Friday, February 28, 2014

Social powers?

I am one of those people who think that causal claims are the foundation of almost all explanations. When we ask for an explanation of something, we generally want to know why and how it came to be, and this means looking into its causal history. Moreover, I have believed for many years that this means looking for a set of causal mechanisms whose workings contribute to the outcome. And I subscribe to the anti-Humean idea that a causal relation involves some kind of necessity from cause to effect -- there is something in the substrate that necessitates the transition from cause to effect. The cause forces the effect to occur. (These ideas were first expressed in Varieties of Social Explanation.)

This means that my philosophy of social science has affinities to both large bodies of thought about causation today -- mechanisms and powers. The connection to mechanisms is explicit. The connection to powers is less direct but no less genuine. Essentially it comes down to the idea of necessity -- the idea that the properties of the causing thing, in the setting under consideration, actively produce its effects. This is what Ruth Groff refers to as an anti-passivist philosophy of causation.

One thing that makes me a little nervous about the current powers literature, though, is a kind of essentialism that it often seems to bring along. Rom Harré expressed this in his early formulations: it is the essential properties of a thing that create its causal powers. Here is how Stephen Pratten describes Harré's view (link):
Causal powers are, for Harré and Madden, properties of concrete powerful particulars which they possess in virtue of their essential natures.They analyse the ascription of causal powers to a thing in the following way: ‘ “X has the power to A” means “X will/can do A, in the appropriate circumstances in virtue of its intrinsic nature” ' (1975: 86).
And current powers theorists make similar claims. But I don't think things have an essential nature in any rigorous sense. So I'd rather see a powers theory whose formulation avoids reference to essential characteristics.

This is particularly important in the realm of the greatest interest to me, the social world. I believe that social entities are plastic and heterogeneous, and I don't think there are social kinds in a strong metaphysical sense. This entails that social entities do not have essential properties. So if powers theory depends on essentialism, then it seems not to apply in my understanding of the nature of the social world.

Fortunately essentialism is not essential! We can formulate an account of the causal powers of a social thing in terms of its contingent and changing properties and we don't have to hypostatize social things.

The way this works is that we do understand how the substrate of causal interconnection works in the social world. Social causation always works through the thoughts and actions of socially situated purposive actors. Individuals form representations of the world around them, both social and natural, they form relationships with other actors, and they act accordingly. So social structures acquire causal powers by shaping and incentivizing the individuals they touch.

So when we say that a certain social entity, structure, or institution has a certain power or capacity, we know what that means: given its configuration, it creates an action environment in which individuals commonly perform a certain kind of action. This is the downward strut in the Coleman's Boat diagram (link).

This construction has two important consequences. First, powers are not "irreducible" -- rather, we can explain how they work by analyzing the specific environment of formation and choice they create. And second, they are not essential. Change the institution even slightly and we may find that it has very different causal powers and capacities. Change the rules of liability for open range grazing and you get different patterns of behavior by ranchers and farmers (Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes).

Friday, February 21, 2014

A causal narrative?

source: Edward Tufte,

In a recent post I referred to the idea of a causal narrative (link). Here I would like to sketch out what I had in mind there.

Essentially the idea is that a causal narrative of a complicated outcome or occurrence is an orderly analysis of the sequence of events and the causal processes that connected them, leading from a set of initial conditions to the outcome in question. The narrative pulls together our best understanding of the causal relations, mechanisms, and conditions that were involved in the process and arranges them in an appropriate temporal order. It is a series of answers to "why and how did X occur?" designed to give us an understanding of the full unfolding of the process.

A narrative is more than an explanation; it is an attempt to “tell the story” of a complicated outcome. So a causal narrative will include a number of causal claims, intersecting in such a way as to explain the complex event or process that is of interest. And in my view, it will be a pluralistic account, in that it will freely invoke a number of causal ideas: powers, mechanisms, necessary and sufficient conditions, instigating conditions, and so forth.

Here is how I characterized a historical narrative in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History:
What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of the unfolding of events, along with an effort to explain how and why these processes and events came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (29)
We might illustrate this idea by looking at the approach taken to contentious episodes and periods by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. In their treatment of various contentious periods, they break the given complex period of contention into a number of mechanisms and processes, conjoined with contingent and conjunctural occurrences that played a significant causal role in the outcome. The explanatory work that their account provides occurs at two levels: the discovery of a relatively small number of social mechanisms of contention that recur across multiple cases, and the construction of complex narratives for particular episodes that bring together their understanding of the mechanisms and processes that were in play in this particular case.
We think what happens within a revolutionary trajectory can better be understood as the result of the intersection of a number of causal mechanisms. We do not offer a systematic account of all such mechanisms and their interaction in a sample of revolutionary situations. Instead, we use a paired comparison of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the Chinese student rebellion of 1989 to zero in on one processes in particular: the defection of significant elements from a dominant ruling coalition. (kl 2465)
The narrative for a particular case (the Mau Mau uprising, for example) takes the form of a chronologically structured account of the mechanisms that their analysis identifies as having been relevant in the unfolding of the insurgent movement and the government's responses. MTT give attention to "episodes" within larger processes, with the clear implication that the episodes are to some degree independent from each other and are amenable to a mechanisms analysis themselves. So a narrative is both a concatenated series of episodes and a nested set of mechanisms and processes.

Robert Bates introduces a similar idea in Analytic Narratives under the rubric of “analytic narrative”. The chief difference between his notion and mine is that his account is limited to the use of game theory and rational choice theory to provide the linkages within the chronological account, whereas I want to allow a pluralistic understanding of the kinds and levels of causes that are relevant to social processes.

Here is a brief account of what Bates and his collaborators mean by an analytic narrative:
The chapters thus build narratives. But the narratives are analytic narratives. By modeling the processes that produced the outcomes, we seek to capture the essence of stories. Should we possess a valid representation of the story, then the equilibrium of the model should imply the outcome we describe—and seek to explain. Our use of rational choice and game theory transforms the narratives into analytic narratives. Our approach therefore occupies a complex middle ground between ideographic and nomothetic reasoning. (12)
As have others, however, we seek to return to the rich, qualitative, and descriptive materials that narratives offer. And, as have others, we seek an explicit and logically rigorous account of the events we describe… We seek to locate and explore particular mechanisms that shape the interplay between strategic actors and that thereby generate outcomes. Second, most of these [other] literatures are structural: they focus on the origins and impact of alignments, cleavages, structures, and institutions. Our approach, by contrast, focuses on choices and decisions. It is thus more micro than macro in orientation. By delineating specific mechanisms and focusing on the determinants and impacts of choices, our work differs from our predecessors. (12-13)
A narrative typically offers an account of an historically particular event or process: the outbreak of a specific war, the emergence of ethnic conflict at a specific place and time, or the occurrence of a financial crisis. This places narratives on the side of particular social-science analysis. Is there a role for generalization in relation to narratives? I think that MTT would suggest that there is not, when it comes to large event groups like revolutions. There is no common template of revolutionary mobilization and regime collapse; instead, there are local and national interactions that constitute recurring mechanisms, and it is the task of the social scientist to discover the linkages and contingencies through which these various mechanisms led to revolution in this case or that. MTT try to find a middle ground between particularity and generalization:
Have we only rediscovered narrative history and applied to it a new, scientistic vocabulary? We think not. While convinced of the futility of deducing general covering laws of contention, we think our program -- if it succeeds -- will uncover recurring sets of mechanisms that combine into robust processes which, in turn, recur over a surprising number and broad range of episodes. (kl 3936)
In my view, anyway, a narrative describes a particular process or event; but it does so by identifying recurring processes, mechanisms, and forces that can be discerned within the unfolding of the case. So generalizability comes into the story at the level of the components of the narrative -- the discovery of common social processes within the historically unique sequence of events.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lincoln and Marx

Robin Blackburn has assembled a fascinating book drawing out some surprising connections between Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Since both thinkers are highly original in their thinking about the worlds they inhabited, I’ve found the book to be absorbing. It consists of a brilliant hundred-page historical essay by Blackburn that draws out the themes in political theory that were of concern to both thinkers and demonstrates some surprising parallels. The book then provides several relevant speeches by Lincoln, several pieces of journalism by Marx about slavery and the American Civil War, letters by Marx including the centerpiece, a letter from Marx to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association; and several miscellaneous short articles by other people about Marx and Lincoln.

Blackburn is the perfect person to do this work. He is a recognized expert on Marx's thought, and he is also an expert on the history of New World slavery. (The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848). So he is unusually well prepared to draw out the connections between the ideas of Marx and Lincoln on the topics of the Civil War, slavery, and economic competition between the North and the South. He also offers a very interesting analysis of the impact that the large immigration of German workers had on the politics of the North in the twelve years before the Civil War. Here is one illustrative incident:
As the Civil War unfolded, German Americans and their overseas friends furnished vital support to the Northern cause. At the outbreak of the war, a German American militia in St. Louis played a key role in preventing Missouri's governor from delivering the state--and the city's huge arsenal--into Confederate hands. [Marx's friend] Wedemeyer became a colonel, served as a staff officer in St. Louis for General John Frémont, and was put in charge of the city's defenses. (25)
The International Workingmen's Association itself came to have a substantial presence in the United States and brought with it a political agenda advocating racial and gender emancipation. After the suppression of the Paris Commune the headquarters of the IWA was moved to New York, and there were dozens of IWA sections in large Northern cities.
The IWA mustered a demonstration of 70,000 or more in New York in December 1871 to pay tribute to the Commune's tens of thousands of martyrs. The parade brought together the Skidmore Guards (a black militia), the female leadership of Section 12 (Woodhull and Claflin), an Irish band, a range of trade unions, supporters of Cuba's fight for independence marching under the Cuban flag, and a broad spectrum of socialist, feminist, Radical, and Reform politics. (77)
source: Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution, p. 99

The 1864 letter from Marx to Lincoln is on the occasion of Lincoln's re-election as President. The thrust of the letter is to express support for Lincoln in the effort to end slavery in the United States. Here is the closing paragraph of the letter:
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American antislavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. (212)
A reply to this letter was received through the intermediary of Charles Francis Adams, United States Ambassador to Britain. The key lines of the reply are these:
[The government of the United States] strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men, and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and goodwill throughout the world. Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies. (214)
About one month following the assassination of President Lincoln, Marx sent another letter to President Andrew Johnson, also on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association. It contains a powerful elegy for the President and is perhaps the most moving prose to be found in Marx's writings.
It is not our part to call words of sorrow and horror, while the heart of two worlds heaves with emotions. Even the sycophants who, year after year and day by day, stuck to their Sisyphus work of morally assassinating Abraham Lincoln and the great republic he headed stand now aghast at this universal outburst of popular feeling, and rival with each other to strew rhetorical flowers on his open grave. They have now at last found out that he was a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity nor intoxicated by success; inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste; slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them; carried away by no surge of popular favor, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse; tempering stern acts by the gleams of a kind heart; illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humor; doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state; in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr. (214-215)
The "Unfinished Revolution" in Blackburn's title refers to the failure of two large forms of human emancipation in the United States following the Civil War that lay at the heart of the political philosophies of Marx and Lincoln -- the full emancipation of African Americans as the descendants of slaves, and the creation of a broad workers' movement that would successfully challenge the power of big business. "If the nonappearance of a US labor party marked a critical defeat for Karl Marx, the failure of the Republican Party to emerge from Reconstruction and its sequel as a party of bourgeois rectitude and reform registered a spectacular defeat for Lincoln's hopes for his party and country" (96). And Blackburn closes his introduction with some speculation about how Marx might have acted had he himself have relocated to America (as Engels briefly visited New York and Boston in 1887).
Just as he saw the importance of the slavery issue at the start of the Civil War, so he would surely have focused on "winning the battle of democracy," securing the basic rights of the producers -- including the freedmen -- in all sections as preparation for an ensuing social revolution.... Marx and Engels would have insisted that only the socialization of the great cartels and financial groups could enable the producers and their social allies to confront the challenges of modern society and to aspire to a society in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all. (100)
The ideas that hold Marx and Lincoln together are emancipation and the basic dignity of the common working man and woman, and the vision of a society in which both freedom and dignity are possible for all.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Causal narratives, mechanisms, and powers

A million termites move around industriously without supervisors or external coordination.  Some months later, a great structure has arisen — a termite cathedral mound. It is a structure that has apparent functionality (figure 2), it is oriented to the sun in a way that optimizes its ability to handle heat and cold, and the design plainly exceeds the cognitive or practical capacity of any single termite. How do they do it? (The BBC video below describes these mounds and their construction.)

This is a hard question because we know quite a bit about what the termites do not do. They do not have architects and project managers; they do not have blueprints guiding their work; they do not have a master plan. Instead, millions of independent organisms somehow coordinate their actions in ways that collectively result in the large structure.

Termite architects 04 0511 mdn
 figure 1. The mound
Termite structure
figure 2. The structure of the mound

We would like to have an explanation for how this works; how the individual insects within this population behave in the ways that are necessary to create this vast complex structure.

One way of putting our explanatory needs here is to say that we are asking for a mechanism: what is the mechanism or ensemble of mechanisms that produce the collective behavior leading to the construction of the mound? What is it about the behavioral code of the insect that permits this collective behavior? This way of putting the problem is to highlight the mechanisms approach.

But we might better say, we are asking for an explanatory narrative, including elements like these:
  • The insects have such-and-so behavioral routines (algorithms) embedded in their nervous systems.
  • Behaviors are triggered by environmental circumstances and the activities of other insects around them.
  • The triggered behavior in each insect contributes to a pattern of activity that leads to progressive “building” of the mound.
The force of the explanation hinges on the details we can learn about these powers and capacities of the termites as a species -- these behavioral algorithms. We want to know something crucial about the powers and capacities of the individual insects; we want to know how their routines are responsive to environment and other insects; and we want to know how the emerging structure of the mound leads to the modified activities of the insects over the process of construction.

This narrative highlights a topic we have considered several times before -- the idea of the causal powers of an entity. Most basically, we might look at the individual worker termite as robot controlled by a complex algorithm -- "when external circumstances X,Y,Z arise, carry out the Z routine." The causal powers of the individual worker termite are determined by its algorithm and its physical capacities -- salivation, moving around, carrying bits of mud, and so forth. And the task of explanation is to discover the nature of the algorithms and the ways in which the resulting behaviors aggregate to the observed physical structure of the mound.

We might observe, for example, that a certain kind of insect navigates a maze by following a simple rule: always keep the wall on your left. This rule will sometimes work well; sometimes it will not. But this observation suggests that the insect's central nervous system encodes the decision-making rule in this way. And we might also infer that "maze navigation" is important for the survival of the insect in its normal environment, and so its navigational algorithms will have been refined through natural selection.

We would also like to know something else about the insects and their powers: how did they come to have these particular capacities and algorithms? Here we have a well established explanation, in the form of the theory of the gene, natural selection, and the evolution of species characteristics through differential reproductive success. Here the explanatory challenge is to piece together the nature of the algorithms that would suffice to account for the observed collective outcomes.

It is also of interest in this example that there is a large field of research and discovery within complexity research that hinges on discovering the complex collective patterns that can emerge from simple routines at the level of the individual agent. For example, the "Game of Life" illustrates the power of cellular automata in generating complexity out of simple agent-level routines.

This example is a useful one, not primarily for entymologists, but for us as philosophers of social science. What would an explanation of this phenomenon look like? And a little bit of reflection seems to take us in the direction of some familiar ideas: the idea of things having causal powers that govern what they can do, the idea of the aggregation of complex outcomes from independent activities of large numbers of agents (agent-based models), and the idea that a good explanation gives us an empirically supportable understanding of how something works.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"How does it work" questions

Source: Karl Ove Moene in Alternatives to Capitalism, p. 85

One of the strengths of the causal-mechanisms approach to social explanation is how it responds to a very fundamental aspect of what we want explanations to do: we want to understand how something works. And a mechanisms account answers that question.

Let’s consider an example in detail. Suppose we observe that worker-owned cooperatives (WOC) tend to respond differently to price changes for their products than capitalist-owned firms (COF) when it comes to production decisions. The WOC firm will conform to this rule: “The higher the output price, the lower will be the supply” (85), whereas the COF firm will increase employment and supply. This is referred to as the Ward problem.

We would like to know how that comes about; what are the organization's processes and interactions that lead to the outcome. This means that we need to dig deeply into the specific processes that lead to production and employment decisions in both kinds of enterprises and see how these processes lead to different results.

The key part of the explanation will need to involve an analysis of the locus of decision-making that exists within the enterprise, and a demonstration of how the decision-making process in a WOC leads to a different outcome from that involved in a COF.

Here is how Karl Ove Moene analyzes this problem in “Strong Unions or Worker Control?” (Alternatives to Capitalism).
A production cooperative with worker control is defined somewhat restrictively as follows:
  1. Productive activities are jointly carried out by the members (who in this case are the workers).
  2. Important managerial decisions reflect the desires of the members, who participate in some manner in decision making.
  3. The net income (income after expenses) is divide among the members according to some formula.
  4. The members have equal rights, and important decisions are made democratically by one person, one vote. (84)
A capitalist firm acts differently:
  1. Productive activities are carried out by wage laborers and directed by management controlled by the owners.
  2. Important managerial decisions reflect the desires of the owners of the enterprise. 
  3. Producers are paid a wage set by the labor market. The net income is assigned as profits to the owners.
  4. Producers have no right of decision-making in production decisions.
The assumption is that decision-makers in both settings will make decisions that maximize their income — in other words, narrow egoistic economic rationality. In the assumptions used here for the cooperative, this implies that decision-making will aim at adjusting employment and production to the point where "marginal productivity (VMP) equals the net income per member (NIM)” (85). These quantities are represented in the graph above. Here is the reasoning:
What happens if the output price increases? In real terms, net income per member increases, because the fixed costs deflated by the output price decreases. Hence the NIM curve in Figure 5.1 shifts upwards, while the marginal productivity curve remains in place. As a consequence, the optimal number of members in the coop decreases and the firm's supply decreases the higher the output price. [Hence the coop lays off excess workers.] (85-86)
(Actually, this is what should happen in the long term. Moene goes on to show that the coop would not behave this way in the short run; but he acknowledges that the economic reasoning is correct. So for the sake of my example, let's assume that the coop behaves as Ward argues.)

The mechanism that distinguishes the behavior of the two kinds of firm is easy to specify in this case. The mechanism of individual decision-making based on rational self-interest is in common in the two types of firms. So the explanation doesn't turn on the mechanism of economic rationality per se. What differs across the cases is the collective decision-making process and the interests of the actors who make the decisions in the two cases. The decision-making mechanisms in the two cases are reflected in principles 2-4. The coop embodies a democratic social-choice rule, whereas the capitalist firm embodies a dictatorship choice rule (in Kenneth Arrow's sense -- one actor's preferences decide the outcome). A democratic decision about production levels leads to the reduction-of-output result, whereas a dictatorship decision about production levels leads to the increase-of-output result in these circumstances. And in turn, we are able to say that the phenomenon is explained by reference to the mechanism of decision-making that is embodied in the two types of firms -- democratic decision making in the coop and autocratic decision making in the capitalist firm.

This is a satisfying explanation because it demonstrates how the surprising outcomes are the foreseeable results of the differing decision processes. It identifies the mechanisms that lead to the different outcomes in the different circumstances.

This example also illustrates another interesting point -- that a given mechanism can be further analyzed into one or more underlying mechanisms and processes. In this case the underlying mechanism is the postulated model of action at the individual level -- maximizing of self-interest. If we postulated a different action model -- a conditional altruism model, for example -- then the behavior of the system might be different.

(I think this is a valid example of a mechanisms-based social explanation. Others might disagree, however, and argue that it is actually a deductivist explanation, reasoning from general characteristics of the "atoms" of the system (individual actors) to aggregate properties (labor-expelling collective decisions).)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Skocpol on the 1979 revolution in Iran

An earlier post reviewed Theda Skocpol's effort in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China to provide a comparative, structural account of the occurrence of social revolutions. There I suggested that the account is too deterministic and too abstract. It gives the impression, perhaps undeserved, that there are only a small number of pathways through which social revolutions can take place, and only a small number of causal factors that serve to bring them about. The impression emerges that Skocpol has offered a set of templates into which we should expect other social revolutions to fit.

One of the benefits of re-reading a book that is now 35 years old, however, is that history presents new cases that are appropriately considered by the theory. One such case is the Iranian Revolution, which unfolded in 1979. And, as Skocpol indicates forthrightly, the Iranian Revolution does not fit the model that she puts forward in States and Social Revolutions very closely. Skocpol considered the complexities and challenges which the Iranian Revolution posed to her theory in an article which appeared in 1981, before the dust had fully settled in Tehran. The article is included in her collection, Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Here is the challenge that the Iranian Revolution created for Skocpol's causal theory of social revolutions:
A few of us have also been inspired to probe the Iranian sociopolitical realities behind these events. For me, such probing was irresistible – above all because the Iranian revolution struck me in some ways is quite anomalous. This revolution surely qualifies as a sort of "social revolution." Yet its unfolding – especially in the events leading to the Shah's overthrow – challenged expectations about revolutionary causation that I developed through comparative-historical research on the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions. (240)
Skocpol finds that the large features of the Iranian Revolution did indeed fit the terms of her definition of a social revolution, but that the causal background and components of this historical event did not fit her expectations.
The initial stages of the Iranian revolution obviously challenged my previously worked-out notions about the causes of social revolutions. Three apparent difficulties come immediately to mind. First, the Iranian Revolution does seem as if it might have been simply a product of excessively rapid modernization.... Second, in a striking departure from the regularities of revolutionary history, the Shah's army and police – modern coercive organizations over 300,000 men strong – were rendered ineffective in the revolutionary process between 1977 and early 1979 without the occurrence of a military defeat in foreign war and without pressures from abroad.... Third, if ever there has been a revolution deliberately "made" by a mass–based social movement aiming to overthrow the old order, the Iranian revolution against the Shah surely is it. (241-242)
So the Iranian Revolution does not fit the mold. Does this imply that the interpretation of social revolution offered in States and Social Revolutions is refuted? Or does it imply instead that there are more narrow limits on the strength of the generalizations offered in that book than appear on first reading? In fact, it seems that the latter is the case:
Fortunately, in States and Social Revolutions I explicitly denied the possibility of fruitfulness of a general causal theory of revolutions that would apply across all times and places.... The Iranian Revolution can be interpreted in terms analytically consistent with the explanatory principles I used in States and Social Revolutions – this is what I shall briefly try to show. However, this remarkable revolution also forces me to deepen my understanding of the possible role of idea systems and cultural understandings in the shaping of political action – in ways that I show indicate recurrently at appropriate points in this article. (243)
One important difference between the revolutions studied by Skocpol's earlier work and the Iranian revolution is the urban base of the latter revolution. "Opposition to the Shah was centered in urban communal enclaves where autonomous and solitary collective resistance was possible" (245). "In the mass movements against the Shah during 1977 and 1978, the traditional urban communities of Iran were to play an indispensable role in mobilizing in sustaining the core of popular resistance" (246). This is a difference in the social composition of the social revolution; peasant unrest and uprisings were crucial in the cases of France, Russia, and China; but not in the case of Iran.

Another key difference in the circumstances of the Iranian Revolution was the role played by Shi'a Islam. This is what Skocpol was referring to when she indicated the important role of idea systems and cultural understandings.  "In sum, Shi'a Islam was both organizationally and culturally crucial to the making of the Iranian revolution against the Shah" (249). So ideas and values played a role in mobilizing and sustaining revolutionary actions by the population that does not have a valid counterpart in China, France, or Russia. This is a more serious divergence from the reasoning of SSR, because it introduces an entirely new causal factor -- "idea systems". In SSR the motivations that are ascribed to activists and followers are interest-based; whereas her treatment of Shi'a Islam and the Iranian Revolution forces a broadening of the theory of the actor to incorporate the workings of non-material values and commitments.

How does Skocpol think that ideas and culture function in the context of social unrest? "In and of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi'a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution" (250). So the value system of Shi'a Islam, and the passions and commitments that it engendered, played a key causal role in the success of the revolutionary actors in Tehran, in the view that Skocpol offers in the current article.

So the social actors can be different and the causal factors involved can be different. What about the outcomes of the processes of social revolution? Can we at least keep the idea that a social revolution, once underway, has a certain logic of development that leads to certain kinds of outcomes? Here again, Skocpol is clear in saying that we cannot.

On the contrary, Skocpol brings the fact of contingency into her account here in a way that is not apparent in the earlier book. In her treatment of the Iranian Revolution she is brought to acknowledge and recognize the deep contingency that exists within a social revolution.
Of course, events in Iran may outrun that Shi'a revolutionary leadership. The clerics may lose their political unity and the army or a secular political party may step in. Or regional revolts and foreign subversion may lead to the dismemberment of the country. (254)
Or in other words: there is no necessary sequence of events in this social revolution, or any other.

So what remains? How does comparative study of social revolutions contribute to explanation? Rather than hoping for a causal diagram that identifies factors, forces, and outcomes, it seems unavoidable that we need to look for more limited findings. And this pushes us in the direction of the disaggregated approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in their own subsequent treatments of social contention in Dynamics of Contention.

According to that approach, there are some common causal processes -- we would now call them "mechanisms of contention" -- that give some insight into the critical events that transpire within a given historical sequence. But these common mechanisms do not have primacy over the myriad other factors in play -- the behavior of the military, the emergence of a secular political party, the sudden appearance of a charismatic movie actor turned political leader, the eruption of international conflict (like the war that Iran was forced to wage with Iraq), and countless other possible causal branches. And this means something very deep for the project of comparative theorizing about social revolution, or any other large-scale social change: we should regard these processes as importantly sui generis rather than general, and we should look for the sub-processes and mechanisms rather than high-level macro-causal relationships.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Skocpol on the Chinese Revolution

(Sources: States and Social Revolutions, pp. 155, 282)

In States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1979) Theda Skocpol set out to discover a causal analysis of the occurrence of social revolution, and she offered case-study narratives of the major revolutions in France, Russia, and China. She provides a 54-page narrative of the Chinese Revolution which can serve as a thumbnail account of the major events and causal factors that made it up. Her narrative is deliberately framed in comparative terms; she wants to locate features of the Chinese situation in relation to relevantly similar characteristics of the French and Russian cases.

Here is Skocpol's definition of a social revolution:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society's state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. (Introduction)

The summary tables above both mirror the definition Skocpol has crafted and reveal the essence of her comparative causal analysis of the three primary cases. Tables 1A and 1B provide a coding of the states of affairs in France, Russia, and China in what she identifies as the relevant initial structural conditions -- conditions relevant to political crisis and peasant uprisings. Table 1C represents her view of the proximate outcomes of these conjunctions in the three cases -- breakdown of effective state power and emergence of widespread rural unrest. And Table 2 reflects her effort to code the more distant outcomes in the three cases, when the dust had settled -- the nature of the political configurations and state systems that emerged from the revolutions that took place. 

This is historical sociology, not social-science history. The goal is not to be a full historical account of these revolutions in detail, but instead to identify relatively limited number of structural and agentic causes that may be relevant to the occurrence of revolution in the individual cases.

It is worth noting what this account does not provide. It does not attempt to disaggregate revolutionary processes into underlying causal social mechanisms. Rather, it presupposes a fairly macro-level conception of causal conditions and factors. This is what allows Skocpol to make use of a Millian method for discovering what she takes to be necessary and sufficient causes for social revolution. And second, it gives no attention to the possibilities of contingency and path dependency. Rather, she is looking for causal conditions that co-occur in some historical circumstances and then lead to social revolution as an outcome. This is the conjunctural part of her story.

This is a very specific conception of comparativist social explanation. It is anti-positivist, in an important sense, in that it expressly rejects the idea that there might be fundamental laws from which the occurrence of revolution might be derived. But it is also anti-reductionist, in that it is not interested in explaining the large outcomes, or similarities of oarge outcomes, based on underlying mechanisms or processes. I find it hard to think of an example of causal explanation in biology, geology, or physics that has a similar structure. Explanations of the transition of a group of tree species within a forest might look similar -- the ecologist looks for macro-level circumstances that favor one species over another. But there is always the underlying mechanism of natural selection and differential rates of reproduction that provides a microfoundation for the explanation.

In Skocpol’s analysis of China several events and structures were most fundamental in the unfolding of China’s social revolution.
  1. The devolution of power to the regional level that had occurred in the final years of the old regime (pre-1911). This reflects the great weakening of the central imperial state and military and the emergence of warlords and local elites with their own militias.
  2. The poverty and oppression of the peasantry. The deprivation of farmers at the hands of landlords and local elites left peasants in a state of misery and deprivation that left them ready for radicalization and mobilization. 
  3. The fact of European imperialist military and economic pressure from mid-nineteenth century forward, which both weakened the imperial state and delegitimized it. 
The account of the Chinese Revolution provided by Bianco and described in the previous post gives attention to another key factor: the organizational capacity and revolutionary strategies of the CCP. To some extent this runs contrary to Skocpol's vigorous opposition to the idea of revolution as an intentional process. But Bianco is clearly right, that the strategies and coordination of the CCP provided a vital component of the eventual success of the Chinese Revolution.

Moreover, the more disaggregated studies of the Chinese Revolution that have emerged since Skocpol's book make it clear to me that there were deep contingencies in the process as it unfolded, and that multiple outcomes were possible. So the antecedent structural conditions that she identifies did not suffice to bring about the eventual revolution.

Skocpol's comparativist methodology was an exciting innovation when it appeared in 1979. With the hindsight of thirty-five years, however, I am inclined to think that it is a failed experiment. It remains too close to the methodology that asks the researcher to find a set of conditions that vary appropriately with the outcome, and in the end it is methodologically committed to the idea that we can discover an answer to the question, what conditions do all social revolutions share? The critique that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly offer of theories of contentious politics that simply look for large generalizations across groups of large scale contentious events seems to apply here as well. The focus in Skocpol's analysis remains too macro, with social revolutions constituting the units of analysis. But as MTT argue, it is more useful to drop down a level or two and look to the mechanisms and processes that make up social revolutions, rather than trying to identify high-level generalizations across groups of cases, whether large-N or small-N.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco's central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP's struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco's treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao's strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco's account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to "manage" Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson's work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco's account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:
The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)
Bianco's greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, "Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China" (link), and "Peasant Movements" in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:
To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)
Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China's peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco's own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians -- people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou -- to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.