Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A sense of injustice in China?

Quite a few years ago Barrington Moore explored in his book Injustice the idea that a sense of justice sometimes plays an important role in history. Here is how he put his central question:
This is a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation. For the most part, the book focuses on people at or near the bottom of the social order: those with little or no property, income, education, power, authority, or prestige. (xiii)
Moore is interested in a particular moment in history, the moment when ...
... people come to believe that a new and different set of criteria ought to go into effect for the choice of those in authority and the manner of its exercise, for the division of labor, and for the allocation of goods and services... In this chapter we are looking for general processes that occur at the level of culture, social structure, and individual personality, as groups of people cease to take their social surroundings for granted and come to reject or actively to oppose them. (81)
We might summarize this idea in these terms:
  • A sense of justice is a broadly shared set of factual and normative beliefs about how existing society works when it comes to fair and equitable treatment of individuals by institutions and groups.
  • People are likely to mobilize in an effort to change the social order when their sense of justice is profoundly offended.
Moore offers examples of how offenses to a prevalent sense of justice can influence collective behavior, mostly drawn from German working class history. But for other examples we can also turn to E.P. Thompson's concept of the moral economy of the crowd (link; also included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture) and James Scott's application of this concept to the situation of rebellion and mobilization in SE Asia (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance).

This set of ideas raises two different sets of questions. First, can we confirm the idea that the motivations that arise from the experience of justice and injustice are in fact important in influencing the outcomes of specific cases of social life? Or is the sense of justice simply an epiphenomenon? And second, can we empirically investigate the particulars of the sense of justice and injustice of a particular people at a point in time? Is the sense of justice itself a social fact that can be investigated and mapped?

These ideas seem especially relevant to the case of China since the Revolution. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Revolution depended upon a set of values that couched social justice in terms of equality across classes. On the other hand, China's economy and society have witnessed an explosion of inequalities of income and influence since the 1980s. It is natural to ask, then, whether people who came to adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s in China acquired an egalitarian sense of justice and injustice; and whether they and their children experience today's inequalities as being unjust. And in fact, some observers believe that rising inequalities in China are contributing to dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction and outrage among ordinary citizens. Or in other words, China is ripe for the kind of morally induced protest and resistance that Barrington Moore described. China is a "social volcano" in the early stage of venting and steaming, with an eruption to follow.

Martin Whyte's recent study of this question leads to surprising findings (for me, anyway). In Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China Whyte sets out to use the tools of survey research to assess and measure the contours of the assumptions about justice and inequality that are shared by several generations of Chinese men and women. He and research colleagues (including Shen Mingming and Yang Ming) conducted a national survey in 2004 aimed at probing Chinese attitudes towards inequalities. The survey involved responses from about 4,344 individuals, stratified in terms of region and rural/urban status.

Here is Whyte's assessment of the survey data (chapter 3):
How can we summarize Chinese citizens' feelings about issues of inequality and distributive justice? Which aspects of current inequalities in China do they accept and view as fair, and which do they see as basically unjust? In general, our survey results indicate that the majority of respondents accept and view as fair most aspects of the unequal, market-based society in which they now live. There is little sign in our results of strong feelings of distributive injustice, of active rejection of the current system, or of nostalgia for the distributional policies of the planned socialist era. (kl 1191)
In fact, Whyte describes a set of attitudes that place China squarely within what we might call the values of social democracy, favoring a social safety net and a market society that provides widespread opportunities for advancement. Here is a particularly relevant chart (figure 3.3):

The results in this chart display an intriguing blend of liberal and socialist commitments. Equal distribution (the Mao principle) receives 29.1% support, significantly lower than the 44.7% who oppose the principle. But another anti-liberal principle, government guarantee of jobs, receives higher positive than negative support (57.3% in support, 23.9% against). And there is overwhelming support for the idea of a government guarantee of a minimum living standard (80.8%).

Whyte singles out a number of principles of legitimacy and justice that he discerns in the survey findings (quoting from chapter 3, kl 1191 ff.):
  • There should be government-sponsored efforts to provide job and income guarantees to the poor ...
  • There should be abundant opportunities for individuals and families to improve their livelihoods ...
  • There should be equality of opportunity ...
  • Material advancement and success should be determined by merit factors ...
  • The pronounced social cleavage between China's rural and urban citizens ... are unfair
  • Since individuals and families vary in their talents, diligence, and cultivation and deployment of merit-based strategies for success, society will have a considerable amount of inequality ...
  • Upper limits should not be set on incomes ...
  • It is acceptable for the rich to use their advantages to provide better lives for their families
  • People in positions of political power should not be entitled to special privileges ...
It is the generally optimistic character of these findings that leads Whyte to doubt that China is a "social volcano". He finds that the bulk of the Chinese population possesses a conception of justice and economic expectation that aligns fairly well with China's current social and economic realities. He does not find a rising sense of injustice and resentment that might fuel anti-regime mobilization. So China is not approaching a social eruption driven by a deepening sense of injustice among ordinary people; or at least this is how Whyte reads the data.

But it seems possible to read the data in another way as well. The principle of equal distribution -- the Maoist principle -- does actually correspond to the moral sense of a very large number of Chinese men and women in the survey (29.1%). (This number falls to 11.3% if it is specified that inequalities derive from a system of equal opportunity; figure 3.5.) How strongly does this minority hold this egalitarian view? Who are they? Is there a generational split on this question? And how about perceptions of conflict? Figure 3.7 presents opinions about the severity of conflict between various groups in Chinese society; there we find that 38.5% of respondents find large or very large conflicts between poor and wealthy people. Is this a large number or a small number?

In fact, there is an alternative reading of Whyte's data that comes to a somewhat darker conclusion. It is true that there is a large majority in Chinese society who are optimistic about the direction of change China is undergoing, and who are optimistic about their futures and those of their children. But there also seems to be a meaningful percentage of China's population who do not share these attitudes and beliefs. And perhaps this group is large enough to portend the kind of social conflict that Whyte is so skeptical about. When it comes to the likelihood of social unrest, perhaps it is not the modal individual but the disadvantaged minority who is most salient. So maybe a Moore-ian crisis is brewing in China after all.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Turning points in history?

We often think that the histories of nations or peoples take turning points. A series of events occur that could have gone either way, things went badly rather than well, and the future development of this people is forever changed. It is on a different branch line, going to a different destination altogether. And if these events had not occurred, the future would have been different in truly meaningful ways. Because Germany was defeated in 1945 Europe was set on a different course, peaceful and democratic. Because Mao's army survived the Great March, the revolution prevailed and China turned direction.

So we tend to think of history as having turning points. But how valid is this idea?

The most important and searing event in the history of Spain in the past century is the Civil War. A democratically elected Republican government was challenged and attacked by a renegade general, a fascist movement incorporating much of the military took up arms, the country was torn apart, and Franco prevailed. Moreover, his ascent began a period of vicious repression, with massive killings of the erstwhile enemies of the fascists. (A Spanish professor in his sixties recently described it to me as second only to the period of Pol Pot in Cambodia, based on the experiences and memories of his own family in Madrid.) It is evident that the memories and monuments of the Civil War are alive in Spain -- the nation was profoundly affected by the years of war, repression, and dictatorship. (My own first visit to Madrid was in 1973 -- closer then in time to the Civil War than I am now to that visit. And the echoes of that time seemed alive in the streets of Madrid and Malaga. And in a visit to Asturias in 2003 I observed a quiet but impassioned disagreement between the provost and the chief librarian over the question of who had destroyed the library-- anarchist miners or Franco's Moroccan troops.)

So we might say that Spain confirms the idea of turning points. The memories, antagonisms, and monuments of the Civil War are still powerful in Spanish consciousness.

But we might look at Spain differently as well. It is now a European democracy. The currents of nationalism and fascism seem to have been extirpated -- fascism is more visible in Greece and even Great Britain than in Spain -- in language, in extremist parties, in violence against immigrants. And, of course, the period of Franco's dictatorship is now a distant memory. So might we better say that the Civil War and the dictatorship were short disturbances in Spain's longterm development as a modern democratic and tolerant state? Might we speculate that the current realities of Spain were on the agenda with or without the Civil War? It seems that Franco and his fascists left no permanent imprint on Spain. Is it perhaps better to think of the Civil War as a terrible national trauma that the Spanish people have nonetheless assimilated? Is Spain today more analogous to an adult whose past is traumatic but whose present is emotionally strong?

This way of thinking about Spain's past eighty years casts doubt on the idea of a turning point--at least in this case. Nothing in history is determined, and that extends to national political trajectories. Even China's future development is uncertain, the power and importance of the revolution notwithstanding.  And it is possible that China in 2060 will look very different from the Party dictatorship that is the current legacy of 1949. If this is case the Revolution itself was not a "turning point" for China, but rather just one more contingent event in its very long history.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Varieties of social methodology

What are the frameworks that generally come to mind in discussions of methodology in the social sciences? Several families of methodological frameworks are indicated in the diagram above. These are deliberately presented as a wheel, with no sense of priority among them.

(A) Quantitative methodology -- what Andrew Abbott refers to as the variables paradigm. This is the approach that analyzes the social world as a set of individuals, groups, and properties, and simply sorts through to find correlations, associations, and possible causal relationships using a range of statistical tools. This is an inductivist approach. In this approach, the role of the social sciences is to accurately observe the facts and to build up systems of regularities among them. This seems like an assumption-free framework, but there is an underlying ontology here no less than the other frameworks mentioned here -- the idea that the the social world is governed by some system of underlying laws or regularities.

(B) Interpretive methods. Clifford Geertz recommends an approach to social research within a generally interpretive worldview. He maintains that the most important feature of the social world is the fact of meaning. He urges us to consider as most important the meanings individuals and groups attach to behaviors and performances. So the research task is to reconstruct those meanings by observing and interacting with the social actors in a particular setting. The observer should observe the patterns of action and interaction he/she finds and carefully investigate the patterns of meaning the participants weave around their worlds.

A related framework is ethnomethodology, the approach taken by qualitative sociologists like Goffman and Garfinkel. This is the idea that one important function of the social sciences is to figure out the underlying grammar of the assumptions and rules that individuals are following as they interact with each other. The ontological assumption here is that individuals are basic in the social world, and individuals are complex. On this approach the methodology is to observe ordinary behavior and try to discover the underlying rules and expectations that indicate something like a grammar or normative frame that drives or generates interpersonal behavior.

(C) A family of approaches we might call realist methodology. These approaches begin with the premise that the social world consists of certain kinds of entities, forces, and processes, and then guides the researcher to attempt to discover the characteristics of those structures. This is a process of hypothesis formation and theory development and of testing out theories -- large or small -- of things like class, charisma, or bureaucratic state apparatus.

(D) A number of methods of analysis developed in the comparative social sciences, including causal methods associated with comparative historical sociology. That includes the methods of paired comparisons, Mill's methods, and methods of similarity and difference.  The researcher attempts to work out which factors are necessary or sufficient, enhancing or inhibiting. We can call this comparative methodology.

(E) Causal mechanisms methodology. This framework is a variety of realist methodology. On this approach we work on the assumption that there are social causes and that causes take the form of concrete causal mechanisms. The task of research is to gain enough empirical detail about selected cases to be able to piece together assumptions about the mechanisms at work. Ideas associated with the notion of process tracing have a natural fit here.

(F) Methods emphasizing techniques of formal modeling. This methodology is especially prominent in political science and economics. Here the goal of the research is to arrive at elegant, simple mathematical models of the phenomena. On this approach the evaluation of the model is not so much empirical but rather mathematical and formal. This approach is commonly faulted exactly because it is not sufficiently responsive to empirical constraints do standards. Its empirical relevance is not so clear. If we believe the social sciences are empirical then a formal model that is a valued for its abstract elegance is unsatisfactory.   It needs to contribute to an understanding of real empirical phenomena. At the least this means that we should be able to tie the model to some real behavioral characteristics. In the best case -- for example, with ABMs or CGE models-- we should be able to begin to reproduce important features of real empirical cases by calibrating the model to empirical circumstances.

(G) There are two other aspects of methodology that need to be called out. One has to do with the methods of data collection which are recommended, which differ substantially from domain to domain. The other is methods of empirical evaluation of the theories we advance. Social sciences differ substantially in both these ways -- what kind of data is needed, how it should be collected (e.g. survey methodology), and how we should validate the results. These are often discipline-specific and substantially more concrete than prescriptions in the philosophy of science. The ways in which we should evaluate a social science construction also varies significantly by national research tradition. Gabriel Abend points out that schemes of evaluation vary substantially across the sociological traditions of mexico and the United States in terms of the standards in play about what constitutes rigor,empirical argument and theoretical argument."

Each of these is a methodology in the loose sense I favor.  It is a guide for the researcher, indicating what kinds of factors he or she should be looking for by postulating a social ontology; an indication of what an explanatory account ought to look like, and an indication of what counts as warrant for such explanations.

We might observe that if we favor a pluralist social ontology, according to which there are properties individuals, relationships, structures, networks, meanings, and values, then the method we use to acquire knowledge about these things should be pluralistic as well. Our methods should allow us to pose research questions about all these kinds of things.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Interests, influence and knowledge

Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore have just published a major story in the New York Times on the topic of foreign influence on major think tanks (link), and through the think tanks, on American policy. It is a fascinating and important case study, and it deserves a broad and careful reading.

Here is a fascinating chart summarizing their findings that is included in the print version (but evidently not in the online version). The donor countries are classified by region, and it is possible to then inspect the rough volume of donation coming from each region to each foundation. Reading from right to left, it is possible to infer the regional focus of most of these institutes.

I find this story important for more general reasons than the particular relations and policies that it highlights. There is no smoking gun here, along the lines of a major tobacco company squelching scientific research into the harmful effects of smoking. It doesn't seem as though these think tanks have substantially breached the requirements of scientific integrity in negotiating funding and assigning research questions. More interesting to me is the light the piece sheds on the structures and sources of bias that exist in the institutions of science and policy formation.

The more general question is the causal significance of influence throughout the world of science and policy formation. We would like to think that important scientific questions like the rate of deforestation and policy areas like limits on Arctic development will be investigated by neutral and diligent scientists. We want their work to be independent and free from conflict of interest. But Lipton, Williams, and Confessore demonstrate that research institutions are susceptible to influence through their sources of funding, just as we have found that pharmaceutical research is often distorted by conflicts of interest. Righty understood, this piece falls within the domain of science studies (link, link).

Charles Perrow's important book, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, points out similar forms of distortion in knowledge, science, and policy in the regulatory environment in the United States, including especially the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (link). Perrow makes it clear that both risk assessment and policy formation are significantly distorted by the economic interests and power of some of the actors involved.

If we think about the problem in a large epistemic frame, it is an exceptionally difficult one. There are important and difficult scientific questions to which we need to have answers as a society. These include estimating the acceptable risk levels of arsenic in drinking water, the likelihood of an earthquake at Diablo Canyon, and the probable consequences of hundred-year flooding of the Mississippi River on St. Louis. And there are corresponding questions of policy that depend on the answers we discover to these questions. But neither the science nor the policy design can be done by solitary geniuses working in their garages; instead, organizations must be tasked to do the work. These include universities, research institutes, and think tanks. And there are well understood institutional pressures, both internal and external, that drive the knowledge production enterprise off center. So here is the critical epistemic question: how can we assure ourselves that these institutions will arrive at scientifically justified conclusions without crippling distortions created by the funding and career environments in which they are lodged?

Both science (knowledge creation) and policy (action planning) need to be conducted in a way that is fundamentally guided by the data that the world presents to us and the most honest theorizing we can do in order to make sense of the causal infrastructure of those data. We don't want the scientists and engineers who evaluate the safety of chemical plants to be in the pockets of the chemical companies, and we don't want the land-use planning commission in Mississippi River cities to be beholden to real estate developers. Instead, we want neutral, disinterested, fact-driven research and policy design.

But here is the thing: it is flatly impossible to detach the institutions of knowledge and policy from the external realities within which they exist. And those realities include the facts of interests and influence. So it is crucial that we do a better job of embedding these enterprises within institutional and normative systems which honestly confront the distortions and find ways of offsetting them. Universities have well developed standards governing conflict of interest and commitment, and this is a good start. The academic ideals of insulating one's conclusions from the interests that support the research is another strand of objectivity. And the responsibility of stewards of universities -- trustees, presidents, provosts, deans -- to protect the academic independence of the faculty of their institution is a third.

The NYT article illustrates yet another important counterbalance to the workings of interest and influence: the ability of a free press to "connect the dots" and to uncover the distorting influence of power and resource that permit privileged entities to advance their interests through the distortion of science and policy. Uncovering hidden forms of influence on science and policy is one of the most important functions of critical journalism, whether in the classic efforts of I. F. Stone or in the most recent work by Lipton, Williams, and Confessore.

None of this is a guarantee of objectivity and neutrality, but it takes us in the right direction.

(Here are earlier posts on the importance and difficulty of "connecting the dots" between a set of economic or political interests and a set of scientific and policy findings; link, link.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Heuristics for a mechanisms-based methodology

Let’s imagine that I’m a young sociologist or political scientist who has gotten interested in the social-mechanisms debates, and I’d like to frame my next research project around a set of heuristics that are suggested by the mechanisms approach. What might some of those heuristics look like? What is a "mechanisms-based methodology" for sociological research? And how would my research play out in concrete terms? Here are a few heuristics we might consider.
  1. Identify one or more clear cases of the phenomenon I’m interested in understanding
  2. Gain enough empirical detail about the cases to permit close examination of possible causal linkages
  3. Acquaint myself with a broad range of social mechanisms from a range of the social sciences (political science, economics, anthropology, public choice theory, critical race studies, women’s studies, …)
  4. Attempt to segment the phenomena into manageable components that may admit of separate study and analysis
  5. Use the method of process-tracing to attempt to establish what appear to be causal linkages among the phenomena
  6. Use my imagination and puzzle-solving ability to attempt to fit one or more of the available mechanisms into the phenomena I observe
  7. Engage in quasi-experimental reasoning to probe the resulting analysis: if mechanism M is involved, what other effects would we expect to be present as well? Do the empirical realities of the case fit these hypothetical expectations?
These heuristics represent in a rough-and-ready way the idea that there are some well understood social processes in the world that have been explored in a lot of empirical and theoretical detail. The social sciences collectively provide a very rich toolbox of mechanisms that researchers have investigated and validated. We know how these mechanisms work, and we can observe them in a range of settings. This is a realist observation: the social world is not infinitely variable, and there is a substrate of activity, action, and interaction whose workings give rise to a number of well understood mechanisms. Here I would include free rider problems, contagion, provocation, escalation, coercion, and log-rolling as a very miscellaneous set of exemplars. So if we choose to pursue a mechanisms-based methodology, we are basically following a very basic intuition of realism by asking the question, "how does this social phenomenon work in the settings in which we find it?".

So how might a research project unfold if we adopt heuristics like these? Here is a striking example of a mechanisms approach within new-institutionalist research, Jean Ensminger's account of bridewealth in the cattle-herding culture of Kenya (Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society). First, some background. The cattle-herding economic regime of the Orma pastoralists of Kenya underwent substantial changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Commons grazing practices began to give way to restricted pasturage; wage labor among herders came to replace familial and patron-client relations; and a whole series of changes in the property system surrounding the cattle economy transpired as well. This is an excellent example for empirical study from a new-institutionalist perspective. What explained the particular configuration of norms and institutions of the earlier period? And what social pressures led to the transition towards a more impersonal relationship between owners and herders? These are questions about social causation at multiple levels.

Ensminger examines these questions from the perspective of the new institutionalism. Building on the theoretical frameworks of Douglass North and others, she undertakes to provide an analysis of the workings of traditional Orma cattle-management practices and an explanation of the process of change and dissolution that these practices underwent in the decades following 1960. The book puts forward a combination of close ethnographic detail and sophisticated use of theoretical ideas to explain complex local phenomena.

How does the new institutionalism approach help to explain the features of the traditional Orma cattle regime identified by Ensminger’s study? The key institutions in the earlier period are the terms of employment of cattle herders in mobile cattle camps. The traditional employment practice takes the pattern of an embroidered patron-client relation. The cattle owner provides a basic wage contract to the herder (food, clothing, and one head of cattle per year). The good herder is treated paternally, with additional “gifts” at the end of the season (additional clothing, an additional animal, and payment of the herder’s bridewealth after years of service). The relation between patron and client is multi-stranded, enduring, and paternal.

Ensminger understands this traditional practice as a solution to an obvious problem associated with mobile cattle camps, which is fundamentally a principal-agent problem. Supervision costs are very high, since the owner does not travel with the camp. The owner must depend on the herder to use his skill and diligence in a variety of difficult circumstances—rescuing stranded cattle, searching out lost animals, and maintaining control of the herd during harsh conditions. There are obvious short-term incentives and opportunities for the herder to cheat the employer—e.g. allowing stranded animals to perish, giving up on searches for lost animals, or even selling animals during times of distress. The patron-client relation is one possible solution to this principal-agent problem. An embedded patron-client relation gives the herder a long-term incentive to provide high-quality labor, for the quality of work can be assessed at the end of the season by assessment of the health and size of the herd. The patron has an incentive to cheat the client—e.g. by refusing to pay the herder’s bridewealth after years of service. But here the patron’s interest in reputation comes into play: a cattle owner with a reputation for cheating his clients will find it difficult to recruit high-quality herders.

This account serves to explain the evolution and persistence of the patron-client relation in cattle-camps on the basis of transaction costs (costs of supervision). Arrangements will be selected that serve to minimize transaction costs. In the circumstances of traditional cattle-rearing among the Orma the transaction costs of a straight wage-labor system are substantially greater than those associated with a patron-client system. Therefore the patron-client system is selected.

This analysis identifies mechanisms at two levels. First, the patron-client relation is the mechanism through which the endemic principal-agent problem facing cattle owners is solved. The normal workings of this relation give both patron and client a set of incentives that leads to a stable labor relation. The higher-level mechanism is somewhat less explicit, but is needed for the explanation to fully satisfy us. This is the mechanism through which the new social relationship (patron-client interdependency) is introduced and sustained. It may be the result of conscious institutional design or it may be a random variation in social space that is emulated when owners and herders notice the advantages it brings. Towards the end of the account we are led to inquire about another higher-level mechanism, the processes through which the traditional arrangement is eroded and replaced by short-term labor contracts.

This framework also illustrates the seventh heuristic above, the use of counterfactual reasoning. This account would suggest that if transaction costs change substantially (through improved transportation, for example, or through the creation of fixed grazing areas), that the terms of employment would change as well (in the direction of less costly pure wage-labor contracts). And in fact this is what Ensminger finds among the Orma. When villages begin to establish “restricted grazing areas” in the environs of the village, it is feasible for cattle owners to directly supervise the management of their herds; and in these circumstances Ensminger finds an increase in pure wage labor contracts.

What are the scientific achievements of this account? There are several. First, it takes a complicated and detailed case of collective behavior and it makes sense of the case. It illuminates the factors that influence choices by the various participants. Second, it provides insight into how these social transactions work (the mechanisms that are embodied in the story). Third, it begins to answer -- or at least to pose in a compelling way -- the question of the driving forces in institutional change. This too is a causal mechanism question; it is a question that focuses our attention on the concrete social processes that push one set of social behaviors and norms in the direction of another set of behaviors and norms. Finally, it is an empirically grounded account that gives us a basis for a degree of rational confidence in the findings. The case has the features that we should expect it to have if the mechanisms and processes in fact worked as they are described to do.

A final achievement of this account is very helpful in the context of our efforts to arrive at explanations of features of the social world. This is the fact that the account is logically independent of an effort to arrive at strong generalizations about behavior everywhere. The account that Ensminger provides is contextualized and specific, and it does not depend on the assumption that similar social problems will be solved in the same way in other contexts. There is no underlying assumption that this interesting set of institutional facts should be derivable from a general theory of behavior and institutions. Instead, the explanation is carefully crafted to identify the specific (and perhaps unique) features of the historical setting in which the phenomenon is observed.

(Here is a nice short article by David Collier on the logic of process-tracing; link. And here is an interesting piece by Aussems, Boomsma, and Snijders on the use of quasi-experimental methods in the social sciences; link.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Margaret Archer on social change

In Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society Margaret Archer and several talented collaborators attempt to lay out a framework of thinking that will permit them to better conceptualize the nature of change the modern social world. The book continues a process of reflection and collaboration that began last year with the publication of Social Morphogenesis. Ultimately the aim is to create a full theory of "morphogenic society" based on Archer's concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis. The idea of a morphogenic society is the notion that something important has happened historically to change the relationship between stasis and genesis (structure and agency) in the social world, and that the modern world embodies a significantly different kind of social change than earlier epochs. (Here is a discussion of Social Morphogenesis (link), and here is an earlier discussion of Archer's theory of morphogenesis (link).)

Here is a helpful statement of Archer's general approach in her current work:
Both the celebration of contingency and the importance attached to acceleration are hostile to the morphogenetic approach, as a framework for explanation that generically examines the sequence {structural / cultural conditioning → social interaction → structural / cultural elaboration or stasis}. This entails examining the specific ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of particular changes or instances of morphogenesis / morphostasis. Instead, both ‘liquidity’ and ‘acceleration’ theorists eschew such specification and the ultimate aim of detecting underlying ‘generative mechanisms’ in favour of talking metaphorically about ‘flows’ and ‘speed’. Thus, both ignore the growing predominance of positive feedback over negative feedback (morphogenesis over morphostasis) as the rock-bottom mechanism that makes considering the advent of Morphogenic society (in multiple forms) worthy of being entertained — the agnostic aim of this series of books. (Late Modernity, kl 178)
This passage captures the core of the morphogenetic approach. Archer is consistent in referring to these three "moments" of the M/M sequence, which she breaks into three phases T1, T2-T3, T4:
T1 structural / cultural conditioning → 
T2-T3 social interaction → 
T4 structural / cultural elaboration or stasis
At the risk of over-simplifying, we might summarize her view in these terms. Her view is that each phase involves constraints on action and interaction. T1 involves the large structural and cultural contexts in which individuals take shape and act. T2-T3 involves the interactions of individuals who bear interests and group identities and who strive to bring about outcomes that favor those interests and identities. And T4 represents a new formation (elaboration) of a complex of structural and cultural constraints. (It is striking how closely this summary resembles the theory of strategic action fields put forward by Fligstein and McAdam; link.)

An important line of criticism that comes through this volume is a persistent critique of unanalyzed ideas about speed and acceleration. "The modern world changes rapidly"; what does that tell us if we haven't specified the dimensions and clocks according to which we measure the speed of a process? So the language of speed is simply uninformative, according to Archer and her collaborators.

More specifically, Archer and her colleagues take issue with the metaphor of “liquid modernity" as a way of understanding the contemporary world.  (Here is my earlier discussion of Zygmunt Bauman’s development of this idea; link.) Archer takes aim at the intuition that the contemporary social world is highly contingent and plastic (a central theme of a number of earlier postings here). She criticizes "liquid modernity" in these terms:
Labile 'flows' comprehensively displaced and replaced the determinate (not deterministic) influences of social structure and cultural systems on tendential change or stability. As structure and culture were pulverised under the tidal bore of liquidity, so was agency condemned to serial self-reinvention. (kl 166)
Archer's complaint against liquid modernity (LM), then, is what she takes to be its extreme version of plasticity on the part of structures, cultures, and actors. LM views the individual as a free-styler, pursuing fleeting purposes and impulses within fast-changing circumstances, with the result of a form of chaotic Brownian motion in the social world.

She prefers substantive analysis of the social world organized around the poles of morphostasis (the mechanisms that preserve the properties of a social structure or cultural feature) and morphogenesis (the generative mechanisms of change that work to disrupt and change the existing structure and cultural elements). Both are critical and persistent features of the social world, and it is absurd (she believes) to imagine that modernity consists exclusively of morphogenesis unbound (7).

Archer puts the central question of her current work (and that of her active collaborators) in these terms:
Is some degree of enduring stability necessary amidst intensifying social change? Do agents and actors need this in order to plan their own lives and the courses of action they will take in the social order? (kl 152)
Of course the answer to this question, when considered in its most extreme version, is "yes", for reasons much the same as those that led Kant to believe that the categories of space, time, and causation were necessary synthetic apriori. If there were no continuing stability in the social world from one hour to the next, then planning and action would be impossible. The harder question is this: how much stability is necessary for intelligible action within the social world? And the answer seems to be, rather less than Archer believes.

An important complexity in Archer's account of stability is the fact that she believes that the processes of change (morphogenesis) can create their own conditions of stability and continuity that transcend the traditional forms inherited from the morphogenetic past. So the opposition is not between morphostasis and morphogenesis, but between activity and various forms of stability, both morphostasis and morphogenesis. "The alternative -- not always recognized -- is that there are forms of 'stabilization' produced by morphogenesis itself that furnish an equally adequate (and more consonant) basis for planning activities" (14). And this turns out to be a point to which Archer attaches a great deal of importance (19).

Several contributions to the volume are particularly noteworthy, in addition to Archer's own introduction and her substantive contribution on "The Generative Mechanism Re-configuring Late Modernity".

First, Douglas Porpora's contribution to the volume ("Contemporary Mechanisms of Social Change") is a valuable extension of the framework. Porpora relates the morphostasis/morphogenesis approach (MM) to Marx's famous aphorism concerning structure and agency (78). Here is my own reflection on Marx's aphorism in a post on actor-centered history (link):
In Marx's famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that "men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing." And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, ... But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.
What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called "actor-centered history": we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures. (Little, Understanding Society link)
This short reflection on actor-centered history seems to have significant affinities with the morphogenetic approach.

Porpora provides an analysis of four large causal mechanisms of social change in his piece:
  • capitalism
  • information, globalization, flows and networks
  • world inter-state dynamics
  • the environment and its effects
And he believes that these large causes work conjuncturally to bring about many of the large processes of change that we witness in the modern world: "Change derives from a conjuncture of different mechanisms, some but not all of which can be traced back to capitalist relations" (88).

Pierpaolo Donati's contribution, "Morphogenic Society and the Structure of Social Relations", is also of interest. Donati focuses on the nature of social relations as the "connectors that mediate between agency and social structure" (143). Though he does not use the terminology, it is possible to regard his work here as an effort to provide some of the microfoundations of the processes of morphogenesis that are postulated by Archer's approach. Donati refers to the social relation as the "molecule of the social" (153), a concept that I've turned to in my explication of the idea of methodological localism (link).

 This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.