Thursday, September 27, 2012

Strategic action fields

Sometimes a rethinking of ontology and social categories results in an important step forward in social theory. This appears to be the case in some recent reflections on the relationships that exist between social movements theory and the sociology of organizations.  The presumption of existing writings on these fields is that they refer to separate but related phenomena.  One is more about social actors and the other is more about stable social structures.  What happens when we consider the possibility that they actually refer to the same kinds of social phenomena?

This is the perspective taken by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam in a recent contribution to Sociological Theory, "Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields"(link). (They develop these ideas more fully in A Theory of Fields.) In the Sociological Theory article they write:
We assert that scholars of organizations and social movements -- and for that matter, students of any institutional actor in modern society -- are interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action. (2)
Fligstein and McAdam formulate their novel approach in terms of the idea of "strategic action fields." They put it forward that "strategic action fields … are the fundamental units of collective action in society" (3). Power and advantage play key roles in their construction: "We too see SAFs as socially constructed arenas within which actors with varying resource endowments vie for advantage. Membership in these fields is based far more on subjective 'standing' than objective criteria" (3).

Here are types of social items they include in this theory:
  1. strategic action fields 
  2. incumbents, challengers, and governance units 
  3. social skill 
  4. the broader field environment 
  5. exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention 
  6. episodes of contention 
  7. settlement (2) 
This approach is importantly couched at the level of social ontology: what sorts of things should we identify and analyze as explanatory factors in our theories? The move to SAFs is a move against the idea of the fixity of social "structures," institutions, and organizations. For example, they write against the ontology of new institutionalism: "The general image for most new institutionalists is one of routine social order and reproduction" -- or in other words, a static set of rules and constraints within which action takes place. Their ontology, on the other hand, emphasizes the fluidity of the constraints and circumstances of action from the actors' points of view; so the field shifts as actors undertake one set of strategies or another. "This leaves great latitude for the possibility of piecemeal change in the positions that actors occupy" (5).

So both stability and change are incorporated into a single framework of analysis: actors react strategically to the field of constraints and positions within which they act, with results that sometimes reinforce current positions and other times disrupt those positions.

They account for what looks like institutional rigidity by calling out the power of some actors to maintain their positions in the social order: "Most incumbents are generally well positioned and fortified to withstand these change pressures. For starters they typically enjoy significant resource advantages over field challengers" (9). But institutions should not be expected to maintain their structures indefinitely: "The expectation is that when even a single member of the field begins to act in innovative ways in violation of field rules, others will respond in kind, precipitating an episode of contention" (9).

So what is intended by the idea of "strategic action" in this theory? Here is what they have to say on that subject:
We define strategic action as the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context. The creation of identities, political coalitions, and interests serves to promote the control of actors vis-a-vis other actors. (7)
Here is one other interesting ontological feature of this approach. Their language suggests some parallels with assemblage theory (link), in the sense that social constructs fit upwards and downwards into strategic action fields at a range of fields. "We conceive of all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields" (8). This set of ideas seems to suggest an unexpected affinity to "actor-network theory" and the sociological ideas of Bruno Latour (ANT) (link). But at the other end of some obscure spectrum of theory differentiation, their account also seems to rub shoulders with rational-choice theory, where both actions and rules are subject to deliberation and change by prudential actors.

There are several features of this approach that seem promising to me. One is the fact that it directly challenges the tendency towards reification that sometimes blocks sociological thinking -- the idea that social "things" like states persist largely independently from the individuals who make them up. This new approach leads to a way of thinking about the social world that emphasizes contingency and plasticity (link, link) rather than rigid and homogeneous social structures. It also seems consistent with the thinking that leads to the idea of "methodological localism" -- the idea that social phenomena rest upon "molecules" of socially constructed, socially situated individuals (link). I also like the fact that their analysis is explicitly couched at the meso level -- neither macro nor micro.

One concern this approach raises, however, is suggested by the point mentioned above about its apparent proximity to some versions of rational choice theory -- the view that all social outcomes and processes are ultimately the consequence of prudential actors pursuing their interests. But this assumption -- which McAdam certainly does not share elsewhere in his writing (e.g. Dynamics of Contention) -- threatens to push out of consideration social realities like normative systems, social identities, and distributed systems of power that somehow or other seem to demand inclusion in our understanding of social processes.

Finally, we can ask whether this innovation provides a basis for more fruitful empirical research into concrete phenomena like how corporations and revolutionary parties function, how demonstrations against Islamophobia take shape, and how resistance to racial discrimination emerges.  If the theoretical innovation doesn't lead to richer empirical research, then it is reasonable to be skeptical about why we should adopt the new theoretical tools.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Actor-centered sociology and agent-based models

Actor-centered sociology (ACS) begins in the intuition that social processes begin in the interactions of socially constructed individuals, and it takes seriously the idea that actors have complex and socially inflected mental schemes of action and representation. So actor-centered sociologists are keen not to over-simplify the persons who constitute the social domain of interest. And this means that they are generally not content with sparse abstract schemata of actors like those proposed by most versions of rational choice theory.

Agent-based modeling (ABM) is a collection of aggregative techniques aimed at working out the aggregate consequences of the hypothetical choices of a number of individuals interacting in a series of social environments. ABM models generally represent the actors' motivations and decision rules very abstractly -- sometimes as economic actors, sometimes as local optimizers, sometimes as heuristically driven decision makers. An ABM model may postulate several groups of actors whose decision rules are different -- predators and prey, landlords and tenants, bandits and generals. The goal is to embody a set of behavioral assumptions at the actor level and then to aggregate the results of the actions and interactions of these actors at a macro level. (Stephen Railsback's Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction provides an accessible introduction.)

My question here is a focused one: do these apparently similar approaches to explaining social outcomes actually have as much in common as they appear to at first glance? And the answer I'll suggest is -- not yet, and not enough. (Here are earlier discussions of the two frameworks; link, link.)

The sticking point between them is the issue of abstraction and granularity concerning the nature of the actors. ACS researchers are critical of the methodological move towards abstraction in the description of the actor. They believe that the socially embedded and rather specific features of deliberation and action that they investigate in various historical and cultural settings are crucial and are lost when we move to a more abstract desire-belief-opportunity (DBO) approach. ABM theorists argue that abstraction about the agent is necessary if a social situation is supposed to be tractable -- to model the behavior of a population of agents we need to be able to represent their decision rules in a reasonably compact and mathematically representable way. So if we take the view that each individual is a unique bundle of mental frameworks and action-practices, we will have to give up the enterprise of modeling their collective behavior.

However, some efforts to apply ABM techniques to real contemporary and historical problems -- for example, land use patterns in contemporary African agriculture -- have had disappointing results. The patterns predicted by the simulation diverge fairly significantly from the observed patterns on the ground. And some of these researchers believe that the problem lies not with the model but with the assumptions made about the actor. Those assumptions are basically Chicago-style rational choice assumptions, and researchers are coming to see that the actors -- farmers, herders, traders -- are operating on the basis of rules that are more nuanced. The actors are prudential and they make deliberative choices; but their reasoning doesn't reduce to an application of expected-utility calculation. So the researchers themselves are asking whether it would be better to incorporate more realistic assumptions about actors' motivations and reasoning frameworks.

This suggests that there is perhaps more fertile ground between the ACS and ABM frameworks than has yet been exploited. ACS focuses its attention on the question of refining our understanding of how actors are constituted, and ABM provides a rich set of techniques for transporting from assumptions about individual actors to the simulated result of aggregating these actors' behaviors onto a collective pattern.

The hybrid approach still requires abstraction about actors. But perhaps it is worth considering adjusting the focus, from "farmers in an environment" to "Kenyan farmers with X, Y, Z features of goals and reasoning schemes". Perhaps the disaggregation of types of actors needs to go even further. And perhaps the question of "what kinds of actors are involved in land use in Kenyan agriculture?" needs to be driven by empirical investigation rather than methodological fiat or computational convenience.

So maybe the great centers for complexity studies around the country would be well advised to begin including anthropologists and cultural sociologists within their research teams. And maybe the result will be a fertile marriage of modeling with greater cultural specificity.

Friday, September 21, 2012

China's rural transition

Roughly half of China's population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China's economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China's Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China's cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities.

The "urban development" part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development -- in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:
  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until "surplus rural population" can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.
There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute:
  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.
Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China's Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.
Since the founding of the People's Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 
In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government's rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.
This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above -- improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report "Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China", Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:
It has become a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)
Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao's working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, "The Evolution of China's Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms," that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, "Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies" (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations -- rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What makes universities better?

Universities are large, complex organizations that have multiple goals -- educating undergraduates, training graduate students, facilitating and expanding research activities, serving various communities. Each of these activities depends on complex contributions by very smart faculty and administrators, often in a highly decentralized way, and each can be more or less successful. The individuals involved are generally motivated to do the best work they can do. But the organization and its leaders have a responsibility to take steps to improve the quality and effectiveness of the results.

So the question here is this: what kinds of actions and strategies can university leaders take to help their universities to improve in performance with respect to the fundamental components of academic quality that they value? (Arthur Padilla's ACE publication, Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents, raises some of these issues.)

We might ask, to begin, what the dimensions of quality are for a university. I would highlight at least three:
  • providing successful and effective education to undergraduate and graduate students (which means that on average, students who study at the university improve their intellectual and moral abilities over time); 
  • successful cultivation of high-quality research by faculty (which means increasing the flow of published and funded research results with measurable impact in both academic and non-academic spheres); 
  • contributing to the improvement of quality of life for the communities served by the university (region, state, city, nation). 
 We might add to these core characteristics several others: creating an inclusive environment for working and learning; creating a high sense of morale and shared aspirations for students, faculty, and staff; maintaining and increasing academic quality while reducing costs.

These high-level goals of a university cannot usually be measured directly. Therefore we need to have some set of factors that are closely related to the quality goals but that can be observed empirically. Quality measures in higher education are varied, but they include things like these: graduation rates, levels of Federal research funding, percent of Pell-eligible students, number of citations to faculty-authored research, number of patents issued, number of members of the national academies on the faculty, … There are steps that a university administrator or dean can take to influence any one of these variables; but all interventions require resources, which means that choosing to increase the graduation rate may mean not taking steps to increase the number of patents. More fundamentally, fine-tuning one part of the university's processes may actually interfere with the workings of its other processes.

There are two large philosophies that might drive the idea of increasing the quality of a university over time. One is the philosophy of continuous improvement. Here the idea is that the university is already functioning at a certain level of effectiveness in a range of activities; the imperative is to increase the effectiveness, quality, and productivity of all of those areas, giving primary emphasis to those that have the greatest impact on core values. This is a philosophy of gradual improvement and refinement.

The second philosophy is one that pays attention to the need and opportunity that sometimes exist for radical change in product and process for the organization. This philosophy downplays the idea of continuous improvement and argues instead for "punctuated equilibrium" -- the need to sometimes take actions that fundamentally change the nature of the enterprise in some way. The idea that instruction should be substantially more oriented towards online courses would reflect this philosophy; it corresponds to those critics of higher education who believe that universities are like film-based camera companies in the 1990s facing the sudden appearance of digital photography. Either they adapt quickly to a new disruptive technology, or they fail catastrophically in the market.

A philosophy of continuous improvement would not have served the buggy whip industry well in the 1910s; whereas a philosophy of punctuated equilibrium doesn't seem to be appropriate for shipping industry at this point. (It was appropriate at the time when containerized shipping was a hypothetical possibility!) So there is no reason to believe that either "gradualism" or "punctualism" is always the best option for an organization.

So what kinds of changes are needed and feasible for universities in today's environment? This will be a disappointing answer, I'm sure, but I think the answer is: some of both. There are many improvements that can be identified in the ways that universities handle the various components of their missions. Improving retention and graduation rates is a case in point; there are many new strategies that could be incorporated to help students be more successful in their academic progress. Peer-based tutoring is one example; online tools for checking progress towards graduation is another; and improving the quality and reach of the academic advising system is a third. But it is also true that there are opportunities for discontinuous improvement in the existing university. For example, could the resource of a well-developed online course with rich media materials and evaluation systems allow the business faculty member to effectively teach accounting to twice as many students? Could a high-level learning goal for students (e.g. "ability to sort out contextual factors in a complex problem") be better achieved by closer coordination among clusters of faculty and courses rather than by a general education curriculum that assigns one goal to one course? Is the traditional Ph.D. dissertation an antiquated ritual rather than a crucial learning opportunity for advanced students?

(Vincent Tinto has a short but interesting article on "Universities as Learning Organizations" here. Here is a piece by Judith White and Rita Weathersby on a similar topic.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Social sciences and the Civil Rights movement

The American Civil Rights movement was (and is) a complex, extended series of events, actions, and interactions in the United States between roughly 1950 and 1970.  (It of course has roots that extend backwards in time through the Civil War and centuries of slavery, and it has consequences that reverberate in American society to the present day.)  There are a variety of causes we can point to as explanations of various important events -- the Montgomery bus boycott, the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Emmett Till. And there are signal individuals whose actions played pivotal roles in the period -- Orval Faubus, Stokely Carmichael, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. So telling this story requires a complex blend of narrative organization, inferences about personal motives, and reconstruction of existing social relations and structures in various places in the country.  It is perhaps significant that many of the histories of this movement have chosen to focus their stories around the biographies and careers of significant individuals -- for example, Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63).

My question here is a limited one: what role can the social sciences play in constructing a history of the Civil Rights movement that contributes to better explanations and better understanding of the period?

Here are several areas of research in the social sciences that seem to be especially valuable for interpreting the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.

Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition is an outstanding example of the results of research that have proceeded from the point of view of the methods and theories of sociology. McAdam works within the framework of the sociology of social movements, and his key question is this: what factors encouraged or inhibited social mobilization of the victims of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s?  He offers a "political process" theory of social mobilization:
I will argue that the emergence of widespread protest activity is the result of a combination of expanding political opportunities and indigenous organization, as mediated through a crucial process of collective attribution. Over time, these same factors continue to shape the development of insurgency in consort with one additional factor: the shifting social-control response of other groups to the movement. (2)
McAdam doesn't proceed in a hypothetico-deductive way, assuming that a theory will permit the researcher to deduce the twists and turns of the history. Rather, he looks at resource-mobilization theory as a reasonably well-grounded account of causal factors that underlie mobilizations of groups in response to their grievances, and he looks to identify the historical conditions that were present that can be teased out as important historical causes of the growth of the movement.  In language he eventually develops further with Tarrow and Tilly, he identifies causal mechanisms that either inhibited or accelerated mobilization (Dynamics of Contention).

Quantitative sociologists have made a different kind of contribution to our understanding of various aspects of racial politics in the United States.  One very good example is the work of Douglas Massey, who has provided throughout a long career a careful quantitative assessment of racial inequality and segregation.  Massey and Denton's American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass  (1993) is a key contribution, as well as Massey's later Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (link). This work is important because it helps to provide a better understanding of the structure of racial inequality in the United States -- the structural conditions within which collective efforts for oppression and emancipation played out.  More descriptive approaches to the situation of race in the post-war period have proven useful as well -- for example, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy Volume 1.

Comparative sociologists also have important contributions to make in the study of the Jim Crow period and the Civil Rights movement.  These researchers have often highlighted the key role played by power and exploitation in many social orders, and the ways in which rulers and ruled have sought to improve their situations within the context of those social relations.  Michael Mann's writings stand out here, and particularly his study of ethnic cleansing within contemporary societies in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Mann's analysis of Bosnia and other recent examples provides a model for seeking to delineate and explain the strategic and collective behaviors of people on both sides of the Jim Crow line. And he offers a good example of the ways in which it is possible to combine large structural factors (segregation, exploitation) with local-level behavioral factors (resistance, mobilization).

Another important area of the social sciences that is relevant to explanation and interpretation of the Civil Rights movement is social psychology.  This is the individual side of the study of collective behavior: what motivates people to act as they do in a racialized or unequal society? How do participants in such a society frame the social relations they perceive around themselves? Is there a psychology of domination and resistance that is socially imbued in members of a given society? Measuring racial attitudes and dispositions to behavior is one aspect of this field of study -- for example, as summarized in work by Dambrun, Villate, and Richetan here. But social psychologists have also given very fruitful attention to the ways in which racial attitudes and schemata are reproduced in young people -- the more developmental side of racial thinking. And some social psychologists like Elizabeth Cole have emphasized the idea of "intersectionality" as a way of understanding people's political and social identities (link). (There is a good discussion of this approach in Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz, eds., The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, and Gender.)

This work is important for historians because it provides a more nuanced and empirically grounded set of theories about motivation and identity when it comes to contested social relations like race and gender.  This means that the historian has more ability to interpret the behavior of the participants who emerge in the historical record and whose behavior is sometimes surprising. The concept of intersectionality is particularly useful; since African American women had identities that were both racial and gendered, it is less surprising to find that their behavior did not always correspond to a simple script.

Another area of social science research that is relevant to understanding the Civil Rights era is political science.  Civil Rights struggles generally originated in particular places; but they were often aimed at legislation and constitutional interpretation. So it is valuable to have some research on the institutions and processes of the Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court (as well as state government) in order to be able to piece together the complicated back-and-forth between mobilization and legislation. Abigail Thernstrom's Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights provides some of this analysis with respect the the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Griffin and Brian Newman's Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America is a representative study of the role of race in electoral politics. Dennis Chong's Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement is a rational-choice analysis of collective action in the Civil Rights movement.

What these areas of research seem to have in common is that they shed light on some of the mechanisms that may have been in play during the complex history of the Civil Rights movement. Some of these mechanisms are at the local population level -- the factors that allowed Montgomery's African American population to sustain a successful bus boycott. Others are at the individual level -- the features of identity and motivation that were present in white and black participants. And yet others are couched at a higher level of organization -- the mechanisms of the Congress and Supreme Court, the economic effects of segregation. None of these authors imply that we can replace detailed historical research with theoretical social science applications. But they do support the idea that the findings of the social sciences can shed light on social mechanisms and processes that are not necessarily perfectly evident in the historical sequences under study, and they support the idea that historians can gain a lot by immersing themselves in these adjacent areas of social-science research.

(Here is a nice review article by Aldon Morris, "A retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks" in Annual Review of Sociology, 1999.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How Jim Crow worked

Understanding history is partly about understanding some of the dry facts of social sequence and cause and effect in the making of various periods of historical change. But it is also about coming to a more visceral understanding of the human realities of the events that historians describe.  This is particularly true in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. How can we come to have a more vivid understanding of those events and social unfoldings?

Most white Americans have a very limited understanding of the real social setting in the South of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. We know it was a struggle for equality and freedom, and we know that racism and segregation were key elements of the situation of African Americans in their everyday lives. But mostly we don't know the systematic violence and racial hatred that served to stabilize those social relations of inequality in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the South.

And yet a social order based on subordination and degradation of a whole people requires a heavy use of coercion to survive.  This coercion was provided by the local and regional organizations of white supremacists who enforced the social order of the Jim Crow South.

White supremacist organizations are today an extremist fringe in American politics. They are dangerous and violent, but they do not appeal to the great majority of the American population. But in the 1950s white supremacy was a viable and widespread ideology, and white supremacist groups were mass-based and powerful organizations that were very explicitly devoted to maintaining segregation and the subordinate status of African Americans. They were explicitly racist and they were also explicitly committed to using all means necessary to resist integration and the extension of full equality to African Americans. These organizations were key to enforcement of the rules of racial separation and behavior in the South.  Key among these were the White Citizens' Councils in various southern states. And many southern politicians were open advocates of the ideology and rhetoric of WCC in the 1950s and 1960s -- often under the rhetoric of "states' rights."  (Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour created a stir in 2010 when he recalled his own perceptions of the WCCs in nostalgic terms; link.)

Here is a description of the WCCs from an encyclopedia on the Civil Rights movement maintained at Stanford:
In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation, white segregationists throughout the South created the White Citizens’ Councils (WCC). These local groups typically drew a more middle and upper class membership than the Ku Klux Klan and, in addition to using violence and intimidation to counter civil rights goals, they sought to economically and socially oppress blacks. Martin Luther King faced WCC attacks as soon as the Montgomery bus boycott, began and was a target of these groups throughout his career.
(It is interesting that I. F. Stone began writing about the violent and racist nature of the WCC almost as soon as it was formed (link).)

What this shows is that at a relatively recent time in the history of the United States these organizations competed in the full light of day, without embarrassment, and with a rhetoric that encouraged violent enforcement of the racial status quo. To see video of the faces of the young men and women who opposed the integration of the Little Rock schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, is to see a kind of widespread, committed hatred of another social group that is more familiar to us from Rwanda or Bosnia. (Here is a short clip of the integration of Central High School from Eyes on the Prizelink.) The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 is just the most extreme example of this kind of murderous hatred and ferocious defense of the racial order. (The murderer of Medgar Evers was a member of the Citizens' Council.)

There are several hard and important questions raised by this history. How could an otherwise decent society have created the willing participation of so many millions of people in such a cruel and unjust system? Where did the virulence of the emotions of racism and aggression come from? How is it that the moral culture of the American south was such a fertile and welcoming ground for organizations like the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan? And most crucially -- can these strands of hated, intolerance, and violence emerge again?

This last question is perhaps the most urgent one.  Are racism and white supremacy once again threatening to become parts of mainstream politics? The NAACP has tracked connections between the modern descendant of the White Citizens Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Tea Party (link). There are some very notable connections. This suggests that white supremacists continue to attempt to achieve their goals through politics and political mobilization.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric of some strands of contemporary conservative thought, the hyperbolic opposition to Federal legislation for equality of rights, and the equation of a politics of equality with "Communism" all have enormous resonance with the racialized platforms of the WCCs of the 1960s.

(The Southern Poverty Law Center does very important work in monitoring these hate-based organizations.  Here is their report on the Council of Conservative Citizens. The Anti-Defamation League also does great work in this area. Here is their report on the role of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1950s and 1960s.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why spatial analysis?

G. William Skinner's contributions to the China field were many (link). A great deal of current research in the China field builds on his regionalization theories. Key concepts like core-periphery structure, macroregions, transport costs, the questionable relevance of political boundaries, and economic integration implying social and cultural integration are all ideas that Skinner developed and that have been utilized in remarkably insightful ways by several cohorts of China scholars.

Other of Skinner's contributions might be mentioned with especial emphasis: his treatments of urban place and city hierarchies and micro-demographic and family patterns are relevant in particular.

But the central insight that has had greatest impact is the spatial ordering of social life created by transport and marketing. And Skinner's fundamental idea is that China's geography is better understood as a set of macroregions rather than provinces. Economic geography is more fundamental than political jurisdictions.

So it is worth asking to begin: what motivates and justifies this approach? The ideas are now common currency in China studies, but perhaps the rationale is less well remembered. What are the social mechanisms that work to create the dynamic and stable patterns Skinner hypothesizes? What concrete social processes work to create the core-periphery patterns that underlie the macroregions theory?

Transport cost, and the enormous efficiency of water transport, is particularly fundamental in Skinner's analysis of Ming-Qing China, as it was for Mark Elvin as well. China's system of navigable rivers and canals made some regions much more accessible to each other than others. And population followed this fact. (A recent trip to Hubei reinforced this fact to me: visiting the rugged terrain of Wudang Mountain made it very clear how extraordinarily difficult it was to transport heavy materials across China using traditional technologies and pre-modern roads.)

Soil fertility and agricultural productivity are related factors. High fertility supports dense population -- hence "core" defined in terms of population density. And fertility is related to rivers. Flood plains have natural advantages when it comes to agriculture. But fertility is related to social factors as well. High population density yields fertilizer in the form of night soil. It also creates demand, as Skinner observed, for fuel, which led to a transfer of nutrients from periphery to core. And agriculture is responsive to investment in infrastructure -- roads, irrigation, water management systems. But these investments are easier to gain in high density populations. This all implies a couple of important feedback loops: density =>; rising agricultural productivity => rising density.

What about the periphery regions? They lack water transport; there is less economic demand for roads; agricultural productivity is low; and peripheries are generally difficult for states to penetrate with civil and military force. So bandits, rebels, and anarchists can loiter there in reasonable comfort.

There is another aspect related to this last factor. Skinner pays less attention to it, but Jim Scott has made it a centerpiece of his recent thinking. This is the dynamic of agrarian state extension from fertile core to barren periphery (or highlands). Scott's analysis of Zomia is precisely a treatment of far periphery (link).

What are the social consequences of this dynamic process over time? There are many, but here are a few:
  • Patterns of diffusion of ideas, movements, and goods. 
  • High barriers to state intervention in some places but not others. 
  • Separation of elite and plebeian cultures. 
  • And researchers have explored some of these dynamics with respect to topics ranging from the Chinese Revolution to technology change in agriculture. 
Why is spatial analysis important?  This framework of research places the spotlight on interactions between place and activity.  These substantive theories and frameworks have proven to be enormously constructive in the development of Chinese history in the past 30 years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Quality of life in China

One of the important developments in efforts to measure economic progress has been the creation of various measures of quality of life.  Average income by itself is not a good indicator of wellbeing; instead we need to have a way of assessing the health, nutrition, and education status of a population over time.  The Human Development Index is one such measure, developed by the United Nations Development Programme. (Here is the 2011 report -- Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All, and here is a resource describing the methodology associated with the index.) A defect in many such efforts is the fact that they are assessed at the country level, so internal regional variations in quality of life are not observable.

Walter H. Aschmoneit provided a truly fascinating effort in 1990 to provide a disaggregated study of quality of life in China circa 1982. The research is contained in Delman, Ostergaard, and Christansen, Remaking Peasant China: Problems of Rural Development and Institutions at the Start of the 1990's and the map that he constructs is represented above.

Aschmoneit incorporates eight factors into his index of life quality (205):
  • gross value of industrial and agricultural output per capita
  • employment rate
  • rate of industrial workers by total employed population
  • rate of illiteracy and half-illiteracy
  • rate of middle school graduates
  • rate of university graduates
  • infant mortality rate
  • death rate 
The data Aschmoneit uses to populate this index for the local administrative units (xian and shi) into which the Chinese population was divided derive from the 1987 Population Atlas of China (collected in 1982).  There were 2,378 administrative units represented in the study.  This means the data reflects the period shortly after the beginning of the reform of agriculture which led to China's extended period of rapid economic growth.

The map displays a number of important patterns.  Low quality of life is heavily concentrated in the western half of China, with the absolutely lowest areas being the extreme southeast and western parts of the country. Sichuan is almost wholly red and brown on the map, with the exception of the hinterlands of Chengdu, indicating below-average quality of life throughout the province. Yunnan and Tibet are almost uniformly substantially below average (purple and blue) in quality of life.  Areas of high quality of life are generally coastal in 1982, with the lower Yangzi Delta, Shandong, and the coastal northeast doing the best. The city of Wuhan in Hubei shows up as an above average district for quality of life, reflecting its advantaged position on the Yangzi River.  The environs of Beijing also show up as a high quality of life district. And in fact many of the isolated green districts appear to correspond to cities of various sizes; extreme poverty was primarily a rural phenomenon in China. (I haven't been able to identify all of the isolated green districts on the map in eastern China, but a number of them are significant cities like Wuhan, Changsha, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.  It would be interesting to determine whether there are exceptions: rural districts with high quality of life.)

There is a fairly close correspondence between this quality of life map and William Skinner's representation of the macroregions of China:

The regions of Lingnan, Southeast Coast, Lower Yangzi, and North China have the highest quality of life, while Upper Yangzi, Northwest China, and Yungui have the lowest.

Today it would be possible to present this data in the form of an interactive map, so the reader would be able to click on a specific place and view its data. This would be of interest because the index combines income data with longevity and education data. So the poverty of a region already gives it low quality of life, irrespective of the performance of the human development characteristics.  It would be interesting to see whether the most extreme districts with low quality of life are uniformly disadvantaged, or perhaps have a mix of better and worse health or education outcomes.

It would be genuinely interesting and important to reproduce this study today to see whether the basic pattern has changed through these decades of intensive economic growth and the acceleration of inequalities in China. If the 2011 Census includes the same data categories this would be a reasonably straightforward effort.  One would expect that the quality of life has gone up in the eastern and southern coastal areas. And it is very possible that quality of life has gone down in rural areas in the interior and the west of China as inequalities have increased and state subsidies have decreased for poor rural areas.

Remaking Peasant China is a book worth owning, not least for the Life-Quality Index map that it provides. The articles are well designed to address some of the key issues that China faced in rural development in the 1980s and 1990s. The book also includes as front paper a map of rural poverty areas at the xian level receiving national support 1986-1990, which gives a visual impression of the distribution of high-poverty areas in the late 1980s. Extreme poverty is defined as regions with more than 40% of rural households with annual per capita income below 150 yuan in 1985. (The map also represents xian with extremely low annual rainfall.) This map was also based on Aschmoneit's research.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Liberal education

One of the most fundamental and distinctive aspects of the American approach to undergraduate education is the priority given to making sure that students receive a broad “liberal education.”  What this phrase means has nothing to do with “liberal politics”; instead, it is a theory of education that holds that the undergraduate student needs to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives from all the liberal arts: the humanities, history, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences.  The student is required to take a broad range of courses that provide exposure in all of these areas.  He or she also has a major subject – an area of greater specialization; but the course work in the major discipline is usually only about twenty-five percent of all courses.  So the American system usually emphasizes breadth as an important academic value, and specialization in a discipline (biology, sociology, literature) receives somewhat lower priority.  Even engineering education – traditionally a fairly specialized curriculum – requires significant exposure to courses in the humanities and social sciences.  (Martha Nussbaum has written a very important book justifying this approach, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.)

What are the reasons for this educational philosophy? What advantages does it offer in helping to develop the intellectual capabilities of the student?  Other national systems of higher education place the balance somewhat differently.  For example, in France and Germany it is expected that university students will have received a broad education in secondary schooling, and that the university is a place for specialized education in a discipline.  However, American educators have multiple reasons for thinking that a broad general education is a crucial component within the process of intellectual maturation and development that is the goal of an undergraduate education.  These reasons fall in several categories: preparing young adults for thinking innovatively and imaginatively; helping young adults to recognize the historical and social context of the problems and processes they study; helping students to deal with moral and political issues in a thoughtful and critical way; helping young people to recognize the value of racial and ethnic diversity within a modern society; building a foundation for deep interdisciplinary work and study at later stages; and cultivating the skills of independent critical thinking.

Imagination and innovation. Most people would agree that the challenges of the twenty-first century, whether in China, Brazil, or North America, will require new ideas and innovative approaches.  This is true in business; creating new products and solutions requires great creativity.  But it is true in social and political life as well; the social challenges all modern societies face cannot be resolved by simply applying “off-the-shelf” solutions.  So cultivating an ability of young people to think with originality and creativity is a major priority for educational systems in every country.  And a broad liberal education is very well suited to developing these features of thought.  When a student has struggled to provide interpretations of a difficult poem, or to understand the cultural practices of modern Navajo people in the American southwest, or to genuinely comprehend the theory of natural selection that Darwin proposed – the student will have created for himself or herself a set of mental skills that would not have developed if her education were restricted to a single discipline and its methods.  Too much “paradigm dependence” discourages creativity.

Social and historical context.  The important problems that modern societies face are rarely confined to a single academic discipline.  And there is often a very important component of social and behavioral complexity to even the most technical of contemporary problems.  Suppose that a city is concerned about automobile traffic congestion, and that the civil engineering experts who consult to the city propose adding an additional tunnel to provide more capacity for an important river crossing within the city.  This might be looked at as a civil engineering problem, and it is, to a certain extent.  But even more importantly, it is a problem of human behavior.  What will be the behavioral consequences of an additional tunnel?  Sociologists may provide a basis for thinking that the additional tunnel will increase congestion rather than decrease it – because more drivers will be encouraged to think that there is a more convenient way of driving to their destination.  So the unintended consequence of the civil engineering project is to increase rather than decrease the social problem it was designed to solve.  (This is approximately what has been observed in the experience of the third harbor tunnel in Boston.)  When students have been trained to look within a problem to discover its historical context and its social dynamics, they are likely to solve problems more effectively.

Moral and political thinking.  It is an important social goal that our society needs to create young people who will be moral persons and engaged citizens.  But behaving morally and exercising the duties of citizenship are skills that we need to learn.  Both require a sophisticated ability to analyze and reason about behavior and about the needs of society.  A broad liberal education is well suited to giving young people the intellectual skills associated with thinking critically about difficult moral and political issues.  For example, suppose a person has received a medical education but now needs to make ethical decisions about possible treatments for some of his or her patients.  The concept of “informed consent” is a complex moral idea, and it is not self-evident.  After all, if the physician himself is confident that a treatment will benefit the patient, why should he need to gain the consent of the patient?  There are very basic moral reasons why this should be the case; but unless the young doctor has had extended experiences in analyzing and debating moral issues, he is poorly prepared for solving this practical issue in his own practice.

The value of diversity.  A broad liberal education is a very good basis for learning to understand and value the perspectives of people whose racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds are very different from our own.  Literature is one such tool.  When students read and discuss a book like The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, they are quickly drawn into an understanding that the perspective of an African-American writer from the 1960s is profoundly different from their own.  And they begin to see that their own parochial interpretation of the events around them is just that – parochial and limited.  It is important to have the tools that permit young citizens to understand these diverse perspectives.  And, as Scott Page documents in a recent book, when we are successful in incorporating diverse perspectives into concrete problem-solving contexts, we get better solutions (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (New Edition)).

Interdisciplinary studies.  Problems like global climate change cannot be effectively addressed from the point of view of a single academic discipline.  Climate change involves ocean chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, international politics, and individual behavior.  And no single discipline can be the basis for a policy that will effectively address climate change.  This means that it is very important to create an intellectual environment that favors interdisciplinary cooperation.  A broad liberal education can do that very well.  When a student graduates from a good liberal arts university in the United States, he or she has a reasonably good grasp of some areas of natural sciences, quantitative reasoning, policy analysis, and historical context; and he or she is able to think critically and communicate effectively with others.  This means that the undergraduate student is in a very good position to be a part of an extended interdisciplinary research or policy effort.

In short, the advocates for a philosophy of liberal education believe that a liberally educated student is best prepared to be a critical and innovative thinker; a person who is well prepared to think with originality about novel problems; a person who has learned to look for the social and historical context of the problems he or she confronts; and a person who has a sophisticated ability to think about complex moral and social issues.  This individual is likely to be a productive contributor to the organizations he or she joins later in life; he or she is likely to be an engaged citizen and a moral person; and he or she is more likely to embody the qualities of respect and civility that are crucial for collaboration and public life.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The great divergence

It has been ten years since Ken Pomeranz published The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy., a book that forced some real rethinking about the economic history in Europe and China. Along with Bin Wong in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, he called for a deep questioning of many of the basic premises of much twentieth century economic history, which was premised on the backwardness and stagnation of China and the dynamism of Western Europe. Industrial revolution and sustained economic growth were unique products of the west, and China was incapable of these transformations at the beginning of the modern epoch -- 1600, let us say.

So the central problematic for "European exceptionalism" was to identify some set of features of western society lacking in China that could account for takeoff. Was it merchant culture? Perhaps Newtonian science? Was it European family and reproductive behavior? Or perhaps it was some feature of Christianity?

Pomeranz doesn't like these theories. More basically, he doesn't accept the premise of European economic superiority in 1600, whether in institutions or ideology. He considers agriculture first and holds that Chinese agriculture was as productive in terms of land and labor as English farming; it was not undergoing involution through population increase; and it supported a rural standard of living that was competitive with that of Europe and England, his primary focus.

Pomeranz doesn't doubt that there were sharp differences in European and Chinese economic development in the 18th century. This is the "great divergence" to which he refers. But he doubts that there are grand socio-cultural explanations for this fact; instead he focuses on contingent conjunctival circumstances that gave England a lead that it maintained for 200 years. These include the fortuitous location of coal in Britain, the fact of New World wealth, and the returns if slave labor in North America. None of these is a deep systemic factor but rather a lucky break for Britain.

Bin Wong adds a different theme to the debate. He recognizes that Europe and China possessed complex political-economic systems that were different from each other. And he agrees that these systems had consequences for development. But he agrees with Pomeranz that neither system is inherently superior. And he calls for an economic history that pays attention to the differences as well as similarities. Each process of development can be illuminated by comparison to the other.

So where is the debate today? This was the focus of a productive conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing last week. Some of the primary contributors to economic history participated, including Robert Allen, Bozhong Li, and James Lee. It isn't possible to summarize the papers, but several themes emerged. The most basic is the need to bring substantially more factual detail to the debate. What we need at this point isn't more theorizing about large causes; it is more fine grained factual discovery across both Europe and China.

Three areas in particular have gotten much more factual in the debate in ten years. the first is agricultural productivity. Historians like Robert Allen and Bozhong Li have substantially sharpened our knowledge of the farm economies of England and China.

Second is the question of the historical standard of living in various places. Essentially this depends on price data, wage data, and a system for comparing consumption across countries. Here too there has been a great refinement of our knowledge. Robert Allen has contributed much of this.

Third is population behavior. The Malthusian theory of the difference between China and Europe is a stumbling block, and of course this theory was created in a fact-free universe. Now comparative historical demography has advanced a long way thanks to researchers like James Lee. The Eurasian Population and Family History Project has now refuted the Malthusian view.

A key idea in the Pomeranz debate is Philip Huang's idea that Chinese agriculture was "involutionary". The work provided by Bozhong Li demonstrates that this theory is simply incorrect when applied to the lower Yangzi River delta. Moreover, China's development after 1970 makes the theory implausible in any case. As Li pointed out at the conference, "It is inconceivable China's modern development could have occurred in the conditions of involution described in the debate." China was clearly not caught in an inescapable involutionary trap.

So there is work to be done still on the origins of the great transformation. And it is valuable for this work to take place with a global and comparative perspective. But most valuable will be detailed factual research that adds significantly to what we know about the past.