Friday, November 29, 2013

Relevant to what?

photo (3)
source: Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (cover)
photo (2)
source: Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, p. 15
An earlier post raised the question of the value of academic research and concluded that we shouldn't expect academic research to be "relevant" (link). That is a strong conclusion and needs some further dissection. Plainly research needs to be relevant to something -- it needs to be relevant to a recognized "problem" in the discipline or across disciplines; it needs somehow to be relevant to a tradition or thread of conversation within the discipline; and (as Tasia Wagner pointed out in a comment) it often needs to be relevant to a "hot" topic if the author wants to see it published. And of course academic research needs to be judged by a set of standards of rigor, method, and overall significance. Iit needs to be relevant to a set of standards of academic assessment. We want to be able to make comparative judgments about research contributions -- "not well argued," "derivative," "minor", as well as their opposites -- strongly argued, original, and important. That is what academic communities are for, and that is why we have confidence in peer review processes for publication and for advancement in the university.

All true.

The specific kind of relevance I was taking issue with is "practical utility" -- the demand for immediate problem-solving potential that underlies common critiques of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Proxmire "Golden Fleece" awards a generation ago caught this current exactly (link), and there is a similar current of thinking in the Congress today. For example, the current effort to exclude funding for research in political science by the NSF seems to fall in this category (link). This is the view I want to take issue with -- the idea that abstract research in the humanities or social sciences is frivolous, pointless, and without social value.

There is a related kind of relevance that I think I would discount as well: "accessibility to a wide public." Some academic research is in fact accessible to a wide audience in its primary form. But that is not generally the case. Take the mathematics of chaos theory. It is esoteric and technical, not readily understood by non-mathematicians. (The illustration and page of text above are taken from Benoit Mandelbrot's 1983 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature.) But the theory can be translated by gifted science writers and communicators like James Gleick, whose Chaos: Making a New Science was read by a very wide non-specialist audience, in forms that significantly influence the imaginations and frameworks of non-specialists. Likewise, the primary research in archeology, ethnography, and economic history that underlies our understanding of the long-term material history of our species makes for a tough read for non-specialists. But then a Jared Diamond can write a wildly popular book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, that translates this research for the wider readership. Diamond is an accomplished academic. But  Guns, Germs, and Steel is not a primary work of original academic research; it is a beautifully executed work of translation.

So here is the scoring system I'd like to see guiding our thinking about social investments in research in the humanities and social sciences (which is probably relevant in the natural sciences as well):
  • Is the problem an important one?
  • Has an appropriate methodology been pursued with rigor, evidence, and logic?
  • Is there an original or innovative discovery involved in the research product?
Significantly, these criteria will be familiar to any academic who has served as a reviewer for journal submissions, a grant proposal reviewer for a foundation, or a reviewer for a faculty tenure case.
Now let's score one particular philosopher, John Rawls, for a research article that was written before he became a household word with the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971. The article is "Justice as Fairness" and it appeared in Philosophical Review in 1958.

  • The problem is, how should we attempt to assess the justice of basic institutions in a modern society? This problem is one of the big ones -- give it a 10.
  • The methodology is analytic philosophy of ethics, with an innovative use of economic reasoning added. Most of the world of expert philosophers would say the arguments are carried off perfectly. Another 10.
  • And what about innovation? For sure. Rawls insisted on a new way of framing ethical issues, distinctly different from the metaethical and utilitarian approaches of the 1950s. Another 10.

So "Justice as Fairness" scores a perfect 30 on my metric. And yet the article probably achieved a readership of 800 people in its published form in The Philosophical Review within a year of its publication. It was technical philosophy and would have been a quick rejection in The Atlantic or the New Yorker. But in hindsight, it was very important. It laid the ground for what became the most influential and widely read book of political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century (over 300,000 copies according to its publisher), and substantially changed the terms of debate about issues of distributive justice.

All of this suggests that we can't judge the likely impact or even the practical importance of a work at the time it is undertaken. But we can make judgments about rigor, importance, and originality, and these are the best guides we have for deciding what research to publish and support.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who made economics?


The discipline of economics has a high level of intellectual status, even hegemony, in today’s social sciences — especially in universities in the United States. It also has a very specific set of defining models and theories that distinguish between “good” and “bad” economics. This situation suggests two topics for research: how did political economy and its successors ascend to this position of prestige in the social sciences? And how did this particular mix of techniques, problems, mathematical methods, and exemplar theoretical papers come to define the mainstream discipline? How did this governing disciplinary matrix develop and win the field?

One of the most interesting people taking on questions like these is Marion Fourcade. Her Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s  was discussed in an earlier post (link). An early place where she expressed her views on these topics is in her 2001 article, “Politics, Institutional Structures, and the Rise of Economics: A Comparative Study” (link). There she describes the evolution of economics in these terms:

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the study of the economy has evolved from a loose discursive "field," with no clear and identifiable boundaries, into a fully "professionalized" enterprise, relying on both a coherent and formalized framework, and extensive practical claims in administrative, business, and mass media institutions. (397)

And she argues that this process was contingent, path-dependent, and only loosely guided by a compass of “better” science:

Overall,contrary to the frequent assumption that economics is a universal and universally shared science, there seems to be considerable cross-national variation in (1) the and nature of the institutionalization of an economic knowledge field, (2) the forms of professional action of economists, and (3) intellectual traditions in the of economics. (398)

Fourcade approaches this subject as a sociologist; so she wants to understand the institutional and structural factors that led to the shaping and stabilization of this field of knowledge.

Understanding the relationship between the institutional and intellectual aspects of knowledge production requires,first and foremost,a historical analysis of the conditions under which a coherent domain of discourse and practice was established in the first place. (398)

A key question in this article (and in Economists and Societies) is how the differences that exist between the disciplines of economics in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the US came to be. The core of the answer that she gives rests on her analysis of the relationships that existed between practitioners and the state: "A comparison of the four cases under investigation suggests that the entrenchment of the economics profession was profoundly shaped by the relationship of its practitioners to the larger political institutions and culture of their country" (432). So differences between economics in, say, France and the United States, are to be traced back to the different ways in which academic practitioners of economic analysis and policy recommendations were situated with regard to the institutions of the state.

It is possible to treat the history of ideas internally ("systems of ideas are driven by rational discussion of their implications") and externally ("systems of ideas are driven by the social needs and institutional arrangements of a certain time"). The best sociology of knowledge avoids this dichotomy, allowing for both the idea that a field of thought advances in part through the scientific and conceptual debates that occur within it and the idea that historically specific structures and institutions have important effects on the shape and direction of the development of a field. Fourcade avoids the dichotomy by treating seriously the economic reasoning that took place at a time and place, while also searching out the institutional and structural factors that favored this approach or that in a particular national setting.

This is sociology of knowledge done at a high level of resolution. Fourcade wants to identify the mechanisms through which "societal institutions" influence the production of knowledge in the four country contexts that she studies (Germany, Great Britain, France, and the US). She does not suggest that economics lacks scientific content or that economic debates do not have a rational structure of argument. But she does argue that the configuration of the field itself was not the product of rational scientific advance and discovery, but instead was shaped by the institutions of the university and the exigencies of the societies within which it developed.

Fourcade's own work suggests a different kind of puzzle -- this time in the development of the field of the sociology of knowledge. Fourcade's topic seems to be one that is tailor-made for treatment within the terms of Bourdieu's theory of a field. And in fact some of Fourcade's analysis of the institutional factors that influenced the success or failure of academic economists in Britain, Germany, or the US fits Bourdieu's theory very well. Bourdieu's book Homo Academicus appeared in 1984 in French and 1988 in English. But Fourcade does not make use of Bourdieu's ideas at all in the 2001 article -- some 17 years after Bourdieu's ideas were published.  Reference to elements of Bourdieu's approach appears only in the 2009 book. There she writes:

Bourdieu found that the social sciences occupy a very peculiar position among all scientific fields in that external factors play an especially important part in determining these fields' internal stratification and structure of authority.... Within each disciplinary field, the subjective (i.e., agentic) and objective (i.e., structural) positions of individuals are "homologous": in other words, the polar opposition between "economic" and "cultural" capital is replicated at the field's level, and mirrors the orthodoxy/heterodoxy divide. (23)

So why was Bourdieu not considered in the 2001 article? This shift in orientation may be simply a feature of the author's own intellectual development. But it may also be diagnostic of the rise of Bourdieu's influence on the sociology of knowledge in the 90's and 00's. It would be interesting to see a graph of the frequency of references to the book since 1984.

(Gabriel Abend's treatment of the differences that exist between the paradigms of sociology in the United States and Mexico is of interest here as well; link.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The West and the East

Ian Morris has written a pair of books that are intended to contribute to a particularly important set of disagreements in comparative economic history: what accounts for the advantage in economic development that seems to be enjoyed by Western Europe at various points in history? The key arguments are presented in  Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and he lays out the quantitative methods and evidence in The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.

The basic argument is that current debates are critically flawed because they consider too short a timespan. Morris is an archaeologist, and he thinks the relevant differences between West and East only become apparent when we consider a timespan that extends backwards in time by at least 15,000 years.

The central analytical tool that Morris introduces is a "social development index" -- an index of four features that can be measured for various social locations at various points in time. The four features are: energy capture, urban development, war fighting capability, information handling capacity. Here is the basic graph that he develops:


This graph tells a simple story of a horse race: West has a slight but constant advantage from 14,000 BCE to 4,000 BCE, broadening a bit through 2000 BCE. East pulls ahead at the beginning of the Common Era while the West declines sharply and begins to recover only 1400 years later. The West pulls ahead again by about 1700 and maintains a very small lead through the present. This is not a very dramatic story, however. Durning most stretches of this 16,000 year period there is very close alignment between the two trajectories. So it seems hard to imagine that the differences discernible here are in fact decisive historical factors.

Here is one of the primary reversals that occurs on the graph, between 300 BCE and 1100 BCE.


The social development index is interesting in its own terms. The effort to pull prehistoric and ancient archeological data into a consistent system of accounting is interesting, and Morris makes a case for the idea that these four features can be measured with enough precision to permit comparison over long stretches of time. It is "macro history" and "shape of history at a large scale". There is one kind of truth the work supports: there is a generally rising trend in "social development" with occasional crashes and reversals. This is historical research at the most macro scale.

These four factors are significant material indicators of social development. But they do not exhaust the questions we might want to consider. Other measures we might find interesting in this kind of grand sociology include the rise / fall of religions and ideologies; ebb and flow of scope of control of political systems (Victor Lieberman on Burma and France); demographic regimes (high fertility/high mortality); stratification and exploitation (Marx); life quality for the median individual (Sen); and there certainly are others.

So the goal of measuring factors like the ones chosen here over a broad historical expanse is an ambitious and valuable one. However, I don't think the research has the consequences that Morris claims.

First, it isn't really posing the same kind of question as that confronted by Pomeranz and Bin Wong. The comparative economic history question is superficially similar to the one the author asks -- how do Eurasian cores perform 1500-2000? But the real questions are quite different. Fundamentally they want to open the  black box of institutions, ideology, and circumstance to account for 50- or 100-year shifts. Historians like Perdue and Pomeranz really want to know about the contingencies of history, and that seems to imply a shorter timescale.

So I don't think it's really on the subject suggested by the title. Its real subject is this: "there are very longterm differences between the two large cores in terms of material levels and rates of development." But it doesn't offer an explanation of why this should be so: earliest timing, material advantages of one core over another, contingent path dependencies, ... Likewise the suggestions about projection onto the coming century are overblown.

Moreover, the analysis is not explanatory; really it is a redescription of the phenomena. It doesn't even invoke explanatory factors. Geography? First comer advantage? Morris believes he has the key to a large scale explanation:

Why had the West got the Maxim gun [technology and war fighting advantage] when the rest had not? (Kl 286)

But I don't find that his "long tendencies of social development" picture actually helps in answering this question; rather, it simply repeats the phenomenon to be explained.

Morris categorizes existing theories of comparative economic development as "long-term lock-in" and "short-term accident" theories. And he suggests that his own approach doesn't fall in either category. It is indeed longterm; but it shows variation over the longterm, so it doesn't postulate "lock-in". And it disagrees with the accident theory because, essentially, he doesn't think there is a lot of contingency and path dependency in the story he tells. The material factors that drive the shape of the master graph are primary, and trump the effects of lesser factors like institutions and culture.

The question [of why the West rules] requires us to look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story, establishing its overall shape, before discussing why it has that shape. This is what I try to do in this book, bringing a rather different set of skills to bear. (Kl 460)

In fact, Morris's account literally doesn't tell us a thing about culture or institutions. But these are the things historians want to understand. For Morris, however, these are dependent variables in the long story of problem solving the author wants to tell. (See KL 4377)

So my overall reaction is that this is an interesting piece of research that answers a different question than the one its author highlights. It provides a very interesting view of the "shape" of human history in the two mega-regions; the attempt to measure what the author calls social development is one interesting cut on longterm historical development. But it really isn't a good way of understanding the relationship between East and West when it comes to comparative economic development. It doesn't identify the more proximate factors that led to surges and plateaux of development in the two trajectories. And yet that is really what the debate is all about.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Guest post by Elizabeth Anderson on race in American politics

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author most recently of The Imperative of Integration. This contribution extends a question posed in a recent post on the conservative war on poor people (link). Thanks for contributing, Liz!

American Conservative Politics and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Elizabeth Anderson

An “outright Marxist!”  That’s what Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, declared of President Obama on the campaign trail in April 2013.  His accusation is common on the right.  Google “Obama Marxist” and you will get about 4.95 million results.  “Obama communist” yields 40 million.  It’s a strange charge against a man who vigorously supported the bail-out of Wall Street banks as a Senator, and expanded it to other major firms as President.  Yet the charge is nothing new.  Conservatives have long accused anyone to their left of communism or fellow-traveling.  Rick Perlstein traces this practice back to the 1950s.

In fact, it goes back a century before.  George Fitzhugh, author of the famous proslavery tract Cannibals All! wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1856 declaring that “every theoretical abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist.”  J. H. Thornwell, one of the most distinguished ministers of the antebellum South, delivered a sermon in 1850 on “The Rights and Duties of Masters,” in which he characterized the conflict over slavery as one in which slaveholders, Christians, and the “friends of order and regulated freedom” stood together against “abolitionists, atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins” who were united on the other side.

This fact about the origins of one aspect of conservative rhetoric opens a window to the larger structure of American conservative thought.  Consider Romney’s notorious 47% speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president . . . who are dependent upon government . . . who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing . . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . . I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This was spoken by a presidential candidate who supported the Wall Street bailouts, who did not complain about massive state subsidies to wealthy farmers or the oil and coal industries, and who paid 14.1% of his income in federal taxes—less than the 15.3% effective payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare that falls on wage workers, over and above the income tax.  Counting state and local taxes, which are highly regressive, we have good reason to believe that the 47% he resents pay substantially higher total tax rates than the top 1%.

Romney, however, knew his audience. Tax breaks and subsidies for better-off whites are not what most conservatives oppose.  Their core objection is “free stuff” thought to disproportionately benefit blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other traditionally subordinated groups.  As Lee Atwater explained, the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy” for winning white voters is all about opposing policies that disproportionately help blacks and promoting policies that disproportionately hurt them:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "N-ger, n-ger, n-ger." By 1968 you can't say "n-ger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

While conservatives, even those belonging to or sympathetic to the Tea Party, support Social Security and Medicare, they condemn programs such as means-tested welfare, which are perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks and Latinos, whom they see as undeserving.  A key driver of public opinion on domestic policy in the U.S. is racial resentment: in particular, the idea that blacks are too lazy to take responsibility for their lives but want to live off the hard-earned wealth of whites, either through crime or the public dole.

My current research on abolitionism and the struggle for free labor finds that this idea has been a deep theme of American conservative opinion since before the Civil War.  Although in the antebellum era, racists typically supposed that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves, while today they are thought to be willfully refusing to do so, the complaints about black behavior are remarkably similar.  In response to an emancipation petition submitted to the Virginia legislature, hundreds of citizens submitted proslavery petitionsin 1795.  Echoing other petitions, this one from the free whites of Lunenberg County worried that emancipation would bring

Want, Poverty, Distress and ruin to the free Citizen; the Horrors of all the rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which an innumerable Host of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive and remorseless Banditte are capable of perpetrating; Neglect, famine and Death to the abandoned black Infant, and superannuated Parent; inevitable Bankruptcy to the revenue; Desperation and revolt to the disappointed, oppressed Citizen; and sure and final ruin to this once happy, free, and flourishing Country . . . .

Thomas Dew, in his 1832 article “Abolition of Negro Slavery,” predicted that abolition would lead blacks to idleness, drunkenness, destitution, and thence to crime.  William Harper predicted in Cotton is King, an 1860 compendium of proslavery thought, that emancipation would reduce blacks to paupers and lead them “from petty to greater crimes, until all life and property would be rendered insecure,” and that if they got the vote, they “would be used by unprincipled politicians” to advance dangerous schemes.

White conservatives saw their fears confirmed during Reconstruction.  This cartoon reveals their view of the Freedman’s Bureau, described as “an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man:


Then it was the Freedman’s Bureau.  Today it is food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Not only the content, but the style and emotional register of conservative politics have been constant.  The hysteria, apocalyptic sensibility, and intransigence of Tea Party conservatives on full display in the recent government shutdown crisis (complete with a confederate flag) mirrors that of the South in the run-up to the Civil War through the Reconstruction Era.  American conservatism continues to operate under the long shadow of slavery and its legacy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cruickshank on philosophical issues with critical realism

Justin Cruickshank is an interesting commentator on the philosophical underpinnings of critical realism. Critical realism was developed initially by Roy Bhaskar in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, and has been further elaborated by a number of philosophers. The theory is now playing a lively role within sociology and sociological theory. Cruickshank’s key ideas are developed in several papers, “A tale of two ontologies: an immanent critique of critical realism” (2004) (link), “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s Attempt to Derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge” (2010) (link), and “The positive and the negative: Assessing critical realism and social constructionism as post-positivist approaches to empirical research in the social sciences" (2011) (link). Fundamentally Cruickshank takes issue with the nature of the arguments that critical realists have offered for their specific ideas about ontology.

Cruickshank regards the doctrines of critical realism as expressed by Bhaskar and his successors as fundamentally a philosophical theory rather than a highly general and abstract social theory; and he finds that the theory is justified on several lines of philosophical argumentation. The arguments that he criticizes involve apriori philosophical reasoning and inference from lay concepts about the natural and social worlds.

"A tale of two ontologies" highlights the philosophical presuppositions and language of critical realism — assumptions about the variants of ontology (transitive and intransitive), absolute metaphysical knowledge, transcendental metaphysical knowledge, conceptual science, immanent critique. Cruickshank finds that Bhaskar embraces the idea that critical realism is a philosophical theory rather than a scientific theory, and that this places the theory on shaky ground:

In support of the differentiation of philosophy from science, and contrary to the claim made about the historical transitivity of ontology made in response to Chalmers, Bhaskar says he avoids the epistemic fallacy by producing a philosophical ontology. He argues that if we conflate scientific and philosophical ontologies then we commit the epistemic fallacy, by remaining confined within questions about knowledge.  (573)

The transcendental method that Bhaskar uses, according to Cruickshank, is based on Kant’s philosophical theories:

Against empiricism, Bhaskar’s transcendental realism (which was later renamed ‘critical realism’) holds that the condition of possibility of science is the explanation of causal laws which are different from the changing contingent observable regularities we may perceive outside experiments. The ontological turn advocated in RTS is meant to render explicit the ontological presuppositions implicit within the practice of science. In doing this, Bhaskar argues that the condition of possibility of science is the existence of underlying causal laws in open systems (i.e. systems characterised by change with no observable constant conjunctions), rather than causal laws being observed constant conjunctions within artificial closed laboratory systems. (569-570)

But this method leads to a conundrum:

The version of ontology required to allow critical realism to fulfill its hegemonic project rests on a dogmatic metaphysical claim to know a stratum of ultimate reality beyond knowledge. Critical realists try to avoid such explicit dogmatism by defining ontology in terms of the transitive domain rather than the intransitive domain. However, defining ontology in terms of the transitive domain commits the epistemic fallacy, and precludes any possibility of the ontology being used as the basis for an hegemonic project, as the ontology would be fallible and hence open to revision (unless dogmatically privileged). [my italics]  (581)

So Bhaskar et al have painted themselves into a metaphysical corner: they require that ontology should be about reality as it really is (intransitive); they retreat from the implication of a dogmatic philosophical position; and they wind up in the position of conceptual relativism (transitive domain) that they sought to avoid.

Cruickshank plainly prefers to deal with these issues in a way that is not so dependent on purely philosophical arguments. Here is the position that Cruickshank thinks is most reasonable:

We may accept the view that ontological questions are important questions, and argue that we ought to regard ontological theories as fallible interpretations of reality. In other words, the focus in this article is on the status claimed for ontology, and not the issue of wether one or other substantive social ontology is the definitively correct or incorrect definition of social reality. The emphasis is on continually developing ontological theories through critical dialogue, rather than arguing that an individualist, or structuralist, or praxis based ontology, etc., is the correct definition of social reality. (568-569)


In contrast to foundational epistemology which defines reality to fit a subjective, mentalistic foundation, we may adopt an anti-foundational approach that rejects the starting point of epistemology as the separation of the lone mind from the world. We may instead hold that our beliefs are engaged with the world and that we need to revise and replace our theories in the course of our engagement in the world.  (582)


As regards social ontology this means that social scientists need to become engaged in an on-going debate about the ontological theories currently existing in the transitive domain. This debate needs to turn not just on the use of immanent critique, to assess the internal coherence of a position, but also on the usefulness of an ontology in informing empirical work. (583)

And in fact, this seems like an entirely defensible way of thinking about the role of ontology: not as a set of philosophical truths to be established by a priori arguments, but rather as a revisable set of ideas coherently related to the best scientific conceptual systems we have developed to date.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences Call for Papers



Keynote Speakers: Margaret Gilbert (University of California, Irvine) 
Uskali Mäki (University of Helsinki)


The European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (ENPOSS) invites contributions to its 3rd Conference to be held in Madrid in September of 2014, and organised by UNED. Contributions from all areas within the philosophy of the social sciences are encouraged. Moreover, contributions from both philosophers and social scientists are welcome. Only one contribution per person will be considered.

Contributions can be either of individual papers or of special-theme symposia, and they must be submitted through EasyChair, • Deadline for submission: January 26, 2014 • Notification of acceptance: April 28, 2014

For individual paper submissions, an abstract between 800 and 1000 words suitably prepared for blind reviewing should be submitted.

For submission of symposia, comprising 3 to 4 papers, a single document for each symposium must be uploaded. It must contain the title of the symposium, the name of the organiser(s), the names of all the authors and titles of their papers, a general abstract of the symposium (between 400 and 500 words), plus an abstract of each single paper (between 500 and 600 words each ).

Each submission, whether of an individual paper or a symposium, will be blindly reviewed by two members of the Scientific Committee.

For more information about the Conference and ENPOSS, see

• Selected papers from the Conference will be published in an annual special issue of the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences

ENPOSS STEERING COMMITTE Alban Bouvier (Paris), Byron Kaldis (Athens), Eleonora Montuschi (Venice), Julie Zahle (Copenhagen), and Jesús Zamora-Bonilla (Madrid).

LOCAL COMMITTEE (UNED): Jesús Zamora Bonilla, J. Francisco Álvarez, Luis A. Castro, Javier González de Prado, Susana Monsó, María Jiménez Buedo, David Teira

ENPOSS2014 SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEE: Daniel Andler, Erik Angner, Kenneth Binmore, Antonella Carassa, Bernard Conein, Sharon Crasnow, Igor Douven, José Luis Ferreira, Juan Carlos García-Bermejo, Francesco Guala, Till Grüne-Yanoff, Martin Kusch, Daniel Little, Chrysostomos Mantzavinos, José Antonio Noguera, William Outhwaite, Cédric Paternotte, Stéphanie Ruphy, Federica Russo, Eric Schliesser, Paul Sheehy, Daniel Steel, Karsten Stueber, Mark Tamthai, Deborah Tollefsen, Erik Weber, Petri Ylikoski

FOR MORE INFORMATION Jesús Zamora Bonilla:

SPONSORED BY Spanish Governement’s research project FFI2011-23267 (“Inferentialism as social epistemology”) UNED – Facultad de Filosofía y Depto. Lógica, Historia y Filosofía de la Ciencia Fundación Urrutia Elejalde

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Structural realism and social realities?

ether wind

The topic of realism has come up frequently here -- causal realism, critical realism, scientific realism. Each of these realisms comes out of somewhat different fields of questions and assumptions. Within mainstream philosophy of science there is another realism that has been debated in the past twenty years, referred to as structural realism. The view has been developed by philosopher John Worrall, and his 1989 article "Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?", sets the stage (link). So what is this view, and does it have any relevance to the social sciences?

First, what is the view? It is a refinement to the theory of scientific realism advocated by philosophers like Hilary Putnam and Dick Boyd -- the view that we have reason to believe that the world has approximately the features attributed to it by the best available scientific theories. As Boyd put the view quite a few years ago, what else could explain the success of those theories if not their approximate truth and successful reference to the entities and properties of the world?

The problem that gives rise to structural realism is what Worrall calls the "pessimistic meta-induction" (109): in the history of science, most scientific theories have eventually been proven to be false. So how can scientific realists claim, after all, that there is a rational basis for believing that the world has the characteristics asserted by the current generation of scientific theories?  The answer to this question, Worrall argues, comes down to a judgment call about the history of science: "just how radical theory-change has standardly been in science" (105). If successor theories have nothing in common with their antecedents except a broader but overlapping range of empirical consequences, then it is hard to say that there is an approximate truth that is captured by both stages of the theory. "If, on the contrary, the realist is forced to concede that there has been radical change at the theoretical level in the history of even the mature sciences then he surely is in deep trouble" (107). Realism, then, depends on some degree of approximate continuity across successor theories. Here Worrall turns to Richard Boyd:

"The historical progress of the mature sciences is largely a matter of successively more accurate approximations to the truth about both observable and unobservable phenomena. Later theories typically build upon the (observational and theoretical) knowledge embodied in previous theories." (Boyd, 1984, "The Current Status of Scientific Realism" in Leplin, ed., Scientific Realism)

But many philosophers and historians of science have disputed the degree of continuity that Boyd postulates here. They emphasize the discontinuities that often occur across the process of theory change in physics. However, Worrall argues that there is a more abstract way in which physical theories show substantial continuity. This continuity isn't found at the level of entities and causal powers, but rather a set of more abstract characteristics that are attributed to the features of the world under study.

Structural realism gets going, then, if we concede that the history of physics shows radical change at the level of the properties attributed to natural objects but we maintain that it also shows a strong degree of continuity when it comes to the basic structural properties that are postulated by theories of physics.

In application to the series of theories offered to explain the behavior of light, the continuity was abstract:

There was continuity or accumulation in the shift [from Fresnel to Maxwell], but the continuity is one of form or structure, not of content. (117)

Worrall attributes this idea about a specific but abstract kind of continuity in physics to Henri Poincare, and he argues that it lays the basis for a weaker form of realism that might be described as syntactic or structural realism(117).

Roughly speaking, it seems right to say that Fresnel completely misidentified the nature of light, but nonetheless it is no miracle that his theory enjoyed the empirical predictive success that it did; it is no miracle because Fresnel's theory, as science later saw it, attributed to light the right structure.... There is no elastic solid ether. There is, however, from the later point of view, a (disembodied) electromagnetic field. The field in no clear sense approximates the ether, but disturbances in it do obey formally similar laws to those obeyed by elastic disturbances in a mechanical medium.  (117-118)

So structural realism when applied to the history of the theory of light says two things: successor theories had radically different and inconsistent hypotheses about the mechanics and substance of light; but they agreed approximately about the mathematical properties of light. And it is the latter that is preserved across the progress of this area of science.

This is a very weak form of realism, as Worrall acknowledges:

[The structural realist] insists that it is a mistake to think that we can ever "understand" the nature of the basic furniture of the universe.... On the structural realist view what Newton really discovered are the relationships between phenomena expressed in the mathematical equations of his theory, the theoretical terms of which should be understood as genuine primitives. (122)

So the commonsensical questions we might want to ask of contemporary physics -- are there electrons, is space curved, is the speed of light constant -- do not have defensible answers, according to structural realism. What the success of modern physics allows us to conclude is something much weaker: whatever the fundamental components of matter, space, time, light, and gravity are, the world conforms to the mathematical transformations that are specified by our best confirmed contemporary physical theories. It is the transformations, equations, and constants that we can be realistic about, not the concrete theories of the mechanics of the things that embody these equations.

My real interest in opening this topic was to consider whether it has any relevance to the social sciences. And the short answer seems to be -- not much. Theories in the social sciences rarely have the mathematical specificity that is crucial to the structural realist argument. So it is difficult to make the argument that Ricardo, Marx, Pareto, and Keynes were describing the same structural reality when they wrote about capitalism. Their substantive assumptions are quite different; but further, the expected "mathematical" behavior of the capitalist market system is also substantially different across the theories. Perhaps a more plausible case is the transition from Marx's classic theory of exploitation, based on the labor theory of value, to John Roemer's theory of exploitation in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, based on neoclassical and game-theoretic economic assumptions. The two theories arrive at similar "structural" features of a capitalist economy, in spite of the fact that the underlying substantive assumptions are quite different.

(Katherine Brading and Elise Crull offer a very nice treatment of Worrall's interpretation of Poincare in "Epistemic Structural Realism and Poincare's Philosophy of Science (link).)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest post by Jeroen Van Bouwel: On microfoundations and macrofoundations

[Jeroen Van Bouwel accepted my invitation to offer his thoughts about several recent posts here on the topic of microfoundations. Jeroen is co-author (with Erik Weber and L. De Vreese) of Scientific Explanation (Springer, 2013). Jeroen is a post-doctoral fellow at Ghent University and a visiting scholar in philosophy at Uppsala University. Thanks, Jeroen!]

In his recent contributions on this blog (link, link), Daniel Little develops an interesting position advocating the legitimacy and “relative explanatory autonomy” of the meso-level, while maintaining a microfoundations requirement. I am grateful that Daniel invited me to comment on his views and I will try to do so in a concise way, discussing four issues:

  1. There are more than two levels of social explanation.
  2. Levels of explanation are perspectival; neither absolute, nor unique.
  3. Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics.
  4. Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.

(1) There are more than two levels of social explanation. Daniel Little’s defense of meso-level explanations adds a welcome extra explanatory level in between the individualist micro-level and the macro-level. As such, it supersedes the dichotomous thinking in the individualism/holism debate in which there would always be an individual micro-level – which would always be the same (cf. point (2) below) – that is contrasted with a macro-level. I agree with Little (2012, p.138) that: “more realistic is the understanding that there are social compounds at a range of levels of organization, with different scope and reach” – as social scientific practice teaches us.

(2) The levels of explanation are perspectival levels; neither absolute, nor unique. Little wants to combine his advocacy of meso-level explanations with a microfoundations requirement. Let us first zoom in on microfoundations (for the requirement, see point (3) below). In the philosophy of social science debate, the microfoundations are usually understood as individual-level microfoundations, see, for instance, most recent work on analytical sociology. It is presupposed that there be some comprehensive, unique, and privileged individual level, the level of individual actors (cf. Ylikoski 2012, p.26). However, microfoundations do not necessarily have to be understood in that way. They could also just be understood as looking for foundations on any lower-level, e.g., on a sub-individual level focussing on cognitive capacities and processes that might be important in explaining certain social phenomena (Tuukka Kaidesoja gives us the example of contextual priming (link)).

The latter understanding of microfoundations would be more in line with actual social scientific practice in which we notice that the specification and amount of levels of explanation is perspectival, depending on the phenomena and research approaches involved. Analysing and explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (cf. Van Bouwel, forthcoming) or criminality (cf. Van Bouwel et al. 2011) requires (different) multiple levels. A philosophy of social science that wants to say something meaningful about explanatory practices in, e.g., neuro-economics, evolutionary sociology as well as in World-Systems Analysis, will also have to go beyond the traditional two levels, i.e. the individual micro-level versus one contrasting macro-level. The refinements of the traditional dichotomous way of thinking about levels in the individualism/holism debate obviously do not imply that we should stop thinking in terms of higher- and lower-levels, or micro-macro, only that levels are perspectival, rather than absolute and unique. Thus, the micro in microfoundations is perspectival too!

(3) Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics? Now let us have a look at the microfoundations requirement. This requirement stipulates “that all social facts, social structures, and social causal properties depend ultimately on facts about individuals within socially defined circumstances. Social ascriptions require microfoundations at the level of individuals in concrete social relationships.” (Little 2012, p.138) Advocates of the microfoundations approach have often been defending that a macro-explanation would never be satisfactory, or, could only be satisfactory if a micro-level part of the social explanation was provided. For instance, in their presentation of the social mechanisms approach, Hedström and Swedberg state (1998, p.11): “In the social sciences, however, the elementary “causal agents” are always individual actors, and intelligible social science explanations should always include explicit references to the causes and consequences of their actions.” Thus, they consider a reference to (individual actions on) the individual, micro-level as a condition sine qua non of a satisfactory explanation. Underlying this claim about explanations seems to be an ontological conviction, namely that causal agents are always individual actors.

Daniel Little develops a different position. According to him, the microfoundations requirement should not be understood as a condition for satisfactory explanations, but rather as a form of confirmation or justification of a macro-explanation: “The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on explanation; it does not require that our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level. Rather, it is a condition that must be satisfied on prima facie grounds, prior to offering the explanation.” (Little 2012, p.145) I agree with Little that microfoundations should not necessarily be part of a social explanation in order for it to be satisfactory; we are providing all of the time all kinds of explanations and causal claims, without knowing the underlying mechanisms or foundations. Here as well Little takes into account the actual explanatory practice of social scientists and he avoids the ontological fallacies (i.e., mixing up ontological and explanatory issues) made by earlier advocates of microfoundations. However, I do think Little’s requirement remains vague. It should be understood as constraining explanatory practice (cf. here), but how would that exactly work? How is the microfoundations requirement operationalized (and how would it interfere with our explanatory practice)?

Summarizing, I think Daniel Little’s account of the microfoundations requirement is an improvement to earlier accounts, but it still remains vague. A fruitful role I could see for a microfoundations pursuit is as an engagement to compare one’s own explanatory practice and research approach with other practices and approaches. This might result in more interaction between different approaches through which approaches articulate themselves and their relations to others more explicitly and through which the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches are clarified. In this respect, we could not only think of seeking for microfoundations as an heuristic, but also of searching for macrofoundations as a fruitful heuristic. (Some use the term macrofoundations (link), but given that we think of it as something higher up, one could also use macro-roof or macro-covering.) There might be several interesting approaches both on the micro-level and on the macro-level working on the same phenomenon from different angles, using different methods, having different background assumptions, etc.  Philosophers of social science might contribute in analyzing, visualizing (cf. below) and optimizing the interaction among these different approaches.

(4) Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.To conclude, a careful analysis of the practice of social scientists reveals the plurality of research approaches and explanatory strategies employed by social scientists on multiple levels. For me the challenge of the debate on microfoundations, emergence, explanatory autonomy, etc. is not so much to develop the ultimate individualistic approach or defending the holist approach, but rather to understand and optimize the way in which different approaches interact, co-exist, can be integrated and/or develop some division of labour among each other, while making the best out of the strengths and limitations of the respective explanatory strategies of holists and individualists.  That is what I try to do with my framework for explanatory pluralism – a normative endorsement of the plurality of forms and levels of explanation used by social scientists (cf. Van Bouwel and Weber 2008, Van Bouwel 2009). Sometimes explanatory interests are best served by decomposition, by reduction as explanatory strategy, sometimes they are better served by higher-level explanations.

One way of taking into account multiple levels and understand the perspectival, non-absolute character of levels, could be to leave the Coleman boat (cf. here) behind and adopt Helen Longino’s (2013, p.127, Fig. 1a) representation of causal space (Longino developed it for studying aggressive behavior, but it could be easily adapted to the social sciences if one would change the causal landscape a bit).

longino diagram

This representation can visualize how different research approaches will focus on different boxes – one or a combination of several – in a causal space or landscape. The focus on just one (or a combination) of these boxes can be very productive as scientific practice shows; some causal aspects of a phenomenon might be emphasised, while other aspects/boxes might be obscured or perhaps even distorted. Such a visualization will help us to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches applying different angles in studying one and the same phenomena, as well as their (lack of) interaction with other approaches and how to use them in an optimal way.


Hedström, P. and R. Swedberg (eds.). 1998. Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Little, D. 2012. Explanatory Autonomy and Coleman’s Boat. Theoria 74: 137-151

Longino, H. 2013. Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality. University of Chicago Press.

Van Bouwel, J. and E. Weber 2008. A pragmatic defense of non-relativistic explanatory pluralism in history and social science. History and Theory 47:168-182.

Van Bouwel, J. (ed.) 2009. The Social Sciences and Democracy. Palgrave MacMillan.

Van Bouwel, J., E. Weber and L. De Vreese 2011. Indispensability arguments in favour of reductive explanations. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 42(1): 33-46.

Van Bouwel, J. (forthcoming). Explanatory Strategies beyond the Individualism/Holism Debate. link.

Ylikoski, P. 2012. Micro, Macro, and Mechanism. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science. ed. H. Kincaid, 21-45. Oxford University Press.

Weber, E., J. Van Bouwel and L. De Vreese 2013. Scientific Explanation. Springer.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thorstein Veblen's critique of the American system of business


Thorstein Veblen was certainly a heterodox observer of modern capitalism. He was trained in the late nineteenth-century iteration of neoclassical economics, but he was more impressed by the irrationality of what he observed than the optimizing rationality that is postulated by the neoclassicals. He was also an intelligent observer and analyst of contemporary economic and sociological trends — not in theory but in the concrete forms that turn-of-the-century capitalism was taking in the United States and Europe. It is interesting, therefore, to examine his analysis of the business firm in The Theory of Business Enterprise, published in 1904. (I examined his critique of American universities in The Higher Learning in America in an earlier post.)

Here is how he describes his approach to the topic of American business:
In respect to its point of departure, the following inquiry into the nature, causes, utility, and further drift of business enterprise differs from other discussions of the same general range of facts. Any unfamiliar conclusions are due to this choice of a point of view, rather than to any peculiarity in the facts, articles of theory, or method of argument employed. The point of view is that given by the business man's work, -- the aims, motives, and means that condition current business traffic. This choice of a point of view is itself given by the current economic situation, in that the situation plainly is primarily a business situation. (Preface)
Veblen is sometimes credited with being one of the originators of institutional economics. This is due, in large part, to his effort to discover some of the institutional dynamics created for the modern industrial system by the incentives and constraints created for the owners and managers of firms.

One of the central impressions that emerges from reading The Theory of Business Enterprise is this: the modern American industrial economy is a coordinated system that requires many things to happen in sync with each other; but the owners of the components of this system often have strategic interests that lead them to take actions leading to de-synchronization and short-term crisis. There is a serious conflict of interest that exists between the interests of the owner and the needs of the system -- and the public's interests are primarily served by a smoothly functioning system. So owners are in conflict with the broader interests of the public.

So who is the primary actor, the "business man", in Veblen's account, and what are his or her motives?
The business man, especially the business man of wide and authoritative discretion, has become a controlling force in industry, because, through the mechanism of investments and markets, he controls the plants and processes, and these set the pace and determine the direction of movement for the rest. (Chap. 1)
The motive of business is pecuniary gain, the method is essentially purchase and sale. The aim and usual outcome is an accumulation of wealth. Men whose aim is not increase of possessions do not go into business, particularly not on an independent footing. (Chapter 3)So the owners and managers of businesses have a great deal of power in organizing and coordinating economic activity, and their goal is to maximize individual financial gain. Does this work to further the interests of society as a whole? Veblen does not adopt Adam Smith's notion that the pursuit of self-interest leads naturally to the expansion of the common good, and that the hidden hand guides this economy towards optimal outcomes and uses of available resources:
The outcome of this management of industrial affairs through pecuniary transactions, therefore, has been to dissociate the interests of those men who exercise the discretion from the interests of the community.... Broadly, this class of business men, in so far as they have no ulterior strategic ends to serve, have an interest in making the disturbances of the system large and frequent, since it is in the conjunctures of change that their gain emerges.... It is, as a business proposition, a matter of indifference to the man of large affairs whether the disturbances which his transactions set up in the industrial system help or hinder the system at large. (7%)
Here Veblen seems to be making an interesting and unorthodox point: that the strategic actions of the owners of capital in a modern economy are oriented towards disequilibrium as often as they are towards equilibrium. The comment seems uncannily apt with regard to the financial crisis of 2008.
The end of his endeavors is, not simply to effect an industrially advantageous consolidation, but to effect it under such circumstances of ownership as will give him control of large business forces or bring him the largest possible gain. (8%)
Veblen appears to have in mind the consolidations and strategic actions involved in the railroad industry at the turn of the century. But this comment also has resonance with respect to the past two decades of recent history in the software industry, with companies jockeying for advantage on the desktop of users for their operating systems and applications.

Another incentive that owners of industries have, according to Veblen, is to insulate themselves from competition -- to create partial or complete monopolies in the fields they occupy. And Veblen looks at advertising as one of the tools that businesses use to secure a partial monopoly.
The endeavor of all such enterprises that look to a permanent continuance of their business is to establish as much of a monopoly as may be. (12%)
So Veblen's organizing view of modern industry (circa 1900, anyway) is that it is dispositionally inclined towards being anti-competitive -- to finding means of sheltering its production methods and prices from competition from other firms.

In the end Veblen does not believe that these practices turn the balance sheet negative against this form of economic organization. But he believes that the wastefulness associated with these strategic efforts at short-term advantage with regard to competitors is only compensated for due to the pressure that this system creates on the direct producers -- workers, engineers, architects, and service providers -- to be as productive during their working hours as possible. Owners and managers have an incentive to destabilize their competitors; but they also have an interest in optimizing their own uses of resources.
While it is in the nature of things unavoidable that the management of industry by modern business methods should involve a large misdirection of effort and a very large waste of goods and services, it is also true that the aims and ideals to which this manner of economic life gives effect act forcibly to offset all this incidental futility. These pecuniary aims and ideals have a very great effect, for instance, in making men work hard and unremittingly, so that on this ground alone the business system probably compensates for any wastes involved in its working. There seems, therefore, to be no tenable ground for thinking that the working of the modern business system involves a curtailment of the community's livelihood. It makes up for its wastefulness by the added strain which it throws upon those engaged in the productive work. (14%)
One reason I particularly enjoy re-reading thinkers like Veblen is that they do a good job of challenging our current assumptions. Veblen was looking at a functioning economy with important similarities to our own, consisting of visibly distinct groups of actors (owners, engineers, workers, advertising execs, ...), and he was in a position to notice some of the dysfunctional features of this system that are still with us today but that are no longer so visible.

(Here is an earlier post about Charles Perrow's treatment of corporations during much the same time period; link.)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Six years of Understanding Society


This week celebrates six years of Understanding Society.  This effort represents over 850 posts, on topics ranging from current debates in philosophy about causal powers to China's urban transformation to the conservative war on the poor, leading to nearly three million page views since the first post in 2007.  I’m grateful to the communities of interested readers who have followed Understanding Society on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. There are almost 4,000 readers in these groups, and I'm grateful to everyone who has read, followed, tweeted, commented, and Googled the blog -- thanks!

The past six years have demonstrated to me the broad and expanding opportunity the Web and social media provide for scholars and thinkers. It is possible to reach readers throughout the world whom we would never have reached in the past through traditional journal and book publication. And I have found the medium to be a great stimulus for research creativity as well. I've written on topics that never would have come up for me in a more traditional research strategy, and these topics have broadened me as a philosopher and thinker. And I've formed new academic relationships through the blog and associated social media -- thanks, Moses (@mosabou), thanks, Petri (@YlikoskiP), thanks, Rani (@ranilillanjum), thanks, Mark (@MarkThoma), thanks, Richard (@Richard_Florida)!

Virtually all the new academic publishing I've done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I've become an "open-source" philosopher -- as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I've made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

The blog has also given me a chance to write about topics I’ve long cared about, but haven’t had a professional venue for writing about. These include things like the reality of race in the United States; the lineaments of power that determine so many of the features of contemporary life; and the nuts and bolts of education and equality in our country. And along the way of researching and writing about some of these topics, I’ve come to have a better and more detailed understanding of them. Not many philosophers have such a wide opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond the confines of their sub-disciplines.

I’ve learned a few interesting things about social media through the process of writing the blog. One is that readership of individual posts is highly variable, depending on how the topic (and title) intersects with current interests that other people have, and highly accidental facts about page ranking in search engines.  The number one post for all time is “What is a social structure?”, with 55,683 hits. Number two is “Social mobility?”, with 15,671 hits, and number three is “Lukes on power”, with 13,714 hits. The explanation for the popularity of the first post is fairly clear; it is the fifth entry on the first Google page for the search “what is a social structure”, which is undoubtedly a common question around the world.

So thanks for reading, and I hope you will continue to visit during the coming year of topics and controversies in the pages of Understanding Society.