Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sociology of soccer?

What might be involved in doing sociological research on an extended and multilayered social phenomenon like soccer?

It might seem as though the answer to this question follows pretty directly from the earlier post on the ontology of soccer: soccer is not a single integrated social "thing", but rather a layered agglomeration of a number of different sociological structures, activities, and processes that intersect in the sport and its role in contemporary society. This implies that there are many different social science research questions that could be posed in this domain, but there is no single "sociology of soccer". But in fact the world of soer seems to be a rich field for sociological research. Here are some of the questions that might interest a sociologist about soccer and its role in society:
  • Why is this sport so important for the people of a number of countries in the world?
  • How does the sport compare in its many social roles to other popular mass sports in other countries -- American football, cricket, or rugby?
  • Are there distinctive fan dynamics at soccer games that lead to more frequent riots, racist acts, and other incidents of uncivil behavior?
  • What is the class composition of soccer fans in Great Britain, Spain, and Turkey?
  • How do the imperatives of advertising and mass media affect the sport?
  • Does soccer perform an important social function in various societies?
  • Is there a distinctive soccer mentality among fans in Madrid, London, or Milan? What are the markers of this mentality?
These topics fall into several distinct angles of approach that sociologists might take to studying global soccer. What are some of the structural and ideological factors that causally influence the sport and its field? What are the experience and subjective dynamics of the populations who consume soccer, the fans? What are the internal structures and dynamics of the sport? And what social effects does the global soccer ensemble produce?

Once we have parsed the topic in this way, the question of doing a sociology of soccer looks a lot like the bodies of research that exist for many other sets of complex multilayered social phenomena -- for example, urbanization, ethnic violence, healthcare systems, higher education, or the labor union movement.

This leaves ample room for a variety of research questions and methods. Qualitative, comparative, and quantitative methods all have a place in this domain; and research questions can naturally range from phenomenological to causal to institutional.

It is apparent that the sociology of sport is a very small field within the broader discipline of sociology; in 2001 there were only 350 members of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. And, with all due respect to those sociologists who pursue topics in this area, it is not a high-prestige area of the discipline. If we were thinking of the discipline of sociology along the lines of Bourdieu's theory of the field (link), young researchers would need to have very good reasons to consider choosing a topic in this area for their dissertation work. But the point of the discussion here is to underline a key point: sociological insight can be discovered in the most mundane parts of the social world. And it would seem that the world of global soccer gives play to some of the most important themes in sociology today: race, gender, class; social mobilization; taste and culture; social networks; and many others.

It is interesting to me to learn that Pierre Bourdieu devoted some attention to the sociology of sport. Here are some citations from a course on the sociology of sport in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland (link):

Bourdieu, P. (1978). Sport and social class. Social Science Information, 17(6), 819-840.
Bourdieu, P. (1988). Program for a sociology of sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5(2), 153-161.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). Programme for a sociology of sport. In In other words: Essays toward a reflexive sociology (pp. 156-167). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1993). How can one be a sports fan? In S. During (Ed.), The cultural studies reader (pp. 339-356). London: Routledge.

Here is a short description of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) (link) on the ASA website.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Is "soccer" an extended social thing?

Some social entities are compact and well bounded -- FEMA as a federal emergency bureau, the IBM Corporation, the Southern Poverty Law Center. In each case we can identify the people, institutions, and powers that constitute the entity. But what about social configurations that don't have this degree of coherence? Can we nonetheless regard these sprawling and heterogeneous social configurations as "things" in the social world?

Take as an example the sprawling worldwide phenomenon of competitive soccer. Soccer is an amalgam of many kinds of social things. It a sport governed by a set of internationally recognized rules. It is a set of firms (teams) which employ persons (players) to compete with each other. It is an extended network of youth leagues that engage in organized competition. It is a complex and shifting set of images and representations in media, film, and popular culture. It is a much larger population of children and youth who play pick-up games with each other, cheer for their favorite professional teams, and wear sports gear representing various athletes and teams.

So what aspects of these social realities hang together enough to constitute a social system or structure?

There seem to be a number of different kinds of social reality mentioned here.

(1) There are formal institutions: FIMA, the official rules of the sport, the businesses that employ and manage the players. These institutions embody a number of sets of rules of behavior within the sport and surrounding the sport.

(2) Second, there is a distributed body of knowledge through a very diverse and multinational population. Various people have expert knowledge of the rules and tactics of the sport. A wider group of people have a fund of knowledge of these rules and tactics, and also a fund of knowledge about the teams and players. There are sports marketers, entrepreneurs, schedulers, trainers, and agents who support the business activities of the sport, and they too have bodies of specialized knowledge.

(3) There are countless specialized individuals throughout the world who play distinctive roles and who orient their behavior to the reality of soccer as it confronts them: players, owners, coaches, physicians, officials, agents, promoters, investors, and so on.

(4) There are institutions and practices through which participants learn their roles and refine their skills.

These various bodies of social activity also have a number of systemic relations with each other. Children learn about soccer through television, school competition, and interactions with each other. Owners influence the evolution of the rules of the game. Apparel makers promote the stars. The workings of the mass media and the schooling institutions have important effects on the knowledge system of young players and fans.

The institutions governing the professional play of the game interact with the commerce of the game: broadcasters, networks, sports agents. These interactions take the form of dynamic networks of individuals with interests and resources through which they pursue their interests. These are social-causal relations that proceed through the strategic efforts of individuals with varying levels of power and influence.

So what about the original question -- is soccer a social thing? I'm inclined to argue that it isn't, and that it is more reasonable to think of it as a congeries of interrelated social phenomena. The internal components are too heterogeneous and too densely interconnected to non-soccer stuff to make the whole an entity. And the soccer world is too lacking of clear boundaries from other social activities to comfortably count as a thing.

This analysis seems to work for a wide range of other social nouns as well: the theatre world, cybercrime, higher education, human trafficking, and so on, more or less indefinitely. We know what we are talking about when we use these nouns. But they refer to widely heterogeneous sets of social activity, practice, and institution. It is hard to think of analogous terms in the natural sciences, but perhaps some concepts from biology come closest. Concepts like habitat, ecology, and predator-prey system seem to encompass some of the same features of complexity and open-endedness that characterize "soccer". It is not a perfect analogy, however, and the social umbrella terms ontology seem substantially more open-ended.

This discussion perhaps illustrates some of the difficulties that arise in articulating a detailed account of a social ontology. An ontology is intended to tell us what exists in a particular realm. But in the case of the social world it appears that there appear to be gray areas -- nouns that we use comfortably, but that don't clearly succeed in referring to a distinctive thing or set of things.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Supervenience of the social?

I have found it appealing to try to think of the macro-micro relation in terms of the idea of supervenience (link).  Supervenience is a concept that was developed in the context of physicalism and psychology, as a way of specifying a non-reductionist but still constraining relationship between psychological properties and physical states of the brain. Physicalism and ontological individualism are both ontological theories about the relationship between higher and lower levels of entities in several different domains. But neither doctrine dictates how explanations in these domains need to proceed; i.e., neither forces us to be reductionist in either psychology or sociology.

The supervenience relation holds that --
  • X supervenes on Y =df no difference in X without some difference in the states of Y
Analogously, to say that the "social" supervenes upon "the totality of individuals making up a social arrangement" seems to have a superficial plausibility, without requiring that we attempt to reduce the social characteristics to ensembles of facts about individuals.

I'm no longer so sure that this is a helpful move, however, for the purposes of the macro-micro relationship.  Suppose we are considering a statement along these lines:
  • The causal properties of organization X supervene on the states of the individuals who make up X and who interact with X.
There seem to be quite a few problems that arise when we try to make use of this idea.

(a) First, what are we thinking of when we specify "the states of the individuals"? Is it all characteristics, known and unknown? Or is it a specific list of characteristics? If it is all characteristics of the individual, including as-yet unknown characteristics, then the supervenience relation is impossible to apply in practice. We would never know whether two substrate populations were identical all the way down. This represents a kind of "twin-earth" thought experiment that doesn't shed light on real sociological questions.

In the psychology-neurophysiology examples out of which supervenience theory originated these problems don't seem so troubling. First, we think we know which properties of nerve cells are relevant to their functioning: electrical properties and network connections. So our supervenience claim for psychological states is more narrow:
  • The causal properties of a psychological process supervene on the functional properties of the states of the nerve cells of the corresponding brain. 
The nerve cells may differ in other ways that are irrelevant to the psychological processes at the higher level: they may be a little larger or smaller, they may have a slightly different content of trace metals, they may be of different ages. But our physicalist claim is generally more refined than this; it ignores these "irrelevant" differences across cells and specifies identity among the key functional characteristics of the cells. Put this way, the supervenience claim is an empirical theory; it says that electrical properties and network connections are causally relevant to psychological processes, but cell mass and cell age are not (within broad parameters).

(b) Second and relatedly, there are always some differences between two groups of people, no matter how similar; and if the two groups are different in the slightest degree -- say, one member likes ice cream and the corresponding other does not -- then the supervenience relation says nothing about the causal properties of X. The organizational features may be as widely divergent as could be imagined; supervenience is silent about the delta to epsilon relations from substrate to higher level. It specifies only that identical substrates produce identical higher level properties. More useful would be something like the continuity concept in calculus to apply here: small deviations in lower-level properties result in small deviations in higher-level properties. But it is not clear that this is true in the social case.

(c) Also problematic for the properties of social structures is an issue that depends upon the idea of path dependence. Let's say that we are working with the idea that a currently existing institution depends for its workings (its properties) on the individuals who make it up at present. And suppose that the institution has emerged through a fifty-year process of incremental change, while populated at each step by approximately similar individuals. The well-established fact of path dependence in the evolution of institutions (Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan) entails that the properties of the institution today are not uniquely determined by the features of the individuals currently involved in the institution in its various stages. Rather there were shaping events that pushed the evolution of the institution in this direction or that at various points in time. This means that the current properties of the institution are not best explained by the current properties of the substrate individuals at present, but rather by the history of development that led this population to this point.

It will still be true that the workings of the institution at present are dependent on the features of the individuals at present; but the path-dependency argument says that those individuals will have adjusted in small ways so as to embody the regulative system of the institution in its current form, without becoming fundamentally different kinds of individuals. Chiefly they will have internalized slightly different systems of rules that embody the current institution, and this is what gives the institution its characteristic mode of functioning in the present.

So explanation of the features of the institution in the present is not best couched in terms of the current characteristics of the individuals who make it up, but rather by an historical account of the path that led to this point (and the minute changes in individual beliefs and behaviors that went along with this).

These concerns make me less satisfied with the general idea of supervenience as a way of specifying the relation between social structures and substrate individuals. What would satisfy me more would be something like this:
  • Social structures supervene upon the states of individuals in the substrate described at a given level of granularity corresponding to our current theory of the actor.
  • Small differences in the substrate will produce only small differences in the social structure.
These add up to a strong claim; they entail that any organization with similar rules of behavior involving roughly similar actors (according to the terms of our best theory of the actor) will have roughly similar causal properties. And this in turn invites empirical investigation through comparative methods.

As for the path-dependency issue raised in comment (c), perhaps this is the best we can say: the substrate analysis of the behavior of the individuals tells us how the institution works, but the historical account of the path-dependent process through which the institution came to have the characteristics it currently has tells us why it works this way. And these are different kinds of explanations.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Is there anything still of interest in the political ideas of anarchism? Can anarchist thinking help contribute to solutions for the conundrums we face in light of some of the failures of electoral democracy we can see; some of the rampant abuses of corporate power that we experience; and the continuing exercise of authoritarian rule in various governments around the world?

First, what is anarchism? If there is a defining thought within the anarchist tradition, it is the idea of social change effected freely by self-organizing groups of people without either states or hierarchical parties defining the agenda. Anarchism is opposed to hierarchy and organized coercion; it is in favor of free self-determination at every level.

So again -- can groups of free individuals self-organize on a genuinely voluntary basis? And can they accomplish anything significant?

One piece of the answer is easy. Anyone who observed some of the language, demands, and actions of the Occupy Movement was also provided a bit of support for Anarchism 101. A variety of groups often came together without formal political structure and worked to enable the energies of large numbers of ordinary activists to accomplish significant things. This experience provides a small bit of empirical support for the idea that it is indeed possible to organize and mobilize large numbers of people around a common end without a "vanguard party." (David Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography is worth reading in this context; link.)

James Scott picks up some of these issues in his most recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. The book is described as a series of fragments; and indeed, much of the argument of the book is carried forward in the form of small but telling examples of social behavior that emphasizes peer-to-peer social coordination rather than institutions and regulations. For example, he goes through the example of the "Red Light Removal" movement that started in Drachten, the Netherlands, to explore the consequences of placing the burden of coordination at intersections on the drivers rather than the stoplight (80). He argues that these experiments indicate that fewer stoplights can lead to more cautious driving and lower accident rates.

Picking up themes he began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott spends a lot of time on the social systems of classification and measurement through which modern societies regiment the activities of their citizens.
The order, rationality, abstractness, and synoptic legibility of certain kinds of schemes of naming, landscape, architecture, and work processes lend themselves to hierarchical power. I think of them as "landscapes of control and appropriation." (34)
Scott provides dissection of the SAT as a way of codifying prospective students (115), the Hamlet Evaluation program in Vietnam as a way of codifying success in war (117), and the erasure of particularity that results from social-scientific quantification of history (135). He essentially sees these and other state-created systems of classification as being ways of regimenting and controlling society. The connection to anarchism is this -- regimentation is the opposite of freedom and particularity. (Scott also provides a detailed analysis of the reasons for the failure of "Fordlandia," Henry Ford's disastrous experiment in Brazil; 37.)

Scott's central target throughout the book is the idea of individuals "subordinated" to larger social structures and hierarchies, with the idea that "insubordination" is a valuable thing once in a while. But the argument isn't really all that persuasive. His most telling examples are instances of absurd, irrational regulation, and we are to draw the conclusion that decent, free people would decide to subvert these regulations. Yes, of course. But what about regulations of health and safety in the production of food and drugs? What about regulations on financial speculation by bankers with depositors' savings? What about regulations on the possession of army surplus anti-tank weapons? Don't we want these regulations to be observed, and don't we want an enforcement system in place that protects all of us from the spontaneous and often self-serving actions of others, no matter how free and creative they are?

So Scott's picture here doesn't seem to add up to a coherent political philosophy. (Though perhaps that is as we should expect from an anarchist viewpoint. "Politics" has to do with the imposition of a coercive legal order; and the kinds of spontaneity and free expression that Scott seems to favor are antithetical to politics in this sense.)  Nonetheless, it is hard to see a viable version of a large, complex society lacking laws and systems of regulation, and deriving instead from the spontaneous and free activities of individuals and small groups. How will we be confident that horse meat isn't being mixed into our burgers? How will we control unlimited dumping of toxic substances into lakes and streams? How will we remain confident that the surgeon who operates on us has actually completed medical training?

What Scott's book really seems to support is something different from anarchism writ large. It is anarchism writ small -- finding ways within a liberal and regulated society to expand the scope of free citizens coordinating their activities together for common purposes. Scott's cheers seem to be more in favor of a playfulness on the part of citizens within the gentle confines of a liberal democratic state. I don't find anything in the book that suggests, for example, that the Spanish Anarchists could have governed Spain (contradiction!) had they miraculously defeated Franco and the Communists. But we have many bits of evidence that suggest that self-organizing systems are feasible for solving some of the mid-level problems faced by local people -- control of water and forest resources, for example. (These are the sorts of examples described in Elinor Ostrom's work on common property resource regimes; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

So the book really represents two cheers for something different from anarchism -- more freedom, more initiative, and more self-organizing cooperation within the broader framework of a liberal democratic society. Individuality, particularity, and a bit of harmless rule-flouting should be possible within a decent liberal democratic society. And really, this is a message that we could equally find comfortably expressed in John Stuart Mill's writings.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The ontology of power

There have been quite a few posts on the concept of power over the years in this blog (link). This continues to be an intriguing subject for me. Fundamentally the question of the moment is this: how does "power" fit into a social ontology of the kinds of things that exist in the social world? Does "power" exist, or is it a term that encompasses a range of other social things and relations? At one point I characterized power as an "influence" concept (link), analogous to "is humorous," "is rude," or "is charismatic". In each case the concept is defined in terms of a capacity possessed by the agent to influence certain kinds of behaviors by others around him or her.  Along these lines we might define power as a feature of an individual as follows:
Caesar is powerful =df Caesar has access to social levers of coercion that permit him to coerce certain kinds of behavior by others.
Those levers might include --
  • command of military or paramilitary forces
  • relations with conformant legislators positioned to enact legislation and regulation
  • relations with conformant private citizens positioned to coerce their dependents to behave this way or that
On this approach, "power" is a dispositional concept attaching to individuals and invoking access to certain kinds of instruments of coercion.

What is "coercion"? This is a topic that Robert Nozick picked up early in his career (“Coercion” in Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel). We might define coercion very simply in terms of an actor's ability to influence the terms of choice that confront another actor. The Godfather put it best: "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse." Here is a possible definition:
x coerces y =df x creates a choice situation for y in which the costs of choosing other available options are unacceptably high, leaving only On+1 to be chosen.
(Here is an article on coercion in SEP; link.)

We can then broaden this concept to groups in society by postulating that certain groups have greater access to the levers of coercion than others. So we might say that "capitalists have more power than workers" because capitalists have access to the lever of unemployment, whereas workers have access only to the power to withhold their labor at substantial personal and familial cost. And we might say that organized crime lords have more power than shopkeepers because the criminals have greater ability to use and threaten violence against the shopkeeper than the reciprocal.

We can also broaden the concept by grouping the levers of coercion into different families: economic coercion, physical coercion, community coercion (shunning within a religious community, for example), … This allows us to identify the sources of power within a given society. Individuals and groups who are favorably positioned with respect to these different categories of instruments of coercion are more powerful than others.

What this account leaves out is the range of "soft" power associated with framing and ideology. This is a different avenue of social influence. It is possible to impel individuals or groups towards certain kinds of actions by shaping their beliefs and cognitive-affective frameworks. Using the media to shift the terms of debate over a policy -- taxing the rich at higher rates or providing universal health insurance -- is a way of exerting power without coercion.

A few features of "power" emerge from these observations. First, power is a relational concept. An individual possesses power over other individuals (relation 1) and does so in virtue of the relations he bears to other persons and institutions (relation 2). Second, power is the activity side of structure: structures and sets of social relations constitute the environment within which individuals are empowered to exercise power over others. The structures perdure, and individuals act within their elements to exert their will over others. And third, power is distributed over many individuals and groups within society at a time. But it is fluid and subject to fluctuations as structures and individuals change. Dick Cheney was powerful at one point in time but not at other points. And what changed was not Cheney but the levers of power and social networks to which he had access.

This seems to imply that power is not itself a "thing" within a reasonable social ontology. It is rather a relational characteristic that exists at various social locations depending on the connections those locations have to the levers of influence over individuals and groups.

(We might speculate that there is an art to exercising power that means that not everyone is equally adept at the activity. Being well situated with respect to the levers of influence is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for being powerful.)

This account lines up well with some aspects of Steven Lukes' analysis of power in his classic book, Power: A Radical View (link). It also aligns well with Michael Mann's definition of social power in The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 and elsewhere: "My earlier work identified four primary 'sources of social power' in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political" (Fascists, 5).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Character and authenticity

image: Molière's Tartuffe, Comédie Française

When we judge that a person has acted on the basis of character in a given situation, we are implying a judgment about his or her inner constitution, and we are judging that the action derived "authentically" from the individual's underlying traits. Character and authenticity go hand in hand.

So what is "authenticity" when it comes to action? It seems to come down to this. When we talk about authenticity, we are presupposing that a person has a real, though unobservable, inner nature, and we are asserting that he/she acts authentically when actions derive from or reflect that inner nature. This is a kind of moral psychological realism: we work on the assumption that there are real inner features of personality and character that influence (portions of) the individual's behavior.

There are many other kinds of judgments that we make about other people's actions that suggest the opposite of authenticity: pretense, guile, manipulation, scripted, self-flattering, role-playing, acting. What these descriptors have in common is the idea of an individual choosing a series of actions and a style of action that is intended to convey a particular impression of the actor, irrespective of the actor's "true" nature, thoughts, and intentions. There is a disjunction between semblance (based on actions) and self (based on the actor's inner subjective reality). Tartuffe's actions in Molière's comedy are inauthentic and insincere; Tartuffe skillfully shapes his behavior to evoke specific reactions from others.  Politicians come to mind as we consider this list of features of action -- persons who seem always to be playing a role to cultivate positive reactions from others for the sake of electoral gain, with no evidence of authenticity.

Consider the example of Will Kane in High Noon, played in 1952 by Gary Cooper. Will Kane is a small-town marshall who is placed in a position of having to decide whether to stand and fight the armed men coming to kill him, or to slip out of town with a good head start -- and leave the town to the violent depredations of the outlaws. He strives first to gain a collective defense of the town, but all the town worthies suddenly find that they have other urgent appointments. And his deputy Harvey Pell takes this moment to allow his long-standing grievances to boil over and to walk away. So it is either stand alone or flee. He stays.

So how are we to understand Kane's choice? The movie's original poster gives one interpretation: "the story of a man who was too proud to run!" This isn't a particularly satisfying interpretation, though, in that it seems to trivialize his choice. Pride seems like a superficial motivation -- along the lines of "Robert was too proud to ask his boss for a loan for taxi fare when he realized he had forgotten his wallet." Pride seems to be a motivation that has to do with avoiding embarrassment rather than the loftier motivations of character and sacrifice.

Here is a somewhat different line of thought: Kane has learned to become a certain kind of person -- a person who doesn't bow easily to threats, a person who cares about his neighbors and friends, a person who loathes the violent bullying of the outlaw. On this line of thought, Kane has grown into a certain kind of character, which leads him to act in ways that seem contrary to his self-interest. He resists intimidation; we would also expect him to resist subornment or bribery.

Another possibility is that Kane possesses a deeply engrained role responsibility: it is his job as marshall to take risks to defend the town. (It's no longer his job, in fact, since he has resigned in deference to the pacifist convictions of his soon-to-be wife, Amy Fowler, before the crisis began.) But we might speculate that his sense of duty prevails over the fact of risk and the coincidence of having given up his badge; he is the only person on the scene who can or will oppose Frank Miller's gunmen.

There are several entwined complexities in this short discussion. One is the fact that the examples used here are drawn from fiction; so Tartuffe and Will Kane are both played by actors representing their actions and motivations. Certainly it would be a category mistake to judge that "Gary Cooper displayed great character in High Noon"; it is the depiction rather than the performer that needs analysis here.

Second, there is the realism point made above: the idea that the individual has a core set of characteristics that are "really" part of his or her makeup. Without this assumption, the idea of authenticity doesn't have traction. But this takes us in the direction of a real "self" which is the author of one's actions; and there are many reasons for thinking that this is an over-simplification of action and agency. Briefly, it is plausible that an actor's choices derive both from features of the self and the situation of action and the interplay of the actions of others. So script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action.

Moreover, even if the realism assumption is justified, character is only one part of the "real" self. One can be inauthentic by violating the impulses of his/her character; but likewise inauthenticity can derive from a deviation between beliefs and thoughts and actions. Iago is inauthentic because he pretends loyalty to Othello, whereas he is secretly disloyal.

And third, it is possible that the relation between "character" and "role" is not as contradictory as is suggested here. It may be that the role sets some of the parameters of the character and serves to reinforce one set of actions over another in particular circumstances of choice. The fact that Will Kane was regarded by others as an honorable and courageous man may be part of the explanation of the fact that he behaved in an honorable and courageous way.

(Here is an interesting source that provides examples of action driven by character in real life -- Bob Blauner's account of the professors in the University of California who resisted McCarthyism at the cost of their jobs; Resisting McCarthyism: To Sign or Not to Sign California's Loyalty Oath.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The heterogeneous social?

image: screenshot from video, "A Bird Ballet"

I've argued in several places that we need to think of the social world as being radically heterogeneous (linklink, link). There are multiple processes, things, structures, and temporalities at work, and what we perceive at a moment in time in the social world is a complex composite of these various things. The social world is not a unified system; it is not a manifestation of a unified underlying process; it is not a unity at all.

What does this claim about the social world mean in concrete terms? And what are the implications for the social sciences? Consider a few examples of complex social wholes:
  • the industrial revolution, 1700-1850
  • the rise of Al Qaeda, 1970-2001
  • urbanization in China, 1600-1700
  • Chicago as a functioning city, 2000
  • the University of Illinois, 1971
  • being Muslim in Toronto, 1990 
These examples are themselves heterogeneous. Some are extended historical processes; others are synchronic sets of social facts; others are institutions and social environments at a time; yet others are states of social identities at a time. But the fact about heterogeneity that I want to focus on here is internal: for each social phenomenon, there are heterogeneous components and sub-processes that make it up and that generally have their own dynamics and properties.

First, where is the heterogeneity in these examples?

The industrial revolution is not one thing; it is rather a confluence of developments in technology, markets, habitation, ideology, labor practices, scientific institutions, natural resources, and numerous other social features that change over time. And the outcomes of "industrial revolution" are not uniform over regions, nations, sectors, or industries. Different parts of Britain had different experiences; and these experiences and outcomes are in turn different from those in Sweden or Italy.

Likewise, early-modern urbanization of Chinese cities is a the result of a complex ensemble of processes. We can summarize the outcome by a measure of the percentage of people living in cities greater than 100,000 at a certain moment in time. But the causes, processes, environmental factors, and institutions through which this transformation took place were highly diverse; and the cities that resulted were diverse as well. (G. William Skinner charts out much of this diversity in a number of works; The City in Late Imperial China.)

Or take Chicago in 2000. The social whole is a composite of population, institutions, political processes, demographic transitions, transportation networks, employment systems, and policing practices -- and many other factors I haven't mentioned. And if we were to ask a question along these lines -- why did Chicago come to function in 2000 in the fashion that it did? -- we would have to consider all of these processes and their composite effects, and their interactions with each other. There is no single answer to the question, "what is Chicago and how does it work?".

Being Muslim at a time and place is likewise deeply heterogeneous. Individuals, families, sub-groups, and institutions differ -- from Iowa to Ontario, and within communities and across mosques. Individuals differ in ways that are both personal and institutional. So there is no single identity that is "Muslim in Toronto"; rather, there is an ensemble of people, groups, and social organizations which in the composite represent "the many identities of Muslims in Toronto."

In fact, it seems to me that heterogeneity comes into each of these examples in a variety of ways. There are:
  • multiple causes at work
  • multiple expressions of ethnic / cultural identity
  • multiple purposes and understandings on the parts of participants
  • multiple sub-institutions with different profiles and dynamics
  • multiple outcomes or macro-characteristics that are denoted by the term
So the constitution and dynamics of social phenomena reflect diverse kinds of things and processes.

So where does "science" come into this picture? Is it possible to have a scientific understanding of a heterogeneous phenomenon?

Here is one possible strategy. We might hope that the sub-components of heterogeneous entities might have separable dynamics of development; so even though the city simpliciter does not have an inherent dynamic of development or functioning, its subsystems do. In this case we might say that a scientific analysis of the whole involves a separate scientific theory of the components and a synthetic effort to show how they interact.

But this approach is perhaps too generous to the power of analysis; it seems to presuppose that we can disassemble a complex and heterogeneous whole into a discrete set of reasonably homogeneous components, each of which can be treated scientifically and separately. The thesis above, though, was fairly comprehensive: "all social phenomena are heterogeneous". So that seems to imply that the results of analysis lead us to a set of components that are themselves heterogeneous -- a heterogeneity regress! And this paradoxical conclusion actually seems to be true in a very practical sense: when we disaggregate "Chicago" into "political institutions," "policing institutions," "economic institutions / market system", and the like -- we again encounter social units that have internal variation and heterogeneity.

Could we at least argue that analysis reduces complexity to a certain extent, and that the components are more amenable to scientific and causal theorizing than the whole? This more modest claim does seem to be defensible. Take the processes underlying "industrial revolution". It is possible to offer a reasonably rigorous study of the development of scientific knowledge and the institutions through which knowledge is created and disseminated, in ways that are less complex that the whole with which we began. Likewise, we can offer specialized study of the "making of the English working class" that includes some of the factors that influenced labor and politics during the period -- thereby making a contribution to a better understanding of the complex whole, industrial revolution.

In an odd way this line of thought seems to bring us back to one of the oldest debates in the history of philosophy going back to the pre-Socratic philosophers: does "nature" have a "nature"? The atomists believed that the complexity of the observed world depended ultimately on the simple properties of the components; whereas philosophers like Heraclitus maintained that nature consisted of "flux" all the way down.

(The  video mentioned at the top, "A Bird Ballet," is beautiful and surprising. But I'm not certain that it fully illustrates the point I'm making about the social world. The ensemble of starlings depicted here shows a startling reality of shifting shapes and motions over time. The viewer is led to ask, how did this ensemble of thousands of organisms come to have this graceful and shifting dynamic?" So far it is a good analogy to the social. But an animal behavior specialist is likely to be able to give us a pretty simple explanation of how the individual-level flight behavior interacts across birds in flight, and results in the swarming behavior documented here. In this respect the swarm is simpler than the "heterogeneity all the way down" picture that I'm putting forward for complex social phenomena. Still, it is a powerful example of "wholes" that are less unified than they first appear.)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Historians of Past & Present

image: "Historians of Past and Present," National Portrait Gallery, London

A recent article on J. H. Elliott in the New York Review of Books includes a very striking portrait of the founders of the British history journal, Past and Present. The painting includes Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas (standing); and Christopher Hill, J. H. Elliott, and Joan Thirst (seated). The journal has been an incredibly important platform for some of the best social history being written from its founding in 1952 through the present, and it is very striking to see these pathbreaking historians all depicted together.

The journal was founded post-war by a group of historians who were Marxist and often members of the British Communist Party; but the journal itself maintained an intellectual independence from doctrine and party that allowed it to cultivate genuinely important historical research. As Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm put the point in the 1983 essay mentioned below, "In our dealings with Party or Group we were quite explicit in establishing that the journal was independent, and would accept no policy instructions" (5).

There is one element of this piece of intellectual history that I continue to find particularly intriguing. This has to do with the relationship between intellectual honesty and political conviction.  How is an historian's work (or the work of a social scientist or philosopher) affected by his or her political convictions? Intellectual honesty seems like a straightforward thing: we want scholars to pursue their findings as the facts and inferences guide them. We want them to help us understand how the world works, based on their best reading of the evidence. We don't want them to "spin" events or processes into alignment with their political ideologies or commitments. So how did this work for the historians of Past and Present and for Communist historians who were not part of the journal like E. P. Thompson? 

One part of the answer seems clear: these historians chose their topics for research based on their intuitions about the drivers of history, and these intuitions were certainly bound up in their political commitments and passions. So when Hobsbawm focuses on "Machine Breakers" (1952) or Soboul on "Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4" (1954) or Rodney Hilton on "Freedom and Villeinage in England" (1965) or E. P. Thompson on "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd" (1971), the topics they study have an obvious relevance to their political passions. But what about their findings? Are they able to see the aspects of their stories that are unexpected from a classical Marxist point of view? Is history "gnarly" and unpredictable for them? And are they honest in laying out the facts as they found them? Having read each of Hobsbawm, Soboul, Hilton, and Thompson with a certain degree of care over the years, my belief is that they meet this test. Certainly this is true for Thompson; the originality of his classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, is precisely to be found in the fact that it is not a cookie-cutter theory of class. Instead, Thompson goes into great detail, based on a rich variety of primary sources, about the sources of identity that working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created for themselves. These historians are not doctrinaire in their findings, and they honestly confront the historical realities that they find.

One way of getting a feeling for the journal is to look at its contents. The topics included in the first ten years of publication of Past and Present cover a broad range of historical subjects. Here are some exemplars from the first decade:
  • Hill, Christopher. 1952. "Puritans and the Poor." Past & Present (2):32-50. doi: 10.2307/650123.
  • Hilton, R. H. 1952. "Capitalism--What's in a Name?" Past & Present (1):32-43. doi: 10.2307/649987.
  • Hobsbawm, E. J. 1952. "The Machine Breakers." Past & Present (1):57-70. doi: 10.2307/649989.
  • Homans, George Caspar. 1953. "The Rural Sociology of Medieval England." Past & Present (4):32-43. doi: 10.2307/649895.
  • Kiernan, V., and Christopher Hill. 1953. "Puritanism and the Poor." Past & Present (3):45-54. doi: 10.2307/650035.
  • Hobsbawm, E. J. 1954. "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the 17th Century." Past & Present (5):33-53. doi: 10.2307/649822.
  • Mondolfo, Rodolfo, and D. S. Duncan. 1954. "The Greek Attitude to Manual Labour." Past & Present (6):1-5. doi: 10.2307/649811.
  • Soboul, A. 1954. "Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4." Past & Present (5):54-70. doi: 10.2307/649823.
  • Childe, V. G. 1955. "The Sociology of the Mycenaean Tablets." Past & Present (7):76-77. doi: 10.2307/650174.
  • Kosminsky, E. A. 1955. "The Evolution of Feudal Rent in England from the XIth to the XVth Centuries." Past & Present (7):12-36. doi: 10.2307/650170.
  • Rudé, George E. 1955. "The Outbreak of the French Revolution." Past & Present (8):28-42. doi: 10.2307/649776.
  • Aston, T. H. 1956. "The English Manor." Past & Present (10):6-14. doi: 10.2307/650142.
  • Goubert, Pierre. 1956. "The French Peasantry of the Seventeenth Century: A Regional Example." Past & Present (10):55-77. doi: 10.2307/650145.
  • Soboul, A. 1956. "The French Rural Community in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." Past & Present (10):78-95. doi: 10.2307/650146.
  • Connell, K. H. 1957. "Peasant Marriage in Ireland after the Great Famine." Past & Present (12):76-91. doi: 10.2307/650016.
  • Klíma, A. 1957. "Industrial Development in Bohemia 1648-1781." Past & Present (11):87-99. doi: 10.2307/649742.
  • Ludloff, R. 1957. "Industrial Development in 16th-17th Century Germany." Past & Present (12):58-75. doi: 10.2307/650015.
  • Jones, A. H. M. 1958. "The Roman Colonate." Past & Present (13):1-13. doi: 10.2307/649865.
  • Małowist, M. 1958. "Poland, Russia and Western Trade in the 15th and 16th Centuries." Past & Present (13):26-41. doi: 10.2307/649867.
  • Cobb, R. 1959. "The People in the French Revolution." Past & Present (15):60-72. doi: 10.2307/649832.
  • Trevor-Roper, H. R. 1959. "The General Crisis of the 17th Century." Past & Present (16):31-64. doi: 10.2307/650152.
  • Briggs, Asa. 1961. "Cholera and Society in the Nineteenth Century." Past & Present (19):76-96. doi: 10.2307/649981.
  • Soboul, Albert, and Georges Lefebvre. 1961. "Urban Society in the Orléanais in the Late Eighteenth Century." Past & Present (19):46-75. doi: 10.2307/649980.
  • Dore, R. P. 1962. "Talent and the Social Order in Tokugawa Japan." Past & Present (21):60-72. doi: 10.2307/649996.
  • Finley, M. I. 1962. "Athenian Demagogues." Past & Present (21):3-24. doi: 10.2307/649993.
Out of this list a number of themes recur: for example, underclass life, revolution, class, and economic history. These topics reflect the theoretical and political interests of the founders and the editors of the journal, and they served to encourage a substantial volume of additional research along these lines in the years that followed. Many of these essays have proven to be a classics in their genres.

Two interesting articles were published in the journal in 1983 about its own history (link). The first was by three of the founding editors of the journal, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. And the other was by Jacques Le Goff, the then-editor of the equally important French history journal, Annales.  These two essays offer very interesting snapshots into the role that the journal played in British history through the mid 1980s.

Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm emphasize the intellectual independence of the journal from its inception. This independence derived from the commitment of the board of editors: "It has been the collegiality of the Board which enabled us to know each other, to formulate a consensus about the sort of history we wanted to encourage -- irrespective of ideological or other divergences within the Board -- to establish policies and perspectives for the journal, however tacitly and empirically, and to establish a flexible continuity of policy" (12).

Jacques Le Goff also addresses the Marxist orientation of the journal in his 1983 contribution in these terms:
Never having had any prejudice against Marxism, provided it was open and undogmatic, I was totally able to accept a publication in which there was certainly an element of Marxism but which gave no impression of being subject to a dogma, still less to a party. (14)
Le Goff emphasizes the importance of the intellectual impetus that Past and Present created for historians everywhere. He draws attention to the annual conferences that the Past and Present Society organized, and the importance of many of these discussions for further developments in historical research.

Past and Present has been a leading forum for a particularly dynamic field of historiography in its six decades of publication. Its pages have highlighted the importance of social and economic history; the concrete history of social classes; the dynamics of revolution; the role that technology played in ordinary life in medieval and modern times; the key roles that agriculture and rural life played in early modern history; and underclass social life. These are themes that have a great deal of salience for a Marxist interpretation of history.  But what is displayed in its pages, from beginning to the present, is rigorous, critical history -- not Marxist dogmas about the working class, the peasantry, or the inevitability of social revolution.

(Here is a rational discussion of Hobsbawm's political affiliations in the Guardian; link. And here is a diatribe against Hobsbawm's insufficient commitment to Marxism in the International Marxist Tendency; link. This lengthy piece presents an alternative interpretation of Hobsbawm's life and work. Harvey Kaye provides extensive discussion of these figures in The British Marxist Historians. Also interesting is Michael Scott Christofferson's French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Anti-totalitarian Moment of the 1970s.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Rationale for the philosophy of social science

The philosophy of social science is one of the smaller sub-disciplines of philosophy, and many universities have only a single course in the subject. In contrast to larger fields such as ethics or epistemology, the philosophy of social science involves a much smaller part of the intellectual spectrum and audience within the field of philosophy. So how is this discipline defined by scholars who help to constitute it today? What are some of the intellectual challenges that drive the field forward?

One way to proceed in trying to answer these questions is to take a quick look at the descriptions of the field offered by other philosophers in recent books and collections. There has been a lot of activity in the field in the past decade, so we have a lot to work with.

Here is how Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala motivate the subject in their 2011 collection, The Philosophy of Social Science Reader:
Social science studies topics -- such as economic growth, employment, crime, social inequality, cultural conflicts, and so on -- matter to almost everyone, and philosophy is important to social science. For example, there is little consensus across the social sciences as to basic methods, aims, and fundamental assumptions about human beings, and disputes on such topics are inevitably linked to long-standing discussions in philosophy. The answer to the second question [why to publish a new anthology] is that the philosophy of social science has changed quite dramatically over the last two decades. So a new anthology is required to keep track of the best research, and to map the moving boundaries of this important subfield of philosophy. (1)
They single out four major themes to characterize how the field has moved in the past two decades -- disunity, interdisciplinary, naturalism, and values. And their volume is organized around seven parts: "Values and social science," "Causal inference and explanation," "Interpretation," "Rationality and choice," "Methodological individualism," "Norms, conventions, and institutions," and "Cultural evolution."

In his more specialized collection in 2009, Philosophy of the Social Sciences: Philosophical Theory and Scientific Practice, Chris Mantzavinos offers this description of the field:
Philosophy of science examines "scientific knowledge." It tries to illuminate the specific characteristics of science, the way it is produced, the historical dimensions of science, and the normative criteria at play in appraising science…. The philosophy of the social sciences, on the other hand, traditional deals with such problems as the role of understanding (Verstehen) in apprehending social phenomena, the status of rational choice theory, the role of experiments in the social sciences, the logical status of game theory, as well as whether there are genuine laws of social phenomena or rather social mechanisms to be discovered, the historicity of the social processes, etc.  (1)
Mantzavinos's organizing topics include: "Basic problems of sociality," "Laws and explanation in the social sciences," and "How philosophy and the social sciences can enrich each other." The first has to do with social ontology; the second has to do with explanation; and the third has to do with cross-over problems that affect both social science and philosophy (cooperation; virtuous behavior; and the hermeneutic circle).

Mantzavinos correctly emphasizes the importance of linking the work of philosophers on these topics to the practices of working social scientists:
The enterprise is motivated by the view that the philosophy of the social sciences cannot ignore the specific scientific practices according to which scientific work is being conducted in the social sciences and will only be valuable if it evolves in constant interaction with the theoretical developments in the social sciences. (1)
 Ian Jarvie and Jesus Zamora-Bonilla's very interesting 2011 collection, The SAGE Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences, is another important recent compendium in the philosophy of social science. Jarvie describes the discipline in more encompassing terms in his introduction to the volume:
As a set of problems, the philosophy of the social sciences is wide-ranging, untidy, inter-disciplinary and constantly being reconfigured in response to new problems thrown up by developments in the social sciences; in short, disorderly. As an institutionalised discipline, by contrast, philosophy of the social sciences emerged from the academic division of labour that fosters specialization and professionalization, that is, order and discipline. There is always a tension between the unruliness of intellectual inquiry and the urge towards order and discipline. (1)
Jarvie offers some interesting observations of the historical path that the discipline of the philosophy of social science has taken. He provides a perspective that is intermediate between philosophy and sociology of science; he is interested in characterizing both the intellectual influences that pushed the field and some of the institutions within which the field developed.
The field is already big enough to be fragmented. Three rough divisions would be: literatures deriving from economics and politics; from psychology and from sociology, anthropology and history. Those interested in economics lay much stress on testability, methodological individualism and rational choice. By contrast the latter group is much given to discussing causation in history and society, the nature of social wholes, problems of meaning and the social construction of reality. Psychology is an area where much of the discussion we might think of as philosophy of the social sciences is carried out in the pages of its own journals. (5)
Jarvie also provides a very interesting table of topics are they are represented in anthologies in the philosophy of social science from 1953 to 2007 (Table 1.2).

It is interesting to observe that scholars in other fields have tried to understand the history of the logic of the social sciences in quite different terms than those adopted by philosophers. George Steinmetz is a good example. He is a highly talented and innovative historical sociologist who has made very important contributions to issues about methodology and theory within sociology. (A particularly interesting journal article is "Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study, and 'Small N's' in Sociology"; link.) Steinmetz's 2005 collection on the influence of positivism in the social sciences, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others, is well worth considering as a sociologist's version of the philosophy of social science anthologies considered above. And the gist of the volume and the methodologies pursued are quite different. Here is Steinmetz's description of the purpose of the volume:
This collection explores the vicissitudes of positivism and its epistemological others in the contemporary human sciences. The volume's overarching goal is to provide a mapping of the contemporary human sciences from the standpoint of their explicit and especially their implicit epistemologies, asking about the differences and similarities among and within these disciplines' epistemological cultures. Taken together, the essays provide a portrait of epistemology and methodology (writ large) in the contemporary social sciences. (1)
So the volume is about the logic and epistemology of the social sciences. But it is also about the concrete sociological history of the development of the social science disciplines:
This book also offers the rudiments of a comparative historical narrative of these disciplinary developments since the beginning of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on the period beginning with World War II. Recent writing has pointed not just to the present-day conjuncture of epistemological uncertainty but also to the middle decades of the twentieth century as critical moments in the transformation of the social sciences' deep culture. (1)
There is also a substantive final goal for the volume: to lay the conceptual space necessary to conceive of alternatives to the positivist framework for social science theorizing.
The other overarching aim of this book is to survey the landscape of alternatives to positivism in the human sciences. (2)
The volume provides a number of interesting perspectives by very talented sociologists on these topics, including especially contributions by Margaret Somers, William Sewell, Andrew Collier, Michael Burawoy, Sandra Harding, and Andrew Abbott. Each of them turns our attention a quarter-turn away from highly abstract conceptual research, to a nuanced effort to understand how ideas, institutions, and frameworks have played out in the social sciences in the past fifty years.

Here is my own statement of why the philosophy of social science is important, included in my contribution "Philosophy of Sociology" in Fritz Allhoff's 2010 collection, Philosophies of the Sciences: A Guide:
The importance of the philosophy of social science derives from two things: first, the urgency and complexity of the challenges posed by the poorly understood social processes that surround us in twenty-first century society, and second, the unsettled status of our current understanding of the logic of social science knowledge and explanation. We need the best possible research and explanation to be conducted in the social sciences, and current social science inquiry falls short. We need a better-grounded understanding of the social, political, and behavioral phenomena that make up the modern social world. Moreover, the goals and primary characteristics of a successful social science are still only partially understood. What do we want from the social sciences? And how can we best achieve these cognitive and practical goals? There are large and unresolved philosophical questions about the logic of social science knowledge and theory on the basis of which to arrive at that understanding. And philosophy can help articulate better answers to these questions. So philosophy can play an important role in the development of the next generation of social science disciplines. (295)
It appears that there are important differences in the approaches to understanding the role of the philosophy of social science contained in these various passages. There is a fairly traditional "history of thought" approach, that attempts to document the way in which this sub-discipline took shape within the larger discipline of philosophy. There is a "sociology of ideas" approach that tries to link certain research traditions to a given set of research institutions and larger social priorities. And there is a philosophical approach that tries to work out what questions really are most pressing when we consider the challenges of the social sciences.

(The graphics at the top illustrate several very different ways of trying to make sense of a disparate set of related academic disciplines.)