Friday, October 28, 2011

Theories of the actor

I'm attracted to an approach to sociological thinking that can be described as "actor-centered."  The basic idea is that social phenomena are constituted by the actions of individuals, oriented by their own subjectivities and mental frameworks.  It is recognized, of course, that the subjectivity of the actor doesn't come full-blown into his or her mind at adulthood; rather, we recognize that individuals are "socialized"; their thought processes and mental frameworks are developed through myriad social relationships and institutions. So the actor is a socially constituted individual.

If we take the approach to social explanation that demands that we understand how complex social processes and assemblages supervene on the actions and thoughts of individuals, then it is logical that we would want to develop a theory of the actor.  We would like to have a justifiable set of ideas about how individuals perceive the social world, how they think about their own lives and commitments, and how they move from thought to action.  But we have many alternatives available as we attempt to grapple with this task.

We might begin by asking, what work should a theory of the actor do?  Here are a set of questions that a theory of the actor ought to consider:
  1. How does the actor represent the world of action -- the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor's mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor's mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.
Aristotle guides much philosophical thinking on these questions by offering an orderly theory of the practical agent (The Nicomachean Ethics).  His theory is centered on the idea of deliberative rationality, but he leaves a place for the emotions in action as well (to be controlled by the faculty of reason).  Deliberation, in Aristotle's view, amounts to reflecting on one's goals and arranging them into a hierarchy; then choosing actions that permit the achievement of one's highest goals.

Formal rational choice theory provides a set of answers to several of these questions.  Actors have preferences and beliefs; their preferences are well ordered; they assign probabilities and utilities to outcomes (the results of actions); and they choose a given action to maximize the satisfaction of their preferences.

Ethnographic thinkers such as Clifford Geertz or Erving Goffman take a different tack altogether; they give a lot of attention to questions 1 and 2; they provide "thick" descriptions of the motives and meanings of the actors (3); and they indicate a diverse set of answers to question 5.  (Geertz and Goffman are discussed in other posts.)

Other anthropologists have favored a "performative" understanding of agency.  The actor is understood as carrying out a culturally prescribed script in response to stereotyped social settings.  Victor Turner's anthropology is a leading example of this approach to action (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society).

Mayer Zald recommends the work of Karl Weick on the first question (Sensemaking in Organizations (Foundations for Organizational Science)).  Here is how Weick explains sensemaking:
The concept of sensemaking is well named because, literally, it means the making of sense. Active agents construct sensible, sensable events. They "structure the unknown". How they construct what they construct, why, and with what effects are the central questions for people interested in sensemaking.  Investigators who sensemaking define it in quite different ways. Many investigators imply what Starbuck and Milliken make explicit, namely, that sensemaking involves placing stimuli into some kind of framework. The well-known phrase "frame of reference" has traditionally meant a generalized point of view that directs interpretations. (4) (references omitted)
It's worthwhile addressing this topic, because it would appear that we don't yet have a particularly good vocabulary for formulating questions about agency.  As indicated above, Aristotle's theory of the mind has been dominant in western philosophy; and yet it feels as though his approach is just one among many starting points that could have been chosen.  Here is an earlier treatment of this question (link).

I'm reminded by my friends that not all sociologists accept the actor-centered approach.  Some (like Andrew Abbott and Peggy Somers) prefer what they refer to as a "relational" understanding of the basis of social activity.  It is not so much the actor as the action; it is not the internal state of the individual agent so much as the swirl of interactions with others that determine the course of a social activity.  This is part of Abbott's objection to the idea that sociology should aim to uncover social mechanisms (link).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How can justice be causal?

Is social justice an empirical characteristic of a set of social arrangements? And can social justice be a causal factor in processes of social change or social stability?

Before justice could be considered an empirical feature of a set of social arrangements, we would need to have a more specific understanding of what we mean by the term. And we would need to be able to "operationalize" this complex concept in order to be able to apply it to different social arrangements. But neither of these tasks is insurmountable; certainly not more so than defining and applying the ideas of fascism, liberal democracy, or welfare state to specific societies.

So let's begin with a simple, applicable definition of justice. Let's focus on just three dimensions of a society's functioning: distribution of access to society's wealth; the degree of abuse of power and its contrary, reliable legal protections of the person; and the extent of individual freedoms. Injustice involves --
  • exploitation and inequality
  • unwarranted coercion by the state or private organizations
  • the abuse of people's freedoms.
A society is more just when it involves less of any of these features. And each of these dimensions seems measurable.

But immediately a problem arises. Each of these features requires a key normative judgement. Exploitation is the unfair division of the fruits of productive activity among the participants. The qualifier "unwarranted" requires that we supply a normative theory of the state. And "abuse" of freedom isn't simply restriction on freedom; it is the unjustified or unequal restriction on freedom. So in order to measure any of these characteristics in a particular social context it isn't enough to know who gets what or who does what to whom; we need a background set of normative ideas that allow us to judge which kinds of treatment and inequality count as exploitation, coercion, or the abuse of freedom.

This is where Amartya Sen's ideas about capabilities, realizations, and freedoms are practical and useful. We might substitute "capabilities realization deficit" for exploitation. Here we might argue that a society that leaves a significant portion of its population in material conditions where they cannot fulfill most of their basic human capabilities is for that reason unjust. We might measure the gap in human development between the top quintile and the bottom quintile as an estimate of the degree of exploitation that is prevalent in a given society. We may not know in detail how the system of distribution works, but the severity of the gap gives reason to believe that a portion of the society is being treated unfairly.  The Human Development Index provides a basis for beginning to assess different countries along these lines (link).

Second, we might measure coercion and legality by the estimating the degree to which a society has effectively implemented a working system of law that is applied equally. The World Bank has made some efforts in this direction through its Worldwide Governance Indicators (link; working paper here).  This gives us an empirical measure of the degree of lawlessness and unchecked state power that exists in various societies.

We might measure freedoms by aggregating observable features of democratic participation in various societies.  The Economist has constructed a Democracy Index that was first implemented in 2006 (link). This gives us an empirical way of assessing the rough degree of involvement citizens can have in public decision-making; or in other words, it is a measure of the degree to which it is possible for citizens to exercise their freedoms in a public space.

So we might imagine a "justice index" for a society that aggregates measures like these into an overall assessment of the degree of justice the society currently demonstrates.  It would then be interesting to see how societies differ in this measure, and how other important social characteristics may be correlated with this measure.  I haven't done this experiment, but here's what we might expect: higher injustice ratings correspond to greater likelihood of social conflict, lower productivity, and lower community and civic engagement.

What mechanisms might be hypothesized that would originate in these core aspects of a society's justice profile and its various outcomes?  Here we can identify a couple of factors that would support a causal interpretation.  For example, absolute or relative deprivation can cause people to rebel as they struggle to create social changes that protect their interests.  Further, as Barrington Moore demonstrated in Injustice, the conviction that basic social arrangements are unfair can also move people to activism and resistance -- as we seem to be seeing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These factors derive from the distributive arrangements of a society: injustice can provoke resistance.  Similar statements can be made about state violence and lawlessness. We have seen in Libya, Syria, and Morocco that state violence against protesters can actually have the effect of strengthening and broadening resistance.

So these aspects of injustice can have effects on mobilization and resistance by a population. Are there other effects that injustice can have?  As noted earlier (link), Pickett and Wilkinson argue in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger that inequalities of income have surprisingly strong associations with a variety of social ills.  This could be developed into an argument that social justice and injustice lead to behaviors that either promote or undermine social welfare.

Finally, it seems plausible to imagine that the intangibles that accompany a harmonious society -- a population of people who generally feel that they are fairly treated by their basic institutions and their fellow citizens -- will lead to a variety of other social goods, including cooperation, civic engagement, and economic productivity.  Conversely, it is plausible to suppose that a dis-harmonious society would give rise to the negatives of these qualities: less cooperation, less civic involvement, and less economic productivity.

So two things seem true.  First, it does seem possible to "measure" injustice (supported, of course, by a normative theory of why various kinds of inequality are illegitimate).  And second, it does seem plausible that the features of a society that constitute its injustice may also have causal consequences for social unrest, social wellbeing, and social cooperation.  And these are certainly significant social consequences.

(Perhaps there is an analogous set of questions at the individual level: Is "virtue" a specific empirical characteristic of a person's character? And can virtue be a causal factor in the individual's life outcomes and level of happiness?)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Social complexity

Social ensembles are often said to be "complex". What does this mean?

Herbert Simon is one of the seminal thinkers in the study of complexity. His 1962 article, "The Architecture of Complexity" (link), put forward several ideas that have become core to the conceptual frameworks of people who now study social complexity. So it is worthwhile highlighting a few of the key ideas that were put forward in that article. Here is Simon's definition of complexity:
Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist. (468)
Notice several key ideas contained here, as well as several things that are not said. First, the complexity of a system derives from the "nonsimple" nature of the interaction of its parts (subsystems). A watch is a simple system, because it has many parts but the behavior of the whole is the simple sum of the direct mechanical interactions of the parts. The watchspring provides an (approximately) constant impulse to the gearwheel, producing a temporally regular motion in the gears. This motion pushes forward the time registers (second, minute, hour) in a fully predictable way. If the spring's tension influenced not only the gearwheel, but also the size of the step taken by the minute hand; or if the impulse provided by the spring varied significantly according to the alignment of the hour and second hands and the orientation of the spring -- then the behavior of the watch would be "complex". It would be difficult or impossible to predict the state of the time registers by counting the ticks in the watch gearwheel. So this is a first statement of the idea of complexity: the fact of multiple causal interactions among the many parts (subsystems) that make up the whole system.

A second main idea here is that the behavior of the system is difficult to predict as a result of the nonsimple interactions among the parts. In a complex system we cannot provide a simple aggregation model of the system that adds up the independent behaviors of the parts; rather, the parts are influenced in their behaviors by the behaviors of other components. The state of the system is fixed by interdependent subsystems; which implies that the system's behavior can oscillate wildly with apparently similar initial conditions. (This is one explanation of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown: engineers attempted to "steer" the system to a safe shutdown by manipulating several control systems at once; but these control systems had complex effects on each other, with the result that the engineers catastrophically lost control of the system.)

A third important point here is Simon's distinction between "metaphysical reducibility" and "pragmatic holism." He accepts what we would today call the principle of supervenience: the state of the system supervenes upon the states of the parts. But he rejects the feasibility of performing a reduction of the behavior of the system to an account of the properties of the parts. He does not use the concept of "emergence" here, but this would be another way of putting his point: a metaphysically emergent property of a system is one that cannot in principle be derived from the characteristics of the parts. A pragmatically emergent property is one that supervenes upon the properties of the parts, but where it is computationally difficult or impossible to map the function from the state of the parts to the state of the system. This point has some relevance to the idea of "relative explanatory autonomy" mentioned in an earlier posting (link). The latter idea postulates that we can sometimes discover system properties (causal powers) of a complex system that are in principle fixed by the underlying parts, but where it is either impossible or unnecessary to discover the specific causal sequences through which the system's properties come to be as they are.

Another key idea in this article is Simon's idea of a hierarchic system.
By a hierarchic system, or hierarchy, I mean a system that is composed of interrelated subsystems, each of the latter being, in turn, hierarchic in structure until we reach some lowest level of elementary subsystem. (468) 
I have already given an example of one kind of hierarchy that is frequently encountered in the social sciences: a formal organization. Business firins, governments, universities all have a clearly visible parts-within-parts structure. (469)
Here the idea is also an important one. It is a formal specification of a particular kind of ensemble in which structures at one level of aggregation are found to be composed separately of structures or subsystems at a lower level of aggregation. Simon offers the example of a biological cell that can be analyzed into a set of exhaustive and mutually independent subsystems nested within each other. It is essential that there is a relation of enclosure as we descend the hierarchy of structures: the substructures of level S are entirely contained within it and do not serve as substructures of some other system S'.

It is difficult to think of biological examples that violate the conditions of hierarchy -- though we might ask whether an organism and its symbiote might be best understood as a non-hierarchical system. But examples are readily available in the social world. Labor unions and corporate PACs play significant causal roles in modern democracies. But they are not subsystems of the political process in a hierarchical sense: they are not contained within the state, and they play roles in non-state systems as well. (A business lobby group may influence both the policies chosen by a unit of government and the business strategy of a healthcare system.)

Simon appears to believe that hierarchies reduce the complexity of systems; and they support the feature of what we would now call "modularity", where we can treat the workings of a subsystem as a self-enclosed unit that works roughly the same no matter what changes occur in other subsystems.

Simon puts this point in his own language of "decomposability." A system is decomposable if we can disaggregate its behavior onto the sum of the independent behaviors of its parts. A system is "nearly decomposable" if the parts of the system have some effects on each other, but these effects are small relative to the overall workings of the system.

At least some kinds of hierarchic systems can be approximated successfully as nearly decomposable systems. The main theoretical findings from the approach can be summed up in two propositions:
(a) in a nearly decomposable system, the short-run behavior of each of the component subsystems is approximately independent of the short-run behavior of the other components; (b) in the long run, the behavior of any one of the components depends in only an aggregate way on the behavior of the other components. (474)
He illustrates this point in the case of social systems in these terms:
In the dynamics of social systems, where members of a system communicate with and influence other members, near decomposability is generally very prominent. This is most obvious in formal organizations, where the formal authority relation connects each member of the organization with one immediate superior and with a small number of subordinates. Of course many communications in organizations follow other channels than the lines of formal authoritv. But most of these channels lead from any particular individual to a very limited number of his superiors, subordinates, and associates. Hence, departmental boundaries play very much the same role as the walls in our heat example. (475)
And in summary:
We have seen that hierarchies have the property of near-decomposability. Intra-component linkages are generally stronger than intercomponent linkages. This fact has the effect of separating the high-frequency dynamics of a hierarchy -- involving the internal structure of the components-- from the low frequency dynamics-involving interaction among components. (477)
So why does Simon expect that systems will generally be hierarchical, and hierarchies will generally be near-decomposable?  It turns out that this is an expectation that derives from the notion that systems were created by designers (who would certainly favor these features because they make the system predictable and understandable) or evolved through some process of natural selection from simpler to more complex agglomerations.  So we might expect that hydroelectric plants and motion detector circuits in frogs' visual systems are hierarchical and near-decomposable.  

But here is an important point about social complexity.  Neither of these expectations is likely to be satisfied in the case of social systems.  Take the causal processes (sub-systems) that make up a city. And consider some aggregate properties we may be interested in -- emigration, resettlement, crime rates, school truancy, real estate values.  Some of the processes that influence these properties are designed (zoning boards, school management systems), but many are not.  Instead, they are the result of separate and non-teleological processes leading to the present.  And there is often a high degree of causal interaction among these separate processes.  As a result, it might be more reasonable to expect, contrary to Simon's line of thought here, that social systems are likely to embody greater complexity and less decomposability than the systems he uses as examples.

(A recent visit to the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University (link) was very instructive for me.  There is a great deal of very interesting work underway at the Center using agent-based modeling techniques to understand large, complicated social processes: population movements, housing markets, deforestation, and more.  Particularly interesting is a blog by Andrew Crooks at the Center on various aspects of agent-based modeling of spatial processes.)  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Levels of politics

I've focused occasionally on the idea of "levels" of social arrangements, from the local to the intermediate to the higher levels, with the idea that higher levels are composed of structures and activities at lower levels. Generally I've had in mind examples from one specific area of the social sciences to illustrate these points -- sociology. How do these claims look, however, when we consider them in light of political science?

If we wanted to provide a brief definition of "politics", it might go along these lines: the institutions and patterns of behavior through which decisions about public policies and the expenditure of public resources are determined and implemented. This includes study of the personnel of governing institutions; the nature of governing institutions; and the strategies and behavior of all those affected by those institutions.

There is one clear sense in which politics and government contain "levels". This derives from the fact that governance systems have a hierarchical, semi-nested structure of ascending scope of control and authority. In the United States we have Federal laws, state laws, and county and municipal laws. And this differentiation also imposes a criterion of level: higher level means broader jurisdiction over territory and population. Each possesses a set of legislative institutions and officials, along with a bureaucracy focused on implementation and enforcement. These zones of governance authority differ in terms of scope and scale, with units of governance ranging from national to state to county and city.

However, these zones of political governance are not hierarchical in another important sense: the Federal level is not composed of the state or municipal governance systems. Rather, each is independent from the other. Higher-level units have the authority to enact rules and laws (in some instances) that constrain the actions of the lower-level jurisdictions. But the personnel, officials, and systems of the two jurisdictions are distinct and independent. And it is entirely possible, even predictable, that there will be policy disagreements between them.

A second clear interpretation of "levels" of governance corresponds to the formal hierarchy of a large administrative system. The President exercises authority at the highest level within the executive branch. Cabinet secretaries report to the president and manage and direct complex and extensive organizations (Departments) dedicated to specific functions: Justice, Environmental Protection, Education, ... Each department of the executive branch in turn consists of a descending proliferation of bureaus, regional offices, field offices, and the like. The Chicago field office of the XYZ department reports to a regional director, who takes direction from the Secretary. The layers of the organization of government can be referred to as "levels," differentiated by position within a hierarchical system.

It is also evident that the networks of power and influence that operate at the Federal level are distinct from those at the state or local level. The powerful individuals are different, the organizations through which they exercise their influence are different, and the sources of their power are different. The Daley machine in Chicago in the 1960s exercised great power in city politics, middling power in the corridors of Illinois government, and less influence at the Congressional level. So the different "levels" of government correspond to different loci of influence and activism, and the study of Congressional politics may lead to rather different findings from the study of state or municipal politics.

This means that scholars who are primarily interested in the political mechanisms through which various policies get chosen will select carefully the networks of individuals and organizations they study, in order to shed light on the operative level of governance. But it would be misleading to describe these as different "levels" of politics; rather, different people and organizations are at work in similar policy areas with uncoordinated results in Chicago, Cook County, Springfield, and Washington.

So the idea of "levels" of politics doesn't seem to be a particularly valuable conceptual scheme when it comes to analyzing political behavior and organization. It misleads us into thinking that politics has a fundamental structure from low to high. Instead, we are perhaps better served by a view that picks out various arenas of conflict over resources -- politics -- without the orienting language of higher and lower levels.

Wherever we start our examination of the social world, from the situation of particular individuals, to labor unions, firms, and faith organizations, to federal agencies and multinational trading regimes, the logic of the social world seems to be the same: there are groups of actors planning and acting in that locus, there are structures and rules that surround them, and there are organizations and structures that are broader in scope and jurisdiction and there are such at lesser levels of scope and jurisdiction. There is an up, down, and sideways everywhere in social action. And this is equally true in the zone of political action and institution.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Historiography and the philosophy of history

The topic of the philosophy of history comes up frequently here. The related domain of "historiography" has not come up yet, however. What is the relation between these bodies of study about the writing of history?

Let's begin by asking the basic question: what is historiography? In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians' methods and practices.  Any intellectual or creative practice is guided by a set of standards and heuristics about how to proceed, and "experts" evaluate the performances of practitioners based on their judgments of how well the practitioner meets the standards. So one task we always have is to attempt to identify these standards and criteria of good performance. This is true for theatre and literature, and it is true for writing history. Historiography is at least in part the effort to do this work for a particular body of historical writing.

Historians normally make truth claims, and they ask us to accept those claims based on the reasoning they present. So a major aspect of the study of historiography has to do with defining the ideas of evidence, rigor, and standards of reasoning for historical inquiry. We presume that historians want to discover empirically supported truths about the past, and we presume that they want to offer inferences and interpretations that are somehow regulated by standards of scientific rationality. (Simon Schama challenges some of these ideas in Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations.) So the apprentice practitioner wants to gain knowledge of the practices of his/her elders in the profession: what counts as a compelling argument, how to assess a body of archival evidence, how to offer or criticize an interpretation of complex events that necessarily exceeds the available evidence. The historiographer has a related task: he/she would like to be able to codify the main methods and standards of one historical school or another.

There are other desiderata governing a good historical work, and these criteria may change from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. Discerning the historian's goals is crucial to deciding how well he or she succeeds. So discovering these stylistic and aesthetic standards that guide the historian's work is itself an important task for historiography.  This means that the student of historiography will naturally be interested in the conventions of historical writing and rhetoric that are characteristic of a given period or school.

A full historiographic "scan" of a given historian might include:

  • What methods of discovery does he/she use?
  • What models of explanation?
  • What paradigm of presentation?
  • What standards of style and rhetoric?
  • What interpretive assumptions?

A historical "school" might be defined as a group of interrelated historians who share a significant number of specific assumptions about evidence, explanation, and narrative.

Historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that these frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an interesting subject. How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history? Under this rubric we find books on the historiography of the ancient Greeks; Renaissance historiography; or the historiography of German romanticism. This kind of reflection has a lot in common with literary history or art history; the historiographer is seeking to identify "styles" of historical thinking in various times, as well as recognizing the distinctive contributions of particular historians. Arnaldo Momigliano's writings on the ancient historians fall in this category (The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography). Here is a tantalizing set of questions that Momigliano raises with respect to ancient history-writing:

If these preliminary considerations are valid there is some justification for asking the  following six questions: (1) What have Greek and Jewish historiographies in common and why and to what extent did Greek historiography ultimately prevail? (2) Why did Thucydides rather than Herodotus become the most authoritative historian of Antiquity? (3) What part did the antiquarians play in historical research? (4) How was Greek historiography imported into Rome and what did the romanisation of Greek historiography entail? (5) What is the place of Tacitus in historical thought? (6) Why and in what way has ecclesiastical historiography a tradition of its own? (2)

These six questions become the focus of the six chapters of the book.  In a nutshell, Momigliano is looking at the several traditions of ancient history-writing as a set of normative practices that can be dissected and understood in their specificity and their cultural contexts.  Here is a description that illustrates some of Momigliano's orienting assumptions:

What I think is typically Greek is the critical attitude towards the recording of events, that is, the development of critical methods enabling us to distinguish between facts and fancies. To the best of my knowledge no historiography eralier than the Greek or independent of it developed these critical methods; and we have inherited the Greek methods. (30)

A second primary use of the concept of historiography is more present-oriented and more methodological. It involves the study and analysis of historical methods of research, inquiry, inference, and presentation used by more-or-less contemporary historians. How do contemporary historians go about their tasks of understanding the past? Here we can talk about the historiographical challenges that confronted Philip Huang as he investigated the Chinese peasant economy in the 1920s and 1930s (The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China), or the historiographical issues raised in Robert Darnton's telling of the Great Cat Massacre (The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History). Sometimes these issues have to do with the scarcity or bias in the available bodies of historical records (for example, the fact that much of what Huang refers to about the village economy of North China was gathered by the research teams of the occupying Japanese army). Sometimes they have to do with the difficulty of interpreting historical sources (for example, the unavoidable necessity Darnton faced of providing meaningful interpretation of a range of documented events that did not bear their meanings on their sleeves). And sometimes the historiographic question has to do with the mode of presentation chosen by the historian (for example, Darnton's choice of presenting the notebooks of Joseph d'Hemery, the police inspector of the book trade in Montpelier, as a sociological source).

For example, there has been substantial disagreement among historians of China about the status of the Chinese rural economy in the 1920s and 1930s. Historians who give credence to travelers' reports conclude that conditions were awful (R. H. Tawney, Land and labour in China). Historians who maintain that only validated quantitative data constitute a relevant way of answering the question come to a diametrically opposed judgment (Loren Brandt, Commercialization and Agricultural Development: Central and Eastern China, 1870-1937). This is a historiographic disagreement, centered on the issue of what counts as credible evidence.

We might ask, finally, what is the relationship between historiography and the philosophy of history. There is a degree of overlap between the two fields in the fact that both are concerned with identifying and evaluating the standards of reasoning that are used in various historical traditions. That said, historiography is generally more descriptive and less evaluative than the philosophy of history. And it is more concerned with the specifics of research and writing than is the philosophy of history.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rawls's framework for global justice

Rawls's A Theory of Justice was immediately received as a major and progressive contribution to the theory of justice within existing societies. His Law of Peoples (1999) was intended to carry his basic ideas about justice to the international realm.  (Here is a PDF of a preliminary version of the title essay of the book as published in Critical Inquiry in 1993.) Here is how he defined the goal of a law of peoples in 1993:
The law of peoples ... is a family of political concepts along with principles of right justice, and the common good that specify the content of a liberal conception of justice worked up to extend to and apply to international law. It provides the concepts and principles by reference to which that law is to be judged. (43)
In contrast to the reception A Theory of Justice received, his work on the international part of the theory has not had much influence, and was roundly criticized for being too accepting of international inequalities.   Philip Pettit put the point this way in his contribution to Rex Martin and David Reidy's Rawls's Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia:
John Rawls's work on the law of peoples is notorious for its anti-cosmopolitan stance: roughly, its insistence that those of us in well-ordered societies do not owe to the members of other societies the sort of justice we owe to one another. (38)
This is exactly the critique that Philippe van Parijs offered to Rawls prior to publication of the book (link).

Given that Rawls's intuitions seem to have been solidly progressive in other spheres, it is worth considering why he took this very limited view of the obligations of justice in the global context. Why did he begin with the perspective of peoples rather than persons?  (Here I'll make use of the 1993 statements of the view.)

A number of the critics put their cases in terms of Rawls's anti-cosmopolitanism.  "Cosmopolitanism" is the view that we are all citizens of the world, and we have positive moral relationships with each other no matter what nation issues our passports.  No one would deny that everyone has some kinds of moral relationships to everyone else -- for example, the obligation not to impose harm on innocent people.  But cosmopolitanism extends to the idea of positive obligations -- the obligation to render assistance as well as the obligation to refrain from gratuitous harm.  The contrary to cosmopolitanism might be called "nationalism", but this implies assumptions that Rawls would presumably not have accepted.  So let's call it "bounded people-ism": the claims of justice that a person has against other persons extend only to other members of his/her people and government.

One deep reason for the direction that Rawls took was the assumption he made about how to make use of the original position and the veil of ignorance in arriving at principles of international justice.  If this framework involved all human beings, then the results would have been very similar to the argument made in the case of a well-ordered society: inequalities need to be the least system possible consistent with maximizing the position of the least-well-off stratum of society.  However, Rawls chose instead to include "peoples" rather than "persons" in the argument from the original position in the case of international justice. What is a people?
By peoples I mean persons and their dependents seen as a corporate body and as organized by their political institutions, which establish the powers of government. In democratic societies persons will be citizens; in hierarchical and other societies they will be members. (41)
And he directly addresses the question of why it should be peoples rather than persons whose perspectives are represented in the original position for international justice:
Wouldn't it be better to start with the world as a whole, with a global original position, so to speak, and discuss the question whether, and in what form, there should be states, or peoples, at all? ... I think there is no clear initial answer to this question. We should try various alternatives and weigh their pluses and minuses. Since in working out justice as fairness I begin with domestic society, I shall continue from there as if what has been done so far is more or less sound. So I simply build on the steps taken until now, as this seems to provide a suitable starting point for the extension to the law of peoples. A further reason for proceeding thus is that peoples as corporate bodies organized by their governments now exist in some form all over the world. (42-43)
So his reasons for beginning with this premise are, first, we have to start somewhere and there isn't a philosophically compelling reason to favor persons over peoples in this setting; and second, peoples (and states) exist as actors in the world, so it is feasible to begin the analysis at this level. This way of formulating the original position is designed to establish fair terms of interaction between societies -- or in other words,
... fair conditions under which the parties, this time as representatives of societies well ordered by liberal conceptions of justice, are to specify the laws of peoples and the fair terms of their cooperation. (45)
This formulation, of course, immediately precludes certain questions, including all questions of difference in outcomes for the least-well-off in the various societies.  The fact that the LWO in country X are worse off than the LWO in country Y cannot be a factor in this deliberation, and therefore there cannot emerge a positive obligation to transfer resources from society Y to X to ameliorate this difference.

Here are the principles that Rawls arrives at through this construction:
  1. Peoples (as organized by their governments) are free and independent, and their freedom and independence is to be respected by other peoples.
  2. Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.
  3. Peoples have the right of self-defense but no right to war.
  4. Peoples are to observe a duty of nonintervention.
  5. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
  6. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war (assumed to be in self-defense).
  7. Peoples are to honor human rights. (46)
In the final version of the argument in 1997 he adds a final principle:
8. Peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.
Later in 1993 he comments on the idea of a human right:
Human rights have, then, these three roles:
1. Their being fulfilled is a necessary condition of a regime's legitimacy and of the decency of its legal order.
2. Their fulfillment is also sufficient to exclude justified and forceful intervention by other peoples, say by economic sanctions or, in grave cases, by military force.
3. "They set a moral limit to pluralism" among peoples. (59)
Several things are evident from these lists.  First, the obligations represented here are indeed minimalist; basically, they are limitations on the use of coercive means by peoples (states) to achieve their ends.  Even the 8th principle added in the 1997 version creates an obligation only to assist other peoples in achieving a just political regime.  Second, there are no requirements of distributive justice in this list of principles.  Each society has internal requirements of distributive justice; but there is no inter-society requirement of distributive justice.  The fact that there are large inequalities of resources between countries is not a basis for a claim of injustice, according to these principles.

This framework has been strongly criticized by philosophers and others who found that it was far too accepting of global inequalities.  Alan Buchanan focuses on the global inequality part of the story in his 2000 contribution in Ethics. Buchanan holds that even representatives of peoples would not have overlooked the significant inequalities imposed on peoples by the global economic system.  He maintains that the original position concerned with international justice would have to take into account two important facts:
There is a global basic structure, which, like the domestic basic structure, is an important subject of justice because it has profound and enduring effects on the prospects of individuals and groups, including peoples in Rawls's sense.
The populations of states are not "peoples" in Rawls's sense and are not likely to become so without massive, unjustifiable coercion, but rather are often conflicting collections of "peoples" and other groups. (700-1) 
The first fact, if recognized, would ensure that the international original position would necessarily take into account the inequalities created by this system for different peoples.  He also believes that the second fact raises salient issues for the international original position.  Essentially the issue here is this: what happens when the multiple peoples of a single state come into conflict? By making the assumptions that "peoples within unified states" are the agents within the international original position, Rawls makes it impossible to arrive at principles of international justice that would specify just behavior in the face of civil war or secessionist movements. This approach makes it impossible to address intrastate conflict.

Tom Pogge extends his own critique of Rawls's position on international distributive justice in a Fordham Law Review article (link) (also included in Martin and Reidy's Rawls's Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia).  Fundamentally, Pogge is highly critical of Rawls's failure to arrive at an international theory of justice that provides a basis for critique of global inequalities. In this piece he argues that Rawls's two theories are in fact inconsistent with each other.

As indicated above, much of this body of criticism has to do with the view that Rawls's Law of Peoples creates only the most limited obligations across peoples.  His view is not "cosmopolitan".  But a more fundamental criticism, which Buchanan hints at, is that there is a major strand of injustice embedded within the world system that is wholly invisible within Rawls's formulation of the law of peoples.  This is the fact that global institutions may create systematically imbalanced economic relations among states, with the result that some states are in a position to take unfair advantage of other states. This is a form of injustice that would not be accepted within the terms of a domestic society. But there is no basis within the framework of the law of peoples to identify and criticize these types of injustices.

These criticisms are surely correct.  As a theory of global justice, the Law of Peoples doesn't begin to provide enough of a normative basis to arrive at sound judgments about international arrangements.  I began by asking how it came to pass that Rawls presented such a limited theory of international justice. The best answer I can offer is that he was focusing on the wrong issues.  He focused on issues of war and interstate violence, and he did not sufficiently bring into his view the empirical realities associated with a highly unequal world economic structure.  And this is puzzling, since questions of global inequalities -- of resources, of power, and of self-determination -- were certainly widely debated at Harvard in the 1970s and 1980s while Rawls's thinking on this subject was developing.

(In addition to critics, Rawls has some defenders in this area.  Samuel Freeman provides an extensive and reasoned response to many of these criticisms of Rawls's theory of international justice here (link).)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Racial Equity dividend

Racial justice organizations around the United States are struggling to find the resources from the corporate and foundation worlds needed to support their continuing work. One part of the problem seems to be that business leaders simply aren't convinced that racial inequalities are a fundamental and debilitating problem in the United States that presents a concrete threat to their own business activities. The issue has fallen off the first page of the priority list. This suggest that we need to revisit some of the costs that the structures of racial inequity are imposing on regions and cities.

The social costs of persistent racial inequity come in many dimensions. But particularly persuasive is the issue of the actual economic costs that these inequities impose on a region. We might put the point this way: racial inequities are an economic drag on a region, blocking the production of wealth and income and slowing down economic growth. Is it possible to estimate the magnitude of these hidden economic costs of continuing racial inequity?

Let's think about this problem in the context of southeast Michigan and its major city, Detroit. What would southeast Michigan look like if the racial gaps of the region were erased? The gaps that exist between white and black citizens in the region are well documented. Residential segregation is extreme. Unemployment levels are dramatically higher for African-American youth and adults. Health disparities are large and debilitating. Educational outcomes are significantly worse for African-American young people, including high school graduation rates and college attendance. And, of course, family and individual incomes and wealth levels are substantially different.

So imagine a different scenario: a region in which residential segregation has ended. Schooling outcomes are equal for white and black students. Health disparities have disappeared. Employment rates have equalized. And average incomes, wealth holdings, and employment rates have converged across races. Plainly this would be socially desirable outcome; it would be a great improvement in social justice. But what would the economic effects be? How much new income and wealth would this scenario represent over the present situation?

We might approach this question directly, by estimating the aggregate income created by bringing 40% of the population up to the per capita income of the majority population. Likewise we could estimate the aggregate wealth that would be needed in order to equalize the wealth gap. Nationally black households in 2010 earned only 58% of the income of white households (link). I don't have full data for Wayne County at hand, but if the ratio is roughly similar, this implies roughly a $20,000 gap in Wayne County household income between white and black households, which aggregates to almost $6 billion in lost income as a result of racial inequity. If the social factors leading to this inequity were eliminated, this would add $6 billion to the county's income, consumption, and savings. (These are back-of-the envelope estimates, of course, and should be taken only as illustrative of the magnitude of the problem. Here are some basic demographic and income data for Wayne County based on census results; link.)

This scenario presupposes economic growth and jobs growth, but this assumption is supported by the large increase in the talent and education level of the population. We would also need to estimate the economic benefits associated with improved health status for the African-American population -- likewise a large number that public health researchers have probably already estimated. It is well understood in the field of global public health that improving a population's health status also improves its productivity. (Here is a study sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation that tries to estimate these costs and benefits. Nationally the costs associated with racial disparities in health are estimated in the trillions.)

Another approach to this issue would be to follow the lead of CEOs for Cities in attempting to estimate the "talent dividend" (link): do an econometric study of cities measuring degree of racial difference and per capita income. This would be the "racial equity dividend." I don't know if there is a recognized metric that already exists for measuring racial gaps in metropolitan regions, but it shouldn't be hard to construct. It should include components reflecting segregation, income, schooling, and health -- kind of a Human Development Index for Regional Racial Equity. We could then plot racial inequity against per capita income to see whether there is a relationship between these variables. I don't know the answer, but I'd bet there is such a relationship. This would be a genuinely interesting piece of social research. And it might help communities realize the core importance of attacking their regional issues when it comes to racial equity. (I would love to know from Richard Florida whether there is any work available on this question in his research on cities.)

This whole line of thought depends on a hidden premise: that the racial gaps that exist in the metro regions of our country derive ultimately from racialized social and economic institutions that systematically produce and reproduce these racialized outcomes. This is what we once referred to as "institutionalized racism", though the term now sounds dated. It represents the systemic ways in which African-American people are tracked into lower social outcomes in health, education, employment, and income and wealth. Justice requires that we at long last dissolve those institutional tracks. But the economic health of the country demands no less as well. And it is in the best interest of corporations and foundations to support these efforts in their home cities and regions.

(Here is a series in the Detroit News on the costs of segregation; link.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Adapting to change

Organizations always have a set of fundamental needs. The organization does something -- it provides a commodity to consumers, it provides services that individuals pay for, it provides charitable services based on foundation funding, it employs specialists to steal credit card information on the Internet. All of these activities consume resources.

For the sake of clarity, let's have two organizations in mind: a mid-size company that produces cigarette lighters and a non-profit organization that provides adult literacy education in a high-poverty environment.

Key to an organization's "metabolism" is its regular access to resources, including especially revenue and people. Generally an organization has an existing model for satisfying these needs. It generates revenues through sale of goods and services or through gifts from foundations, corporations, and individuals who have a commitment to the organization's purposes. It acquires a talent base by hiring talented individuals and by attracting motivated volunteers. Call this a business plan--keeping in mind that profit-based and non-profit organizations alike need a business plan. If the business plan is a good one, the revenues match the expenditure needs of the organization, the talented members of the organization use their time and budgets to produce the organization's "deliverables", and the cycle begins again. The organization is sustainable.

A particularly bad scenario for a non-profit service provider is to begin its work on the basis of a large initial grant which is spent down until the organization expires. The profit-based equivalent is the new business that starts up with a large infusion of venture capital but never develops a revenue stream to support its activities.

What happens when the organization's business environment changes abruptly? Significant changes might include --
  • Abrupt change in demand for the organization's product
  • Abrupt change in the consumer's ability or willingness to pay for the product at the current price
  • Change in the willingness of donors to provide support for this kind of activity
  • Change in the costs of inputs necessary for producing the deliverables
  • Appearance of a strong competitor who draws off demand and donors
We can easily think of examples of each of these changes. Gasoline prices spiked in summer 2010 and demand for large vehicles plummeted. Rapid increase in unemployment results in a massive decline to demand for mid-range restaurants. Foundations get frustrated about the slow rate of progress in education reform and cut back on funding for education reform NGOs. Digital photography rapidly undermines film companies. The iPod swamps the market for digital music players and other suppliers fail in the marketplace.

The question I'm raising here is a difficult one: what does an organization need to do in order to perceive and adapt to persistent changes like these? If we were asking this question in the field of ecology, the answer would be simple: many local species facing this kind of change simply will not be able to adapt in time and will go locally extinct. Natural selection is not a rapid-adaptation process, in general. Random variation and selection take time and large populations.

But this doesn't need to be the case for organizations. Organizations are led by intelligent and forward-looking people, after all, so in theory it should be possible for organizations to perceive impending change in their business environments and adjust accordingly. However, we also know that many organizations fail to do so. Think of the newspaper industry, the music publishing industry, the film-based photography industry, and some sectors of charitable providers.

So what are some positive heuristics that support effective adaptation? And what are some common sources of failure?

On the positive side:
  • Be fact-driven and honest in assessing current conditions in the operating environment. Don't permit wishful thinking to cloud the assessment.
  • Be rigorous in analyzing the consequences of these changes. If you are the leader of a non-profit with a great mission in an environment where funders have decisively turned away from this issue, consider the alternatives: downsize the delivery plan, reduce the cost of delivery, change the priorities of the organization, find new revenue partners, or find new sources of funding.
  • Be innovative; search carefully for new ways of accomplishing the organization's goals at lower overall cost. A labor union might consider whether its army of organizers might be made more efficient (lower resource cost) by making use of social media.
On the negative side, we can think of a number of psychological and institutional factors that impede successful adaptation. Wishful thinking is at the top of the list. It is very easy for decision makers to persuade themselves that observed trends will quickly reverse -- "the foundations will soon return to a focus on poverty," "digital photography will never achieve the resolution and color fidelity of film," "the state's support for poverty programs will return after the next election."

Second, decision makers may reason that careful but painful adaptation in the near term may be more painful for them individually than the consequences of eventual failure of the organization in the long term. This may be worsened by CEO compensation packages that create perverse incentives for them. The CEO of our fictional cigarette lighter manufacturer may reason that another 10 years of gradually declining sales, leading to bankruptcy, may be preferable to the turbulence and conflict associated with downsizing, shifting to another product, or introducing a lot of new technology.

Third, institutions have an enormous amount of inertia when it comes to change. Consolidating services within an organization, for example, is almost always met with a great deal of resistance from the various divisions that will need to "share" their IT person, their budget specialist, or their web designer.  And rethinking the "deliverable" of the organization, or the way that it is provided, is also often met with a lot of internal resistance.  A poverty-focused organization like the United Way may decide that its old model of distributing charitable funds needs to be more focused on a few central priorities; and this shift of delivery is likely to be met with resistance both internally (from existing staff) and externally (from powerful beneficiaries of the earlier system).

Fourth, there are very real limits on our ability to project current information onto future realities. What was called wishful thinking above might well be accurate in some situations: the current dire circumstances do sometimes get better and the existing business plan turns out to be sustainable after all. So there is always a degree of uncertainty associated with efforts to assess the current and future business environment.

No organization wants to be classified as a "dinosaur" -- the perfect embodiment of an "organization" (species) trapped in a period of change that moves more rapidly than its ability to adapt. But many do in fact find themselves in the contemporary equivalent of the tarpits when they run into unfamiliar and rapid periods of change. I have to hope that universities don't allow themselves to slip into that kind of endgame as they face the difficult and changing environment that currently confronts them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Re-mapping the philosophy of history

The prior post offered a schematic description of the tasks involved in arriving at historical knowledge. Here I want to ask a related question: what is the work that we can hope to do with a philosophy of history? We don't have a philosophy of office furniture; we do have a philosophy of technology. So what is it about history that supports philosophical inquiry? Why is the enterprise of investigating, documenting, and explaining facts about the past amenable to philosophical study? What makes the effort to arrive at knowledge of facts about the past an area of philosophical concern?

There are a couple of matters that are relatively clear. First, the domain of historical knowledge is a familiar subject for philosophical inquiry. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge generally. Philosophy of science is the careful analysis of the methods and justification of scientific knowledge. And philosophy of historical knowledge is likewise an epistemic and methodological domain: How do we know about the past? Are there limits to our possible knowledge about the past? What is involved in explaining a historical fact? Answers to these questions and others in the same vein may be difficult and controversial; but it is clear how they fit into existing conceptions of philosophical inquiry.

If the philosophy of history were limited to these sorts of questions, then it would be a variant of epistemology or the philosophy of science. However, some philosophers have felt that substantive history itself raises questions that do not reduce to questions about knowledge of this domain.

Here is one possibility: perhaps we need a metaphysics of history -- an account of the kinds of things, forces, and structures that exist in the realm of history. Perhaps the metaphysics of history can shed light on what kinds of structures and entities travel through history, and what kinds of causal processes and dynamical systems propel change in the structures and entities.

For example: Marx wrote that "history is the history of class conflict." This implies that classes are historical objects -- they exist in the flow of historical events. Other historians have said things like this: classical slavery gave way to feudalism, which was followed by capitalism. This formulation presupposes that large social-economic systems -- for example, social property systems -- exist in history and conform to some set of dynamics. And yet others have tried to analyze world history into a set of more or less distinct civilizations -- bodies of values, ideas, identities, and institutions that differ significantly one from the other.

We might say, however, that none of these questions pertains to a metaphysics of history, but rather a metaphysics of the social world. History is about change and transformation; but the subject of change is social structures, cultures, and agents that exist within the social world at a period of time. So classes, social-property systems, ideologies, and religions are all social arrangements that change over time. If there is such a thing as a "civilization", this is a fact about society at a certain time, not a fact about the structure of history. History has to do with events and dynamic properties; the social world encompasses everything that is happening at a moment in time. We might consider an analogy with fluids -- "history" is the waves, society is the water.

We might be more inclined to recognize a metaphysics of history if we thought there were temporal structures that could be discovered in substantive history -- perhaps the business cycle, the Kondratiev long-wave economic cycle, or the rise and fall of civilizations. In other words, if we thought that events and changes conformed to a higher-level pattern of temporal change, we might want to say that the meta-temporal pattern is a metaphysical characteristic of history. But it would also be tempting to say: these patterns of change too represent nothing more than empirical characteristics of social phenomena over time. They need to be explained using the tools of the social sciences and are not properly the subject of apriori investigation.

This suggests two important conclusions: There is no such thing as an historical ontology as such but only a social ontology; and there is no such thing as an historical theory of change as such but only social theories of change. The ontologies and theories that historians employ are strictly speaking features of social science knowledge rather than historical knowledge. So, properly understood, there is no legitimate place for an investigation of the "metaphysics" of history; that space is filled entirely by an understanding of the metaphysics of the social world. In this case, the philosophy of history is no more than a component of the philosophy of social science, with no distinctive questions or answers of its own other than the epistemological issues mentioned above.

This discussion suggests a few rather deflationary conclusions about the possible scope of research in the philosophy of history:
  • Philosophical work directed towards elucidating the epistemology and methodology of historical knowledge is straightforward but limited.
  • Philosophical work directed towards elucidating the metaphysical underpinnings of "history" will be disappointing; those foundations exist within the domain of the philosophy of the social sciences rather than the philosophy of history.
  • The dynamics of historical change are properly the subject matter of the social sciences rather than the philosopher of history.
  • It is true that some historical investigation requires "hermeneutic" interpretation of meanings; but these efforts always fall at the level of interpreting the meaning of historical actions and cultural settings.
This analysis suggests there isn't a lot of scope for the philosophy of history beyond the function of serving as a counterpart to the philosophy of science. We might say that there are basically three relevant activities in the realm of historical thinking. There is first-order research into facts about the past based on currently available evidence. There is analysis and explanation of those facts, including methods ranging from ethnography to process-tracing to application of findings from the social sciences. These two parts of historical research are guided by ensembles of historical methods and practices (historiography). And there is philosophical reflection on the logic and limitations of these processes of inquiry and inference, the narrowly epistemic version of the philosophy of history. This aspect of the discussion includes as well the conceptual work that philosophers are well qualified for -- posing and answering questions like "What is history?", "What is a cause?", or "What is involved in expressing a meaningful action?". On this scenario there is no room at all for substantive or metaphysical philosophy of history.

The title of Ian Hacking's book, Historical Ontology, suggests that he thinks otherwise, and that there is such a thing as an ontology of history. However, the sense of the title is different: he is interested in the history of ontologies -- the ways that our conceptual systems have changed over time -- rather than the ontology of history.

(I should say that this is a pretty limited view of the scope of the philosophy of history, so it should be taken as provisional.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

What is "history"?

What is "history"? And what is involved in historical research and knowledge creation?

We might begin by attempting to specify the meaning of the word. Consider this: History is the sum total of human actions, thoughts, and institutions, arranged in temporal order. Call this "substantive history." History is social action in time, performed by a specific population at a time. Individuals act, contribute to social institutions, and contribute to change.  People had beliefs and modes of behavior in the past. They did various things. Their activities were embedded within, and in turn constituted, social institutions at a variety of levels.  Social institutions, structures, and ideologies supervene upon the historical individuals of a time. Institutions may have great depth, breadth, and complexity. Institutions, structures, and ideologies display dynamics of change that derive ultimately from the mentalities and actions of the individuals who inhabit them during a period of time.  And both behavior and institutions change over time.  "History" is the temporally ordered sum of all these facts.

We are interested in understanding history for a couple of reasons.
We are interested in knowing how people lived and thought in times and settings very distant from our own. What was it like to be a medieval baker or beadle or wife?

We are interested in the concrete social arrangements and institutions that existed at various points in time. We would like to know how marriage or tax collecting worked in rural Ming China.

We are interested in the dynamics of change -- the reasons for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the reasons for a rash of peasant rebellions in 18th-century China, the reasons for the occurrence and characteristics of the Industrial Revolution.

We are interested in quantitative assembly of historical data -- population, economic activity, other kinds of social data.
Understanding the first kind of thing has a lot in common with ethnography or interpretive research; we uncover what we can of the circumstances, actions, and symbols of a group of people, and we try to reconstruct their mentality and their reasons for acting as they did.

Understanding the second kind of thing requires careful study of existing records that permit inferences about how basic institutions worked. Examples include bodies of law, charters, manorial records, and the like.

Understanding the third kind of thing has to do with identifying dynamic causal processes of the sort that the social sciences study -- why legislatures tend towards certain kinds of institutions and behaviors, why bureaucracies tend towards rigidity, why people are susceptible to extremism. This second kind of question pays attention to both internal reasons for change and external reasons -- an internal dynamic towards dynastic instability and an external shock imposed by sudden climate change, for example.

Understanding the fourth kind of thing requires discovering data sources in the historical records and archives that permit estimation of things like marriage rates, grain prices, or church membership totals, and then analyzing and presenting these data in convincing ways using established methods in social science quantitative methodologies.

So historians can ask a relatively limited series of questions about time and change:
  • Why did actors choose to act as they did during period P?
  • How were actors shaped in agency and identity during period P?
  • What institutions, structures, and mentalities existed during period P?
  • What dynamics of change were inherent in institutions, structures, and mentalities of these sorts during period P?
  • What contingent events and actions took place in period P that influenced the mentality, actions, and structures of the successor period P'?
This suggests a fairly simple logic of historical representation:
  • Historians discover factual circumstances about conditions of life, action, and thought (mentality) during specific periods.
  • Historians identify changes in these conditions from one period to another.
  • Historians identify the features of social relationships, institutions, structures, and ideologies during specific periods.
  • Historians use a "path-tracing" methodology to discern how circumstances and actions in one period led to specific outcomes in a later period.
  • Historians make use of the findings of the social sciences to identify social dynamics associated with specific kinds of social institutions, structures, and ways of thinking.
The historian who is primarily interested in the specifics of a particular time and place is more distant from the social sciences. This work is more particularistic and "idiographic". The historian who is primarily interested in the dynamics of transition and transformation is more closely related to the social sciences, since he/she needs to borrow good theories about how institutions work. This work is more interested in causes and generalizations (usually at a meso level).

This description leaves out a great deal of what historians spend a lot of time on: formulating narratives that make sense, discovering unexpected causes or outcomes of historical circumstances, finding new perspectives on old historical questions, or just figuring out what is going on in an archival source (like the photo above), for example.  I've tried to strip away those elements of the historian's work, in order to highlight the logic of the varieties of factual and explanatory claims that historians make.  What I've described is abstract, of course, but it seems to capture the main elements of historical cognition.  In an upcoming post I will ask how philosophy is relevant to this body of intellectual activity -- why, that is, we might want to have a philosophy of history.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sen on well-being

In 1985 Amartya Sen published a very short book entitled Commodities and Capabilities. The book was reissued by Oxford after Sen received his Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

The topic is at the core of Sen's economic and philosophical work. Most basically, he is asking Aristotle's question -- what is happiness? -- and is putting forward an answer that combines analysis of economic behavior with philosophical analysis of action and purpose in human life. Economists from Mill to Samuelson sought to understand economic choices in terms of subjective utilities and unanalyzed sets of preferences. A consistent theme was that economics can't be concerned with the content or validity of the individual's utility function or preference ordering. Rather, economics is about the rules by which rational agents design their actions to maximize utility or preference satisfaction. Economic rationality has to do with the choice of means, not ends.

This approach to action also unfolded into the formal theory of social choice. Given that citizens have a set of preferences about social outcomes, what rational procedures can be designed to aggregate these preferences into a single coherent social choice preference ordering.  Essentially the underlying idea is that the social good is secured when we succeed in aggregating citizens' preferences onto a single social preference ranking.  And this is where Kenneth Arrow's famous impossibility theorem comes in: given a small set of reasonable constraints on social choice, there is no social choice procedure that is both complete and transitive (Social Choice and Individual Values, Second edition). Sen's first major book (1970) gave a different formal exposition to this set of arguments (Collective choice and social welfare).

One of Sen's most fundamental contributions in economics is to question the theory of subjective utility and revealed preference. He thinks that we can give a substantive, not formal, account of wellbeing that permits us to analyze the individual's behavior and choices in a more meaningful way.  He writes here:
It is fair to say that formal economics has not been very interested in the plurality of focus in judging a person's states and interests. In fact, often enough the very richness of the subject matter has been seen as an embarrassment. There is a powerful tradition in economic analysis that tries to eschew the distinctions and make do with one simple measure of a person's interest and its fulfilment.  That measure is often called 'utility'. (1)
He wants to complicate the issue by drawing distinctions -- that is, by breaking down the austere abstractions about choice that are most comfortable to the economists:
I would distinguish broadly between two ways of seeing a person's interests and their fulfilment, and I shall call them respectively 'well-being' and 'advantage'. 'Well-being' is concerned with a person's achievement: how 'well' is his or her 'being'? 'Advantage' refers to the real opportunities that the person has, especially compared with others. The opportunities are not judged only by the results achieved, and therefore not just by the level of well-being achieved. It is possible for a person to have genuine advantage and still to 'muff' them.  Or to sacrifice one's own well-being for other goals, and not to make full use of one's freedom to achieve a high level of well-being.  The notion of advantage deals with a person's real opportunities compared with others. The freedom to achieve well-being is closer to the notion of advantage than well-being itself. (3)
This discussion announces his important distinction between capabilities and functionings; functionings are the realized form that capabilities take when they are fully cultivated.  "A functioning is an achievement of a person: what he or she manages to do or to be" (7).  It is worth noticing that the idea of freedom comes into this formulation in a fundamental way -- fifteen years before freedom becomes central to his thinking about the good of economic development in Development as Freedom.

Sen's argument next moves into another topic that has been characteristic of his thinking throughout his career, the relationship between two or three central components of "satisfaction" or "well-being".  There is subjective satisfaction -- the degree to which the individual has accomplished a large portion of his/her preferences.  There is the role of commodities and material things in the composition of individual satisfaction -- the bundle of stuff that the individual can call upon in attempting to satisfy basic needs and desires, from grain and clean water to iPads and access to the Internet.  And there is the "fit" between the individual's material circumstances and his/her ability to fulfill capabilities and complete an autonomous plan of life.

The key idea expressed in this monograph and subsequently in Sen's work is that well-being is the aggregation of the individual's collection of functionings.  "It is possible to argue that the well-being of a person is best seen as an index of the person's functionings" (17).
On what does the claim of functionings to reflect well-being rest? Basically, the claim builds on the straightforward fact that how well a person is must be a matter of what kind of life he or she is living, and what the person is succeeding in 'doing' or 'being'. (19)
And Sen thinks about this formulation in formal terms: the person's functionings are represented as a vector of qualitatively distinct characteristics, and one of the central problems is to assign relative values to the components of the package.
The primary specification of a person's well-being is in terms of a functioning vector bi. It can be converted into a scalar measure of well-being only through a real-valued 'valuation function' vi(.), mapping functioning vectors into numerical representations of well-being. (33)
Sen's approach is appealing largely because it replaces "utility" with a more granular conception of "functionings".  This permits more concrete discussion of the individual's life activities and, as Sen argues here, a better way of assessing his/her overall well-being.

What has turned out to be enormously important in Sen's framework of capabilities and functionings is its relevance to the topic of economic development.  We want economic development to lead to an overall improvement in human happiness.  But how should such a goal be assessed and measured?  By offering a concrete theory of functionings, Sen lays a basis for attempting to empirically measure changes in functionings over time.  Literacy, for example, is an important functioning for the human being.  Extremely poor societies invest very little in formal education, and literacy in the population is low.  We can make a very concrete argument that a given strategy of development is improving human well-being if we can demonstrate that it is leading to a higher level of attainment of literacy.  Health itself is a complex functioning for the human being; here too, it is possible to measure progress in health achievements in different societies.  So the functionings approach provides a concrete way of trying to assess progress in economic development processes.  The approach is a great improvement over the "average GDP" approach, since Sen demonstrates in numerous places that average income implies something about access to commodities, but it has only a weak connection to the functionings that the population is able to realize.

The Human Development Index championed by the United Nations Development Programme takes advantage of this insight.  HDI includes three measures: life expectancy, literacy, and per capita GDP (link).  And a very powerful argument can be made that societies that make the most progress in improving their HDI levels have made more progress in improving human well-being than those that increase GDP but fail to improve factors like literacy and health.  It will not surprise the reader to learn that Sen's writings and advocacy played a crucial role in the design of the HDI.