Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The big ideas

image: Luten Baher, Musician

The deluge of changes that shook Europe around 1800 -- the making of the modern world -- brought with them an explosion of big new ideas, new ways of framing the social, historical, and natural world which we inhabit. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Walras, Carnot, Poincaré, Einstein -- each brought forward one or two foundational and iconoclastic ideas in terms of which to understand some very profound but mysterious features of the world. We think about the world differently because of their originality. And their categories, once shockingly strange, now seem like pure common sense. And the stock of ideas and theories we now have for understanding the social and natural world is vastly richer than it was in earlier epochs.

One theme that runs through these thinkers is the binary of order and disorder, rule and randomness. Classical physics offered a view of the world that stressed the fundamental orderliness of nature -- the idea that natural phenomena were mathematical and law-governed. Much of the intellectual ferment in nineteenth century and early twentieth century physics stemmed from the insight that randomness and the statistical properties of ensembles were even more basic (Carnot, thermodynamics; Brownian motion) and that the laws of physics were stranger than we thought (Poincaré on non-Euclidean space, Einstein on special relativity, Schrödinger on quantum physics). (Peter Galison's fascinating book, Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time, sheds light on the conceptual revolutions of Poincaré and Einstein.)

In a similar vein, Darwin brought the workings of random variation within a population into center stage in biology. Instead of species with fixed properties, Darwin described a process of evolution through which the properties of a species change over very long stretches of time. Rather than assuming that the features of an organism have been fine-tuned by an intelligent designer, Darwin conceived of a myopic process of adaptation and selection through which functionality could emerge without a designer. (Jonathan Howard's Darwin: A Very Short Introduction is a good account of Darwin's innovation.)

Freud and Marx brought a different sort of paradigm shift to the human sciences. Human behavior is not a transparent consequence of instrumental rationality. Rationality and full self-knowledge are not the primary keys to human action. Instead, people have hidden and only partially available thoughts, aversions, and wants, and it is the work of psychoanalysis to uncover these hidden ideas and thoughts. The self is contradictory and hidden to the actor. (Here is a nice essay by Donald Carveth on the relevance of psychoanalysis for social theory; link.)

And Marx disputed the assumptions of collective rationality and optimality that were embodied in the political economy inspired by Smith and Ricardo -- the idea that a person-independent market served to solve the most basic social problems behind the backs of the actors. In place of this assumption of neutral impersonality Marx argued that modern society reflects a fundamental opposition between groups of people based on their property and economic interests. And he argued that the behavior of the state and its primary institutions could best be understood as the expression of the interests of the dominant class. (Two very different accounts of Marx's intellectual system include Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx and David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital.)

These are indeed big and important ideas. We understand the real workings of the natural and social worlds better because of these revolutions in thought. We can ask two important questions. First, why did the modern world -- industrial revolution, democratic movements, revolutions in physics and biology -- stimulate such a rich flourishing of innovation and insight, as contrasted to the ancient world or the medieval world?

The beginnings of an answer to this question can be found in the velocity and manifest importance of the changes that western Europe began to experience from 1750 forward -- the French Revolution, the advent of the factory system in England, the spread of revolutionary ideas from anarchists and socialists into popular movements, and other profound changes. Thomas Carlyle was one of the creative thinkers who was forced to find a new vocabulary to describe industrial cities and factories in the early nineteenth century (Past and Present); these social complexes barely existed in the previous century.

The second important question is even more interesting -- where are those new ideas today? Has the twenty-first century yet created any genuinely new thinking to compare with the nineteenth century period of intellectual ferment?

I am tempted to answer this second question in the negative. We have witnessed enormous technological advancement in the past fifty years. Who, in 1964, could have imagined the connectivity created by the Internet and Google, or the extension of human cognition enabled by a connected iPad? But have we encountered genuinely innovative and insightful new ways of organizing our world in thought, about either nature or society? Perhaps not. The social sciences have certainly advanced in the half century of research that has transpired since 1964; but I'm not sure that I would say that there are fundamentally new conceptions of social reality in play. (Perhaps the ontology of assemblage might compete for a spot on the stage; link.) It seems rather that our frameworks of thought have remained somewhat static for the past fifty years.

It is possible that we should not expect big ideas at this point in our history, on the grounds that we now have a reasonably good understanding of both the natural and the social world. If we made that assumption, then we should expect long periods of incremental growth, expansion of knowledge of detail, along with combination and recombination of existing theories and concepts, but no major new breakthroughs.

There will be objections to this line of thought. One is that earlier epochs may have been more innovative and paradigm-breaking than I suggest. Stephen Greenblatt's recent book on Epicurus and Lucretius certainly makes a case for profound intellectual innovation in the ancient world (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; link). So it is possible that the impression of radical intellectual change starting in the nineteenth century is just a consequence of the foreshortening of history; perhaps the ancients were as resourceful and creative in their thinking as the moderns were.

Another objection is that each of the thinkers I have mentioned had predecessors, including Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace and the many versions of socialism that competed with Marx. Was Marx so innovative after all, when compared to Proudhon or Blanqui? So one should not over-emphasize the point of absolute originality. But taking all of this into account, it seems inescapable that human conceptual and imagination space took a major step forward between 1850 and 1925. And, by contrast, the past fifty or seventy-five years seem rather tame when it comes to big ideas.

What thoughts do readers have about genuine innovations in thought in the past fifty years, especially in the social and historical sciences? Are there intellectual or conceptual discoveries that strike you as being genuinely transformative to the way we understand the contemporary world?

(T. J. Clark makes a number of interesting points about the influence of modern social change on the representational arts in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. In an earlier post I discussed the connections that seem to exist between social conditions of modernity and the forms that modern art took during those decades; link.)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The social world

image: Tuileries, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Toledo Museum of Art exibition

It seems self evident, barely worth remarking, that social outcomes are the result of the actions of numbers of ordinary human beings, doing things for their own particular reasons -- finding solutions to the challenges of life that confront them, taking care of themselves and their families, making mistakes, acting out their passions, hatreds and loves, interacting with neighbors and strangers, taking risks, acting prudently, following impulse or dream. And out of these ordinary origins come great social outcomes -- migrations, revolutions, demographic transitions, famines, economic crises, the rise and fall of regions and cities. Sometimes a small number of individuals or groups have inordinate influence on the shape of events -- Mussolini, Kant, Gramsci, Fidel; the Abolitionists, the Tea Party, the United Mine Workers. But even here it is still individuals, in relation and communication with other individuals, whose small and local actions sometimes aggregate to large social changes.

This description makes the individualistic impulse of social-science disciplines like political science, economics, and historical demography seem intuitive. These disciplines basically ask a common question: what are the individual purposes and plans that work to shape a subset of social phenomena? Why did the Great Migration take place from the South to northern cities in the 1930s? Because vast numbers of poor rural black people gained information about better opportunities in northern cities and set out to improve their lives.

But this same description also makes us consider how large "structural" factors come into social process and change. How do economic conditions, political institutions, social attitudes, and systems of race, class, and gender influence social outcomes? Once again, it is evident that individuals frame their worlds and make their choices within environments that are largely independent of their wills and their specific mental frameworks. They confront systems of labor allocation that work in a certain way when it comes to race, class origins, gender, and educational background. They operate within political institutions that offer them opportunities and limitations -- "do support the ward boss, don't join a demonstration against City Hall." They function in social environments where other actors have certain beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, and class.

These structural conditions face real social actors as facts that they understand well enough and that set constraints around their choices. So it is entirely understandable and legitimate that sociologists want to consider those structural factors in the abstract and to uncover how they work in detail. They want to abstract from the individuals who make up the structures. At the same time, these conditions are themselves embodied in the thoughts and actions of other individual actors. There is an iterative reality to the relation between structure and agency -- a reality that Margaret Archer attempts to capture with her concept of morphogenesis (link). The social world is highly dynamic and situational; we may want to abstract from this dynamism and characterize a moment as consisting of fixed structures and agents acting within them, but in the next frame we find yesterday's agent becoming through her actions a part of tomorrow's structure. So static analysis creates an unrealistic rigidity for what is in actuality a highly fluid process.

There is a further complexity raised by the action-centered picture sketched above. This has to do with the making of social individuals through concrete and historically actual processes of formation and socialization. Actors are social from infancy forward, and their cognitive, affective, and practical mental frameworks are created and formed through their various social interactions. So their behavior as adults is itself a socially created product of the ideological and practical circumstances within which they developed. Here once again, we cannot "reduce" social change to pre-social or non-social individuals. There is no starting de novo in the social world or in history.

My point here is a simple one for philosophers of social science: we shouldn't let our debates about emergence, meso-level causation, and structural causal powers lead us to forget some of the fundamental and obvious facts about the social world. I think there is room for meso-level social causes within this story. But our thinking about meso-level causes and social structures needs always to be grounded in a concrete understanding of how social interaction happens at the local and individual level. I have tried to formulate a description of this set of realities in terms of the idea of methodological localism (link). Archer's theory of morphogenesis points in a similar direction. Of all the metaphors we sometimes use for describing the social world, E. P. Thompson's idea of the "making" of the English working class seems most apt (link). Methodological individualism is not a valid basis for the social science. But a related but less strident imperative seems crucial: pay attention to the social actors who constitute the social world -- they are all we've got in the social world.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Social upheaval

image: Monte Carlo simulation of portfolio value

We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to the large social changes that occur. When there are crises -- like the financial crisis of 2008 or the riots in London and Stockholm in the past few years -- we often try to understand them as deviations from the normal. These are ontological assumptions about the nature of social change.

But really, our desire to perceive order in the things we experience often deceives us. The social world at any given time is a conjunction of an enormous number of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. So we shouldn't be surprised at the occurrence of crises, unexpected turns, and outbreaks of protest and rebellion. It is continuity rather than change that needs explanation.

Social processes and causal sequences have a wide range of profiles. Some social processes -- for example, population size -- are continuous and roughly linear. These are the simplest processes to project into the future. Others, like the ebb and flow of popular names, spread of a disease, or mobilization over a social cause, are continuous but non-linear, with sharp turning points (tipping points, critical moments, exponential takeoff, hockey stick). And others, like the stock market, are discontinuous and stochastic, with lots of random events pushing prices up and down.

Take unexpected moments of popular uprising -- for example, the Arab Spring uprisings or the 2013 riots in Stockholm. Are these best understood as random events, the predictable result of long-running processes, or something else? My preferred answer is something else -- in particular, conjunctural intersections of independent streams of causal processes (link). So riots in London or Stockholm are neither fully predictable nor chaotic and random. The fact of growing discontent and unemployment among young people is certainly relevant to the rioting, but many other outcomes were possible -- even up through several weeks prior to the outcome. Those background conditions increased the likelihood of civil unrest without making it inevitable. The immediate spark of the Stockholm rioting -- the instigating event -- was a police shooting of an elderly man (link). This shooting didn't have to occur, and if it had not, the rioting would not have started at that time.

Moreover, when social tensions rise, various organizations come forward to address the underlying causes of unrest. Organizations focused on improving employment opportunities for young people, improving the quality and civility of policing, and improving social services can have the effect of reducing the likelihood of an outbreak of civil unrest and violence. So social outcomes are subject to a degree of strategic, intentional intervention on the part of individual and collective actors.

Or take the emergence of a novel ideological or religious movement -- for example, the Tea Party in the United States or the millenarian Buddhist movements that periodically swept through Late Imperial China (Susan Naquin, Millenarian Rebellion in China: Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813; D. Little, Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science). Historians and sociologists can enumerate some background social or cultural conditions that were propitious to the emergence of movements like these in the times and places where they occurred. But when we study movements like these we almost invariably find meaningless contingencies that were crucial to the progress of the movement in its historical circumstances -- an especially charismatic leader (Zuo Zongtang in the Taiping movement), a new technology of transportation or communication that showed up on the scene, a period of harsh drought or flooding that led rural people to be more amenable to mobilization around an unfamiliar ideology. Social change is contingent and conjunctural.

In other words, social outcomes are always the result of a complex mix of influences. There are some broad underlying social causes that are relevant to the outbreak of civil unrest or ideological change; there are semi-random events that may serve as a flashpoint stimulating an outbreak; and there are countervailing efforts and strategies that are designed to reduce the likelihood of civil unrest or the spread of heterodox ideas. And this demonstrates that these classes of social phenomena are fundamentally indeterminate; they are best understood as being the consequence of a conjunctural set of processes and events that could have unfolded very differently.

The idea of a Monte Carlo simulation represented in the image above is a valuable tool for thinking about social outcomes. Instead of looking at social processes as single pathways from initial conditions to predictable outcomes, we should instead think of a whole ensemble of scenarios that run forward from a certain starting point, in which we introduce variation in many of the parameters and look at the broad range of outcomes that might have ensued.

(Here is an earlier post on the use of scenario-based methods of prediction; link.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The near future

There is a lot going on in America and the world today: climate change, increasing separation between the rich and the non-rich, entrenched poverty in cities, continuing effects of racism in American life, and a rising level of political extremism in this country and elsewhere, for starters. Add to this politico-military instability in Europe, continuing social conflict over austerity in many countries, and a rising number of extreme-right movements in a number of countries, and you have a pretty grim set of indications of what tomorrow may look like for our children and grandchildren.

How should we think about what our country will look like in twenty or thirty years? And how can we find ways of acting today that make the prospects for tomorrow as good as they can be?

This is partly a problem for politicians and legislators. But it is also a problem for social scientists and historians, because the limits of our ability to predict the future are as narrow as they have ever been. (I wonder if the good citizens of Rome in the year 400 had any notion that Alaric was coming and that their way of life was already about to change?) The pace of change in the contemporary world is rapid, but even more, the magnitude of the changes we face is unprecedented. Will climate change and severe weather continue to worsen? Will the extreme right gain even more influence in determining American law and policy? Will economic crises of the magnitude of the 2008 recession recur with even more disastrous consequences? Will war and terrorism become even harsher realities in the coming decades with loose nukes and biological weapons in the hands of ruthless fanatics?

All these catastrophes are possible. So how should intelligent democracies attempt to avoid them? One possible approach is to attempt to design our way out of each of those pathways to catastrophe: create better arms control regimes, improve intelligence abilities against threats of terrorism, reach effective climate agreements, try to guide the economy away from meltdowns, create better protections for rights of participation so narrow minorities can't enact restrictions on basic health rights. In other words, engage in piecemeal engineering to solve the problems we face. And it goes without saying that we need to do as much of this as we can do. But it is probably not enough.

Another approach is the one advocated by Charles Perrow in The Next Catastrophe: acknowledge that we cannot anticipate, let alone solve, all these problems, and design for soft landings when harm comes knocking at our door. Risky processes (chemical plants, railways, LNG storage facilities) will inevitably fail once in a while; how can we design them and the system in which they operate so as to minimize the damage that occurs when they do? Perrow takes the example of increasingly severe hurricanes and flooding and their potential for decimating coastal communities, and he argues that the protective strategy isn't likely to succeed. A better strategy is to reduce population density around the highest risk locations, in order to reduce the impact of disasters that are ultimately impossible to prevent.

This approach would require quite a bit of change to very basic parts of our contemporary order: decentralize infrastructures like energy, information, and transportation; reduce our reliance on global-scale food systems by encouraging more local production; reduce population density where we can. These kinds of changes would make for a substantially safer world -- less concentrated risk, fewer tightly linked systems to go wrong. But achieving changes like these seems almost impossible because these outcomes are not likely to be the result of the uncoordinated actions of independent decision-makers. Rather, the state would need to legislate these kinds of outcomes, and it is hard to see how they might come about through normal electoral processes.

So we seem to be a little bit in the situation of myopic actors climbing Mount Improbable: our choices are likely to strand us in isolated local maxima, making it impossible for us to reach feasible outcomes on a more distant hilltop. And because of limitations on our ability to project future social outcomes, we often can't even see the alternative hilltops through the fog. Somehow we need to get to a more resilient form of risk assessment and planning that doesn't make excessive assumptions about our ability to foresee the near future.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Historical sociologists on critical realism

Critical realism took its origin within the philosophy discipline, arising at the time that there was profound debate over the adequacy of logical positivism as a basis for the philosophy of science. Carl Hempel represented the fruition of positivist philosophy of science, with his hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, his deductive-nomological model of explanation, and his covering-law model of historical explanation. These all amount to the same idea, of course: that scientific knowledge takes the form of a set of general theoretical principles or laws, a set of empirical statements about existing conditions, and a set of deductions from the laws and statements of consequences for the observable phenomena. There was a strong reaction in the 1960s to the orthodoxies of logical positivism and Hempelian philosophy of science by philosophers such as Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn. Compelling criticisms were offered of the strict distinction between observation and theory, concerns were raised about the putative coincidence of explanation and derivation from general laws, and more nuanced theories of scientific rationality than the hypothetico-deductive method were offered.

A particular sticking point within the positivist theory of science was its common adherence to a Humean theory of the meaning of causation as constant conjunction. Hume derided the idea of “causal necessity” and sought to replace this notion with the idea of conformance to a strong regularity. Rom Harré and Edward Madden undertook a strong critique of this assumption in Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity, also in the mid-1960s. And this anti-positivist strand of thinking about causation was more important to the emergence of critical realism than any other influence.

Several gifted sociologists joined this debate in the 1990s. Especially astute were contributions by George Steinmetz and Margaret Somers, both colleagues at the University of Michigan, and Philip Gorski at Yale. In a review article in Society for Comparative Study of Society and History in 1998 Steinmetz provides a careful review of the intellectual background and the central ideas that Roy Bhaskar introduces in his writings on naturalism and realism (link).  Steinmetz reviews the mainstream assumptions that defined positivist philosophy of social science through the 1960s and the echo of these assumptions in mainstream sociology; and he provides a fairly detailed description of Bhaskar’s alternative. He emphasizes several central ideas:
  • the transcendental nature of Bhaskar’s reasoning: “discovering what must be true about the world for science to be possible” (176)
  • the distinctions among the real, the actual, and the empirical
  • the scientific importance of “open systems” — systems lacking causal closure and displaying contingency
  • a specific idea about emergence — "Emergence is defined as the relationship between two levels such that one arises diachronically (or perhaps synchronically) out of the other but is capable of reacting back on the lower level and is causally irreducible to it (Bhaskar 1993:73) [178]
Following Peggy Somers in "We're No Angels" (1998; link), Steinmetz distinguishes between "theoretical realism" and critical realism; essentially the former concept refers to the standard version of scientific realism found within post-positivist philosophy of science (Hilary Putnam, Richard Boyd). The key attribute of scientific realism, according to Steinmetz, is its continuing adherence to the idea of scientific laws; "theoretical realism is strongly deductivist" (173). So Steinmetz believes that "theoretical realism" is more closely aligned with positivism than is critical realism, and that critical realism fits the practice of historically minded social scientists better.
I will argue that most historical researchers, whatever their self-description, are critical realists rather than theoretical realists, positivists, or neo-Kantian idealists, and that this stance is the most defensible one for the social sciences in general on ontological and epistemological grounds. (171)
Steinmetz believes that the philosophy of science articulated within critical realism accords very well with the practice of historically minded social scientists like himself. He closes his article with these words:
Critical realism is especially “liberating” for historical sociology. It provides a rebuttal to the positivist and theoretical realist insistence on the dogmas of empirical invariance, prediction, and parsimony (see Bhaskar 1989:184). Critical realism guards against any slide into empiricism by showing why theoretical mechanisms are central to all explanation. At the same time, critical realism suggests that contingent, conjunctural causality is the norm in open systems like society. Yet critical realism’s epistemological relativism allows it to accept the results of much of the recent history and sociology of science in a relaxed way without giving in to judgmental relativism. Historical social researchers are reassured of the acceptability of their scientific practice, even if it does not match what the mainstream misconstrues as science. Critical realism allows us to safely steer between the Scylla of constricting definitions of science and the Charybdis of solipsistic relativism. (184)
The methodology that Steinmetz commends is one that highlights social contingency and conjuncture, while at the same time discovering explanatory relations among circumstances based on the causal mechanisms we can identify that connect them. These are all important aspects of sociological research, and we should indeed seek out philosophies of social science that make room for them.

That said, I am not persuaded by the unfavorable distinction that Steinmetz and Somers draw between scientific realism and Bhaskar-style critical realism. I am inclined to think that the tradition of scientific realism has less baggage (from logical positivism) and critical realism has more (from Bhaskar's sometimes arcane philosophical arguments and distinctions deriving from transcendental philosophy). Here is Steinmetz on the deficiencies of theoretical realism:
Theoretical realism disparages explanations which invoke unique, nonrepeatable constellations of causal mechanisms in accounting for specific historical conjunctures. (174)
But this doesn't really seem to be an accurate portrayal of a wide range of scientific realists, including Richard Boyd. In fact, we can better look at the tradition of scientific realism as being closer to another tradition that Steinmetz admires, that of American pragmatism. (For a long time Harvard's department of philosophy was the home of scientific realism, and it was also the intellectual heir of James and Peirce.) Scientific realism, when considered as a meta-theory of the work of social sciences, simply extends to the social sciences the ontological elbow room that the natural sciences have long enjoyed: when we postulate unobservable entities, causes, and processes, we are sometimes justified in believing that these entities actually exist -- provided that our hypotheses are appropriately linked to observation and inference emanating from a dense field of scientific inquiry.

Take a sociological construct from Bourdieu that Steinmetz finds to be very useful, the idea of an intellectual field (link). This construct plainly invokes an extended and intangible social structure or entity -- an interconnected system of individuals, values, and institutions that steer the progress of persons and ideas through their careers. The concept has proven to be a plausible and contentful way of conceptualizing sociological phenomena across a broad range of contexts (intellectual and cultural history, imperialism, scientific research, political ideology), and Steinmetz and other sociologists are justified in attributing real existence to this construct. But this realist interpretation of the construct does not require esoteric philosophical reasoning; we can look at it as a very ordinary and pragmatist inference from the orderliness of a specific range of social phenomena to the best explanation -- that there is an underlying field of interrelations that generates this orderliness. And it seems to me that mainstream scientific realists like Boyd and Putnam would be very satisfied with this line of reasoning.

So I would look at these comments as a minor corrective to Steinmetz's argument here: social scientists are indeed well advised to be anti-positivist; they are well advised to be realist in their theorizing; but there is nothing in the case that suggests that Bhaskarian realism is the particular variant of realism they should assume. A more pragmatic and pluralistic version of scientific realism seems more suitable to research in sociology. (Here is a brief discussion of a more pluralistic and eclectic version of scientific realism for the social sciences; link.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Naturalizing causal powers

Several earlier posts have considered Tuukka Kaidesoja's very interesting recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (NCR). The book is an important contribution to the evolving literature on next steps for critical realism, and TK is an exceptionally clear and perceptive philosopher. Here I will focus on Tuuka's contribution to the causal powers literature.

The topic of causal powers is important for current debates within the philosophy of social science. This is especially true when it comes to the question of the causal role that supra-individual social entities play. Like Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, I want to support the idea that social structures (for example, organizations) have causal powers and properties, and a social structure is supra-individual entity. E-V presents this notion in terms of the idea of emergence, whereas I propose to understand it in terms of the notion of relative explanatory autonomy (linklink). But in each case, we hold that it is legitimate to attribute a causal power to a composed social entity, and that there is no compulsion to “reduce” that power to the individual powers of the persons who compose the entity. What is it about the social structure that gives rise to the causal power?

There are two important points to consider here. First, we need to ask what the terms of the causal relation are thought to be. Is it the abstract structure of the organization (shared with other organizations of the same type) that exerts causal power; or is it the concrete particular, this particular instantiated organization, that is the causal agent? I want to maintain that it is the particular social structure, not the abstract structure, that bears the causal role and exerts the causal power.

Second, the traditional account from critical realism and Bhaskar would hold that the powers of a social structure derive from its “essential” properties. But following Kaidesoja, it is both reasonable and justified to drop the essentialism associated with this line of thought. Instead, we can say that the powers of the structure derive from its contingent but current features of organization and functioning. In the case of a social organization, this comes down to the particular set of rules and practices that drive the organization at a point in time. As long as these rules and practices persist, the organization will continue to have the powers that we attribute to it. When those rules and practices undergo change and innovation, it is an open question what changes will result for the causal powers of the organization.

Kaidesoja approaches a view very similar to this in his treatment of Harré and Secord’s analysis of individual and collective powers:
I suggest that these views [advanced by Harré and Secord] presuppose that rules and institutions possess causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to those of individuals. (115)
So what about the assumption of essentialism that is often part of the definition of a causal power? TK takes up the issue of essentialism and natural kinds within causal-powers theory, and argues that we need to "naturalize" this issue as well. Whether there are natural kinds in a particular domain is a question for the sciences to answer, not the philosophers. TK notes that modern biology does not support the notion that biological things (including species) fall into natural kinds defined by distinctive essential natures.
Biological variation between and within species (or populations) is thus a normal state of affairs in nature and there is no a priori limit for such variation…. This means that it is no longer plausible to conceive biological species as natural kinds in Harré and Madden’s (1975) sense. (111-112)
So natural-kind essentialism does not fit the entities and processes of the biological realm.
Whether or not the essentialist notion of causal power can be applied to a certain collection of objects studied in a specific discipline should be decided by means of empirical analysis of the scientific research practices, theories and models that are developed in this discipline. (112)
But TK does not believe that this invalidates the idea that biological entities have causal powers; and this entails that there is a separation between essentialism and the attribution of causal powers.

I have argued at many points here that this feature of heterogeneity and change in some of the core characteristics of entities is fundamental to the social world as well (link). So TK's central insight here is important for the philosophy of social science as well as for biology: causal powers should not be defined in terms of the essential properties of an entity; causal-power theory should not be constructed in such a way as to presuppose essentialism.

One thing I especially appreciate in TK's treatment of causal powers is the light he sheds on the difference between logical or conceptual necessity, on the one hand, and natural necessity, on the other (106). This is relevant to the earlier discussion here about whether causes necessitate their effects (link). There I argued against the views of Mumford and Anjum, who reject necessity, on the grounds that their argument turns on features of logical necessity that do not attach to causal necessity. Kaidesoja's discussion here reinforces my conviction that it is reasonable to assert causal "necessitating" even when we acknowledge that causes are sometimes not followed by their effects. Discussing  and Madden TK writes:
The concept of natural necessity is thus carefully distinguished from the concepts of logical, transcendental and conceptual necessity (ibid., 19–21). (107)
Kaidesoja emphasizes the similarity of views that exists between Harré and Bhaskar concerning the specification of a causal power. Here is one typical statement from Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science, among many that TK quotes:
To say that a thing has a power to do something is […] to say that it possesses a structure or is of such kind that it would do it, if appropriate conditions obtained. (RTS, p. 88) [118]
The parallel with Harré’s formulations is evident. TK finds that Bhaskar’s main innovation on this point is his attempt to make a transcendental argument for the necessity of attributing real causal powers to entities, and this is a move that he rejects. TK finds that Harré and Madden’s account is more convincing exactly because it locates causal powers in the realm of “concrete powerful particulars”, not in the transcendental realm (121, 122).
Due to the aforementioned problems in the transcendental realist account of the concept of causal power, I prefer Harré and Madden’s Aristotelian conceptualization of causal powers which interprets them as efficient causes and ties them inseparably to the concrete powerful particulars. (122).
And this in turn provides an additional reason to reject the essentialism associated with Bhaskar’s broader conception of causal powers (that the causal power of a thing derives from its essential nature). This becomes the heart of TK’s concept of a “naturalized version of the concept of causal power” (136), and it seems to be a very plausible position.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Quantitative and qualitative social science

The social world is one reality, but the methodologies associated with quantitative and qualitative research are quite different. Quantitative research allows the researcher to discover patterns, associations, correlations, and other features of a population based on analysis of large numbers of measurements of individuals. Qualitative research usually involves studies of single individuals, based on interviews and observations, with the goal of identifying their internal psychological and behavioral characteristics. Quantitative research is directed at identifying population characteristics, patterns, and associations. Qualitative research is directed at teasing out the mental frameworks and experiences of individuals within specific social and cultural settings. Qualitative researchers are generally not interested in discovering generalizations or regularities, and are more interested in identifying particular features of consciousness, culture, and behavior.

What kinds of interface or bridging are possible between these two levels of social research?

Take the example of race studies. Both qualitative and quantitative research studies have been conducted in this field, with the goal of shedding light on the phenomenon of race in American society. Quantitative research has often been concerned to identify the features of inequality which are associated with race within American populations, including income, wealth, education, health, employment, and other important features. For example, the National Survey of Black Americans provides voluminous data on a range of characteristics of African American individuals, with surveys extending from 1979 to 1992 (link). Here is a list of the variables included in these studies (link). Several hundred research studies and reports have been completed making use of these data sets; here is a representative study by James Jackson making use of data sets like these to probe health disparities by race (link). These quantitative studies permit the researcher to use advanced statistical tools to measure and evaluation the strength of associations among characteristics and to evaluate causal hypotheses about the linkages that exist among characteristics.

Qualitative research on race takes several forms. There are ethnographic studies, through which the researcher attempts to identify the phenomenology and lived experience of race. Here I would include several research efforts that have been discussed here previously -- Al Young's study of young inner city Chicago men (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loïc Wacquant's ethnographic study of a boxing club on Chicago's south side (Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer). There are theoretical studies, which explore possible structures or mechanisms which produces racial and racialized behavior and disparities. Here is a good example from Elizabeth Cole on the construct of intersectionality as a way of theorizing about racial and gender identities (link). And there are studies of social psychology designed to identify the ways in which racial attitudes, presuppositions, and ideas contribute to behavior in American society. Here is a nice example of such an analysis by Lawrence Bobo and Cybelle Fox (link).

It is clear that studies based on all of these methodologies are insightful and valuable. We will arrive at a better understanding of the meaning and causal importance of "race" through all these approaches. The question raised above remains an important one, however: how should we think about the relations among these bodies of inquiry and knowledge?

One way is to think in terms of levels of analysis (link): we might say that quantitative studies examine facts about race at a more macro level (large populations), whereas qualitative studies are more meso- or micro-level studies. This isn't a very satisfactory view, however, because each of these approaches is concerned about individual-level facts; what differs is the level of aggregation of those facts that is chosen.

Another approach seems more promising: to consider the suite of qualitative studies of race as being a tool box for identifying the social mechanisms through which the patterns and associations that are discovered at the large population level come about. Qualitative studies (studies aimed at discovering or theorizing the mentalities and behaviors through which race is constructed and carried out) permit us to understand racialized behavior in groups that in turn allow us to understand the population outcomes that quantitative studies identify.

A third possibility is that these different methodological approaches do not admit of "bridging" at all. Here the idea would be that these are fundamentally different forms of knowledge, and they belong in different parts of the toolbox. Sometimes this approach is taken by advocates of one methodology or the other in dismissing the scientific credentials of the other approach -- quantitative researchers who dismiss qualitative research as anecdotal and qualitative researchers who dismiss quantitative research as positivist. This approach seems fundamentally wrong. We should look at the various ways of studying important aspects of social life as being complementary and fundamentally consistent.

My own predilection is to think of the qualitative approaches as providing insight into how various social processes work; how it is that socially constructed actors bring about the patterns of behavior and outcome we observe at various levels of aggregation. A quantitative study of racial attitudes might suggest that cities with effective public transportation have higher (or lower) levels of racial mistrust across groups. We would want to be able to form some hypotheses about what the underlying behaviors and attitudes are that bring about this effect. What are the mechanisms through which access to public transportation influences racial trust? And for this kind of inquiry to be possible, we need to have some good empirical theories about racial identities and mental frameworks.

So it does in fact seem both possible and desirable to try to integrate the findings of both quantitative and qualitative studies of racial attitudes; and this finding seems equally valid in almost all areas of the social sciences.

(Thanks to Mosi Ifatunji for his stimulating seminar at the University of Michigan on new approaches to the study of black ethnic disparities, which caused me to think about this topic a little further. Here is Mosi's webpage with some links to his work; link.)