Monday, April 30, 2012

Dewey on habits

I've sought here to discover some of the origins of current neo-pragmatist theories of the actor. John Dewey's writings are certainly crucial for that quest. So what did Dewey contribute to a pragmatist understanding of how people act? one place to look for an answer is in a 1922 book, HUMAN NATURE AND CONDUCT: An Introduction to Social Psychology. It is a particularly interesting book to read, in that Dewey goes back and forth between a kind of descriptive psychology and some astute theorizing about morality as a constraint on action.

A particularly central part of Dewey's theory of action is the idea of habit. He believes that a large volume of our ordinary human conduct is not deliberative or plan-ful at all, but is rather based on habit. So what is habit? Here is a brief description in Human Nature and Conduct:
Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts. It means will. (kl 386)

The word habit may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired ; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action ; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity. (Kindle Locations 378-381)
In the tradition of deliberative rationality, the idea of will is central. The agent deliberates about ends and means and chooses (wills) a means that will bring about her ends. So the will is the fundamental element of action. But in fact, Dewey argues that the idea of "will" itself can be understood as a compound of habits, rather than a self-originating deliberation about ends and means.
By will, common-sense understands something practical and moving. It understands the body of habits, of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does. Will is thus not something opposed to consequences or severed from them. (Kindle Locations 403-404)
Dewey's discussion of habit and action is particularly sensitive to the relationship between the constraints and practices of the body and human patterns of action. He uses an extended example of "standing straight", and points out that "good posture" is a complex characteristic involving the environment, the body, and the will. But crucially, the unadorned will ("I will henceforth stand straight") cannot in fact determine subsequent behavior. In fact, he argues that the idea of standing straight can only come to us once we are bodily capable of good posture:
Only the man who can maintain a correct posture has the stuff out of which to form that idea of standing erect which can be the starting point of a right act. (Kindle Locations 302-303)

Given a bad habit and the " will " or mental direction to get a good result, and the actual happening is a reverse or looking-glass manifestation of the usual fault-a compensatory twist in the opposite direction. Refusal to recognize this fact only leads to a separation of mind from body, and to supposing that mental or " psychical" mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. (Kindle Locations 312-314)
 He also emphasizes the point that habits in action generally presuppose a social context:
But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist. (Kindle Locations 167-169)
 Or in other words, we acquire our habits of behavior through exposure to other actors.
We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or wide-spread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. (Kindle Locations 523-525)
This is a point made elsewhere in the blog in the context of the idea of methodological localism: the individual takes shape through the persistent fact of existing social practices and norms. Here is a representative example of Dewey's ideas about the social construction of the individual.
We come back to the fact that individuals begin their career as infants. For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they rarely resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs…. Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 571-573)
Moreover, individual habits in turn contribute to social patterns:
Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live. (Kindle Locations 207-209)
And habits are the foundation of ethical ideas as well:
Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 578-579)
So the fact of habit in action is in fact a very fundamental part of Dewey's view of the social world and the individual actor's role in that world. And it is a role that suggests that Dewey differs very fundamentally from the Aristotelian view of deliberative rationality in action, where the actor identifies a set of ends, arrives at a set of beliefs, and reasons to a conclusion about what action to choose. (It seems to have more in common with another aspect of Aristotle's theory of action, the role that virtue plays in ordinary conduct.) Dewey doesn't say that there is nothing deliberative about action; but he appears to believe that habit is more common and more fundamental; further, he seems to believe that many examples of the exercise of will are in fact examples of the influence of nested sets of habits. Dewey seems to accept this implication about the subordinacy of reasoning to habit:

Habit, occupation, furnishes the necessity of forward action in one case as instinct does in the other. We do not act from reasoning; but reasoning puts before us objects which are not directly or sensibly present, so that we then may react directly to these objects, with aversion, attraction, indifference or attachment, precisely as we would to the same objects if they were physically present. (Kindle Locations 1724-1726)
This component of a theory of action seems valid with respect to a range of human behaviors and interactions, but it seems to seriously undervalue the fact of conscious deliberation in action. It cannot be denied that human actors do sometimes approach problems of action -- what to do? -- in a conscious and deliberative way.  This is the kernel that underlies rational choice theory, and it seems to be a plain and undeniable part of human problem solving and choice.  Dewey's understanding of action as the result of an ensemble of socially instilled habits seems in the end to be unsatisfactory as a full theory of action.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Actor-centered sociology

I've advocated many times here for the advantages of what I've referred to as "actor-centered" sociology. Let's see here whether it is possible to say fairly specifically what that means. Here is an elliptical description of three aspects of what I mean by "actor-centered sociology":

First, it reflects a view of social ontology: Social things are composed, constituted, and propertied by the activities and interactions of individual actors -- perhaps 2, perhaps 300M. Second, it puts forward a constraint on theorizing: Our social theories need to be compatible with the ontology. The way I put the point is this: social theories, hypotheses, and assertions need microfoundations. Third, "actor-centered sociology" represents a heuristic about where to focus at least some of our research energy and attention: at the ordinary processes and relations through which social processes take place, the ordinary people who bring them about, and the ordinary processes through which the effects of action and interaction aggregate to higher levels of social organization.

(a) This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures require microfoundations.

(b) The meta-theory of actor-centered sociology requires that all social theories, at whatever level, require a theory of the actor. Economics and ethnomethodology differ in the level of specificity they offer for their theories of the actor; but both have such a theory.  They both put forward fundamental ideas about how actors think and the mental processes that influence their actions.

(c) Actor-centered sociology suggests that careful study of local social mechanisms and behaviors is a worthwhile exercise for sociological research.  Ethnomethodology and the careful, place-based investigations offered by Goffman and Garfinkel move from the wings to the stage itself.

(d) It appears to imply that we may be able to provide an explanation of at least some higher-level social facts by showing how they emerge as a result of the workings of actors and their structured interactions. This is the aggregation-dynamics methodology (link).  Or in terms discussed elsewhere here, it is the micro-to-macro link of Coleman's boat (link).

(e) The actor-based sociology approach seems to imply that the regularities that may exist at the level of macro-social phenomena are bound to be weak and exception-laden. Heterogeneity within and across actors -- across history and across social settings -- seems to imply multiple sets of attainable aggregate outcomes.  Would fascist organizations flourish in Italy after World War I? The answer is indeterminate.  There were numerous groups of social actors with important differences in their states of agency, and these groups in turn were influenced by organizations of varying characteristics. So it would be impossible to say in advance with confidence either that fascism was likely to emerge or that it was unlikely to emerge (link).

(f) The actor-centered approach suggests that we can do better sociology by being more attentive to subtle differences in agency in specific groups and times. George Steinmetz's careful attention to the processes of formation through which colonial administrators took shape in nineteenth-century Germany illustrates the value of paying attention to the historical particulars of various groups of actors, and the historically specific circumstances in which their frames of agency were created (link). It implies that context and historical processes are crucial to sociological explanation.

(g) The actor-centered approach highlights the importance of careful analysis of the mechanisms of communication and interaction through which individuals influence each other and through which their actions aggregate to higher level social outcomes and structures.  Social networks, competitive markets, mass communications systems, and civic associations all represent important inter-actor linkages that have massively important consequences for aggregate social outcomes.

(h) Finally, the actor-centered approach has some of the advantages of the spotlight in a three-ring circus. The idea of actor-centered sociology points the spotlight to the parts of the arena where the action is happening: to the formation of the actor, to the concrete setting of the actor, to the interactions that occur among actors, to the aggregative processes that lead to larger outcomes, and to the causal properties that those larger structures come to have.

One thing that is somewhat troubling for anyone who has been reading this blog over time is that there seems to be a glaring inconsistency in two lines of thought emphasized repeatedly here: first, that social facts require microfoundations; and second, that meso-structures can have autonomous causal properties. Are these two ideas consistent?

In particular, one might interpret the imperative of actor-centered sociology as a particularly restrictive view of social causation: from configurations of actors to meso-level social facts.  So all the causal "action" is happening at the level of the actors, not the structures.  Dave Elder-Vass attempts to avoid this implication by arguing for emergent social causal properties (link); I've approached the problem by talking about relatively autonomous causal properties at the meso-level (link).  I continue to think the latter view works reasonably well.  In a post on "University as a causal structure," for example, I think a plausible case is made for both ideas: the tenure system is causally effective in constraining individual faculty members' behavior as well as being causally effective in influencing other structural features of the university; and every aspect of this system has microfoundations in the form of the structured circumstances of action and culturation through which the bureaucratic agents in the system behave. Or in other words: it is consistent to maintain both parts of the dilemma, actor-centered sociology and relatively autonomous meso-level social causation (link).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Recent historiography of China

The field of China history evolved rapidly after the McCarthy attacks on the field in the 1950s. The most significant developments, in my view, are these. First, there developed in the 1960s and 1970s what Paul Cohen refers to as a “China-centered” approach to the study of the history of China (Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past; 1984). The central notion here is the idea that historians of China need to analyze China’s history making use of concepts and hypotheses specific to its own experience. Cohen puts the point this way: “The main identifying feature of the new approach is that it begins with Chinese problems set in a Chinese context. . . . [These] are Chinese problems, in the double sense that they are experienced in China by Chinese and that the measure of their historical importance is a Chinese, rather than a Western, measure” (Cohen 1984, p. 154). Rather than asking whether China experienced “sprouts of capitalism” in the Ming Dynasty, we need to consider the distinctive features of China’s economic development. Rather than considering whether China was a “feudal” society, we need to identify and conceptualize the specific features of political and economic relations that linked elites and the common people.

The point here is not that China’s history is unique and sui generis, but rather that one should not presume that the categories of politics, social structure, and historical process that emerged as central in the unfolding of early modern Europe will find natural application in the historical experience of China. The concept of feudalism is not a trans-historical category which should be expected to have application in every process of historical development. Bin Wong pushes this view further in his China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience.

Second, there has emerged a substantial emphasis on material culture in the China field: social and economic circumstances, the technology of agriculture, marketing hierarchies, and the circumstances of life of ordinary Chinese people. Features of local material culture find prominent expression: population processes, local politics, agricultural technique, land tenure arrangements, patron-client relations, banditry, and environmental change. And since historical China is an agrarian society, this means that agrarian histories have been particularly important in the China field. (Here is a post on China's agricultural history; link.)

Third, China studies have moved in the direction of local or regional studies rather than national histories. Issues arising out of consideration of the village rather than the capital city have come to the fore: the village, the marketing hierarchy, and the region have come to define the focus of inquiry. Scholars are suspicious of generalizations about China as a whole; rather, local and regional variations are the focus of research. It is recognized that lineage is more significant in the south of China than the north; that rice cultivation imposes a series of social imperatives in the south that are absent in the north; that regions linked by water transport show an economic and social integration often lacking in administratively defined units (provinces); that millenarian Buddhism is a powerful factor in the political culture of Shandong but not in Sichuan; and the like. Huaiyin Li's Village China Under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008 is a good example of this kind of detailed local study.

Finally, the influence of the social sciences in the field of Chinese history has been of great importance. Much (though of course not all) of the most productive historical research on China in the past two decades has made substantial use of the tools of social science to construct explanations of Chinese historical processes. Techniques drawn from historical demography, economic geography, and the study of organizational behavior have substantially increased our understanding of China’s history. Work by James Lee and numerous collaborators on China's demographic history provide good examples of the fruitfulness of this approach; Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History).

Here are a few topic areas that have proven to be particularly important.

Spatial organization of culture and economy. China studies have been strongly influenced by the insight that there is a critical spatial dimension to processes of social, political, and economic change. In his groundbreaking work on marketing hierarchies and the regionalization of traditional China, G. William Skinner has demonstrated the key role that transport systems, central place hierarchies, and physiography play in China’s history (linklink.) Skinner’s work has been remarkably influential in the China field; among his contributions, two are especially important. First, Skinner undercut the village-oriented perspective of much existing research on peasant China by putting forward an analysis of the central place hierarchy that exists among cities, market towns, villages, and hamlets in traditional China (Skinner, G. William. 1964-65. "Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China." Journal of Asian Studies 24(1-3)). These hierarchies are knit together by transport systems and the circulation of products, traders, craftsmen, martial arts instructors, necromancers, and other itinerant folk. This is an important contribution because it suggests stimulating hypotheses about the mechanisms of popular culture, the transmission of ideas, the movements of peoples, the diffusion of new technologies, and other fundamental aspects of social change. The second signal contribution contained in Skinner’s work is his regionalization of China into nine “macroregions,” each of which is analyzed in terms of a core-periphery structure (The City in Late Imperial China; 1977). This construct incorporates the structure of marketing hierarchies into the analysis and adds the notion that the economic processes implicit in urbanization impose a structure on rural society as well. Urban cores create a demand for resources (firewood, food, raw materials) that extend economic influence into peripheral areas.

These ideas have a number of important implications for agrarian studies more generally. First, the spatial organization of settlements--villages, towns, and cities, and the transport and marketing networks that connect them--has important consequences for diverse aspects of rural life. Ideas, political movements, and knowledge are diffused through marketing system channels. Itinerant merchants, artisans, letter writers, necromancers, fortune-tellers, or martial-arts instructors travel the circuits defined by the marketing hierarchies; and through these travelers results movement of ideas, products, rumors, skills, and innovations.

Environmental history. There are numerous examples of recent works that give central focus to environmental and ecological issues in China’s history. Environmental issues come in a number of forms in Chinese history, including especially water management, land reclamation, and deforestation. As Skinner points out, there is a strongly spatial orientation to each of these sets of issues: water systems constitute one of the lineaments determining patterns of settlement; land reclamation and deforestation follow population density (and therefore tend to correspond to a core-periphery structure, with a transfer of fertility from periphery to core). 

An important treatment of the human impact on the Chinese environment is Peter Perdue’s study, Exhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan (Perdue 1987). Perdue’s study focuses on Hunan, 1500-1850, and places primary emphasis on the processes of agricultural change, land reclamation, and water control through which the landscape of Hunan was dramatically altered throughout this period. The struggle between the state and local interests over such issues as taxation, land reclamation, dike building, and land property rights is highlighted.  What is most original about the book is Perdue's success in identifying the consequences for ecology and land and water management of the political and economic processes involved in Hunan’s substantial growth during this period. Perdue documents the slow process through which land reclamation efforts and dike-building nibbled away at Dongting Lake (now China’s second largest lake). The state played an important role in stimulating this process in the Ming dynasty; in the Qing, Perdue indicates that the private interests of local elites and landowners were the driving force for continuing encroachment on wetland and lake margins.

More recently Mark Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China provides a broad treatment of China’s environmental history over a longer and broader scope (link). 

State-society relations. State-society relations play an important role in many contemporary studies: to what extent, and through what mechanisms, is the state in a pre-modern society able to effect its will on its population? This question is particularly salient in the case of China because of the somewhat paradoxical role that the Imperial state plays in Chinese history. The Imperial system is often portrayed as weak and ineffectual; at the same time, it is the embodiment of a refined and sophisticated administrative apparatus. To what extent was the Chinese state able to carry out its essential functions--the extraction of taxes, the preservation of order, the suppression of social unrest, the maintenance of large-scale water projects, and the administration of central grain policies? These issues impact on agrarian histories in diverse ways: mobilization of peasant unrest is affected by the extractive behavior of the state, on the one hand, and the effectiveness of the state’s coercive apparatus, on the other.

In Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864 Philip Kuhn emphasizes the limitations of the grasp of the imperial state in his analysis of the local and regional responses to the Taiping Rebellion. “Local militarization posed acute problems for the imperial state; for if irregular military force could not be regularized and brought under control, if the widespread militarization of local communities could not be brought into a predictable relationship to the state, then the security of the state itself might soon be shaken” (Kuhn 1980, p. 9). There was a logic to the process of the state’s diminishing capacity to effect its will in response to rebellion. “The Ch'ing military establishment lent momentum to the downward spiral of dynastic decline: the worse the troops, the longer it took them to quell an uprising; the longer it took them, the greater the cost; the more impoverished the government, the lower the quality of imperial administration and the greater the frequency of revolt” (126). On Kuhn’s interpretation, the local militarization that occurred in response to the Taiping Rebellion had a permanent effect on the balance of power between center and periphery in Chinese politics.

In his study of state-society relations in North China, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942 (1988), Prasenjit Duara emphasizes the “state-making” processes that were underway in the late Qing. Duara’s analysis focuses on the end of the Qing dynasty and the turn of the twentieth century in North China; Duara attempts to comprehend the variety of institutions, elites, and influences through which political power was wielded at the village level. The state was earnest in its efforts to penetrate rural society to the village level, and Duara examines the efforts made to extend the administrative structures of the state into the system of lineage and local power relations which had traditionally dominated village society.

Intermediate between studies of the Imperial state and local agrarian histories is the effort to discern the “patterns of dominance” exercised by Chinese local elites (Esherick and Rankin, eds., Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, 1990). Studies by Keith Schoppa, Mary Rankin, Phillip Kuhn, and William Rowe provide instances of in-depth efforts to identify the historical identities of Chinese elites, rural and urban, and some of the mechanisms through which these elites endeavored to influence local society.

The core-periphery analysis mentioned above has been found fruitful as well in analysis of banditry, rebellion, and smuggling. The grasp of the state tends to be weakest in peripheral areas with difficult terrain (mountains, deserts, marshes), sparse settlement, and poor transport networks; and consequently anti-state activities find natural refuge in such areas.

Vivienne Shue's The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic is an important contribution to this topic.

Other topics.  Most recently the China field has been interested in the “involution” debate, culminating in Huang (The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988), Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.), and Wong and Rosenthal (Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe) (link, link, link). And, of course, there is a very large historiography of the Chinese Revolution and the Cultural Revolution.  Several earlier posts provide discussion of post-1960s treatments of the Chinese Revolution; link, link.

These topics are certainly not exhaustive.  I've said nothing here about cultural and identity studies; studies of ethnic minorities in China; popular culture; and much else.  But the field is large, and it is worthwhile for the non-specialist to have at least a rough map of some of the large pathways explored in the past forty years as historians have sought to make better sense of China's history.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

George Herbert Mead on the self

Sociologists sometimes come back to George Herbert Mead as a founder who still has something important to contribute to contemporary theory. This is especially true in ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, but it comes up in current lively discussions of pragmatism and action as well. So what can we learn from reading Mead today?

Mead writes and thinks in a way that is both scientific and philosophical. His contributions are to the field of "social psychology," and he locates himself within a discourse that includes Watsonian behaviorism and William James's introspectionism. But much of his prose seems very familiar to me as a philosopher. You can hear the reverberations of earlier philosophical debates in his writing -- Cartesianism, Hegelianism, Dilthey's hermeneutics -- and his style of argumentation also feels philosophical. (I never read Mead during my training as a philosopher, though the pragmatist spirit surely infused the Harvard philosophy department, with its intellectual affiliations to James and Peirce.)

Let's take a quick tour through some of the topics in Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Works of George Herbert Mead, Vol. 1). The title is entirely descriptive; the core issue is how to characterize the "me" -- the personal, the conscious individual, the intentional actor, and to theorize about how the self is related to the social world. Mead's fundamental view is that the tradition of philosophy has gotten the relationship backwards; philosophers have built the social from the individual, but actually the self is in some important way the sum of its social relations.
The difference between the social and the individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and the contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and their individual experiencing—individual minds and selves—as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains the existence in terms of that social process. (222).
Mead favors the "social first" approach. This doesn't rest on some kind of spooky Durkheimianism about irreducible social wholes, but rather the point that individuals always take shape within the ambit of a set of social relationships, language practices, and normative cues.
Our contention is that mind can never find expression, and could never have come into existence at all, except in terms of a social environment; that an organized set or pattern of social relations and interactions (especially those of communication by means of gestures functioning as significant symbols and thus creating a universe of discourse) is necessarily presupposed by it and involved in its nature. (222)
Mead's theory postulates that the self is built up out of imitative practices, gestures, and conversations over time. The individual forms a reflective conception of his / her self that derives from example and engagement with specific other actors within his / her social space. Here is how he puts his theoretical stance in the first few pages:
I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a social process, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organism takes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its own attitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to that response calls out other organized attitudes in the others in the community to which the individual belongs. This process can be characterized in a certain sense in terms of the “I” and the “me,” the “me” being that group of organized attitudes to which the individual responds as an "I". (185)
One thing that makes Mead's position here more distinctive is the way that it fits into his broader theory of symbolic manipulation. His ideas about rationality rotate around the human being's ability to use and manipulate symbols. This is what reflective thought involves, according to Mead: to assign symbols to features of he world, and then to choose actions based on reasoning about the relationships among those symbols.

Here is another clear statement about the self and the social:
The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols. We must remember that the gesture is there only in its relationship to the response, to the attitude. (188)
This insistence on the primacy of social relationships for defining the self might imply a problem for the first human self; but actually the development of sociality presumably parallels exactly the development of language and action. We aren't forced to begin in a social contract, state of nature point of view.

So what do action and intention look like on Mead's approach? He asks the question, what role does thought play in action? He concludes that it does play a role; but that the role is not entirely inside the head. His example turns the rational actor model on its head. Rather than deriving outcomes from the bare calculating actor, he understands the actor's deliberations in terms of the values and attitudes of his/her social environment. Speaking of a hypothetical policy maker who identifies strongly with his/her community, he writes:
He is successful to the degree that the final “me” reflects the attitude of all in the community. What I am pointing out is that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, but rather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of this social situation, this great co-operative community process which is going on. (187)
And here is a nice description of purposive action.
In the type of temporary inhibition of action which signifies thinking, or in which reflection arises, we have presented in the experience of the individual, tentatively and in advance and for his selection among them, the different possibilities or alternatives of future action open to him within the given social situation—the different or alternative ways of completing the given social act wherein he is implicated, or which he has already initiated. (90)
This is a reasonable statement of the situation of purposive deliberation: the person entertains in thought the various behaviors he/she can undertake and the possible consequences of those behaviors. The person then chooses a behavior in consideration of which of those consequences is most favored. So this passage conforms loosely to the desire-belief-outcome model and provides an explication of an aspect of consciousness and reflexivity. What is perhaps somewhat more surprising, however, is that Mead's position here seems mildly inconsistent with the earlier expressed ideas of the self as a reflection of the social world in which the biological individual abides. This passage suggests more of a traditional individual-rationality approach to action.

Another common thread in Mead's various discussions of action and behavior is his use of the idea of "habit".  Mead places "habit" as an alternative to "intelligent conduct":
It is the entrance of the alternative possibilities of future response into the determination of present conduct in any given environmental situation, and their operation, through the mechanism of the central nervous system, as part of the factors or conditions determining present behavior, which decisively contrasts intelligent conduct or behavior with reflex, instinctive, and habitual conduct or behavior—delayed reaction with immediate reaction. That which takes place in present organic behavior is always in some sense an emergent from the past, and never could have been precisely predicted in advance—never could have been predicted on the basis of a knowledge, however complete, of the past, and of the conditions in the past which are relevant to its emergence; and in the case of organic behavior which is intelligently controlled, this element of spontaneity is especially prominent by virtue of the present influence exercised over such behavior by the possible future results or consequences which it may have. (98)
He turns to the concept of habit to explain language and to describe ordinary actions in the world.

One of the most interesting currents in sociology today is the new pragmatism -- I'm thinking of work by Neil Gross and Hans Joas in particular.  Several earlier posts have focused on their efforts to provide a new theory of the actor that draws upon pragmatism (link, link).  Mead's theory of the self provides some of the intellectual foundations of this approach; but it doesn't tell the whole story.  In particular, the provocative ideas that are foundational in the new pragmatism --
  • "focus on the action rather than the actor", 
  • "action is a flow of improvisational adaptations", and 
  • "action is relational rather than individual" 
-- seem not to originate in Mead.  Mead's central contributions (in a Twitter-sized bite) seems to be that the self is constituted and created by its social context; and there is a large component of "habit" in ordinary social action.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The market for ethnicity

John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff have written a complex story of contemporary ethnicity and culture in Ethnicity, Inc.. The Comaroffs are, of course, distinguished cultural anthropologists at the University of Chicago who have done extensive research and writing on Africa. (For example, John Comaroff and Simon Roberts, Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context; Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa: 001.) So their observations on culture and ethnicity in a globalizing world are bound to be interesting.

Here is a nice statement of the way they conceptualize "ethnicity" (referring to Ethnography And The Historical Imagination):
For our own part (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:49- 67), we have long argued that ethnicity is neither a monolithic "thing" nor, in and of itself, an analytic construct: that "it" is best understood as a loose, labile repertoire of signs by means of which relations are constructed and communicated; through which a collective consciousness of cultural likeness is rendered sensible; with reference to which shared sentiment is made substantial. (kl 542)
So ethnicity is semiotic and labile -- or in other words, it consists in socially shared expressions of meaning, and it is especially prone to change and adaptation.

Their central focus in this short book is on ethnicity marketized -- hence "Ethnicity, Inc."  Here is the heart of their insight in the book:
While it is increasingly the stuff of existential passion, of the self-conscious fashioning of meaningful, morally anchored selfhood, ethnicity is also becoming more corporate, more commodified, more implicated than ever before in the economics of everyday life. To this doubling--to the inscription of things ethnic, simultaneously, in affect and interest, emotion and utility--is added yet another. (kl 18)
They document in detail the central idea expressed by the title; the idea that ethnic groups worldwide are looking to commercialize and commodify their indigenous cultures. Even Scotland is looking to brand and market itself -- along with the Shipibo of Peru, MEGA of Kenya, and Contralesa in South Africa. And, of course, this process throws a big handful of sand into the gears of the idea of "cultural authenticity" itself (post). The commodification of ethnic identity to which they refer is illustrated with many examples; for instance, with snippets from marketing materials developed for some of the world's ethnic groups.
Experience the Shipibo Way of Life for yourself in the heart of the Amazon Basin with our Peru Eco-Tourism adventure! Learn how to make Shipibo ceramic artwork, go spear fishing in the Amazon river and much, much more. (the Shipibo Home page from Amazonian Peru (disappeared)) 
The "identity" sector of the North Catalonian' economy represents a new openmindedness [that] will see an expansion based on the culture of the region ... as an alternative to globalisation. (the North Catolonian web page (disappeared)) 
MEGA [Meru, Embu, Gikuyu, Gikuyu Association, Kenya] Initiative Welfare Society is a community organisation formed to foster social/ cultural and economic development of Ameru, Aembu and Agikuyu people of Kenya. It ... is driven by the desire to demonstrate how a community or a region can bring about prosperity by exploiting the cultural richness and entrepreneurial skills and resources of its people ... (MEGA Welfare Society Home Page (disappeared)) (kl 14-46)
And from South Africa they describe Contralesa:
The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) is the representative voice of ethnicity in the country. It speaks for culture, customary law, and the collective rights of indigenous peoples. Also for the authority of their chiefs and kings, past and present.... Having established a business trust a year earlier in order to join a mining consortium, they were about to create a for-profit corporation to pursue investment opportunities in minerals, forestry, and tourism; formal application had been made to register the company. (kl 77) 
The second thread of argument they engage is the current political and philosophical literature on ethnicity and globalization. Discussing Foucault, Adorno, Montesquieu, and numerous others, they do some careful thinking about where "ethnic identity" stands now in philosophy and theory. They discuss, for example, the juridicalism that has swept through the field in human rights and first peoples (kl 789). (They refer generically to the effort to establish legal rights of property along ethnic lines as "lawfare"; kl 797.)

The commodification of ethnicity plays directly into the argument that identities are socially constructed and performative.  The recreation of "traditional crafts, ceremonies, and dancing" in tourist villages is plainly a Disneyland kind of activity -- even when the performers have some hereditary relation to the earlier practices to which these reenactments point.  The ersatz culture that is performed has little or no resonance with ordinary life in those current groups.

But it also appears that C&C also believe that people have identities as embodied subjectivities -- however labile and socially influenced they may be.  And this implies that it is possible and worthwhile to investigate those subjectivities in their own terms.

There is a final pole to their analysis of ethnicity within the marketplace: the fact that ethnically defined groups are concerned about their property rights in a variety of things: traditional medications, historical land holdings, mineral resources, and even their languages.  This reflects a point about power and politics: a group is more able to sustain itself as a coherent group when it is able to successfully establish rights in important resources.  And these collective rights of ownership may play back into the mechanisms that support the persistence of a subjective group identity.
So it is that we return to where we began, with the articulation--the manifest expression, the joining together--of culture to property, past to future, being to business, entrepreneurialism to ethno-preneurialism. The permanent, unresolved, often aspirational dialectic that connects the incorporation of identity to the commodification of difference looks to be extending in all directions. (kl 2004)
What is unclear to me after reading the book is whether the two parts -- socially constructed performances for a paying public and persistent subjectivity -- are as closely connected as the Comaroffs seem to think. Here, in a nutshell, is how they think the two dynamics are connected:
What conclusions may be drawn from all this? Could it be that we are seeing unfold before us a metamorphosis in the production of identity and subjectivity, in the politics and economics of culture and, concomitantly, in the ontology of ethnic consciousness? (kl 279)
But are the two processes of identity-shift really so closely connected?  Does the fact that economic development policy makers want to brand Scotland really tell us much about whether there is a "Scot identity"? What kind of theorizing and research do we need to do in order to take the measure do what it's like to be a Scot today? What might be included in such a status over a dispersed population of people with some historical ties to Braveheart? Is it a set of collective memories and monuments, a set of emotions of attachment to a standard narrative of Scottish history, or a set of behaviors, habits, and locutions?

In some way it seems as though the commodification of ethnicity is a sideshow, though an interesting one, while the real action is taking place elsewhere. (I don't doubt that they are right in judging that the performances the Shipibo people put on for ethno-tourists have a feedback effect on the ways they think about themselves, and therefore contributes to a degree of shift in the particulars of their ethnic identities.) But there is substantive ethnographic work to be done on the conceptualization and description of these forms of subjectivity themselves, and the ways in which they are influenced and transmitted over time.  Marketization is part of that process -- but it is only one part. And it seems as though the marketing of ethnicity to tourists is a fairly special case.

Think of all the ethnic identities that are continuing to evolve and shift without any involvement of the kinds of commercialization of ethnicity that C&C focus on: the South Asian diaspora in the Midwest, the Burmese community in Minneapolis, the Jewish community in New Mexico or Shanghai. In each case there are complex dynamics of memory, cell phones, traditions adapted to new circumstances, remittances, family conversations, and dozens of other mechanisms through which dispersed communities are maintaining and morphing their ethnicities. There is certainly more to the dynamics of ethnicity in the contemporary world than the commodification that the Comaroffs single out.

(Earlier discussions of diasporic communities and methodological nationalism here and here focus on some of those dynamics.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Race, perception, and reality

Several recent themes come together in Ron Jacobs' very interesting 2000 book, Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies). There is the recurring theme of racial separation in American society, this time with respect to divergent perceptions of important historical events. There is the role of representation and framing as a component of identity and agency. And there is the question of realism: given the fact of divergence, what sense can we make of the question, what really happened?

Jacobs is a cultural sociologist, within a group of theorists who believe that social imagination, representation, and framing are interesting and appropriate objects of sociological inquiry. Like theorists in the broad field of social mobilization, he believes that an understanding of these "subjective" features are key to understanding mobilization and action. But he also takes very seriously the idea that an individual's (or group's) mental framework is constructed by concrete social processes, including the media. And, finally, he offers a sophisticated framework in terms of which to analyze and dissect the media itself. This is an approach that blends the methods of the social sciences and the humanities in a very constructive way.

His specific goal in this book is to try to identify crucial differences of framework between African-American and white publics in the United States at several important junctures. He studies the African-American and mainstream press in their reporting of the Watts uprising (1965) and the disturbances that followed the Rodney King beating and court findings. The African-American press serves an important "fragmented public", and Jacobs wants to identify in detail the differences in perspective that exist between it and the mainstream press.

The theoretical frame for Jacobs is Habermas's thinking about communication, discourse, and the public sphere. He largely buys into Habermas's notion that a populace constitutes itself as a collective identity through discourse in public spaces. And the media represent some of those spaces. But he diverges from Habermas's views in emphasizing that there are multiple publics and multiple discourses. And this point is particularly important when it comes to race in the United States. The OJ Simpson trial illustrated this point very sharply, with widely divergent opinions about the trial among African-Americans and white Americans.

Jacobs' primary method is narrative analysis. He analyzes several thousand news stories with respect to plot, characters, and genres. And he finds there are substantial and consistent differences between mainstream and African-American press accounts of Watts, Rodney King, and the innocent verdicts for the police assailants of Rodney King.

What Jacobs doesn't assert, and what probably isn't true, is that the perspective found in, say, the Chicago Defender, is a faithful, exact expression of the collective perspective and framing of the black public of Chicago at a point in time. Rather, the Defender is a media publication with an editorial perspective and a small group of writers and editors. They have their own perspectives. As Jacobs points out, the Defender helps to influence black perspective in Chicago, but it isn't identical to the mentality of the black Chicago public or publics. (One might speculate that much of Chicago's black youth took a more radical and less patient view of police harassment than the Defender.) In order to probe these mentalities on the ground, a different kind of research would be needed -- ethnographic rather than documentary.

So this invokes one of the themes of realism we've surfaced in recent posts: what can we say about the truth of the matter when it comes to assertions about social perceptions and representations? And here I'm not thinking of the veridicality of the black teenager's perceptions of the police, but rather the veridicality of the sociologist's representations of that group's perceptual scheme about race and the police. How does critical realism come into the picture when we are discussing intangible, subjective features of imagination and representation by a social group? Can we be realists about mentalities?

I believe that the answer is "yes". There are research methods that permit a degree of confidence in assessing the forms of thinking associated with a given group at a given time. These range from participant-observer methods, to ethnography more broadly, to the kind of historical ethnography practiced by Robert Darnton, to survey methods attempting to measure attitudes and values. These methods generally require interpretive skills and judgments on the part of the investigator -- in this respect the sociologist is also a humanist--but it is reasonable to think that evidence-based inquiry can lead to reasonably confident conclusions about facts of subjectivity.

And this leads to another connection to realism: subjective schemes of interpretation are linked to actions as well. Mentality and action are linked. So the fact that Chicago teenagers in 1968 perhaps shared a narrative of police brutality very plausibly played a causal role in their behaviors in Chicago's uprising. So realism about the causes of contentious politics requires a degree of realism about mentalities as well.

(All of the action in Jacobs' book involves Los Angeles, a city with a very specific racial history. Readers will find the Easy Rawlins novels of Walter Mosley a vivid representation of African-American life in LA in the 1950s -- e.g. A Red Death (Easy Rawlins Mysteries). But even here a question of realism arises: can we gain realistic understanding of a historical moment through a novel? Does Mosley offer a true depiction of race in LA?)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Running on empty

We've been focusing on the 1 percent and the 99 percent for the past year, thanks to the Occupy movement. But here's another way of slicing American society -- right down the middle. How is the 50 percent doing these days?

The answer seems to be, not very well. And the conservative assault on the social safety net pretty much guarantees that this part of American society will do even worse in the coming years. Poverty is concentrated in this half of America, both adult and child; the percentage of uninsured people is high; and the median income has dropped significantly since 2000. The inequalities that have worsened in the US since 1980 have hurt the bottom half significantly.

Here is a summary from USAToday in 2011 (link):
Median household income fell 2.3% to $49,445 last year and has dropped 7% since 2000 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. Income was the lowest since 1996.

Poverty rose, too. The share of people living in poverty hit 15.1%, the highest level since 1993, and 2.6 million more people moved into poverty, the most since Census began keeping track in 1959.
The poverty statistic is stunning: it implies that 30 percent of the bottom 50 percent are officially living in poverty -- almost one-third.

So how do the bottom half of Americans do when it comes to health insurance? The Kaiser Family Foundation provides a major data source on rates of uninsured adults by income group (link). Here is a data snapshot for uninsured non-elderly Americans by income:

This shows that 58% of non-elderly Americans with income below 250% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured, while 12% of non-elderly Americans between 250% and 400% of FPL are uninsured. Only 5% of non-elderly Americans with income in excess of 400% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured.

What does this distribution of uninsured status across income imply for the bottom half of Americans? This requires some calculation.  Here are the Federal poverty lines for 2011 (link):

A household of 4 persons has a Federal poverty line of $22,350 on this standard, so 250% of this is $55,875 -- a bit above the median household income for 2011.  So lack of health insurance is heavily concentrated in the bottom 50 percent.

Home foreclosure is another reality in middle income America. Foreclosure has been a reality across full range of the income spectrum since 2008.  But it appears to be more devastating in the bottom half of the income distribution.  (This is evident in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.)

What is our society doing about these basic realities?  Not very much.  And, of course, a major candidate for President is on record: "I'm not concerned about the very poor" (link).  One would hope that the bottom 50 percent think very carefully about which political platform best serves their real interests, including maintenance of a social safety net, aggressive and effective efforts to stimulate job growth, tax reform that requires the affluent to pay their fair share, and preservation of the broadened health insurance coverage promised by the 2010 health care reform legislation.

(Here is a piece in the New York Times on median income; link.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Causal realism and historical explanation

Are there plausible intuitions about the ways the world works that stand as credible alternatives to Hempel's covering law model? There are. A particularly strong alternative links explanation to causation, and goes on to understand causation in terms of the real causal powers of various entities and structures. Rom Harre's work explored this approach earliest (Madden and Harre, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity), and Roy Bhaskar's theories of critical realism push these intuitions further (Critical Realism: Essential Readings (Critical Realism: Interventions)). Bhaskar and Archer's volume Critical Realism: Essential Readings (Critical Realism: Interventions) (Bhaskar, Archer, Collier, Lawson, and Norrie, eds.) is a good exposure to current controversies in this tradition. Paul Lewis's "Realism, Causality, and the Problem of Social Structure" (link) is worth reading as well.

Here the idea is that causation is not to be understood along Humean lines, as no more than constant conjunction. (This is where the insistence on general laws originates.) Instead, the idea of a causal power is taken as a starting point. Things have the capacity to bring about changes of specific circumstances, in virtue of their inner constitution (or what Harre is content to call their essences). (I would put Nancy Cartwright's ideas about causation and general laws in the same general vicinity (How the Laws of Physics Lie, Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements), though she is not a critical realist. But her critique of laws and her preference for capacities is similar.)

This doesn't mean that there is a bright line between causal powers and regularities. If a certain thing X has the power to bring about Y, then it is true that there is some generalization available along the lines of "whenever X, Y occurs." The point here is about ontological primacy: is it the power or the law that is more fundamental? And Harre, Bhaskar, and Cartwright all agree that it is the power that is basic and the thing's powers are dependent upon its real constitution.

This set of realist intuitions about causation comports very well with the theory of causal mechanisms. According to this approach, when we ask for an explanation of something, we are asking questions along these lines: what are the real embodied mechanisms that bring about a given outcome? And what is the underlying substrate that gives these mechanisms their causal force?

When causal realism is brought to the social and historical sciences, it brings the idea that there are structures, entities, and forces in the social world that really exist and that supervene upon a substrate of activity that give substance to their causal powers. In the case of the social world, that substrate is the socially constituted, socially situated actor, or what I call the premise of methodological localism.

One implication of this ontology is directional for setting a program of inquiry. Instead of looking for general laws of a given domain, the researcher is encouraged to discover the particular causal properties and powers of specific kinds of things.

This emphasis on the particular and the local is particularly well suited to the challenges of historical and social research. Nancy Cartwright doubts the validity of searching for even exact laws of physics. And this doubt is all the more reasonable in the case of social phenomena. It is pointless to look for general laws of bureaucracy, the military, or colonialism. What is more promising, however, is to examine particular configurations of institutions and settings, and to attempt to determine their causal powers in the setting of a group of social actors.

Suppose we are interested in France's collapse in the Franco-Prussian War (link). We might expend significant research work on discerning the organizational and command structure of the French Army in the 1850s and 1860s. We might look in detail at Napoleon III's state apparatus, including its international relations bureau. And we might gather information on the structure, capacity, and organization of the French rail system. Then we might offer an explanation of a numer of events that occurred in 1870 as the result of the causal properties of those historically embodied organizations and institutions. The real performance properties of the rail system under a range of initial conditions can be worked out. The conditions presented by the rapid mobilization required by suddenly looming war can be investigated. And the logistical collapse that ensued can be explained as the result of the specific causal properties of that complex system. And here is an important point: the Italian rail system at the time had some similarities and some differences. So it is a matter of empirical and theoretical investigation to arrive at an account of the causal properties of that system. We cannot simply infer from the French case to the Italian case, and of course we can't hope to find a general law of rail systems.

The point here is a fundamental one. The covering law model depends on a metaphysics that gives primacy to laws of nature. The framework of critical realism and its cousins depends on a view of the world as consisting of things and processes with real causal powers. This intellectual framework is applicable to the social world as well as to the natural world. And it provides a strong intellectual basis for postulating and investigating social causal mechanisms. Any conception of causal powers requires that we have an idea of the nature of the substrate of causation in various areas. And the social metaphysics of actor-centered sociology provide a strong candidate for such a framework in the case of social causation.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rawls and exploitation

image: Karl Marx by David Levine

It is interesting to consider whether the principles of justice that Rawls describes in A Theory of Justice would in fact permit economic exploitation in Marx’s sense of the term. Do Rawls's two principles of justice permit what Marx would call systemic exploitation of one group of individuals by another?  A very interesting post by Will Wilkinson in BigThink suggests that Rawls was a more radical critic of capitalism than we thought, and the reasoning he puts forward is very relevant to the question of justice and exploitation.

First, the basics.  Marx believed that the greatest accomplishment of his economic theory in Capital (link) was its ability to explain how exploitation could occur within a system of free and unforced exchanges among equals, including employers of labor and sellers of labor time.  The exploitation of the serf by the lord within feudalism depends on forcible extraction and coercion. But how could exploitation take place in a system of free exchange?

Marx’s concept of exploitation is formulated in the language of labor value and surplus value. The value of a commodity is equal to the quantity of socially necessary labor time involved in its production. The capitalist purchases the worker’s labor time for a wage that is the equivalent of a certain number of labor hours X. The length of the working day is greater than X. The capitalist subtracts the cost of constant capital (machinery depreciation, space, and raw materials), and is left with a positive sum of value in the form of profit. And this fund of surplus value permits accumulation into the next cycle of economic activity.  Marx describes this as extraction of surplus value and as technical exploitation by the capitalist of the worker.

The key question about whether exploitation is just by Rawls's principles, then, is whether the two principles permit private ownership of the means of production and whether they permit a generalized system of wage labor in which the labor time of the worker is purchased on the basis of a wage set by a competitive labor market. If so, then Marx would conclude that exploitation is compatible with the principles of justice; if not, then we have a basis for thinking that the two principles are powerful enough to rule out exploitation.

Rawls is explicit in holding that laissez-faire capitalism is unjust.  This is because of the difference principle.  The difference principle mandates that the condition of the worker should be better than it would be without this system of capital and labor, which may entail transfer of wealth through taxation to bring the worker’s welfare up to that standard. Laissez-faire capitalism is not just, according to the two principles because it lacks fiscal and legislative means for transferring wealth to improve the condition of the least-well-off (see the discussion of a property-owning democracy in an earlier post). But if just institutions permit ownership of capital and generalized wage labor, then Marx would still regard this as a system of exploitation and surplus extraction.

So the key question is whether the two principles of justice permit private property in the means of production and a system of wage labor.  There are two plausible approaches we can take on this question, leading to different results.

The answer, it would appear, does not depend on the second principle of justice (the difference principle) but rather the first principle of justice (the liberty principle).  This is Wilkerson's central point: does the liberty principle include protection of economic rights, including the right to own the means of production and the right to buy and sell labor power?

It is possible to read the liberty principle as representing a form of Lockean liberalism, with rights of life, liberty, and property to be protected above all else.  And in fact, Rawls explicitly includes the right to hold (personal) property as a right protected by the liberty principle.  It is only a small step to argue that ownership of property extends to all potential things.  On this interpretation, some form of capitalism follows.  If the first principle permits private ownership of property, including property in the means of production, then it is not inherently unjust to derive income from ownership of property and to hire workers to make one's property "productive". Further, if the first principle entails the right to use one's labor as one chooses, then presumably one has the right to sell one's labor time.  This is the essence of capitalism.  The second principle may moderate the effects of this system; but at best we get welfare capitalism instead of laissez-faire capitalism, and we get exploitation in the technical sense.  A surplus is transferred from the workers who create it to the owners of capital.

But perhaps the liberty principle doesn't in fact support these economic rights after all.  This is Wilkerson's argument, and it is the basis for his claim that Rawls is more radical than we thought.  And it is the view that Sam Freeman explores in greater depth in his book Rawls.  In a nutshell, Freeman gives an extensive argument for concluding that Rawls does not include these economic rights under the liberty principle (the right to own and accumulate capital and the right to buy and sell labor time).  Here is Freeman's position:
Then again, Rawls resembles Mill in holding that freedom of occupation and choice of careers are protected as a basic freedom of the person, but that neither freedom of the person nor any other basic liberty includes other economic rights prized by classical liberals, such as freedom of trade and economic contract. Rawls says that freedom of the person includes having a right to hold and enjoy personal property. He includes here control over one's living space and a right to enjoy it without interference by the State or others. The reason for this right to personal property is that, without control over personal possessions and quiet enjoyment of one's own living space, many of the basic liberties cannot be enjoyed or exercised. (Imagine the effects on your behavior of the high likelihood of unknowing but constant surveillance.) Moreover, having control over personal property is a condition for pursuing most worthwhile ways of life. But the right to personal property does not include a right to its unlimited accumulation. Similarly, Rawls says the first principle does not protect the capitalist freedom to privately own and control the means of production, or conversely the socialist freedom to equally participate in the control of the means of production (TJ, 54 rev.; PL, 338; JF, 114). (Kindle Locations 1239-1248). 
Unlike John Locke, then, John Rawls does not accept the fundamental moral rights that give rise to capitalism as basic rights of liberty. If these rights are to be created within a just society, they must be governed by the difference principle.  Or in more contemporary terms: Rawls and Nozick part ways on liberties even more fundamentally than they do on distributive justice (Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

If we accept Freeman's argument (and Wilkinson's) -- and I am inclined to -- then the answer to the question posed above is resolved. The two principles of justice are not apriori committed to the justice of the basic institutions of capitalism; and therefore Rawls's system is not forced to judge that exploitation is just.  Or more affirmatively: exploitation is unjust.

What is surprising about this conclusion is the fact that it is surprising, now forty years after the original publication of A Theory of Justice.  The first generation of readers of the theory formed a compelling impression that the book was largely centered on liberal welfare market society -- perhaps something along the lines of Nordic social democracy.  And yet the passages and ideas that Freeman calls out were there all along.  So it is surprising that the radicalism of Rawls's critique was not better recognized in the 1970s.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rawls and classical political economy

John Rawls's A Theory of Justice is highly relevant to the ways we think about our economic system.  If we just read the citations, Rawls seems to be primarily influenced by "modern" economics -- Samuelson, equilibrium theory, game theory, and marginalist theory.  And so we might suppose that his moral worldview reflects a neoclassical vision of economy and society.  However, his thought actually seems to reflect a recognition of the intellectual tension between classical political economy and “modern economics”.  In some ways his framework for thinking about our contemporary economy seems to be closer intellectually to Mill, Ricardo, and Marx than it is to Pareto and Samuelson.

Classical political economy was premised on the labor theory of value—the idea that there is a concrete, economically meaningful measure of value that guides economic organization. Further, there was the idea that the economic needs that individuals had were also concrete—the consumption goods that permitted life to proceed. These goods included items like food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and perhaps schooling. So economic activity, according to the classical economists, was about something objective.

Neoclassical economy, by contrast, rejected even the idea of utility as a concrete or objective human reality. Instead, modern economics bracketed the reality of needs in favor of a metaphysics of subjective preference.  Economists no longer needed to think about what people needed, but rather simply what they preferred; so the utilities "consumers" ascribed to outcomes could be discovered by the quasi-experiments of “revealed preference.” Welfare was then defined as the extent to which the individual can satisfy the range of subjective preferences he or she happens to have.  So classical and modern economic paradigms differ substantially on what economic activity ought to achieve: satisfaction of material needs, for the classical economists; and satisfaction of subjective preferences, for the modern economists.

A major thrust of the critique of neoclassical economics arises at just this point. Development organizations like the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and economists like Amartya Sen have put forward fundamentally different ideas about human wellbeing.  The basic needs approach disputed that the goal of economic development in poor countries should be defined in terms of subjective preferences or utilities.  These thinkers argued instead for achieving a decent minimum for whole populations in the satisfaction of basic needs. A 1975 report from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation to the United Nations (What Now – the 1975 Dag Hammarskjöld Report on Development and International Cooperation; link) is illustrative; it emphasized the idea of basic needs within the discussion of development priorities.

Amartya Sen went a step further, by introducing a more adequate theory of the human person in terms of capabilities and functionings, and argued for a conception of wellbeing that is defined in terms of the ability of individuals and populations to realize their capabilities. Sen advanced these ideas in many places, including On Economic Inequality and Development as Freedom.  (Earlier posts have discussed the capabilities approach; link, link.)  These are objective criteria of wellbeing, not simply summations of subjective preference satisfaction.  And these frameworks of thought present a major challenge to the foundations of modern economic thought.

In light of these observations, it is very interesting to observe that Rawls defined the foundation of his theory of justice, the original position, in terms that are strikingly classical.  In the original position, representative individuals are asked to deliberate behind a veil of ignorance about what principles of justice they would choose to regulate their social cooperation and competition.  Individuals are presumed to be mutually disinterested, and their sole concern is to adopt principles that they can live with in the resulting society.  But what are their interests?  Rawls says that the participants in the OP are interested in a set of primary goods: material resources and liberties, essentially. These are "things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants" (TJ:92).

So Rawls's definition of the situation of deliberation within the original position is one that focuses on primary goods, not subjective utilities. And this sounds much closer to a classical assumption about economic interests and the human good than it does a modern assumption.  It offers an objective and realistic assumption about what people need in order to live decent lives.

This line of thought is supported by a second feature of Rawls's philosophical orientation.  The most basic substantive moral position that Rawls takes is his rejection of utilitarianism as a general principle of justice.  Just institutions are not defined as those that "create the greatest good for the greatest number."  Instead, they are defined as those that can be assured to provide fair circumstances of life for every citizen.  This is established by the unanimity rule.  Choice within the original position must be unanimous; and this means that it needs to support the interests of every participant.  In order to make the idea of the OP an intelligible one, Rawls needs to specify a decision rule for the participants. He argues for the maximin rule over the expected utility rule: the participants will each choose the path that has the least-bad worst outcome.  This choice of decision rule, it should be emphasized, does not reflect an assumption about risk-averse psychology, but rather a compelling reason for choosing this rule.  The stakes are too high to do otherwise. So when participants deliberate among institutional alternatives from the perspective of the maximin rule, they will choose a governing norm like the difference principle. And this too seems to be an implicit rejection of the foundations of modern economics, including the theory of subjective utility and the idea that the only thing that matters from a moral point of view is maximizing "welfare". Here Rawls draws on Kant, to recognize that the way that social outcomes arise is morally as important as the value of the outcomes themselves.  Rights based on justice can be in tension with overall maximum utility.

So I'm inclined to argue that the greatest contribution Rawls made to contemporary economics is his strong and philosophically convincing case for primary goods and his definition of a good life. His rationale for primary goods is that a person’s ultimate goals are set by his or her conception of the good, and there is no reason to expect there to be a common agreed-upon standard for the conception of the good. It is logical, however, to observe that there are some goods that every individual requires in order to pursue any conception of the good: access to material resources and liberties. This seems like a nod towards the moral worldview of classical political economy.

(See a post on "property-owning democracy" for more discussion of the institutional implications of Rawls's reasoning.)