Sunday, January 26, 2014

The historian and the archives

Generally speaking everyone understands that one important kind of research conducted by historians takes place in archives -- repositories of records and documents that have been preserved by governments or organizations for some purpose, in which documents are preserved that shed light on the past. But it is common to imagine that the trip to the archive is instrumental and wholly focused on the gathering of information that sheds light on the activities of individuals and organizations in the past. The purpose and value of the visit, on this account, is the gathering of information.

Arlette Farge is one of France's leading contemporary historians and is the author of Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Her recently translated book The Allure of the Archives casts archival research in a very different light. Her use of archival materials is of course aimed at learning some of the details of the activities and practices of the past. But she very eloquently expresses the idea that archival work goes well beyond the mundane gathering and noting of facts. In fact, much of this short book reads as an almost poetic expression of the experience of engaging with old documents and scraps of paper in archives across France.
The taste for the archive is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences barely illuminated by words, in confrontation with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era. (kl 605-607)
The archive's allure, nonetheless, lives on. The taste for the archives is not a fashion that will go out of style as quickly as it came in. It comes from the conviction that the preservation of the judicial records has created a space of captured speech. The goal is not for the cleverest, most driven researcher to unearth some buried treasure, but for the historian to use the archives as a vantage point from which she can bring to light new forms of knowledge that would otherwise have remained shrouded in obscurity. (kl 668-672)
The book can be read as a counterargument against the idea that historical research can be done almost entirely in a digitized world of scanned documents available on the Internet. For Farge, the tactile and practical experience of spending hours, days, and weeks in direct contact with the documents of the past is an irreplaceable part of the historian's art. (Robert Darnton takes up this aspect of the book in his fine review of The Allure of the Archives here in the New York Review of Books.)

Farge provides a nuanced explanation of the unavoidable need for interpretation when the historian confronts a set of documents. This involves selection: "Purposefully focusing on a particular theme (drunkenness, theft, adultery) creates a specific viewpoint that requires explanation, because the space is necessarily reorganized by the research objective" (kl 778-780). And it involves reconstruction: It is necessary to be able to mentally reconstruct some of the context in which the documents were collected. But more, it is necessary to find ways of "hearing" the voices of the men and women whose moments of experience are captured on these scraps of paper. (As she points out in her description of the writings of the mad Thorin, it was literally necessary for her to vocalize the words and letters he had written to be able to guess the intended sentences. "Thorin might have been illiterate, but his writings, in their clumsy calligraphy, transmit what no ordinary text can: the way in which they were pronounced and articulated" (kl 750).)

Farge has written a personal book, almost an ethnographic book about the experience of using and learning from the miscellaneous documents of an archive (a judicial archive, in her case). But some of her own sensibilities as an interpreter and writer of history come through as well: an emphasis on the centrality of conflict in historical settings, a concern for the material and meaningful lives of ordinary women, an interest in the particulars of home and work for ordinary people, attention to the strategic intelligence of ordinary people in their interactions with police and the judicial apparatus.  Like Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, she is interested in finding small clues in the evidence of the archive that shed light on aspects of ordinary social interactions and meanings in eighteenth-century Paris.

In particular, Farge is insistent that historians should not treat the archive as simply a source of interesting or surprising singular stories (the surprising discovery of a letter from one man to another about the charms of his wife, the marvelous discovery of report of a traffic incident involving the Marquis de Sade, a sword, and a horse). Her goal, and the goal of historians more generally, is to find ways of extracting a narrative from the material that somehow honors both the singularity and the thematic:
Our task is to find a language that can integrate singular moments into a narrative capable of reproducing their roughness, while underlining both their irreducibility and their affinity with other representations. We need a language that is capable of reconstructing and deconstructing, playing with the similar as with the different.... If we aim to “defend stories” and bring them into history, we must commit ourselves to demonstrating in a compelling manner the ways in which each individual constructed her own agency out of what history and society put at her disposal. When examined in this way, interrogations and testimonies shed light on the spaces where an individual entered into both peaceful and tumultuous relationships with different social groups, while at the same time struggling to preserve her freedoms and defend her autonomy. (kl 1073-1075)
And she steers a careful course between objectivity and subjectivity in telling history -- between "one truth about the past" and "all perspectives are equally valid":
The archive is a vantage point from which the symbolic and intellectual constructions of the past can be rearranged. It is a matrix that does not articulate “the” truth, but rather produces, through recognition as much as through disorientation, the elements necessary to ground a discourse of truth telling that refuses lies. Neither more nor less real than other sources, the archival documents display the fates of men and women whose surprising and somber actions crossed paths with an authority that had many faces. (kl1121-1125)
She finds that there are "foundational events" in history -- the Holocaust, the French Revolution -- whose features can and must be known. And the archive plays one important role in helping us know those facts:
It is important to understand that outside of certain rare exceptions, archival documents cannot be definitive proof. But they are reference points we cannot ignore, whose meaning must be constructed through rigorous and precise questioning. As historians we must recognize that “the validity of the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose,” and that we must carefully navigate between recognizing the influence of our choices and the impossible theory of history as an objective compilation of facts. (kl 1164-1168)
These many documents and the voices they imperfectly capture give the historian a way of discerning some of the realities that underlay the grand events:
Through the archive we can glimpse what became of these people who were constantly in movement, and whose agency was composed of a continual combination and recombination of action and reaction, change and conflict. We must seize on to what happened, recognizing that in the facts we find in the archive something was always going on inside social relationships. As we abandon abstract categorizations, we can bring to light something that moved, arose, and fulfilled itself through continual change. (kl 1309-1312)
It is interesting to compare the central thrust of this book with some of the comments Farge made about archival research in Fragile Lives (first published in French in 1986, three years before the publication in French of Le gout de l'archive):
This book [Fragile Lives] was born out of the archives -- not from a set of documents, nor from chronicles, memoirs, novels or treatises of a judicial, administrative or literary nature. No, none of the above.
It came quite simply from the judicial archives -- the odd scrap, snatch of a phrase, fragments of lives from that vast repository of once-pronounced words that constitute the archives -- words emerging from the darkness and depths of three successive night-times: of time and oblivion; of the wretched and unfortunate; and last (and most impenetrable for our ow stubborn minds), the night of guild and its grip... 
Historians who find themselves caught up with original sources become so fascinated by the archives that involvement with them makes it almost impossible to avoid self-justification through them or to resist the temptation to suppress any doubts these might cast on their own perceptions and systems of rationality or those of others. The impact the archives have on the historian (scarcely ever recognized explicitly) sometimes has the effect of actually denying their value. Fine though they might be, they are nonetheless full of pitfalls, and the corollary of their beauty is their deceptiveness. Any historian taking them on board cannot but be wary of the improbable outlines of the images they conceal. (1)
Here, it seems, Farge takes a somewhat more cautious view of archival research.

(Chuck Tilly refers to his first visit to a French archive in his preliminary phase of research on The Vendee: A Sociological Analysis of the Counter-Revolution of 1793 in the interview he did with me a few years ago (around minute 3 in the clip below). His excitement about that first visit persisted for almost fifty years.)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mechanisms and methodology

In its origin the causal mechanisms approach (link) is chiefly an answer to the question, “what is a good social explanation?”. So it turns out that much of the mechanisms discussion has taken place within the philosophy of science, especially the philosophy of social science and the philosophy of biology. The question I’d like to formulate here is whether mechanisms theory has any relevance to methodology as well? Can sociologists make better progress on concrete research problems by organizing some of their thinking around the construct of a social mechanism?

This kind of question comes up with respect to a number of the topics and innovations that have occurred in the philosophy of social science in recent years — critical realism, causal powers, and strategic fields, for example. It is certainly worthwhile developing theories and refinements of each of these concepts within the philosophy of social science. But it is an additional question to ask whether these concepts have a valuable role to play in discussions of research methodology and design as well.

So what is the problem of methodology, from the point of view of the working sociologist? The researcher has a number of preliminary tasks: What is the domain of social phenomena that are of interest? How can those phenomena be studied using available empirical tools? How can we theorize what is going on in this domain? How can we think about the nature of the entities, processes, causes, and meanings that make up this domain? And how can we probe the properties and dynamics of those sociological entities and processes?

Take a phenomenon like corruption. China is said to face a social and political problem deriving from widespread corrupt practices. How would we investigate the phenomenon of corruption in China (or India, the United States, or Finland)? Corruption is an umbrella concept that describes patterns of behavior across a wide range of domains: interactions between police and the public, practices through which business contracts are secured, enforcement of environmental and safety regulations, enforcement of trade regulations, practices through which individuals secure services from hospitals and licensing authorities, and there are indefinitely many other examples. Moreover, we can identify similar patterns of behavior in many countries, so there is an element of international comparison in play as well.

And yet not all instances of rule breaking are instances of corruption. So there is a preliminary task for the researcher, to engage in conceptual work and to define, for the purpose of the research enterprise, what kinds of behavior by agents and citizens will be counted as “corrupt”. Here we would like the researcher to work like a philosopher of language in some ways: “What do we mean by ‘X’ in ordinary or technical parlance?” In the current example, we would like the researcher to arrive at a working specification of corruption that is both reasonably practicable in application but also reasonably conformant to our prior assumptions about the category. (A definition of “corruption” that identifies corruption as “income-enhancing strategies by an economic actor” may be easy to apply but entirely inadequate as a specification of what we mean by corruption.) Robert Klitgaard does this kind of conceptual work in his 1988 and 1989 books, Controlling Corruption and Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention.

So let’s say we’ve offered a specification of corruption along these lines:
“[One species of] corruption involves situations in which individuals with decision-making power with respect to rules, fines, approvals, or contracts expects and receives covert payments from the consumer in exchange for the desired decision.”
This definition would capture many of the examples provided above: police officers giving speeding tickets, customs inspectors closing their eyes to valuable undeclared items, hospital staff making decisions about admissions and treatment of patients, safety inspectors approving a given location or activity — in exchange for a gift from the affected individual. Essentially the corrupt agent is “selling” a service or benefit which he or she controls to an individual who needs that service, contrary to the rules of the organization.

Now the researcher needs to specify a research question. It might be descriptive:
  • "How frequent are instances of corrupt behavior by this description in setting X?"
It might be comparative:
  • “How does institution X compare with institution Y with respect to the frequency of corrupt behavior by its agents?”
It might be explanatory:
  • "Why do some institutions have higher rates of corrupt behavior than others?”
Or it might be policy-oriented:
  • “What features of institutions can be introduced to reduce rates of corrupt behavior by the agents of the institution?”
The mechanisms theory is particularly relevant to methodology for at least the final three tasks. The background assumptions the researcher brings to his or her work about what a good explanation, a good policy design, or a good comparison ought to look like will strongly affect the ways in which he or she proceeds from this point further.

If the researcher adopts the simple empiricist model of explanation — find characteristics that appropriately co-vary with the dependent variable — then the research path is fairly clear:
Or he or she might pursue the necessary-and-sufficient-condition version of the approach:
  • Identify a set of cases (again with provisos about selection of cases) and see whether we can identify necessary and/or sufficient conditions using Mill’s methods or other analytical tools. (Gary Goertz describes strategies like these in Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications.)
On the other hand, if the researcher adopts the causal-mechanisms approach — identify causal mechanisms and processes that affect the occurrence or frequency of the outcome of interest — then he or she will proceed differently. The researcher will examine the individual cases carefully, looking to identify the factors and mechanisms that appear to be involved in the outcomes of interest; he or she will then look to see whether there are common processes involved in multiple cases; and he or she will consider whether available theories of social processes are relevant to the explanation of the outcomes observed. (This is essentially the method pursued by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention.)

For example, the extensive theorizing and discussions of principal-agent problems in political science may shed light on concrete mechanisms through which corrupt behaviors are controlled in a variety of existing circumstances. The Principal wants the Agent to act according to the rules of the organization; the Agent is to some extent outside his observation and control. So what mechanisms of self-enforcement are available to lead the Agent to comply with the expectations of the Principal?

One mechanism of compliance that the Principal may consider is a Corrupt Practices Tipline, whereby consumers can anonymously report corruption by specific officers. This extends the Principal’s ability to gather information about the Agent’s behavior. The Agent, knowing that the Tipline exists, constrains his otherwise corrupt inclinations, and the incidence of corrupt practices declines.

Another possible approach for the Principal is to link the Agent's longterm rewards to his/her longterm success in assigned tasks. Jean Ensminger describes the practice of gifts of "bridewealth" in these terms, as a way in which cattle owners maintain the loyalty of their herders during the long periods of time that they are out of sight in the foraging areas (Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society) Deferred compensation and stock options may play a similar role in the modern business organization.

Another mechanism that might be considered is selective investigation and enforcement. The Principal may know that many customs agents are accepting small gifts of money when evaluating customs declarations, and that a small number of these transactions involve high-value items and correspondingly high-value gifts. It might be sensible to focus investigation and enforcement on this smaller incidence of high-value transactions. Choosing this strategy may have the effect of significantly reducing “big corrupt transactions” while leaving “small corrupt transactions” essential unchanged.

A final mechanism that might be considered here (out of many possible avenues of investigation) is a cultural factor -- training, education, and inculturation. We might consider whether one cultural setting does a better job of preparing individuals to play honest roles in organizations than another based on the educational and formative experiences that are offered to them. This can provide the basis for a hypothesis about a causal mechanism leading to a high (or low) rate of corrupt behavior; and it might provide a basis for a possible policy intervention (workplace training to shift basic values).

This is one example of the way a concrete research strategy might evolve. The important point of the example is that the philosophical orientations described here — “simple empiricism”, “mechanisms theory” — lead researchers to structure their investigations in very different ways. The researcher who is attuned to causal mechanisms will focus his or her efforts on uncovering the concrete social pathways or processes through which a given pattern of behavior is either encouraged or discouraged; and the researcher will be led to consider comparative cases to see whether similar arrangements lead to similar patterns of behavior in the other cases. This suggests that the discussion of the ins and outs of causal mechanisms theory in philosophy of social science may in fact be an important contribution to social science methodology as well.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

SSHA 2014 Call for Papers

Macrohistorical Dynamics Network
39th Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Toronto, Ontario 6-9 November 2014
Submission Deadline: 14 February 2014
"Inequalities: Politics, Policy, and the Past"
We invite you to take part in Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) panels of the 39th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, November 6-9, 2014 in Toronto.  For more information on the meeting as well as the call for proposals, please refer to the SSHA website at
The deadline for paper and/or panel submissions is February 14, 2014.
The members of the Social Science History Association share a common interest in interdisciplinary and systematic approaches to historical research, and many of us find the SSHA one of the most stimulating conferences that we attend.
The theme of the 2014 annual meeting is “Inequalities: Politics, Policy, and the Past”.
Macrohistorical Dynamics (MHD) is an interdisciplinary social science research field that focuses on problems of large-scale, comparative historical inquiry.  Contributors to the field have brought perspective on a wide variety of problem areas, including macro-historical sociology; comparative histories; Eurasian history; world history; world-system analysis; philosophy of history; and studies of long-term socio-ecological, technological, demographic, cultural, and political transformations.  The Macrohistorical Dynamics network brings a rigorous perspective to bear on questions having to do with “large” history.
Possible topics that illustrate some of the general themes of Macrohistorical Dynamics include …
•    Comparative Methods in Macrohistory
•    Large-scale historical causes: climate, population, geography
•    Cultural and National Identities in Large-scale Historical Change
•    Theory in Macro-history: Are There Successful Macrosociological Theories?
•    Macro-, Meso-, Micro- in Historical Explanations
•    Empires and Peoples
•    Globalization and World Cities
•    Social Evolution and Systemic Transformations in World History
The list of MHD panel themes for 2014 is open, and we encourage you to submit proposals for paper topics or panel themes.
The MHD network expects to be able to host at least six panels in 2014 and will also be able to place additional papers through co-sponsorship with other networks (for example, with History/Methods, Politics, Culture, State-Society, Historical Geography, etc.).

SSHA requests that submissions be made by means of its web conference management system. Paper title, brief abstract, and contact information should be submitted on the site, where the general SSHA 2014 call for papers is also available.  (If you haven’t used the system previously you will need to create an account, which is a very simple process.)  Here is the direct link for submissions: 
The online system is now accepting submissions. If you have any questions, please contact either of the MHD co-chairs (Peter Perdue, James Lee, Dan Little). 
NOTE: There is an SSHA rule concerning book sessions.  For a book session to proceed, the author (or at least one of multiple authors) MUST be present.  Proposals for book sessions should only be submitted if there is high confidence that the author will be able to travel to Toronto November 6-9, 2014.
SSHA has set up a mechanism for networks to share papers, so even if you have a solo paper, send the idea along.  Co-sponsored panels and papers are encouraged by the SSHA Program Committee as a means of broadening the visibility of the various networks.
Please feel free to contact the MHD network organizers for further information.
Prof. Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn

Prof. Peter Perdue
Department of History
Yale University
New Haven CT

Prof. James Lee
School of Humanities and Social Science
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Hong Kong
Visit the SSHA Facebook site.

Mechanisms and intellectual movements

I am particularly interested in the idea that we can explain social outcomes by identifying the social mechanisms that (often, typically, occasionally) bring them about. I also find the evolution of science and systems of ideas to be particularly fascinating within contemporary sociology, in that this aspect of human life embraces both rationally directed thought and sociological influences. So it is very interesting to consider what we can discover about the structures, networks, and professional organizations that influence the course that a given discipline or field of research takes.

It is therefore interesting to consider the role that reference to social mechanisms has played in recent works of the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge. A particularly good example is found in the work of sociologists like Camic, Lamont, Gross, and Frickel, and Frickel and Gross's "General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements" (2005) is a good place to start (link). Frickel and Gross put their goal in this article in this way:
The theory seeks to answer the question, under what social conditions is any particular scientific/intellectual movement, or SIM (whose nature we clarify shortly), most likely to emerge, gain adherents, win intellectual prestige, and ultimately acquire some level of institutional stability? (205)
This description evokes an explanatory goal with a causal perspective -- "conditions" that make "emergence" likely. But on its face this is not a mechanisms-based approach -- rather, it is more akin to a "facilitating or necessary conditions" kind of analysis of social causation. This impression is reinforced by the assertion that the theory is inductive, based on an examination of a number of case studies of SIMs aimed at identifying such conditions. (The authors also make a point of giving emphasis to failed SIMs because of the traction offered by such cases for counterfactual analysis.) They emphasize the importance of identifying common features of SIMs, in order to "mark them as objects for sociological study" (208), which implies that a precondition of sociological study is that we need to identify a social kind of entities with reasonably similar properties. This too suggests an underlying causal perspective that looks to regularities and common properties rather than causal mechanisms or causal powers.

As much of the recent discussion of critical realism makes clear, it is very important to be as explicit as possible about the assumptions we make about causation in the social sciences. So a quick review of the article may be useful in order to shed light on the kinds of causal thinking that Frickel and Gross engage in here.

To begin, what is a SIM?
The most abbreviated definition is this: SIMs are collective efforts to pursue research programs or projects for thought in the face of resistance from others in the scientific or intellectual community. (206)
So one criterion for an ensemble of thinkers and institutions to constitute a SIM in the F/G definition is that their shared intellectual program needs to challenge the status quo, the dominant way of thinking about the subject matter of concern. F/G explicitly model their analysis on the study of social movements; notice the parallel with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly's formulation in Dynamics of Contention of their central question.
Under what conditions will normally apathetic, frightened, or disorganized people explode into the streets, put down their tools, or mount the barricades? How do different actors and identities appear and transform in episodes of contention? Finally, what kinds of trajectories do these processes follow? (chapter 2)
It is interesting that F/G are quite explicit in looking for a "general theory". What they mean by this, apparently, is an account of a limited set of social conditions whose presence or absence "explains" the success or failure of a candidate SIM at a point in time. And this in turn sounds quite a bit like the comparative method pursued by Theda Skocpol in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China: through comparative study of cases, discover a background set of social and political conditions that serve as jointly sufficient and/or necessary conditions for the occurrence of social revolution (link). (Like Skocpol, F/G make use of the probabilistic versions of sufficiency and necessity: "makes more likely" and "makes more unlikely".) Mechanisms come into the story fairly quickly: "Our general theory insists that the precise mechanisms whereby a field's external environment shapes a SIM must be specified" (209); but in fact, there is very little discussion of concrete mechanisms in the article.

The four premises of the general theory are these:
  • Proposition 1: A SIM is more likely to emerge when high-status intellectual actors harbor complaints against what they understand to be the central intellectual tendencies of the day. (209; italics mine)
  • Proposition 2: SIMs are more likely to be successful when structural conditions provide access to key resources. (213)
  • Proposition 3: The greater a SIM's access to various micro mobilization contexts, the more likely it is to be successful. (219)
  • Proposition 4: The success of a SIM is contingent upon the work done by movement participants to frame movement ideas in ways that resonate with the concerns of those who inhabit an intellectual field or fields. (221)
For each of these theoretical propositions they offer the sketch of an idea about what the mechanisms are that might support this factor. For example, concerning proposition 1, they maintain that "grievance" is a necessary condition for the emergence of an SIM because it puts potential adherents in a state of psychological readiness for mobilization. Another mechanism they cite for the emergence and mobilization of an SIM is the sudden entry into a field of non-traditional practitioners -- for example, women or African-American scholars entering the field of urban studies in the 1960s who found that prevailing wisdom failed to do justice to their own experiences. And on the resources point, F/G refer to the job market, academic organizations, and funding sources, and sketch out how favorable conditions with regard to these structural features can facilitate the success of a SIM. This is, at least in sketch, a mechanisms analysis.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 3 are encapsulated in the notion of "micromobilization". Like Tilly in his analysis of the counter-revolution in The Vendee, F/G hold that the success of a SIM is influenced by the strength or weakness of the various organizations and networks through which it is able to spread its message and its mobilization efforts at the grassroots level. They mention laboratories, conferences, research retreats, and academic departments (219). Once one or more advocates of the given SIM has a position of influence in one of these centers, he or she is enabled to influence and mobilize other scholars to the SIM.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 4 pick up on the rhetorical side of intellectual work.  We might unsympathetically refer to this aspect of the development of a SIM as the marketing campaign it pursues. In order to influence prospective adherents to an intellectual movement it is necessary to provide "messages" that resonate with them. (Fritz Ringer's analysis of the German mandarins between the wars in The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 seems to illustrate this mechanism; a few highly effective reactionary authors caught the wave of pessimism that was present in German culture between the wars, and this seems to have had an important effect on the development of social science thinking in the period.) This factor has to do with effective framing of issues and research questions:
Fundamental to framing, and underlying and connecting to the three other dimensions we describe shortly, is the notion of intellectual identity. We see intellectual identity as one of the crucial links between micro, mess, and macro levels of analysis in the sociology of ideas. (222)
It is possible to take issue with the notion that there is a general theory on offer here. I would rather call the analysis provided here an account of some generalizations about the causal conditions that facilitate or impede intellectual movements. The phrase "general theory" makes the effort seem more comprehensive than it actually aims to be. What this treatment lacks (by design) is a micro- or meso-level account of how specific institutions, identity features, resource sources, and networks have played out in specific instances of intellectual change. (The contributions to Camic, Gross, and Lamont's Social Knowledge in the Making do this in a variety of ways.)

But consider Chuck Tilly's frequent critique of a similar effort in contentious politics studies: it is the underlying mechanisms and processes, not the general similarities and common conditions, that provide real insight into the explanation of episodes of contentious action. Tilly argues that there is a great deal of variation across episodes; but we can nonetheless discover some common underlying mechanisms and processes. And this would suggest that a more meso-level might be helpful in the study of SIMs as well. Or putting it in other terms, more attention to mechanisms and less emphasis on general conditions might provide more insight into the phenomena of intellectual movements.

There is one final observation that appears relevant here. The "social mechanisms" approach itself might be classified as a SIM in the making. This intellectual movement involves a relatively small group of practitioners embedded within specific centers of institutional influence; it emerged from dissatisfaction with the received view of causation in the social sciences; and it is involved in a struggle for resources and prestige in the field of the philosophy of social science, both in Europe and North America. (For that matter, much the same could be said for critical realism.)

Finally, I am keeping my eyes open for meso-level social mechanisms in the sociology literature, and so I was curious in reading through this piece again whether any of the mechanisms postulated here were meso-meso. It seems that they are not. Rather, the social mechanisms mentioned generally proceed from a structure or institution to individual behavior (meso-micro) or from individual behavior to a meso- or macro-level outcome (progress of the SIM). But if this is correct, then the explanatory work offered here conforms to the downward and upward struts of Coleman's boat, not the type 4 causation from meso to meso that Coleman precludes (link). This makes the analysis perhaps more compatible with the strictures of analytical sociology that the authors might have guessed (link).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Guest post by Ruth Groff on causal powers

Ruth Groff is Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Louis University. She specializes in the philosophical underpinnings of Western social and political thought. She is author of Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (2012, with John Greco), Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy (Ontological Explorations) (2012), and Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science (2007). Here is her webpage at SLU. This contribution is a response to my prior post on her views of the status of causal powers in Ontology Revisited and to my post treating causality and metaphysics. Thanks for contributing, Ruth.

Do You Have to Be an Aristotelian to Believe in Powers?
By Ruth Groff

Dan Little asked me recently if I think that one has to be an Aristotelian in order to believe in powers. The question could be posed the other way around, too: Does believing in causal powers automatically make one be an Aristotelian? I think that the answer is probably “No,” but I also think that it might not be quite as clear-cut as it might seem. I’d like to use this guest blog post to set out the longer version of the response.

Before I do, though, let me say, especially for those readers who may be versed in contemporary analytic metaphysics, that the question that I took Dan to be asking is about real, live powers. Do you have to be an Aristotelian to believe that the world is full of activity, of dynamism – that it contains things (“things” broadly construed) that can engage in all manner of doing? By “power” I don’t mean “the fact of constant conjunction, plus a feeling of expectation,” as Hume explicitly said that he did.[i] Nor do I mean “counterfactual dependency.” Or “a sparse property equivalent to a neo-Humean disposition, except that it has a fixed identity (such that it is necessarily related to other such properties),” as my friend Alexander Bird means.[ii]  

One can attach the term “power” to anything, really, and then claim a belief in the existence of powers (as one has defined them) in virtue of one’s belief in the stipulated referent, or truth-maker. But the issue is not whether passivists are prepared to re-brand. The issue is what the world is like.

Arbitrarily, even, if need be, we can stipulate for the purposes of discussion that the term “power” denotes what it does for a competent English speaker. Nothing hangs upon the definition being correct, though it may well be; we just need one that’s fixed, relative to which we can locate different positions. A power, then, let’s say, is an ability to do. Passivists, Humean or otherwise, contend that there are no such things as powers construed in this normal, every-day way. (Hume actually says that the concept is meaningless.) It follows that the question that Dan Little posed cannot be whether or not a non-Aristotelian passivist is entitled to believe in powers conceived as an ability to do. (Though, for the record: no. One cannot both deny and affirm the existence of real causal powers. Also, counterfactual dependency is a particular sort of necessary relation. It is not any type of “doing.”) Rather, the question – and it’s an interesting one – is whether or not one is necessarily an Aristotelian if one is an anti-passivist.

Since Aristotle himself believed in powers, one way to think about the question might be to ask how much overlap one should have with Aristotle period, before one is either permitted or obliged to label oneself an Aristotelian. In my own case, I would want to agree with Aristotle on the following five points, at an absolute minimum, before counting myself an Aristotelian: (1) materialism; (2) potentiality; (3) the idea that things have essential properties; (4) emergence; and (5) the existence of powers. I think that if I were committed only to any one of these points, it would be inaccurate to describe me as an Aristotelian. Others might have a longer or more fine-grained list. That’s fine. I’m happy to consider these five points necessary but not sufficient for counting as an Aristotelian.

Next we will need to know if these commitments come as a package deal. If it’s all or nothing, then it does look as though believing in powers is going to get one at least a good bit of the way towards being an Aristotelian. And here too let me be as clear as possible about how I am understanding the key ideas, since philosophers do often attach terms that they want to retain to unlikely referents, or truth-makers. (John Stuart Mill, for example, says that if by “matter” what we mean is “the permanent possibility of sensation” – as we should, he thinks – then yes, by all means, he believes in the existence of matter.[iii]  

But that’s not likely to be what his interlocutor would have meant.) What I mean by (1) materialism is the view that that which exists is not exhausted by (or reducible to), the abstract, the conceptual or the perceptual. By belief in (2) potentiality, I mean a belief in existent but unexpressed phenomena (including but not necessarily limited to existent but unexpressed properties). By (3) an essence (or essential property or set of properties), I mean those ways that a thing is, in virtue of which it is the particular that it is and/or the kind of thing that it is, and not something else and/or of a different kind. By (4) emergence I mean the view that wholes exist, and that, unlike pluralities, they are more than the sum of their parts. (5) powers, finally, I have already defined in terms of capacities for doing.

So the question is whether or not (5) brings (1)-(4) along with it necessarily. One might think that the answer is an obvious no, rather than more careful one. Locke certainly seems to have powers in his ontology, and Locke isn’t an Aristotelian. Leibniz too. But simply pointing to people who assert (5), while denying (1) – (4) won’t be enough to decide the issue, since the mere fact that someone could or does hold that combination of beliefs doesn’t render the combination coherent. It will be better to assume (5), and then look to see what the situation is with each of (1) – (4).

(1) Materialism

It’s tricky, but I think that one can indeed believe in the existence of powers but not be a materialist. What one can’t do (for the record) is deny materialism and believe: (a) that powers exist; (b) that causation is the expression or display thereof; (c) that what we normally think of as material objects behave as we normally think they do – i.e., differently, as a kind, than non-material objects behave. If one believes (a) – (c), then the kind of objects that can bruise one’s shin (sticks and stones, for instance), can’t be impressions or possible sensations or abstract particulars or any other entity the being of which is entirely conceptual or internal to the experience of the subject. The reason for this is that the bar for being the cause of something physical goes up if causes have to actually do something, rather than just be what does or must regularly come first.

(2) Potentiality

I suppose that it is possible to distinguish the idea of activity from the idea of potentiality. One could imagine the world to be an environment in which all powers are “on” at all times, and only appear to be latent, in virtue of being cancelled out by other powers. Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum sometimes talk this way.[iv] Still, it seems to me that both dynamism and the possibility of being unexpressed are essential to the concept of a power. A world in which all powers are “on” at all times, I want to say, is not just a world of powers, but a world of universally actualized powers. The fact that powers are the kind of thing (“thing”) that might not be expressed is what led Roy Bhaskar to describe them as tendencies. (With Mumford and Anjum, by contrast, it seems as though powers are tendencies only in that expected effects might be cancelled out by other actualized powers.) If this is right, then a belief in powers will indeed commit one to a belief in potentiality. But note: it won’t commit one to the idea (a) that it is good for things to express or actualize their powers, or (b) that doing so excellently is things’ ultimate purpose, or (c) that things in any sense “want” to do this.

(3) Essential properties

If one believes in powers, then one will think that what things can do is a function of what powers they (and other things) have, not a function of laws of nature that dictate their behavior. (Nor will it do to simply push the nomological story back a frame: which powers a thing has will not be a fact that is itself dictated by laws.) But I don’t know that one would have to think that the properties of things are essential to them just because one believes that at least some of the properties had by things are powers to do. It seems more likely that it is the regularity of behavior (conceived as powers-based activity) and/or the sheer inescapability of differentiation, that leads to the idea that there are ways that something can and cannot be and still be a thing of a given kind.

(4) I don’t see that a belief in powers entails a belief in emergence, though one who believes in both is likely to argue that emergent entities have powers not had by their parts or by pluralities of their parts.

So what should we conclude? Does one have to be an Aristotelian to believe in the existence of real causal powers? As I’ve said, my view is that the answer is a qualified “No.” Even if we make it very easy to count as an Aristotelian, it looks as though one doesn’t have to be one, in virtue of accepting (5). And the more restrictive the criteria, or course, the less qualified the answer will be. This said, I suspect that the closer one is to being an Aristotelian in the loose sense that I’ve defined here, the more coherent one’s position will be, if one does believe in powers.

I would imagine that for sociologists a ready concern about Aristotelianism might be the worry that a belief in essential properties entails errors of naturalization and universalization vis-à-vis particular, historically contingent sociological phenomena. While understandable, I think that the worry is a needless one. Aristotle himself, for example, thinks that the polis (as a representative sociological entity) is an essentially different kind of thing than the family, say. But this does not mean that all poleis are just the same. Not even all proper, non-perverted poleis need be the same, kind membership notwithstanding. Admittedly, Aristotle thinks that the polis is a natural phenomenon, in the sense that he thinks that, by nature, human beings need to be involved in such forms of association in order to flourish. The polis is both the expression of our essential powers, and the venue in which such powers can be fully actualized. This is not a type of naturalizing that does away with the social, but still, one might object. As Charlotte Witt has suggested, a good way to conceptualize sociological formations in Aristotelian terms is to think of them as being similar to artifacts.[v] Artifacts (i.e., entities made by human beings) do not lack essential properties in virtue of which they are what they are and not something else, just because they are made by us. And yet – shared essential properties notwithstanding – knives, to use Aristotle’s example, do not all look the same. Nor do all tools stay around forever. I haven’t smelled mimeograph ink since I was a kid. It is true that it’s not until Marx that we get a fully historicized, fully materialist Aristotelian apparatus. But – or perhaps I should say “and” – the reality of reified, alienated distinctively human powers is at the absolute core of Marx’s social science. 

Go ahead and believe in the existence of real causal powers. You don’t have to be an Aristotelian. And even if it turns out that you do a little bit, it’ll be okay.


[i] David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals; Reprinted from the 1777 edition, with Inroduction and Analytical Index by L. A. Selby-Bigge; 3rd edition, with text revised and notes by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1975), esp. Sections IV and VII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
[ii] For fuller discussion, see my “Whose Powers? Which Agency?” in (eds., Ruth Groff and John Greco) Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (New York: Routledge, 2012).
[iii] John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1872), Chapter XI and “Appendix to the Two Preceding Chapters.”
[iv] See, e.g., Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[v] Personal conversation, April 2013.  In addition to her work on Aristotle, readers might be interested in Witt’s recent The Metaphysics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2011.

Friday, January 10, 2014

ANT and the philosophy of social science

What does Actor-Network Theory have to add to the kinds of issues in the foundations of the social sciences that are of interest here?

ANT is primarily associated with Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts), John Law, and Manuel DeLanda (A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity), deriving ultimately from philosophical ideas expressed by Gilles Deleuze. The idea of assemblage is the key construct that I've found appealing in this general field (link, link). This concept originates in skepticism about the validity of large social concepts like "society". In place of an ontology that postulates fixed social entities and contexts, ANT puts forward the concept of assemblage to capture social stuff at every level.

Here is Latour describing the alternative approach he favors:
The other approach does not take for granted the basic tenet of the first. It claims that there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context', no distinct do-main of reality to which the label ‘social' or ‘society' could be attrib-uted; that no ‘social force' is available to ‘explain' the residual features other domains cannot account for.... (RS 4)
Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn't produce one. (RS 8)
And here is DeLanda's effort at providing a simple preliminary description of assemblage:
The concept of assemblage is defined along two dimensions. One dimension or axis defines the variable roles which an assemblage's components may play, from a purely material role at one extreme of the axis, to a purely expressive role at the other extreme.... The other dimension defines variable processes in which these components become involved and that either stabilize the identity of an assemblage, by increasing its degree of internal homogeneity or the degree of sharpness of its boundaries, or destabilize it. ...
The components of social assemblages playing a material role vary widely, but at the very least involve a set of human bodies properly oriented (physically or psychologically) towards each other.... Illustrating the components playing an expressive role needs some elaboration because in assemblage theory expressively cannot be reduced to language and symbols. (NPS 12)
But of course there is more to ANT than assemblage theory. Latour organizes Reassembling the Social around five puzzles for the social sciences: the nature of groups, the nature of actions, the nature of objects, the nature of facts, and the nature of "social studies." In each case Latour argues that there are major uncertainties and unsolved questions concerning the specification of these various "things". And he argues for a long, slow process of discovery rather than an over-quick glossing of the meaning of these concepts.
ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, nod by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket.... The task of defining and ordering the social should be left to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst. (23)
The most esoteric thread within ANT is the idea that "actors" are found at every level of analysis, from a protein to a world trading system, and that there is no reason to privilege one level over the other. This is an idea that traces back to Deleuze. Actors -- whether intentional, organic, or mechanical -- interact in heterogeneous sets of relationships (networks), giving rise to novel properties and behaviors. DeLanda moderates the idea to some extent in NPS:
Although Deleuze considers all entities, even nonbiological and non social ones, as being capable of expressions he argues that the historical appearance of these specialized entities allowed a great complexification of the kinds of wholes that could be assembled in this planet. (14)
An important thread within ANT is the contribution that Latour has made to science and technology studies (Laboratory Life). This amounts to a sustained case for the social construction of knowledge. The approach depends on a methodological principle worth acknowledging -- the importance of recognizing knowledge activities as socially constructed and carried out. Much as Thomas Kuhn revolutionized the philosophy of science by insisting on the social and historical specificity of the laboratory and the research tradition, so STS studies and Latour have demonstrated the value of examining scientific practices in detail. Unavoidably a concern for epistemology needs to be coupled with attention to the concrete social practices through which knowledge is created, and STS provides numerous good examples of how to do this. This is the social constructivist thread of ANT.

Another important theme in ANT is the conjunction its theorists forge between material and semiotic social facts. Latour and DeLanda emphasize the importance of this conjunction repeatedly: the social is an inextricable mixture of structuring circumstances and meanings. This is expressed in the passage from DeLanda quoted above.

So which among these ideas makes a useful contribution to the philosophy of social science as understood here?

The social constructionist approach to the social sciences is important for the philosophy of social science. Philosophers are often interested in the rationality of science -- including the social sciences -- and may be suspicious of the claims of the social constructionists. But there is a core pragmatism in the constructionist approach: scientific theories and research strategies are human projects, undertaken within specific sets of constraints and opportunities. And it is important to be able to investigate the contingent processes through which scientific ideas and findings come about. This doesn't mean that scientific beliefs are groundless or rationally unsupported. But it does mean that scientific research is a sociological process, and one that demands investigation. The new sociology of ideas advocated by Neil Gross and Charles Camic illustrates a way of doing this that allows for both contingency and rationality (link).

The skepticism that Latour and other ANT scholars offer for the grand concepts of sociology is also helpful for PSS. The error of reification is an all-too-easy one to make, where we make use of an abstract noun (e.g. social class) and then assume that there is some reality lying behind it. So Latour's critique of "society" and "social context" is an important contribution that needs to be addressed.

Corresponding to this skepticism about "society", the ontological concept of assemblage is a useful contribution as well. ANT and assemblage theory suggest a profoundly different way of thinking about the social, and these alternative ideas may in fact turn out to be better suited to the fluid, plastic, and heterogeneous world of the social.

What is completely absent in ANT is a positive conception of explanation and of causation. In fact, Latour is explicitly unreceptive to the ambition of offering social explanations: "This proves again with what energy the notion of social explanation should be fought" (RS 86). He recalls his ethnographic experience in Roger Guillemin's laboratory in these terms: "No experience was more striking than what I saw with my own eyes: the social explanation had vanished into thin air" (RS 99). And later: "As we will see later on, our job as social scientists is to generate hard facts and passionate objectors that resist social explanations. In effect, sociologists have always studied up" (RS 101). Finally:
However, we worry that by sticking to description there may be something missing, since we have not ‘added to it' something else that is often call an ‘explanation'. And yet the opposition between description and explanation is another of these false dichotomies that should be put to rest—especially when it is ‘social explanations' that are to be wheeled out of their retirement home. (137)
So perhaps the ingredients that would be listed on this can of soup would read something like this:
Critique of common social ontology (50% daily allowance)
Outline of an alternative approach to social ontology -- assemblage theory (75% daily allowance)
Critique of the goal of social explanation (2% daily allowance)
Exemplars of the study of the social construction of science (25% daily allowance)
Model of how to conduct social research (trace amounts)
And this suggests ample reason to add consideration of ANT to the menu for the philosophy of social science, at least as a condiment if not the main course.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How do the poles of current PSS interact?

An earlier post offered a diagram of current topics in the philosophy of social science. The three poles of this diagram were analytical sociology, critical realism, and actor-network theory. Here I would like to look more closely at how these polar perspectives interact with each other.

To start, it is clear that these three beacons serve as poles of the field. There are vehement differences in method, philosophical style, and substantive findings across the three frameworks.

Analytical sociology favors a broadly speaking reductive approach to social explanation, relying heavily on the diagram of Coleman's boat to illustrate how social explanation should proceed. It favors an enlightened version of methodological individualism, where social reality is constituted by purposive actors in constrained circumstances. It favors causal explanations couched in terms of causal mechanisms. And it presents a philosophical style that gives priority to clarity and simplicity over extended and sometimes obscure philosophical theorizing.

Critical realism disagrees with almost all of these premises. It staunchly defends a non-reductionist understanding of social structures, with structures being seen as possessing stable causal powers. It rejects the idea of reducing social properties to the combined effects of individual actions, often favoring emergence over reduction. It does not accept the logic of Coleman's boat, because it recognizes the reality of type 4 causal relations from structure to structure. And it is founded on a philosophical system that many readers find needlessly obscure -- Bhaskar's transcendental ontology.

Actor-network theory appears to be at odds with both these perspectives. ANT rejects the idea of privileging individual humans as the bearers of social processes. It conveys a luxuriant and often obscure set of philosophical ideas. ANT is ambivalent about the idea of social explanation and causation, in that Latour sometimes privileges description over explanation. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is also skeptical about the reality of social structures, favoring heterogeneous assemblages over enduring structures.

So with all these differences, is there room for useful synthesis of these perspectives into innovative ideas about social ontology and explanation?

Start with a few resonances between ANT and CR. Both are grounded in a philosophical system (Deleuze, Kant), and they both make use of philosophical arguments to arrive at substantive conclusions. Both take up ontological ideas as being key to an adequate philosophy of social science, and they both offer stringent critiques of received positivist ideas about the nature of the social world. The idea of assemblage may also be a point of partial contact, in that enduring structures might be thought of along the lines of relatively stable assemblages. But a point of contrast is pervasive: CR is realist, and ANT is constructionist.

Are there points of contact between AS and ANT? It would appear that there are not. The anti-philosophical bent of AS makes it difficult for AS scholars to read and benefit from the writings of ANT scholars (witness, for example, Hedstrom's dismissal of Bourdieu). The model of explanation that is presupposed by AS -- demonstration of how higher-level entities are given their properties by the intentional actions of individuals -- is explicitly rejected by ANT. And the idea of assemblage -- contingent conjunction of heterogeneous configurations of "actors" in the peculiarly non-individualist sense that ANT adopts -- seems to be a difficult one for AS to take seriously.

Finally, what about the relation between AS and CR? On the issue of causation there is a degree of separation -- AS favors causal mechanisms, preferably grounded in the level of individuals, whereas CR favors causal powers at all levels.  The CR idea of emergent social properties is a difficult one to assimilate to the AS framework, since AS wants to understand higher-level structures as the compound effect of the constituents. But here there is perhaps room for a degree of accommodation, if CR scholars can be persuaded of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy advocated elsewhere here. Relative explanatory autonomy is a way of reconciling the ultimately individualist ontology of AS with the emergentism of CR. And in fact Robert Sampson's view of neighborhood causation seems a step in that direction.

So the three frameworks have little overlap in method or substance. However, the philosophy of the social that is advocated here may be one way of finding commonality among the three poles. The weak microfoundationalism I defend captures at least a part of the AS position without demanding reduction. The scientific realism about social structures that I advocate creates a degree of affinity with CR (or perhaps the CR naturalized described by Kaidesoja), and in any case affirms the central view of CR: that it is legitimate to attribute causal powers to concrete social structures.  The views I have developed here about the heterogeneity and plasticity of social entities (and the implausibility of the idea of social kinds) creates a significant link to the assemblage theory that comes out of the ANT tradition. And the framework of methodological localism provides a degree of consonance with the anti-metaphysics of ANT. So I think the philosophy of social science developed here occupies the center of the diagram above, with linkages to each of the polar beacons.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New philosophy of social science

The philosophy of social science is a living field with several distinct areas of growth and dozens of talented young contributors bringing fresh ideas and rigorous thinking. (Here are a number of earlier posts documenting this activity; link, linklink, link.) It sometimes happens in a field of philosophy that a period of involution sets in, with ever more refined discussion of ever smaller questions. That problem is certainly not on the horizon for the philosophy of social science, and especially not in the circle of European philosophers. (See this call for papers for the annual meeting of the European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences in Madrid; link.)

There is a traditional lineup of topics that has guided courses and books in the philosophy of social science. But a shorter list of topics have generated a great deal of debate and discussion in the field today. Here is a sketch:
  • Reduction and emergence; microfoundations and meso causation
  • Actor centered sociology
  • Microfoundations 
  • Social ontology; heterogeneity and plasticity; assemblage; actor-network theory
  • Analytical sociology
  • Causal mechanisms
  • Critical realism
  • The status of social structures 
In each of these areas there are well defined debates underway, and in some cases there are interesting cross-references across these areas of theorizing. If we were drawing a graph of these debates, we might consider several major poles -- analytical sociology, critical realism, and ANT -- and arrange the other topics according to their interconnectedness with the claims of one or the other of these poles.

There are also some longstanding topics that seem poised for new thinking:
  • Post positivism
  • Explanation
  • Justification
Take justification: it seems plausible to think that social science hypotheses can be investigated piece-meal, rather than as parts of holistic theoretical systems. The "theory" of social class is more like an ensemble of descriptive assertions about power and privilege than it is like the theory of gravity. But if this is true, then the standard philosophical idea of deductive-nomological confirmation theory is not so relevant to the social sciences. Or take explanation: the standard philosophical theory of hypothetico-deductive explanation has come in for a withering amount of criticism in the past fifty years. And now non-deductivist theories of explanation are being constructed to good effect (link).

Philosophers usually have a different way of approaching topics in the sciences than working scientists, even when they follow the advice that the philosophy of science needs to be closely intertwined with existing scientific research practices. We tend to find a topic interesting because of the complexities it poses in terms of the assumptions and proto-theories we bring to understanding the external world -- whether or not that topic is directly relevant to current research. We want to formulate general questions and then propose logical answers to them: What is a rational actor? What is a social structure? Do social structures have causal powers? Can facts about social objects be grounded in facts about individual actors? And it appears fairly clear that these questions fall at a higher level of generality than the questions posed by working sociologists or political scientists. So the philosophy of social science is somewhat different from even the more abstract reaches of sociological theory.

At the same time, we hope that the thinking we do at this more general level has some relevance for the formulation of theories, hypotheses, and explanations in the social sciences.