest.  But perhaps the sketch below begins to suggest some of the ways in which we might try to analyze sociological research into a smaller number of clusters of topics, methods, and assumptions.

The upper left quarter of the diagram represents sociology as a compound of four large meta-topics: structuration, actor theory, aggregation dynamics, and critique.  The links in many colors bring this formation into relationship with a large number of topics and approaches within sociology, indicating roughly where topics such as "state formation" or "social power" fit within the framing topics.  It would seem possible to work iteratively with a graph along these lines along with a careful reading of the three handbooks mentioned here, and fill out a set of meta-topics that would capture the great majority of the approaches described in the handbooks.  Further, it might be illuminating to begin to map the links that exist between first-order topics in the graph -- for example, between "social movements," "materialism," and "culture."