Thursday, May 31, 2012

Michigan's recovery?

The Mackinac Policy Conference brings forward something new this year -- optimism. The state of Michigan has been hammered in the past eight years by the upheaval of the auto industry and the national trauma of the global financial meltdown. Unemployment has been substantially higher than the national average, the city of Detroit has hemmorhaged deficits, and the state's levels of support for higher education, K-12, and community health have plummeted.

The annual policy conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has reflected a lot of this bad news for the past eight years. This year, though, the mood seems to have changed. There is optimism being expressed that Michigan is on the road back to growth and a higher level of prosperity. Presidents of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University talk about the impact created by university research (about two billion dollars annually, producing lots of new discoveries and patents). The Governor talks about reform of government and a business-friendly environment thanks to several recent tax reforms, and talks about the importance of education at all levels. And business leaders, including Bill Ford Jr., talk about the recovery of Michigan's businesses and innovative manufacturing. Michigan has the foundations in place for a more prosperous future.

So how much credibility does this new optimism have? A few measures are certainly positive. The state's unemployment rate is dropping to almost the national rate, about 8.5%. There has been a degree of jobs recovery, though still only a fraction of the 800,000 plus jobs the state has lost. Engineering and medical discoveries are finding their way into new businesses from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Houghton. The state's budget is somewhat more favorable than in previous years, including a likely increase in higher education funding by several percent.

And yet it is also true that several factors are unchanged or even worse. As the Governor mentioned, eight Michigan cities are "distressed," with emergency managers or consent agreements in place. The inequities suffered by the state's African-American and Latino populations in health, education, and employment continue unabated and often unnoticed. The unemployment rate in Detroit is astronomical, especially for young people. Municipal tax revenues have plummeted because of changes in state revenue sharing and across-the-board declines in property values. And the state still has a low rank when it comes to college educated adults. The tax reforms created by the Governor and Legislature were certainly business-friendly, but they were regressive in the extreme, with significant reductions in services for the elderly and the poor. And the Citizens Research Council frankly states that it isn't possible to assess the net effects of the tax reforms on jobs and quality of life.

So the interesting question for me is to consider how much of the currently more favorable trajectory can be attributed to wise decisions and plans by policy makers and business leaders, and how much is simply the result of a new roll of the dice in the national economy. So far I haven't been convinced that there are high-octane strategies for growth, either nationally or regionally. There are some circumstances that clearly impede growth and economic recovery -- corruption, unmanageable bureaucracy, predatory actions by powerful private actors, and cronyism, to name several. So addressing these frictions impeding economic development makes logical sense. Likewise, promoting education and talent is surely favorable to economic progress, and enhancing the infrastructure (roads, rails, bandwidth, airline hubs) surely helps too. But Michigan has done almost nothing in the second group and little in the first group.

So once again, is there a basis for confidence in thinking we now have a set of policies that are steering us in the right direction? Is there a basis for optimism about the effects of our policies and priorities? I'm not so sure.

It is interesting that the keynote speech at Mackinac was by Tom Friedman, presenting the main ideas of his current book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. And though he insists that his view is optimistic at the national level, it's hard to square that with the substance of his argument. He argues that the global interconnected world requires constant re-creation of ourselves and our practices, especially in the economic sphere; and that the US is not rising to this challenge. This doesn't really sound like optimism.

The path I'd like to see our state pursue is one that respects the demands of social equity as well as growth, so all Michiganders benefit from the progress we seem at last to be experiencing. That will require more explicit choices than we've made to date. And it will require re-investment in social goods that have been reduced in recent years.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Power within organizations

Sociologists have been thinking about organizations in a careful, empirical way for decades. Here is a volume edited by Mayer Zald that results from a 1969 conference at Vanderbilt on the topic of "Power in Organizations" (Power in Organizations).  The cross-section of sociologists represented here provides a good snapshot of the ways that organizations were conceptualized in the late 1960s.  There are contributions by quite a few interesting sociologists, including Peter Blau, Richard Peterson, Charles Perrow, and Mayer Zald.

Perrow's contribution, "Departmental Power and Perspectives in Industrial Firms,"  is particularly interesting.  Here is how Perrow frames his research problem:
It is my impression that for all the discussion and research regarding power in organizations, the preoccupation with interpersonal power has led us to neglect one of the most obvious aspects of this subject: in complex organizations, tasks are divided up between a few major departments or subunits, and all of these subunits are not likely to be equally powerful. In industrial firms ... there are fairly clear divisions between the basic units of sales, production, research and development (or engineering), and finance and accounting. Equality of these groups is hardly insured by the fact that there is at least one person, the president, who stands above all these functional groups, and by the fact that each department is stratified into roughly equal levels of authority.... The question of which group dominates in industrial firms, then, will be the subject of this paper. (59-60)
Perrow's approach to the problem is empirical. His study depends on interviews with dozens of ranking employees in twelve manufacturing companies with at least 1000 employees, with 2633 individuals interviewed in total.

The study focuses on three primary groups and one "residual" group that could be identified in all the firms: sales and marketing, production and manufacturing, and research and development. The residual group is "staff services", including finance, personnel, legal, and the executive group.  The research question was to determine which group or unit had the most "power" within the firm.  The interview template asks a series of questions about how the interviewee estimates the power and discretion possessed by various groups within the firm.

Perrow notes that the concept of "power" conceals a range of complexities:
Do we mean actual or potential power, power derives from internal workings of the firm or the market place, power based upon the force of personalities or the logic of group functions, power today or power in the next quarter, and so on? (63)
There is a strong pattern to the results for the fundamental question, which unit has the most power? Perrow finds that "sales" is judged to have the most internal power in 10 out of 12 firms; production is generally second; "finance" is commonly third; and R&D is almost always last.

Perrow's next question is "why" -- why should sales be the most powerful unit within manufacturing firms? His answer turns on facts about the market economy.  The sales operation of a company is the interface between potential consumers and the product created by the firm.
As a result of this strategic position, sales is in a position either to exploit present company capabilities or force a change in these capabilities. The consequences for the other groups are manifold, but sales -- with few sunk costs (capital investment) and little interdependence with other functions that would require major changes in its own structure and operating procedures -- is capable of more flexibility. (65)
Perrow finds this result surprising for one category of firm -- those where design and production are "non-routine", or where the product is not yet commoditized. These are what we would today refer to as high-tech firms.
If respondents described their tasks as fairly nonroutine -- indicating frequent problems requiring analysis and uncertainty about the outcomes of their efforts -- then there would be little edge for sales. (66)
So Perrow expected that R&D -- the unit assigned to develop new products and solve problems -- would have greater power in an environment of technological uncertainty.  But the importance of R&D within such a firm does not cash out in terms of internal power, in Perrow's findings based on these twelve firms.  And this fact, in Perrow's assessment, comes down to a tactical advantage possessed by sales within the firm:
Neither of these [prior] analyses sufficiently takes into account the ability of those who once gain power to manipulate the source of uncertainty, at least over a span of, say, ten or fifteen years. The maintenance people in Crozier's study augmented their power by removing information from the files that might make their performance more predictable and less uncertain, and by keeping information secret from machine operators and other engineers. Similarly, I think that sales, or production, or R&D can use their power to maintain either a fiction of uncertainty, or to steer the organization into areas where the uncertainty will be in their hands. (67)
So Perrow highlights an important source of power within an organization: the power to shape or hoard information.

The impression we get from reading Perrow's essay today is that Perrow's conceptual framework moves back and forth between the business environment within which a firm exists and the tactical intelligence of actors within the firm.  The business environment gives an advantage to one group of actors -- those involved in sales; and the tactical actions selected by actors within that unit to maintain their advantage accounts for the persistence of the power of that unit.

What the analysis doesn't pay any attention to is the internal organization of the firm (beyond the functional division into the four units Perrow highlights).  The analysis doesn't make any effort to map out the internal working relationships between functional units, or the ways in which performance of actors within units is supervised, or the ways in which communications occur internally, or the ways in which individuals are recruited into roles, or the ways in which decisions are made.  The article does distinguish between levels of managers -- upper, middle, and lower -- but doesn't provide an "organizational" account of how these levels fit together.  This is partly, of course, a function of the question that Perrow posed for research: what is the perceived level of power associated with the major functional units in the decision-making of the firm? But perhaps it reflects as well the development of the field.  In his later writings Perrow is much more attentive to the "micro-organizations" and systemic interconnections that exist within large organizations such as FEMA or the NRC.

It is also interesting to highlight the time period in which this conference occurred: at the high-water mark of popular mobilization against the Vietnam War and segregation.  The contrast between organizational power and popular protest was a stark one.  And some of the organizations that are considered in the volume -- universities and medical schools, for example -- were at the center of this contrast.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Are there meso-level social causes?

Social structures and other social "things" are ontologically peculiar in some ways. Most especially, they are abstract, distributed, and non-material. We can't put a culturally dominant food aversion or a group prejudice in a box and weigh it. And yet many of us want to say that social structures are "real", not merely theoretical constructs.

One important aspect of something's being real is that it has causal powers: the specific properties of the thing bring about differences in the world on the behavior of other things. This is a version of the interventionist theory of causation associated with Jim Woodward: change something about C and you bring about a change in E (link).

So let's consider this question: Can meso-level social structures have meso-level effects?

Of course meso-level structures have effects -- on individuals. The fact that there are laws and enforcement mechanisms governing highway speed has some effect on drivers' behavior. The question here is whether it is legitimate to postulate causal powers for structures whose effects are realized in other meso-level structures. And I want to explore the affirmative answer to the question: it is legitimate and coherent to assert meso-meso causal interactions, and we sometimes have empirical evidence to support such assertions.

(It would be possible, of course, to take the view that social structures are epiphenomenal and have no causal properties whatsoever. On that approach, what seems to be the effect of the legal system on individual behavior is really just the aggregate effect of the many individuals involved in the legal system. I don't find this view at all compelling, however.)

My question is relevant to two groups of sociological theorists, each of whom thinks the answer is trivial and obvious -- but in opposite directions. The new methodological individualists, represented by analytical sociology, think the answer is trivially "no", because social causation proceeds always and exclusively through actions and interactions of individuals (link). This is the fundamental idea underlying Coleman's Boat as a model of the relationship between macro and micro.  And a range of anti-individualists -- Giddens, Elder-Vass, Archer -- believe it is self evident from everyday experience that causal structures do have causal powers, and that it is a waste of time to defend the notion (link). It is obvious.

My position is a precarious one. On the one hand I advocate an actor-centered approach to sociology and the social sciences. I defend the idea that social claims need microfoundations in a specific (weak) sense. And on the other hand I believe that structures have a degree of stability that permits us to couch causal claims in terms of those structures directly, rather than needing to supplement those claims with disaggregated foundations at the level of the individual. So I argue for the idea that we can sometimes regard causal powers of social entities as "relatively autonomous" from individual-level facts.

By meso-level structures I mean to refer to things like these:
  • National Science Foundation
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • IBM corporation
  • German paramilitary organizations 1930
  • German ideology of cultural despair 1910
  • Islamic norms of Zakat
  • ...
In each case there are numerous actors assigned to roles, governed by rules defining their activities, and leading to a certain kind of functioning in the broader social environment.

Generically I would define a meso-level structure as --
A composite of individuals and roles that incorporates a set of rules and norms for internal and external actors, and that possesses procedures of inculcation and enforcement through which internal and external actors are brought to comply with the rules and norms (to some degree).
I would define a normative system as ...
a set of rules, norms, and expectations embodied in a population of actors and meeting a threshold level of success in coordinating and constraining behavior.
We have a number of sociological concepts that capture social items at this level: organization, bureaucracy, institution, normative community, social network, communications system, legal system, civil war, military coup, advocacy group.

It is evident that social entities often incorporate elements of several of these kinds of things. Organizations and structures often incorporate or depend upon normative systems, and normative systems often generate organizations and institutions that convey their impact to the young and adult actors.
What about other mid-level social nouns -- ethnic group, electorate, financial crisis, ...? These strike me as being compounds of a miscellaneous set of social things -- there are bits of organizations, normative systems, affinity groups, and social networks in each of them. The concept of assemblage seems to fit these nouns well.

The "meso" qualifier is a bit more difficult to specify. It is intended to focus our attention on mid-level social arrangements, between actors and global institutions like the US state, global Islam, and the world trading system. The intuitive idea is straightforward. These are the smaller-scale, lower-level social arrangements or units of which macro structures are composed. Bert Leuridan makes an effort to offer a more specific definition based on causal roles.

So I have a simple but important question in mind here. Is it ever legitimate to assert something like this:
  • Meso structure X produced changes in meso structure Y,
without being obliged to demonstrate the individual-level pathways through which this effect is thought to have come about? Is a type 4 causal claim ever supportable (link)?

The question I am posing is related to the idea of the methodological individualism associated with James Coleman. Basically the idea propounded by Coleman and more recently by the analytical sociologists is that all social properties, including causal powers, work through the activities of individuals, and we need ideally to replace claims that appear to attribute causal powers to structures with theories that disaggregate these powers onto the patterned activities of individuals. This is a reductionist theory.

Other theorists, notably Dave Elder-Vass, want to assert that social structures have "emergent" properties and powers (link). An emergent property according to E-V, is one that is possessed by the aggregate but not by the composing units. On this account, there are causal properties of structures that cannot be represented as the aggregate effect of individual actors.

My own approach depends on a line of reasoning long familiar in the special sciences. It is anti-reductionist, in that it denies that we need to derive higher-level properties from lower-level properties. It accepts the compositional ontology: social structures are composed of individual actors. But it asserts explanatory autonomy for theoretical statements about mid-level mechanisms (link, link, link).

One particularly direct way of supporting the idea that structures have meso effects is to establish correlations at that level for a few examples. But this isn't the only way we establish causation in other areas of the sciences. We do experiments ("remove X and observe whether Y persists"), we analyze the outcomes of "natural" experiments, we do comparative studies, and we engage in process tracing of particular cases. We even engage in theoretical analysis to try to determine what causal powers a certain entity ought to be expected to have given its constitution.

So it seems that there is ample room for sociologists to assert and investigate the causal properties of social structures. And given appropriate attention to the principle of microfoundations, we have a social ontology that supports the legitimacy of such claims as well.

A related question is whether there are "mechanisms" that operate at the meso level, or whether all social mechanisms must operate at the individual level (as Hedstrom and the AS world believe).  I will return to this question.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The social world as morphogenesis

Critical realism has progressed far since Roy Bhaskar's early writings on the subject in A Realist Theory of Science.  One of the most important thinkers to have introduced new ideas into the debate is Margaret Archer. Several books in the mid-1990s represented genuinely original contributions to issues about the nature of social ontology and methodology, including especially Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach and Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory.

Archer's work addresses several topics of interest to me, including especially the agent-structure dichotomy. This is key to the twin concerns I have for "actor-centered social science" and "autonomous meso-level explanations".  Anthony Giddens offers one way of thinking about the relationship between agents and structures (link).  Archer takes issue with the most fundamental aspect of Giddens's view -- his argument that agents and structures are conceptually inseparable. Archer argues instead for a form of "dualism" about agents and structures -- that each pole needs to be treated separately and in its own terms.   (Chapter 5 provides a detailed discussion of both Bhaskar and Giddens on levels of the social.) She acknowledges, of course, that social structures depend on the individuals who make them up; but she doesn't believe that this basic fact tells us anything about how to analyze or explain facts about either agents or structures.  Here are the opening paragraphs of Realist Social Theory.
Social reality is unlike any other because of its human constitution. It is different from natural reality whose defining feature is self-subsistence: for its existence does not depend upon us, a fact which is not compromised by our human ability to intervene in the world of nature and change it. Society is more different still from transcendental reality, where divinity is both self-subsistent and unalterable at our behest; qualities which are not contravened by responsiveness to human intercession. The nascent 'social sciences' had to confront this entity, society, and deal conceptually with its three unique characteristics.
Firstly, that it is inseparable from its human components because the very existence of society depends in some way upon our activities. Secondly, that society is characteristically transformable; it has not immutable form or even preferred state.  It is like nothing but itself, and what precisely it is like at any time depends upon human doings and their consequences.  Thirdly, however, neither are we immutable as social agents, for what we are and what we do as social beings are also affected by the society in which we live and by our very efforts to transform it. (1)
Archer argues that the two primary approaches that theorists have taken -- methodological individualism and methodological holism -- are fundamentally inadequate.  They represent what she calls upward and downward conflation.  In the first case, "society" disappears and is replaced by some notion of aggregated individual action; in the second case "agents" disappear and the human individuals do no more than act out the imperatives of social norms and structures.  She associates the first view with J.S. Mill and Max Weber and the second view with Durkheim.  On her view, agents and structures are distinct, and neither is primary over the other.

She refers to her view as the "morphogenetic" approach.  Here is how she explains this concept:
The 'morpho' element is an acknowledgement that society has no pre-set form or preferred state: the 'genetic' part is a recognition that it takes its shape from, and is formed by, agents, originating from the intended and unintended consequences of their activities. (5)
Morphogenesis applies at all levels, from "the capitalist system" to "the firm" to "the actor" to personal identity and motivation.  And she believes that properties at various levels -- micro and macro -- have a degree of autonomy from each other, which she refers to as "emergence":
I want to maintain that 'micro' and 'macro' are relational terms meaning that a given stratum can be 'micro' to another and 'macro' to a third etc. What justifies the differentiation of strata and thus use of the terms 'micro' and 'macro' to characterize their relationship is the existence of emergent properties pertaining to the latter but not to the former, even if they were elaborated from it. (9)
Later in the book she amplifies this idea:
Autonomy is also temporal (and temporary) in the joint senses that such structural properties were neither the creation of contemporary actors nor are ontologically reducible to 'material existents' (raw resources) and dependent upon current acts of human instantiation (rule governed) for all their current effects. (138)
And this is where her theory exhibits its "realism": she asserts that the properties we identify at various levels or "strata" are real and causally powerful.
Thus in the course of this book, frequent references will be made to 'the societal'. Each time, this has a concrete referent - particular emergent properties belonging to a specific society at a given time. Both the referent and the properties are real, they have full ontological status, but what do they have to do with 'the big'? The society in question may be small, tribal and work on a face-to-face basis. Nor do they have anything to do with what is, relatively, 'the biggest' at some point in time. We may well wish to refer to certain societal properties of Britain (the 'macro' unit for a particular investigation) which is an acknowledged part of bigger entities, like Europe, developed societies, or the English speaking world. We would do so if we wanted to explain, for example, the role of the 'Falklands factor' in recent elections and in so doing we would also incidentally be acknowledging that people who go in for it take their nationalism far from 'impersonally', and that the 'site' of neo-colonialism may be far distant. (10)
 And she offers a different way of thinking about "micro" and "macro" -- not from small to large, but from interactional and local to systemic (11).

This all adds up to a social realism that is militant in affirming the reality of social properties as emergent properties.
Conversely social realism which accentuates the importance of emergent properties at the level of both agency and structure, but considers these as proper to the strata in question and therefore distinct from each other and irreducible to one another, replaces the terms of the traditional debate with entirely new ones. Irreducibility means that the different strata are separable by definition precisely because of the properties and powers which only belong to each of them and whose emergence from one another justifies their differentiation as strata at all. (14)
So what is Archer's central notion, the idea of morphogenesis?  It is the idea that processes of change occur for agents and social structures in interlocking and temporally complex ways.  Agents are formed within a set of social structures -- norms, language communities, power relationships.  The genesis of the agent occurs within the context of these structures.  On a larger time scale, the structures themselves change as a result of the activities and choices of the historically situated individuals who make them up.  She summarizes this ontology as a set of cycles with different time frames: structural conditioning => social interaction => structural elaboration (16).  This notion leads Archer to a conception of the social and the actor that reflects a fundamentally historical understanding of social processes. Formation and transformation are the central metaphors (154).

A final comment about Archer's philosophy of social science is relevant here.  She provides a theory which is abstract and philosophical -- ontology, debates about emergence and reduction, epistemology.  But she does so in consideration of her own detailed research on the history and development of an important aspect of social reality, educational institutions.  So her abstract philosophical ideas are grounded not only in philosophy but also in historical and sociological research.

Perhaps I'm over-interpreting, but it seems to me that Archer's realist theory of morphogenesis is highly complementary to the ideas about methodological localism that have been argued for here.  The idea that actors are socially constituted and socially situated (methodological localism) is a different way of expressing her point that actors are constituted by surrounding social structures. The idea that structures are themselves adapted and changed by active individuals doing things within them corresponds to her "social interaction" and "structural elaboration" phases of morphogenesis. The methodological insight that seems to come along with morphogenesis -- the idea that it is valuable to move both upwards towards more comprehensive social structures and downwards towards more refined understanding of action and interaction -- is certainly a part of the view associated with methodological localism and actor-centered sociology. Her view of the inherent "transformability" of society (1) parallels my own view of the heterogeneity and contingency of social arrangements.  Finally, her notion that social ontology must be addressed before we can make much progress on issues of methodology and explanation seems right to me as well.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Giddens on agents and structures

Anthony Giddens is one of the theorists whose ideas are most often invoked when the idea of social-structural explanation is in play. His 1979 collection of essays, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis, is a classic statement of some of his views.  Here is how he frames his core concern in a key essay, "Agency, Structure":
The principal issue with which I shall be concerned in this paper is that of connecting a notion of human action with structural explanation in social analysis. The making of such a connection, I shall argue, demands the following: a theory of the human agent, or of the subject; an account of the conditions and consequences of action; and an interpretation of 'structure' as somehow embroiled in both those conditions and consequences. (49)
Giddens refers some of these issues back to the tradition of American pragmatism, and the theories of George Herber Mead in particular (link).
Within more orthodox sociological traditions, symbolic interactionism has placed most emphasis upon regarding social life as an active accomplishment of purposive, knowledgeable actors; and it has also been associated with a definite 'theory of the subject', as formulated in Mead's account of the social origins of reflexive consciousness. (50)
Giddens faults this tradition for not being able to conceptualize the social-structural context with sufficient precision.  He finds, for example, that Durkheim's efforts to provide theoretical resources for describing the "external or objective" character of society were inadequate (51).  Generally his view here is that theorists have failed in their conceptualizations of structures and agents:
Parson's actors are cultural dopes, but Althusser's agents are structural dopes of even more stunning mediocrity. (52)
The problem is that neither individualists nor structuralists have succeeded in expressing the inherent interdependence of the two poles.  Give primacy to structures and the agents are "dopes" -- robots controlled by structural conditions.  Give primacy to individuals, and structures and institutions seem to disappear.  His own view is that the two poles of structure and agency must be considered from within a common formulation:
I shall argue here that, in social theory, the notions of action and structure presuppose one another; but that recognition of this dependence, which is a dialectical relation, necessitates a reworking both of a series of concepts linked to each of these terms, and of the terms themselves. (53)
Giddens observes that action necessarily implies a temporal framework.
'Action' or agency, as I use it, thus does not refer to a series of discrete acts combined together, but to a continuous flow of conduct.  We may define action ... as involving a 'stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world'. (55)
Actions take place in contexts; and the contexts include crucially the actions of other people and the constraints and opportunities created by social structures.  Giddens adds another component of action: the forms of knowledge that actors have on the basis of which they tailor their interventions.

So what about "structure"?  Giddens prefers to talk about "structuration" -- the temporally extended processes through which social constraints evolve and take hold.
I want to suggest that structure, system and structuration, appropriately conceptualised, are all necessary terms in social theory. (62)
What is a "structure"? Here is one effort at definition provided by Giddens:
The term 'social structure' thus tends to include two elements, not clearly distinguished from one another: the patterning of interaction, as implying relations between actors or groups; and the continuity of interaction in time. (62)
He refers to these two aspects as "syntagmatic" and "paradigmatic" dimensions of social structures.  And he summarizes the concept of structure in these terms: "the rules (and resources) that, in social reproduction, 'bind' time" (63). "Structures can be identified as sets or matrices of rule-resource properties" (63-64).  Here is a summary table:

source: Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, p. 66.

The activity of structuration is key to Giddens's theorizing agents and structures, because it represents the link between the two.
The concept of structuration involves that of the duality of structure, which relates to the fundamentally recursive character of social life, and expresses the mutual dependence of structure and agency. (69)
Knowledge plays a key role in structuration; it provides the basis on which agents both understand and transform the rules around them. Agents, in other words, are reflexive cognitive actors.

 Institutions involve signification, domination and legitimation (106). In "Institutions, Reproduction, Socialisation" Giddens talks about structures in terms of means of mediation and transformation within a collection of active participants.
I want to suggest that each of the three aspects of structure I have distinguished can be understood as ordered in terms of the mediations and transformations which they make possible in the temporal-spatial constitution of social systems.... Writing and other media of communication ... bind much greater distances in time and space. (103)
A distinction that comes up a lot in Giddens's work in this collection is that between synchronic and diachronic states of affairs.  We can think of a structure as a snapshot at a moment in time of a set of relations, beliefs, rules, and opportunities.  This would be a synchronic description of the structure; it is a static approach to a social structure. Or we can look at a structure as being in a process of generation, reproduction, and transformation; this would be a diachronic and dynamic way of thinking about structures.  Giddens's affinity to the idea of structuration suggests that he is especially interested in the dynamic questions -- the ways in which actors, roles, and rules interact over time, leading to changes in the snapshot.

What Giddens's treatment here doesn't adequately express, in my reading, is what we think structures and institutions really are.  Are they complexes of patterned activities by numbers of actors?  Are they ensembles of social practices? Is the IBM corporation simply a large set of social interactions?  Or is there an abiding abstract social reality -- division of labor and authority; segmentation of responsibilities; interlocking productive activities -- that can be identified as a social entity? What about the capitalist economic structure; is this a stable social entity, or is it simply an ensemble of patterns of relations of meaning and power?  It seems that these examples are the kinds of thing that Giddens wants to refer to as a "system"; but it's not clear.

So the concept of social structure still seems underdeveloped here. What about the idea that agent and structure are inseparable? This I understand in a fairly direct way: agents are always located in a web of social relationships that define them and define the opportunities they confront.  And structures are always constituted by individuals thinking, acting, and interacting in specific ways.  So we literally cannot separate agents and structures; they are mutually constitutive.

(Here is an intriguing dynamic network simulation of the spread of HIV infection based on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  "Small differences in reported behavior can potentially explain the large racial disparities in HIV infection observed in the United States.")

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Does "culture" require microfoundations?

I have consistently argued for a philosophy of social science that emphasizes the actor and the availability of microfoundations. I argue for an actor-centered sociology. But I have lately been arguing as well for the idea that it is legitimate for social scientists to treat claims about the causal properties of meso-level social structures as being relatively autonomous from their microfoundations.

This approach doesn't satisfy all comers.  Some don't like meso-level causal properties at all, and others don't like the idea that meso-level properties are in any way dependent on the level of individuals and their actions and agency.

In particular, some readers would prefer a meso-autonomist strategy that dispenses with individuals altogether; one according to which we can identify certain causal factors that do not need microfoundations at the level of the individual at all. Candidates for such factors often fall under the large umbrella of culture: symbols, meanings, practices, rituals, traditions, grammars, and the like. I would say, however, that these items too require microfoundations. Cultural items are sometimes thought to be supra-individual and independent from the concrete individuals who live within their scope. And it is true that culture exercises a specific kind of independence.  But no less than any other social characteristic can cultural features evade their embodiment in individual actors and institutions.

If we take the view that the obligations of zakat (charity) are a profound part of Muslim identity and that this element of Islam explains certain social outcomes, then I want to know how these elements of identity are conveyed to children and practitioners at the local level. What are the concrete social mechanisms of inculcation and communication through which a Bangladeshi child comes to internalize a full Muslim identity, including adherence to the norms of zakat? To what extent are there important differences within Bangladeshi society in the forms of identity present in Muslims -- urban-rural, male-female, rich-poor? And equally interestingly – in what ways do those processes give rise to a Muslim identity in Bangladesh that is somewhat different from that in Indonesia, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia?

Identities, cultures, and systems of meaning are no less embodied in the states of mind of actors than are the calculating features of rationality that underlie a market society. So the fault of methodological individualists in this sphere is not that they fail to recognize the inherent autonomy of systems of cultural meaning; it is rather that they adhere to a theory of the actor that does not give sufficient attention to the variations and contingencies that characterize actors in various social and historical contexts. Ideas about the independence of cultural items from the level of individuals are suggestive and interesting, and I think they need to be fully confronted by an actor-centered sociology. But I do not believe they are incompatible with an actor-centered sociology.

Take the independence of a code of behavior from the specific individuals who are subject to the code. It is true that one individual cannot influence the code, which is embodied in the thoughts and actions of countless others. But the reality of the code at any given time is in fact entirely dependent on those thoughts and actions (and artifacts created by previous actors). Moreover, the individual's embodiment of the code of behavior is in turn caused by a series of interactions through childhood and adulthood within a social setting.

It is certainly true that facts about culture make a difference in meso- and macro-level outcomes. A collective farm that was populated by actors who embodied Chairman Mao’s ideal of “socialist man” would have functioning characteristics very different from those observed -- no “easy riders,” lots of earnest Stakhanovites.  So standard organizational analysis of the tendencies towards low productivity in collective agriculture is dependent on something like a purposive agent theory of the actor.  Different kinds of actors give rise to different kinds of organizations.

This does not mean, however, that we could not have reasonably good understandings of “organizations” under differently realized structures of agency.  This seems to be part of the work that Andreas Glaeser (2011) is doing in Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. Glaeser tries to understand how organizations like the Stasi functioned in a setting in which participants’ understandings and motivations were changing rapidly.

So my answer to my own question is, yes.  Cultural entities and characteristics do require microfoundations, and it is in fact a fruitful avenue of sociological and ethnographic investigation to discover the concrete social mechanisms and pathways through which these entities come to be embodied in various populations in the ways that they are.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Scaling up

City Year is a pretty unusual and impressive social-entrepreneurial organization (link). Founded in 1988 as a platform for providing young Americans an opportunity to provide a year of service in an urban environment, the organization has grown dramatically in the intervening 24 years. Here is the organization's mission statement:
City Year’s mission is to build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership and social entrepreneurship. It is through service that we can demonstrate the power and idealism of young people, engage citizens to benefit the common good, and develop young leaders of the next generation.
In the coming year something like 2,500 corps members will contribute a year of service in some 24 cities in the United States and another four cities internationally. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a keynote address to this month's City Year leadership summit in Washington that made it clear how important City Year's goals are for the nation as a whole. Duncan describes this as the civil rights issue of our generation.

One thing that I find interesting about the evolution of City Year over the past ten years is the refinement of focus its leadership has effected with regard to the way in which the talents and energy of corps members are deployed. Michael Brown has proven to be a highly effective leader (as well as co-founder), and he has drawn a strong group of senior leaders around him. In the early years the focus was on the value of youth service, allowing young people to contribute to the improvement of their communities in a variety of ways. For the past eight years or so the organization has come to the realization that service by itself is not enough. The service activities of the willing need to be coordinated around projects that can have real, sustainable impact. We need an effective and attainable strategic plan of action for service.

Involvement in schools has always been part of the palette of youth service at City Year. But in the past six years or so the focus has sharpened to allow City Year organizations in various cities to make a measurable impact on a very serious problem, the high school dropout rate in many American cities. In many cities fewer than half of a given cohort actually graduate on time. This failure rate has serious costs, both for the individuals and their families, and for the communities in which they live. And this problem is strongly stratified by poverty and race.

City Year's central leadership in Boston therefore partnered with Bob Balfanz, an education scholar at Johns Hopkins (link), in order to focus on a diagnosis of how high school completion could be increased for inner city young people. Here is how Balfanz puts the problem this way in a recent white paper (link):
As a result, in order to achieve the educational outcomes the nation needs, it must solve the poverty challenge. To do this, we need a deep understanding of how poverty impacts educational outcomes. Strong arguments can be made that the very reforms currently being championed at the federal and state level—a common core curriculum linked to college and career ready standards, improved teacher quality, and turning around the lowest performing schools—are essential to solving the poverty challenge.
The theory is a simple one. Balfanz argues, based on extensive educational data, that there are three indicators that are very strong predictors of a child's eventually becoming a high school dropout, as early as the sixth grade. These indicators are attendance, behavior, and course success. Sixth graders who are deficient in any one of these indicators have a dramatically lessened likelihood of graduation from high school. Here is Balfanz again:
In order to overcome the poverty challenge, schools that serve high concentrations of low income students need to be able to provide direct, evidence-based supports that help students attend school regularly, act in a productive manner, believe they will succeed, overcome external obstacles, complete their coursework, and put forth the effort required to graduate college-and-career ready.
So now the agenda for City Year has now been focused more sharply. Teams of City Year corps members are placed in schools, including middle schools and high schools, and their time and effort are focused on bringing at-risk students up to par in each of these areas. They provide near-peer counseling, tutoring, behavior adjustment, and attendance support, and they often create very strong relationships with the students they help. A particularly focused program is in place in a select number of schools, called the Diplomas Now program. This is a cooperative relationship between City Year, Communities in Schools, and the Johns Hopkins educational researchers. And the assessment data for the schools is very encouraging. Dramatic improvements in the three areas of focus are measured across the country.

The aspiration of the City Year national organization has been to reach 50% of the at-risk students throughout urban America.
City Year’s In School and On Track initiative is designed to bring City Year corps members to 50% of all of the students falling off track in City Year’s 23 U.S. locations, which will require expanding the number of corps members to 6,000 and engaging school districts, the private sector and the federal government through AmeriCorps as partners.
This is a big goal. What is impressive is the fact that City Year is making real progress towards attaining this goal. (Here is a press release documenting recent progress.) And this is in turn a very powerful example of how a social justice organization can actually make serious progress on a pervasive social problem. It can contribute to a "Race to the Moon" effort to ensure a high school equation for all of America's young people, and a decent foundation for a college education as well.

Here is a great animated video that City Year has produced to explain its current goals in addressing the dropout crisis.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Slow institutional change

Institutions are interlocking sets of rules and practices that shape specific sets of actors to behave this way rather than that. The institutions governing public comment on newly proposed regulations provide an interesting case in point. Citizens have interests with respect to new policies, and the rules and formal processes define the means through which they are permitted to express their concerns formally as part of the process. The specific ways through which comments are solicited and processed make a difference for the quality and effectiveness of citizen feedback on public regulatory regimes.

There are several interesting questions that arise concerning institutions. First, how do they come about in the first place? Second, what processes and forces maintain institutions over time, so that they have a degree of stability? And third, what factors cause change in institutions,either gradually or dramatically?

Jack Knight and various collaborators have a basis for one kind of answer to both the second and the third questions. Their framework emphasizes the role that powerful actors exert in both sustaining and changing institutions. (Mahoney and Thelen note that historical institutionalists commonly take a perspective along these lines; kl 294). Rather than imagining that institutions somehow evolve so as to optimize the public good, they argue that we can understand many instances of institutional change as adaptations stimulated by the efforts of powerful actors influenced by the institution. (Charles Perrow's account of the evolution of land use near the Mississippi River is a case in point. Developers rather than farsighted legislators set the terms of the policies (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (New in Paper); kl 5198.)

The causal issues boil down to two main directions of social causation: first, from a set of individual and social circumstances to the structure and functioning of a given institution. (For example, how did competition between landed interests and business interests influence the evolution of the House of Lords in the nineteenth century?) And second, from the specifics of the institution to patterns of individual behavior and to patterns of persistence and change in social arrangements exterior to the institution. (For example, how did the constitution and rules of functioning of the House of Lords influence the pace of social welfare policies in Great Britain?)

A very interesting recent contribution to this set of issues is a volume edited by James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power. The collection offers a new framework for analyzing institutional change and includes stellar contributions by Tulia Falleti, Ato Kwamena Oomo, Alan Jacobs, Dan Slater, Adam Sheingate, and Peter Hall. The issues involved here are highly relevant to the ongoing thread of interest here concerning "meso" level causation. Mahoney and Thelen review the three main tributaries of institutionalism theory -- institutionalist sociology, rational choice institutionalism, and historical institutionalism -- and they argue that each approach leaves an important gap: what factors internal to institutions are relevant to their patterns of stability and change over time? This collection represents a group of researchers interested in exactly that family of questions.

Here are a few defining questions that guide the research summarized in the volume.
Exactly what properties of institutions permit change? How and why do the change-permitting properties of institutions allow (or drive) actors to carry out behaviors that foster the changes (and what are those behaviors)? How should we conceptualize these actors? What types of strategies flourish in which kinds of institutional environments? What features of the institutions themselves make them more or less vulnerable to particular kinds of strategies for change? (kl 208)
A particularly important part of the new framework is the idea that capacity for change is embedded within institutions. So the idea that institutional change results from exogenous shock is rejected.
We propose that the basic properties of institutions contain within them possibilities for change. What animates change is the power-distributional implications of institutions. (kl 414)
One key internal feature that this approach identifies as promoting change is ambiguity:
Compliance is inherently complicated by the fact that rules can never be precise enough to cover the complexities of all possible real-life situations. When new developments confound the rules, existing institutions may be changed to accommodate the new reality. These changes can involve rule creation, or they may simply entail creative extensions of existing rules to the new realities. (kl 379)
So what happens when institutions change? Mahoney and Thelen categorize gradual change into four types: displacement, layering, drift, and conversion (kl 444). And they argue that these categories are significant given the different roles that actors and strategies play in each of them. (This categorization seems to have something in common with the way geneticists and ecologists might characterize different modalities of adaptation within a changing environment.) They provide a 2x2 table that predicts the kind of adaptation that will occur, depending on combinations of strong/weak veto possibilities and low/high levels of discretion in interpretation of rules. For example, they assert that strong veto associated with high discretion produces drift rather than layering or conversion. They offer a similar analysis of different types of change agents, and attribute different kinds of strategies to the different categories of change agents.

How does this framework relate to the topics of "actor-centered" social science and "meso-level causation" that have been considered in earlier posts? The theoretical framework Mahoney and Thelen describe is clearly actor-centered. They are focused on identifying the ways in which different categories of actors are empowered to interact with various features of a set of institutional rules. This picture seems to correspond to the ascending and descending links of the macro-micro analysis proposed by Coleman's boat.

Institutions are just the sorts of social entities that I want to say are meso structures with causal properties. That said, the analysis provided by Mahoney and Thelen offers few examples of meso-meso causation. This isn't to say that their approach doesn't countenance such relations, but only that this isn't the focus of analysis in the current set of studies.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

European philosophy of social science

There is an active and extended group of scholars in Europe with a very focused concentration on the philosophy of the social sciences. A good cross-section of this community gathered in Rotterdam Monday and Tuesday this week for a small conference on social mechanisms at the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (link). These are for the main part younger scholars up to 15 years out from the PhD. And they are a genuinely impressive group of researchers.

There is a common set of topics and references that bind this extended research community together from Finland to Belgium to the Netherlands to Italy. They share a focus on social explanation. They are intellectually committed to the construct of "causal mechanisms" rather than causal laws. They have affinities and connections to the Analytical Sociology network, though few would explicitly identify themselves as analytical sociologists. Jim Woodward's theory of causation, the classic paper by Machamer, Darden, and Craver ("Thinking about Mechanisms", 2000), and Carl Craver's theorizing about mechanisms and levels in the neurosciences represent a few common intellectual landmarks, and almost all of these young scholars are current with the latest twists and turns of Peter Hedstrom's theories.

Finally, there is a decided absence of classic European voices about the social sciences -- conversations never invoke Bourdieu, Habermas, or Gadamer. This is a community organized around the intellectual values of analytic philosophy -- clarity, logical rigor, analysis, and causality.

There is also a high degree of interaction among members of this group. Mini conferences and workshops are able to bring many of them together, with the European rail system making it feasible to travel from London, Amsterdam, and Paris for a short conference in Ghent. In my observation this easy interaction stimulates a great deal of intellectual progress year after year, both individually and collectively.

As one small example, Bert Leuridan's effort this week to specify a rigorous relationship between meso and macro levels of a social system will certainly be fruitful for a number of us as we think further about this issue. And likewise, I will be interested to reflect further on Petri Ylikoski's call for a "flat" understanding of social causes. These examples illustrate the micro-steps of the advancement of a body of thought.

Sometimes it is difficult to see whether an intellectual field is progressing or just retracing old ground. Lakatos's ideas of "progressive" and "degenerative" research communities seem useful here. European philosophy of social science seems to be making real progress in this generation.

There is one academic reality that is worrisome. Many of these young scholars are making their way on the basis of research appointments and post-doc positions. These opportunities are pretty well funded by European universities and governments -- substantially more so than in the US. But many of these positions have a maximum term of six years. And the prospects of a regular faculty position in Europe seem bleak. A department chair estimated to me that only 20% of PhDs eventually find regular academic positions. This suggests an academic ecology that may prove stifling for the kinds of innovation we now see.

I think there could be a useful piece of research within the new sociology of ideas advocated by Neil Gross and and Charles Camic (link) based on this example. It wouldn't be difficult to draw out a network map of relationships among these philosophers, the major institutions that facilitate their work, and the movement of various new ideas through their conference papers and published work. Looking backward, it would be feasible as well to reconstruct the generation of writers and scholars who helped shape this generation's intellectual agenda. And I think the results would be very interesting.

It would also be interesting to begin developing a shared map of centers and locations of work on the philosophy of social science in Europe. Here is a start -- it's set for public access, so please feel free to add other points of interest, including centers, conferences, and concentrations of researchers.

View European Philosophy of Social Science in a larger map

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Does the microfoundations principle imply reductionism?

My philosophy of social science has always and consistently maintained the idea that social facts depend on the activities and beliefs of individuals. There is no social "stuff" that exists independently from individual actors. I have encapsulated that idea in the form of the "microfoundations" principle: any claim about the characteristics or causal powers of social entities must be compatible with there being microfoundations for those properties and powers at the level of the actor.

At the same time, I also believe that there is an appropriate domain for social science: the exploration of the features and powers of the social world. I don't believe that methodology should force the sociologist to become a psychologist or to shift his/her attention to the micro level.

Are these two premises compatible? Or does the microfoundations principle actually entail reductionism? Does it imply that explanations couched at the level of social vocabulary are incomplete and derivative, and that the real explanation must be found at the level of the micro-activities of individuals?

I attempt to resolve this apparent dilemma by distinguishing between strong and weak versions of the microfoundations principle: "social explanations must provide microfoundations for their assertions about social properties and powers" versus "social explanations must be compatible with there being microfoundations for their assertions about social powers and properties." The weak version reflects an appropriate stipulation based on what we know about the ontology of the social world, whereas the strong version is a kind of explanatory reductionism that is unjustified.

My position, then, is that sociology is a special science in Fodor's sense, and that sociologists both can and do treat their domain as relatively autonomous.

Several commentators allege that my commitment to microfoundations -- which is unwavering -- vitiates my ability to claim relative explanatory autonomy for the meso level. Some don't like my distinction between weak and strong microfoundations, and others think that commitment to MF means explanations have to proceed through explicit discoveries of the MF pathways.

My position is intended to exactly parallel physicalism in cognitive science: we are committed to the idea that all cognitive processes are somehow or other embodied and carried out by the central nervous system. But we are not obliged to actually perform that reduction in offering a hypothesis and explanation at the level of cognitive systems.

Even more prosaically: we believe that the properties of metals depend upon the quantum properties of subatomic particles. Does anyone seriously believe that civil engineers aren't giving real explanations of bridge failures when they refer to properties like tensile strength, compression indices, and mechanisms like metal fatigue? We can observe and measure the metal's properties without being forced to provide a quantum mechanical deduction.

One observer writes that "Little's examples actually confirm that meso-level mechanisms work only through micro-level processes." Yes, and I likewise confirm that cognitive processes work only through neural events and material properties work only through quantum physics. But I don't accept that this demonstrates that the higher level cannot be treated as having real causal properties. It does have those properties; and we simply reaffirm the point that somehow or other those properties are embodied in the lower level elements. This isn't a new idea; it was contained in Jerry Fodor's "Special Sciences" article years ago. If the argument is generally a bad one then we are forced to undo a lot of work in cognitive science. If it is generally compelling but inapplicable to social entities then we need to know why that is so in this special case of a special science.

To be clear, I too believe that there is a burden of proof that must be met in asserting a causal power or disposition for a social entity -- something like "the entity demonstrates an empirical regularity in behaving in such and such a way" or "we have good theoretical reasons for believing that X social arrangements will have Y effects." And some macro concepts are likely cast at too high a level to admit of such regularities. That is why I favor "meso" social entities as the bearers of social powers. As new institutionalists demonstrate all the time, one property regime elicits very different collective behavior from its highly similar cousin. And this gives the relevant causal stability criterion. Good examples include Robert Ellickson's new-institutionalist treatment of Shasta County and liability norms and Charles Perrow's treatment of the operating characteristics of technology organizations. In each case the microfoundations are easy to provide. What is more challenging is to show how these social causal properties interact in cases to create outcomes we want to explain.

The best reason I am aware of to doubt stable causal powers for social entities is founded on the point that organizations and institutions are too plastic to possess enduring causal properties over time. I've made this argument myself on occasion. But researchers like Kathleen Thelen in The Evolution of Institutions demonstrate that there are in fact some institutional complexes that do possess the requisite stability.

So I continue to believe both things: that statements about social entities and powers must be compatible there being microfoundations for these properties and powers; and that it is theoretically possible that some social structures have properties and powers that are relatively autonomous, in the sense that we can allude to those properties and powers in explanations without being obliged to demonstrate their microfoundations.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Macro causes of European fascism

Michael Mann's book Fascists makes use of causal claims at a range of levels, from the macro to the micro, to explain the emergence of European fascism.  Here is a passage that highlights four macro-level causes of fascism:
The interwar period in Europe was the setting that threw up most of the self-avowed fascists and saw them at their high tide. My definition is intended firstly as “European-epochal,” to use Eatwell’s (2001) term (cf. Kallis 2000: 96), applying primarily to that period and place – though perhaps with some resonance elsewhere. The period and the continent contained four major crises: the consequences of a devastating “world,” but in fact largely European, war between mass citizen armies, severe class conflict exacerbated by the Great Depression, a political crisis arising from an attempted rapid transition by many countries toward a democratic nation-state, and a cultural sense of civilizational contradiction and decay. Fascism itself recognized the importance of all four sources of social power by explicitly claiming to offer solutions to all four crises. And all four played a more specific role in weakening the capacity of elites to continue ruling in old ways. (23)
So what are the causal ideas expressed here?

The factors Mann singles out here are decidedly macro-level:
  • war
  • class conflict and economic depression
  • rapid transition to democratic nation-states
  • cultural impressions of decay
These are high-level social conditions involving military power, economic power, political power, and cultural realities. Perhaps not surprisingly, these factors correspond to the main legs of Mann's own theory of social power: "My earlier work identified four primary 'sources of social power' in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political" (5).

So the causal factors identified here are clearly at the macro level.  The outcome Mann identifies is equally macro-level: the advent of fascist movements and governments in a handful of major European states.  So the basic claim here is a macro-macro causal claim.

The causal claims expressed in the paragraph can be summarized in this way:
  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each played a causal role in the rise of fascism
  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each weakened (caused) the capacity of elites to continue to rule
What is the meaning of the idea that "F1 played a causal role in the rise of fascism"? Most simply, it is the notion that the factor occupies a position in the full causal diagram or causal narrative of the rise of fascism, beginning at some point in time.  The action of hops in the process of brewing beer plays a causal role: many events and processes must occur in a timed sequence, but the activity of the hops is one necessary part of the overall process.

And how would an investigator piece together the causal narrative of a complex happening?  It would appear that the method of "process tracing" is the most direct way of piecing together a causal narrative.  This requires going through one or more empirical cases and probing the events that occurred to attempt to assess whether and how they played a causal role in the production of the outcome. This is exactly the form that Mann's investigation of the various fascisms of Europe takes; he examines the histories and tries to discern the causal sequences that are contained in them. (George Alexander and Andrew Bennett consider some of the challenges of this methodology in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences.)

To say that a condition is a cause of a given outcome expresses as well the idea that the condition is either necessary or sufficient for the outcome; the presence or absence of the condition makes a difference for the occurrence of the outcome. The appearance of the cuckoo is neither necessary nor sufficient for the chiming of the clock; so the cuckoo is not a cause of the chiming. It would appear, then, that Mann is also committed to claims like this:
  • If war and depression had not occurred then fascism would not have prevailed in Italy 
  • If Spain's democracy had been more solid and well established, then fascism would not have prevailed in Spain
Other causal ideas are suggested by the paragraph, even if not explicit:
  • War has the causal power to stimulate powerful social movements in combatant countries.
  • Widespread economic depression has the causal power to stimulate class antagonism.
  • Ideologies have the causal power to stimulate mobilization of adherents.
  • Ideologies of cultural decay have the power to weaken the capacity of elites to govern.
How do these ideas about causal powers flesh out in detail?  How does "war" possess a causal power? War encompasses a complex set of circumstances and interlocking organizations: mobilization and demobilization of mass armies, disruption of civilian production, massive damage to people and property, unusual stresses on governments, etc. And each of these circumstances in turn has consequences which ultimately influence the circumstances in which the mass home population finds itself.  Those home circumstances in turn play into the factors that are known to stimulate and amplify social movements -- popular grievances about government, economic deprivation, a general environment of uncertainty, and the availability of entrepreneurial leaders and organizations prepared to take advantage of these conditions. So war has a causal power that is embodied by the social, economic, demographic, and political circumstances that accompany it; and that power is expressed through influence on the home population.

One way of encapsulating this kind of story about the causal powers of a structural circumstance is to say that the circumstance conditions and motivates actions by many individuals in ways that lead to a certain class of outcomes.  So the causal power story is also a Coleman's Boat kind of story; it is a specification of the microfoundations of the causal power in question.  However, once we have satisfied ourselves about the microfoundations, we are not compelled to retrace our steps through the individual level in order to move the argument from Italy to Spain. We can rely on the idea that war has a given set of causal powers on macro outcomes in the next case in which we observe war and disorder.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Social hierarchy and popular culture

There is some interesting work being done on the sociology of taste these days.  I'm thinking specifically of a literature that has developed around the idea of "omnivorousness" and social status.  Richard Peterson initiated much of this discussion in 1992 with an article in Poetics entitled "Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore" (link).
Between World Wars I and II it was widely accepted in intellectual circles that the emerging mass media were  spawning an equivalent mass audience, an audience that was unthinking, herd-like, and inherently passive yet easily swayed by skilled political and commercial demagogues. (243)
But, Peterson claims, empirical research in communications does not bear this out; instead, the audience has differentiated into multiple audiences.  The simple model of a "highbrow discerning elite with well-refined tastes and ... an ignorant and stimulus-seeking mass" (244) has been discredited. In other words, the simple theory of status that postulates that elites can be identified by a set of uniform refined cultural tastes does not hold up.
The hallmark of those at the top of the hierarchy according to the received elite-to-mass theory is patronizing the fine arts, displaying good manners, wearing the correct cut of clothes, using proper speech, maintaining membership in the 'better' churches, philanthropic organizations and social clubs, and especially for the women of the class, cultivating all of the attendant social graces. (245)
But, according to Peterson, this assumption can be tested, and it turns out to be incorrect. Peterson and other collaborators (Albert Simkus in particular) used social data sets to examine the distribution of preferred music styles across occupational groups arranged from high status to low status.  Their status hierarchy of occupational groups ranges from "higher cultural" -- architects, lawyers, clergymen, and academics, to farm laborers.  And the musical genres include a list of 10 types of music, ranging from classical to country. Here is one of the central findings:
The data presented in table 4 do not show this clear pattern of aesthetic exclusivity. Indeed, the occupational groups at the top are more likely to be high on liking these non-elite forms while the occupational groups at the bottom are likely to be low on their rate of liking them. Only one category of music, country and western, fits the predicted pattern, while three groups, mood music, big band, and barber shop music, show just the opposite of the predicted ranking. (249)

Based on these findings, Peterson recommends junking the "elite culture-mass culture" distinction in favor of an "omnivore-univore" distinction.  There is indeed a significant difference in the cultural tastes of high-status and low-status people; but it doesn't correspond to the elite-mass distinction previously postulated.

Peterson and Kern's "Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore" (ASR 1996, link) carries this line of thinking forward.  Here is how Peterson and Kern begin their article:
Not only are high-status Americans more likely than others to consume fine arts, but, according to Peterson and Simkus (1992), they are are also more likely to be involved in a wide range of low-status activities.  This finding ... flies in the face of years of historical research showing that high-status persons shun cultural expressions that are not seen as elevated.... In making sense of this contradiction, Peterson and Simkus (1992) suggest that a historical shift from highbrow snob to omnivore is taking place. (900)
"Snob" is defined as a person who does not like a single form of lowbrow or middlebrow activity, and "omnivore" is open to at least one such activity.  Here are the lowbrow activities they track: country music, bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues (901), and the defining highbrow arts activities they select are classical music and opera.  Their empirical finding is that highbrows have increased their "omnivorousness" by about half a genre in a ten-year period of time from 1982 to 1992, from 1.74 lowbrow genres to 2.23 lowbrow genres (902).

They ask the natural question, what are some of the causes of this marked change during these years?  And they put forward five factors; "in concluding we speculatively suggest five linked factors that may contribute to the shifting grounds of status-group politics" (905). They cite structural changes in society (broader education and exposure to the media, for example); value changes (declining levels of racial exclusion and stereotype); art-world changes (decline of elitist theories of art, rising appreciation of non-elite art forms); generational politics (the rock'n'roll generation); and status-group politics (gentrification of "lower-class" artistic forms).

This research is interesting in several ways.  First, it is a statistically sophisticated attempt to observe the distribution of cultural tastes across a population and across time. The statistical analyses in the two studies allow Peterson and his collaborators to sort through issues about within-cohort and across-cohort taste changes. So this permits a more nuanced observation of a shifting social reality. And second, it arrives at what appears to be a statistically sound finding -- that highbrows were broadening their cultural tastes during the decade observed.  Highbrows became less snobbish.

So this literature provides some tools for observing and measuring the prevalence and shifts of things that seem highly subjective -- musical tastes, in this instance.  And it suggests some ways of formulating and evaluating hypotheses about the factors that explain the observed distributions and changes.

This literature pays explicit homage to Bourdieu's theorizing about taste in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally published in 1979 in French.  But the thrust of Bourdieu's work seems to be quite different from Peterson's. Bourdieu does indeed seem to believe that there are some very specific cultural markers that identify the elite class in society. He finds that one social group, the petite bourgeoisie, is indeed "omnivorous" in at least one sense: "Uncertain of their classifications, divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to, the petit bourgeois are condemned to disparate choices ... ; and this is seen as much in their preferences in music or painting as in their everyday choices" (326).  But this statement seems to reproduce the elite-mass paradigm that Peterson rejects, in that it seems to position the tastes of the petit bourgeoisie intermediate between elite and mass tastes.

Here is a fascinating and complex graph Bourdieu provides mapping cultural items against occupational groups (higher-ed teachers, engineers, secondary teachers, industrial employers, etc.).